Taffy-3 and the Battle of Leyte Gulf

“This will be a fight against overwhelming odds, from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”

Lt. Commander Robert W. Copeland

Commanding Officer  U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts

Having now paid my respects on the 11th Hour of the 11th Day, I will openly admit to not being much of a student of World War 2. Indeed my interest in history tends to drop off following the teens and the Great War (think Downton Abbey) largely because that is when women stopped dressing well, and selfishly that is when the period of significance for most of my clients’ homes tends to drop off. Work with what you know. It is my great respect for those who served more recently that prompts my celebration of Veterans Day, as opposed to my preference for spending Armistice Day in a longline corset and hobble skirt.

Thus I admit to being unfamiliar with the tales of heroic battle associated with a group of U.S ships named “Taffy-3” under the command of the Pacific Fleet’s Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague. The subject of World War 2 and this particular battle came up in chance conversation, as apparently one of the Veterans of that battle lives in Anaheim, and I think I might have to schedule an oral history with him, if I can track him down.

That is my disclaimer to explain that the details of this largely “retold” (plagiarized from the internet) tale are likely to be open to challenge. I accept corrections, gladly, and wish to retell the story only as a relevant piece of history in which I am more interested in the big picture of valiant sacrifice and bravery than in the Encyclopaedic details of precise numbers, and I hope our readers might accept the article with that rather broad intent.

Taffy-3 was a group of small support ships in place to assist the landing of troops in the Philippine islands off Samar Province. (The location is back in the news today, being hammered by the latest super-storm.) The Battle of Leyte Gulf is generally considered to be the largest naval battle of World War II and, by some criteria, (Wikipedia) possibly the largest naval battle in history.

From October 23 through the 26, 1944, combined US and Australian forces took on the Imperial Japanese Navy in a series of battles that established the Allied forces as the victors in the Pacific, and helped secure the end of the war, at least until those mushroom clouds put a final end to things.

The battles cover a range of days, over the shoreline of several islands, but the one that caught my attention was specific to Leyte Island.

A small cluster of support ships sat just off tiny Leyte Island, providing cover and supplies for troops landing on the island. The intent was to cut off Japan from those areas they had already taken, and especially to cut them off from the oil sources critical to keeping their military and industrial engines running. As the ships sat off the coast, they were attacked by the majority of the Japanese fleet, desperate to keep the Allies from their toe hold that could decimate their ability to maintain the war.

The real targets were not the small cluster of U.S. and Australian ships, in fact the ships engaged in the attack posed little tactical threat to the Japanese, their largest weapons being Mark 12 5 inch .38 caliber deck mounted guns (I nearly sound like I know what I am talking about, huh?) The real target of the Japanese fleet was the collection of troops behind those small support ships, shoring up the base on the tiny islands.

Earlier that week Adm. William Halsey, Jr. was lured by decoys into taking his 3rd Fleet on a snipe hunt, and while they were returning as quickly as possible, they would not arrive in time to help the sitting ducks of Leyte Island to defend against an overwhelming force. Commanders had believed the Japanese to be in retreat, but instead they had snuck around to attack what they believed to be an undefended position.

Those small support ships were the only thing standing between Allied troops and a fleet of ferocious naval warriors, who had everything to lose, their superior numbers, size, and weapons anchored by the Yamato, capable of launching ammunition the size of a Volkswagen bug.

Using Taffy 3’s three destroyers, six carrier escorts, and four slower destroyer escorts, they first began belching black smoke from every smokestack possible, trying to hide their companions and provide some escape time. Out of that smoke came some warriors that could be described as heroic or simply suicidal, but nobody doubts they turned the tide. Captain Ernest E. Evans, a Cherokee Indian in command of the Fletcher class “Johnston” charged the larger ships, with the attitude if he was going to die, he would take some of the enemy with him. The U.S.S. Hoel continued fighting until they literally had the ship blown out from under them, the crew refusing orders to abandon ship while loading guns manually because the automated systems had no power left to operate them. The Samuel S. Roberts was an anti-submarine ship reportedly so small that the splash of the attack from Japanese guns was higher than their tallest point. They used their size to advantage, and managed to do significant damage to the enormous ship Chokai, blasting their underbelly while the Chokai sat helplessly-their guns unable to lower to the point of hitting the tiny craft! Over and over again, damaged and outnumbered, the smaller ships kept going back into battle, taking on what was hands-down the largest, most determined military force on water, and committing the naval equivalent of (forgive me) kicking the Japanese Imperial Navy in the nuts. It is surprising how often that works.

In the air, Hellcats and Avengers dropped anything they had on the larger forces, knowing they lacked the firepower to sink the larger ships they instead aimed for gun placements and commanding officers. When they ran out of ammo, they opened bomb bays and flew at the ships, knowing the enemy would have to take evasive positions not knowing the bays were empty, and at least deflect the attack and buy some time for their friends.

Over a thousand Americans died, comparable to the combined losses of men and ships at the better known Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. Nearly as many were wounded, and of those who survived the sinking of their vessels, some were floating in shark infested waters for up to 72 hours waiting for the ragtag batch of surviving ships to pick them up.

But in exchange for those losses, the Allies sank or disabled three Japanese cruisers, 10,000 Japanese men were lost, and Americans caused enough confusion to convince the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, that he was battling a force twice the size he had actually engaged. Rather than advancing to sink troop and supply ships at Leyte Gulf, he limped back to Japan, marking the final defeat of the Japanese Navy. Between the damage to ships and being deprived of fuel, the Japanese fleet remained in port for most of the rest of the war and ceased to be an effective naval force.

“In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar”

— Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume XII, Leyte

Of course we all know how the rest of the story plays out, and thank God many of those men returned home safely, becoming our fathers and grandfathers. Many chose to settle in Orange County where they had fallen in love with the weather and the women during their training at El Toro and Santa Ana bases. Their adult years were spent shaping what Orange County became, they are the men (and women) who built the aerospace industry, put a man on the moon, created Disneyland, built Angel Stadium, and dreamed the dreams that today’s Orange County residents enjoy.

For today I will be thankful to the incredible men and women who fought to give us the idyllic Orange County environment we so often take for granted. While my family always makes a habit of thanking men and women in uniform, I will make a special effort to watch for them today. I will be particularly aware of those older neighbors I might encounter, in the hope that they will proudly announce themselves and their service, perhaps by wearing their caps for American Legion or VFW, etc. We have no idea if the silver haired gentleman holding up the line at McDonald’s while fishing through his coin purse to pay for his senior discount coffee might once have been the brave, muscular 19 year old loading guns on the deck of a ship he believed would be going down with him on it, and did it anyway. He may be as frustrated with the hands that no longer grasp pennies for the cashier as you are to get your lunch and get back to the office. Buy his coffee.

That woman in the market juggling three kids (the youngest one screaming at ear splitting pitch) may be struggling with PTSD, having served two tours in a God forsaken outpost you could not pay most of us ANY amount of money to visit. Smile at her, perhaps offer a few words that let her know this too shall pass, and she is doing a great job of holding the line on that tantrum rather than give in to the screaming.

The co-worker who drives you nuts with the constant self-important bluster may be using bravado to hide the terrified boy orphaned by the Vietnam war. Tell him he is doing a good job and you value the way his drive for perfectionism makes the entire department better for the higher standards he sets.

And if you have the urge to pick on a verbose blogger, well sometimes we are the ones willing to take on the larger force in an effort to pull those dangers away from the troops who need to get the job done. Like the Samuel S. Roberts, sometimes it is the little guy running beneath the big guns who does the most damage to the hull.

And I will take the time to make this one statement, which you may take as you wish. Can anyone argue that what the naval forces of Taffy 3 did was anything short of an act of  “kindness?” Kindness is not weakness, kindness is doing the right thing, in an act of setting aside our own selfish desires to serve the needs of others. I imagine one’s version of what constitutes “kindness” is based on whether one is standing on the deck of a Japanese battleship, or the beach of a small Philippine island.

Memorial to Taffy-3 and Admiral Sprague

Had the various Commanders of those ships been filled with the territorial self-importance that those of us online display in the comments sections of each others’ blogs, the effort to defeat a shared foe in united battle would have been lost. Not once did those Commanders seek to compromise or negotiate with the Japanese Imperial navy. They did what they had to do, and self-preservation be damned.  How do we bring that sense of unity to Orange County, and recognize we are all working to knock down evil empires, can we at least pull together on the shared values we can agree on?

I would challenge all of us to spend today finding those who offered the kindness of putting on a uniform and doing something that many of us have not done ourselves. Offer your own kindness in return to them. And moving forward I will work harder to find common ground with others I think may be reasonable enough to work together to accomplish goals bigger than we could manage individually. You fly overhead while I strafe someone’s hull, perhaps together we can make the enormous battleship go down, or at least limp home to port and leave the citizens and the ever diminishing treasuries alone for a bit.

End of soapbox, you may now return to your Veteran’s Day already in progress.

For those looking for a more tangible way to thank our Veterans, the Register today listed a number of opportunities to help.

There are two issues near and dear to my heart. The first is a fight to release POW  Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since June of 2009. Bowe is from the town of Hailey, Idaho, where his sister, parents Bob and Jani, and the entire close knit community work tirelessly to make sure he is not overlooked by a government with their own agenda. They are asking for Americans all over the nation to please send Christmas cards to the White House, asking for the release of Bowe in the most non-confrontational way possible, through holiday greetings.

Please send cards to:
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
C/O The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

The other issue I would like to ask readers to support is the effort to include a Veterans Cemetery at the former El Toro base, now home to the “Great Park.” (Disclosure: I am the lone civilian on what will become the Board of a new non-profit to enable the formation of the site. I receive no compensation for the position but disclose the connection, because that is what honest bloggers do.)

This amazing group of Veterans I am honored to serve with are not looking for the handout of free land, there is funding set aside to pay for it through a State program. Frankly their service has already paid for the land many times over, with or without a check in hand. All they need is enough public support to show the elected leaders and decision makers that it would be unfortunate to overlook this deserving use of land that is especially significant to those who served in the military. In my mind nobody has more right to first right of refusal to that real estate.

Using the selected lot as a Veterans Cemetery helps Irvine with their regional requirements, as it permanently locks the property as open space and wildlife corridor opportunity, etc. In short, we are making something beautiful and meaningful from what is currently going to waste.

We will be seeking donations shortly for seed money to help fund the paperwork and filing fees to put the 501c3 in place, which then allows us to solicit tax deductible donations for other start up costs not covered by the State VA program. Letters to Irvine City Council/Great Park Board are also appreciated, and you can contact Chaplain Bill Cook for more information (the website is not up yet.) chaplain_district29@cox.net

In my home town of Anaheim, we have officially adopted the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)  http://www.anaheim.net/articlenew23.asp?id=4093

Among other programs, they are collecting gift cards until November 18, to buy turkeys for military families at Camp Pendleton. http://www.anaheim.net/images/articles/4093/Anaheim13thMEUThanksgivingDonation2013flyer.pdf

Jenny Sokol did a great article http://www.ocregister.com/articles/tran-536166-comedy-life.html on a warrior who uses stand-up comedy to not only relieve his own post war nightmares but bring relief to others who brought a slice of Hell on earth back with them. http://www.gisofcomedy.com/

Here is also a list of deals offered by local businesses, to thank our veterans.

Military.com has compiled a roundup of free or reduced goods and services offered to servicemembers, veterans and family members. Businesses are offering these tokens of appreciation to mark Veterans Day and the month of November, Military Family Month.

It is advised that you double-check the participation of your chosen location before trying to redeem an offer. Keep in mind that different locations may require different proofs of service. Check the page at http://www.military.com/ for offers of free or discounted goods and services from restaurants, retail stores, and even amusement parks. Proof of military service often required, check each offer individually.

If you know of a service group or business honoring Veterans, please feel free to post the info here in the Comments section. Also, please share any stories of service that you think may encourage others and build up the men and women who literally stepped up and offered themselves willing to die for us. That can never be repaid.

NOTE:  Should you feel the need to say something degrading or negative, there are places online where you are welcome. This isn’t one of them, and I will delete your comments without warning or apology. I accept any level of abuse for myself in an effort to get the truth out publicly, that same attitude does not fly with those who served us. I hope we all understand each other.

About Cynthia Ward

I am a truth-teller. It gets me in trouble. But if you ask me if a dress makes you look fat, I will tell you so, and help select another, before you go on television and realize it for yourself. My real friends are expected to be truthful with me as well. A secret shared will be taken to my grave, but lie to me, and it will end up here…on these pages… especially if you are tasked with the stewardship of public resources. I am a registered Republican who disdains the local GOP power structure, a born-again Christian who supports everyone’s right to spend their lives with the partner of their choosing. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I am a loyal friend to those who merit that friendship and when crossed I am a bitch with a capital C. I do not fit into a box, nor do I see others through the stereotypes that politics and public affairs so often tries to shoehorn us into. I think for myself, and so do you. Welcome to our shared space in this world.