On 24 October 1944, as the result of a string of complicated events, a group of diminutive U.S. escort carriers and their even smaller screening vessels found themselves facing a formidable Japansese fleet consisting of battleships (one of them the largest in the world), heavy and light cruisers, and destroyers. It was as though David had shown up to fight Goliath and had forgotten his slingshot.
What ensued was one of the strangest battles in all of naval history. Recognizing that discretion is often the better part of valor, the tiny American carriers turned and “raced” away (their top speed was 18 knots). But their embarked aviators did quite the opposite, attacking with a fervor that was devoid of logic (having been tasked with supporting troops ashore, they were inappropriately armed for an engagement with armored surface ships) but full of tenacity and courage. These admirable qualities were matched by the crews of the destroyers and destroyer escorts who also charged headlong at the oncoming Japanese behemoths.
In the ensuing melee, three of those American ships (the USS Hoel [DD-533], Johnston [DD-557], and Samuel B. Roberts [DE-413]) were sunk, and much has been written about their daring and their ultimate sacrifice. Less has been preserved regarding the other destroyer escorts and the USS Heerman (DD-532), the only surviving destroyer, that also charged into incredible danger that day.
As two Japanese cruisers closed on the helpless carrier flagship, the USS Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70), the destroyer escorts Raymond (DE-341), Dennis (DE-405), and John C. Butler (DE-339) began firing their guns at the much larger cruisers. When the Japanese ships retaliated in kind, one shell passed through the Dennis without detonating, but two more rounds quickly followed, knocking out her 40-mm gun director and one of her two 5-inch guns. In the meantime, the Butler had survived several very near misses, but was running out of ammunition, so she proceeded to the head of the formation to lay concealing smoke.
For quite some time, the Heerman had been trying to draw fire away from the American carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) that was suffering a horrific pounding by a Japanese cruiser and two destroyers. When the shattered CVE began to burn furiously and develop a serious list (she eventually went down), the Japanese ships at last turned their attention to the Heerman. Before long, a Japanese shell struck the destroyer’s pilot house, killing three men and fatally wounding a fourth. The destroyer began taking a severe beating from the Japanese ships, but good damage control procedures and a measure of luck prevented her from sharing the fate of her sisters, the Johnston and the Hoel. Though battered and suffering serious casualties, the Heerman would live to fight another day.
Just when the situation seemed bleakest to the Americans fighting this hopeless battle, when countless numbers of men had resigned themselves to either an early death or the dreaded trial of trying to survive in a hostile sea, the Japanese ships ceased fire and turned away.
Many a jaw hung in testimonial disbelief to what they were witnessing. Many a prayer of thanksgiving rose from that battered American fleet. Many a cheer could be heard in the stillness that followed the silencing of the guns. But most memorable of all the reactions to this apparent miracle were the words of a young signalman on board the flagship, who saw his formidable Japanese adversaries leaving the scene and said, “Goddammit, they’re getting away!”