Veterans Day Tribute
We live in liberty today because of those who died on our behalf in years past. As Veterans Day aproaches, it is important to take time to remember the scarifices of those who have guarded our nation’s freedom.
“Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors,” by James D. Hornfischer, is the riveting true story of incredible heroism in the Pacific during the waning years of World War II. (In naval slang, a “tin can” is a destroyer, a lightly armored escort ship.)
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral “Bull” Halsey took the main elements of the U.S. fleet north in search of the Japanese fleet. It was a calculated gamble for it left significant elements of U.S. ground forces on the beaches with minimal support. Unfortunately, Admiral Halsey guessed incorrectly (see Wikipedia note below) about the location of the Japanese fleet and the stage was set for tragedy.
Off the Philippine island of Samar “loomed the mightiest ships of the Japanese navy, a massive fleet…. All that stood between it and Douglas MacArthur’s vulnerable invasion force were…the small ships of a tiny American flotilla.” Six U.S. escort carriers (see note) and a screen of eight destroyers and destroyer escorts, task force Taffy 3, faced a vastly superior Japanese naval force made up of four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers.
“This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” These were the words of Lt. Commander Robert W. Copeland of the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts to his crew on the morning of October 25, 1944.
On that day in history those eight destroyers and destroyer escorts threw themselves at the Japanese fleet with such courage and ferocity, repeatedly engaging the much more heavily armored Japanese battleships and cruisers. Incredibly out gunned, the Americans attacked with such reckless abandon that Japanese Admiral Kurita (who was as much in the dark about the location of the U.S. Navy as Halsey was about his location) decided that the heavy elements of the U.S. Navy must be close by because only that level of imminent, nearby support would justify such aggressive action.
With that determination, the Japanese fleet withdrew and the American forces on the beachhead were spared. Certain defeat had been avoided only by astounding valor, by men willing to die that others might live.
Over a thousand Americans died in the naval engagement off Samar. It is in reverent memory of such devotion, love, and sacrifice we celebrate Veterans Day.
Halsey had taken the whole of the 3rd Fleet, including six battleships under the name “Task Force 34,” northward on a wild goose chase — pursuit of a fleet of Japanese aircraft carriers sent as a decoy — leaving the landing beaches on the island of Leyte in the Philippines covered only by a small group of escort carriers from the 7th Fleet. He did this without clearly communicating his intentions. Everyone else, including CINCPAC (Chester Nimitz), back in Hawaii, still thought he was covering the landings. On the morning of October 25, a strong Japanese force of battleships slipped through the strait and attacked the landing force, which appealed for assistance from Halsey. Nimitz intercepted the appeal and sent a famously unfortunate message to Halsey, simply asking for his current location. The message transmitted was:
“WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS”
The words after the last ‘RR’ are padding added to make cryptanalysis more difficult. While decrypting and transcribing the message, Halsey’s radio officer properly removed the leading phrase, but the trailing phrase seemed so apropos he seems to have thought it might have been intended and so left it in before passing it on to Halsey. The structure tagging (the ‘RRs) should have made clear that the phrase was in fact padding.
The message (and its trailing padding) became famous, and created some ill feeling, since it appeared to be a harsh criticism by Nimitz of Halsey’s decision to pursue the carriers and leave the landings uncovered. The Japanese high command had dispatched the carrier force as a sacrificial decoy (the Japanese, by that time, were almost out of serviceable planes and more importantly, almost out of trained pilots), and the headstrong American commander swallowed the bait. Only through the actions of Clifton Sprague’s Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”), composed entirely of small escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts was the Japanese line of battle deterred (see Battle of Samar).
Escort carriers were also known as jeep carriers or baby flat tops. These are NOT the “fleet carriers” one normally thinks of when aircraft carriers are mentioned; fleet carriers during WWII ran up to 30,000 tons, escort carriers closer to 8,000 tons, less than one-third the size.