If the fleet that had assembled for the Saipan invasion was large, that assembled for the Philippine operation was huge. Quoting numbers from Morison, over 700 ships were in the Central Philippine Attack Force, fewer than those that took part in the invasion of Normandy in June, but mounting a heavier striking power, and having to cover far greater distances. Adding the 100+ ships of the attack force of the 3rd fleet, makes it the most powerful Naval force ever assembled! We were part of it, and, although we were a very small ship, we played a significant role.
We arrived October 17, and carried out shore bombardment until D-Day on the 20th. The bombardment by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and carrier based planes, plus the underwater demolition work and mine sweeping, were so effective, that the landings were very easy. We would carry out bombardment during the day, and then retire to the open ocean for the night.
On D-Day, when our large armada was to enter the Gulf, the Newcomb had the honor (?) of leading the way—even ahead of the mine-sweeps. We remained in the Philippines, with the exception of a week back at Manus Island, for 3+ months. Most of our time was spent in providing fire support and air protection for the large fleet in Leyte Gulf. We also made supply runs to Mindoro Island, and to Ormoc Bay (both potentially “hairy” operations).
It was here, in the Philippines, that we began to feel the strength of the Japanese Kamikaze (suicide plane) attacks. Numerous ships were hit, and I watched some sink. Air attacks became more and more frequent, often 6 or more in a day. We were at GQ so much that we became extremely tired; and our morale started to deteriorate. Until then, we each knew that we would survive and get to go home again—now we began to wonder. I will relate a couple incidents from this period:
Books have been written about this classic sea action so I will not give much detail. Two of the attack fleets came up from the south through Surigao Strait, the southern entrance to Leyte Gulf. These two fleets had suffered major damage from our carrier based planes, but the remainder of the fleets attempted to pass through the narrow strait on the night of October 25. But we were waiting for them; “we” consisted of:
As they entered the Strait, the Japanese were met by our PT Boats (which had little effect) and destroyers which did take a toll. In the Gulf proper, our battleships and cruisers were arranged in a battle line across the northern end of the Gulf, in this way they could bring all their guns to bear as the enemy steamed up the Strait. This was the classic Naval strategy of “crossing the tee”—a most advantageous position in which the Japanese could only fire their forward guns while our ships, being broadside to the Japanese, could fire all of their guns. The battleships opened fire at a range of about 13 miles.
Meanwhile, our destroyer squadron (DesRon 56), divided into 3 groups was down near the strait—waiting to make a torpedo attack. The moon had set at midnight, so it was pitch black—but we did have our radar. At 0400 we received the order “Go get the big boys” (which I duly recorded in the log). For our squadron’s torpedo attack, the Newcomb was the lead ship (followed by the Leary and the Grant) heading down center of the Gulf at 25 knots. As we were closing the enemy, (at perhaps 2–3 miles), we were taken under fire by the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. At about the same time, our own battleships and cruisers opened fire on the Japanese. We could actually see the glow from the heavy shells as they left the guns and arched overhead toward the Japanese. Unfortunately, our heavy ships confused us with the enemy and took us under fire also! Both Japanese and American shells were falling all around us, with the attendant huge geysers of water.
The Japanese apparently did not have “flashless powder” for their big guns, so the muzzle flashes were very bright. We could see, or thought that we could see, the enemy ships. Each of our squadron’s destroyers fired a spread of 5 torpedoes in succession, ours at 0404. Explosions recorded on our sound gear (at precisely the correct instant) confirmed that 3 of the Newcomb’s torpedoes hit the battleship Yamashiro; all the torpedoes from the other ships missed (due mostly to poor luck under those conditions). The Yamashiro sank less than 10 minutes later.
Also due to the tricks of fate, only one of our destroyers was hit; by rights we should all have been sunk. The U.S.S. Grant, third ship in our line of three, and only a few hundred yards behind the Newcomb, was hit by both Japanese battleship fire and American cruiser fire (43 killed, 95 wounded!). The Newcomb was retiring at nearly 40 knots, as fast as our “black-gang” could make her go, zig-zagging to confuse those shooting at us. Then we learned of the Grant’s situation. We turned around and went back to the Grant, lashed ourselves alongside, and slowly towed her clear of the area. By this time the Yamashiro had sunk and our cruisers had stopped firing at us. Most of the Grant’s medical personnel had been killed, so Newcomb personnel took over. Medical officers from the destroyers Leary, Remey and McGowan also came aboard to help. We learned what gruesome havoc an 8-inch shell can wreak on a thin skinned destroyer.
To complete this little tale, Halsey (with our fastest and most powerful fleet), had left the northeast approach to Leyte Gulf unprotected, and the third of the Japanese fleets came down from the north, through San Bernardino Straits, unimpeded, and headed for Leyte Gulf. Instead of encountering Halsey’s huge, powerful Third Fleet, (which should have been there, and everyone thought was there) they encountered a group of small escort carriers with their screen of destroyers and destroyer escorts. These “small boys” put up a fantastic, suicidal daylight torpedo attack on the Japanese fleet. The Japanese in charge, Admiral Kurita, was so surprised by the ferocity of the attack that he thought he must have come upon Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet. And so he turned tail!
With no thanks to Halsey, but with many thanks to Kurita, the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf was saved again!
During the ensuing two months we were engaged in many types of activities including bringing supplies to Mindoro Island and to Ormoc Bay on the west coast of Luzon (under very “adverse” conditions). During this period air attacks became more frequent and more oriented towards Kamikaze attacks. We spent Christmas and New Years in Leyte Gulf.
It became impossible to move about topsides—you would be swept overboard. So those of us on watch who lived aft simply stayed on watch; as did those in the engine spaces. The visibility on the bridge became literally zero—we couldn’t see more that 15 feet. So no-one stayed out on the bridge wings or the flying bridge. And we rolled!
A destroyer rolls a lot under most any sea, and we had rolled 35 degrees before in storms. But this was different. The wind was from the port side, and we would roll to starboard until we had to brace our feet on the bulkheads (walls) and hang on for dear life. The ship would roll way over and not start to roll back again right away, but would hang there for many seconds, (it seemed like forever) and then we would roll back towards the vertical, but never quite make it; then we would start rolling to starboard again. We had an inclinometer in the pilot house, and it reached 63 degrees! We were lucky that we didn’t take much water down our stacks—that could have been the end for us.
In our task group were 4 of the old WWI destroyers that had been converted to High Speed Transports for the underwater demolition folks. They each carried 4 LCVPs (landing craft) aft in davits. As they rolled further and further, the LCVPs finally filled with water and were torn away. I think they lost them all.
We didn’t suffer much damage except to our 20mm gun shields which were bent double. Frankly, after the fact, I was delighted to have experienced the power of the sea and to see that our little ship could handle it—even though we did act more like a blind submarine!
In that same typhoon, a different task group was not so lucky. Their destroyers were very low on fuel and had been ordered to pump their ballast in preparation for fueling at sea. When the typhoon caught them, they were unable (for some reason not known to me) to re-ballast. As a result, two destroyers capsized with the loss of all hands.