FM-2 Wildcat fighter on combat air patrol over USS Santee (CVE-29) during the Leyte Invasion. Photo: NHHC
Text: THOMAS McKELVEY CLEAVER
By the fall of 1942, production of the F4F Wildcat, which was seen as a useful aircraft for the composite squadrons operating from escort carriers that would provide anti-submarine cover and close air support for coming invasions, was transferred to General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division. However, Grumman was not completely through with the Wildcat. The possibility of developing a lighter version specifically for operation from escort carriers had been considered before production was taken over by General Motors.
The main difference of the new version of Wildcat was substitution of the 1,200 h.p. R-1830-86 with a 1,350 h.p. Wright R-1820-56 Cyclone that was 230 lbs. lighter. The XF4F-8 had four guns like the FM-1; it was visually distinguished an enlarged rudder and vertical stabilizer to counteract the increased torque of the more powerful engine. The airplane was 530 lbs. lighter than the F4F-4. Initial climb rate was nearly doubled, service ceiling was boosted to 36,400 ft. All in all, this was a “wilder” Wildcat. It went into production in early 1943; between then and August 1945 4,437 FM-2s were delivered, making it the most numerous Wildcat of all.
In the Pacific, the FM-2 showed up in the new Composite Squadrons (VC) in the fall of 1943. During the invasions of the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas, and the Philippines, ten more Wildcat pilots became aces.
The U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour
The FM-2’s most memorable day came on October 25, 1944. Task Group 77.4, composed of three Task Units 77.1, 77.2, and 77.3 known as Taffy One, Two and Three for their radio callsign “Taffy,” were operating off the island of Samar to provide air support to the invasion of Leyte; each Task Unit was composed of six escort carriers, with two or three destroyers and four or five destroyer escorts for support. Each TU had 48 TBM-1C Avengers and around 100 FM-2 Wildcats between the six carriers.
The previous day, October 24, the Wildcats defended the fleet against the many Japanese air attacks. The Wildcats of VC-10 aboard the carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) – part of “Taffy Three” – were the most successful squadron in the entire Task Group. VC-10’s Wildcat pilots, who had first experienced air combat during the Marianas invasion, when pilots shot down three attacking Japanese aircraft during the main battle on June 18, 1944, shot down seven enemy aircraft. Ensign Courtney assisted in breaking up an attack on American transports by more than 15 twin engine bombers. He was credited with assisting in destroying one Ki-21 Sally and the probable destruction of one Ki-48 Lily. Lieutenant R. W. Roby shot down one Lily and assisted in shooting down one Sally and Lieutenant Seitz shot down a Sally. Lieutenant (jg) Phillips probably destroyed two Zekes and Lieutenant(jg) Dugan shot down two Sallys. Lieutenant Joe McGraw and others in a CAP flight intercepted a group of 15–20 twin engine bombers escorted by six to eight Oscars he mistakenly identified as Zekes. McGraw destroyed two Lilys and damaged a third.
The next morning, the men, ships and aircraft of Taffy One, Two, and Three fought the Battle off Samar, which has been called “the Navy’s Finest Hour.” This was the last surface engagement ever fought by the U.S. Navy against an enemy fleet. In the words of Samuel Eliot Morrison, the Pacific War’s official historian: “In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.” The Battle off Samar involved ships that should never have been in the same ocean with their opponents, fighting against the greatest surface fleet the Empire of Japan ever sent to sea.
On October 24, the First Mobile Striking Force, commanded by Admiral Takeo Kurita, lost the giant battleship Musashi, sunk by American carrier aircraft in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Following Musashi’s loss, Kurita broke off his advance, which was spotted by American aircraft; Third Fleet commander Admiral Willian F. Halsey decided the enemy had been defeated and ordered the Fast Carrier Task Force to head north to attack the Japanese carrier fleet that had been found off Cape Engano. However – unknown to the Americans – Kurita was ordered to resume his attack. The Japanese transited San Bernardino Strait that night and emerged into the Philippine Sea at dawn. Kurita, aboard Yamato – the world’s most powerful battleship – ordered the fleet to head south to attack the American invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf.
Taffy 3, northernmost of the three escort carrier groups, included USS St Lo (CVE-63), White Plains (CVE-66) Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70), Kitkun Bay (CVE 71) and Gambier Bay (CVE-73), commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague; the carriers were escorted by three Fletcher-class destroyers USS Johnston (DD-557), Hoel (DD-533) and Heerman (DD-532), and four Butler-class destroyer escorts USS John C. Butler (DE-339), Dennis (DE-405), Raymond (DE-341) and Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413).
At 0630 hours, a TBM-1C Avenger flown by Ensign Bill Brooks took off from St. Lo on the morning patrol. He spotted smoke on the horizon to the northwest at 0647 hours. It was the First Mobile Striking Force, 17 miles from Taffy-3 and bearing down on the CVEs at 30 knots.
At about the same moment, lookouts on St. Lo reported the unmistakable shapes of “pagoda masts,” a sure identification of Japanese battleships. At 0700 hours, Avenger pilot Ensign Hans Jensen sighted the fleet; this was soon confirmed by shipboard radar.
Kurita’s ships had just changed to a circular antiaircraft formation when smoke was spotted on the horizon. At 0700 hours, Yamato opened fire with her 18-inch main battery. On Yamato’s bridge, no one could identify the silhouettes of the American carriers in the manuals. Kurita mistakenly assumed he had a task group of the Third Fleet under his guns. He immediately ordered “General Attack.”
USS Kitkun Bay (CVE-71) prepares to launch FM-2 Wildcats fighters during the action. Photo: NHHC
The Americans Respond
With the CVEs limited to a top speed of 18 knots, Taffy-3 had no hope of outdistancing their pursuers. There was no possibility of out-shooting them; each carrier had only one 5-inch/38-caliber gun on its stern. Admiral Sprague ordered the force to turn south toward the others and ordered the destroyers to make smoke to provide cover while the carriers launched their aircraft.
Gambier Bay managed to launch most of her aircraft while battleship shells rumbled overhead. LCDR Edward J. Huxtable, CO of VC-10, boarded his Avenger and asked his plane captain if he had a bomb load. “He said no, so I told him to call LCDR Buzz Borries, the air officer, to see if I had time to get a load. We had not turned up engines yet and I could not see going off without some ordnance. I saw Borries talking to Captain Viewig, who made a sweeping motion with his arm – ‘Get ‘em off!’”
“About this time, I was startled by what seemed like a rifle shot. I looked out and saw it was a salvo of heavy-caliber stuff splashing alongside White Plains. Until this moment, I had no idea the enemy was so near. Now I was more than ready to get on that catapult! Three TBMs launched ahead of me. The ceiling was at 1,200 feet. I called up Admiral Sprague and asked what our orders were. ‘Attack immediately!’”
Following the catapult launches of the Avengers, the FM-2 Wildcats were hurriedly launched; some were armed with rockets for strikes ashore, but most were armed only with their four .50-caliber machine guns.
Huxtable broke out into better visibility. “I spotted four cruisers nearby and what appeared to be four battleships further back in the gloom. There was no possibility of making a high-altitude attack. I pulled up into the ceiling and started for the cruisers. I had no idea what loads the other planes had, but at least we would give them a good scare.”
Huxtable was joined by his Annapolis classmate, LCDR Richard Fowler, who led Kitkun Bay’s VC-5. They attempted coordinated “hot” and “dry” attacks, with FM-2s strafing the ships ahead of the Avengers, which dropped their 500-pound general purpose bombs. “Our bombs had no effect on the ships, but possibly the explosions scared the crewmen.”
The Wildcats and Avengers of Taffy-3 kept an unrelenting string of aircraft over Kurita’s fleet, giving the admiral the impression the Americans had far greater resources than they did.
Lt(jg) Norman Johnson of Fanshaw Bay’s Composite Squadron 68 piloted an Avenger with four 500-pound general-purpose bombs. He later remembered: “Climbing at full throttle, I penetrated the lower cloud cover and leveled off at 11,000 feet. I took a final look at the enemy ships, which were firing on our ships. When I was about five miles away, I nosed down to pick up speed. The Japanese battle force was at that moment occupied in anti-aircraft protection against an air attack. Varied colored bursts mushroomed at several levels. It was quite dense and something I had to penetrate. I kept my bomb doors closed as speed increased. I saw three large battleships with rudders hard over and guns spitting flame. At 7,000 feet, I pushed over into my attack, selecting the lead battleship as my target. My radioman reminded me ‘Open the bomb bay doors!’ I opened the doors and the immediate drag was apparent as the airplane was really barreling along now.
“I was intent on adjusting the target in my sight. Suddenly the airplane corkscrewed, and the right-side sliding part of the canopy peeled off. I pressed the bomb release at what seemed the best altitude and concentrated my effort on pulling out. The target was so large the bombs couldn’t miss. It was a close call as I leveled off 50 to 100 feet over the water. I pulled up to avoid more AA and then hid in the clouds in case there were any enemy aircraft around.”
Over the next 30 minutes, aircraft from the six squadrons made repeated bombing and rocket runs on the enemy ships, strafing their decks as they pulled out. At Tacloban, the field became a muddy bog; landing aircraft were damaged as they ground-looped in the mud and slammed into other planes. By mid-day the airfield was covered with wrecked Avengers and Wildcats.
FM-2s of Composite Squadron 10 at Tacloban. Photo: USN via Thomas Cleaver
The Naval “Charge of the Light Brigade”
While the pilots desperately attempted to distract the enemy, Taffy-3’s “small boys” moved to defend the carriers after Admiral Sprague ordered the three destroyers to attack despite the hopeless odds.
At 0700 hours USS Johnston made smoke in response to the incoming shell fire that bracketed the carriers. Ten minutes later, Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen opened fire at a range of 18,000 yards and registered several hits on the leading heavy cruisers with his radar-directed gunfire.
After five minutes, Hagen concentrated fire on heavy cruiser Kumano. At maximum range, Johnston scored several hits on her superstructure, which erupted in flame. Kumano then targeted Johnston in turn and she was soon bracketed by colorful shell splashes. Johnston made smoke and zigzagged while she accelerated to flank speed and headed toward the enemy fleet alone, firing over 200 rounds nearly continuously.
Captain Evans brought Johnston to 9,000 yards from the enemy and fired all ten torpedoes. Two hit Kumano at 0724 hours and blew her bow off. The four other torpedoes continued on toward the enemy fleet and battleship Kongô was forced to turn away north to avoid them, which took her out of the fight. Heavy cruiser Suzuya, which had suffered damage from air attacks, stopped her pursuit of the Americans to assist Kumano.
Johnston’s audacious attack confused Admiral Kurita, who thought he had been engaged by American cruisers. When the rest of the Japanese ships were forced to turn away to avoid the torpedoes, the carriers gained more precious minutes to launch aircraft.
Evans turned back into his own smoke, but at 0730 hours, the enemy guns found him. Firing at a range of 17,000 yards, Kongô, hit Johnston with three 14-inch shells which penetrated into her port engine room, where the explosions cut her speed in half and disrupted power to the aft gun mounts. Moments later, three 6-inch shells from Yamato struck Johnston’s bridge. Everyone was wounded and Commander Evans’ fingers of his left hand were traumatically severed by shrapnel. Johnston was badly mangled with dead and dying sailors strewn across her bloody decks. She found refuge in a rain squall, while the damage control parties restored power to two of the three aft mounts and repair the fire control radar. With repairs completed at 0735 hours, she opened fire on Japanese destroyers while hidden in the smoke.
USS GAMBIER BAY (CVE-73) and two destroyer escorts making smoke at the start of the battle off Samar, October 25, 1944. Japanese ships are faintly visible on the horizon. Photo: Phi Willard Niet via NHHC
Johnston then retired to the Task Group. Minutes later, she encountered Heermann and an already-damaged Hoel headed in to attack. Evans could have continued back to the fleet and no one would have faulted him. Instead, he reversed course and made smoke to help obscure the two as they headed toward the onrushing Japanese. Samuel B. Roberts, known to her crew as “Sammy B” followed. The attack was a naval “Charge of the Light Brigade” that actually happened on the 90th anniversary of the event immortalized in Tennyson’s poem.
Over the next 40 minutes, Evans engaged in several duels with the enemy. At 0830 hours, Johnston opened fire on the cruiser Chokai, which was firing at the helpless Gambier Bay. She then closed to 6,000 yards and traded fire for ten minutes with the battleship Haguro, scoring numerous hits. At 0840 hours, she intercepted a formation of seven destroyers spotted closing in on the carriers. Evans attempted to pass in front of the enemy, “crossing the T” as gunnery officer Hagen opened fire. Johnston was hit several times by return fire. The lead enemy destroyer turned away to the west and took a dozen hits from Johnston as she did so. Hagen quickly shifted fire to the next in line and scored five hits before it too veered off and the entire squadron turned west to avoid Johnston. Three destroyers fired their torpedoes at the carriers from 10,500 yards but no hits were scored. The Japanese and American ships were now intertwined in a confused jumble.
More Avengers and Wildcats from the other task groups appeared out of the cloudy skies and attacked the enemy, while destroyer Hoel headed toward the battleship Kongô and took a salvo of 14-inch shells in her bridge. She closed to 9,000 yards and fired five torpedoes - none hit, but the torpedoes forced Kongô to turn away. Despite having three of her five gun mounts as well as her port engine knocked out, Hoel drew Japanese fire for the next hour as she chased shells and distracted the enemy from the carriers. An 8-inch shell stopped her at 0830 hours. Having taken 40 hits, Hoel went down with 259 of her crew. Only 86 survived, including 19-year old Bob DeSpain, a former lifeguard from San Pedro, California, who over the next hours swam from group to group and gathered the survivors together (this writer was privileged to know Bob over the last six years of his life; he worked as a docent aboard the battleship Iowa in San Pedro).
Japanese battleship Musashi under attack. Photo: USN via Thomas Cleaver
Samuel B. Roberts closed to 4,000 yards of the cruiser Chôkai, moving at 28 knots after the chief engineer, Lieutenant “Lucky” Trowbridge bypassed all the safety mechanisms in the engines. Her captain, LCDR Robert W. Copeland, USNR, announced over the ship’s public address: "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can." Chôkai could not lower the guns sufficiently to hit the little destroyer escort. Sammy-B launched her three torpedoes. One blew off Chôkai’s bow. The little ship then showed why she would be known ever after as “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.” She battled on for another hour, firing more than 600 5-inch shells from her two guns. Maneuvering at very close range, she mauled Chôkai with her 40mm and 20mm AA guns. At 0851 hours, she was hit twice and lost her after 5-inch gun when a breech explosion killed and wounded several of the crew. She then engaged Chikuma, which was also under fire by Heerman. The two American ships ripped Chikuma's superstructure with salvo after salvo: armor-piercing shells, high-explosive shells, anti-aircraft shells, and even star shells which created chemical fires in metal plates hit the cruiser.
Firing her remaining 5-inch gun, Sammy-B devastated Chikuma’s bridge. Fires spread through the cruiser’s superstructure. Sammy-B’s last shot put the number three gun turret out of action just as three 14-inch shells from Kongô hit her. The order “Abandon Ship” was given at 0935 hours and Sammy-B sank 30 minutes later, taking 89 of her crew. The 120 survivors clung to three life rafts. It would be 50 hours before 80 were finally rescued from the open sea.
Cruisers Tone and Chikuma, followed by the damaged Chôkai and Kumano, closed in on Taffy-3. As they opened fire, Heermann fired her main 5-inch battery at Chikuma, then launched five torpedoes. Again, they all missed but flagship Yamato was now forced to turn away which put her out of the fight. With one gun mount knocked out, Heermann continued to engage Chikuma. Two Avengers and several Wildcats launched from Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 attacked the cruiser. Just as she turned away, a single shot from Heerman struck in her aviation gasoline stowage. Chikuma blew up and sank.
Explosion on USS ST. LO (CVE-63) after she was hit be a Kamikaze of Samar on October 25, 1944. Photo: Phi Willard Niet via NHHC
From Defeat to Victory
Gambier Bay was hit in her starboard engine room at 0847 hours. The second hit set fueled aircraft afire on the hangar deck. Enormous shells passed through her without exploding because her thin steel wasn’t enough to stop them. She went dead in the water at 0900 hours as Tone, Chikuma, and the damaged Chôkai closed in. At 0907 hours she capsized, sending 700 survivors into the water. Gambier Bay was the only American aircraft carrier ever sunk in a surface engagement.
Chokai sped past the sinking carrier and took aim at White Plains. The little carrier’s 5-inch gun crew manned their weapon on her stern. Opening fire on Chokai at maximum range, the third shot hit the cruiser in her torpedo stowage and Chokai exploded, sinking in less than two minutes and leaving no survivors. White Plains became the only aircraft carrier in history to sink an enemy warship with surface gunfire.
At 0940 hours, Johnston, which had come under attack from several enemy destroyers, lost all power from the hits and went dead in the water. The enemy surrounded her and continued their fire. Evans was finally forced to order “Abandon Ship” at 0945 hours. At 1005 hours, Johnston sank with 186 of her crew going down with her. Evans managed to get into the water with other crewmen but was never seen again. While he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, it was the Japanese themselves who first recognized his courage. Seaman Robert Billie and several other crewmen in a raft watched an enemy destroyer cruise slowly past as her captain stood on his bridge, saluting the sinking Johnston as an honorable opponent.
Aboard Yamato, Admiral Kurita became convinced by the renewed air attacks by the Wildcats and Avengers that his fleet had stumbled into contact with the U.S. Third Fleet. Expecting American battleships to come over the horizon at any moment and realizing that his ships were so dispersed from their evasive maneuvers that it was impossible for them to return to a fighting formation to take on the expected enemy, he signaled to his fleet to break off action and turn back to San Bernardino Strait at 0945 hours.
American sailors struggling in the sea, and those manning their battle stations aboard the ships, were amazed as the gunfire faded away and the enemy soon disappeared over the horizon. Had Admiral Kurita continued on, there was nothing stopping his fleet from sinking all the escort carriers and moving into Leyte Gulf to attack the invasion fleet. The reservists who manned the carriers and destroyers and aircraft squadrons – most of whom had never seen an ocean before they went aboard the ships in which they fought and died – had saved the invasion of the Philippines.
After the sinking of Gambier Bay, VC-10 Wildcat pilot Ensign McGraw was among the surviving aircrews who landed on Manila Bay. That afternoon, he was launched with other pilots from that ship to intercept a formation Val dive bombers escorted by Zeke fighters attempting to attack the escort carriers. McGraw shot down one Val and one Zeke to become VC-10’s only ace.
A bit more than an hour after the Battle off Samar concluded, the U.S. Navy was introduced to the power of a new and deadly enemy when the Shikishima Unit of the 201st Air Group found the surviving carriers of Taffy-3 at 1047 hours. At 1052 hours, a Zeke believed flown by Lieutenant Seki dived on the escort carrier St. Lo. The airplane hit the center of the flight deck. The 250-kilogram bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded on the port side of the hangar deck in the midst of several aircraft in the process of being refueled and rearmed. A gasoline fire quickly broke out, followed by six secondary explosions that ended with the detonation of the torpedo and bomb magazine. Engulfed in flame, St. Lo sank 30 minutes later. From an 889-man crew, 113 were killed or missing. Thirty survivors later died of their wounds. The 434 survivors were rescued from the water by Heermann and the destroyer escorts John C. Butler, Raymond, and Dennis. The U.S. Navy’s most deadly foe had entered the battle.