Battle off Samar
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement, was the outcome of a complex Japanese plan featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions, all intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf and send it on wild goose chase, at which point a powerful Japanese naval contingent would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there. The plan worked well. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. Halsey, and he steamed off with his powerful 3rd Fleet to sink them, telling nobody. He left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties and had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.
While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoy fleet, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship ever, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf, steaming towards the landing site under the command of an admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.
The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts, of whom the northernmost contingent which first came in contact with the Japanese, 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, was commanded by rear admiral Clifton Sprague and known as “Taffy 3“.
Aware that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the armored behemoths steaming towards Leyte Gulf, but also aware that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte, Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from the escort carriers, making strafing attacks or dropping high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships, and when they ran out of ammunition, kept making dry strafing and bombing runs to discomfit the Japanese.
So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Convincing himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence, admiral Kurita, who had an overwhelming naval victory in his grasp if had steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away, gifting the Americans in Leyte Gulf with an unexpected and seemingly miraculous reprieve.
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