With Division X-Ray at the Battle of Surigao Strait
Our introduction to Leyte Gulf was the transportation and support of the UDT team prior to the landing. My GQ station at Damage Control center was in the amidships passageway, just aft of the galley, sick bay and the office. This location provided me with a front row seat to all activities topside. I had provided my talker with a long lead that allowed us to be topside with the best seats in the house to observe any and all action. Just before daybreak two days before the landing (timing may be off, it may have been the day before) we took the UDT team in to the landing area to do their thing at blowing up underwater obstacles that were intended to disrupt the landing boats getting to the beach and the other things that UDT people do. I vividly remember their rigging an inflatable raft alongside to port aft, with a long sea painter. Claxton was making about ten to fifteen knots, parallel to the landing area. We were at GQ, of course, and I was quite concerned that we were so close in, and no one was firing at us. I also wondered about our exposure and the fact that we were probably giving away the surprise element of the landing.

There was one man in the boat. One-by-one, loaded down with all their various weapons, detonators, charges, knives, etc.; they would jump down into the boat, aided by the man in the boat. When ready, they would flip backward over the side of the boat and start swimming toward the beach. We loitered in the area until we got a signal that they had completed all their work, and commenced retrieving them in the reverse order of their entering the water. The ship would maneuver alongside a man in the water at slow speed. The man would grab the forward edge of the fast-moving boat and swing himself up out of the water and roll over into the boat.

We didn’t experience any opposition to this important phase of the landings, much to my amazement. There were no casualties among the UDT men, and there was, seemingly, no one on the beach who was interested in what we were doing.

That all changed when the pre-invasion bombardment began. All ships with guns were assigned an area on the beach to totally destroy, and on signal, the mightiest armada of ships of the line, from battleships on down, began the most devastating shore bombardment possible. Nothing, I mean n-o-t-h-i-n-g, was left as far as the eye could see, but smoke and total destruction.

The timing was perfect. As the last rounds hit the beach up a little way from the shoreline, the landing craft began their approach. They were actually underway before the last shots were fired, landing as closely as possible after the cessation of the bombardment. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have survived that holocaust.

We undertook many call fire missions during the days that followed, having to re-arm the ship. We were assigned a merchant ship that was loaded with five-inch ammo, to go alongside and replenish. It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning. As we approached, signaling by flashing light, we got no response. We came within hail, and began using a bullhorn to arouse someone, anyone! Still, no response.

In total determination and disgust with the situation, Captain Hubbard ordered the conning officer to go along side. After securing the mooring lines, Captain Hubbard went aboard to find that the merchant crew was observing Sunday. They said they didn’t work on Sunday, unless they received triple overtime. Keep in mind that there is a hot war going on just a short distance away on the beach, and these people were observing union regulations, and would not work.

Captain Hubbard returned to the ship and called the boatswain’s mates to the bridge. He wanted to know if any of them were qualified to work the hoists aboard the merchant, and if they could remove the hatches. One held his hand up, and a boarding party crossed over to the merchant. The Captain had given instructions to the officer-in-charge of the boarding party that if anyone interfered they were to be shot!

With that information forcefully impressed on the merchant captain, there was no interference, and the operation began. The hatch covers were removed, the five inch ammo was located, and the process of transferring it to Claxton began. It took a lot longer than the time normally experienced when working with a Navy Ammo ship, but the bullets were just as effective when fired later at Japanese emplacements surrounding the Tacloban air strip .On completing the re-arming, we left the Merchant with opened hatches, and unsecured booms and winches, and as much mess for them to clean up as possible. The crew was so angry that they were all topside, along the rail shouting as much insulting nautical language as one can imagine.

There were six DDs that were strays from their destroyer administrative organizations that were formed up into DesDiv X-Ray. CDR Miles Hubbard CO of Claxton was senior and assumed command of the division. We were assigned to the ASW and anti-aircraft screening duties for the six old battleships that were a part of the invasion force at the landings at Leyte Gulf. These old battle wagons were perfectly suited for the shore bombardment that preceded the landing of troops over the beachhead. But, they did not have the speed or the maneuverability to become part of a first line battle group.

At the onset of the news that the Japanese were sending a force through Suriago Strait to disrupt the landings, the old battleships were placed in a disposition that offered them the advantage of the perfect “crossing the T” maneuver in sea battles. They were positioned along the pre-supposed track the Japanese would take on entering the gulf, at right angles to their projected movement. The six DDs of DesDivX-Ray were in a circular screen with Claxton positioned toward the engaged side.

Intelligence reports gave the composition of the Japanese force, their speed, and disposition. This information had been gleaned from engagement reports from PT boats, submarines and aircraft. The general order of battle once the Japanese force entered the strait was to have PT boats attack first. As the force proceeded further into the strait, eighteen DDs were to proceed toward the enemy, hugging the coast. On signal, the DDs executed William, the launching of their torpedoes at the Japanese formation of ships. They then returned to the coast line and proceeded to rejoin the main US battle group in the gulf. The important part of that maneuver was that any contacts in the middle of the strait that were not alongside the shore were considered to be enemy and were to be destroyed. After the torpedoes were to have reached their targets, “commence firing” was ordered to all ships able to engage by gunfire.

The torpedo attacks had a devastating effect on the Japanese force, fatally damaging the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, as well as many of the other cruisers and destroyers. However, the Japanese battleships were able to spot our line of old battleships and got off several rounds before sinking. I climbed up to the upper deck next to the forward torpedo mount to get a ringside seat for the battle. My telephone talker had a long lead on his headset that allowed us to move around. All of a sudden we heard a “whap, whap, whap, whap” sound coming at us that passed overhead close aboard; resulting in tremendous explosions in the water between us and the nearest battleship. If one can imagine what a boxcar sounds like when being thrown through the air, revolving as it goes; then one can understand what that barrage from the Japanese battleships sounded like as it roared over my head. My talker asked, “What was that?” I told him that if I had to explain that to him, I might mess my pants.

Fortunately, none of the rounds they fired at our main body or battleships and destroyers, scored any hits. But, one US DD got flustered in the chaos of battle and did not go to the shoreline after firing his torpedoes. The DD remained in the middle of the strait as he headed back to his station. The light cruiser, Denver, an old buddy from the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay and our days in the northern Solomons; detected the target and challenged it. I talked to the director officer who was locked on to the target, and he was certain the target was a US DD out of position; as well as did every ship there. However, the target kept closing at battle speed and did not identify itself properly, resulting in being damaged by Denver’s accurate gunfire until they were able to convince they were friendly.

At dawn when the battle was over and most of the Japanese ships were sunk, Claxton was ordered detached from the Battleship formation and, along with another DD, proceeded into Surigao Strait to finish off any and all of the damaged ships that were still afloat. On arriving on the scene, hundreds of Japanese shaved heads were seen in the water. A thick glob of bunker fuel oil covered the entire area, and all of them were covered with oil. One Japanese DD was still afloat, down by the stern. Claxton and the other DD took the Jap under fire. A lone person was on the forward gun mount that was still out of the water. As we approached, he rammed a round in the gun, ran to the trainer’s seat and trained the gun at us. He then ran around to the other side and pointed the gun’ firing it. The round went wild and caused no harm. He kept up that routine until the ship was sunk out from under him by our gunfire. If you can imagine what it was like to be in a wagon train and being attacked by Indians who went around and around firing their arrows; you can visualize this action where two US DDs circled the Japanese DD, firing, and arguing over who was to fire next.

After sinking the destroyer, Claxton maneuvered into the pack of survivors, attempting to rescue them, if at all possible. We put lines over the side and, using a bull horn, explained that we would not harm them and to come aboard. As some turned to swim toward us, their officers would scream at them; brandishing pistols; and threatening them with death if they swam to us. It was suggested that we back down through them, killing as many of them as possible, but Capt. Hubbard would have none of that. Instead. We managed to maneuver the ship so that we cut off four survivors from the rest of the group, and were able to drag them aboard.

Again, I was the only officer free to roam the ship, so I took them into custody and moved them to the eyes of the ship where, if they had a grenade or other concealed weapon, it would be less likely that they could injure anyone aboard. They were encased in bunker C fuel oil, and were making motions rubbing their stomachs, and pointing to their mouths. They spoke not at all, using sign language to try to communicate.

The ships doctor, Lt. Brown, joined us along with a boatswain’s mate. We put shackles on them, and started to clean them up. They still used sign language to try to communicate. The doctor tried to clean oil from their faces, and attempted to remove their clothing. Finding this too difficult, he needed a knife to cut their clothes off. He then asked the boatswain to give him his knife. As he took the knife and pointed it at one of the prisoners to start to cut his clothes, the prisoner suddenly spoke in plain English, “Please do not to harm me! Please do not to tell any mans that I surrender. They will punish my family!”

Wow! We had us a prisoner who could speak English. Our first inclination was to start interrogating him about everything we could think of; but, The task force intelligence people had published an order that prisoners were not to be interrogated by inexperienced personnel. That on capture, the prisoner was to be allowed to tell anything he wanted, and personnel were to take notes and aid the prisoner in whatever he wanted to volunteer.

Wanting to get as much as we could from this prize, we cleaned them up, fed them and treated their ailments, which were mostly from swallowing oil. We gave them clean clothing and locked them in the 40mm ammo locker on the main deck, amidships. My biggest worry as their jailer, was that some person in the crew might do them harm. After all, they had seen some of their shipmates killed and maimed by their countrymen. Each division officer was ordered to counsel his men that the prisoners were a valuable intelligence asset and that they were not to be harmed. They were furnished with writing tablets, pencils and anything that they needed in order to tell us anything.

It became impossible to turn the prisoners over to the proper intelligence people right away, for Claxton was ordered to regroup with DesDiv X-Ray and proceed at best speed to exit the gulf and join the jeep carrier task force that was being attacked by a Japanese battle group that had transited San Bernardino Strait during the night. These six DDs were the only ones that had torpedoes on board. All other destroyers had expended their torpedoes in the battle of Surigao Strait the night before. There was a lot of anxiety about these orders, for we learned that the Japanese force contained the battleship Yamato. Thank God, for some reason, the Japanese turned and ran before we got there.

While this was going on, a report was made to the intelligence people that we had these valuable prisoners and that we would be goad to transfer to the flagship for interrogation. While they were in my custody, one of them identified himself as Warrant Officer who had been stationed aboard the battleship Fuso. He had a BS degree from the University of Tokyo. And he spoke pretty good English. He wrote that the Fuso had visited several ports prior to entering the Surigao Strait battle, and gave the dates the ship had been in these ports. On examining his clothing, we found several theater ticket stubs, whose dates coincided with the dates he said the Fuso had visited there. This gave a certain amount of credibility to the things he later wrote about.

He took the pad and drew the picture of a large aircraft carrier. He showed airplanes on board it and gave the information that it could carry 85 aircraft. He said the ship was being built on a Yamato battleship hull in Yokosuka, and the date it was scheduled for sea trials. It was to be the largest aircraft carrier ever built.

Intelligence personnel believed this information and passed it along to SubPac, who ordered two submarines to penetrate the area and lie in wait for this new giant carrier to go to sea for trials. Sure enough, on the day the prisoner predicted, out came the carrier [Shinano], manned with yard personnel, to conduct builder’s trials at sea. She was escorted by destroyers. But, the submarines were able to sink her.

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I have felt very proud every time I think of being able to get the intelligence out of that Japanese warrant officer that resulted in the sinking of the world’s largest aircraft carrier. And, I didn’t even have to ask, nor pressure him. He volunteered it!l