Second Salvo at Surigao Strait

By Admiral James L. Holloway III, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Now that the battleship had emerged from the strait, the image on the radarscope was clear of ground clutter and the fire-control radar was ranging consistently. In minutes, the plotting-room talker reported “tracking in automatic.” I passed this to the bridge and the captain acknowledged: “Very well. Train out the tubes but don’t launch or shoot until I give the order.” I switched the five-inch guns and both quintuple torpedo mounts to director control, and again standing up in the hatch, looked aft to see the torpedo mounts trained out on the beam.

Our ship was running in and out of rainsqualls and it was very dark. I could barely make out the other two destroyers in our division. Like the Bennion , both were Fletcher -class destroyers. We were keeping a 300-foot interval in a loose column. The division was loitering at five knots, close to the western coastline of Leyte Gulf, using land clutter to hide from enemy radars. It was quiet in the director. Each member of the crew was absorbed in his particular duties. Our small talk had been used up long ago.

For the past seven months the five of us had been together eight hours a day in this hot, cramped steel box, standing watches or at general quarters (GQ), shooting at the Japanese. At Peleliu, the Bennion had emptied her magazines three times in a single week. We considered ourselves experienced veterans. We had fought at Saipan, Tinian, Guam, and Peleliu. There was one new member of the director crew this night in Surigao Strait. The third-class fire controlman who normally manned the pointer’s station in the director was in sick bay. Both he and my assistant gunnery officer had been wounded two days earlier when a shell from a Japanese shore battery on Leyte had struck close aboard the Bennion , unleashing a shower of shrapnel. Although I was standing just inches from them, I had not been hit. The assistant gunnery officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) “Robbie” Robertson, had been terribly torn up and was wrapped in a blanket, strapped to the dining table in the officers’ wardroom—now the ship’s main battle-dressing station. The war was over for Robbie, but he didn’t know it yet. He was full of morphine. He survived, but lost his right arm at the shoulder. A young ensign from the gunnery department was filling in at his GQ station.

I was a 22-year-old lieutenant, the Bennion ’s gunnery officer. This was my second destroyer assignment since graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1942. After General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Leyte on 20 October 1944 it was fully expected that the Imperial Japanese Navy would attack Allied forces in the Leyte Gulf area. There were reports from our submarines and Navy patrol aircraft indicating that two separate Japanese task forces were headed in the direction of Leyte Gulf. The hundreds of Allied transports, supply ships, amphibious craft, and support vessels anchored off Tacloban, providing support and resupply for the Army ashore, were a prime target for the Japanese fleet.

On the morning of 24 October, the Bennion was on picket station in the eastern approaches to Leyte Gulf when her captain, Commander Joshua Cooper, called me down from the gun director during morning GQ to show me a message: The southern group of Japanese ships was moving in a direction that suggested an attack through Surigao Strait, the southern entrance to Leyte Gulf. He thought we probably would be involved in a night action within 24 hours. When I returned to the director, I used the sound-powered phone circuit to inventory the distribution of our five-inch ammunition among the magazines and the five upper handling rooms. I also directed the torpedo officer to make sure that the torpedoes, which had not been exercised since our training evolutions while undergoing shakedown, were ready in all respects for a war shot. With the 12-to-4 watch as officer of the deck on the bridge that afternoon, I was able to read the incoming voice radio and flashing-light traffic that laid out the disposition of our forces. Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf had six old battleships, eight cruisers, and 26 destroyers to stop the Japanese force that was expected to come through Surigao Strait.

Thirty-nine PT boats also were assigned to the Leyte Gulf force. I had been on the wing of the Bennion ’s bridge on 23 October when their formation passed us on the way to set up an ambush in Surigao Strait. I had never heard such a racket. We could hear the PT engines five miles away and see them at even greater distances, because they were engulfed in a cloud of their own exhaust fumes. It was my first encounter with PT boats; I was not impressed.

During the afternoon watch, Oldendorf’s detailed plan for the disposition of his forces came through by message and the next several hours were spent deploying to assigned positions. The Bennion ’s tactical assignment was the same as its administrative organization: The nine Fletcher -class destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 56 (DESRON 56), under the command of Captain Roland Smoot, were organized into three divisions of three ships each. DESRON 56 was assigned to attack the column of Japanese battleships and cruisers after it had emerged from Surigao Strait. In his battle plan, Oldendorf had specified that the destroyers were each to expend only five of their total of ten onboard torpedoes during the attack and hold five in reserve. Torpedo reloads for destroyers were hard to come by in the western Pacific.

Smoot planned for coordinated torpedo attacks, conducted separately by each of the three divisions: one against the eastern flank; the second, head-on; and the third (of which the Bennion would be part) against the western flank. Each division would approach in a three-ship column, and each destroyer would successively launch a salvo of five torpedoes as the column turned, and then retire. Because the Bennion was the last ship in the third division, it would be among the last destroyers to launch their fish. That meant the range from the enemy would continue to close for us as the column executed the corpen maneuver. Smoot further instructed that we should not fire our five-inch guns during the attack lest they provide Japanese gunners with convenient aim points.

As the ships of DESRON 56 converged at the designated rendezvous points in northern Leyte Gulf to form their disposition for the anticipated night action, we remained at GQ. The Bennion had been on picket station at the gulf’s eastern entrance, and we had been under sporadic Japanese air attacks, which continued as we were steaming to the rendezvous point. The cloud cover was about 60 percent, and the enemy aircraft were popping in and out of the cumulus clouds. The Bennion ’s five-inch battery brought down a “Val” bomber, and the 40-mm and 20-mm guns combined to destroy a “Zeke” fighter close aboard.

We were deployed in our attack disposition by 1800. The crew was being fed in relays, a few men from each battle station going down to the mess line to pick up battle rations—inch-thick bologna sandwiches. With the number of pickets deployed, both PT boats and destroyers, we would not be taken by surprise.

Shortly after 0300, the soft purr of the idling fireroom blowers suddenly rose to a high-pitched whine. The bridge had rung up full power. The director began to tremble and the deck plates vibrated from the propellers’ cavitation as the ship accelerated. Almost simultaneously, the ship’s general announcing system and a sound-powered phone talker announced “Starting run-in for the attack.” I had been momentarily diverted, and looking through the optics again I was startled to see how much larger the image of the Japanese battleship had grown. The enemy column was headed in our direction at 25 knots and closing fast.

With the signal to commence the run-in to the attack, the three destroyers in our section turned in column to a southerly course to intercept the enemy, maintaining the 300-foot interval between ships. As we increased to 25 knots, the engine rooms were ordered to make black smoke to screen our division. At “darken ship” there was only the dim blue light from the battle lanterns for illumination. Standing in the open hatch of the director, I could watch the entire panorama of the two converging fleets, and through the high-powered lenses of the director, the enemy ships could be seen in stark detail. As our destroyers broke out of the shadow of the shoreline, we were immediately taken under fire by the Japanese battleships and cruisers. It was strange to be rushing through the dark, closing with the enemy at a relative speed of more than 50 knots, not firing our own guns but seeing the steady gunfire of the Japanese ships and running through the explosions of their shots falling around us. The towering splashes of the 14-inch and 8-inch shells were close enough to wet our weather decks. Both sides also were firing star shells, their illumination adding to the eerie aspect of the scene.

As the Japanese came into range, Oldendorf’s battleships and cruisers, deployed in an east-west line to cross the “T” at the top of the Japanese column, opened up with their main batteries. All along the northern horizon, enormous billows of flame from their 16- and 14-inch main battery guns lit up the battle line. Directly over our heads stretched a procession of tracers as the battleships’ shells converged on the Japanese column. The apparent slowness of the projectiles was surprising. Taking 15 to 20 seconds in their trajectory before reaching the target, they seemed to hang in the sky. Through the director optics, I could clearly see the explosions of the shells bursting on the Japanese ships, sending up cascades of flame as they ripped away topside gun mounts and erupted in fiery sheets of molten steel tearing into the heavy armor plate.

When the first destroyer in our division reached the firing point, the enemy was just 6,000 yards away. Each of the three destroyers in the column in succession executed a hard turn to starboard, launching five torpedoes when the enemy bearing was on the port beam. When it was the Bennion ’s turn, the bridge called out: “Launch torpedoes!” The battleship Yamashiro completely filled the viewing glass of my optics. The crosshairs were stabilized on the waterline just below the foremast. Plot was repeating, “We have a good solution.” Glowing dials showed the torpedo tubes were trained clear and the torpedo gyros set. I pushed the “fire” button on the console and stood up to see our five fish shoot out of their tubes. I heard them slap the water. All were running hot and straight.

As each destroyer adjusted its turn at the launch point to have the target on the beam at the moment of firing, the formation became ragged, and the ships began maneuvering independently to avoid enemy gunfire. As the Bennion began to retire at 30 knots, still making black smoke, the scene of action was one of growing confusion. The Japanese formation had disintegrated. Some ships circled out of control, some were dead in the water. Many were on fire, and they shuddered from massive explosions. Others were unrecognizable, with bows gone, sterns blown away, and topsides mangled.

Standing up through the gunnery officer’s hatch in the main gun director, I had an almost unobstructed 360-degree view of the entire scene of action. Suddenly, a large warship loomed on our port bow. Using the slewing sight, I swung the director to point directly at this new target, instructing the rangefinder operator to track and identify this contact. If hostile, the fire-control radar would be locked on and the plotting-room computer would then generate a target course and speed. I called down to the captain—no phone or intercom was needed as he was on the port wing of the bridge, one level below me—to report the strange contact. It was at that juncture that the unidentified warship commenced firing what appeared to be its secondary battery. From the clearly visible tracers, I could see that the rounds were being directed at the USS Albert W. Grant (DD-649), a destroyer in our squadron that earlier had been hit and damaged by gunfire—some of it friendly fire from our cruisers—during the retirement from the torpedo attack. The Grant had lost all power and was adrift in the middle of the strait.

When the unidentified large ship opened fire she had immediately established her identity as enemy, because her salvos were ripple fire. That was a characteristic of Japanese naval gunfire, in contrast to the simultaneous salvoes of U.S. warships. I shouted to the captain that the ship was Japanese. No sooner had he acknowledged that intelligence, than the fire controlman on the director rangefinder reported that we were locked on with fire-control radar, and that the plotting room already had a good solution for a torpedo attack.

I shouted this information to the captain and recommended we fire our five remaining torpedoes, because the ship was obviously a cruiser or battleship, too lucrative a target to ignore. Without hesitation he gave an affirmative reply, even though he must have had in mind, just as I did, Oldendorf’s instructions to expend only five torpedoes in the squadron attack. Clearly this was not the time for equivocation, and the captain repeated his instructions to fire all five of our remaining fish at this close-in target.

I passed the instructions by sound-powered phone to Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom Bayliss, the torpedo officer. He was manning the Mark 27 torpedo director back at the tubes, wearing the sound-powered phones himself and personally making the target data inputs and torpedo settings. I told him to set the torpedoes “deep”—the recommended depth setting for a battleship or cruiser target, so that the torpedo would hit the vessel below its torpedo-defense blisters. Bayliss had been monitoring my conversation with the captain and was aware that the target was a large man-of-war; he already had set the “deep” option. I looked aft and saw the quintuple torpedo mount training out to port, with the plotting room repeating the messages on the intercom, “We have a solution.” I stood up, reached out, and pressed the red torpedo-firing buttons on the interior bulkhead of the director, launching five torpedoes in a salvo. Still standing in the hatch, I could see the torpedoes come out of their tubes in quick succession with their motors already running, slap the water, submerge, and head for that Japanese heavy, now only 3,000 yards away. I felt sure we would get a hit with our spread of five torpedoes. We were too close to have missed.

The Bennion heeled sharply as the captain ordered “Full right rudder, all ahead flank,” and we swung to a northerly course in the direction of the postattack rendezvous point. Captain Cooper did not wish to linger in no-man’s-land, especially considering the fate of the hapless Grant .

By 0430 DESRON 56 had reformed north of Surigao Strait and, as first evidence of the morning twilight appeared, the destroyers were ordered to proceed south at high speed to engage and destroy the remnants of the Japanese force. In the pale predawn light the scene in the lower gulf was appalling. I counted six distinct fires, and debris littered the oily surfaces of the gulf. Groups of Japanese sailors were clinging to pieces of floating wreckage, calling out to us as we raced by. There was no time to pause to deal with survivors. In the smoke of the early morning gloom the Japanese destroyer Asagumo was limping south, badly damaged and afire. If the Asagumo still had torpedoes on board, she remained a deadly threat. The Bennion was ordered to deliver the coup de grâce. Changing course to intercept her, the Bennion opened fire with the five-inch battery at 10,000 yards and began to hit on the third salvo. I shifted to rapid continuous fire at 6,000 yards, and as our rounds penetrated the Asagumo ’s hull and exploded, flames burst from her hatches. When we had closed to about 2,000 yards, the Japanese destroyer slid beneath the gray, choppy waters, bow first, her screws still slowly rotating as we passed close aboard.

As the Bennion turned to rejoin the formation, a Zero broke out of the low clouds on our port beam heading directly toward us. Again using the slewing sight at the director officer’s hatch, I swung the Bennion ’s five-inch battery to the incoming plane and commenced firing. In a no-deflection head-on shot, a five-inch round scored a direct hit on the plane’s nose. The Zero vanished in a fiery explosion. Flaming debris fell into the sea around us.

At daylight on 25 October 1944, the Bennion ’s crew was tired. We had been up more than 24 hours—since 0400 the day before, when we loaded five-inch ammunition from a Liberty Ship anchored off Tacloban as Navy Wildcats tangled with Zeros overhead. We had been at GQ for more than 12 hours. Now, as we listened to the reports come in over the TBS and saw yet more survivors clinging to the smoking wreckage of a Japanese fleet, we sensed that a great victory had been won. A major Japanese force of battleships and cruisers had been virtually immolated with serious damage to just one of our ships, the destroyer Grant . The showdown in Surigao Strait, along with close-by naval engagements of 24-25 October, collectively came to be called the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Samuel Eliot Morison, the distinguished naval historian, later would call Leyte the greatest naval battle in history.

A few days passed before we in the Bennion had the time to analyze the engagement and submit our action report to commander DESRON 56 for consolidation with the reports of the other eight destroyers, and to assess the performance of our ship during the engagement. Torpedoman First Class Tom Bowen had been assigned to time the run of each torpedo salvo with a stopwatch to note if an explosion (or explosions) occurred at the moment of expected impact on the target. Bowen reported seeing an explosion at the expected impact time of one of our torpedoes. He also said in his report that the Bennion ’s sonar had detected an underwater explosion at the same time as his visual sighting. But it was not identified whether that presumed hit occurred as a result of our first salvo or second salvo.

A week after the battle I transferred off the Bennion . As I said goodbye to my skipper, Commander Cooper, a splendid gentleman and captain, he said he was sorry to see me leave the destroyer Navy. I thought for a moment before I replied: “Captain, in the past 48 hours we silenced four shore batteries, shot down three planes, sank a destroyer by gunfire, and made a close-in torpedo hit that helped sink a Japanese battleship. I think I’d now like to try something new.”

Thus did the Bennion and I go our separate ways. I had orders to report for flight training. During a Japanese air raid I was transported via whaleboat to a departing cargo ship, beginning a long, slow hitchhike across the Pacific that marked the start of a career as a carrier pilot. The Bennion went on to the Mindoro and Lingayen Gulf landings, the assault on Iwo Jima, and received a Presidential Unit Citation at Okinawa, all without me. Not quite a year later, the war was over.

And there, but for a turn of fate decades later, the story might have ended, the Bennion ’s place in the history of Surigao Strait never fully secured. Save for Torpedoman Bowen’s ambiguous report and the “too-close-to-have-missed” hunch that I and others had felt at the time, we had no documentation, official or otherwise, that the Bennion may have helped sink the Yamashiro .

In 1958 Morison published Volume XII of his seminal History of United States Naval Operations in World War II . Volume XII is titled simply Leyte , and like the other volumes it is based on official U.S. Navy after-action reports available to him at the time. In Leyte he states that because the Japanese column conducted a course reversal at the time DESRON 56 made its coordinated attack, just one torpedo from the squadron—from the Newcomb (DD-586)—is believed to have hit its target. The author makes no mention whatsoever of the Bennion ’s second five-torpedo salvo.

Morison offers a tacit explanation for any missing details—while at the same time establishing ultimate authority for the battle—in his preface to Leyte . There, he acknowledges the assistance of Rear Admiral Richard W. Bates and his staff at the U.S. Naval War College, who “have been working on an exhaustive and detailed study of the battle for Leyte Gulf” and granted Morison access to their research.

That “exhaustive and detailed study”—which was not yet published when Morison’s volume went to press—became the Naval War College’s The Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 1944: Strategical and Tactical Analysis. Volume V. Battle of Surigao Strait, October 24th–25th . The study was published in 1958 and classified “confidential”—which severely limited its distribution.

Nearly half a century later, in 2004, Naval Historical Foundation researcher John Reilly by chance encountered the study, by then declassified. He provided me a copy, but because I was deeply involved in a large project of my own at the time, I gave it just a perfunctory scan, then put it in my desk. There it stayed until 2008, when I picked it up again to research another aspect of the Battle of Surigao Strait. And that is when I discovered two references to the Bennion’s role in the sinking of the Yamashiro. Said the report:

The YAMASHIRO . . . continued to close the enemy as she advanced. Shortly after being taken under fire she started to burn. At 0356 she turned to the west and at 0405 she was hit by a torpedo fired by the BENNION. . . . At 0359 the BENNION had fired a second salvo of five intermediate speed torpedoes at what she thought was a second battleship, and [hit] the YAMASHIRO. . . . At 0419, she [YAMASHIRO] suddenly sank. (Emphasis added.)

The Bennion ’s torpedo hit on the Yamashiro is confirmed in the appendices of the Naval War College battle report, as well. The analysis had made extensive use of the interrogations of Japanese survivors, including a warrant officer from the battleship.

Sadly, most of the Bennion crew are gone, but it’s never too late to set the historical record straight. Thus, on the basis of the critical review of all official and authoritative information available, the Bennion today at long last can properly be credited with her torpedo hit on the Yamashiro , which directly contributed to the Japanese battleship’s sinking at the Battle of Surigao Strait in Leyte Gulf.

 

Admiral Holloway, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, was the 20th Chief of Naval Operations. He retired in 1978 after 39 years of active duty.
 

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