VC-27 "The Saints"
3. The Battle Off Samar (Oct 25 1944)
In October, the Japanese sent a large fleet to attack the American fleet supporting the troops who were trying to retake the Philippines. Part of the plan involved creating a diversion to lure Admiral Halsey away from the beachhead at Leyte Island. Halsey took the bait, leaving behind only a light force of jeep carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts to protect the beachhead. These were the ships of "Taffy 1", "Taffy 2" and "Taffy 3". The U.S.S. Savo Island& was part of Taffy 2 (TU 77.4.2) under the command of Rear Admiral B. Felix Stump.
On the morning of October 25, Taffy 3 was surprised by the appearance of a Japanese battle group consisting of 4 battleships (including the mighty Yamato), 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 11 destroyers. Taffy 3 included only 6 jeep carriers, 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts. The jeep carriers were defenseless against this battle group and were forced to run. But the Japanese fleet was faster and started lobbing shells into the carriers. The only thing that stood between the carriers and the Japanese fleet were the destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 and about 500 planes from the Taffy group. The destroyers and destroyer escorts made heroic charges against the Japanese fleet, launching torpedoes. In the meantime, the 500 planes of the Taffy group, including the U.S.S. Savo Island, attacked the Japanese fleet and attempted to divert their attention from the ships of Taffy 3. Together, the ships and planes sank or damaged several ships, causing the Japanese fleet to regroup and, eventually, retreat. This was one of the greatest battles in naval history.
VC-27 and the U.S.S. Savo Island played a major role in that action. VC-27 launched 6 strikes that day. The statistics indicate that VC-27 sank 3 ships (including the HIJMS Chikuma) and damaged 12 ships and 1 submarine and scored 67 hits on Japanese Men O' War. 4 pilots from VC-27 received Navy Crosses for extraordinary heroism.
VC-27 also lost 6 aircraft: 5 Wildcats flown by Ens Frank M. Leighty, Ens Wilton O. Stubbs, Ens Sterling P. Ross [KIA], Lt Roger J. Mulcahy, Jr., and Ens Robert C. Ashcraft; and an Avenger flown by Ens Harold B. Harms. Following the battle, VC-27 lost 3 more Wildcats, flown by Ens Frederick W. Barnett, Ens Charles W. Snyder [KIA], and an unknown pilot.
The ships of Taffy 1 suffered the most in this engagement, including the escort carrier U.S.S. Gambier Bay (CVE 73), which was sunk by the HIJMS Chikuma. The next day, the kamikaze attacks began in earnest and another escort carrier, the U.S.S. St. Lo (CVE 63), was sunk.
VC-27 Sinks the Chikuma
The following narrative shows the crucial role that VC-27 played by sinking the Chikuma and saving the Heermann (DD-532):
Early that morning VC-27 was readying the launch of ten TBM's each loaded with four 500 pound GP bombs for direct support work for the troops ashore. Thirteen FM-2's were already airborne for CAP when the word came of the Jap attack. Then the order came to remove the bombs and replace them with torpedoes, one to each plane. The deck crews scrambled like mad to make the change and the first TBM was launched at 0816. Captain Ekstrom announced from the Savo's bridge: "Your mission is to cripple as many of the enemy's ship as possible, don't waste time for a kill. " More TBM's from the Marcus Island joined up since all TBM's with torpedoes from the Task Unit 77.4 had been called out.
Lt. Goly Henry was the flight leader and he directed the Savo's TBM's to attack the first cruiser or battleship and the Marcus's TBM's the next cruiser or battleship in line. After hiding in cloud cover at 8,000 feet, Henry, Lieutenant(jg) Claude C. Nathan and Lieutenant(jg) John Yearnan followed by Lieutenant Soule T. Bitting and Ensign Robert H. Wand peeled off and broke through the cloud cover at 3,000 feet. Their target was the lead ship, a Tone-class cruiser. The attack, being the first of all torpedo planes and coming from cloud cover and down sun, apparently was a complete surprise to the Japs - there was no anti-aircraft fire encountered until after the release of the torpedoes and the cruiser made no evasive movements. All five torpedoes were released at 0845, all aimed at the cruiser.
Anti-aircraft fire started at this time making it difficult for the pilots or aircrew to follow the path of the torpedoes. One passed astern of the cruiser but shortly thereafter there was an explosion on a destroyer that had been flanking the cruiser. Two others hit the stern of the cruiser and the whole stern seemed to blow up with huge columns of black smoke rising. The TBM's passed over the cruiser and began violent jinking and maintained low altitude to avoid the anti-aircraft fire. Only one plane was hit causing minor damage, and as they left the scene the destroyer was dead in the water and the cruiser moving very slowly in a tight circle; it sank shortly thereafter. First blood for VC-27 on the enemy surface craft! ! !
VC-27's captain, Lt. Cmdr. Jackson, had already been airborne at 0530 flying his TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bomber loaded with ten 100-pound general purpose bombs and rockets - not great ordnance for bombing ships. His mission was to act as air coordinator for a strike of several TBM's and FM's, all from another CVE, on Japanese forces in the Surigao Straits. But before his squadron could do anything to aid the troops, he was told by radio to lead his pilots against the enemy ships.
After surveying the situation, the "skipper" sent his group in to attack but stayed behind at 7,000 feet pondering which ship to attack. Suddenly a Japanese Aichi E13A reconnaissance floatplane (code named "Jake") came out of the clouds and he gave it a burst from his wing guns; the "Jake" was enveloped in flames subsequently crashing into the sea. Then he spotted two heavy cruisers below. He swooped down at a steep angle and at 2,500 feet released all his hundred pound bombs with an intervalometer spacing of 50 feet. Most of them missed astern, but two landed squarely on a Mogami-class cruiser's stem causing an explosion and starting several small fires. Just prior to his release, the cruiser opened up on him with its anti-aircraft guns. Shells were bursting in every direction. Just as he moved out of the range of the enemy fire, aircrewman ACR Snider the dorsal gunner, sighted an enemy submarine under them. Seeing the periscope of an "I" class submarine just below the surface, the pilot launched his full load of eight rockets at the periscope from an altitude of 600-800 feet and a range of 800 yards, at least six rockets exploding around it. All this in less than 10 minutes!
By 0845 two more TBM's fiom the Savo Island had been readied with torpedoes with Ensigns L. E. MacFawn and Peden the pilots. AMM 2/c Floyd Norman, (gunner aboard Peden's TBM) - now of Dayton, Ohio - remembers it well: "There were 13 American torpedo bombers who joined together from various other baby flattops. As we reached an altitude of 12,000 to 13,000 feet it was a sight to behold: below 4 battleships, 8 cruisers and 16 destroyers". After joining up with bombers from other CVE's, they attacked a battleship of the Kongo-class about 1015. The evasive maneuvering of the ship, since the Japs now expected the attacks, caused them both to miss their target. Antiaircraft file was intense at this point but they flew through it back to the Savo.
Lt.(jg) Forrest Glasgow, the Savo Island's Aviation Ordnance Officer, relates what happened next: "By 0940 we had one more TBM loaded with a torpedo and ready to go. This one was flown by Ens. Harms, and was probably the gutsiest of all the torpedo attach. By now each CVE was launching TBMs as fast as they could get them loaded without waiting to organize flights from each ship in the normal manner. Thus Harms took off by himself and joined up with two planes from another ship. One of the other pilots was senior and thus in charge.
After circling the Jap force at 8,000 feet, the leader moved over in a steep dive. When they broke through the cloud cover at 1,500 feet they were almost over the [Japanese] battleship ISE. The other two TBMs released their torpedos and climbed back into the clouds. Ens. Harms quickly realized that he was too directly over the target for any sort of torpedo release. He wasn't going to waste his torpedo so he pulled across the ISE and back up into the clouds for another run.
This time when he broke through the clouds the ISE was about 2,500yards ahead of him moving very slowly. He dropped down to 300 feet and began his torpedo run. Since he was only one making a nm on the ships, the ISE plus every ship close by began firing at him. Just before his torpedo release he was hit in the left wheel well by heavy AA [antiaircraft fire], probably a 5 inch 50 caliber, causing a terrific explosion in the left wing. He also took 40 to 50 20mm hits on his plane. He released the torpedo and it was only through a combination of skillful evasive movements and good luck that he succeeded in pulling out of the overall pattern of the AA fire. He returned to the ship safely but his plane was so badly shot up that it was pushed over the side. Both of his aircrewmen: Aviation Radioman 2/c James Dunn and turret gunner Aviation Ordnance Mate 2/c Russell Ripley received several shrapnel wounds, but they were not serious. "
Aviation Ordnance Mate 3rd Class Rolland Robillard from the Savo Island, now of Fort Edward, New York, remembers Harms' return to the ship: ".. . As I recall, I was standing on the catwalk, at mid-deck, waiting for the planes to come in. The engine was on fire, and ready to fall out. There was a 5 foot hole in the left wing. The plane itself had so many holes in it, it looked like a sieve. It was a miracle that no one was wounded. If you remember the song 'Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer: that was the way it looked."
Glasgow continues: "When people hear this story they always ask: 'Did the torpedo hit the ship?! Recently Harms said: 'You refer to my mission as gutsy which it probably was, but what happened to the torpedo? The bomb bay doors opened and I could feel the torpedo drop out. I didn't hang around to witness its destination. What happened has bothered me a lot. "
The Taffys continued the attack. After returning to the Savo Island the TBM's were refueled and rearmed. The "skipper" was given another TBM-IC, and was airborne at 1115 with the last of the Savo Island's torpedoes while the other TBM's were each armed with three semi-armor piercing (SAP) bombs. Led by the "Wildcats," he and nine other "Avengers" were attacking anything they could find on the water even though they were taking heavy, intense anti-aircraft fire even at 13,000 feet. At 1215 he sighted Kurita's battleship force and picked out one of the Fuso or Kongo-class battleships and began his torpedo run from 4,500 feet. At this time he, too, was making a single-plane attack so the Jap ships started concentrating all their anti-aircraft firepower on him including their large caliber weapons. Even the gargantuan 18 inch cannons could be depressed and fired into the sea against low flying torpedo planes in the hope that the enormous geysers formed by their splashes would rise in the paths of planes and bring them down. He was aware that the Japs knew the capabilities of his airplane; consequently, he went into a steep dive to increase his airspeed to 265 knots (rated top speed for a TBM was 250 knots) pulling out just before launching his torpedo 600 feet off the ocean's surface and 1500 yards from the ship. Waterspouts from the Jap guns rose behind him. The torpedo ran straight and true catching the ship just as it was completing a circle; he scored a direct hit on the starboard side. A flash and a column of dirty water obscured the ship's aft main battery. Unfortunately, although a single aerial torpedo can do tremendous damage, it cannot alone normally deliver a crippling blow to a heavily armored battleship. He successfully returned to his ship with only a jagged hole in the starboard side of the fuselage.
The other bomb-ladened TBMs (Lt's Henry, Bitting, Lt.(jg)'s Albert R. Douglas, Claude C. Nathan, and Ens's Blackwell and Peden) selected a Mogami-class cruiser as their target scoring three hits, one forward of the bow battery and two in the stern, with the SAP'S. Nathan then found a "Jake" and maneuvered his TBM so that his turret gunner, Aviation Machinists Mate 21c Noel J. Bussey could fire a long burst at it. (At 2,000 feet a TBM will overtake a "Jake" at full throttle although the "Jake" can turn inside; the TBM can also outdive the "Jake".) Douglas received a number of hits on both wings from enemy guns, but the damage was minor.
At the same time Lt.(jg) Yeaman and Ens. MacFawn scored three hits in the same places on a Fuso or Kongo-class battleship in the middle of the Japanese formation. During his recovery Yeaman spotted a "Jake" and gave chase; his turret gunner, Aviation Ordnance Mate llc L. C. Weiner, fired a short burst and the smoking "Jake" flew into a cloud bank. Yeaman picked on another "Jake" causing the "Jake" to crash into the sea after several bursts from the TBM's wing guns. Yeaman and Lt.(jg) Bertram L. Lewis then teamed up picking out a Nagato-class battleship that had been neglected and got two hits amidships. Lewis, too, attacked a "Jake" which also headed for the clouds.
It is noteworthy that at no time during the battle was there any fighter protection for the Japanese ships. Hardware attrition played a large part since they had lost so many aircraft in earlier battles, and their aircraft production facilities strained to produce replacements. But part of this can also be explained by the differences in training and length of service in combat for the pilots. American naval aviators didn't get to fight until they had had two years of training and once committed got rotated back after six months at the front. The Japanese, however, never got rotated with the result that most of their experienced pilots had been killed in earlier battles. Replacement pilots got only a few months training and lack of fuel further exacerbated the problem so that replacements had even less actual flying experience. All of this resulted in an inferior adversary for the Americans.
In his later Action Report on Tactics the Captain wrote: "The success of our [torpedo] attacks we attributed to using plenty of altitude in the attack (10,000 feet or above) with a high speed approach, a steep dive, and a low, fast jinking recovery, along with the element of surprise. The ring tail torpedoes were admirably suited to this type of procedure due to permissible speeds of drops up to 275 knots and the height of drops up to 800 feet. "
(Background: Early in the War the standard Navy aerial torpedo was the MK 13, but it was slow and unreliable. Further, it was limited to drops under 100 feet and airspeeds less than 100 knots, putting the torpedo bomber crews at great risk. At the battle of Midway in June 1942, the MK 13 torpedoes were extremely ineffective with the result that TBM's were used mostly as glide or skip bombers for the next two years. Tactics for attacking a ship called for dropping a "stick" of four bombs using an intervalometer to control the spacing between the bombs being dropped. Under control of the radioman/bomb aimer, it practically guaranteed a hit on a ship by spacing the bombs 60 to 75 feet apart. VC squadrons started using torpedoes again in June 1944 after the California Institute of Technology came up with a solution: a 10 inch tail shroud ring welded to the torpedo fins significantly improving reliability, drop altitude and aircraft speed. It was designated the MK 13- IA.) 
The Action Report also says: "During these flights Snider and LeBlanc, the aircrewmen, performed noteworthy service in being extremely alert and giving pertinent information to the pilot. " Lt.(ig.) William L. Diffee, Jr., who was the Savo Island's Landing Signal Officer, and now lives in Memphis, Tennessee, says: ". . . after the 'Skipper' had used up all his ordnance on the Japanese ships, he continued making 'dummy' runs on these ships, drawing their fire so that his shipmates would have a better chance of survival while making their attacks. That's what I call HEROISM!. . .. "
* * *
But VC-27 wasn't done for the day as yet! At 1500 seven TBM's armed with three 500 pound general-purpose bombs and eight rockets each were launched. (All torpedoes and SAP'S were gone.) With the Captain again the flight leader, they were joined by 21 TBM's from other CVE's and 15 FM-2's with the mission to search for the crippled and fleeing enemy fleet. Picking up an oil slick on the water and following it north, they found the Japs off the northeast tip of Samar headed for the San Bernadino Straits. The Japs were on the alert and as the planes came into range, every gun on every ship burst forth with every color of the rainbow. Some were flaming incendiaries and others produced long glaring white streamers of phosphorous. The Captain later commented that "it was the damnedest bunch of fireworks" he had ever seen. Enemy ships were twisting and turning in every conceivable evasive maneuver.
After directing the TBM's to make their individual runs, the Captain selected a Nachi-class cruiser, started his run alone from 6,000 feet, and nosed over at a 45' angle, fired his eight rockets, two of which hit the superstructure amidships and causing considerable damage. Unfortunately, his bombs failed to release. He regained altitude to 8,000 feet and was joined by Ens. Harms and two VC-81 FM-2's from the Natoma Bay. Together they made another run on a second cruiser of the Nachi-class. With the fighters ahead strafing, Jackson pulled out of his dive at 2,500 feet releasing his three 500 pound bombs. He obtained one hit on the port side aft. Harms, meanwhile, passed over the cruiser attacked by Jackson and put his eight rockets into and Atago-class cruiser on the other side of the Nachi and scored two hits aft just at the waterline.
Bitting, Douglas, Ensign Charles W. Iverson and Wand selected a Mogami-class cruiser and succeeded in getting two hits on the cruiser's starboard bow. Bitting was the first plane over the cruiser and, followed by the others, then attacked a large destroyer firing his eight rockets at it as did the other pilots. Four were scored on the destroyer amidships ranging from the waterline to the superstructure. Explosions were noted but due to evasive movements in recovery, the damage could not be ascertained.
At 1643 land based Jap planes attacked, but the FM-2's were ready for them shooting down eight of the Nakajima Ki-44 "Shokiff" (i.e. demon) single-seat interceptor fighters (codenamed "Tojos") who were trying to protect a flight of Aichi D3A two-seat dive bombers (codenamed "Val"). Lt. Elliott got two more, Lts. Andrew T. Price and Charles M. Vehorn one apiece and Lts. Davidson and Ross each added another to their tally as the slaughter continued. By now, so many of the "Tojos" had been destroyed or damaged that the rest turned tail and fled. The "Vals", after losing their fighter coverage, also retreated; some jettisoned their bombs in the water as they fled.
Lt.(jg) Glasgow describes what happened to Lt.(jg) Ashcraft in the melee: "During the ... old fashioned dogfight Ashcraft was unable to jettison one of his two disposable wing gas tanks. This slowed his speed down and he began to drop behind the group. A couple of Jap fighters, seeing their opportunity, jumped him and put his engine out of commission. He was able to land in the water safely. Ensign Wilton 0. Stubbs, his wingman, went down to protect him and circled until he began to run low on gas. He saw him get out of his plane safely and into his little one man inflatable rubber life rap. Neither Stubbs nor Ashcraft came back with the fighter group and we were afraid we'd lost them both. When Stubbs showed up alone and reported what had happened to Ash we all felt better. So there is Ashcraft floating around in the water with no one to pick him up since our whole task force is headed south at top speed getting farther and further away from him. He was shot down about 20 miles north of where we originally were. While he was floating around he realized that he had a packet of a dozen post card sized Jap decals, the kind the pilots stuck on their planes to indicate how many planes that they had shot down. So, in typical Ashcraft fashion, in order to wile away the time and probably take his mind of his plight since it was starting to get dark, he began sticking the decals on the side of the rubber raft.
He floated in the water all night. In the meantime part of Halsey's fleet rushed back to try to catch part of the fleeing Japs. One of their destroyers spied Ash in the water the next morning. They came alongside but when they saw the flags they thought they had themselves a Jap pilot. Ash told how they came alongside him and he looked up at all these American sailors pointing submachine guns at him. But when they picked him up they realized who he was. They radioed Halsey's flagship that they had picked up a downed pilot from one of the CVEs. Halsey was anxious to get a first hand account of what had happened. Ash told later how he 'talked to Adm. Halsey' and how the Admiral said 'Son, we 're going to send you back to Pearl Harbor. ' He spent several days at the Mauna Lou Hotel on Wakiki beach being interviewed by stateside reporters, etc, etc. After about a week they decided that Ash had had enough of the 'etc' and that it was time to get back to his ship. Ashcraft showed up aboard the Savo Island about three weeks later with all his big stories. We were certainly glad to see him. "
The results of this battle can also best be summed up from the Action from the Navy archives, when VC-27's commanding officer wrote the following: "The planes returned at varying times from 1815 to 1850. Many of the pilots retired immediately, completely worn out by the day's work They were to awake with the realization that for the first time in the Annals of Naval Warfare, a slow carrier force, without assistance from any surface units of the friendly fleet, other than the screen of destroyers and destroyer escorts (all of whom, incidentally, performed valiantly) had met a large enemy task group of battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers, and had succeeded not only of saving itseIf from annihilation, but in diverting the hostile force from its main purpose, namely to destroy the transports and fire support units in the Leyte Gulf who were supporting the main landing forces of the Army on the east coast of Leyte Island."
Lt. Cmdr Percival W. Jackson
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Percival W. Jackson, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Commanding Officer of Composite Squadron TWENTY-SEVEN (VC-27), embarked from the U.S.S. SAVO ISLAND (CVE-78), in action against enemy Japanese forces at Leyte, Philippine Islands, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944. His outstanding courage and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Lt Soule Tryon Bitting
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Soule Tryon Bitting, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane in Composite Squadron TWENTY-SEVEN (VC-27), embarked from the U.S.S. SAVO ISLAND (CVE-78), in action against enemy Japanese forces at Leyte, Philippine Islands, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944. Lieutenant Bitting led his torpedo division through heavy intense anti-aircraft fire, to register two torpedo hits on an enemy Cruiser. His perfect timing and execution caused much damage to the enemy, thereby preventing serious harm to his own forces. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Lt Claude Clarence Nathan, Jr.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Claude Clarence Nathan, Jr., Lieutenant, Junior Grade, U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Combat Plane in Composite Squadron TWENTY-SEVEN (VC-27), embarked from the U.S.S. SAVO ISLAND (CVE-78), in action against enemy Japanese forces at Leyte, Philippine Islands, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944. His outstanding courage and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Lt(jg) John Mark Yeaman
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to John Mark Yeaman, Lieutenant [then Lieutenant, Junior Grade], U.S. Navy (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Division Leader in Composite Squadron TWENTY-SEVEN (VC-27), embarked from the U.S.S. SAVO ISLAND (CVE-78), in action against major units of the Japanese Fleet during the battle for Leyte Gulf, Philippine Islands, on 25 October 1944. A daring and aggressive airman, Lieutenant Yeaman skillfully led his torpedo division through a barrage of intense antiaircraft fire to score two hits on an enemy cruiser. His superb combat tactics and courage contributed to the success of our forces in this decisive engagement and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.