In harm’s way: The saga of Gambier Bay, the Battle off Samar
By Barrett Tillman. Reprinted with permission from The Hook, Vol 14/4 Winter 1986, pp 40-52.
Gambier Bay, straddled by large calibre rounds from VADM Kurita’s surface force, 25 October 1944.
(Painting is by C.G. Evers, reproduced with permission of the U.S. Naval Institute.)
Supported by the Seventh Fleet, Army troops landed on Leyte Island in the central Philippines 20 October 1944. The invasion sparked one of the largest naval-air battles in history. The sprawling three-day engagement passed into history as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
On the morning of 25 October Task Group 77.4.3 – six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts – was caught off Samar by a Japanese battleship-cruiser force totalling 23 men-of-war. It was the only occasion when U.S. carriers were engaged by enemy surface combatants. Taffy Three, under RADM Clifton A. Sprague, conducted a magnificent defence but sustained severe casualties. In four hours, two CVEs were sunk (one by a Kamikaze) and three escorts were lost. Only one CVE escaped damage.
Aided by aircraft of nearby Taffy One and Two, Sprague’s outnumbered, outgunned group passed into American naval legend. This account of Gambier Bay‘s ordeal is dedicated to all CVE sailors and aviators who fought “The Battle of the Taffies.”
It was nearly 0630 when the sun broke over the eastern rim of the Philippine Sea. The quickly-gathering daylight revealed a one-third cumulus cloud cover but the sea remained calm. An easterly breeze of 6-8 knots was blowing, with occasional gusts to 15 knots within the scattered rain squalls.
Gambier Bay CVE-73 commissioned 24 December 1943. Kaiser-built Casablanca class: 20-30 aircraft, 7800 tons, 156 x 20 x 6.85 metres (513 x 65 x 22.5 feet) two reciprocating steam engines, 9000ihp, 19 knots.
In USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) sailors and airmen prepared for the escort carrier’s 303rd day since commissioning. Attention was focused upon supporting the army troops who had gone ashore on Leyte five days before, 20 October 1944. Composite Squadron 10 had launched eight FM-2s at 0500 for CAP over Leyte. In aerology, LEUT Rannie Odum and his crew expected another of those hot, humid days when smoke and haze lay low in the air.
Up on the bridge, CAPT Walter V.R. Viewig was joined by the navigator, CMDR George Gelhorn. A couple of minutes later, at 0637, the skipper received authorisation from RADM Clifton A. Sprague to stand down from GQ. Sprague commanded the force of six CVEs and escorts officially known is Task Group 77.4.3, but which passed into history for its call sign, “Taffy Three”.
Viewig passed the word to secure and set Condition Three. All over the ship, men loosened lifejackets, removed helmets, got up to head for chow. Others, not yet on duty, returned to their bunks for a bit more sleep.
At 0640 some men were just sitting down to breakfast and others were standing in line. Topside, lookouts were pointing their glasses to the north-west, where something seemed to be happening just over the horizon. Bursts of anti-aircraft fire were observed in that quadrant. It was a puzzling development. A few men speculated that other American ships were firing at friendly aircraft; it happened all too often.
A Grumman TBM Avenger (left) was the first to raise the alarm and attack the enemy. The TBM was a Grumman TBF torpedo reconnaissance aircraft built by General Motors. The FM Wildcat fighter was a Grumman F4-F, also built by General Motors.
But other strange occurrences also were happening. Down in the radio shack, the duty crew monitored a peculiar, almost unintelligible VHF transmission. Apparently it came from a Taffy Two Avenger on anti-sub patrol; something about many Japanese ships sighted 30 miles from base. If true, it was a startling development. Not only had there been no word of any such enemy force, but the contact report, if accurate, placed the Japanese only 20 miles away. Taffy Three at that moment was about 10 miles north of Taffy Two.
A minute later the transmission was repeated, and this time there was no doubt of what the TBM pilot said. ENS Hans Jensen of VC-20 off Kadashan Bay (CVE-76) accurately reported what he saw: four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. He was heard to say he was being fired upon – hence the AA bursts – and he was attacking a cruiser with his bombs.
The radio watch heard Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) relay RADM Sprague’s plea: “Check identification.” Everyone who heard the transmission knew what the Taffy Three CO must be thinking. It wasn’t unusual for U.S. ships to fire at U.S. aircraft, but seldom had American planes accidentally bombed their own ships. Perhaps Jensen’s contact was Task Force 34, the contingency battle line to be formed in case of a surface engagement, or an element of VADM Pete Mitscher’s fast carrier Task Force 38.
Almost simultaneously Jensen said, “BBs have pagoda masts,” and lookouts in several Taffy Three ships spotted the distinctive superstructures of enemy warships. Down in CIC, LTJG Bill Cuming’s radar operators noticed new blips on the surface-search SG scope. Whatever this force was, it was a big one. And it was close; bearing 300 degrees true at 23½ miles.
As if that wasn’t enough, radio monitors overheard garbled transmissions on the same frequency as LEUT Bill Buderus’s fighter direction channel. They quickly recognised the unintelligible voices as Japanese.
All this information came to Walt Viewig within two minutes. Its strength was overwhelming; there was no room for doubt. At 0645, Viewig ordered Gambier Bay to General Quarters and called up maximum speed. At 0647, all battle stations were re-manned and ready.
Something, something, had gone terribly wrong.
At the same moment the klaxon sent sailors and airmen scrambling to their battle stations in Gambier Bay, another officer was issuing another order. VADM Takeo Kurita and his flagship Yamato, one of the two largest battleships ever built, flashed the word to his armada, “General attack.”
Yamato, the biggest (72,800 tons) warship afloat in 1944, mounted nine x 460mm (18 inch) plus six x 155 mm (6.2 inch), 12 x 12.7 mm (5.1 inch) guns and 146 x 25 mm cannon. She measured 263 x 38.7 x 11 metres (863 x 127 x 36 feet). Her 12 Kampon boilers fed four turbines that delivered 150,000 SHP to four shafts, giving a maximum speed of about 27 knots.
Kurita and his lookouts optimistically believed they had trapped one of Mitscher’s fast carrier task groups. Many of his junior officers cheered and fought back tears of joy. They believed they had been presented “a heaven-sent opportunity” to destroy a major portion of the U.S. Navy.
Takeo Kurita needed all the good fortune he could obtain. A highly experienced officer with a firm background in destroyers and cruisers, he had been roughly handled in the previous two days. U.S. submarines and air strikes had deprived him of Yamato‘s sister, Musashi, plus two cruisers and several destroyers sunk or turned back. Yet even these losses left Kurita with the still-formidable force of four battleships, six heavy and two light cruisers, with eleven destroyers.
This force, transitting San Bernardino Strait the night of the 24th-25th, was the centre of a three-pronged Japanese attempt to engage and destroy American invasion shipping in Leyte Gulf. The southern prong was destroyed in a surface engagement that same night, but the northern force, “the bait which the Imperial Navy assessed ADML W.F. Halsey could not ignore” worked to perfection. ComThirdFleet took the fast carriers north to engage the four remaining enemy CVs off Cape Engano, leaving Kurita a clear shot at the Seventh Fleet units now in his path. VADM Ozawa’s flattops were almost empty shells, with few aircraft or fully-trained aviators. But Halsey didn’t know that. He intended to finish the last of Imperial Japan’s carriers.
VADM Thomas C. Kinkaid, ComSeventhFleet, therefore had no indication of the danger which his CVE groups (not to mention the troop transports) faced off Samar. Such was the situation at 0645 when two surprised admirals, Clifton Sprague and Takeo Kurita, suddenly learned of one another’s presence.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf.
VC-10’s skipper, LCDR Ed Huxtable, was sitting alone in Gambier Bay‘s wardroom when GQ sounded. His immediate thought was, “Here’s another hop to the Sulu Sea.” But if that were the case, there was time enough to wait for a slice of toast and some fruit juice before reporting to the ready room. Just then, LTJG John Holland, the squadron personnel officer, rushed in. Using the term then in vogue for squadron COs, Holland said, “Captain, you’d better get up to the ready room in a hurry. They’re already manning the planes.”
No longer hungry, Huxtable followed Holland into the passageway at a dead run. He asked what was happening. “I don’t know,” Holland replied, “but all hell must be busting loose.”
That was how most Gambier Bay personnel learned of the situation-waiting for breakfast. Rannie Odum was reaching for a glass of tomato juice when the alarm sounded. He wondered “should I or shouldn’t I,” and decided he shouldn’t. He left for his battle station without getting anything to drink. AMM2/c Charlie Westbrook, the 25-year-old gunner in LTJG Bob Crocker’s TBM crew, was one of the lucky ones. He had actually started to eat when the gong went off. Grabbing his gear from his locker, Westbrook detoured long enough to shake his radioman out of the bunk, but the radioman was too groggy to respond and Westbrook wasted no more time trying to rouse him. Westbrook dashed up to the flight deck and saw four TBMs lined up, ready for launch. One spare crew was standing nearby and Westbrook grabbed the radioman and shoved him into Crocker’s plane. No ordnance had been loaded but while waiting for launch, ordnance-men quickly attached two rockets under each wing.
Other pilots and aircrew were scrambling for their planes, too. Ed Huxtable found his intelligence officer, LEUT Vereen Bell, suited up ready to go, anxious as ever to fly a mission. However, the situation remained unclear. Hux was still under the impression that a strike to the Sulu Sea was being hastily organised and told the ACIO, “You’d better stay here.” Nobody else was in the ready room and the CO wanted someone there to coordinate things.
Hux snatched up his plotting board and dashed topside. He found ENS R.B. “Tuffy” Barrows sitting in the fourth Avenger and motioned Barrows to jump out. While buckling in, Hux asked plane captain Jerry Gutzweiler if he had a bomb load. Gutzweiler said “no” and Hux told him to call the air officer, LCDR E.E. “Buzz” Borries, about getting some ordnance. None of the TBMs had started engines yet, so there was apparently time enough for arming.
Gutzweiler called Borries on the voice tube at the base of the island, relaying Huxtable’s request. Looking over his shoulder, Hux saw the air officer move forward and speak briefly to CAPT Viewig. The captain immediately made a sweeping motion with one arm and seemed to say “Get ’em off.”
Hux was wondering what the rush was all about when he heard “what seemed to be a rifle shot next to my left ear”. He snapped his head around just in time to see a salvo of shells explode not far from White Plains (CVE-66). The urgency was now clear.
Kurita had opened fire at 0658 and that first salvo landed before 0659. The final countdown had started for Gambier Bay.
Curiously, many men were unaware of their circumstances. When the first shells started falling, several gunners looked up, squinting for a glimpse of the Japanese bombers they thought must be overhead. It was even longer before some of those below decks learned what was happening.
Even some of the men in communications didn’t immediately have a full grasp of the situation. In CIC one talker called up to the bridge, just as the first enemy shells were fired, that the radar contact was confusing. He theorised that it might be an ionised cloud. Viewig, with characteristic coolness, replied, “That’s the first cloud I’ve seen with a nine-gun salvo.”
In the five minutes before 0700, events accelerated at a fantastic pace. The seven Avengers and ten Wildcats on deck started their engines and began taxiing into position for launch. Gun
flashes were visible on the north-western horizon as the Japanese ships commenced fire and multi-coloured splashes fell astern of the CVE formation.
In the midst of this frantic activity, Walt Viewig was conforming to the orders issued by Clifton Sprague. At 0657 Taffy Three had turned due east and commenced launching. It was not directly into the wind, but near enough to permit flight operations. Task group speed was first set at 16 knots and then at flank speed: between 17 and 18 knots for the CVEs.
CAPT W.V.R. (Bowser) Viewig (left) CO Gambier Bay, and RADM C.A.F. (Clifton) Sprague, Commander TG 77.4.1, Taffy Three, in Fanshaw Bay.
Then, having done all he could for the moment, Clifton Sprague did the next best thing. He screamed for help on the Inter-Commander Support Aircraft circuit. This plain-language voice broadcast notified every level of the Seventh Fleet of Taffy Three’s grim situation. It was. Sprague would recall, “the ultimate in desperate circumstances.”
Indeed it was. Sprague’s six CVEs formed a 2,500-yard circle with the three DDs and four DEs on an outer circle 6,000 yards from the centre. Kurita’s 23 ships, deployed in five formations to the north-west, outnumbered Taffy Three nearly two-to-one. But that was the least consideration. Almost any six of the Japanese ships should have been enough to destroy Sprague’s unit in 60 minutes.
But this was a gunfight, conducted at relatively close range by powerful men-of-war against thin-hulled escorts which were never intended for anything remotely approaching such a situation. Only once before had an aircraft carrier come under the guns of a surface force; off Norway in June 1940 when the British Glorious was caught by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They sank Glorious and her two attendant destroyers in less than two hours.
Taffy Three was on the short end of every yardstick; outnumbered, outweighed, outranged and apparently out of luck. But if Sprague’s ships couldn’t trade gunfire with the enemy, perhaps they could blind him for awhile. Employing the favourite tactic of every outgunned admiral, Sprague ordered all ships to start laying smoke screens.
Launch all aircraft
During the eight minutes from 0657 to 0705, Gambier Bay launched all 17 planes on deck. With the wind quartering from port, it was a little tricky, and the enemy salvos were falling closer. Some of the Wildcats skidded across the deck as nearby explosions jarred the CVE’s light hull. But they all made it off.
LEUT Dick Roby’s division, LTJG Rocky Phillips, LEUT Gene Seitz and ENS Chuck Dugan, which had been standing by as the duty flight, was the first airborne. Dugan had barely started to crank up his wheels when he got his first look at the Japanese force closing from astern. His reaction was typical, “Oh, shit!”
Two destroyers were cutting in from the starboard quarter, and since they presented the most immediate threat, Roby took his four fighters down to strafe. Each pilot made three or four passes, pushing the gunnery runs low and making abrupt high-G pullouts. Dugan made four passes, recovering so steeply that he blacked out each time. Fearful of diving into the water, he trimmed his Wildcat for climb and recovered consciousness each time nose-high, heading into the 1500-foot clouds.
The combined firepower of 16 .50-calibers was formidable. The tubby FMs bored in low and close, the dark grey forms of the destroyers looming larger in their gunsights as tracers lanced out in both directions. Motes of white light played over the superstructures as the heavy bullets hammered against steel plates.
Dick Roby lost contact with his three pilots after the second pass at the two DDs. But it was enough. Both ships heeled hard over, reversed course, and headed away from Taffy Three, at least temporarily. Roby then sought some company and joined a formation of five Avengers and two Wildcats. They were from Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), led by VC-5 skipper CMDR R.L. Fowler. An Annapolis classmate of Ed Huxtable, Fowler was senior squadron commander in Taffy Three.
As well as possible, he established himself as strike director. There remained little coordination for the first 90 minutes, however. Roby stayed with the Kitkun Bay planes, straffing to suppress flak and draw as much firepower away from the TBMs as possible.
Meanwhile, VC-10’s bombers were getting into the battle, but many had been launched too hastily for arming. Most of those with ordnance had 500-lb bombs or depth charges. A few had five-inch rockets. None of the first seven Avengers had a torpedo, the weapon they really needed.
Huxtable was fourth off and gained the lead by the time he came round the standard 180 degrees turn which pointed his planes back toward the Japanese ships. In his Arizona drawl he called RADM Sprague to report his flight airborne, “Bendix, this is Catnip Lead. What are our orders? Over.” Fanshaw Bay snapped back, “Attack immediately!”
The seven Avengers were flying under very low ceiling as the task group approached a rain squall. As Hux led his flight on a westerly heading he broke out into better visibility over the destroyer escorts and climbed for a bit more altitude. Visible through the gloom was what appeared to be four enemy cruisers and behind them, four battleships. Hux sized up the situation and decided to utilise the reduced visibility to better advantage. He turned back over the carriers and rolled out on a course he figured would take his flight over the hostile cruisers. Hux knew that he had no ordnance and was uncertain what the others had, if anything. But he figured “at least we’d give the Japs a scare.”
Chikuma, a Tone class heavy cruiser: 15,200 tons, 198 x 18.5 x 6.4 metres (649 x 61 21 feet) 8 x 20.3 cm (8 inch), 8 x 12.7 cm (5 inch) 12 x 25 mm guns, 12 torpedo tubes, six aircraft, eight boilers, 152,000 SHP, 35 knots, 850 crew.
The flight broke into the clear again, broad on the starboard beam of the four cruisers, sailing line astern. They were Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma and Tone: each displacing 11,000-to-13,000 tons and mounting eight to ten 20 cm (8-inch) guns. The Japanese spotted the TBMs almost immediately and opened a torrent of AA fire. Huxtable’s crews saw the red “golf balls” curling toward them at deceptively slow speed, then accelerating as tracers always seem to do. Most passed under the Avengers.
Abruptly Hux came hard left and went for the last cruiser in line, leaving the other pilots to pick their own targets. He glanced at his airspeed indicator and saw the needle passing through 190 knots, but held to his shallow dive till 3,000 yards out. At that range the AA fire was “getting just too hot”. The CO broke left and paralleled the formation, heading astern. He then made a wide circling turn to port, passing ahead of the cruiser column and made another approach from starboard. Hux levelled off about 3,500 yards out, intending to evaluate the situation and report to Sprague again, but five multi-coloured flak bursts appeared only 150 yards ahead of his Avenger. The enemy gunners had his range and elevation but slightly overestimated the deflection. He flew through the smoke of the middle burst.
It was obvious that the Japanese were gaining on the carriers. If the task group remained on its easterly heading it would soon be overrun. Huxtable called Bendix and informed the OTC that his best course was south. Then he called Gambier Bay and got the assistant air ops officer, LCDR Elmo Waring. Buzz Borries was busy with flight operations, leaving Waring to handle communications. Waring suggested that the airborne planes head for newly-won Tacloban airfield on Leyte to pick up ordnance. But it was nearly 100 miles to Tacloban on Leyte’s northeast coast. With plenty of fuel remaining, Hux and the others elected to remain and harrass the Japanese as much as possible.
Like Huxtable, ENS Paul Bennett had no bombs or rockets for his TBM. He did what he could by making two straffing passes, one at a battleship and another at a cruiser. He then broke off and headed south towards Taffy Two, hoping to get aboard a carrier and pick up some ordnance before returning to the battle. Most of the others also were making dry runs by now. Dick Roby called Waring and asked about prospects of landing on any Taffy Three flight deck to rearm. The reply was emphatic, “You’re not getting aboard any of these ships.” There was too much to do merely getting spare planes in the air to think about recovering those already launched. Roby had to head for the beach; his fuel was down to only 30 gallons.
Chuck Dugan also was out of ammo. After shooting up the two destroyers he joined Huxtable and tried to divert some AA fire by strafing a Fuso-class battleship. That was the last of his .50-caliber load. “I doubt if I scratched the paint,” he recalled. He joined Tony Osborne’s TBM, and the two flew along in loose formation for several moments. Each was waiting for the other to make the first move, and gradually they realised both were without any ammo or ordnance. Like Roby, Dugan set course for Tacloban.
At 0715 the carriers had entered a providential rain squall which, combined with the smoke screen produced by the destroyers, temporarily hid the force from effective Japanese gunnery spotting. During the several minutes spent in this very welcome cover, Clifton Sprague took Huxtable’s advice and altered course more southward, from 090 degrees to 119 degrees. This temporarily caused Kurita’s gunfire to fall wide of the mark.
Borries also used the unexpected reprieve. He had the first torpedo-armed Avenger brought up from the hangar deck where ordnancemen had been removing the “fish” from their racks. Gambier Bay had nine aerial torpedoes aboard, but it took time to check and load each one. The one-ton weapons had to be removed from their racks, laid on a dolly and lugged to the waiting TBM. Air pressure, alcohol and rudder throws had to be inspected and depth setting fixed. Then each had to be hoisted into an Avenger’s bomb bay. To ordnanceman Nordeen “Skinny” Iverson, it seemed to take forever just to get the first torpedo loaded. As soon as that job was done, the VC-10 ordnance crew quickly went aft to fetch another. Three more Avengers remained aboard, and they all needed to be armed with torpedoes.
A call had gone to the ready room for the more experienced torpedo pilots to man Gambier Bay‘s last remaining planes, regardless of who was on the flight ops list for the day. LTJGs Bill Gallagher, Bob Weatherholt and Hank Pyzdrowski were the first to respond.
The first torpedo-armed TBM was brought up on the flight deck at 0708. In the haste and confusion there had been no time to service it; only 35 gallons of gas were in the tanks. Gallagher was to fly it and he had two very clear choices. He could make an attack, which would mean a water landing from fuel exhaustion or he could head for Taffy Two, refuel, then come back.
It was obvious Gallagher had already made up his mind. The big, jovial Bostonian had barely cleared the flight deck when he turned back towards the Japanese. He kept his Avenger almost at deck level and made straight for the threatening cruiser column, watched by numerous sailors from Gambier Bay. Joining a TBM from another squadron, he initiated a torpedo attack, knowing he would run out of fuel in a few minutes.
Pickled fish ran true
Bill Gallagher had made his choice and he stuck to it. Keeping low, he opened his bomb bay doors and pressed through a tremendous concentration of anti-aircraft fire. He pickled his fish, which was seen to run hot, straight and normal. Circling nearby, still drawing off some of the flak, Ed Huxtable saw the third cruiser take a torpedo aft and turn out of formation. She made a full circle and rejoined the column at the rear, proceeding at reduced speed. Nobody could say for certain that Gallagher’s torpedo was the one that connected, but Hux thought it likely.
Running on fumes, Gallagher found Huxtable and joined formation. The Japanese AA had scored repeated hits on his TBM, which was streaming a thick plume of smoke from the engine. The two Avengers briefly flew together and Hux pointed over his shoulder, gesturing for Bill to head for the beach.
Gallagher had everything a torpedo pilot needed-skill and courage, a weapon and a target. Everything but luck. Even if he had enough fuel, which he didn’t, he could not have made it. He ditched his flak-riddled TBM near the task group. Another pilot saw the crew float in liferafts but neither Bill Gallagher nor his crewmen, L. Holly and George Saint, were ever seen again.
Hux and the remaining TBMs continued their dry runs, diving into the flak to split the AA defenses. They made their pullouts with bomb bay doors open to simulate a genuine attack. The Japanese were kept guessing as to which runs were “wet” and which were “dry”. About this time, 0715, Sprague ordered his destroyers to initiate torpedo attacks against the vastly superior enemy force. They were upwind of the CVEs and therefore on the leeward side of their own smoke screen. During one of his numerous dummy runs, Hux looked down to see the DDs and DEs turn into the attack. A former destroyer man himself, he “really felt for them”.
Hoel DD533: Fletcher class Destroyer: 2700 tons, 114 x 1 x 5.4 metres (376 x 39 x 18 feet), five x 12.7cm (5 inch), four x 28mm (1.1 inch), four x 20 mm guns, 10 x 21 inch torpedo tubes, 60,000 SHP, two shafts, 38 knots, 273 crew
In perhaps the most gallant action in the history of the U.S. Navy, the three DDs and four DEs took on nearly two dozen enemy ships, concentrating on the cruisers and battleships. In the next two hours three of them, Hoel (DD-533), Johnston (DD-557) and Roberts (DE-413), were shot to battered, flaming, sinking derelicts. But they worked a not-so-minor miracle.
One of their torpedoes struck the cruiser Kumano, slowing her down. More importantly, however, the prolonged series of bold attacks diverted much of the enemy’s attention from the CVEs. Kurita’s flagship, the mighty Yamato, was forced out of gun range by a spread of destroyer torpedoes. During the ten minutes it took Kurita to evade the threat, Yamato‘s huge guns were put out of effective range.
It was nearly 0730 when the first CVEs began to emerge from the blessed cover of the rain squall. During the previous 15 minutes the task group had altered course between south-east and south-west, hoping to throw off the Japanese spotters even more. But as visibility improved again, a new menace showed itself.
The four cruisers Huxtable and several others had been harrying for almost half an hour were now pulling well ahead of the main enemy force, obviously attempting to circle around Sprague’s port quarter and cut off his retreat. Eight-inch salvos began falling nearby – the cruisers were getting the range. Sprague went on the air again and ordered the Taffy Three planes to concentrate on the four fast ships threatening to hem in the little task group.
Samuel B Roberts DE413: John C Butler class Destroyer Escort: 1745 tons, 93 x 11 x 4.1 metres (306 x 37 x 13 feet), two 12.7 cm (5 inch), two twin 40 mm AA guns, three 21 inch torpedo tubes, one hedgehog, eight depth charge throwers, two boilers, 12,000 SHP, two shafts, 24 knots, 201 crew.
The rest of the Japanese armada, thrown off balance by the destroyers’ bold and persistent attacks, was as yet not the major threat. Kurita had made a serious mistake in ordering general attack, for he lost tactical control of his force. Instead of cutting the corner of Sprague’s arcing turn to the south, most of Kurita’s ships continued the stern chase and followed the same general track as their targets. As the CVEs emerged from the squall line, Gambier Bay‘s second torpedo-armed Avenger was brought up to the flight deck. Unlike Gallagher’s TBM, this one was quickly filled with enough fuel to remain on station. Then the avgas lines were purged by pumping an inert gas to all fuelling stations to neutralise much of the potential fire hazard.
Last launch: 0745
The TBM was manned by LTJG Bob Weatherholt’s crew and launched at 0745. Weatherholt didn’t know it at the time but he would be the last pilot to ever launch from Gambier Bay. Rather than jump on the first target which presented itself, “Weatherbird” lit a cigarette and evaluated the setup. When an FM joined up and the pilot radioed that he would cover the TBM in its approach, Weatherholt held back for a moment. “Let me finish my cigarette,” he said. Then he attacked, the second and last VC-10 aviator to drop a torpedo in combat. The result of his attack was unobserved.
Most of the Taffy Three aircraft now were airborne. Those just getting off were forced to launch with a quartering or following wind. A fully-loaded TBM could not safely launch under these conditions, but one partially armed or without ordnance could make it. The Wildcats had relatively little trouble.
Hank Pyzdrowski’s plane was the third to be armed with a torpedo and it was brought up on the forward elevator. Hank taxied into position on the cat and waited for the bridle to be attached. Then, following Catapult Officer LTJG Bob Krida’s directions as more shell splashes burst close aboard, he ran up his engine and waited for the familiar jolt.
Running before the wind, Gambier Bay at that moment could not generate enough wind over the deck. Krida had ordered the cat crew to stand down, waiting for a change in course which he hoped would bring more favourable launch conditions. Several minutes later, Krida and Pyzdrowski were ready to try again, but once more it looked too risky and the launch officer aborted the attempt. Preparing for a third try, Hank ordered his two crewmen, ARM2/c Jerry Fauls and AMM3/c Bob Jensen, out of the plane. Professionally, it reduced the aircraft weight by more than 300 pounds, and since this was to be a torpedo attack, there was little the aircrewmen could do with their two machine guns. Personally, Hank didn’t want his long-time crewmen aboard on such a hazardous launch.
Alone in his TBM, Pyzdrowski exchanged ritualistic signals with Krida for the third time. Krida looked forward, watching the bow’s upward movement in the swell, judging the relative wind. Then he shook his head and gave Hank the “cut” signal. It was no use. On the ship’s course of 210 degrees, with the wind from the port quarter at best, there simply wasn’t enough lift for eight tons of Avenger, fuel and torpedo. Hank climbed out of his plane and watched it flung off the bow into the water as the cat was fired.
Standing by the island, Pyzdrowski noted the varied colours of the shell splashes; pastel shades of green, yellow and pink. Several carriers were being near-missed. But Viewig and the other captains were “chasing salvos”, steering for the previous splashes in order to confuse Japanese gunnery spotters. It was nearly 0800, almost an hour since the enemy opened fire, and almost 30 minutes since the first shells had landed close. Other than splinter damage, however, the six CVEs remained unharmed.
Pyzdrowski finally tired of watching pyrotechnics and went below to his locker with his roommate, LEUT George Bisbee. He figured this was as good a time as any to break out the 10 bottles of whiskey he had stashed away. Actually, there was a considerable quantity of booze in Gambier Bay. The crew’s official ration of beer was kept locked in the brig: 400 cases of Olympia. Unofficially, many officers had private stocks. Ed Huxtable and LTJG John Holland had brought seven cases of whiskey aboard and Buzz Borries had a case, all stashed in one locker. Quite unknown to Borries, Hux and Holland had managed to work their way through all of their own liquor and half of Buzz’s.
Gambier Bay, making smoke and straddled by large calibre rounds.
Hank read the combination of the lock to Bisbee, who was working the dial. After three attempts, Bisbee’s fingers still hadn’t the touch. Finally Hank opened the locker himself and began passing out bottles to those in the room. Bisbee, Vee Bell, LTJG Owen Wheeler and one or two other VC-10 stalwarts pulled some mattresses together to form a protective teepee of sorts (in case shell fragments penetrated the hull) and sat crosslegged, exchanging swigs from several bottles. Before long, the lethal circumstances began to look a bit less formidable. Or at least more tolerable.
Topside, things didn’t look quite so rosy. By now the five separate enemy columns had Taffy Three inside almost a full hemisphere, from due west through northeast. As the threat increased and enemy gunnery improved with steadily diminishing range, Clifton Sprague issued an order of last resort, “Open fire with the pea-shooters when range is clear.” Gambier Bay had no need to await such an order. At 0741 CWO Frank Hughes’ gun crew in the stern went into action. They trained their 5/38-inch gun to port, sighting on the lead enemy ship 17,000 yards off the port quarter. She was Chikuma, a fast 11,200-ton cruiser mounting eight 8-inch guns. Down in CIC the surface-search radar plotted Hughes’ target at 8½ miles as the 5-inch mount opened fire. But the tracking worked both ways, as the radar operators also could see the Japanese shells in mid-flight, headed towards Taffy Three.
Minutes later, up on the bridge, another development was taking shape. Two or three unidentified ships had appeared hull-down on the horizon, off to port. The signals chief was tall, lanky Andy Lindow, who squinted through his binoculars and tentatively identified the middle ship as a cruiser. He couldn’t be sure of the others.
There was one way to find out. Lindow directed one of his signalmen, Carroll Smith, to flash the major warship challenge on his big 24-inch searchlight. The unidentified ships immediately responded with the correct reply.
Chief Lindow’s heart almost skipped a beat. “Friendly ships to port,” he cried.
“Good,” CAPT Viewig replied. “Tell them we’re under attack.”
Lindow told Smith to send it, and the venetian-blind shutters on the circular light opened and shut in a series of dashes and dots. The message began with dash dot dot dot-pause-dash. The Baker Tare identifier. Then the four-word message, “We are under attack,” followed by Baker Tare King for end of message. Lindow saw the centre vessel “dash” in acknowledgement for each word. At the end of the message it blinked, “Roger”.
Then the newcomers fired at Gambier Bay.
They were more Japanese cruisers, rushing down from the north after following Sprague’s turn south out of the rain squall. It had taken this long for their superior speed to make up the lost distance. Taffy Three was now surrounded on three sides by the faster enemy force.
First hit 0800
It was now 0800. After nearly an hour of almost incessant firing, the Japanese landed their first hit on the CVE force. Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), pounding along off Gambier Bay‘s starboard quarter, took an eight-inch shell in the starboard side of the hangar deck just as she launched her last Wildcat. Taffy Three was running hard to the southwest. Since the wind was from the northeast, the carriers’ funnel and chemical smoke afforded almost no screen for Kalinin Bay or Gambier Bay, the two rearmost ships in the circular disposition. RADM Sprague had brought the group’s course around successively to the southwestern quadrant as the four intrusive cruisers had gained headway and turned his flank. Base course was altered frequently as the situation changed, and this tactic, combined with each individual ship’s salvo chasing, resulted in a zigzag track which only slowed the already-impeded rate of advance.
But there was no other choice. Even running straight ahead, the CVEs had at least a six-knot disadvantage to the slowest Japanese ships. Shortly before 0800, when the troublesome cruiser quartet was 13,000 yards to the northeast, Frank Hughes’ gun crew was firing at the lead ship. The 5/38-inch shells snapped out across 6½ nautical miles towards the target, and in a few minutes they had the range. Observers in Gambier Bay clearly saw three flashes on the target’s superstructure, indicating direct hits. The cruisers kept coming, however, maintaining “a heavy and disastrous fire” from their combined three dozen 8-inchers.
At the same time, the enemy battleships’ salvos were falling closer astern. Their dye-tinted splashes provided spotting information for gunnery officers to call the fall of shot and make corrections.But the battlewagons remained the secondary threat. The cruisers were the real danger.
On the bridge, Walt Viewig calmly watched the situation developing. He noted with a professional eye that the cruisers were firing four-gun salvos in unusually small patterns. He estimated that the four shells always fell within a 25-yard circle, with about 60 seconds between each salvo. Navigator George Gellhorn, who was actually responsible for directing the zigzag course changes to avoid being hit, saw that the Japanese fire director was methodically “walking” his salvos toward Gambier Bay in 100-yard steps. Such regularity made Gellhorn’s job easier. Just when it seemed certain the next salvo would land directly on top of Gambier Bay, he altered course two points. The next salvo then landed where the ship had been a minute before.
Small course changes
By using small course changes, Gellhorn made it more difficult for the enemy to notice the change. When they did, the plotting began again from scratch. The first close shells had fallen about 0730, and Gellhorn’s subtle evasive tactics had kept Gambier Bay from all but shrapnel damage for over half an hour. But by 0810 the deadly cruisers had closed to 10,000 yards and they straddled CVE-73 with a well-placed salvo. An eight-inch shell went through the after portion of the flight deck on the starboard side near Batt II. Fires flared topside and on the hangar deck.
There were few personnel casualties, however, and the fires were controlled. Five minutes later, Clifton Sprague took Taffy Three back more to the south-southwest. Evasive action was now relatively ineffective. Clearly exposed to Japanese gunfire, Gambier Bay became the primary target. At 0820 she was hit again, holed below the waterline in the forward engine room. The assistant engineering officer, LEUT Al Hirtin, took immediate measures to handle the seawater gushing into the compartment. Two portable electric submersible pumps were put into operation but Hartin feared they would not be enough. He also had the bilge pumps turned on.
For five minutes the men in the engineering spaces watched the level of seawater continue to rise. It was no use. Hartin called up to the bridge that the pumps were incapable of handling the deluge into the engine room, and added that he would almost certainly have to shut down in a few minutes. He was right. As the seawater continued to rise, the engine room was flooded to burner level. Hartin ordered his men to secure the boilers and prepare to evacuate the compartment. At this same time, 0825, Viewig informed Sprague over TBS that Gambier Bay “had been hit hard and had lost one engine”. All loads were shifted to the after generators and engine room. Hartin’s crew secured the forward engine room, evacuating the flooded space and dogging the hatches behind them as they left. The ship slowed to 11 knots, dropping astern of the other CVEs and out of formation.
If anyone aboard still harboured thoughts of escaping, all such hope was lost when Gambier Bay fell out of line. Andy Lindow, still on the signal bridge, “knew we were in big trouble”. The ship was listing to port, afire aft and within easy gun range of the cruisers. Though VC-10 pilots were still in the area making repeated runs on the Japanese ships, many had by now expended even their machine gun ammunition. Looking down from his Avenger, Ed Huxtable (CO VC-10) saw one CVE afire and listing to port. According to the position of the ship, he thought it was White Plains (CVE-66). But in the prolonged radical manoeuvring the disposition’s axis rotation had shifted.
Hux didn’t know it at that moment, but he was looking at his own ship. Until now Gambier Bay had been almost completely unsupported, as the escorts were busy attacking the Japanese and making smoke screens around the force. The destroyers Johnston (DD-557) and Heermann (DD-532) now made a valiant attempt to distract the enemy’s attention. Johnston had already taken three heavy hits, which had reduced power and knocked out three guns. Undaunted, her skipper, CMDR Ernest E. Evans, noted Gambier Bay was drawing a torrent of shellfire from the lead ship and dashed to within 6,000 yards of the big cruiser. Johnston fired her remaining five-inchers, gaining several hits.
Chikuma ignored the lone destroyer and continued to direct her eight-inch guns at the little carrier. Johnston was fortunate to have survived as long as she did; in another 90 minutes she would be sunk. Heermann as yet was undamaged and closed Gambier Bay from starboard, commencing a harassing fire at Chikuma from 12,000 yards. Oddly, Chikuma responded to this more distant intruder and turned in a tight circle, trailing her churning white wake in the dark blue water. While turning, she directed part of her battery toward the destroyer.
Chikuma, shortly after receiving a torpedo hit aft. The Tone class cruiser sank about 0900 after repeated aerial torpedo hits.
But only temporarily. At almost the same time the two destroyers made their desperate charge, Gambier Bay was hit again, repeatedly. A hit near the island severed liquid lines to the steering motor and another opened circuit breakers on the main electrical distribution panel. The latter prevented re-establishment of steering control from any position in the ship. Three minutes later the after engine room was pierced by an eight-inch shell which holed number three boiler and probably lodged in the lower part of the generating tubes. Water deluged the compartment, and like Al Hartin 20 minutes before, senior engineer LCDR Jim Sanders tried to compensate with bilge pump suction. It was a losing battle.
CIC loses power
In CIC things came to a halt, too. The radar operators had tracked the tormenting Japanese ships to about 15,000 yards. But with loss of steam pressure, the after engine room generators ceased to supply power and most electrical systems failed. The exec, CDR Richard “Smiley” Ballinger, keeping an eye on things in the most vital compartments, poked his head in CIC. “It’s time to go for a walk,” he said. Bill Buderus, Bill Cuming and their crews began to file out, waiting in the passageway. Gambier Bay was now the focal point of the combined fire from three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and a destroyer. A heavy-calibre hit in the stern had knocked the five-incher out of commission, forcing the crew off the gun deck. At 0843 chief engineer Jim Sanders secured all boilers and Gambier Bay began coasting to a stop. She was now completely helpless, without defensive armament and unable to manoeuvre.
From the open bridge recognition officer Murray Sacks attempted to identify six of the enemy ships near enough to recognise details. He recorded them as a Tone cruiser, a single-stack destroyer, an Atago cruiser, an Aoba or Mogami cruiser, a two-stack DD and a Kongo battleship. He was largely correct. Though there were no single-stack destroyers and Mogami- and Aoba-class bore little resemblance, the other descriptions proved accurate.
To most Gambier Bay sailors, the identity of their assailants made no difference. The only thing that mattered was the fact that their ship was being systematically perforated by numerous shells. Unknowingly, however, the Japanese had loaded the wrong type of ordnance for use against thin-skinned CVEs. Kurita was prepared to fight a major surface battle and his ships were loaded with armour-piercing projectiles designed to penetrate thick steel and explode inside a warship’s hull. The 3/8-inch plate on the CVEs offered virtually no resistance to armour-piercing shells; consequently, few of them detonated.
Still, shells exploding close aboard caused some serious personnel casualties. In the parachute rigging loft between the hangar deck and flight deck, flight surgeon W.H. Stewart was tending the injured. He asked rigger Tony Potochniak and a buddy, G.C. Phillips, to help him move a mortally-wounded man whose legs were nearly severed. Potochniak and Phillips, standing on either side of the doctor, had just leaned down to pick up the man when a large shell fragment penetrated the hull and struck LEUT Harold Fleischer in the back of the neck. He was killed instantly. Potochniak went out to the port catwalk and Phillips disappeared to starboard.
Now certain Gambier Bay was going down, Potochniak began cutting retaining wire to free some of the life rafts on the catwalk. On the hangar deck there had been no lights since the power failed. A shell exploded near the spot Al Hartin was standing with several of his forward engine room personnel. Hartin was knocked down, stunned, and slowly realised many of the men around him were dead. Then he noticed his own injuries – a broken right arm and knee. He dragged the body of one man out to the catwalk with him, unable to tell in the darkness whether the casualty was alive or dead.
Skinny Iverson, at 34, the “old man” of the ordnance crew, was also on the hangar deck. He had just helped load the fourth torpedo into the last Avenger when flight operations ceased. The TBM was on the forward elevator, which had jammed about three feet up, and the plane was set afire by shell fragments. Seeing this, Iverson and several others prepared to go over the side. They didn’t want to be around when that torpedo went off. At 0845 Gambier Bay was dead in the water, listing to port and burning amidships.
Walt Viewig was still on the bridge but knew the situation was hopeless. He ordered all classified material thrown overboard. Signalman chief Andy Lindow had nothing more to occupy himself.
Glancing about, he took in the scene: thick smoke tinged with orange flame rising from the flight deck, the worsening port list, the pack of bloodthirsty cruisers closing in for the kill. Lindow turned to Buzz Borries and said, “We’d better think about getting the boys off.”
0850 abandon ship
Almost as if in response, Viewig arrived at the same decision. He told everyone to pass the word. Abandon ship. It was 0850, only 40 minutes after the first hit and not quite two hours since Kurita had opened fire. To the skipper, it seemed “as a bad dream of a few minutes’ duration.” All over the listing, burning ship men made their way topside and overboard as best they could.
Many, like Viewig’s yeoman Harry Fudge, simply jumped from the deck. Fudge went in feet first and estimated he plunged to a depth of 60 feet. Disoriented, he thought he was inverted so he turned over to head for the “surface”. Actually, he was headed down, not up. It seemed he was under water for several minutes; his lungs were “on fire”. Then Fudge felt himself propelled in the right direction. Borries, the star athlete from Annapolis, had jumped at almost the same moment and noticed Fudge’s predicament. When they broke surface, Fudge gasped in great gulps of air and nearly passed out from the dramatic oxygen influx. Borries inflated the yeoman’s lifebelt for him and the two began swimming.
Fighter director Bill Buderus saved several men from probable drowning when he directed them away from the ship’s side towards a raft. He ordered them to grab hold and kick the raft a good distance away, beyond the inevitable suction caused by a sinking ship. A good swimmer, Buderus refused to climb into the raft himself and was content to cling to one side as his little group pushed farther away from the doomed carrier.
Short of fuel, Gambier Bay‘s surviving VC-10 Wildcats land ashore at the Tacloban emergency field.
Hank Pyzdrowski, who had been left aboard after his TBM was jettisoned, headed aft. He waited with LSO LTJG Bill McClendon, until things looked their gloomiest. Finally Mac said, “We’d better get off. The ship is going to turn.” Both men went down a rope hand over hand and swam away on a diagonal from the starboard quarter.
The ship was now listing rapidly to port. When Al Hartin made his way to the port forward 20 mm sponson, the catwalk was only about six feet off the water. In shock and pain from his multiple injuries, Hartin dragged the man he had brought up from the hangar deck with him into the sea. Only then did he notice the man was dead.
A few men had the time and presence of mind to gather up various supplies before leaving the ship. One was W.H. Sparrow, a photographer’s mate who threw together a packet of medical equipment. His foresight would prove valuable, particularly since Doc Stewart had been killed.
In five minutes most of the crew was in the water. A line of heads was strung out behind the ship, looking like a collection of coconuts floating in the wake. Gambier Bay‘s forward motion had not quite dissipated before abandon ship had been completed.
At 0855 Viewig ordered George Gellhorn off. The navigator went down the starboard side of the bridge via a lifeline and hit the water just as another salvo pierced the island structure. He identified a Mogami cruiser 2,000 yards away. She was still firing at the CVE, taking a parallel course, compounding the noise, fright and confusion.
Yet amidst the terror there were little vignettes of humour. Dick Ballinger was swimming away from the ship with one young sailor who saw some reason for optimism. “Commander, this means 30 days survivor’s leave, doesn’t it?”
ACMM Walt Flanders, the quiet, competent chief of Repair I, was among the last to abandon ship. He was standing on the flight deck with only three or four others, preparing to jump, when he saw Stewards Mate John Lovett standing at the deck edge. Lovett was looking down to the water where the catwalk had been blasted away. Although wearing a life jacket, he was reluctant to jump. He kept saying, “Ah cain’t swim, ah cain’t swim.”
Flanders knew Lovett had no chance if he remained on the ship and pushed him overboard. A strong swimmer, Flanders quickly followed and swam steadily away. He passed several swimmers, pulling ahead of most until he was nearly exhausted. Then he stopped to shake the salt water from his eyes and look back. He saw Lovett cruise past him at a steady clip, still loudly insisting, “Ah cain’t swim, ah cain’t swim.”
Last man off
As far as anyone knew, Walt Viewig was the last man to leave Gambier Bay alive. Three minutes after he sent George Gellhorn over the side, Viewig attempted to reach the interior of the ship via the island structure ladders but was driven back by the hot, black toxic smoke and diverted onto the flight deck. The skipper made his way aft and went down the starboard side, which was now well canted out of the water. He shortly joined Dick Ballinger, so both senior officers were in the same group of survivors.
In the next several minutes the men began taking stock. They were in the midst of a hostile battle fleet, swimming in shark-infested water, entirely without friendly support. Some life rafts and numerous floater nets had been dropped overboard and the injured or non-swimmers were pulled onto these platforms. One was Merrill Kuster, the talker who had helped pass the word to abandon ship. He had jumped overboard, came up near a raft and was hauled aboard.
However, not all the wounded or poor swimmers were near any rafts. Skinny Iverson helped keep two young sailors afloat until help arrived. A strong swimmer from his childhood in northern Idaho, he had grown up swimming in Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The torpedo-armed TBM which Iverson and other VC-l0 personnel had loaded was a main source of worry. Everyone who knew the Avenger was left on the hangar deck near the spreading fires swam as far from the ship as possible. Moments later the 2,000 lb torpedo exploded and the TBM with large parts of the forward elevator were blown high in the air. Then bombs and stowed torpedoes began exploding in their storage lockers. Little Gambier Bay was rocked visibly by the detonations as her insides turned into a flaming oven.
Minutes later, at 0907, she capsized to port.
With her keel exposed to the sky, the men nearest to her could clearly see the underwater damage she had sustained. Several shell holes were visible and the port screw was gone, evidently carried away by the heavy-calibre hit aft. Harry Fudge, the captain’s yeoman, recalled that the skipper estimated the ship had taken nine 14- or 16-inch hits from battleships and 28 six- or eight-inch shells from cruisers. Of these, probably a half-dozen were fatal, mainly those that flooded and wrecked the engine rooms.
Gambier Bay remained floating inverted for only four minutes before succumbing. Her hull was so evenly perforated that she dropped straight down without rolling to either side or dipping her bow or stern.
It was one hour and one minute after the first hit. From that day at Astoria, Oregon, when she was commissioned, to this Wednesday off Samar, her career had lasted three days less than ten months.
A brief cheer
When the last of the hull disappeared, a peculiar thing happened. Amid the sound of firing from Japanese ships, a ragged, irregular cheer went up from several of the groups of survivors. Most of the men were plankowners. Gambier Bay had been their first and only home in the Navy. Those who shouted a brief cheer for their little carrier were expressing in the only way possible that they were still proud of her. More than a few had tears in their eyes, and not from the salt water.
The Japanese fired at Gambier Bay almost till the moment she sank, but in the general pursuit of other Taffy Three ships, their attention was turned to the south. For the next few minutes the Gambier Bay sailors were treated to a spectacle they never expected: a closeup view of the enemy.
Battleships and cruisers passed within a mile on either side of Gambier Bay‘s grave. At least one cruiser and a couple of destroyers went through the swimmers at slow speed. It was one of those eerie, unexpected moments which sometimes occur even in modern war.
Several survivors were close enough to the enemy ships to hear sailors talking on deck. One was Lou Rice, a 21-year-old radar operator. Clinging to a wooden wheel chock, Rice watched a cruiser pass by so close that he was lifted in the swell of its bow wave. He distinctly heard several Japanese conversing. Then his insides went cold as he saw one sailor uncover a machine gun and point it at the Americans in the water. It wasn’t unexpected; tales of enemy atrocities were common.
Then, incredibly, Rice saw an officer shove the bloodthirsty sailor away from the gun. None of Rice’s group was fired upon.
Other men had similar experiences and some reported something even more unexpected. Several survivors looked up in astonishment as Japanese officers and men on one ship saluted while cruising past. Hank Pyzdrowski, floating in his mae west, looked up at a destroyer and saw numerous enemy sailors lining the rail. Many of them also saluted their opponents. In retrospect, Pyzdrowski thought that such uncharacteristic chivalry was born of mutual hardship. “They knew we’d had it,” he said, “and so had they.”
For, incredible as it seemed, the Japanese at that moment were withdrawing. Admiral Kurita was convinced by the exceptional aggressiveness of the Taffy Three destroyers and aircraft from Taffy Two and Three that he was up against a fast carrier task force. He had seen three of his cruisers crippled or brought dead in the water, including Suzuya, which was sinking. Poor communications deprived him of knowledge about the success of Chikuma, Tone and Haguro, which had closed Gambier Bay to point-blank range. Still behind the fight in Yamato, Kurita elected to quit just when he had the battle won.
VADM Takeo Kurita ordered withdrawal at 0911.
At 0911, exactly the same time Gambier Bay went down, VADM Takeo Kurita ordered his fleet to withdraw.
Though Gambier Bay was gone, she had played a role in one of the most astonishing victories in naval history. Even with her air group dispersed and her crew adrift nearly 40 miles from shore, she remained part of the winning Taffy Three team.
Few of her aviators or sailors felt like winners at that moment, however. More than 700 men survived the battle off Samar, formed into seven or eight large groups. Most expected early rescue, but as morning turned to afternoon the wait lengthened.
Not until 1530 did Seventh Fleet order a search. Reasons for the delay still are unknown, but apparently a complex communications system and pressing combat considerations were involved. Destroyer escorts, acting upon erroneous information from VADM Kincaid’s command, spent more than 24 hours searching the wrong areas. The major effort departed San Pedro Bay at 1835 the 25th: five LCIs and two PCs under LCDR R.E. Sargent of LCI (Rocket) Group 20.
During the morning of the 26th Gambier Bay survivors saw an FM/TBM search team about five miles off. Signal flares and dye marker failed to attract the planes, either outbound or on their return leg 45 minutes later. It was a bitter disappointment, especially as wounds, exposure and sharks were taking their toll.
At 2230 PC-623 was nearing the search area when flares were seen 18 to 20 miles west. In 90 minutes the rescue group was among the survivors, who had drifted 30 miles in 39 hours. Rescue operations continued until 1000 the 27th, when the last survivors of Taffy Three were picked up. In all, the seven rescue vessels retrieved 1,150 men, the majority 10 miles from Tugnug Point on Samar.
This article was researched during the 1977 Philippine tour conducted by the Gambier Bay Survivors Association. Many veterans of the ship’s company and VC-10 contributed their recollections, ostensibly for a book, but space considerations limited coverage to the Battle off Samar.
The following individuals provided information for this portion of the CVE-73/VC-10 story: RADM Richard Ballinger, USN (Ret); Charles J. Dugan; ACM Walter B. Flanders, USN (Ret); LCDR Leon Fletcher, USNR(R); Harry Fudge; Jerome P. Gutzweiler; Albert E. Hartin; A.C. Johnson; Anthony Potochniak; Henry A. Pyzdrowski; Lou Rice and Richard W. Roby.
Since the 1977 reunion trip, at least three contributors have passed away (by June 1986): Andy Lindow, Rannie Odum and CAPT Edward J. Huxtable. If anyone epitomised the dedication and teamwork inherent to Gambier Bay, it was Hux. Our sincerest thanks to all.
At length it was possible to count noses, and 122 Gambier Bay men were missing or known dead. The survivors were transferred to hospital ships and transports at San Pedro for the trip home, enjoying merely being alive.
VC-10 would re-form, still under the popular Ed Huxtable, for a short second tour in Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70). The squadron had the pleasure of being present at war’s end. But for the majority of Gambier Bay‘s crew, the war ended that night 40-plus years ago. What has remained is the enduring friendship of men who have been family to one another for four decades. That camaraderie is perhaps their greatest victory of all.