U.S. Seventh fleet task unit 77.4.3 (Taffy III) memorial monument
On October 25th, 1944, Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy 3) was a small anti-submarine and ground support unit made up of 6 Escort Carriers, 3 Destroyers, and 4 Destroyer Escorts (Frigates in modern terminology) commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague that was stationed off the coast of the Filipino island of Samar when they suddenly found themselves unintentionally in the path of Center Force, the largest and most powerful Japanese fleet taking part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. To slow to outrun the fast Battleships, Cruisers, and Destroyers commanded by Vice Admiral Takao Kurita, and realizing they were the only thing between the enemy and the thousands of Allied Marines and Army soldiers landing on the island, Taffy 3 prepared for a fight. In one of the most legendary Naval battles in U.S. History, documented in James D. Hornfischer's "Last stand of the Tin Can Sailors", Taffy 3 battled the Japanese center force for almost two hours in a battle that should have seen them wiped out within minutes, and at 8:20 Admiral Kurita called the retreat. Against overwhelming odds and the cost of many lives, Taffy III turned back the most powerful surface combatant fleet ever assembled by the Japanese and saved the liberation of the Philippines.
Backstory and Context
In early 1942, General Douglas MacArthur was forced to retreat off the Philippine islands, having suffered many defeats since the Japanese invasion of the island chain in December 1941, not long after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Before he left, however, he vowed "I shall return". An in late 1944, he made good on that promise. The United States Army and Marines, along with Filipino army personnel who escaped, returned to the Philippines to free it from brutal Japanese occupation.
Knowing that if they lost the Philippines, they lost resources necessary to hold off the Americans, the Japanese Army dug in their heels. However, the Americans dominated the ocean, with the Imperial Japanese Navy being forced on the defensive since the destruction of the Kido Butai at the Battle of Midway. Needing some way to support the Japanese Army, the IJN decided to gamble. Knowing the American Admiral in charge of supporting the invasion, William "Bull" Halsey, wanted to be the one to take out the remaining Japanese carriers, the IJN deployed four carriers and a large fleet of escorts to lure the 3rd fleet north. To make the target more tempting, the Zuikaku, the last surviving Carrier that took part in the Pearl Harbor raid, was apart of the formation. And in an event that could have seen the U.S. lose everything, Halsey took the Bait. In the south, the Southern and Center forces were set to take advantage and, comprised mainly of Battleships, shell the American and Filipino forces. The Southern Force was decimated when they ran into the Seventh Fleet, which didn't take the bait, allowing for a satisfactory amount of revenge for 5 American Battleships, West Virginia, Maryland, California, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, who survived or was salvaged from Pearl Harbor. Likewise, the Third fleet didn't totally leave the area undefended. Center Force, comprised of the Battleships Yamato and Musashi (the two largest Battleships in the world), Nagato (flagship of Admiral Yamamoto during the Pearl Harbor Raid), Kongo and Haruna, was attacked by Halsey's carriers (Intrepid, Essex, Lexington, Franklin, Cabot, and Enterprise) which sank the Musashi and caused Center Force to turn back briefly.
However, Kurita gathered his ships once more and set out for Samar, where they ran into Taffy Three. One of three units left, the Americans at first believed the Japanese ships were the ships retreating from the 7th fleet, who's muzzle flashes and thunderclaps of 14 and 16 in guns could be seen and heard over the southern horizon. However, when the shooting started, it became clear that not only were the enemy hostile, they were in range. Admiral Sprague ordered his fleet to put up a smoke screen and perform evasive actions, they wouldn't make the fight easy for the enemy. Suddenly, Commander Ernest Evens aboard his Destroyer, USS Johnston, gave an order that would earn him a Medal of Honor. "Flank speed, left full rudder." The Johnston was going on the offensive. Knowing the only weapon they had that could actually cause harm to the Japanese were their torpedoes, Evens elected to close the range. And, somehow avoiding the Japanese shellfire, reached the Enemy fleet and fired off her torpedoes, blowing the bow off the Cruiser Kamuno, and narrowly missing the Kongo. Inspired by this action, the rest of Taffy 3's Destroyers entered battle, firing torpedoes and engaging in gun battles with ships multiple times their size while the Aircraft, reinforced with aircraft from Taffy 1 and 2, caused what mayhem they could, while the Battleships of 7th fleet slowly sailed north to try and help. Finally, with his ships crippled and on fire, Kurita ordered a retreat. The Battle was won, but not without loss. Gambier Bay, an Escort Carrier, was sunk by surface fire. Her sister ship, St. Lo, would go down later a few hours later from a Kamikaze strike, one of the first. USS Hoel and Sammuel B. Roberts, a Destroyer and Destroyer Escort, went down fighting. And the Johnston, badly mauled, dipped beneath the waves driving Japanese Destroyers off the Carriers. Among the brave sailors who went down with her was Commander Evens.
The actions were best summed up by Lieutenant Commander Robert Copeland, commander of the Samuel B Roberts. "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."
This memorial, detailing the names and awards of the American ships, squadrons, and sailors and containing a bust of Admiral Sprague, was dedicated in 1996 to cement the Units place in history. It is located in San Diego, California, with the Museum ship and former Aircraft Carrier USS Midway (CVB-41) serves as a backdrop to the memorial.
The Battle off Samar: The Sacrifice of “Taffy 3” 25 October 1944, Naval History and Heritage Command. Accessed June 30th 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1944/samar.html.
Battle off Samar, Destroyer History Foundation. Accessed June 30th 2020. http://www.destroyerhistory.org/actions/index.asp?pid=4583.
Girminsky, Robert A. A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers: The Escort Carriers, U.S. Navy Official Website. Accessed June 30th 2020. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=3.