Review: Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, by James Hornfischer

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest HourThe Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the long roll of the history of naval warfare, there are many great names that ring with the authoritative clang of a sword blow on a shield; Trafalgar, Jutland, Tsushima, Midway. Less well known, yet oddly eclipsing them all, is the desperate defense of Task Force 3 (the ubiquitous “Taffy 3”) off Samar Island in the Philippines on 25 October 1944. The Battle off Samar was just part of the largest, most sprawling battle in naval history– the battle of Leyte Gulf, a clash of titans. The leadership of Imperial Japan knew that the great days were behind them. By 1944, The Americans were bringing their industrial capacity to bear in the Pacific. American factories were out producing Japanese ones at an astonishing rate; the nation that started the war with three carriers in the Pacific now had dozens and dozens of them, as the stark reality of carrier warfare was the lesson learned after Pearl Harbor. The big gun battleships had been the focus of naval development and naval treaty for decades. In just a few short years that was changing quickly, as the United States rushed to field fleets of carriers, both the large fleet class and the smaller conversion “escort” carriers. Never had any nation had so much airpower to bring to bear against the enemy. The problem for the American planners was right at the time of riches, the number of targets (and the level of opposition) declined rapidly. The Imperial fleet had not sortied in large numbers since early 43. The cream of Japanese naval aviation had been wiped out at the Marianas. Japan still had a largish force of carriers but hardly had a cadre of trained pilots and mechanics to crew them any more, not to mention the aviation gas to keep them in the air. When the Philippines were in danger of being invaded by MacArthur in 44, Imperial leadership knew that this was a strategic move that could spell the doom of the home islands. So they hit upon a ploy based out of desperation; they would take their now largely useless carrier force and send it to Leyte Gulf as a decoy force, as part of the north force. Center and South force elements were composed of heavy cruisers and battleships.. essentially everything the IJN had at the time, and they were tasked with attacking the actual invasion transports in two prongs; the Southern force would engage the “Taffys” and the Center Force would smash the transports, only lightly escorted by a smallish group of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers (liberty ship conversions that carried fewer planes than the fast fleet carrier class, but were produced in large numbers). This was Taffy 3, under the command of the legendary Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague, a great name in American naval aviation. The chain of events in the hours leading up to the battle on 25 October are a credit to IJN planners. Events generally unfolded exactly as the IJN had guessed and planned. Admiral William Halsey, the pugnacious 3rd fleet carrier commander, took the bait and charged after Admiral Ozawa’s north force of carriers, leaving the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and Taffy 3, consisting of tiny destroyer escorts, destroyers and escort carriers, particularly vulnerable.

Admiral Takeo Kurita
Admiral Takeo Kurita (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the morning of the 25th, one of Admiral Sprague’s patrol planes, an Avenger TDB out on Anti-Submarine patrol, spotted the enormous Center Force of Admiral Kurita steaming steadily into the San Bernadino strait. After reporting the incident, the pilot decided he would improvise an attack with his depth charges. Knowing it wouldn’t scratch a Japanese cruiser’s paint above water, he reasoned the pressure wave from the underwater explosion would break the keel. It didn’t quite work out as he had hoped, but he did get the satisfaction of smashing the front railing of the lead cruiser with a flying depth charge, thus symbolically striking the first blow of the Battle of Samar before frantically flying back to the Gambier Bay to reload with ship-killing weapons. This little exercise in futility set the tone for the day that followed, with American planes and ships attacking with just about anything and everything that could shoot, even if common sense dictated it would be a failure. The escort screen, consisting of the Hoel, the Johnston, the Samuel B. Roberts, and the Heerman, (Destroyers except for the Roberts, which was a DE), charged the Center Force in one of the most daring, one sided naval actions in recorded history. Oddly enough, for a while, their gallant defense paid off in significant damage to the upper works of the of the onrushing cruisers. Nobody expected the 4.5 inch guns of a Destroyer to even dent an IJN cruiser, but surprisingly, they wreaked havoc on the exposed secondary batteries and upper works of the tall Japanese ships. Speed and size were an asset– the IJN cruiser discovered that the gnat-like small ships attacking with such ferocity were very hard to hit due to their lower profile in the water and faster relative speed. In a contest between such unequal ships, gradually, luck will ran out, and luck ran out for the men of the Roberts, Hoel, and Johnston, with only the severely damaged Heerman limping away. Even though the Japanese were close to “victory”, ill defined as it was, suddenly Kurita changed his mind and turned around, giving the signal to follow him northward. The Battle off Samar was over.

James Hornfischer tells the story of this gallant and improbable action in a very matter of fact way, with a minimum of editorializing. It is very clear he had the benefit of first person accounts in his narrative as the book aims at the unvarnished truth from beginning to end. The book moves from the first person perspective of an engineering officer below decks to the Stateroom of Admiral Kurita, weighing the factors that would keep him in or out of battle effortlessly. I admired Hornfischer’s depiction of the sailors and officers of Taffy 3. They don’t come off as comic book heroes, just regular men stuck in a bad place, and doing the best they could with what the had at hand. My only fault with this book, and it is a minimal one, is that I wish there was a similar body of narrative to draw upon on the Japanese side. I realize this might be impossible at this late date. Still, I would love to read about what the common Japanese sailor thought about being stuck in this action, too.

The U.S. Navy escort carrier USS Gambier Bay (...
The U.S. Navy escort carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) and her escorts pictured amidst a smoke screen during a surface action off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With THE LAST STAND OF THE TIN CAN SAILORS, Hornfishcer has created a classic in the history of naval warfare, and I predict this book will stand the test of time.

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