August 2023

years of his life; he worked as a docent aboard

the battleship Iowa in San Pedro).

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.

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.

Photo: USN via Thomas Cleaver

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.

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

Japanese battleship Musashi under attack

INFO Eduard