USS Kitkun Bay (CVE-71) prepares to launch FM-2 Wildcats fighters during the action.

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


August 2023

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 (DD557), Hoel (DD-533) and Heerman (DD-532), and

four Butler-class destroyer escorts USS John C.

Butler (DE-339), Dennis (DE-405), Raymond (DE341) 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.”

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/38caliber 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

Photo: USN via Thomas Cleaver

Photo: NHHC


FM-2s of Composite Squadron 10 at Tacloban

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