Oct 24

Leyte Gulf Reminiscences

Thursday, October 24, 2019 11:53 AM

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Excerpted from The Battle of Leyte Gulf at 75: A Retrospective, by Thomas J. Cutler (Naval Institute Press, 2019)

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, an epic page in the history of World War II, is the victory of thousands of U.S. warriors at sea, ashore, beneath the sea, and in the air—their actions, professional can-do spirit, heroism, and sacrifices. The Japanese committed their carriers and main battle fleet to the action, and they fought hard, determined to turn back U.S. amphibious landings at Leyte and Philippine shores beyond. Mistakes were made on both sides. The Americans rose to the challenge. The U.S. Navy prevailed.

The recollections of those who were in the action—the primary histories—contribute to the formal documentation and analysis in the historical record. Of equal if not greater importance, they capture memories, insights, and color otherwise not available. The following excerpts from six histories are taken from the U.S. Naval Institute’s uniquely valuable oral history collection. As the Battle of Leyte Gulf takes shape and unfolds, we hear from:

— Lt. Ernest Schwab on board the submarine USS Darter (SS 227)
— Cdr. David McCampbell flying Hellcats from USS Essex (CV 9)
— Cdr. Joshua Cooper launching torpedo attacks from USS Bennion (DD 622)
— QM Michael Bak Jr. on board the USS Franks (DD 554) protecting

jeep carriers
— Rear Adm. Gerald Bogan commanding Carrier Division 4 with Task Group 38.2
— Cdr. “Dusty” Dornin, aide to Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King during the battle.

Hitting Bombay Shoal at 19 Knots

Capt. Ernest Schwab, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

In 1943, Lt. Ernest Schwab—U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1939—reported on board a new Gato-class submarine, still on the building ways. Following commissioning that October, the USS Darter (SS-227) headed out to join the Battle of the Pacific. Cdr. William Stovall was in command, having previously been awarded two Navy Crosses for his patrols on the USS Gudgeon (SS-211). Lt. Dennis Wilkinson, future skipper of the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and USS Long Beach (CGN-9), was first lieutenant, and Schwab was engineer.

Cdr. David McClintock became CO in June 1944, and by November the Darter and the USS Dace (SS-247) were on the attack against the Japanese fleet under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita at the start of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. As Schwab recalled in these edited excerpts of his Naval Institute oral history,

 

While we were on the surface, we picked up on radar this huge number of ships coming from the south. Just before dawn, we dived.

Meanwhile we’d sent off messages to everyone warning them that there was a hell of a lot of ships coming—we counted 20 to 30—big ones. There were several columns there. We lined up and hit the Atago with four, five, or six torpedoes, and swung around. We saw another cruiser, the Takao, and when we started hitting, the Japanese ships changed course a bit. We just got her stern, didn’t sink her, but she stopped dead in the water.

Just about two seconds later, one column had come right over in front of the Dace, setting up perfectly. The Dace’s CO Cdr. Bladen Claggett, as I was told, said, “Let the cruisers by; we’ll try the battleship.” But he got a cruiser, too, the Maya.

They had 16 or so destroyers with them, and they dropped quite a few depth charges on us. But, when the Dacestarted hitting, that confused them. They missed both of us, and we came up to periscope depth some- time later. There was the Takao dead in the water. We had blown up one of its screws, or something. All we had left were some short-range electric torpedoes. That meant we had to get inside of 4,000 yards. Every time we would go in, one of the destroyers would come over, right at us. We’d go down; he’d drop one depth charge, then go away again.

Finally, McClintock said, “You know, we’re not going to get anyplace this way; we can’t get close enough.” We worked around toward Manila, figured they would go up there, because there was a dry dock. Instead, they finally got under way, at about six knots, and headed south. We didn’t know what had happened to the Dace. We kept in touch with the cruiser on the periscope.

Now, you realize, this was October ’44, change of the monsoon, and navigation was tricky at best. We were in the Palawan Passage, about 20 miles wide, and we had a dubious navigational position all the time. We had surface radar and were able to tell from the mountains on Palawan roughly what our longitude was, but it was very hard to figure out our latitude, especially getting any star sights, while we were keeping in touch with the cruiser to be sure he wouldn’t get away. We got in touch with the Dace and arranged to make a combined attack around midnight or one in the morning. We were all set to go in.

We were partially flooded down, making about 19 knots on the surface on our side. I don’t know how fast the Dace was going on the other side. Just about a couple of minutes before we were supposed to turn in, we hit Bombay Shoal at 19 knots. Just before we hit, I told the captain, “I don’t know where I am in latitude, but if we’re in the right longitude, we’re going to hit a shoal one of these minutes.”

The Captain said, “Well shoals aren’t any worse than depth charges,” and Wham!—we hit. We hit at maximum high tide, and we really hit. We sent out the two-letter code “Aground” to the Dace. We had all sorts of classified stuff we started burning. Dennis Wilkinson went over the side in a rubber boat, went all around, and said, “It’s horrible.” By the time he came back you could see the coral heads coming up.

The Dace came over, put a line over to us and tried to tug us off—no luck at all. We decided to abandon ship, set all the demolition charges, including the torpedoes.

The Turkey Shoot

Capt. David McCampbell, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

On 24 October 1944, Cdr. David McCampbell and wingman Ens. Roy Rushing launched in a flight of seven F6F-5 Hellcats from the USS Essex (CV 9) to take on Japanese fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes menacing U.S. carriers in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. McCampbell would shoot down nine planes, and Rushing would down six. In his 1988 Naval Institute oral history, McCampbell describes flying above some 40 of the enemy planes and then going in for the kill when they broke their orbiting formation.

 

So we had the altitude advantage all the time we attacked the Japanese. We zoomed down, would shoot a plane or two. Roy and I each would take one, and I’d tell him which one I was going to take, if it was to the right or to the left, which one it was. By telling him this, that allowed him to know which way I was going to dive, and then allowed him to pull out after we attacked, which gave me freedom to go either way I wanted. This worked very successfully, and he got the news. I’d pick out my plane, then he’d pick out his. We’d make an attack, pull up, keep our altitude advantage, speed, and go down again. We repeated this over and over. We made about 20 coordinated attacks. . . .

Pretty soon, Roy called me. He said, “Skipper, I’m out of ammunition.” I called back, and I said, “Well Roy, I’ve got a little left. Do you want to go down with me for a couple of more runs, or do you want to sit up here and watch the show?”

He said, “Oh no, I’ll go down with you.” So he followed me down for a couple of more attacks, and then I looked at my gas gauges, and I saw I’d emptied one main tank. I was about on the second one, and I was getting low. By then I was out of ammunition, too, getting low on gas, so I called Roy and said, “Well, we’ll go back to the ship. I’m getting low on gas.” By now, having followed this flight away from the task group toward Manila, we had gotten pretty far away from the ship. I’d estimate maybe about one hundred miles, give or take a few.

So we headed back to the ship, and when I picked it up on the YE/ ZB homing system, I was about 6,000 or 8,000 feet in altitude. I figured it was about 65 miles away, which turned out was about right, based on the length of time it took us to get back to the ship. I called the ship when I first got the YE signal and asked if they could take me as soon as I got back. They said, “Oh yes, come on in.” So we kept heading for the ship, and when I got over the ship, I found they had a flight deck full of planes, and I knew that to launch all those planes would take a good 20 minutes, and I didn’t have that much gas left.

So I called the ship and told them that, and the admiral called the Langley and directed them to launch nine torpedo planes, so they could give me a clear deck to land aboard, which they did. When I saw the deck was clear, I came around and made a pass, but the LSO didn’t cut me on the first pass. They still hadn’t cleared the deck properly for landing. So I made a quick turnaround, came back again, and he gave me the cut, and I landed safely. But when I tried to come out of the landing gear, I gave it near full gun, and the engine conked out on me. So I ran out of gas on the deck. They had to push me out of the landing area. I found out from the mech who re-ammunitioned the guns that I had exactly six rounds left in the starboard outboard gun. And they were all jammed. But it worked out all right.

Bearings for Accurate Torpedo Spreads

Rear Adm. Joshua W. Cooper, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Bennion may have had as remarkable a career as any ship we had,” Rear Adm. Joshua Cooper recalls in these edited excerpts from his Naval Institute oral history. “Its pedigree was pretty well established by the fact that the ship was given a Presidential Unit Citation, not while I was in command. It did, in John Paul Jones’ words, ‘go in harm’s way’ a lot of times, and managed to get in and out without serious damage.” Cooper took command of the new Fletcher-class destroyer USS Bennion (DD-622) in 1943, headed out to the war in the Pacific, and into the teeth of Leyte Gulf.

Surigao Strait was the high point of the war as far as I was personally concerned. Our D-day landing was October 20th. It was apparent by the 23rd that the Japanese navy was getting set to make an all-out bid to throw us out. We had reports from submarines and fleet aircraft that there were two task forces both headed for Leyte Gulf. One, it was determined, would come from the south through Surigao Strait, and one from the outside, from the open sea.

By the afternoon of the 24th, the situation had crystallized sufficiently for Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf to dispose his battleships and cruisers in a formation going around and across Leyte Gulf, putting the heavy ships into a position—the classic position—of crossing the T as the Japanese came up from the south to rout us out.

Our destroyers were organized into three flights of squadron strength. Ships were brought in to make up full squadrons of nine ships. Each squadron was divided into sections of three. We had the unenviable assignment of being in the third flight, and this meant that we waited practically all night to do our thing. It was raining, the visibility was very poor, and by the time our part in the show occurred, any element of surprise was gone.

Our best information came from two radar picket destroyers who were well south near the point where the Surigao Straits turn to the north. From that point on, we had better positions on the Japanese ships, I think, than they did themselves. As they turned up to head in a northerly direction, the first flight of destroyers made torpedo attacks from right, left, and center.

Shortly after this, the battleships and cruisers opened fire. This was followed by the second flight of destroyer torpedo attacks in similar fashion, right, left, and center. Finally, when our turn came, it was about two or three in the morning, and Bennion was hard over on the land side of the island of Leyte, trying very hard not to run aground. We finally got the “go” signal, and quickly worked up from 5 knots to 35. We were darkened ship, but with the drizzle, rain, proximity of land, and shell fire directly over us from our own ships, and sporadic fire from the Japanese ships, it made a real fireworks. Running in close formation at high speed gave us enough to do that our tremendous concentration blocked out the fear syndrome—which had built up to strong proportions during the awful waiting from dusk the night before until two or three in the morning. By the time we went in, we could see our target fairly well from the burning, twisting masses of steel.

This was dramatically described by our young gunnery officer, future Chief of Naval Operations, Lt. James L. Holloway III, who performed an extremely useful function. Even though we were not firing the guns, we did fire all ten of our torpedoes. Holloway, by sight from his director station, was able to give accurate bearings on targets selected by the CIC [combat information center] crew, and was able to furnish data which improved our torpedo solution and also our sense of knowing what we were doing.

At about 3,500 yards, we fired our first spread, then did a countermarch—each ship turning simultaneously, and the rear ship becoming the lead ship. Our section leader was Cdr. Joe Boulware in the USS Heywood L. Edwards (DD-663). Our third ship was the USS Leutz (DD-481). As we made our turn, we fired our second spread of torpedoes, and I think that one was probably better than the first. We found out the next day that we were only supposed to have fired one spread, save our torpedoes for future use. I am glad we fired them all, because we did better with the second spread.

The only orders we received from Rear Adm. Jesse Oldendorf were to “go on down” and, in view of the rather methodical preparation, that was about all we needed. The admiral’s message after the exercise speaks for itself. “Now that the battle phase of our Leyte operation seems to be over, I wish to say to all who had a part in the decisive and epic Battle of the Surigao Strait against the Japanese Navy: well done.”

Adm. Thomas Kinkaid went on to say, “The destroyer attacks were executed with remarkable precision and effect. The attacks more than served their purpose of slowing and confusing the enemy. They nearly annihilated him.”

Fishtailing on the Franks

QM Michael Bak Jr., U.S. Navy

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The son of Russian immigrants, Michael Bak Jr. was raised in New Jersey during the Depression. “I came home one time in my Boy Scouts uniform,” he recalled in his Naval Institute oral history, “and one of our Russian relatives berated my parents for allowing me to join the Scouts. She felt that there was a war coming on soon, and I would be the first to be called up because of the uniform.”

In late 1942, he enlisted in the Navy, moved through boot camp to quartermaster school at Great Lakes, and then on to the precommissioning crew of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Franks (DD-554), fitting out in Bremerton. Following commissioning in July 1943, the Franks joined the battle of the Pacific, screening escort carriers, retrieving downed pilots, and patrolling against submarines. In late 1944, with the Philippine operations coming on, she joined the 7th Fleet.

The war came into sharp focus for Quartermaster Bak on the morning of October 25, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In these edited excerpts from his oral history, Bak recalls the action. The loudspeaker sounded General Quarters.

 

We ran to our battle stations. I ran to the bridge and looked out, and I saw what looked like toothpicks on the horizon, right across the horizon—many, many ships.

Our carrier planes started taking off. When the Japanese fleet was coming at us, our job was to stay between the carriers and the Japanese ships.

We were going back and forth, sort of fishtailing, because our carriers couldn’t go too fast. The Japs were shooting at us and dropping shells around us, 150, 200 yards. We were going right full rudder, left full rudder, right full rudder, and the shells were coming all around us. We were told to go in for a torpedo run. Then, they decided it was crazy to go in. They found a couple of ships had been sunk. We were told to lay a smoke screen between the Jap fleet and the carriers—all the time fishtailing.

I was on the bridge at the quartermaster station, putting entries in the ship’s log. The shells were dropping around us. I went under the chart table, which was a ridiculous place to go. Then I was on a long glass, and I couldn’t believe you could see these ships so close. I couldn’t believe that that fleet had got so close to us without our admirals knowing about it in advance. It was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s fleet, the Japanese commander involved.

From about 7:15 to 10:30 that morning, it was several hours of not knowing what was happening. We did see some burning out there. We got a report later that burning was our ships being sunk. If we had held one course, they would have blown us out of the water that day. That’s what I liked about our skipper, Cdr. David Stephan. He was out there giving orders, right full rudder, left full rudder.

For some reason or other, later on the Japs turned around and went the other way. They left us when they could have had a kill. They didn’t realize what they had. I believe, reading back in history, they thought our destroyers were cruisers.

During all this, the planes were taking off and landing. I remember getting behind these carriers. We had sort of dual duty, fishtailing, trying to pick our pilots out of the water when they crashed or went overboard, and keeping between the Jap fleet and the escort carriers. I saw the smoke and the hit when the Gambier Bay went down. The jeep carriers didn’t have the maneuverability we had.

In a fight like that, when you’re quartermaster, you can see what’s going on, but the people below decks can’t. The captain would give the results later on to all hands, but never during the battle.

Chasing the Japanese Decoy Force

Vice Adm. Gerald F. Bogan, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Vice Adm. Gerald Bogan was a naval aviation pioneer, earning his wings in 1925 and joining Fighting Squadron One on the USS Langley (CV-1). He would fly from the Langley, USS Lexington (CV-2), Saratoga (CV-3), and Yorktown (CV-5), and in late 1942, take command of the Saratoga. In early 1944, as the march across the Pacific pushed westward, he was promoted to flag and command of Carrier Division 25—the escort carriers USS Fanshaw Bay(CVE-70), Midway (CVE-60), White Plains (CVE-66), and Kalinin Bay (CVE-68). That same year, just prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, he took command of Carrier Division 4—fleet carriers—and Task Group 38.2. In these edited excerpts from his Naval Institute oral history, he recalls key moments and key issues in the action.

 

This was right after Formosa. First, they called it the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, and then MacArthur insisted it be called the Battle of Leyte Gulf. I was in the USS Intrepid (CV-11). Rear Adm. Frederick Sherman, in the USS Lexington (CV-16) with Task Group 38.3, was to the north. Vice Adm. John McCain, with Task Group 38.1, had just started back to Ulithi to refuel and resupply.

We sent this armed scouting force to the west at 0730 and around 0930 saw this Japanese central force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, which had already lost two cruisers to submarines, the USS Dace (SS-247) and Darter(SS-227), the day before. Rear Adm. Ralph Davidson [in command of the supporting carrier groups] was called north, and my group made several attacks throughout the day, as this central force came back and around through the Sibuyan Sea. Admiral Sherman’s group also sent in one very heavy attack at about 1500. I do not know whether it was as a result of that or the cumulative effects from previous attacks that caused the Musashi, a sister ship of the Yamato to slow down—with the rest of their force turning around to cover her.

Admiral Halsey got that report and thought they were retreating. Later in the day, Halsey ordered all three groups north at 25 knots to attack what turned out to be a decoy force. There were 17 ships in it, and we had 68. Capt. Edward Ewen in the USS Independence (CVL-22) said they were on course 060 degrees, were coming out through San Bernardino Strait, and navigation lights were turned on.

I thought that Halsey was making one hell of a mistake. I had this message already to send him saying, “Recommend Form Leo (which was Task Force 34, with Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee’s fast battleships) leave my group in support and let the other two groups handle the northern force.” But when I told him about the lights business, someone on his staff said, “Yes, yes, we have that information.” That was a brushoff, as far as I was concerned, and I wasn’t going to say any more. I doubt very much if it would have had any effect, because Admiral Halsey talked to me time after time and justified his decision to go north. Capt. Arleigh Burke, Adm. Marc Mitscher’s chief of staff, tried to get him to recommend something to Halsey, but Mitscher, who felt the tactical command had been taken away from him said, “If he wants plans or information from me, he’ll ask for it.”

Then about 0200 in the morning, 25 October, Admiral Halsey ordered a search made from the Independence in my group for these ships. Admiral Mitscher protested, saying he thought that if the planes got in the air, the Japanese radar would discover them and change course. Halsey said, “Launch the search.” The Japanese did discover the planes in the air and did change course. Instead of this gun duel which Halsey had envisioned early in the morning, it was nearly 0830 before we could catch them with the planes.

At about 1030, after the second strike, when the thing was practically over, we had sunk all three carriers. The Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, sent this message to Halsey, “Where is Task Force 34?”—and there was some padding on the end of the message which some kid put on, “the world wonders.” And, that just turned Halsey on his ear. “God, why is Nimitz sending me a message like that?”

At 1130, we formed Task Force 34 with my group in support and started back to the Philippines at full 28 knots, refueling destroyers at 14 knots until they were filled. Of course, Kurita had knocked off the action at about noon and gone west again, after suffering pretty heavy losses. Nobody knows why he turned around, but he did. He’d sunk four little jeep carriers and two destroyers, and if he continued he could have wiped out the landing force at Leyte Gulf. Nobody’s ever known why he turned around.

Halsey later said, “I thought that it was Vice Admiral Kinkaid’s responsibility to guard that strait, not mine.” It’s a long story. It will never be resolved, except that I’m clear in my own mind that it was a great mistake on Halsey’s part.

King Bawls Out Halsey

Capt. Robert E. Dornin, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Capt. Robert E. “Dusty” Dornin, U.S. Navy, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1935, a football star, and went on quickly to become one of the fabled submariners in the Battle of the Pacific, serving in the USS Gudgeon (SS-211) and Trigger (SS-237)—with two Navy Crosses and four Silver Stars. The Trigger under his command was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

In 1944, following nine war patrols, he returned to Pearl Harbor and was delighted to be invited to lunch with Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, Commander, Submarines Pacific Fleet. Pleasure turned to shock when the admirals informed him that he had been selected as the aide to Adm. Ernest J. King. “I let them know I wouldn’t go,” Dornin recalled in these edited excerpts from his Naval Institute oral history. “‘What? Are you crazy?’ one of them asked. I was told to think it over for 24 hours. I did, and then was informed that I had the assignment. . . . As for the job, I took care of everything, to include the phone calls, that went in and out of Admiral King’s office.” In October 1944, he was helping King keep track of fast-breaking action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, including Admiral Halsey’s chase of Japanese carriers to the north and Adm. Thomas Kinkaid’s plea for heavy-ship help against Japanese battleships and cruisers.

 

I happened to have the duty that night on the USS Dauntless (PG-61), [Admiral King’s in-port ship in Washington]. One thing Admiral King had was an order that he was not to be awakened or disturbed during the night. Well, about midnight, King’s chief of staff, Admiral Richard “Dickie” Edwards, the number two man in the Navy, came down and showed me this dispatch—Admiral Nimitz’s message to Halsey: “Where is, repeat, where is Task Force 34? The world wonders.”—and wanted me to show it to Admiral King. And I said, “No, sir, Admiral King does not want to be disturbed.” He looked me in the eye and he said,“Dornin, show this dispatch to Admiral King.”

So I went in and switched on the light. Admiral King opened one eye like an eagle’s eye, and I handed him a few dispatches. He looked at them and then said, “Just what in hell do you want me to do about it, Dornin, at midnight? What do you think I’ve got Nimitz out there for? Now get out.” With that, I turned around and said, “Yes, sir.”

Nothing happened for about two days, fortunately. The Japanese for some unknown reason left the area and the invasion was successful. But, when Task Force 34 had come back to anchor and replenish, my buzzer rang. I went in to see Admiral King, who said, “I want to see Admiral Halsey immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

With that, I called Vice Adm. Randall Jacobs and told him Admiral King wanted to see Admiral Halsey immediately. He said, “Well, he’s out in Ulithi Atoll.”

I said, “Sir, I’m only carrying out Admiral King’s order.”
Admiral Jacobs knew Admiral King well, so he said, “Okay, Dornin.” In a short time, believe me, a very short time, Admiral Halsey showed up and came into the office. I knew him from way back. I was an ex-football player. Halsey was quite a football player himself.

He said, “How are you, Dusty?”

I said, “Just a minute, sir, I’ll tell Admiral King you’re here.” I went in and Admiral King said, “Show him in.”

I had hardly gotten out of the door, but, I’m telling you, you talk about reprimands, bawling-outs—when you hear an admiral rip up and down on another four-star admiral, boy, it was insulting, not foul, but the devil’s language. I never heard anything in the world like it. I couldn’t help but hear it. As a matter of fact, I think everyone on the second deck of the Navy Department heard him. King was fond of Halsey, but he wanted perfection. Frankly, Halsey made a hell of a blunder, and it could have been very costly.

To learn more about The Battle of Leyte Gulf at 75: A Retrospective, by Thomas J. Cutler, click here.