Operation Battle off Samar

The 'Battle off Samar' was the central element of the 'Battle of Leyte Gulf', the largest naval battle in history, which was fought between US and Japanese naval forces in the Philippine Sea off Samar island in the Philippine islands group (25 October 1944).

This was the only major action in the larger battle in which the US forces were generally unprepared. The 'Battle off Samar' has been cited by historians as one of the greatest last stands in naval history, and ultimately the US forces prevailed over a massive armada, the Imperial Japanese navy’s 5th Fleet, 1st Strike Force, Main Body under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, despite their very heavy casualties and odds that were overwhelmingly in favour of the Japanese.

Kurita’s Force 'A' and Force 'B' (1st Strike Force, Northern Force) comprised the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi and the battleship Nagato of Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki’s Battleship Division 1, the battleships Kongo and Haruna of Vice Admiral Yoshio Suzuki’s Battleship Division 3, the heavy cruisers Atago, Takao, Chokai and Maya of Kurita’s Cruiser Division 4, the heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro of Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto’s Cruiser Division 5, the heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma and Tone of Vice Admiral Kazutaka Shiraishi’s Cruiser Division 7, the light cruiser Noshiro and the fleet destroyers Shimakaze, Hayashimo, Akishimo, Kishinami, Okinami, Naganami, Asashimo, Hamanami and Fujinami of Rear Admiral Mikio Hayakawa’s Destroyer Squadron 2, and the light cruiser Yahagi and the fleet destroyers Nowaki, Kiyoshimo, Urakaze, Yukikaze, Hamakaze and Isokaze of Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 10.

Nishimura’s Force 'C' (1st Strike Force, Southern Force) was also powerful, comprising the battleships Yamashiro and Fuso and the heavy cruiser Mogami of Nishimura’s Battleship Division 2 and the fleet destroyers Michishio, Asagumo, Yamagumo and Shigure of Destroyer Division 4, supplemented by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima’s Northern Force of Mikawa’s South-West Area Force, namely the heavy cruisers Nachi and Ashigara of Shima’s Cruiser Division 21, and the light cruiser Abukuma and the fleet destroyers Akebono, Ushio, Kasumi, Shiranuhi, Wakaba, Hatsushimo and Hatsuhara of Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 1.

The South-West Area Force also contributed Vice Admiral Naomasa Sakonju’s Transport Force with the heavy cruiser Aoba, the light cruiser Kinu, the destroyer Uranami, the fast attack transport T-6, and the landing ships T-101, T-102 and T-131.

And to complete the Japanese offensive disposition there was Ozawa’s Mobile Force, Main Body, Northern Force of Toyoda’s Combined Fleet, comprising the fleet carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Zuiho, Chitose and Chiyoda of Ozawa’s Carrier Division 3, the hybrid battleship/carriers Ise and Hyuga of Rear Admiral Chiaki Matsuda’s Carrier Division 4, the destroyers Hatsutsuki, Akitsuki, Wakatsuki and Shimotsuki, the light cruiser Isuzu and the destroyers Maki, Kiri, Kuwa and Sugi of Rear Admiral Heitaro Edo’s Escort Squadron 31, Oyoda, Tama and Isuzu, and the light cruisers Oyodo and Tama. The aircraft strength of the Mobile Force was only 116 machines (80 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighters, 25 Nakajima B6N 'Jill' single-engined level and torpedo bombers, four Nakajima B5N 'Kate' single-engined level and torpedo bombers, and seven Yokosuka D4Y 'Judy' single-engined dive-bombers) on the four carriers, while the hybrid battleship/carriers had no aircraft.

Admiral William F. Halsey was lured into taking his powerful 3rd Fleet after a decoy fleet of what was left of the Imperial Japanese navy’s carrier force, the Mobile Force, Strike Force including Zuikaku, the last surviving member of the of the six carriers that had undertaken the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, taking with him every ship in the area which he had the power to command. The remaining US forces in the area were three escort carrier groups of the 7th Fleet. The escort carriers and destroyer escorts which had been built to protect slow convoys from submarine attack, had been since been developed for attacks on ground targets and had few torpedoes as they normally relied on Halsey’s fleet to protect them from armoured warships.

A Japanese surface force of battleships and heavy cruisers led by the super-battleship Yamato, one of the two largest and most heavily-gunned ships afloat, had been battered earlier in the larger battle and was thought to have retreating. Instead, it had turned round and encountered the northernmost of the three groups, Task Unit 77.4.3 ('Taffy 3'), commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. Taffy 3’s three destroyers and four destroyer escorts possessed neither the firepower nor the armour to oppose the 23 ships of the Japanese force capped by Yamato's nine 460-mm (18.11-in) guns, but nonetheless attacked with their 5-in (127 mm) guns and torpedoes to cover the retreat of their charges, the slow 'jeep' carriers. Aircraft from the carriers of Taffies 1, 2 and 3, including General Motors FM-2 Wildcat single-engined fighters, Grumman F6F Hellcat single-engined fighter-bombers and Grumman TBM Avenger single-engined bombers, strafed, bombed, torpedoed, rocketed, depth-charged and, when they had exhausted their ammunition, made numerous 'dry' runs at the Japanese force as distractions.

The US force lost two escort carriers, two destroyers, one destroyer escort and several aircraft, and more than 1,000 US sailors died, a figure comparable to the combined losses of US men and ships at the 'Battle of the Coral Sea' and the 'Battle of Midway'. In exchange, the US force sank three Japanese heavy cruisers, disabled another three and caused enough confusion to persuade Kurita to regroup and ultimately to withdraw rather than advance to sink troop and supply ships in Leyte Gulf. Half of all Americans killed at Leyte Gulf were lost in this battle.

Although the super-battleship Yamato and the remainder of the force returned to Japan, the battles marked the final defeat of the Imperial Japanese navy, as the returning ships remained in port for most of the rest of the war and ceased to be effective as a significant naval force.

The Japanese overall strategy in the 'Battle of Leyte Gulf', a plan known to the Japanese as 'Sho 1', called for Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Mobile Force, Strike Force to decoy the US 3rd Fleet away from the Allied 'King II' landings on Leyte island, using the apparently vulnerable lure of the Japanese carriers as bait. The landing forces, stripped of air cover by the 3rd Fleet’s movement away from the Philippine islands group, would then be attacked from the west and south by Kurita’s Northern Force, which was to sortie from Brunei in northern Borneo, and Nishimura’s Southern Force. Kurita’s Northern Force comprised five battleships, including Yamato and her sister ship Musashi, escorted by cruisers and destroyers. Nishimura’s Southern Force comprised two battleships and would be followed by Shima with two heavy and one light cruisers.

On the night of October 23, the US submarines Dace and Darter detected the Northern Force as its ships entered the Palawan Passage. After alerting Halsey, the submarines torpedoed and sank two cruisers, and crippled a third which was thus forced to withdraw. One of the cruisers lost was Kurita’s flagship, but the admiral was recovered and transferred his flag to Yamato.

Subsequently, the carriers of the 3rd Fleet launched a series of air attacks on Kurita’s forces in the Sibuyan Sea, damaging several vessels and sinking Musashi, initially forcing Kurita to retreat. One wave of the 3rd Fleet’s aircraft also struck Nishimura’s Southern Force, inflicting minor damage. At the same time, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi’s land-based 1st Air Fleet launched strikes from airfields on the island of Luzon against Halsey’s forces, with one bomber scoring a hit on the US light carrier Princeton that ignited explosions and caused her to be scuttled.

On the same night, Nishimura’s Southern Force of two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers was to approach from the south and co-ordinate with Kurita’s Northern Force. The second element of the Southern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and comprising three cruisers and seven destroyers, lagged behind Nishimura by 46 miles (74 km). In the 'Battle of Surigao Strait', Nishimura’s ships entered a deadly trap. Outmatched by the 7th Fleet Support Force (Battle Line), they were devastated as they ran a gauntlet of torpedoes from 28 PT-boats and 28 destroyers before coming under the accurate radar-directed gun fire of six battleships (five of them survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack) and eight cruisers. After this, as Shima’s force encountered what was left of Nishimura’s ships, it too came under attack, but managed to withdraw. Of Nishimura’s force, only one destroyer survived.

At the 'Battle of the Sibuyan Sea', Halsey’s 3rd Fleet savaged the Northern Force, which had been detected on its way to landing forces from the north. The Northern Force lacked any air cover with which to defend itself against the 259 sorties flown from the fleet carriers Intrepid, Essex, Lexington, Enterprise and Franklin, and the light carrier Cabot, the combination of which sank the super-battleship Musashi with 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes. It had seemingly been beaten into a retreat, but even that overwhelming force failed to stop Kurita, as most of the attacks were directed at sinking just one battleship. Beside a cruiser crippled by a torpedo, every other ship, including Yamato, remained battle-worthy.

Halsey’s 3rd Fleet would miss the battle and head off to the 'Battle off Cape Engaño', in which Ozawa’s Mobile Force, Strike Force comprised one fleet carrier and three light carriers fielding a total of 116 aircraft, which was only slightly more than the normal complement of a single large carrier), two battleships, three light cruisers and nine destroyers. Halsey was convinced that the Mobile Force, Strike Force was the main Japanese threat, just as the Japanese had planned in creating their sacrificial diversion. Halsey took three groups of Task Force 38, overwhelmingly stronger than Ozawa’s force, with five aircraft carriers and five light fleet carriers carrying more than 600 aircraft, six fast battleships, eight cruisers, and more than 40 destroyers. Halsey easily despatched what was later revealed to be a merely decoy of no serious threat.

As a result of Halsey’s decision, the door was left open for Kurita. When Kurita initially withdrew, the US forces came to the assumption that the Japanese force was retreating from the battle. Kurita eventually turned back and made his way through the San Bernardino Strait under cover of darkness, intent on destroying the US landing forces. Only the light Taffy forces attached to support the landing forces of the 7th Fleet stood in his way. They were equipped to attack ground troops and submarines under the protection of Halsey’s fleet carriers, not stand against Kurita’s battleships and cruisers, which had already escaped from the combined attacks of six fleet and light carriers. It would be up to the Taffies to improvise a last-ditch defence as they were thrust by Halsey’s mistake into the role of a sacrificial diversion to protect the US landing forces.

The Japanese Northern Force now comprised the super-battleship Yamato, the battleships Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, the heavy cruisers Chokai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma and Tone, the light cruisers Yahagi and Noshiro, and 11 'Kagero', 'Yugumo' and 'Shimakaze' class destroyers. While the force had no aircraft carriers, Japanese warships carried small numbers of catapult-launched floatplanes which could be launched, but not land aboard: Yamato for example, carried seven such aircraft. In this battle Japanese aircraft were used for kamikaze suicide attacks. The battleships and cruisers were fully armoured against the 5-in (127-mm) shells fired by Taffy 3’s largest-calibre guns. The Japanese ships had dozens of larger-calibre guns, including the Yamato's nine 460-mm (18.11-in) guns, which could range out to 43,750 yards (40000 m). Surface gunnery was controlled by optical sighting which fed computer-assisted fire-control systems, though these were less sophisticated than the radar-controlled systems on the US destroyers.

In addition to guns, many of the Japanese ships carried Type 93 'Long Lance' 610-mm (24-in) heavyweight torpedoes. Unknown to the Allies, these torpedoes were the most advanced in the world: they possessed at least twice the range of Allied torpedoes, and did not produce a visible wake of bubbles. The Imperial Japanese navy considered them to be a potentially decisive weapon. The torpedoes used liquid oxygen instead of compressed air in their propulsion system. However, the Type 93 was far more likely to detonate as a result of shock, as from a near miss, than a compressed-air torpedo, sinking or heavily damaging the ship carrying it.

Each of the three task units of the 7th Fleet’s Task Group 77.4 had six small 'Casablanca' class or larger 'Sangamon' class escort carriers defended by destroyers and destroyer escorts. The destroyers had five 5-in (127-mm) guns while the destroyer escorts had two such weapons, and the carriers each carried only one 5-in (127-mm) gun at the stern. Most of the pilots and sailors were reservists with scant combat experience, and because of their primary tasking against ground troops and submarines, the carriers had available only a few armour-piercing bombs or torpedoes against the unlikely possibility that they might encounter attack by other ships.

Lacking any ships with any larger-calibre guns that could reach beyond 17,600 yards (16100 m), Taffy 3 appeared hopelessly mismatched against Japanese gunnery, which emphasised engagement at long range with large-calibre guns. The battle revealed that the Imperial Japanese navy’s part-automated fire-control arrangements were largely ineffective against manoeuvring ships at long range, although some ships such as Kongo hit their targets when they closed the range. Although the Japanese warships opened fire with their heavier armament at maximum range and scored some hits, and misses near enough for the explosions to cause significant damage, their fire was not effective until they had closed within range of the carriers' and escorts' own 5-in (127-mm) armament. By contrast, the US destroyers (but not the destroyer escorts) had the Mk 37 gun fire-control system that aimed automatic, accurate fire against multiple surface and air targets while they manoeuvred at speed. The lack of a comparable system in Japanese ships also contributed to reports from US pilots on the ineffectiveness of the Japanese anti-aircraft fire.

Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague’s Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy 1) comprised Carrier Division 22 with the escort carriers Sangamon, Suwannee, Santee and Petrof Bay. (The other two escort carriers of Taffy 1, Chenango and Saginaw Bay of Rear Admiral George R. Henderson’s Carrier Division 28, had departed for Morotai island in the Dutch East Indies on October 24, carrying aircraft of other carriers for repair, and returned with replacement aircraft only after the battle.)

In Rear Admiral Felix B. Stump’s Task Unit 77.4.2 (Taffy 2), Carrier Division 24 comprised Natoma Bay and Manila Bay, and Rear Admiral William D. Sample’s Carrier Division 27 comprised Marcus Island, Kadashan Bay, Savo Island and Ommaney Bay.

Clifton Sprague’s Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy 3) comprised Carrier Division 25 with Fanshaw Bay, St Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, and Rear Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie’s Carrier Division 26 had Kitkun Bay and Gambier Bay. Screening for Taffy 3 were the destroyers Hoel, Heermann and Johnston, and destroyer escorts Dennis, John C. Butler, Raymond, and Samuel B. Roberts.

Each of the escort carriers was small and carried an average of 28 aircraft, but had no dive-bombers and only obsolescent FM-2 Wildcat fighters. That gave the 16 escort carriers of the three Taffies a combined total of some 450 aircraft, equivalent to the aircraft complement of five large fleet carriers. While their maximum speed of 17.5 kt was adequate for the escort of slow cargo convoys or the provision of support to ground forces, it was too slow for either the engagement or evasion of a fast task force. Since the aircraft carried by the Taffies' carriers were intended for ground attack, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare, Taffy 3’s first flights were armed only with machine guns, depth charges, and high explosive and anti-personnel bombs that were effective against ground troops, aircraft, submarines and destroyers, but not against armoured ships such as battleships and cruisers. In later sorties from the carriers of Taffy 2, there had been time to rearm the aircraft with torpedoes and armour-piercing bombs that could be expected to be more effective against warships.

Kurita’s force passed through San Bernardino Strait at 03.00 on 25 October and steamed to the south along the coast of Samar island in the hope that Halsey had taken the bait represented by Ozawa’s force and moved most of his fleet away, as he had in fact done. Kurita had been advised that Nishimura’s Southern Force had been destroyed in the 'Battle of Surigao Strait' and would therefore not be joining his force at Leyte Gulf. However, Kurita did not receive the transmission from the Northern Force that it had successfully lured away Halsey’s 3rd Fleet of battleships and fleet carriers. Through most of the battle, Kurita would be haunted by doubts about Halsey’s actual location.

The wind was from the north-north-east and the visibility was about 23 miles (37 km) with a low overcast and occasional heavy rain squalls which the US forces would exploit for concealment in the battle to come.

Steaming about 69 miles (110 km) to the east of Samar before dawn on October 25, St Lo launched four aircraft on an anti-submarine patrol while Taffy 3’s other carriers prepared for the day’s air attacks against the Japanese ground forces opposite the US landing beaches. At 06.37, Ensign William C. Brooks, flying a TBF Avenger from St Lo, sighted a number of ships expected to be from Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, but appearing to be Japanese. When he was notified, Sprague was incredulous, and he demanded positive identification. Flying in for an even closer look, Brooks reported that 'I can see pagoda masts. I see the biggest meatball flag on the biggest battleship I ever saw!' (Yamato alone displaced as much as all units of Taffy 3’s ships.) Brooks had spotted the largest of the three attacking Japanese forces, comprising four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and about 20 destroyers. These were approaching from the west-north-west and were only 20 miles (32 km) distant, and thus were already well within gun and visual range of Taffy 3, the closest US task group. Armed only with depth charges in case of an encounter with Japanese submarines, the US pilots nevertheless carried out the first attack of the battle, dropping several depth charges which just bounced off the bow of a cruiser.

Taffy 3’s look-outs spotted the anti-aircraft fire to the north, and then the Japanese came upon Taffy 3 at 06.45, achieving complete tactical surprise. At about the same time, others in Taffy 3 had picked up targets from surface radar and Japanese radio traffic. At about 07.00, Yamato opened fire at a range of 33,900 yards (31000 m). Lacking the US ships' gunnery radars and Ford Mk 1 Fire-Control Computer, which provided co-ordinated automatic firing solutions as long as the gun director was pointed at the target, Japanese fire control relied on a mechanical calculator for ballistics and another for own and target course and speed, fed by optical rangefinders. Colour-coded dye loads were used in the battleships' armour-piercing shells so that the spotters of each ship could identify their own ship’s fall of shot, a common practice for the capital ships of many navies. The Americans, unfamiliar with battleship combat, were soon astonished by the spectacle of colourful geysers as the first shell salvoes found their range. Nagato used a brilliant pink, Haruna a greenish-yellow variously described as green or yellow by the Americans; and Kongo blood red which could appear red, purple or even blue. Yamato used no dye loads, so her shell splashes appeared white.

Not finding the silhouettes of the tiny escort carriers in his identification manuals, Kurita mistook them for large fleet carriers and assumed that he had a task group of the 3rd Fleet under his guns. His first priority was to eliminate the carrier threat, ordering a 'General Attack': rather than a carefully orchestrated effort, each division in his task force was to attack separately. The Japanese had just changed to a circular anti-aircraft formation, and the order caused some confusion, allowing Sprague to lead the Japanese into a stern chase, which restricted the Japanese to using only their forward guns, and restricted their anti-aircraft gunnery. Sprague’s ships would not lose as much of their firepower in a stern chase, as their stern-chase weapons were more numerous than their forward guns, and his carriers would still be able to operate aircraft.

At 06.50 Sprague ordered a formation course change to 090°, directed his carriers to turn to launch their aircraft and then withdraw eastward in the direction of a squall, hoping that bad visibility would reduce the accuracy of the Japanese gunnery. He ordered his escorts to the rear of the formation to generate smoke and thus mask the retreating carriers and ordered the carriers to take evasive action, 'chasing salvoes' to throw off the Japanese aim, and then launched all available FM-2 fighters and TBM torpedo bombers with whatever armament they were already carrying. Some of the aircraft had rockets, machine guns, depth charges, or nothing at all, and only a very few carried anti-ship bombs or air-launched torpedoes which would have enabled them to tackle heavy armoured warships with any chance of success. The FM-2 fighters were deemed a better fit on such small aircraft carriers instead of the faster and heavier Grumman F6F Hellcat single-engined fighter-bombers carried by the larger carriers. The FM-2 pilots were ordered 'to attack the Japanese task force and proceed to Tacloban airstrip, Leyte, to rearm and refuel'. After expending all of their ammunition and ordnance, many of the US aircraft continued to make 'dry runs' in order to distract the Japanese. At about 07.20 the US formation entered the squall, and the Japanese fire slackened markedly as they did not possess the gunnery radar that could have penetrated the rain and smoke.

Meanwhile, Kurita was already experiencing the consequences of ordering a General Attack, as his 5th Cruiser Division and 10th Destroyer Division cut across the course of the 3rd Battleship Division in their haste to close the US carriers, forcing the battleship Kongo to turn to the north out of formation; Kongo acted independently for the remainder of the battle. Concerned that his destroyers would burn too much fuel in a stern chase of what he presumed were fast carriers, while at the same time obstructing his battleships' line of fire, at 07.10 Kurita ordered his destroyers to the rear of his formation, a decision which had immediate consequences as the 10th Destroyer Squadron was forced to turn away just as it were gaining on the right flank of the US formation. For the 2nd Destroyer Squadron, the consequences were more significant if less immediate: ordered to fall in behind the 3rd Battleship Division, the light cruiser Yahagi and her destroyers, they steamed to the north from their position on the southern side of Kurita’s formation seeking Kongo, the divisional flagship, leaving no Japanese units in position to intercept the US carriers when they turned back to the south at 07.30. Despite his General Attack order, Kurita continued to dictate fleet course changes throughout the battle.

Three destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts had been tasked to protect the escort carriers from aircraft and submarines. The three 'Fletcher' class destroyers were fast enough to keep up with a fast carrier task force. Each had five single 5-in (127-mm) guns and several light anti-aircraft guns, none of which were effective against armoured warships. Only their 10 21-in (533-mm) Mk 15 torpedoes, accommodated in two trainable quintuple launchers amidships, posed a serious threat to battleships and cruisers. An advantage that the US destroyers possessed was the radar-controlled Mk 37 Gun-Fire Control System, which as noted above provided co-ordinated automatic firing of their 5-in (127-mm) guns as long as the gun director was pointing at the target. A dual-purpose system, the Mk 37’s gunfire radar and anti-aircraft capabilities allowed the destroyers' guns to remain on target despite poor visibility and their own radical evasive manoeuvring. The Japanese reliance on optical range finders aided by colour-coded dye loads in each shell and mechanical calculators made it difficult for them to identify their targets through the rain and smoke and limited their ability to manoeuvre while firing.

The four 'John C. Butler' class destroyer escorts were smaller and slower than the fleet destroyers as they had been created for the protection of slow freighter convoys against submarines. They were armed with two 5-in (127-mm) guns without automatic fire control, and three torpedoes, though their crews rarely trained for torpedo attacks. Since the torpedoes had a range of only some 11,000 yards (10080 m), they were best used at night: during daylight, an attack on heavy warships would have to pass through a gauntlet of shellfire that could reach out to 50,300 yards (46000 m). In this battle they would be launched against a fleet led by the largest battleship in history, though it was the ships' ability to generate dense, heavy smoke from their funnels and chemical smoke generators which would most influence the course of the battle.

After laying smoke to hide the carriers from the Japanese gunners, the US destroyers were soon making desperate torpedo runs, using their smoke for concealment. The profiles and aggression of the ships caused the Japanese to think the destroyers were cruisers, and that the destroyer escorts were fleet destroyers. The US warships' lack of armour allowed armour-piercing rounds to pass right through without detonating, until the Japanese gunners switched to high explosive shells, which caused considerably greater damage. Their speed and agility enabled some ships to dodge shellfire completely before launching torpedoes. Effective damage control and redundancy in propulsion and power systems kept them running and fighting even after they had absorbed dozens of hits before they sank, although by that time their decks were strewn with the dead and the seriously wounded. Destroyers from Taffy 2 to the south also found themselves under Japanese fire, but as they were spotted by Gambier Bay, which had signalled for their assistance, they were ordered back to protect their own carriers.

At 07.00, Commander Ernest E. Evans of the destroyer Johnston responded to the Japanese fire bracketing carriers of the group he was escorting by laying down a protective smokescreen and zigzagging. About 10 minutes later, the gunnery officer began firing at the closest attackers, then 17,600 yards (16100 m) distant, and registered several hits on the leading heavy cruisers. The Japanese targeted Johnston and shell splashes were soon bracketing the destroyer. In response and without consulting with his commanders, Evans ordered Johnston to 'flank speed, full left rudder' and the destroyer, still making smoke and zigzagging, accelerated at maximum speed toward the Japanese.

At 07.15, the destroyer’s gunnery officer concentrated his fire on the leading cruiser squadron’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano. Firing the destroyer’s 5-in (127-mm) guns at their maximum range of 21,000 yards (19200 m), Johnston scored several hits on Kumano's superstructure, which erupted into flame and smoke.

At 07.16, Sprague ordered Commander William Dow Thomas aboard Hoel, in charge of the small destroyer screen, to attack. Struggling to form an attack formation, the three small ships (Hoel, Heermann and Samuel B. Roberts) began a long maximum-speed run to get into firing position for their torpedoes.

Johnston pressed her attack, firing more than 200 shells as she followed an evasive course through moderate swells, making her a difficult target. Johnston closed to within maximum torpedo range, and at 9,000 yards (8230 m) fired a full salvo of 10 torpedoes. At 07.24, two or three struck, blowing the bow off Kumano. Minutes later, at 07.33, four torpedoes, from Johnston or Hoel, narrowly missed Kongo. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, suffering damage from air attacks, was also taken out of the fight as she stopped to aid Kumano. The effect of Johnston's attack was to generate confusion in the minds of the Japanese commanders, who thought they were being engaged by US cruisers. Evans then reversed course and, under cover of his smokescreen, opened the range between his ship and the Japanese.

At 07.30, three battleship main battery shells passed through Johnston's deck and plunged into her port engine room, which cut the destroyer’s speed to 17 kt and disrupted electric power to her after gun mounts. Based on the bearing and the angle of fall, the shells had probably been fired by Yamato at a range of 20,280 yards (18545 m) as, moments later, three 155-mm (6.1-in) shells from Yamato's secondary battery struck Johnston's bridge, causing numerous casualties and severing the fingers of Evans’s left hand. The US ship was severely damaged, with dead and dying sailors littering across her bloody decks. Yamato reported sinking a 'cruiser' (the Japanese consistently overestimated the size of the US ships) with a main battery salvo at 07.27. The destroyer Kishinami, which was also firing at Johnston at the time, reported that 'Yamato sank one enemy cruiser' at 07.28.

Johnston was not sunk, however. Already depleted before the battle, her remaining fuel oil did not feed a catastrophic explosion and the ship found sanctuary in rain squalls, where her crew had time to repair some of her damage, restoring power to two of the three after gun mounts. Johnston's search radar had been destroyed, toppled to the deck in a tangled mess. Also damaged, the fire-control radar was quickly returned to service. Only a few minutes were required to bring Johnston's main battery and radar back intro service, and from her position in the rain, at about 07.35 Johnston fired several dozen rounds at the leading Japanese destroyer, 9,550 yards (9100 m) distant. [e[Johnston then shifted her fire to the cruisers approaching from the east, directing several dozen more rounds at the closest ship, 10,935 yards (10000 m) away. Neither target could be observed visually, and thus were not positively identified, and Johnston's presumed 'cruiser' was almost certainly the battleship Haruna.

At 07.37, Commodore Thomas ordered a torpedo attack via voice radio. Johnston and Heermann acknowledged. As Johnston continued on her away from the Japanese, she came upon the charging screen force, led by the damaged Hoel. Evans had Johnston rejoin the attack, to provide gun support to Thomas’s small squadron on its torpedo run. Attacking Tone, the leading heavy cruiser to the east of the formation, Johnston closed to 6,000 yards (5485 m), now firing with reduced efficiency as her SC radar had been lost yet nonetheless registering many hits.

During the battle, Evans engaged in several duels with much larger Japanese opponents. At 08.20, emerging through smoke and rain squalls, Johnston was confronted by a 36,600-ton Kongo class battleship, probably Haruna, which reported engaging a US destroyer with her secondary battery around this time. Johnston fired at least 40 rounds, and observed more than 15 hits on the battleship’s superstructure. Johnston then reversed course and disappeared in the smoke, avoiding the return foire of Haruna's 14-in (355.6-mm) main armament, At 08.26 and again at 08.34, Thomas requested an attack on the heavy cruisers to the east of the carriers. Responding at 08.30, Johnston bore down on a heavy cruiser firing at the helpless Gambier Bay, then closed to 6,000 yards (5465 m) and fired for 10 minutes at a heavier and better-armed opponent, possibly Haguro, scoring many hits.

At 08.40, a more pressing target appeared astern: seven Japanese destroyers in two columns, closing to attack the carriers. Reversing course to intercept, Evans attempted to pass in front of the formation, crossing their 'T' to reduce the number of guns they could bring to bear. Evans ordered Johnston's guns to engage the Japanese destroyers, which returned fire and struck Johnston several times. Perhaps seeing his disadvantage, the commander of the leading destroyer turned away to the west. From as close as 7,000 yards (6400 m), Johnston's gunnery officer fired and scored a dozen hits on the destroyer leader before she veered away, and then shifted fire to the next destroyer in line, scoring five hits before she too turned away. Amazingly, the entire squadron turned to the west to avoid Johnston's fire. These Japanese destroyers finally managed to fire their torpedoes at 09.20 at a range of 10,500 yards (9600 m). Several torpedoes were detonated by strafing aircraft or defensive fire from the carriers, and the rest failed to find any target.

The Japanese and US ships were now intertwined in a confused fight. The heavy smoke had made the visibility so poor by 08.40 that Johnston nearly collided with Heerman while she crossed the formation to engage the Japanese destroyers, forcing Samuel B. Roberts to evade them both. Gambier Bay and Hoel were sinking. Finding targets was not difficult. After 09.00, with Hoel and Samuel B. Roberts out of the fight, the crippled Johnston was an easy target, and she exchanged fire with four cruisers and numerous destroyers. Johnston continued to take hits, which knocked out the no. 1 gun mount, killing many men. By 09.20, forced from the bridge by exploding ammunition, Evans was commanding his ship from the stern by shouting orders down to men manually operating the rudder. Shellfire knocked out the remaining engine, leaving Johnston dead in the water at 09.40. Her attackers concentrated their fire on her rather than the fleeing carriers, and Johnston was hit so many times that one survivor recalled that 'they couldn’t patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat'.

At 09.45, Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship, and Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again.

Although destroyer escorts had been conceived as inexpensive small warships for the protection of slow cargo convoys against submarines, they retained a limited anti-ship capability with torpedoes and 5-in (127-mm) guns. Samuel B. Roberts distinguished herself in this battle as the 'destroyer escort that fought like a battleship' combating armoured cruisers designed to withstand 5-in (127-mm) gunfire. At about 07.40, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland manoeuvred his small ship to evade the charging Heermann. Watching that destroyer approach the Japanese, Copeland realised that his own ship’s location and heading put her in a textbook position to launch a torpedo attack at the leading heavy cruiser. Over his ship’s public-address system, he told his crew 'This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.' Against orders, he set course at full speed to follow Heermann's attack on the cruisers.

Under the cover of the smokescreen from the destroyers, Samuel B. Roberts escaped detection. Not wanting to draw attention to his small ship, Copeland repeatedly denied his gun captain permission to open fire with the 5-in (127-mm) guns: even though targets were clearly visible and within range, Copeland intended to launch torpedoes at a range of 5,000 yards (4570 m). A stray shell, probably intended for one of the nearby destroyers, hit Samuel B. Roberts's mast, which fell and jammed the torpedo mount at 08.00. Finally recovering, at 4,000 yards (3660 m) Samuel B. Roberts launched her torpedoes at Chokai without herself being engaged. Quickly reversing course, Samuel B. Roberts disappeared into the smoke. A look-out reported at least one torpedo hit, and the crippled Chokai began to lose speed and fall to the rear of the Japanese cruiser column at 08.23.

By 08.10, Samuel B. Roberts was approaching the US carrier formation. Through the smoke and rain, the heavy cruiser Chikuma appeared, firing broadsides at the carriers. Copeland changed course to attack and told his gun captain, 'Mr Burton, you may open fire.' Samuel B. Roberts and Chikuma began to exchange broadsides. Chikuma now divided her fire between the carriers and Samuel B. Roberts. Hampered by the closing range and slow rate of fire, Chikuma fired only with difficulty at her small, nimble opponent. (Early in the battle, when it had become apparent that Samuel B. Roberts would have to defend the escort carriers against a surface attack, her chief engineer, Lieutenant Trowbridge, had bypassed all the engine’s safety mechanisms, enabling the escort destroyer to reach as much as 28 kt.) Samuel B. Roberts did not share Chikuma's problem of a slow rate of fire, and for the next 35 minutes, from a range as short as 5,250 yards (4800 m), her guns fired almost her entire supply of 5-in (127-mm) ammunition, more than 600 rounds. In this seemingly unequal contest, Chikuma was raked along her entire length. Unknown to the crew of Samuel B. Roberts, however, shortly after she engaged Chikuma, Heermann also aimed her guns at the heavy cruiser, placing her in a crossfire. Chikuma's superstructure was ripped by salvoes of armour-piercing shells, high explosive shells, anti-aircraft shells, and even star shells that created chemical fires even in metal plates. Chikuma's bridge was devastated, fires could be seen along her superstructure, and her no. 3 gun turret was no longer in action.

Chikuma was not alone, however, and soon the Japanese fleet’s multi-hued salvoes were bracketing Samuel B. Roberts, indicating that she was under fire by Yamato, Nagato and Haruna. In a desperate bid to avoid approaching shells, Copeland ordered full astern, causing the salvoes to miss. Now, however, his small ship was an easy target, and at 08.51, cruiser shells found their mark, damaging one of the destroyer escort’s boilers. Reduced to 17 kt, Samuel B. Roberts began to suffer a succession of hits, and credit is given to Kongo for striking the final decisive blows at 09.00: these hits knocked out the US ship’s remaining engine and, dead in the water and sinking, Samuel B. Roberts's part in the battle was over.

The companion destroyer escorts Raymond, Dennis and John C. Butler also launched torpedoes. While they missed, this helped slow the Japanese chase. Dennis was struck by a pair of 8-in (203.2-mm) shells, and John C. Butler ceased fire after expending her ammunition an hour into the engagement.

The fleet destroyer Hoel, captained by Commander Leon S. Kintberger, was the flagship of Taffy 3’s small destroyer and destroyer escort screen. As splashes from Japanese shells began bracketing the ships of the task group, Hoel began to zigzag and lay smoke to help defend the now fleeing escort carriers. When the Japanese had closed to 17,500 yards (16000 m), Kintberger opened fire, and was in turn targeted by the Japanese. Yamato's 155-mm (6.1-in) secondary armament scored a hit on Hoel's bridge at a range of 14,215 yards (13000 m), knocking out all voice radio communication, killing four men and wounding Kintberger and the screen’s flag officer, Thomas.

Sprague then ordered Thomas to deliver a torpedo attack on the Japanese ships. From his position on the damaged Hoel, Thomas formed the three destroyers of his command as best he could and at 07.40 ordered 'Line up and let’s go.' Through rain showers and smoke, Hoel zigzagged toward the Japanese ships, followed by Heermann and Samuel B. Roberts. Lurking in the rain, Johnston was targeting unsuspecting Japanese cruisers with her radar.

Kintberger now had to select a target quickly as the range was closing rapidly. In the combat information centre, his executive officer suggested a course that would put Hoel in a position to attack the leading 'battleship', which was in fact either Kongo or possibly the heavy cruiser Haguro. Without hesitation, Kintberger ordered Hoel in to the attack. The course took the ship into the middle of the oncoming Northern Force.

Lieutenant Bill Sanders, the ship’s gunnery officer, directed Hoel's main battery of five 5-in (127-mm) guns in a rapid-fire barrage and scored several hits, drawing the attention of a major part of the Japanese force, and shells of all calibres were soon straddling the destroyer. At about 07.27, at a range of 9,000 yards (8230 m), Hoel fired a half salvo of torpedoes and reversed course. The salvo’s results were not observed, but several accounts aver that Haguro was forced to turn away sharply from the torpedo attack and dropped out of the lead to a position to the rear of Tone, an assertion that is contradicted by Haguro's action report, which records turning to engaging an 'enemy cruiser' at 10,275 yards (9400 m), but not a torpedo attack.

Only a very short time after Hoel had launched her first half salvo of torpedoes, a devastating series of hits by shells of several calibres struck Hoel in rapid succession, disabling all the destroyer’s main and secondary battery weapons abaft of the second stack, stopping her port engine and depriving her of the Mk 37 fire-control director, fire-direction radar, and bridge steering control. His ship slowing to 17 kt under hand steering, Kintberger realised that he would have to fire his remaining torpedoes quickly while he still possessed this facility. Heading to the south-west after his initial torpedo attack, Kintberger turned to the west and launched his second torpedo torpedo salvo at a 'heavy cruiser' (probably Yamato or Haruna), both sides having difficulty with target identification in the poor visibility) at about 07.50. This time, Hoel's crew was rewarded by what appeared to be the sight of large columns of water alongside their target. The torpedo hits could not be confirmed, however. The water spouts were probably near misses by bombs. Japanese action reports reveal that Hoel's target was probably Yamato, which turned hard to port to evade a torpedo salvo at 07.54 and was forced to run to the north until the torpedoes had run out of fuel: this took Kurita out of the battle and caused him to lose track of his forces.

Hoel was now crippled and surrounded, and her speed reduced to 17 kt. Within a few minutes, steerage had been restored from the after steering room, and Kintberger ordered a course to the south in the direction of Taffy 3. In the process of fishtailing and zigzagging, she peppered the closest Japanese ships with her two remaining guns. Finally, at about 08.30, after taking more than 40 hits from guns ranging in calibre between 5 and 16 in (127 and 406.4 mm), an 8-in (203.2-mm) shell disabled her remaining engine. With her engine room under water and no. 1 magazine ablaze, the ship began listing to port, settling by the stern. The order to abandon ship was given at 08.40, and many of her surviving crew swam away from the ship. A Japanese cruiser and several destroyers closed to within 1,970 yards (1800 m), giving the two forward gun crews, under gun captain Chester Fay, a large target at close range. For about 10 minutes this gun exchanged fire with the 'Tone' class cruiser. When the destroyers slowed and approached to about 1,000 yards (915 m), they too were engaged. The Japanese fire stopped only at 08.55 after Hoel had rolled over and sunk after enduring 90 minutes of punishment.

Hoel was the first of Taffy 3’s ships to be sunk, and suffered the heaviest proportional losses: only 86 of her complement survived, the other 253 officers and men dying with their ship.

Captained by Commander Amos T. Hathaway, Heermann was on the disengaged side of the carriers at the start of the fight when at 07.37 she was ordered by Thomas to take the lead position in a column of 'small boys' to attack the approaching Japanese force. Heermann steamed into the action at flank speed through the formation of 'baby flat-tops' through smoke and intermittent rain squalls that had reduced visibility at times to less than 100 yards (91 m), twice having to back emergency full to avoid collisions with friendly ships, first with Samuel B. Roberts and then at 07.49 with Hoel, as she tried to take her assigned position at the head of the column in preparation for a torpedo attack.

At 07.50, Heermann engaged the heavy cruiser Haguro with her 5-in (127-mm) guns while hurriedly preparing a half-salvo torpedo attack. In the confusion of battle, the torpedoman on the no. 2 mount mistakenly fired two extra torpedoes at the same time as the no. 1 mount before he was stopped by the mount captain. After firing seven torpedoes, Heermann changed course to engage a column of three battleships that had started to fire at her.

Hathaway may now have been responsible for causing a series of events that may have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the battle. He directed 5-in (127-mm) fire on the battleship Haruna, which was leading the Japanese column. Then he quickly closed to a mere 4,400 yards (4025 m) and fired his last three torpedoes. Haruna evaded all of them, but it has been asserted that Yamato was bracketed between two of Heermann's torpedoes on parallel courses, and for 10 minutes was forced to head to the north, and thus away from the action. Another assertion, based on a comparison of both Japanese and US sources, is that the torpedoes came from Hoel's second salvo fired at 07.53. In either case, Kurita and his most powerful ship were temporarily out of the action, and the Japanese had now lost the initiative. The stubborn US defence had completely destroyed the cohesion of the Japanese attack.

At 08.03, believing that one of the torpedoes had hit the battleship, Hathaway set course for the carrier formation, zigzagging and under the cover of smoke. Still undamaged, Heermann was able to fire through the smoke and rain at nearby targets. Now under continuous fire, Heermann began an unequal duel with Nagato, whose salvoes were beginning to land uncomfortably close. At one point between 08.08 and 08.25, Heermann was within throwing distance of a Japanese destroyer for several minutes, before being separated by the smoke. During this time, neither ship fired on the other, each having higher-priority targets.

At 08.26, Thomas requested covering fire on the cruisers engaging the escort carriers from the east. Hathaway responded but first had to pass through the formation of carriers and escorts. This hazardous nature of this task is shown by the fact that Heermann, steaming at flank speed, had two more near misses, this time with Fanshaw Bay and Johnston. Finally on course for the Japanese cruisers, Heermann came across the heavily damaged Gambier Bay, which was being savaged at pointblank range. At a range of 12,000 yards (10975 m), Heermann engaged Chikuma as her guns cleared Gambier Bay. Chikuma was now caught in a crossfire between Heermann and Samuel B. Roberts, and was receiving considerable punishment. During this phase of the battle, Heermann came under fire from the bulk of the Japanese force. Coloured splashes of red, yellow and green indicated that she was being targeted by Kongo and Haruna. Many uncoloured splashes were also observed, most probably from the fire of the line of heavy cruisers led by Chikuma. At 08.45, a hit on Heermann's wheelhouse killed three men and fatally wounded another. A series of 8-in (203.2-mm) hits flooded the forward part of the destroyer, pulling her bow down so far that her anchors were dragging in the water, and one of her guns was knocked out.

At 08.50, aircraft from the VC-10 composite squadron approached the scene and were vectored by Taffy 3 to the cruisers to the east. By 08.53, Chikuma and the other three heavy cruisers were under heavy air attack. At 09.02, under the combined effort of the gunfire of Heermann and Samuel B. Roberts, and the bombs, torpedoes and strafing of carrierborne aircraft, Chikuma finally disengaged, but sank during her withdrawal.

At 09.07, the heavy cruiser Tone exchanged fire with Heermann until she too turned away at 09.10. By 09.17, Sprague had ordered Hathaway to lay smoke on the port quarter of the escort carriers, and by 09.30, the group had re-formed in its normal formation and was headed to the south.

As a result of the ferocity of the resistance offered by the US warships, Kurita had become convinced that he was facing a much larger force than was actually the case, and gave a 'cease action' order at 09.00, with instructions to rendezvous to the north. Thus, unexpectedly, the Japanese began to disengage and turn away.

Though extensively damaged, Heermann was the only destroyer of the screen to survive.

Temporarily safe within the rain squall, Sprague had a difficult decision to make. The easterly course was drawing the Japanese too close to the San Bernardino Strait and away from any help that might come from the battleships of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Battle Line forces to the south, and Kurita was about to get up to windward of his formation, which would render his smoke less effective. Consequently, at 07.30 Sprague ordered a course change, first to the south-east and then to the south, and ordered his escorts to make their torpedo attack to cover the carrier’s emergence from the squall. This was a very risky decision as it gave Kurita a chance to cut across the diameter of Sprague’s arc and cut him off.

However, Kurita missed the chance and his forces followed Taffy 3 around the circle, his earlier decision to send his destroyers to the rear having removed them from a position that they could have intercepted or prevented the US formation’s turn. The escort carriers of Taffy 3 turned to the south and withdrew through shellfire at their maximum speed of 17.5 kt. The six carriers dodged in and out of rain squalls, occasionally turning into the wind to launch the few aircraft they still had available.

After an hour, the Japanese had closed the range to less than 17,600 yards (16095 m), and the fact that the carriers had managed to evade destruction reinforced the Japanese belief that they were opposed by fast fleet carriers. The heavy clouds of black and white smoke generated by the US ships were now making target observation extremely difficult. At 08.00, Sprague ordered the carriers to 'open fire with pea-shooters when the range is clear'. The stern chase was also advantageous for the sole anti-ship armament of small carriers was a single manually controlled stern-mounted 5-in (127-mm) gun as a stinger, though they were provided with anti-aircraft shells. Fire from the escort carriers' 'stingers' was later credited with hitting Japanese warships that ventured within 5-in (127-mm) gun range and contributing to the sinking of the heavy cruiser Chokai.

During the run to the east the escort carriers had been battered by near-misses. At 08.05, Kalinin Bay was struck by an 8 in (203.2-mm) shell and the carriers started taking direct hits. However, the Japanese ships were firing armour-piercing shells, which often penetrated right through the unarmoured escort carriers without detonating. Though CVEs were popularly known as 'Combustible Vulnerable Expendable', they would ultimately prove durable in first dodging and then absorbing heavy shell fire and in downing attacking kamikaze aircraft.

When Yamato opened fire at 06.59 at an estimated range of 35,000 yards (32000 m), she targeted White Plains with her first four salvoes. The third of these was a close straddle landing at 07.04. One shell from this salvo exploded beneath the turn of White Plains' port bilge near frame 142, close to her after (starboard) engine room. While the ship was not struck directly, the shock effect of the under-keel explosion severely damaged her hull, deranged her starboard machinery, and tripped all the circuit breakers in her electrical network. Prompt and effective damage control restored power and communications within three minutes, and the ship was able to remain in formation by overspeeding her port engine. The gout of black smoke resulting from the shock of the explosion convinced Yamato and Nagato, which was also firing her main battery at White Plains at the time, that they had scored a direct hit, so they shifted fire to other targets. The turn to the south put White Plains in the lead of the formation, and she escaped any further hits from Japanese fire.

During the surface phase of the action, White Plains' 5-in (127-mm) gun crew claimed six hits on the heavy cruiser Chokai, which shortly after this was struck by a bomb.

As the Japanese gunners concentrated on the closest target, Gambier Bay's plight effectively diverted attention from the other fleeing carriers. At 08.10, Chikuma closed to within 10,175 yards (9300 m) and finally landed hits on Gambier Bay's flightdeck. Subsequent hits and near misses, as the Japanese switched to high explosive shells, soon caused Gambier Bay to lose speed, and she was soon dead in the water. Three cruisers then closed to pointblank range, as destroyers such as Johnston were unsuccessful in drawing fire away from the carrier. Fires raged through the riddled escort carrier, and she capsized at 09.07 and sank at 09.11. Four TBM Avenger torpedo bombers went down with the carrier, and 130 men of her crew were killed. The majority of her nearly 800 survivors were rescued two days later by landing and patrol craft despatched from Leyte Gulf. Gambier Bay was the only US carrier sunk by naval gunfire in World War II.

Straddled several times during the run to the east, St Lo escaped serious damage during the surface phase of the action. By 07.38 the Japanese cruisers approaching from St Lo's port quarter had closed to within 14,215 yards (13000 m). St Lo responded to their salvoes with rapid fire from her single 5-in (127-mm) gun, claiming three hits on a 'Tone' class cruiser. At 10.00, the escort carrier launched an Avenger armed with a torpedo to join the attack launched by Kitkun Bay at 10.13. At 10.51 Lieutenant Yukio Seki, leader of the Shikishima squadron of the Special Attack Unit, crashed his A6M fighter into the carrier’s flightdeck from astern in the first organised kamikaze attack. The resulting explosions and fires within his ship’s hangar forced Captain Francis McKenna to give the order to abandon ship at 11.00, and St Lo capsized and sank at 11.25 with the loss of 114 men. Six FM-2 fighters and five TBM torpedo bombers went down with St Lo.

As the trailing ship in the escort carrier van after the turn to the south, Kalinin Bay came under intense Japanese fire. Though partially protected by smoke, a timely rain squall and counterattacks by the screening destroyers and destroyer escorts, she took the first of 15 direct hits at 07.50. Fired from a battleship, the large-calibre shell struck the starboard side of the hangar deck just abaft the forward elevator. By 08.00, Tone and Haguro, the Japanese heavy cruisers off her port quarter, had closed to within 18,000 yards (16460 m), and Kalinin Bay responded to their straddling salvoes with her 5-in (127-mm) gun. Three 8-in (203.2-mm) armour-piercing projectiles struck the escort carrier within minutes. At 08.25, the US ship scored a direct hit from 16,000 yards (14630 m) on the no. 2 turret of a 'Nachi' class heavy cruiser, and a second hit shortly then forced the Japanese ship to withdraw temporarily from its formation.

At 08.30, five Japanese destroyers steamed over the horizon off Kalinin Bay's starboard quarter, and opened fire from a range of about 14,500 yards (13260 m). As screening ships engaged the cruisers and laid down concealing smoke, Kalinin Bay shifted her fire, and for the next hour traded shots with the ships of Destroyer Squadron 10. No destroyer hit Kalinin Bay, which nonetheless took ten more 8-in (203.2-mm) hits from the now obscured cruisers. One shell passed through the flightdeck into the communications area and destroyed all the radar and radio equipment. Most of the hits occurred after 08.45 when Tone and Haguro had closed to within 10,100 yards (9235 m).

At 09.15, an Avenger from St Lo strafed and exploded two torpedoes in Kalinin Bay's wake about 100 yards (91 m) astern of her. A shell from the latter’s 5-in (127-mm) gun deflected a third from impact with her stern. At about 09.30, as the Japanese ships fired parting salvoes and reversed course to the north, Kalinin Bay scored a direct hit amidships on a retreating destroyer. Five minutes later, she ceased fire and retired southward with the other survivors of Taffy 3.

At about 10.50, the task unit came under concentrated air attack. During the 40-minute battle, the first attack by a kamikaze unit, all the escort carriers but Fanshaw Bay were damaged. Four diving aircraft attacked Kalinin Bay from astern and the starboard quarter: two were shot down when close, but the third crashed into the port side of the flightdeck, damaging it severely, and the fourth destroyed the after port stack. Kalinin Bay suffered extensive structural damage during the morning’s intense action, as well as 60 casualties including five men killed. Twelve direct hits and two near-misses by large-calibre shells were confirmed. The two near-misses exploded under the escort carrier’s counter, and were the severest threats to the ship’s survival.

Straddled several times early in the surface action during the run to the east as she was at the rear of the formation alongside White Plains, Kitkun Bay was toward the front of the formation after the turn to the south and escaped serious damage. At 10.13 she launched five Avenger aircraft (four armed with torpedoes and one with bombs) to attack the retreating Japanese. The five, supplemented by one aeroplane from St Lo, attacked Yamato at 10.35 without result. Attacked by a kamikaze at 11.08, Kitkun Bay was successfully defended by her own and Fanshaw Bay's anti-aircraft batteries, and was the only one of Sprague’s carriers to escape undamaged.

Targeted by Kongo and Haruna early in the action, Sprague’s flagship Fanshaw Bay escaped serious damage during the run to the east and was on the far side of the formation across from Gambier Bay during the run to the south. During the later kamikaze attacks, Fanshaw Bay took a near-miss kamikaze close aboard, helped shoot down an aeroplane just about to crash into Kitkun Bay, and landed aircraft from her sunk or damaged sisters. Fanshaw Bay suffered four dead and four wounded.

Yamato engaged US surface forces for her first and only time at Samar, entering the battle 6.7 ft (2 m) down by the bow and limited to 26 kt as a result of the 3,000 tons of flooding caused by three armour-piercing bomb hits during the 'Battle of the Sibuyan Sea'. Yamato opened the battle at 06.59, firing on White Plains at a range estimated at 34,525 yards (31570 m), severely damaging White Plains with a near miss from her third salvo. The resulting gout of smoke from the stricken carrier obscured the target and convinced Yamato that the escort carrier had been destroyed, so she ceased fire at 07.09. At 07.27, Yamato reported main and secondary battery hits on an 'enemy cruiser' at a range of 20,315 yards (18575 m): the time, range and bearing all correspond with the hits on the destroyer Johnston. At 07.51, the super-battleship turned her secondary battery on the destroyer escort Raymond at a range of 10,095 yards (9230 m) before steering hard to port to avoid a torpedo salvo from Hoel at 07.54. At 07.55, Yamato opened fire on Hoel with her 5-in (127-mm) anti-aircraft guns and was struck by a US shell of this same calibre in return. Hemmed in by Haruna to starboard and her destroyers to port, Yamato was forced to run due north away from the battle until the torpedoes ran out of fuel, finally turning back at 08.12.

At 08.23, one of Yamato's F1M2 reconnaissance and spotter floatplanes reported a main battery hit on Gambier Bay, though this hit was also claimed by Kongo. Gambier Bay's own records report a damaging near miss from a battleship-calibre shell around this time. At 08.34 Yamato trained her secondary batteries on another 'light cruiser', probably Hoel, which was observed sinking at 08.40. At 08.45 Yamato sighted three of the US escort carriers, US smokescreens preventing her from seeing the entire US formation. Between 09.06 and 09.17, Yamato received several strafing and torpedo attacks from US aircraft, claiming one US aircraft shot down at 09.15. A fighter pilot, Lieutenant Richard W. Roby, reportedly attacked destroyers before raking Yamato's decks and then bridge with his 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine guns, further discouraging her. However, US reports that Yamato closed to within 2,400 yards (2195 m) of the American ships before she was attacked by US aircraft are not supported by Yamato's own action report. At 09.11, Kurita ordered his ships to regroup to the north, and at 09.22 Yamato slowed to 20 kt and came round to course 040°, finally setting course 000° (due north) at 09.25. Kurita reported that his force had sunk two carriers, two cruisers, and some destroyers, apparently assuming that Yamato had indeed sunk White Plains with her first four salvoes. Kurita’s forces had actually sunk one carrier, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort, and Yamato's guns had in all probability contributed to the sinking of three out of the four, with claimed hits (some unconfirmed or disputed) on all except Samuel B. Roberts.

Targeted by 5-in (127-mm) fire from the destroyers and destroyer escorts, the heavy cruiser Chokai was hit amidships, starboard side, most likely by the sole 5-in (127-mm) gun of White Plains. The shell could not pierce the hull armour, but it was thought, until an expedition to the cruiser’s wreck in 2019 found her torpedoes still intact, that the shell’s 7-lb (3.175-kg) bursting charge might have set off the eight sensitive deck-mounted Type 93 torpedoes. An explosion was observed aboard Chokai before a TBM from Kitkun Bay dropped a 500-lb (227-kg) bomb on her forward machinery room. The cruiser’s rudder and engines were damaged, causing the ship to drop out of formation. Fires began to rage and she became dead in the water. Later in the same day, she was sent to the bottom by torpedoes from the destroyer Fujinami, or by bombs from aircraft of Ommaney Bay, an escort carrier of Taffy 2.

Haguro's detailed action report states that the damage which immobilised Chokai resulted from a bomb hit at 08.51, and it is possible that Chokai was struck by a 14-in (355.6-mm) shell from Kongo as she steamed into Kongo's line of fire.

After Johnston blew off the bow of Kumano with a torpedo, the Japanese ship retired toward the San Bernardino Strait, where she suffered further, minor, damage from an air attack.

Chikuma engaged the US escort carriers, helping to sink Gambier Bay, but came under fire from Heermann, on which Chikuma inflicted severe damage, but was soon attacked by four TBM torpedo bombers. One of these aircraft, flying from Manila Bay, hit her port quarter with a Mk 13 torpedo that severed her stern and disabled her port propeller and rudder. Chikuma's speed dropped to 18 kt and then to 9 kt but, more seriously, she became unsteerable. At 11.05, Chikuma was attacked by five TBM bombers from Kitkun Bay, and was hit amidships on the port beam by two torpedoes, causing her engine rooms to flood. At 14.00, three TBM bombers from a composite squadron of aircraft from Ommaney Bay and Natoma Bay launched more torpedoes which hit Chikuma on the port beam. It is generally thought that the destroyer Nowaki took survivors of Chikuma, and then scuttled her late in morning of 25 October, but a more recent study suggests that Chikuma sank from the effect of the air attack, and that Nowaki arrived only in time to pick up survivors.

While withdrawing from the battle area, Nowaki was herself sunk, with the loss of all but one of Chikuma's surviving crew.

The heavy cruiser Suzuya, which had also engaged the carriers, received fatal damage from the air, although not hit directly. Early in the battle, she was attacked by 10 Avenger bombers from Taffy 3, and a near-miss close astern to port by a high explosive bomb carried away one of Suzuya's propellers, reducing her maximum speed to 20 kt. At 10.50, the heavy cruiser was attacked by 30 more carrierborne aircraft. Another near-miss by a bomb, this time starboard amidships, detonated a Type 93 torpedo loaded in one of her starboard mounts. The fires started by the explosion soon spread to other torpedoes nearby and beyond, the subsequent explosions damaging one of the boilers and the starboard engine rooms. The order to abandon ship was given at 11.50, and the fires set off the remaining torpedoes and ship’s main magazines 10 minutes later. Suzuya rolled over and sank at 13.22, 401 officers and crewmen being rescued by the destroyer Okinami, followed by further rescues by US ships.

Although Kurita’s battleships had not been seriously damaged, the US air and destroyer attacks had broken up his formations, and he had lost tactical control. His flagship Yamato had been forced to turn and run to the north in order to avoid torpedoes, causing him to lose contact with much of his task force. The determined, concentrated sea and air attack from Taffy 3 had already sunk or crippled the heavy cruisers Chokai, Kumano and Chikuma, which seemed to confirm to the Japanese that they were in battle with major fleet units rather than escort carriers and destroyers. Kurita was initially unaware that Halsey had already taken the bait offered by Ozawa’s Mobile Force, Strike Force and that his battleships and carriers were therefore far out of range. The ferocity of the renewed air attacks further contributed to his confusion and reinforced his suspicion that Halsey’s aircraft carriers were nearby. Signals from Ozawa eventually convinced Kurita that he was not currently engaged with the entirety of the 3rd Fleet, and that the remaining elements of Halsey’s forces might close and destroy the Northern Force should Kurita linger too long off Samar.

Finally, Kurita received word that the Southern Force with which he was to link had been destroyed during the previous night. Calculating that the fight was not worth further losses and believing he had already sunk or damaged several US carriers, Kurita broke off the engagement at 09.20 with the order that 'All ships, my course north, speed 20'. Kurita set a course for Leyte Gulf but became distracted by reports of another US carrier group to the north. Preferring to expend his ships against capital ships rather than transports, Kurita turned to the north after the non-existent US fleet and ultimately withdrew back through the San Bernardino Strait.

As the Northern Force retreated to the north and then to the west through the San Bernardino Strait, the smaller and heavily damaged US force continued to press the battle.

Soon after 08.00, desperate messages calling for assistance began to arrive from the 7th Fleet. One, from Kinkaid, sent in plain language, read 'My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by airstrikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying CVEs and entering Leyte.' At 08.22, Kinkaid radioed 'Fast Battleships are Urgently Needed Immediately at Leyte Gulf.' At 09.05, Kinkaid radioed 'Need Fast Battleships and Air Support.' At 09.07, Kinkaid broadcast what his mismatched fleet was up against as '4 Battleships, 8 Cruisers Attack Our Escort Carriers.'

Some 3,500 miles (5630 km) away at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz had monitored Taffy 3’s desperate calls and sent Halsey the terse message 'Where is TF34?'. To complicate decryption, communications officers were to add a nonsense phrase at both ends of a message, in this case the prefix 'Turkey trots to water' and the suffix 'The world wonders.' The receiving radioman repeated the 'where is' section of this message and his staff failed to remove the trailing phrase 'the world wonders'. A simple query by a distant supervisor had, through the random actions of three sailors, become a stinging rebuke.

Halsey was infuriated since he did not recognise the final phrase as padding, threw his hat to the deck and began to curse.

Halsey sent back Vice Admiral John S. McCain’s Task Group 38.1 to assist Kinkaid. Halsey recalled that he did not receive the vital message from Kinkaid until about 10.00 and later claimed that he had known that Kinkaid was in trouble but had not dreamed of the seriousness of the crisis. McCain, by contrast, had monitored Sprague’s messages and turned TG38.1 to aid Sprague even before Halsey’s orders arrived, making Halsey’s defence questionable.

At 10.05, Kinkaid asked 'Who is guarding the San Bernardino Strait?'

McCain raced towards the battle and briefly turned into the wind to recover returning aircraft. At 10.30, a force of Curtiss SB2C Helldiver single-engined dive-bombers, Avenger torpedo bombers and Hellcat fighter-bombers was launched from Hornet, Hancock and Wasp at the extreme range of 380 miles (610 km). Though the resulting attack did little damage, it strengthened Kurita’s decision to pull back.

At 11.15, more than two hours after the first distress messages had been received by his flagship, Halsey ordered TF38 to turn and head back to the south to pursue Kurita, but the Japanese forces had already escaped.

Just hours after his perceived chastisement by Nimitz, Halsey’s forces destroyed all four Japanese aircraft carriers of the decoy force he had pursued. However, despite the complete absence of the 3rd Fleet against the main Japanese force, the desperate efforts of Taffy 3 and assisting task forces had driven back the Japanese. A relieved Halsey sent the following message to Nimitz, Kinkaid and General Douglas MacArthur at 12.26 'It can be announced with assurance that the Japanese Navy has been beaten, routed and broken by the Third and Seventh Fleets.'

Partly as a result of disastrous communication errors within the 7th Fleet and a reluctance to expose search ships to submarine attack, a very large number of Taffy 3’s survivors, including those from Gambier Bay, Hoel, Johnston and Samuel B, Roberts, were not rescued until 27 October after two days adrift. An aeroplane had spotted the survivors, but the location radioed back was incorrect. By then, many of the survivors had died from exposure, thirst and shark attacks.

The Japanese had succeeded in luring Halsey’s 3rd Fleet away from its role of covering the Leyte Gulf invasion fleet, but the remaining light forces nonetheless proved to be a very considerable obstacle. The force that Halsey had unwittingly left behind carried about 450 aircraft, comparable to the forces of five fleet carriers, although of less powerful types, and not armed for attacks on armoured ships. The ships themselves, though slow and almost unarmed, in the confusion of battle and aided by weather and smokescreens, mostly survived. Their aircraft, though not appropriately armed, sank and damaged several ships, and did much to confuse and harass the Northern Force.

The breakdown in Japanese communications left Kurita 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 the 7th 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, effective and timely manoeuvres by the US ships, tactical errors by the Japanese admiral, and superior US radar technology, gunnery and seamanship all contributed to this outcome.

In the engagement, the Japanese had numerous large-calibre battleship and cruiser main guns with considerably greater range and power than those of the US ships, but the Japanese guns lacked a blind-fire capability and were therefore thwarted by rain squalls and the smoke laid by screening US destroyers. Japanese fire-control systems manually computing solutions for targets on a constant course were fighting US destroyers which constantly changed course. The Japanese visual aiming system produced bracketing salvoes, but the US ships manoeuvred rapidly to avoid following accurate shots but were themselves still able to fire accurately as a result of their possession of the Mk 37 radar-directed fire-control system and its computer, and to their faster reloading.

Moreover, the accurate US 5-in (127-mm) guns and 40-mm anti-aircraft fire directed by radar and computer control shot down several kamikaze aircraft, and the lack of comparable systems made the Japanese ships vulnerable to US air attack. Lastly, the attacking Japanese force initially used armour-piercing shells which were largely ineffective against unarmoured ships as they passed right through without detonating. US destroyers and destroyer escorts were engineered with enough redundancy to survive dozens of such hits.

The US escort carriers landed hits when the large Japanese ships, which could not manoeuvre while firing, came within range of guns as small as the 5-in (127-mm) guns.

In summary, the Japanese had built the largest battleships, but the fleet was in general unrefined and had numerous technical limitations and weaknesses, and the commanding officers made mistakes and failed to take into account their weaknesses or to make the best use of their strengths. The US Navy had superior technology and, while the commanding officers made some mistakes, these latter were limited, and the Americans had sufficient numbers of all types of ships and weapons to compensate for the mistakes.

It may be argued that of all of the battles in the Pacific War, the 'Battle off Samar' best demonstrates the effectiveness of air attack and destroyer-launched torpedoes against larger surface vessels. Japanese tactics were cautious, in the belief that they were fighting a much more powerful force.

Clifton Sprague’s task unit lost two escort carriers in the form of Gambier Bay to surface attack and St Lo to kamikaze attack. Of the seven screening ships, fewer than half, the destroyers Hoel and Johnston and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts were lost, as were several aircraft. The other four US destroyers and destroyer escorts were damaged. Although it was only a small task unit, more than 1,500 US men died, comparable to the losses suffered at the Allied defeat of the 'Battle of Savo Island' off Guadalcanal, when four cruisers were sunk. It was also comparable to the combined losses of the 543 men and three ships in the 'Battle of the Coral Sea', and the 307 men and two ships in the 'Battle of Midway'.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the Japanese lost three heavy cruisers, and a fourth limped back to base with serious damage, All of Kurita’s battleships except Yamato suffered considerable damage, all of the other heavy ships stayed inactive in their bases, and the Imperial Japanese navy had, as a whole, been rendered ineffective for the remainder of the war. Of the six US ships, totalling 37,000 tons, lost during the Leyte Gulf operations, five were from Taffy 3. The Japanese lost 26 ships, totalling 306,000 tons at the Leyte Gulf fighting.

Halsey came under considerable criticism for his decision to take TF38 to the north in pursuit of Ozawa and for failing to reverse course after Kinkaid had first appealed for help. In his despatch after the battle, Halsey gave reasons for his decision as follows: 'Searches by my carrier planes revealed the presence of the Northern carrier force on the afternoon of October 24, which completed the picture of all enemy naval forces. As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernardino Strait, I concentrated TF38 during the night and steamed north to attack the Northern Force at dawn. I believed that the [Northern] Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.'

Halsey also said that he had feared that leaving TF34 to defend the strait without carrier support would have left it vulnerable to attack from land-based aircraft and leaving one of the fast carrier groups behind to cover the battleships would have significantly reduced the concentration of air power going north to strike Ozawa.

In a footnote, the US official naval historian wrote that 'Admiral Lee, however, said after the battle that he would have been only too glad to have been ordered to cover San Bernardino Strait without air cover.' Had Halsey been in proper communication with the 7th Fleet, the escort carriers of TF77 could have provided adequate air cover for TF34, a much easier matter than it would be for those escort carriers to defend themselves against the onslaught of Kurita’s heavy ships.

It may be argued that the fact that Halsey was aboard one of the battleships and 'would have had to remain behind' while the bulk of his fleet charged northward to locate and engage the Japanese carriers, and that this may have contributed to that decision. However, it would have been perfectly feasible and logical to have taken one or both of the 3rd Fleet’s two fastest battleships, Iowa and New Jersey, with the carriers in the pursuit of Ozawa, while leaving the rest of the Battle Line off San Bernardino Strait. (Indeed, Halsey’s original plan for the composition of TF34 was that it would contain four rather than all six of of the 3rd Fleet’s battleships.) Therefore, to guard San Bernardino Strait with a powerful battleship force would have been compatible with Halsey’s personally going north aboard New Jersey.

It seems likely that Halsey was strongly influenced by his chief-of-staff, Rear Admiral Robert Carney, who was also wholeheartedly in favour of taking all of the 3rd Fleet’s available strength northward to attack the Japanese carrier force.