The Fletcher-class destroyer USS Franks (DD-554) came under fire from Japanese heavy surface combatants during the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. On her bridge during the fierce action off Samar was Quartermaster Michael Bak Jr. In his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he offers a gritty first-person account of his phase of history’s greatest naval battle:
I had just finished breakfast, about 0700 or 0715, when the loudspeaker announced, “General quarters, general quarters, man your battle stations. Enemy fleet is on the horizon.” We ran to battle stations. I ran to the bridge and looked out, and I saw what looked like toothpicks on the horizon, right across the horizon—many, many ships. And our carrier planes started taking off. We were protecting the jeep carriers at that point, and we were with a squadron of destroyers.
There were three groups, if I recall, Taffy One, Two, and Three. We were in Taffy Three with our division. When the Japanese fleet was coming along at us, our job was to stay between the carriers and the Japanese ships. We were going back and forth, sort of fishtailing because our carriers couldn’t go too fast. While we were going back and forth, the Japanese were shooting at us and dropping shells around us, 150, 200 yards. When the shells landed, the spots were marked by colored dye. We were going right full rudder, left full rudder, and the shells were coming all around us.
Eventually we were told to make some smoke screens, so we laid a smoke screen between the Japanese fleet and the jeep carriers. And all the time we did that, we were fishtailing, left full rudder, right full rudder, left full rudder. I remember this one time when the shells were dropping around us, we didn’t know what the hell to do. I was on the bridge. I went under the chart table, which was a ridiculous place to go, but the first-class yeoman jumped on top of me. The two of us tried to hide as the shells were dropping around us. I was on a long glass [telescope], and I couldn’t believe you could see these ships so close. I made out a flag on one of the ships—it was so close. When all those shells were falling, I would say that was the biggest fear I had in the Navy, because those bastards were shooting pretty good.
If we had held one course, I would say they would have blown us out of the water that day. For some reason or the other, later on the Japanese turned around and went the other way. They left us when they could have had a kill. They didn’t realize what they had. I believe, reading back in history, they thought that our destroyers were cruisers.
Our planes were taking off and landing. I remember getting behind some of these carriers. Some of the pilots went into the water; we were picking them up. So we had the problem of fishtailing and the problem of picking pilots out of the water, because they were landing and taking off regularly. Nobody had any rest. As soon as they landed, they refueled them and got them up again. They put ammunition on them and they would go back up again. We had sort of dual duty, trying to pick our pilots out of the water when they crashed or went overboard, and keeping between the Japanese fleet and the escort carriers.
When the Japanese stopped shooting at us, we felt relief. But then again, we heard shortly thereafter that we had lost quite a few ships of the fleet, and in our squadron. So we felt kind of bad. Relief on the one hand, and yet on the other hand, you knew you lost guys. There was a lot of confusion. I mean, planes all over the place. One of our own planes actually came down and strafed us—fortunately, he missed us—during that battle. I think he just didn’t know who the hell was who because of the smoke.