On this night, their dull tasks of preparation were to pay dividends. The Japs were out with their entire fleet for the battle that would change the history of the world.
To the left of our waiting fleet lay Dinagat Island, tall and forbidding; to the right, Mount Inhan towering 3000 feet into the sky. The Strait was dark; bulky clouds hid the stars, while mountains cast a layer of protecting shadow, absorbing the little light that remained.
The “Mighty N,” black as the night through which she glided, stood close off Admiral Oldendorf’s flagship to obtain last-minute instructions. The “Mighty N” was flagship of the destroyers, and on board was Captain Roland N. Smoot of Coronado, California, tanned, weatherbeaten Commodore of our group of “21-hundreds.” Those destroyers were to perform tonight the job for which they were actually designed—the job that had given them their name. Tonight they were to drop their role of messenger and scout and screening vessel, and from their tubes death and destruction were to leap.
Few among the crew of the “N” knew by experience what lay ahead. Many of the officers and men were novices at the art of war when they had joined the ship a year before. Six months in the Pacific, however, had welded the crew into an efficient unit; they had smashed submarined, driven off aircraft and tested their mettle against shore batteries. But of all the crew, only Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Goddard had ever participated in a torpedo attack before.
Little conversation filtered through the “N” as she lay in wait for the enemy. The evening meal had been served several hours before and the ship was made ready for battle. Firing circuit and telephone lines had been checked and re-checked; the engine rooms and fire-rooms were put in tiptop shape; medical supplies were laid out ready for use, though we hoped that all our equipment would not be needed.
The Commodore spent the early hours of the evening studying charts of the approaching scene of action under shaded lights in the plotting room. It was he who would be charged with the responsibility of leading the dashing torpedo attack after the Admiral ordered us in. Men on watch in the radio room awaited the first contact reports of the enemy. Torpedo boats, victors in many actions off the Solomons, prowled about the southern end of Surigao. These would be the first to encounter the enemy, to attack, and the report that the force was on its way.
Although every battle station was manned during this period of waiting, many of the men were permitted to sleep on the decks near their guns. Life belts, pressed into use as pillows, made resting on a steel deck that vibrated with the throbbing of powerful engines down below a fitful sleep at best. But each moment of relaxation which could be snatched from the ominous night served to ease the growing tension.
Pointers and trainers scrambled up to their seats on the guns, torpedomen conducted a last-minute check on the long tubes and swung them out until they were pointed over the side. Reports raced over the telephone circuits to Commander Lawrence B. Cook of Silver Springs, Maryland, the “Mighty N’s” commanding officer. The officers and men in the turrets, plotting rooms, control centers, engine rooms, fire-rooms, and damage control stations talked and joked in hushed tones. The faint “dit-dit-dah” of radio receivers filtered onto the deck through the thin skin of the destroyers. Eyes probed the darkness’ to the south through which the enemy would soon emerge.
Admiral Oldendorf ordered one group of destroyers to make a surprise preliminary attack. They raced in, fired their torpedoes, and turned away before the Japanese realized that they were meeting more opposition. The surprised Nips opened fire with star shells and loosed a few sporadic salvos of explosive projectiles. None of the ships was hit. Perhaps the little slant-eyed admiral thought his ships were being attacked once again by torpedo boats. Surely the weak Americans would have no ships here; by now they must be fighting another admiral’s honorable ships east of Samar. He probably looked out from the flag bridge of the high, pagoda-like tower of his battleship and thought of the scene that would greet his eyes at dawn: hundreds of transports and landing craft with their valuable cargoes of men and material. These targets would be unprotected then, he thought, and would fall easy prey to the guns of his fleet.
Then at 3:30 the radio on the “Mighty N” crackled and came to life. From the darkness of the bridge came the voice of Admiral Oldendorf.
“Launch the attack! Get the big boys!”
The Commodore studied the picture for an instant, then directed his ship forward. The engine room telegraph clanged for action and rang up high speed; the picture was repeated on every ship in the group and our sleek “21-hundreds” surged forward toward the enemy. The “Mighty N” led the attack down the middle of the channel. She sped out in front of the others, took the most vulnerable position, and steadied on a course that led directly toward the Yamashiro.
About half of our run to the release point had been reached and the only illumination was from the star shells fired by the Japanese in an attempt to locate the first wave of destroyers. Other destroyers were pressing in with the “Mighty N,” but the only ship I could see from my vantage point on the bridge was astern of us, dimly silhouetted against the white turbulence of our foaming wake.
Suddenly the darkness parted and streams of color raced across the sky. The big semicircle of battleships and cruisers to our rear opened fire and belched salvo after salvo at the enemy battle line. Each group of beautiful, arched, red tracers marked tons of hot steel that screamed a song of destruction. Each of the tracers seemed to blink a happy farewell to its former home as it ripped into the enemy vessels. Each was a part of our roof of protection. Each was a perfect cover for the destroyers’ bold, knife-like attack. We were stunned by the terrible majesty and white-hot ferocity of the shelling.
This was a rainbow of brilliant colors and the Jap ships which presently burst into flames was the “pot of gold” that rewarded the accuracy of our big ships’ guns. These were the ships which had suffered the treachery of the Japs at Pearl Harbor; the West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. This was their revenge for “a day that will live long in infamy.”
By now the enemy realized that we were meeting force with force. The heavy guns of the Yamashiro and Fuso spit flame and smoke. Seething columns of hissing water shot skyward near the “Mighty N,” but she and her sister ships relentlessly charged on. Some of the men from the deck party raced from port to starboard whenever a projectile fell near our stern. But just as soon they would race back again when another landed short off our port side. The tracers and shell fire cast an eerie glow over the whole Strait and silhouetted the “Mighty N,” a perfect target.
The crew waited for the torpedoes to leap from their tubes. Our thoughts were concentrated on the one man who would give the order to fire. Lieutenant, junior grade, Charles Gedge of Detroit peered intently through the eyepiece of his director. When he first looked, there was nothing but empty darkness. But then, as the glowing, red shells of the avengers of Pearl Harbor found their targets, he began to make out the half-visible, hulking form of the Yamashiro. The cross-hairs of the telescope formed a perfect “x” on the shadowy, wavy outline of the big pagoda tower. With a gentle pressure on one of the turning knobs, he kept the target steadily centered in the sight.
Exploding shells and the flashes of the Yamashiro’s batteries brilliantly spotlighted her on the stage of battle. At times difficulty was encountered in perceiving her, because churning columns of water from the near misses would obscure whole sections of the hostile ship. She was moving slowly to the right now, seeking to escape from the vengeful wrath of the Veteran’s withering fire. Captain Cook altered his course a few degrees and the bow of the “Mighty N” loomed directly toward the enemy. Lieutenant Gedge spun the knob again slightly and the cross-hairs slid back onto the target.
Each time we changed course slightly to compensate for the turning of the Yamashiro, the big torpedo mounts also moved. A mechanical brain was pointing them with micrometer precision. A small correction on one dial, an adjustment on another, and the mount pointed in a new direction. Not a man touched the tubes as the mechanical brain calculated the ranges and bearings and firing angles.
“Are you ready on the tubes?” Lieutenant Gedge asked when the run to the Yamashiro began.
“Yes, we’re ready,” shot back the confident reply.
“Are you ready?” he queried again a few minutes later.
“Ready and waiting,” was the response which flowed back through the telephones.
After a few more adjustments had been made, he questioned them a third time.
“Hell yes, we’re ready!”
The range was right. All adjustments had been made and the fish were set to run straight and true. In torpedo warfare you have but one chance for a hit. Torpedomen cannot spot their shots onto a target as a gunner might do. Everything must be right the first time.
“Fire one!” Charlie cried.
A switch clicked; you heard the swish as the fish left its tube, a pause while it hurtled through the air, and a sharp splash when it pierced the waters.
Another swish, pause, and splash; another bit of steel and explosive was marked for export. The “pop-pop-pop” of shells slapping the water was audible even to the “black gang” below the waterline through the sides of the ship.
Those who were watching the show from gun stations near the tubes thought the firing was taking too long. The Jap battle line was drawing closer, ever closer; shells dropped near our stern, but the Nips apparently did not have the range.
Each man emitted an unconscious grunt as another death-dealing missile smacked the wavelets, submerged to proper depth, then automatically twisted toward the target. The telephone talkers who could view the battle were relaying the firing of each torpedo to to their mates below decks in the magazines, the engine rooms and fire-rooms.
Our first torpedoes had not had the necessary time to reach the Jap battleship yet, but the enemy warship started to blaze fiercely from our major caliber gunfire. As Recognition Officer I had kept my glasses on the splashes and explosions during the attack in an attempt to identify our target. I identified it as the Fuso, but fire controlman Tony Serra, using the powerful rangefinder atop the bridge, was the one who named it correctly.
Finally, the spread of torpedoes was fired. Now was the time to get away. If we surged any closer, the Yamashiro’s main battery would be unable to bear upon us, but the secondary battery could make mincemeat of us.
“Torpedoes away!” Lieutenant Gedge shouted.
“Torpedoes away!” The cry was repeated by voices all over the bridge and it raced through the whole ship on all phone circuits.
Lieutenant Fred Shellsberger, the Officer-of-the-Deck, wheeled around to the captain and shouted, “Torpedoes away, Captain, let’s get the hell out of here!”
“Right full rudder!”
The “Mighty N” heeled over as she turned to race back to the north, back to the protection of our battle line. If our attacking speed was fast, our speed during the retirement made us seem like a robomb. Yet for all our speed, we seemed to stand anchored in the water.
Down in the hot, sweaty engine rooms, Jack Mims and Ed Meyer spun the big throttles open and we leaped ahead. Ensign Joe Inman, the assistant engineering officer, recalled that they spun the throttles with their fingers crossed. That might not be the proper way to handle them, but they thought it was best under the circumstances.
Now for some concealment.
“Make smoke!” Captain Cook ordered.
The order was relayed to the fire-room and the snipes cut in the big smoke nozzles and instantly the billowing black clouds of protection began to stream from our stacks. With the ship headed away from the enemy, the whiteness of the wake would make a perfect point of aim. At high speed, a destroyer creates wake almost six feet high; smoke was needed to blanket that wake.
Quartermaster Robert Hansen spun the helm from left to right and the “Might N” roared back up the Strait in an uneven zigzag pattern. When we finally reached comparative safety, we slowed down and began to watch the battle as spectators. The Japs were by now in full retreat; their only ships remaining afloat were burning fiercely and were being tenaciously pursued by cruisers and destroyers. Salvo after salvo split the burning wreckage and sporadic sheets of flame punctuated the explosion of magazine. I observed one large ship, probably a cruiser, blaze hotly on the horizon for almost an hour in the early dawn before it went to the bottom.
A heavy tension had been wrought during the battle. Nerves were taut and tempers short. The pressure on our minds began building up almost nine hours before, and only after it was over did we realize how great it was. Now the men began to joke and talk freely and tell each other funny stories of what they did in their part of the ship during the battle.
Shortly after daybreak I ventured into the chartroom to get a better idea of the scene of the battle and discovered there that hundreds of us were alive and several ships were afloat because of an act of God dating from the Creation. When our battleships and cruiser started their thundering barrage, Jap lookouts anxiously scanned the darkness to find our ships. Suddenly they discovered two black objects lying low in the water. Almost at once their big guns trained out and erupted tons of steel. I noticed this during the battle and wondered why shells were being sent in that direction. This was the only shellfire I observed, since my binoculars were fixed on the Yamashiro during the entire engagement. Luckily, for my own peace of mind, I had not known about the shells landing near the “Mighty N.”
What the Nips thought to be our ships, the charts revealed as two small islands. In the darkness, those tiny bits of land resembled “battlewagons,” but they were many times the size of our largest ship. Cabugan Grande and Cabugan Chico, the diminutive islands near Leyte just inside the strait, had diverted countless rounds of Japanese ammunition from our forces, any single round of which might have ended the fighting career of many American boys or perhaps even one of our “21-hundreds.” The guardian angel was with us that night. There may be no atheists in foxholes on a hostile island, but remember on a thin-skinned destroyer charging an enemy battle line, there are no foxholes!
Later on in the day Lieutenant Shellsbarger and I were discussing the attack with the Commodore on the bridge. The waters of Leyte Gulf were peaceful by that time and the troops ashore could push ahead with no fear of enemy attack from the sea.
“In a torpedo attack like ours,” the Commodore told us, “it has been the practice for umpires at the Naval War College to scratch off the leading destroyer at the end of two minutes. And the other ships were supposed to be damaged or possibly sunk.”
That was a distinct shock to me. “If more of us had known we were going into such grave danger, maybe we would have had enough sense to be scared,” I ventured.
“Well,” he spoke softly, and with a chuckle, “I wasn’t nervous myself. I just put the wrong end of my cigarette in my mouth.”
During the battle, Raymond Hoffman, who was stationed atop the bridge, made history on the “Mighty N” with one word. He was connected by telephone with Lieutenant, junior grade, Jack Conley, who was in the plotting room with the Commodore and Lieutenant Allen Harris, Hr., the staff operations officer. When the shells began whining overhead, Hoffman’s eyes opened wide. The Japs started answering our fire: Hoffman gulped once or twice and sputtered, “Wow!!”
More salvos rocketed by, more splashes appeared to the right and left of the “Mighty N” and still all Hoffman would utter was an excited “Wow!!”
“What’s going on up there?” questioned Lieutenant Conley.
Conley muttered to himself, “That’s one helluva way to describe a battle.”
But that one word was enough for Jimmy Blackadder, who was also on the same telephone circuit. He grew pale and refused to utter a sound. Ensign Dick Plante grabbed Blackadder’s phones and listened in. Above the thunderous roar of the duel all he hear was “Wow!!”
Despite the fury of the engagement, not a man on the “Mighty N” was injured, not an inch of paint-work was scratched. None of the ships in the entire task force was sunk. The battle was the greatest of the war for naval surface forces. The opening scene of the last act in the Pacific theater at Surigao may well be remembered as the greatest battle since Jutland.