One of the most awe-inspiring displays of reckless bravery WWII: ‘This is going to be a fighting ship I intend to go harm’s way, anyone who doesn’t want to go along better get off right now!’

Shahan Russell
 
 
SHARE:

In 1944, the Allied forces defeated the Japanese in the southern Philippines. That done, they began landing Allied troops on the central Philippine island of Leyte, leaving only a few destroyers behind to protect the landing. But it was a trap, so all seemed lost till an Amerindian captain decided to go kamikaze on the Japanese.

After the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they continued their spree in the South Pacific. They captured the Philippines (then US territory) and other nations until they acquired Papua New Guinea at Australia’s doorstep.

Since America’s original focus was on the European theater, its attitude toward the South Pacific had been one of Japanese containment. This changed in 1943. By June, they captured some of the Solomon Islands, isolated a major Japanese base at Rabaul, and secured their access to Australia and New Zealand.

The four actions at the Battle of Leyte Gulf: (1) Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, (2) Battle of Surigao Strait, (3) Battle of Cape Engaño, and the (4) Battle off Samar, where the Johnston sank
The four actions at the Battle of Leyte Gulf: (1) Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, (2) Battle of Surigao Strait, (3) Battle of Cape Engaño, and the (4) Battle off Samar, where the Johnston sank

That done, US and Australian forces began capturing the other islands till they reached the Philippines in mid-1944. They first took the southernmost island of Mindanao, then made their way north. But first they had to get past the central island of Leyte, which they reached on the morning of October 23.

But then their submarines detected a Japanese fleet coming in from the South China Sea. Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr., was also known as the “Bull” because his policy was simple: sink as many Japs as possible. And that’s exactly what he did, destroying the Center Force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita. Or so he thought.

On October 24, 150,000 American troops began landing on Leyte, but as they were doing that, they received intel of more Japanese carrier-battleships heading their way. Instead of staying to protect the landing, the Bull went after the Japanese, leaving behind only a few small escorts and destroyers.

Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr.
Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr.

Though taking on some damage, Kurita wasn’t headed back to Japan for repairs. He had simply turned around and was headed back to Leyte. To make sure he made it, the Japanese Northern Force sent out several carriers as decoys to lure the Bull’s 3rd Fleet away from where the real action was about to happen.

Only the Philippines and Taiwan stood between the Allied forces and the Japanese home islands. The Japanese High Command couldn’t possibly let go of the Philippines, so the Americans had to be stopped at Leyte. If they got passed that island, then Luzon (the main island where the bulk of Japan’s occupying forces were) was next.

Off Leyte, Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy 3) was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. It only had a few destroyers, slow destroyer escorts, and escort aircraft carriers, most armed with 5 inch 38 caliber guns and torpedoes. Among these was the USS Johnston (DD-557), a small Fletcher-class destroyer under the command of Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans.

Continues on Page 2