|U.S.S. Allen M. Sumner DD-692|
|"Nightmare in Ormoc Bay"|
By SF3c Eugene George Anderson in Sea Combat Magazine
The naval action on the night of December 1-2 1944 on Ormoc Bay during the Second Battle of the Philippines
consisted of three U.S. Navy destroyers being ordered into the bay on which had appeared
to be a minor skirmish; however, winding up being desperately outnumbered and having to
fight a large Japanese fleet supported by its own unopposed air force and shore batteries.
General MacArthur's Intelligence Staff had reported to the Commander of the Seventh Fleet that the Japanese were desperately attempting to reinforce their beleaguered troops on Leyte through Ormoc Bay by sending in several lightly armed troops ships convoyed by a lone destroyer escort. Orders were sent to Admiral Kaufman, Commander Philippines Sea Frontier, to sink that convoy. He selected my ship, the USS Allen M. Sumner (DD-692) and two of her sister class, the Moale (DD-693) and the Cooper (DD-695), to do the job. He felt that these ships would be just right to sink this reinforcement as these ships could bring to bear a total of twelve 5-inch .38 caliber guns from their forward battleship type turrets while only showing their thin bows to the enemy.
These destroyers were new in the fleet and were considered the worlds most heavily armed ships of their kind. These 2200 tonners carried in their 369 foot length three sets of twin 5-inch guns, two sets of twin and two sets of quad 40mm cannons, eleven 20mm cannons, two sets of 5-tube each 21-inch torpedoes, depth charges, and the very latest in radar and radar fire control. This was to prove invaluable on this raid.
At the time they were assigned to the mission, the ships were untried for this type of an operation, having served only on training duty and as escorts with the Third Fleet Fast Carrier Task Force. The operation would be new to most of the crew fresh out of boot camp and Midshipmen school. I recall we approached it with great apprehension, particularly after witnessing kamikaze attacks which had just begun in the Philippines.
Shortly after sundown, we got underway from Leyte Gulf to go on this "surprise" mission. It had rained heavily that day, and poor weather had kept our promised air cover grounded at Tacloban airstrip. At departure the weather had turned to gray, misty overcast. After an hour out, a single enemy plane ducked under the overcast and was immediately shoot down in flames leaving a smoking marker in the famous Surigao Straits where a Japanese fleet lay sunk after a recent sea battle. It was believed that this aircraft may have radioed our position before being hit; however, in spite of this and the many reported enemy aircraft in the area, we continued under way.
I was in a good position to witness the coming event as my battle station was out on a deck as a director operator of a Mark 14 director that aimed and fired the starboard quad 40 mount which was located just aft of the number two stack. I was fortunate to have an excellent gun crew to operate and load this weapon.
As we proceeded toward Ormoc Bay, the overcast had changed to a light milky haze which diffused the light from a full moon. Traveling at 30 knots, our huge wakes had activated the phosphorus in the water which in turn had brilliantly illuminated us from the air and from the surface. Being so, it was hard to believe that this raid was going to be any sort of surprise. This became apparent about an hour before midnight when Air Search radar picked up an unidentified aircraft astern which had apparently followed our brilliant wake. Upon hearing the vector, I brought my gun to bear in that direction. A minute or so later, I spotted a dark shadow in the light haze and began to track it. When I recognized it as a "France" type twin engine Japanese bomber, I closed the firing key without orders from the bridge. I got off about 30 rounds when the bridge ordered a cease fire in fear that my tracers would give away both our positions and intent to the enemy.
There was a period of about ten seconds from the time the cease fire order was given to when I saw of our starboard bow, a large ugly red flash which was immediately followed by an extremely loud metallic bang and by a cascade of water which wet down our entire starboard side of our ship. Following this cascade were noises which sounded similar to hail beating on a tin roof. This was shrapnel hitting the sides and superstructure of the ship. The shrapnel wounded 14 of our crew, started a fire in a forward 20mm locker which was quickly extinguished, and made a sieve out of our bow just above the waterline.
The bomb had been scheduled for our bridge, and if it had hit there, it would have killed everyone, and possibly those on the decks below. However, it was later believed that the tracers from my gun may have jarred the pilot's aim enough to cause him to miss. During the ten seconds or so between the cease fire order and the explosion, the skipper was demanding to know with court martial in his voice who gave the order to fire.
It was the fear of court martial which gave me the courage for the coming night's action, as I was more afraid of that than the enemy, proving the fear of military discipline and the strength of its training.
Shortly after our near miss we reduced speed and under the skilled ship handling of our Captain, we proceeded through a mine field. Having left the field, we again increased speed to 30 knots and entered Ormoc Bay on schedule at midnight. We entered the bay at the most opportune time as the enemy was just starting to off load troops and supplies; however, we were naked without air cover. Ironically we entered the bay in the same condition that the Japanese cruisers and destroyers were in during the Battle of Guadalcanal when they sank a number of our cruisers in 1942 in Iron Bottom Bay near Savo Island. The Japanese were at that time at general quarters, their guns were loaded and aimed, while our forces were not. Apparently history had reversed itself as the enemy was caught off guard and our "surprise" was complete - or was it?
Either in their haste their supplies or their depending too much upon their air forces to defend them, they were caught completely off guard by our surprise visit as nothing happened until the Cooper opened fire with a full salvo and scored a direct hit on one troop ship which immediately ignited into a ball of flame. However, it was apparent that the enemy had a bigger surprise for us, for in the harbor was a large fleet of both combat and heavily armed troop ships. What we were told to be "easy pickings" were six fleet-type destroyers, several armed escort ships, four heavily armed fast transports, two Japanese type LST's built along warship lines, several submarines, and a small fleet of torpedo boats. Supporting this fleet were shore batteries, shore based "Long Lance" oxygen fueled long range torpedoes, a nearby mine field, and a countless number of airplanes which continued to bomb and strafe us throughout the ensuing battle. Committed, we plunged into the fray and the hellish nightmare commenced. We entered the bay in a stepped down line abreast formation with the Sumner in the lead as flagship, showing only our bows and with enough 5-inch guns as fire power to constitute the secondary broadside of one of our new battleships. Seconds after the Cooper opened fire, my ship, the Sumner, and the Moale opened up with salvo and both ships scored with deadly results on two troop transports which were our primary targets, leaving them engulfed in flames and exploding in red, white, blue, green and yellow fire balls. In this desperately outnumbered position with so much to fire at, it required our ships to open up with everything in the gunnery department except torpedoes and depth charges. The torpedoes were held back in fear of hitting our own ships.
All three transports which the three of us had fired on were sunk, crediting each destroyer with one. My ship quickly switched firing to shore installations which toppled a big crane used to unload supplies from the enemy ships, also smashing warehouses, buildings, and destroying docks. The action rained death and confusion upon thousands of unprotected troops at this installation and in the surrounding area.
Supported by the other starboard 40mm gun on my ship, we were able to fire several hundred rounds into this mess by aiming into and around the fires started by our 5-inchers, possibly killing many of the enemy located there. Suddenly our 5-inch main battery with its excellent radar fire control was forced to break action and concentrate on an enemy bomber which was dangerously close. It was quickly dispatched in flames. It was at this time that I was able to open up on an enemy plane coming out of the moonlight and my gun mount got it's first kill. Suddenly the ship began to heel crazily from side to side as the skipper conned her out of the path of a torpedo coming at us. During these erratic maneuvers, the crews of the enemy ships began to gather their wits and return fire, throwing up high geysers of sea water with their shells which would deluge the ships as they exploded harmlessly nearby in the bay. The horseshoe shape of Ormoc Bay had required our ships to make high speed repeated reversing maneuvers in front of the target areas. Added to these maneuvers were our erratic course changes to dodge torpedoes, bombs, and shells. It was believed that because of so many course changes, the enemy was unable to get an accurate range on us and these irregular course changes were our salvation. These changes also had caused our ships to operate independently at times and out of formation.
Our untenable position required that our ships continue to fire at their maximum rate. Everything in that bay was a target for all guns. That demand for ammunition had placed a heavy load on all gun crews down in the magazines clear up to the batteries. The gun crews had performed like superhumans as they at times would load and fire our 5-inch guns at near machine gun rate. It was reported that in one 15 minute period in the battle they had cycled over 1,000 rounds of 5-inch shells through the ships' guns. That was quite an effort considering that each projectile weighed about 52 pounds, and the rate of loading, aiming, and ejecting the hot casing was about one round per barrel every five seconds in a torrid, smoke filled turret which was constantly rotating, and the ship was heeling and rolling making firing very precarious. But on they loaded and fired.
Shortly into the battle, the night began to light up like a huge fireworks display from the red and green tracers going in all directions, from ships and shore installations burning and exploding in multi-colored fireballs, and from winks of fire coming from the many guns firing at us. It was just hell! The air became heavy with the salty smell of tons of sea water splashing on and around us from the near misses and from exhaust fumes of our stacks which would jar smoke and hot ashes down on us each time the main batteries would fire. Added to this were the acrid smell of burnt cordite and black powder used to prevent flash from the gun barrels at night. The black smoke from the night powder would choke us and momentarily blind us. There was the smell of burnt paint, cork, , steel, and occasionally the odor of charred flesh. Unbelievably, added to the stench of battle was the exotic and romantic aroma of lush tropical flowers and foliage which grew in abundance in the surrounding jungle. Our hearing became numbed by the irregular din and loud roar of guns firing constantly, bombs exploding, and near misses loudly thumping and going off in the water. Completing the nightmare was the moon shining through the thin hazy overcast and spreading a eerie blue light over the entire scene. To say the least, the experience was beyond belief and never to be forgotten.
From time to time I would swing my weapon off anti-aircraft duty and on to shore and surface targets. As I fired I knew I was hitting these targets as a 40mm round gives off a sudden bright whitish spark when it strikes in the targeted area. All of the 40mm crews on all of the ships were equally engaged in this type of shooting by pouring thousands of rounds of 1 1/2 inch diameter explosives into countless targets and inflicting great damage and possibly killing many of the enemy.
Even when the ship would suddenly heel violently while dodging torpedoes and bombs, this action would at times deflect my gun to fire towards the water. I would see my tracers ricochet across the water and spark into targets afloat or on the shore. We were under constant bombing and strafing by enemy aircraft and suddenly during the course of this action, a heavy caliber shore battery located near the town of Ormoc opened up on us and their shells would thump harmlessly into the water close by. Thank God that battery never got our range as the size of the geyser thrown up by each shell indicated that each one was large enough to sink us.
Once during this nightmare, a dive bomber attempted to put a bomb down our stacks. There was a sudden extremely loud metallic bong noise which had originated close by the ship. The noise sounded exactly like being inside a steel tank and having it hit once with a large sledge hammer. Immediately after came another sound which was similar to a very short but loud Bronx cheer. This came from the plane's engine during its pull-out after the bomb run. The memory of these particular noises have lasted with me all these years.
Even after a half hour in the Bay, all three of our destroyers had continued to fire their guns in rapid desperation at targets afloat, on shore, and in the air. The Moale had taken under fire an enemy destroyer escort which had gotten underway at high speed out of the Bay when it was suddenly joined by two heavy enemy destroyers. During this shooting bout the Moale was suddenly jumped by a low flying attack bomber and at the same time was forced to maneuver away from a torpedo which was fired at her. These situations may have saved her as the Moale was forced to break off action with these three ships which she had under fire, perhaps saving her from being sunk by the three destroyers as they may have ganged up on he. She would have had no help from the Summer nor the Cooper as these ships were having troubles of their own.
At this time my mount got its second kill. While my sights were pointed in the general direction of a reported sighting of an enemy bomber, I suddenly noted a blob moving quickly through the haze. I tracked the blob and at the same time opened fire. About a minute afterward the bridge confirmed the kill. It was a bit of luck as my sights were covered with a thin film of salt water.
My gun crew had worked magnificently under the great handicap of having to load our mounts in the dark, being constantly wetted down by geysers from near misses and having to stand on slippery decks which were heaving from one side to another as the ship maneuvered out of the way of these misses. The loaders on the mount had to stand on a slippery platform which was slewing from one target to another. Worst of all, all of us were out in the open, exposed to shrapnel and being strafed while working near or handling ammunition. The same thing was happening on the exposed decks on all ships involved in the battle - both ours and the enemy's. By this time the whole bay was a mass of confusion with enemy milling around and chasing off in all directions. There were fires and explosions everywhere and tracers were going in every direction. The confusion had increased to the point where I saw a Japanese torpedo boat open up on one of its own ships which was sinking in flames.
While the Sumner and the Moale were busy firing at their targets, the Cooper was busy knocking down a couple of dive bombers and she had assisted in damaging one destroyer and damaging another. About this time, working independently, the Cooper spotted a couple of troop transports hiding in a cove in the bay. In order to get a better crack at these ships, she was forced to slow down which was her undoing as she was suddenly and violently stuck amidships by either a torpedo fired from one of the submarines in the harbor or by a shore based torpedo. I saw her for just a second with both her bow and stern rising and her midships being down and hidden by steam and vapor.
My attention was diverted momentarily by a reported fast moving air target which disappeared as quickly as it appeared. When I again turned to look for the Cooper, she was gone. Later I was to learn that she went down in half a minute carrying most of her officers and two-thirds of her crew. Most survivors were rescued by two PBY Catalina "Black Cats" which took off weighing thousands of pounds more than the plane were designed to carry. The few remaining survivors floated or swam ashore and managed to escape from behind enemy lines to safety.
When I could not locate the Cooper. I turned my attention seaward in my firing sector and noticed coming by my ship at a very high speed and just under the surface a hazy silver streak which was later identified as a torpedo kicking up the phosphorus in the water with its propellers and exhaust. We were holding steady at the time and no one on the bridge saw it. Had the ship been maneuvering for any reason, this "fish" would surely have gotten us. By now we had been in the Ormoc for what seemed to be an hour, having steamed back and forth many times in front of the harbor and firing constantly. We were down to two ships and our fuel and ammunition were critically low. We were out of flashless night powder which required us to use our smokeless day powder which gave off a great yellow flash when fired, illuminating the ship and momentarily blinding the crew. The gun crews were becoming exhausted. It was then when our Squadron Commander, Captain John S. Zaham, told our skippers to get the hell out of there and the order the withdrawal signal of "one-eight-o!" Just as the helm was being put over to comply with the signal, a Japanese destroyer header our way. We opened fire with every gun we could bear on her. I had the opportunity to open fire with my 40s and poured round after round into her. It was like something out of our history books when Old Ironsides would slug it out with the British, a ship to ship, no hold barred engagement.
The enemy ship returned fire with tracers coming from both ships with such intensity it appeared that a fireworks factory had blown up. I recall how tracers would float towards us and quickly disappear overhead as apparently she did not have our range and was overshooting us, thank God missing us.
The action was short lived, however, as this brave ship, like the battleship HMS Hood, got a direct hit and exploded. She sank with the same dispatch as the Cooper. My last glimpse of her was a light water vapor marking her grave.
Still under sporadic air attack, thinning out, however, due to our success in shooting down so many planes thanks to our excellent radar and 40 mounts and the fact that enemy aircraft were out of bombs and ammunition forcing them to land, The Sumner and the Moale departed Ormoc Bay at flank speed. Being light in draft due to the expenditure of munitions and fuel and due to the excellent performance of our "Black Gang," we left our nightmare behind at about two knots faster than the trial speed of the ship which was 34 knots. In fact the Moale had thought we were deliberately running away from her. We later slowed a bit to allow her to catch up.
At daybreak the two surviving ships reached the protection of the Seventh Fleet in Leyte Gulf. The crews were exhausted but proud of their accomplishments and saddened by the loss of the Cooper. We had expended over 90 percent of our ammunition and were almost completely out of fuel having steamed at flank speed the entire night. We had shot everything thing we could at the enemy even including star shells, empty practice rounds, and even unloading and saluting powder. A thought has haunted me all these years of what a young Japanese sailor must have thought of what hit his ship when he looked into a hole made by one of our rounds and found the charred remains of a parachute from a star shell!
As soon as we arrived in Leyte, we fueled and restocked our depleted ammunition. Using our ship's resources, we welded more than 40 patches over holes in the bow of the ship ranging from the size of a dime to that of a bowling ball. We cleaned ship and picked up shrapnel and spent Japanese aircraft machine gun bullets from our decks. It was amazing that we did not suffer more wounded on our weather decks from this action.
The clean-up also required that we repaint the entire deck areas around the turrets themselves and the gun barrels as the paint was burnt to the bare steel by our continued rapid firing. Having worked for nearly 48 hours with little rest, we had our ship ready for duty. We had to, as the war was moving so fast at that time.
What was accomplished by this nightmare at Ormoc Bay where we were so outnumbered, outgunned, and without air cover? We lost a fine ship, The Cooper. We lost 205 officers and men with her and some were killed on the Moale. Not including the Cooper's wounded, the total wounded from the Sumner and the Moale was 35. We traded this loss for an estimated to the enemy of four troop transports sunk, with two beached. Three destroyers were reported sunk and two so badly damaged that our air forces had an easy time sinking them the next day. A large patrol craft was sunk and one LST was so badly damaged that she could not get off the beach and had to remain there until our forces captured her. A complete shore installation was so badly damaged as to become useless. The enemy's wounded and dead at this installation were estimated to be in the thousands. Our three destroyers had shot down between 20 and 30 enemy planes, possibly more. And it was later revealed that our action reduced the Second Battle of the Philippines by days which had an overall effect in shortening the war itself. The Action could be compared to winning a football game by a lucky fumble or by blocking a kick or a baseball game being won by a missed fly ball. The action did make both national and international headlines.
What caused the success? Was it excellent equipment" Highly trained crews? The element of surprise supported by tenacity? Or possibly just dumb luck?
A study of the history of the U.S. Navy in World War II indicates that this nightmare was one of the last true ship to ship naval engagements of the war as during this period the kamikaze attacks had started. Fate was to dictate that a month later in the Lingayen Gulf invasion, the Sumner was to fall victim to one of these attacks which took her out of action for several months. Later I was to wind up in a survey group which studied the effects of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
(Thanks to Ron Babuka for the contribution of this article. Ron's Father was a Seaman First Class aboard SUMNER during the Battle)
For a brief perspective on the battle from the Japanese point of view, see "The TA Operations to Leyte, Part III" at the Imperial Japanese Navy site. The SUMNER action is listed under TA No. 7. For more information on the Kuwa and Take, see "Matsu class" again at the IJN site.