Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

As the McDermut steadied up, West knew his ship must be directly paralleling the target's approach course-on the reciprocal-because there was suddenly no gyro error to correct. Assuming that the enemy continued on present course and speed, they had a near perfect firing solution. It also meant that there were Japanese ships closer to Roy West than they had ever been before, and they were probably coming directly at him at a relative speed of nearly 50 knots.

From his perch atop the torpedo tubes amidships, West was peering into the inky darkness when there was a sudden burst of light in the sky above as a Japanese star shell ignited. The brightly burning flare cast an eerie grey-white light on the sea. Then, from somewhere ahead, a green searchlight began sweeping the water, and Roy West knew he was in the thick of things.

A moment later, the command to "commence firing" came down from the bridge, and West could feel torpedoes leap from the ship into the boiling sea. Both quintuple mounts fired full salvoes.

As the young torpedoman waited anxiously for the expected run time of the torpedoes to expire, he could feel the McDermut heeling sharply over as she came about to dash back up the Strait. The wind swept across her decks as she came hard to starboard, and the whole world seemed to be spinning out of control. Suddenly, West could see the faces of his shipmates in a ghastly green light and knew that the Japanese searchlight had found them. He felt the concussion of a nearby detonation and was astonished to see a large column of water rise up out of the sea off the port side. Several more rounds exploded so close aboard that the weather decks were drenched in a shower of warm salt water.

Then West saw a huge fireball erupt from the darkness to the south of them and knew that his "fish" had found their mark. It was a beautiful and a horrid sight, conjuring a strange mix of fear, awe, and elation in the young Sailor.

 

Admiral Holloway's retelling of events at Surigao Strait

in the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

As the McDermut and the other destroyers made their escape, Torpedoman Roy West had no way of knowing that by the time the midwatch was over, the Japanese would lose two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers to a combination of torpedoes and gunfire in one of the greatest American sea victories in history.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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