Friday, November 11, 2005

This is why we remember


PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION

USN Presidential Citation Ribbon

Awarded to Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy III)

THE SECRETARY OF THE NAVY

WASHINGTON
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION to TASK UNIT SEVENTY-SEVEN POINT FOUR POINT THREE, consisting of the U.S.S. FANSHAW BAY and VC-88; U.S.S. GAMBIER BAY and VC-10; U.S.S. KALININ BAY and VC-3; U.S.S. KITKUN BAY and VC-5; U.S.S. SAINT LO and VC-65; U.S.S. WHITE PLAINS and VC-4; U.S.S. HOEL, U.S.S. JOHNSTON, U.S.S. HEERMANN, U.S.S. SAMUEL B. ROBERTS, U.S.S. RAYMOND, U.S.S. DENNIS and U.S.S. JOHN C. BUTLER

for service as set forth in the following CITATION

"For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait towards Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear. Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor-piercing shells, anti-personnel projectiles and suicide bombers. With one carrier of the group sunk, others badly damaged and squadron aircraft courageously coordinating in the attacks by making dry runs over the enemy Fleet as the Japanese relentlessly closed in for the kill, two of the Unit's valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy's heavy shells as a climax to two and one half hours of sustained and furious combat. The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

For the President,
/signed/ JAMES FORRESTAL Secretary of the Navy


Some gave their all.
This is one story.


On 25 October 1944, TASK UNIT 77.4.3, nicknamed "TAFFY III" was cruising some forty or fifty miles east of the Island of Samar, Philippine Islands;

TAFFY III consisted of six baby flattops, USS FANSHAW BAY CVE 70 (Flagship) , USS GAMBIER BAY, CVE 73, USS KALININ BAY CVE 68, USS KITKUN BAY CVE 71, USS SAINT LO CVE 63 and USS WHITE PLAINS CVE 66.

These small carriers were being screened by 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts. The three destroyers were; USS HEERMANN DD 532, USS HOEL DD 533 and USS JOHNSTON DD 557. The four destroyer escorts were; USS JOHN C. BUTLER DE 339, USS DENNIS DE 405, USS RAYMOND DE 341 and USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS DE 413.

TAFFY THREE'S aircraft were supporting the landings of General Douglas MacArthur as he was attempting to keep his word of " I SHALL RETURN" when he was forced to retreat from the Philippine Islands in the early part of WW II.

It was believed by most Task Unit Commanders in the area that Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey was guarding the exit of San Bernardino Strait with his mighty Task Force 38 however, Admiral Halsey had been lured north by a Japanese Carrier Task Force set up as a decoy for the purpose of pulling Admiral Halsey's Giant Task Force away from the Leyte Operation. The Japanese had intention of destroying General MacArthur's landing operations on LEYTE.

At about 0645 on the morning of 25 OCTOBER 1944, a pilot on patrol sighted and reported an extremely large Japanese Task Force consisting of 4 battleships, 8 cruisers and 11 destroyers heading straight for TAFFY III. This report was challanged by TU commander, Adm. Sprague thinking the pilot had spotted parts of Admiral Halsey's large task force and asked that the pilot recheck his sighting for better identification. The pilot re-checked and reported that the large surface ships were supporting giant Pagoda masts. This pretty well confirmed that the sightings were not American ships.

At about the same time that positive identification was made of the enemy task force, the Japanese Task Force commenced firing on TAFFY III, concentrating their fire on the carriers.

The carriers were not only small but were slow, each one could only make 17 or 18 knots. The Japanese Task Force was closing at about 25 knots.

JAPANESE FORCE

Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's fleet consisted of four battleships, the world's largest, YAMATO which contained 9, 18.1" guns in three turrets, plus NAGATO which contained 9, 16" guns in three turrets and KONGO and HARUNA which contained 14" guns.

In addition to the four battleships, there were eight cruisers and 11 destroyers. All of the ships in Adm. Kurita's force were equipped with torpedo tubes except the super heavy YAMATO.

One of YAMATO'S turrets containing 3, 18.1-inch guns weighed more than a Fletcher class destroyer.

USS JOHNSTON

Destroyer Johnston. Commanded by Commander Ernest E. Evans, which was nearest the Japanese Task Force at the time turned and began making smoke from her stacks and also her smoke screen generators. JOHNSTON was zig-zaging as she began to close her range with the enemy task force. As the range began to close rapidly, Commander Evans picked out a heavy cruiser in the lead and advised the gunnery officer to begin firing on that ship as soon as our range closed enough/ Johnston began firing on heavy cruiser KUMANO and picked that ship as a target for a torpedo attack. Later, johnston was followed by USS HOEL, USS HEERMAN and USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS. .

JOHNSTON was zigzagging as she laid smoke in an attempt to hide the carriers from view of the Japanese. As JOHNSTON closed within range of the enemy ships, she opened fire with her five, 5-inch guns and selected a target for a torpedo attack. Johnston picked out one of the heavy cruisers that was in the lead and began a torpedo run When JOHNSTON got within approximately 9000 yards of Japanese Heavy Cruiser KUMANO, the target cruiser, began firing her torpedoes to starboard. By the time JOHNSTON completed the firing of her ten torpedoes, she was within approximately 6000 yards of KUMANO Torpedo hits were made on cruiser Kumano severely cripling her and taking her out of the action.

Johnston turned and was attempting to retire into her own smoke screen when she was hit for the first time with a three gun salvo of 14: inch projectiles from a battleship. These hits were followed in 30 seconds by a 3-gun salvo of 6" projectiles from a light cruiser. These six hits caused considerable damage to JOHNSTON knocking out one fire room and one engine room, slowing JOHNSTON from about 34 knots to about 16 knots. Hits were received on the bridge that caused a large amount of damage and either killed or seriously wounded many of the men assigned to the bridge which included the Captain. The Captain received wounds to his hand, back and it is believed to his ear drums from concussion.

JOHNSTON then took refuge inside a rain squall in an attempt to make emergency repairs. This lasted for about ten minutes. The enemy ships were either not equipped with fire control radar or it was not very effective because they didn't seem to fire unless they had a good visual contact with our ships.

After orders were given for "small boys" to make a torpedo attack, JOHNSTON fell in behind HOEL HEERMANN and DE, SAMUEL B. ROBERTS in an attempt to provide fire support as these ships made a torpedo attack. At about 17 knots, JOHNSTON'S full speed at the time, could not keep up with the other ships making a torpedo attack but was able to provide some fire support for them.

JOHNSTON continued to engage the enemy in an attempt to draw the enemy fire toward the JOHNSTON and away from the carriers. JOHNSTON continued to receive extremely damaging fire until approximately 0940 when JOHNSTON was knocked "dead in the water" by crippling gun fire from the enemy. At approximately 0950, Commander Ernest E. Evans gave that dreadful order., "Abandon Ship" at that time, men began to go over the side of JOHNSTON and attempt to swim away from the sinking ship.

At approximately 1010, JOHNSTON sank as an enemy destroyer continued to pump projectiles into her critically damaged hull. Her survivors were in the water nearby as the enemy destroyer slowly steamed through the survivors who were scattered about in the water. We all believed that we would be straffed by the guns aboard the enemy destroyer and also believed that the destroyer might drop depth charges set at a very shallow depth which would probably have killed all or most of the survivors in the water that were near by. However the enemy sailors were off thier guns and lining the port side of the destroyer and were yelling at us but did not offer to fire or to drop depth charges. This was graciously accepted by the survivors.

After JOHNSTON rolled over and sank, the Japanese destroyer that was very close at hand, steaming very slowly through the survivors, once it cleared the survivors, increased it's speed and departed the area of JOHNSTON's survivors.

Once it was clear or believed to be clear that the enemy was not going to direct any further attention to the survivors of JOHNSTON, we survivors began to organize and collect into groups around life rafts that had been dropped over the side of JOHNSTON.

There were many severely burned and wounded men in the water. Many needed medical attention, far more than could be given in the water. Immediate rescue was desperately needed to save many men's lives.............but it didn't come. At this time, there were more than 1100 hundred survivors in the water from GAMBIER BAY, HOEL, JOHNSTON aand SAMUEL B. ROBERTS.

Rescue didn't come. Many times, our planes would dive down and take a look at us and when we would wave to them they would dip their wings to let us know that they recognized us as American. Still, no rescue came. The enemy turned and with their ships that could still make way, exited the area. Our remaining ships of TAFFY III. Those that we sacraficed ourselves for also left the area and didn't send rescue vessels for us nor would they permit any of our destroyers to come back for us when they requested permission to do so. Commanding officers of other destroyers in TAFFY II were denied permission to come to us and help us out of the ocean.

All of us in the water expected to be rescued in a very short time but still.........rescue didn't come.

As the day wore on, we began to wonder why we received no help. The commander of our Task Unit knew exactly where we were and knew the enemy had left the area but still did nothing to help us.

In the group the writer was in, we placed two of the most severely injured inside a life raft with one other badly injured man to help take care of them. The two men were burned extremely bad and couldn't see.

About 1500 (3:pm) , we saw our first shark. He was a pretty big shark and was approximately 100 yards from our group but was coming closer as he swam back and forth. Finally it was obvious that he was going to make an attempt to hit someone and he swam along the side that I was on and rolled as if he was going to hit someone. About six of us pushed down on him in an attempt to keep from being bitten. It seemed to work because the shark didn't hit anyone at that time and we apparently scared him away. We had no further shark attacks until after dark and then we had several. Several men were hit, one was hit in both thighs, one in the back, one on his left arm and shoulder and one in the left kidney area, Two of the men later died.

Shortly after dark, both of the two men that were burned and that were in the raft died. They died about 10 minutes apart. Someone said a prayer and a few words about each shipmate and then their life jacket was removed and then they were allowed to slip below the surface. Although all of us had seen many of our shipmates die during the battle, it was still rough on us at our early ages to burry our shipmates in this fashion. We had to go on and those of us who were still alive had to try to survive.

There were other groups of survivors from JOHNSTON but we had drifted apart and could no longer see the other groups. A long night was ahead of us. From time to time, someone would scream out and someone would yell, "SHARK!!" and the rest of us would start kicking and splashing frantically in an attempt to scare the shark away. As far as I know, it worked. I don't remember a shark hanging on with all of us kicking and splashing. It was very tiring, kicking and splashing all night but we did it, at least in the group that I was in.

Morning came and no rescue was in sight so at about 0600 (6:00 am) two men from my group started swimming for the Island of Samar. We were closer to Samar now due to the current. It was agreed that at around noon six more of us would begin swimming for Samar in hopes of some of us making it to get help for the other survivors. None of this should have been necessary........if only our TASK UNIT Commander had only initiated a rescue attempt of his own.

At about noon, as agreed, six of us began our swim toward Samar.

The two men who left earlier, John Schindele and Jim Correll had long been out of our sight. The six of us; Charles (Chuck) Campbell, Jim Herring, Frank Nelson, Juliam Owen, J.B. Strickland and myself *Bill Mercer) took a 4 X 4 timber with us in order for us to all stay together and headed toward Samar. We could easily see the island but it was several miles away. As we swam, the current was also helpful in taking us closer and closer to the island. Late in the after noon, we sighted what we thought was a small boat with one or more people in it but we couldn't tell if they were friendly or enemy. As we drew closer, one of the men in the boat yelled, "we have some water".

We were encouraged that the person spoke English and felt that it must be Filipinos in the boat and were coming out to help us. We drew closer and closer and then realized that it was not Filipinos nor was it a boat. It was Jim Correll and John Schindele who had left earlier. They had come across a life raft from the JOHNSTON that had apparently been blown off during the battle because it still contained a 40 mm ammunition cannister that contained rations, cigarettes and other survival items, It did contain a breaker with some water but it was very "stringy" but it wasn't salty so it did quench ones thirst but we didn't have much of it. We had cigarettes and matches but shortly after opening the cannister, Chuck campbell dropped the lid and no one wanted to dive for it........the water was a few miles deep at that point. Not long after dropping the lid, a wave splashed into the cannister and got all of the matches wet. That took care of the cigarette smoking. We did still have what rations it contained and a very pistol. A very pistol is a pistol that shoots flares which were later fired in an attempt to attract sttention to our position in case there were rescue vessels in the area, Later we learned that it was a flare that had been fired into the air that the actual rescue group saw that later lead them to the survivors. We weren't the only ones who were firing flares so I don't know if it was ours the men on the rescue ship saw or some other groups flares.

The rescue Task Unit that was organized was not organized by our own Task Unit Commander but by a group in Leyte Harbor who had heard of survivors having been seen in an area east of Samar. Our Task Unit Commander had nothing to do with the organization or the rescue of the more than 1100 survivors. The rescue vessels consisted of two PC Craft, PC-623 , PC 1119 and LCI's 34, 71, 337, 340 and 341. PC 623 was flagship of Task Unit 78.12. The rescue Task Group was recommended by Captain Charles Adair and was approved by Admiral Kincaid.

Not long after the rescue Task Group 78.12 was organized, It stood out of Leyte Harbor to an area some 125 miles east of Leyte to search for and rescue survivors.

In the meantime, those of us still out in the ocean were struggling to hang on, still hoping to be rescued.

In my small group, we continued to drift closer to the Island and it appeared that we would surely make landfall some time during the night which was the second night for us in the ocean. We were getting so close to land, that we made plans as to what we we would do once we made it to the shore. We decided that we would divide into two groups of four to the group. We split up what money we had so that each group had about the same amount. We decided that when we got on the beach, one group would go to the right and one to the left and then try to go into the hills in search of a village that we believed to be near the center of the Island. We had our plans in place but the current didn't cooperate, The currents changed and began to pull us back out to sea. The night seemed twice as long as the first night. We were tired, depressed and very weary. After dark, I learned that my life jacket would no longer float so I let it go and it sank. Later into the night we began to hallucinate, not all at the same time but at some time during the night all of us did. It is very difficult to separate fact from fiction when one hallucinates. Fortunately for us some one was rational at all times during the night and that helped to keep the group from doing something that we should not.

In the group the writer was in, there were eight men and I don't recall anyone having a watch that worked but as it began to get light enough to see, it was clear that we had drifted closer to the island of Samar and it seemed to the writer that we were near the south end of the island and much closer than the evening before. All of the men in our little group were very tired and half dozing, one with his head dangling in the water as he lay across the edge of the life raft. As I recall, the writer was the first one to notice that we were close to the island and began trying to get everyone alert. I began by getting Owens to get his head out of the water which wasn't an easy task but finally by "poping" him pretty good, he did raise his head. As everyone seemed to be awake, we discussed making it to shore again and the current seemed to change again and began pulling us out to sea again. We all seriously discussed leaving the raft and swiming for it and most of us agreed that we would do that but one man, Strickland, said that he knew he couldn't make it but urged the others of us to go for it. We discussed it further and decided that if we couldn't all go then none of us would go. This was probnably a life saving decision. Since our life jackets were gone, we probably wouldn't have made it. We were close but probably not as close as it looked.


Since none of us had watches that worked, I don't know what time it was but I always thought it was about noon when we spotted ships in the distance. There seemed to be a small group of small ships. The eight of us then began to discuss whether the ships were enemy or friendly. As I recall, all of us but Strickland thought they were enemy but Strickland insisted from the beginning that they were American. We then discussed whether we should try to get the attention of someone on the ships and agreed that we needed to get out of the water, be it by friendly help or by the enemy. So one of the men, Herring began waving a white scivie shirt in an attempt to get their attention. Still we didn't know if they were enemy or American. As the ships drew closer, one of the Patrol Craft drifted almost broadside to our group and we could easily see the American flag waving ..........what a beautiful site. A man on LCI 71 yelled through a megaphone that they saw us and for us to take it easy they were going to get us. A line was thrown to us and we tied it to the raft and was pulled along side and helped aboard. This was a very pleasant feeling........finally.......we were out of the water, something we had just about given up on ever happening. It should have happened many hours before but didn't.

Soon we would be in Leyte Harbor and there we would be transferred to either a hospital ship or to an LST and would head for New Guinea, Australia and then home to San Francisco,

Thanks to the rescue group, more than 1100 men were eventually rescued. There would have been many more survivors had rescue come quickly as it should have.

Stolen from The Johnston-Hoel memorial page.

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