|U.S.S. Allen M. Sumner DD-692|
|"The Forgotten Battle of World
By Irwin J. Kappes in Sea Classic Magazine (November 1996)
Ormoc Bay was to be the bloody baptism of fire for the Navy's new Sumner-class destroyers.
One of the fiercest - and most pivotal - battles of the Pacific War is also one of the least known. It was, in fact the only naval engagement of the war in which the enemy unleashed the full fury of shore, sea-based, air, and undersea weapons all in one short, desperate action. But history has barely taken notice. The reason: No capital ships took part on either side, so there were no war correspondents to file breathless accounts of momentous angst and travail. But it was a deciding battle nevertheless. And several battle-scarred officers who witnessed it described it as an all-out slugfest befitting a Hollywood version of war in the Pacific.
Picture the situation for the Japanese at the time. It's November 1944. MacArthur's troops have landed and secured a toe-hold on the eastern half of Leyte in the Philippines. The greatest naval battle of all time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, took place one month previously with the loss of four Jap carriers, three battleships, nine cruisers and nine destroyers. This historic battle was fought to give the Allies control of the seas and seal the fate of the 23,000 Japanese troops on Leyte. But this didn't happen. Instead, the enemy continued to resupply Leyte garrisons through their port of Ormoc on the western side of the island. In fact, one month after the great battle, Jap strength on Leyte more than doubled - to 55,000 men.
The Japanese general staff decided to defend Leyte as they would the homeland itself. They knew that if they lost Leyte, the entire Philippine archipelago would be forfeited. The Allies would then be able to use Philippine bases to cut off their oil supply from Borneo. The result would naturally be an end to the dream of Japanese hegemony over the western Pacific rim - and worst of all - abject defeat and perhaps even the unthinkable death of the revered God-Emperor. Defeat was simply unthinkable. So the staff instructed General Yamashita to defend Leyte to the death. For his part, General MacArthur had kept his grandiloquent vow to return and there was no way he would be denied victory; regardless of any sacrifices his naval and ground forces would be called upon to make. These were the making of a gigantic no-holds-barred struggle and that is exactly what ensued.
On the ground, American troops were being held to a standstill due to heavy rains which reduced roads and trails to seas of mud. Air operations were limited, too, because the three airstrips in eastern Leyte were unpaved. All-weather fields were being hastily constructed in the coastal towns of Dulag, Tanuan and Tacloban but they were not yet fully operational. Fast carrier planes of Task Force 38 and the Army Air Corps had more than they could handle in attempting air cover for infantrymen slogging through the muddy hills of central Leyte.
Jap resupply missions had to be stopped. But how? The seas to the north and west were still under Japanese control. The only deep water port through which the Japs could land troops and meaningful amounts of materiel was at the city of Ormoc in the northwestern segment of the island. But Ormoc was well fortified by shore batteries and by subs, destroyers and armed barges tied up in the harbor.
Another complicating factor for the Allies was that Ormoc had access only from two narrow channels, one to the northwest, and the southern channel which was too shallow to permit passage by any craft larger than a destroyer. The north-west channel was enemy-controlled and the southern one was heavily mined at its narrowest point, the Canigao Channel.
Vice Admiral James L. Kauffman had just reported as Commander, Philippine Sea Frontier and was under heavy pressure from General MacArthur to do something - anything - to interdict incoming Jap reinforcements. On 27 November 1994, he did the obvious, ordering first that the Canigao Channel be swept of mines by minesweepers USS Pursuit (AM-108) and USS Revenge (AM-110). That night, the Fletcher-class destroyers USS Waller (DD-466), USS Pringle (DD-477), USS Renshaw (DD-499) and USS Saufley (DD-465) under Captain Robert H. Smith, with a Black Cat PBY Catalina doing the spotting, steamed into the bay at flank speed. The tin cans raked the Ormoc dock area with main battery fire for about an hour when suddenly the PBY reported a surfaced sub entering the bay. USS Waller opened fire and the spunky sub returned the fire while at the same time fishtailing furiously. As the WALLER got into position to ram, the sub suddenly submerged, but for the last time - stern first.
The next night, Kauffman ordered four PT boats (PTs 127, 128, 191 and 331) into Ormoc Bay. Visibility was excellent, and in the light of a full moon they sunk a freighter and a patrol craft. They had caught the enemy by surprise and the mission was "a piece of cake," in the words of PT skipper J.R. Chassee.
The following day Captain Smith again took four cans into Ormoc Bay - USS Waller (DD-466), USS Cony (DD-508), USS Renshaw (DD-499) and USS Conner (DD-582). There was no sign of enemy shipping in the harbor, and curiously enough, no enemy fire, so he withdrew. Two days later, on the night of 1 December, DDs USS Conway (DD-507), USS Cony (DD-508), USS Eaton (DD-510) and USS Sigourney (DD-643) also found no shipping in the bay so they continued northwest around the San Isidro peninsula. At 0224 they made radar contact with an incoming transport, brought it under a withering barrage of shellfire and quickly dispatched it to the bottom. Ormoc was beginning to look to Kauffman like a situation well in hand. Or was it?
The next morning Kauffman received disturbing air reconnaissance reports indicating newly arrived shipping at the docks in Ormoc and another convoy of five ships on the way. It was time to bring out some slightly bigger guns.
Coincidentally, Destroyer Squadron 60 had just arrived from the anchorage in Ulithi atoll and had reported for duty as part of the Seventh Fleet. What was unusual about this squadron was that it included seven of the brand-new Sumner-class destroyers for which COMDESPAC had such high expectations. They were already long delayed, having had a number of design problems that needed correction. But for Kauffman, they couldn't have arrived at a better time. Whereas all other modern US destroyers had only two five inch mounts forward, these rakish tin cans had two twin five inch mounts forward -the same type of twin mounts used as secondary batteries on cruisers and battle wagons. In addition, the Sumners were the first DDs to have twin rudders for faster turns - an important consideration in close quarters such as Ormoc Bay.
The Bureau of Ships (BUSHIPS) was anxious to find out how the new Sumners performed in combat. The shipyards were launching one every two weeks, so for better or worse BUSHIPS and COMDESPAC knew they'd be stuck with them for the balance of the war. Top command's choice for the first commodore to take these new ships into their baptism of fire was Captain John C. Zahm.
Zahm was an experienced destroyer officer who had recently been promoted from Commander and skipper of the destroyer WALKE and made commodore of DESDIV 120. During the early morning hours of 2 December, Zahm was summoned aboard the flagship USS Portland (CA-33) anchored in San Pedro Bay, in the northwestern corner of Leyte Gulf. He found his immediate superior Captain W.L. Freseman COMDESRON 60, and Vice Admiral Kauffman hunched over a map in the chartroom just aft of the bridge. The admiral closed the door, looked up at Zahm and with only a perfunctory greeting, handed him a copy of CTG dispatch 02356, stamped "Secret". The precise wording of the dispatch has been lost to history but its known that Zahm was ordered to take his three ships, USS ALLEN M. SUMNER (DD-692), USS COOPER (DD-695) and USS MOALE (DD-693) Destroyer Division 120 minus the USS INGRAHAM (DD-694), to enter Ormoc Bay at midnight of the same day, destroy any shipping or men of war encountered, and inflict maximum damage on docks and warehouses. For some reason still unknown, Freseman was not ordered to transfer ultrasecret codes and encryption equipment off his ships - a standard procedure for ships ordered into dangerous waters. In any case, Zahm was given charts and detailed instructions for navigating the hazardous Canigno Straits. He then stepped aboard his gig, and dodging the dozens of transports, oilers, LSTs, tenders and destroyers crowding San Pedro Bay, sailed the two-mile stretch back to his flagship, the USS ALLEN M. SUMNER (DD-692).
The crews of the three handsome new ships were made up of nuclei of about 15 percent officers and men who had some previous sea duty. But the rest were straight out of trade schools or boot camp. And few of even those with prior sea duty had ever seen actual combat. However, the crews had been as well-trained as possible under wartime conditions and were eager to prove their mettle in battle. They would no longer be denied the opportunity.
The war diary of the USS MOALE (DD-693) tells the story: At 1833, she left the relatively safe anchorage in Leyte Gulf and took station astern of the SUMNER - 1500 yards ahead of the COOPER, which brought up the rear. The ships steamed on a base course of 180 degrees true at a speed of 27 knots. The Japs' stiffening resolve was already apparent 15 minutes later when enemy planes appeared and one was splashed. At this point, few if any of the roughly 1000 personnel involved would have realized it, but they were passing through the Surigao Strait, over the crushed and broken hulks of the 25 Jap ships sunk in history's greatest naval engagement, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. At precisely 2010 the three ships rounded the southern tip of Leyte and headed west, then north into the Camotes Sea in what at that time were the most dangerous waters in the Pacific war theater. At 2300, bogeys were detected and the ships went to GQ. A "Frances" bomber made a near miss on the SUMNER, perforating the entire starboard side with 90 holes and starting a fire that effectively made her a much better target. The planes kept attacking all three ships at the rate of one every three or four minutes.
When the small task group entered Ormoc Bay they had already been under almost constant air attack for one hour. Now the real action began. Small radar contacts turned out to be swarms of fast PT boats. Shore batteries began to get the ships' range and many splashed of what appeared to be five-inch shells were seen close astern the MOALE and the COOPER.
COOPER was first to open fire. With the help of star shell illumination, all three ships then brought a small transport under fire. The ship was caught in the act of disembarking troops. Most of them never made it ashore. Fires broke out and hundreds of Jap soldiers were seen tumbling into the blazing sea. At this moment, a large warehouse blew up and a huge crane used for unloading ships crashed into a pier. Meanwhile, a Japanese destroyer made a daring move and got underway in a southeasterly direction. It was the KUWA, one of the Matsu-class ships that the Japanese were building in such prodigious numbers. She was immediately pounded by main battery fire from all three ships and sank with few survivors.
But closer inshore and undetected by radar because of sea return were several subs and destroyers that were taking part in this desperate melee. Many torpedo wakes were spotted during the battle and all but one were successfully evaded. Another Matsu-class tin can, the TAKE was given credit by the Japanese General Staff for a direct torpedo hit on the COOPER. It sent her to the bottom in less than a minute. Topside crews of the two other ships were horrified at the sight but inspired to see COOPER's guns continuing to fire as she settled beneath the surface.
Commander Mel A. Peterson aboard the COOPER later told a reporter, "There was so much to shoot at that we couldn't fire at everything." Douglas Campbell was torpedo officer aboard COOPER and years later recalled, 'When the COOPER was hit with that shuddering thud, I was on the bridge. I was immediately propelled into the water and felt myself being dragged down. I then realized that I was tied to the ship by my sound-powered phone line. Fortunately, I had a sharp knife strapped to my belt and it came in handily freeing me. I shot toward the surface and came up amid burning debris and oil. When the injured men were assisted into life rafts, the rest of us who were lucky enough to have escaped injury just held on for what seemed like an interminable period of time. I remember seeing enemy ships vacating the bay but they either didn't realize there were survivors in the water or didn't want to take the time to pick us up. I'm just as glad they didn't. At daybreak, we could see land which appeared to be three to four miles distant. Several of those grouped around the life raft with me decided to try to make it to shore and, as we would later discover, they were successful. The rest of us were picked up later in the day by two PBY-Catalinas. Never in my life have I seen a more welcome sight than those two friendly planes! During the day, Japanese planes had flown overhead but without incident. When each PBY loaded aboard as many men as was possible (but much over their official weight limit), they started to taxi prior to takeoff. It soon became evident that we were having difficulty getting off the surface, but our pilot said he would have made the trip back entirely on the surface if he had to. Suddenly we were airborne and en route to fleet headquarters. The PBY crews received well-deserved citations for this rescue. In fact, Admiral Kincaid came aboard the USS ORCA to present medals to them personally. In my book, they deserved every medal possible." (USS ORCA AVP-49) was command ship for combat air patrol operations in Leyte Gulf.)
Wesley M. Marymee was Gunner's Mate third class aboard the ORCA and he rounds out the account of this during rescue: "The PBYs made pickup at dusk as they felt the sun would provide an advantage as the rescue was to the west of the Jap-held island. The pilot landed and taxied around, but there were so many men in the water it looked as though they would have to leave some and return later. The element of surprise would be lost, however, so there wasn't much choice but to take everyone aboard. The PBY crew threw everything overboard that wasn't absolutely essential. They even had everyone throw out their shoes, although most had on only oil-soaked shorts. As more and more survivors were taken aboard. the PBYs became overloaded and water was coming in the port and starboard blisters. One of the planes had 59 men aboard - certainly a record for a Catalina."
For the survivors of the COOPER the Battle of Ormoc Bay was over. But for an intrepid amphibious force made up of nine APDs (small fast troop transports) and six destroyers, it was mere prelude. Their task was to land the Army 77th Division just south of Ormoc. The carnage that followed has been amply described elsewhere - particularly in a fine book by Captain Alvin P. Chester, skipper of the USS Cofer (APD-62), A Sailor's Odyssey. However, John Kriegsman, who was a liaison pilot with the 77th Division, has written a stirring account of the landing:
"On the late afternoon of 6 December 1944, about 8000 men of the 77th Division loaded into small landing craft of all description. Under cover of darkness they moved around the southern tip of Leyte to arrive at daybreak in Ormoc Bay behind the Jap lines at a little village called Deposito, which was five miles south of Ormoc city. General Bruce sent a message to General Hodges, commander of the 24th Corps, The 77th has landed. Seven come eleven." The 7th Infantry Division was coming up the coast from the south and the 11th Airborne Division was coming down the valley from the north of Ormoc city.
"About 40,000 Japs were in the area. Fortunately they were in disarray from their trek over the mountains from the eastern shores. They were making an orderly retreat hoping for seven ships to arrive with reinforcements from Manila in time to sustain them."
"One transport did arrive at the port of Ormoc on Sunday night, 12 December. They did not know the 307th Combat Team of the 77th had occupied the city. In stone silence they waited for the Jap version of an LST loaded with reinforcements to disembark. When the unloading ramp was lowered and men began to pour out, all hell broke loose. In less than one hour, only one soldier of approximately 750 soldiers remained alive. He was found a week later curled up in the ship's crow's nest. The other six transports were sunk the next day by US Army Air Corps planes."
"For the next week the fighting became a slaughter of the enemy. It took six days for two bulldozers to bury the dead."
"During the week between Christmas and New Year's the 77th going north was met by the 11th coming south. The southern flank of the 77th was met by the 7th working up the coast from the south. The island was finally secured."
The Battle of Ormoc Bay marked the end of an era of naval warfare that had begun with Admiral Dewey in Manila Bay. There will be wars and there will be naval engagements. But never again will the full force of enemy air, sea, shore and undersea weapons be unleashed in one furious battle.
(Thanks to Ron Babuka for the contribution of this article. Ron's Father was a Seaman First Class aboard SUMNER during the Battle)