The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors:

The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour

Have you ever heard of the Battle off Samar, or the Battle of Leyte Gulf?  They were pretty much the same battle (the Battle off Samar was an action within the greater Battle of Leyte Gulf).  It is one of – if not the most lop-sided naval battle in history, and a battle in which the underdog won!  In this battle, a handful of U.S. Navy destroyers took on the main battle fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy — “tin cans” vs. battleships!  To put it in terms you might understand, imagine that you are 12 y/o and you have a BB gun.  Now imagine you decide to launch a frontal attack on a fully armed and armored and fully alert team of US Navy SEALS – and you win!  That’s pretty close to what happened in this battle, but it cost many of the U.S. Navy sailors who participated their lives.

From Wiki (because it is accurate enough for the purpose at hand):

The destroyer USS Johnston was the closest to the enemy. On his own initiative, Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans steered his hopelessly outclassed ship into the foe at flank speed. The Johnston fired its torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Kumano, damaging her and forcing her out of line. Seeing this, Sprague gave the order “small boys attack”, sending the rest of Taffy 3’s screening ships into the fray. Taffy 3’s two other destroyers, Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, attacked with suicidal determination, drawing fire and disrupting the Japanese formation as ships turned to avoid their torpedoes. However, the Hoel and the Roberts were destroyed by the slowly advancing fleet.

You should read about the two primary heroes of this engagement:

USS Johnston

For the first 20 minutes, Johnston could not return fire as the enemy cruisers and battleships’ heavy guns outranged Johnston’s 5 in (130 mm) guns. Not waiting for orders, Commander Evans broke formation and went on the offensive by ordering Johnston to speed directly toward the enemy—first a line of seven destroyers, next one light and three heavy cruisers, then the four battleships. To the east appeared three other cruisers and several destroyers.

As soon as range closed to within ten miles, Johnston fired on the heavy cruiser Kumano—the nearest ship—and scored several damaging hits. During her five-minute sprint into torpedo range, Johnston fired over 200 rounds at the enemy, then—under the direction of torpedo officer Lieutenant Jack K. Bechdel—made her torpedo attack. She got off all 10 torpedoes, then turned to retire behind a heavy smoke screen. When she came out of the smoke a minute later, Kumano could be seen burning furiously from a torpedo hit; her bow had been blown completely off, and she was forced to withdraw. Around this time, Johnston took three 14 in (360 mm) shell hits from Kongō, followed closely by three 6 in (150 mm) shells—from either a light cruiser or Yamato—which hit the bridge. The hits resulted in the loss of all power to the steering engine and all power to the three 5-inch guns in the aft part of the ship, and rendered the gyrocompass useless. A low-lying squall came up, and Johnston “ducked into it” for a few minutes of rapid repairs and salvage work. The bridge was abandoned and Commander Evans—who had lost two fingers on his left hand—went to the aft steering column to conn the ship.

Johnston soon observed Gambier Bay under fire from an enemy cruiser, and engaged the cruiser in an effort to draw her fire away from the carrier. Johnston scored four hits on the heavy cruiser, then broke off as the Japanese destroyer squadron was seen closing rapidly on the American escort carriers. Johnston engaged the lead ship until it quit, then the second until the remaining enemy units broke off to get out of effective gun range before launching torpedoes, all of which missed. Then, Johnston’s luck ran out; she came under heavy fire from multiple enemy ships, and right when it was most needed, the damaged remaining engine quit, leaving her dead in the water.

And the REAL hero of this battle, USS Samuel B. Roberts:

Shortly after dawn on 25 October, Samuel B. Roberts was protecting Taffy 3’s small escort carriers. These were serving as bases for small bombers and fighters that were supporting the Army ashore. These warships were steaming off the eastern coast of Samar when the Japanese Center Force — a 23-ship task force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita — suddenly appeared on the horizon and opened fire. At 07:35, Roberts turned and headed toward the battle. She charged toward the heavy cruiser Chōkai. The commanding officer, Copeland, announced “We’re making a torpedo run. The outcome is doubtful, but we will do our duty.” With smoke as cover, Roberts steamed to within 2.5 nmi (4.6 km; 2.9 mi) of Chōkai, coming under fire from the cruiser’s forward 8 in (203.2 mm) guns.

Roberts had moved so close that the enemy guns could not depress enough to hit her and the shells simply passing overhead. Many hit the carrier Gambier Bay. Once within torpedo range, she launched her three Mark 15 torpedoes. One blew off Chōkai’s bow. The American sailors cheered “that a way Whitey, we hit ’em” as if it were a ballgame, as shells were still incoming. Roberts then fought with the Japanese ships for a further hour, firing more than six hundred 5 in (127.0 mm) shells, and while maneuvering at very close range, mauling Chōkai’s superstructure with her 40 mm and 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. At 08:51, the Japanese landed two hits, the second of which damaged the aft 5 inch gun. This damaged gun suffered a breech explosion shortly thereafter which killed and wounded several crew members. With her remaining 5 in (127.0 mm) gun, Roberts set the bridge of the heavy cruiser Chikuma on fire and destroyed the “Number Three” gun turret, before being hit by three 14 in (355.6 mm) shells from the battleship Kongō. The shells tore a hole 40 ft (12.2 m) long and 10 ft (3.0 m) wide in the port side of her aft engine room.

Gunner’s Mate Third Class Paul H. Carr was in charge of the aft 5 in (127.0 mm) gun mount, which had fired nearly all of its 325 stored rounds in 35 minutes before a breech explosion. Carr was found dying at his station with his intestines blown all over the inside of the gun mount, mortally wounded and begging for help to load the last round he was holding into the breech. He had scored a great many hits on the heavy cruiser Chokai, also sunk that day. When the projectile was taken away from him, he was found later, holding it, attempting to load it. He was awarded a Silver Star, and a guided missile frigate was later named for him.[3] The USS Copeland (FFG-25) and Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) guided missile frigates were also named for the ship and its captain. At 09:35, the order was given to abandon ship. She sank 30 minutes later, with 90 of her sailors.

The 120 survivors of the crew clung to three life rafts for 50 hours before being rescued. During the battle, Samuel B. Roberts — designed for 23–24 kn (43–44 km/h; 26–28 mph) — reached 28.7 kn (53.2 km/h; 33.0 mph) by diverting all available steam to the ship’s twin turbines.

THIS is why we call them the greatest generation!

8 thoughts on “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors

  1. One of the great books, about one of the great battles…..I can just imagine the captains of those ships cinching up the ol balls, gritting their teeth, and just damn well doing their best. My high school algebra was “Andy ” Nisewaner, the captain of the USS Albert W Grant. Look up his story…

    • Jesse,

      I will, thanks. I just wish there were a way to get people to understand what those Japanese battleships looked like to the guys on those destroyers. There really isn’t and easy comparison. You on the street facing a semi-truck isn’t even good enough. As you say, I can’t imagine what they must have felt.

      [Incidentally, after looking up your Cpt. here — my wife’s grandfather fought on Tinian and Saipan. Mine fought at Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal.]

  2. Thanks for Posting this Joe…. I wasn’t aware of the Sub-story of Leyte. And thank you Jesse for making Capt Nisewaner’s story see the light of day.

    I am reminded of the engagement during the Revolutionary War in Pennsylvania. At a Bridge the British were trying to outflank the Colonists…..and the local Boys 12- 15 years olds attacked them with sticks clubs and finally their TEETH….. in the end the Brits abandoned their Bridge. Later congress presented the Boys that survived Brand new Top of the Line Rifles of the time.

    Wish I could remember the name of the engagement….sorry !!

  3. There was a great John Wayne movie built around this battle called “In Harms Way”. My father was a tin can sailor who fought in the battle of Okinawa during the last great Kamazie attack and his ship recieved a unit bronze star for their bravery in that attack. I was a tin can sailor for a very short time on the USS Whiltse DD716 in the 1970’s. They were small, very manuverable, and deadly with their torpedos and by the time I came along ASROC missle systems.

    • Old Vet,

      I DEFINITELY did NOT mean to ignore the service of the pickets (DD’s providing advanced warning of incoming Kamikaze attacks surrounding the waters of Okinawa). I just picked this story because — well, let’s face it — you need to have BIG brass ones to take a DD and charge the Yamato and 22 other capital ships. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Battle off Samar – Oct 25, 1944 | PROFILES IN COURAGE

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