Bob’s Pick: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer
When one thinks of naval battles in the Pacific during the Second World War, one usually thinks about really large ships or major combatants, such as aircraft carriers and battleships, slugging it out. This was true in most cases, but there were times when their escorts, the little guys, the so called “tin can” destroyers came to the forefront and helped decide the outcome of a battle.
This book is about the evolution and history of some “tin can” destroyer units and their crews. It describes how sailors at the time were recruited and trained. It also talks about how destroyers and destroyer escorts (a smaller destroyer) were expeditiously built and christened to satisfy the ever demanding requirements of the wartime U.S. Navy. From their birth and staffing at a shipyard to their day of destiny in battle, the ships and their crews are viewed at a very personal level.
Illustrative of the courage, prowess, resourcefulness and skill of these destroyers and their crews came a battle that occurred in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines on October 25th, 1944. One of several battles occurring in Leyte Gulf at the time, the battle involving these destroyers and their assigned unit, “Taffy 3” later became known as the Battle off Samar. Besides the six “escort” carriers they were defending, the destroyers involved in this action were the USS Johnston, the USS Hoel and the USS Heerman. The destroyer escorts involved were the USS Samuel B. Roberts, the USS Dennis, the USS Raymond and the USS John C. Butler.
The Japanese were attempting to halt and turn back an American invasion force that was set to free the Philippine islands from their occupation and control. To carry out their objective, they mustered what remained of their large but diminished Navy and developed a battle plan to envelop and destroy American naval vessels and later American landing forces located in their path.
At the northern edge of the American landing zones at Leyte was the unit previously identified as “Taffy 3”, which also happened to lay directly in the path of Japan’s Central attack squadron. This squadron was primarily comprised of battleships and heavy cruisers. The caliber and range of Japan’s ship’s guns or artillery were much greater than that possessed by the destroyers assigned to “Taffy 3”. The fact that the American ships were so overmatched, but through much bravery and sacrifice prevented a Japanese victory anyway makes the Battle off Samar one of the most memorable of World War II.
In his book, Mr. Hornfischer explores in depth the heroism, sacrifice, and determination of the sailors and their ships during the course of this battle. The carriers and the aircraft of Taffy 3 were mainly designed to support ground troops at Leyte and not meant to engage other combat ships. This meant they could not do too much to defend themselves but depended in large part on the destroyers assigned to them.
The destroyers were unbelievably successful in this task!. Besides laying down smoke screens for the carriers to retreat, they openly attacked the larger Japanese ships with five inch guns and torpedoes when they came into range. By doing this, they really damaged and distracted the Japanese fleet but also sustained immeasurable damage to their own ships and numerous casualties to their own crews. Still, they caused the remaining ships of the Japanese attack force to retreat, preventing what could have been a major disaster for the remaining American escort carriers (two of which were sunk) and the landing forces on the beaches of Leyte.
There were many notable individual acts of heroism that day. A prime example would be that of Commander Ernest E. Evans who continued to attack the Japanese even though his own ship, the USS Johnston, was a burning wreck. Due to the sustained damage it received, his ship eventually had to be abandoned and was sunk. Commander Evans presumably died after his ship was abandoned as his body was never found. He was later posthumously awarded America’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor!