Dec 9

Midwatch in Surigao Strait

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 12:01 AM

By

On the night of 24–25 October 1944, Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Roy West and the other men manning a torpedo mount on the destroyer USS McDERMUT (DD-677) did not know the details of the battle plan, but they did know that a large Japanese force was coming north through Surigao Strait directly toward them. The lifejackets and helmets that always seemed a burdensome nuisance during drills now brought a mixed sense of foreboding and comfort as the minutes ticked slowly by.

Sometime after 0200 a quick look at the gyro repeater confirmed that the ship had turned south. West heard some-one nearby say, “This is it,” and he felt the soft rustling of butterfly wings somewhere deep in his stomach.

A torpedo firing solution took shape as West began matching pointers with the information coming down from the torpedo director, cranking in gyro angle and alternately engaging and disengaging spindles. He tried to ignore the thumping cadence of his heart as he concentrated on the glowing dials spinning about in a jerky dance of whirling numbers.

As the McDERMUT steadied up, West knew his ship must be directly paralleling the target’s approach course—on the reciprocal—because there was suddenly no gyro error to correct. Assuming that the enemy continued on present course and speed, they had a near perfect firing solution. It also meant that there were Japanese ships closer to Roy West than they had ever been before, and they were probably coming directly at him at a relative speed of nearly 50 knots.

From his perch atop the torpedo tubes amidships, West was peering into the inky darkness when there was a sudden burst of light in the sky above as a Japanese star shell ignited. The brightly burning flare cast an eerie gray-white light on the sea. Then, from somewhere ahead, a green searchlight began sweeping the water, and Roy West knew he was in the thick of things.

Roy West and his shipmates on the McDERMUT escaped being sunk by Japanese torpedoes in the Battle of Surigao Strait. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Roy West and his shipmates on the McDERMUT escaped being sunk by Japanese torpedoes in the Battle of Surigao Strait. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

A moment later, the command to “commence firing” came down from the bridge, and West could feel torpedoes leap from the ship into the boiling sea. Both quintuple mounts fired full salvoes.

As the young torpedoman waited anxiously for the expected run time of the torpedoes to expire, he could feel the McDERMUT heeling sharply over as she came about to dash back up the Strait. The wind swept across her decks as she came hard to starboard, and the whole world seemed to be spinning out of control. Suddenly, West could see the faces of his shipmates in a ghastly green light and knew that the Japanese searchlight had found them. He felt the concussion of a nearby detonation and was astonished to see a large column of water rise up out of the sea off the port side. Several more rounds exploded so close aboard that the weather decks were drenched in a shower of warm salt water.

Then West saw a huge fireball erupt from the darkness to the south of them and knew that his “fish” had found their mark. It was a beautiful and a horrid sight, conjuring a strange mix of fear, awe, and elation in the young sailor.

As the McDERMUT and the other destroyers made their escape, Torpedoman Roy West had no way of knowing that by the time the midwatch was over, the Japanese would lose two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers to a combination of torpedoes and gunfire in one of the greatest American sea victories in history.