One would think that a battle called the most gallant in the history of the U.S. Navy would be prominently featured in our textbooks.  Not only does the Battle off Samar in the Philippine Sea on October 25, 1944, go unmentioned in schoolbooks, but it’s rare for anyone under 60 even to have heard of the fight.  Nonetheless, the victory of our Navy against impossible odds saved MacArthur’s triumphal landing at Leyte from a disaster that would have rivaled Bataan.  One of four furious actions at sea that are cumulatively known as the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Battle off Samar caught our Navy napping.

The day before, more than two-dozen warships under the command of Takeo Kurita had been attacked in the Sibuyan Sea by Navy pilots, who not only scored hits on most of the ships but disabled the heavy cruiser Myoko and sent the superbattleship Musashi to the bottom.  When last seen, Kurita’s “Center Force” was retreating.  Under the cover of darkness, though, Kurita turned about and headed east for the San Bernardino Strait.  During the night he passed through the strait undetected and by daybreak was steaming south for Leyte.

At 0645 an American air patrol spotted the Center Force.  The pilots couldn’t believe what they saw—4 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers.  The only thing between the powerful Japanese force and Leyte was RADM Clifton Sprague and his small group, code-named Taffy 3, of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts, none with guns greater than five-inch.  “Ziggy” Sprague didn’t seem to have a chance.  But he resolved to go down fighting.  He turned his “jeep” carriers into the wind and launched every plane he had.  He then had the baby flattops circle, like a wagon train, and ordered his destroyers to lay down a smoke screen.

By 0700 salvos from the Center Force began splashing around the American ships.  It was a deadly spectacle—each Japanese ship had her shells color-coded.  “The enemy was closing with disconcerting rapidity,” wrote Sprague in his action report, “and the volume and accuracy of fire increasing.  At this point it did not appear that any of our ships could survive another five minutes of the heavy-caliber fire being received.”

Sprague now ordered his destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.  Hoel, Heermann, and Johnston lighted all boilers and steamed directly at the Japanese.  Kurita couldn’t believe what he was seeing: American pilots diving at his ships through a seemingly impenetrable screen of antiaircraft fire, and American tin cans—Fletcher-class destroyers had no armor—taking on his battleships and cruisers.  Suzuya took several hits from the attacking planes, and Kumano took a torpedo from Johnston.  The destroyer then opened up with her five-inch guns, scoring some 45 hits on Kumano’s superstructure.  Johnston, however, was suffering hits from the big shells of the heavy cruisers.  “It was like a puppy being smacked by a truck,” said one of Johnston’s officers.

A squall gave Johnston 15 minutes of respite to repair damage and control fires, but she was out of torpedoes.  With only one five-inch gun still operable she reengaged, attacking Kongo and scoring 15 hits on the battleship’s superstructure.  Johnston then zigzagged through a smoke screen and into a squall.  She reemerged and went to the aid of the escort carrier Gambier Bay, suffering under the guns of Haguro.  Closing to within 6,000 yards, Johnston scored more than a dozen hits on the cruiser.  Finally, several Japanese cruisers and destroyers closed on the crippled but still desperately fighting Johnston and sent her to the bottom.

Heermann and Hoel were engaged in their own desperate fights.  Heermann attacked the battleships, sending most of her torpedoes at Yamato.  The superbattleship avoided being struck but in so doing took herself out of the fight.  Hoel hurled herself at the cruisers and suffered 40 hits before going down.  Sprague now sent his destroyer escorts into the Japanese.  The more lightly armed escorts also inflicted damage and scattered the enemy ships, but not without cost: Samuel B. Roberts was sunk.  Before she went down, she raked Chikuma from stem to stern, leaving the cruiser’s superstructure a burning mass of twisted metal.

The American attacks, both air and sea, were so relentless, bold, and effective, and squalls and smoke screens made clear identification so difficult, that Kurita was convinced he was facing a much larger force.  After two hours of some of the most intense and close-quarter naval fighting in World War II, Kurita lost his nerve and broke off the attack.  The Center Force lost more than 3,000 men and had seen three of its heavy cruisers sunk and several other ships severely damaged.  Taffy 3 lost nearly 1,600 men, two-dozen planes, two escort carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort, and had several ships damaged, but, most importantly, had saved the landing at Leyte.

“In no engagement of its entire history,” said Samuel Eliot Morison, “has the U.S. Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours . . . off Samar.”