Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How the Tincan Sailors of Taffy 3 Beat The World's Largest Battleship in the Battle off Samar


I first heard of the remarkable battle of outmatched US sailors on destroyers against the Yamato and its fleet on the "Death of the Japanese Navy" episode of Dogfights on the history channel. I always wondered why the Americans were able to land so many blows against the Japanese ships while the Japanese seemed to have worse aim than Imperial Storm Troopers from Star Wars. I read Hornfischer's book "Last Stand of the Tincan Sailors" which described the automatically aimed guns of the destroyers, and from the website The Battle Off Samar - Taffy III at Leyte Gulf website by Robert Jon Cox as to when the Japanese were actually able to land hits against the Americans. That led to surfing about the MK 37 gun fire control system, and earlier systems used by battleships that used analog computers, their limitations, and the little-noticed superiority of the American systems. So I believe I have found a few NEW key points.

- The battle is truly the most remarkable mismatches in military history despite military commanders abandoning the victorious underdogs. It was buried back then to avoid making commanders like Halsey look too bad.

- The losses of over 1000 men and 5 ships exceed the COMBINED losses of the Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway, sustained by a very small task force, Taffy 3. This in a battle that does not even register on anyone's list of top 10 naval battles of WWII.

- The world's largest battleship could fire a shell 20 miles BUT COULD NOT HIT ANY MANEUVERING TARGET AT THAT RANGE since US ships were steering towards splashes. Their computer system assumed a target was still on the same course one minute after firing a shell. In that time, a destroyer can steer away nearly a half-mile. They also could not fire through smoke or rain squalls, which there was plenty.

- By contrast, the US had perfecting miniturizing systems first developed in WWI for battleships into the MK 37 which fit into a destroyer. It was radar controlled, and was fast enough to work against aircraft, with similar technology on the 40mm mounts. The US system could fire accurately while dodging Japanese shells, while the Japanese had to maintain a steady course when firing. This made the Japanese ships not sitting ducks but "steaming on a constant course" ducks, which for the MK 37 was the same thing. American guns could hit most of the Kamikaze attacks, while the Japanese who lacked equivalent systems were hammred by US pilots who flew home after their job was done.

- Even when US ships were hit, they were so redundant they could absorb dozens of hits from armor piercing rounds intended for heavy ships before or without sinking, though they did so strewn with the broken bodies of the dying and wounded.

- The "leftover" forces had nearly as many planes as 4 of 5 Halsey's largest carriers, even if they were not armed or trained to defend against a surface fleet.

- As an Asian American, it is also remarkable how the rigic, conservative decisions of the Japanese led to errors generally overestimating the power of the US ships. The US forces more accurately summed up their situation, and wasted no time in tossing the book and throwing obviously inadequately armed and trained men, planes and ship against battleships if that is what they had.


Here is how the story is told in the Battle off Samar

In a battle that author James D. Hornfischer would call “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors,” the very powerful force of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers commanded by Admiral Kurita engaged a U.S. task unit of six escort aircraft carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. The Americans were taken entirely by surprise because the U.S. Seventh Fleet had firmly believed that its northern flank was being protected by Admiral Halsey's immensely powerful Third Fleet.

The brunt of the Japanese attack fell on the northernmost of the escort carrier units, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 (usually referred to by its radio call-sign "Taffy 3"). Ill-equipped to fight large-gunned warships, Taffy 3's escort carriers attempted to escape from the Japanese force, while its destroyers, destroyer escorts, and aircraft made sustained attacks on Kurita's ships. The ordnance for the escort carriers' aircraft consisted mostly of small high-explosive bombs used in ground support missions, and depth charges used in anti-submarine work, rather than the armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes which would been more effective against heavily armored warships. Nevertheless, even when they were out of ammunition, the American aircraft continued to harass the enemy ships, making repeated mock attacks, which distracted them and disrupted their formations.

In all, two U.S. destroyers, a destroyer escort, and an escort carrier were sunk by Japanese gunfire, and another U.S. escort carrier was hit and sunk by a Kamikaze aircraft during the battle. Kurita's battleships were driven away from the engagement by torpedo attacks by American destroyers; they were unable to regroup in the chaos, while three cruisers were lost due to air attack and several other cruisers were damaged. Due to the ferocity of the defense, Kurita was convinced that he was facing a far superior force and withdrew from the battle, ending the threat to the troop transports and supply ships.

The battle was one of the last major naval engagements between U.S. and Japanese surface forces in World War II. After this, the Imperial Japanese Navy never again sailed to battle in such force, but returned to its bases to remain largely inactive for the rest of the war.

This battle is often depicted as one of the major "what-ifs" in World War II. If Kurita had continued the attack instead of withdrawing, it is thought possible that the U.S. could have suffered heavy losses in troops and supplies, which would have delayed their capture of the Philippines. Had Kurita's and Halsey's forces met, that would have set the stage for the long awaited "decisive battle" where both sides would have finally been able to pit their largest battleships against each other. But in the end, the most powerful battleship ever built and its fleet had been turned back if not sunk by America's cheapest carriers and a handful of tincan destroyers and escorts.

The Japanese had succeeded in luring Halsey's Third Fleet away from its role of covering the invasion fleet, but seemingly light forces proved to be a very considerable obstacle. What American commanders had unwittingly left behind still packed the air power of sixteen carriers, even if they were inexpensive, slow, and lightly-armed. With an available a force of over four hundred aircraft, they were the numeric if not quite qualitative equivalent of four of five Halsey's large fleet carriers. Naval aircraft, whether properly armed or not, did much to offset the mismatch in sheer tonnage and surface firepower (and would ultimately sink the Yamato later in the war). The breakdown in Japanese communications resulted in Kurita being unaware of the opportunity that Ozawa's decoy plan had offered him. Kurita's mishandling of his forces during the surface engagement further compounded his losses.

Despite Halsey's failure to protect the northern flank of Seventh Fleet, Taffy 3 and assisting aircraft turned back the most powerful surface fleet Japan had sent to sea since the Battle of Midway. Domination of the skies, prudent and timely maneuvers by the U.S. ships, tactical errors by the Japanese admiral, and perhaps superior American radar technology, gunnery and seamanship, all contributed to this outcome. The Japanese had invested much in expensive guns that outranged US weapons. But their guns lacked a blind fire capability and were thwarted by smoke laid by screening destroyers and rain squalls. Their manually intensive fire control system computed solutions for targets on a constant course. But a 40 ft wide destroyer at 30 knots can travel up to a half-mile away in the nearly one minute it takes for a shell at 3000 ft per second to cover 20 miles.

The Japanese only landed hits when the large Japanese ships which could not maneuver while firing came within range of even the 5-in carrier mounted guns which found an Achilles' heel in a cruiser's torpedo mount. Armor-piercing shells proved largely ineffective against unarmored ships engineered with enough redundancy to survive dozens of hits without or before sinking. Conversely, the Americans could put the MK-37 radar-directed fire control system and its computer in ships as small as destroyers which could land accurate hits while chasing splashes. Excellent US 5-in and 40 mm radar and computer directed anti-aircraft fire downed several kamikaze planes, while the lack of comparable systems made the Japanese vulnerable to American fliers. While the Japanese built the largest battleships, the Americans built the most numerous classes of inexpensive escort carriers as Japan discarded their last carriers and pilots to draw away Halsey's fleet.

It may be argued that, of all of the battles in the Pacific War, Samar best demonstrates the effectiveness of air attack and destroyer-launched torpedoes against larger surface vessels. Cautious Japanese tactics were hampered by the belief they were fighting a much more powerful force. Conversely, the Americans accurately sensed the gravity of their predicament, and quickly improvised a strategy based on harassment and delay which did not hesitate to throw inadequately armed and trained men, planes and ships directly against battleships if that was what was available.

“ Well, I think it was really just determination that really meant something. I can't believe that they didn't just go in an wipe us out. We confused the Japanese so much. I think it deterred them. It was a great experience ”
—Interview by Hornfischer of Tom Stevensen, Survivor Samuel B. Roberts[11]

Clifton Sprague's task unit lost two escort carriers: (Gambier Bay, to surface attack and St. Lo, to Kamikaze attack). Of the seven screening ships, fewer than half, two destroyers (Hoel and Johnston) and a destroyer escort (Samuel B. Roberts) were lost, as were dozens of aircraft. The other four U.S. destroyers and escorts were damaged. For such a small task unit, more than a thousand Americans died, comparable to the losses suffered at the allied defeat of the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal when 4 cruisers were sunk. It was also comparable to the combined losses of the 543 men and 3 ships at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and 307 men and 2 ships at the Battle of Midway.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the Japanese were forced to scuttle three heavy cruisers, and a fourth limped back to base seriously damaged, having lost its bow. All of Kurita's battleships except Yamato suffered considerable damage, and apart from the Yamato, all of the heavy ships stayed inactive in their bases, and the Japanese navy as a whole had been rendered ineffective for the remainder of the war. At Leyte Gulf, relatively tiny Taffy 3 bore the brunt of losses, sacrificing five of the six U.S. ships of 37,000 tons that were lost. By comparison, the Japanese lost 26 ships of 306,000 tons. [12]


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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