Charge of the Tin Cans
Among them is Yamato, the largest battleship ever built. She alone outmasses all the ships of Taffy 3, the task group closest to the Kurita's Center Force, combined. Her 18 inch guns are more than three times larger than anything the US Navy ships have.
At 07:00 those guns open fire on Taffy 3 from 17 nmi (31 km) out. As Kurita orders a general attack, the commanding admiral of 7th fleet frantically calls for aid: "My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by airstrikes may be able to keep enemy from entering Leyte."
|Yamato with a heavy cruiser, possibly Chikuma or Tone in the back|
If the Japanese warships enter the Gulf of Leyte, they will be able to bombard the landing operations at Leyte and annihilate their reinforcements.
As the escort carrier launch every plane they have, the destroyers of Taffy 3 mount a desperate defense. The three Fletcher class destroyers Johnston, Heerman and Hoel, nicknamed tin cans for their practically non-existent armor, are joined by the even smaller Samuel B. Roberts, a mere destroyer escort, in a near suicidal charge straight for Kurita's battle line.
Johnston is the first to fire upon the enemy. Soon after she takes a hit from one of Yamato's main guns, severely damaging her, but she keeps going. One of her torpedoes hits the cruiser Kumano and blows her bow of, forcing her to retreat. During the following knife fight, she attacks the heavy cruiser Haguro and then the battleship Kongou. At 09:45, she is so heavily damaged, her Captain gives the order to abandon ship. The Captain of a passing Japanese destroyer salutes her as she is going down.
Samuel B. Roberts lands a torpedo hit on the heavy cruiser Choukai, forcing her to fall back. Disabling all her engine safeties she manages to close to within 5.300 yards of the cruiser Chikuma and over 35 minutes empties her entire magazine of over 600 rounds. Fire from Roberts and Heerman will damage Chikuma so heavily, she will later be scuttled. At about 09:00 a hit from Kongou destroys Roberts engine, leaving her dead in the water and sinking. She will later become known as the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.
|USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413)|
Hoel also engages Haguro and her torpedos force the cruiser to take evasive action. Soon after she takes a devastating salvo knocking out her fire control and one of her engines. Yet she continues fighting and trades broadsides with the cruiser Tone at close range. Five 5 in guns are pitted against eight 8 in guns. Ten murderous minutes later, at 08:55, Tone ceases her barrage as Hoel slips beneath the waves. Only 86 of her sailors survive, 253 go down with her.
Heerman trades shots with Haguro before launching torpedoes at the battleships Haruna and Yamato. She joins Roberts attack on Chikuma and heavily damages her in the crossfire. Taking heavy damage from Tone, she is the only one of the tin cans to survive, though savagely mauls.
Valiant as it is, the destroyer's charge can't save all of the escort carriers. Gambier Bay is riddled by close range fire, capsizes, sinks. St. Lo takes a kamikaze hit and explodes. Fanshaw Bay and Kalinin Bay are heavily damaged. White Plains single 5 in gun lands hits on Choukai, touching of her torpedos, leaving the cruiser reeling. An air attack damages her further and she is scuttled by Fujinami. American air attacks damage the cruisers Kumano and Suzuya. Haruna has her superstructure wrecked.
Finally at 09:20 Admiral Kurita, convinced he is up against a large force of US Navy cruisers, orders: "All ships my course north, speed 20." Center Force disengages and withdraws toward San Bernardino strait. As he is watching the Japanese retreat, Vice Admiral Sprague, Taffy 3's commanding officer hears a nearby sailor exclaim: "Damn it, boys! They are getting away!"
The tin cans had saved the day.
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