At daybreak on 24 October 1944, as Japanese navy forces approached the Philippines from the north and west, Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s Task Group 38.3 was operating more than a hundred miles east of central Luzon. With other elements of Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet, TG38.3 had spent the last several days pounding enemy targets ashore in support of the Leyte invasion operation. This morning Sherman’s four carriers, ESSEX (CV 9), LEXINGTON (CV 16), PRINCETON (CVL 23), and LANGLEY (CVL 27), had sent off fighters for self-protection and other planes on search missions. Still more aircraft were on deck, ready for attack missions.
Though the Japanese had sent out many aircraft to strike the Third Fleet, most were shot down or driven away. However one “Judy” dive bomber made it through and at 0938 planted a 250-kilogram bomb on PRINCETON’s flight deck, somewhat aft of amidships. It exploded in the crew’s galley after passing through the hangar, in which were parked six TBM bombers, each with full gasoline tanks and a torpedo. In its passage the bomb struck one of these planes, which was almost immediately ablaze. The carrier’s firefighting sprinklers did not activate and the entire hangar space was quickly engulfed, while smoke penetrated compartments below. PRINCETON was still underway, but at 1002 a heavy explosion rocked the after part of the hangar. This blast was followed by three more, which heaved up the flight deck, blew out both aircraft elevators, and quickly made much of the ship uninhabitable.
With all but emergency generator power gone, and much of her crew abandoning ship, PRINCETON now depended on the light cruisers BIRMINGHAM (CL 62) and RENO (CL 96), plus the destroyers IRWIN (DD 794) and MORRISON (DD 560), to help fight her fires. While alongside, MORRISON’s superstructure was seriously damaged when she became entangled in PRINCETON’s projecting structures. After more than three hours’ work, with the remaining fires almost under control, a report of approaching enemy forces forced the other ships to pull away. By the time they returned, PRINCETON was again burning vigorously, heating a bomb storage space near her after hangar. At 1523, as BIRMINGHAM came alongside, these bombs detonated violently, blowing off the carrier’s stern, showering the cruiser’s topsides with fragments, and killing hundreds of men. There was now no hope that PRINCETON could be saved. Her remaining crewmen were taken off and IRWIN attempted to scuttle her with torpedoes and gunfire, but with no success. Finally, RENO was called in to finish the job. One of her torpedoes hit near the burning ship’s forward bomb magazine and PRINCETON disappeared in a tremendous explosion. She was the first U.S. fleet carrier sunk in more than two years, and the last lost during the Pacific War.