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Leyte Landings 12-20 October 1944

Battle of Surigao Strait 24-26 October 1944

Six-inch shell bursts from the cruiser USS Denver announced to friend and foe alike that U.S. Forces had, after 2 ½ long years, returned to the Philippine Islands. It was 0801, 17 October 1944, off Suluan Island, perched in the entrance to Leyte Gulf - and the Robbie was there.

She was, along with the light cruisers Columbia and Denver and three other destroyers, part of R.Adm. Hayler’s Dinagat Attack Support Group. Their mission: cover the landings of the 500 rangers of the 6th Ranger Infantry Battalion (the Dinagat Attack Group) on Dinagat, Calicoan, Homonhon and Suluan Islands.

These islands command the southern and western approaches to Leyte Gulf, and they were thought to harbor Japanese radar outposts.

Embarked in eight destroyer-transports and other landing craft under the command of Lt.Col. H. A. Mucci, the Rangers were there to neutralize any Japanese early warning facilities on those islands, in preparation for the massive Allied landings on the beaches of eastern Leyte scheduled 3 days hence - on 20 October. Robbie escorted the ranger unit to Dinagat, and watched them land unopposed. She then turned her attention to covering the minesweepers busily clearing the waters off the Leyte beaches, until their retirement the morning of 19 October.

On invasion day, 20 October, the Robbie was back in R.Adm. Oldendorf’s fire support group, raking the Leyte beaches with her 5" guns ahead of the troop landings, and delivering illumination fire over the eastern shore during the night.

On the 22nd, she rescued a Navy fighter pilot, whose damaged plane crashed in her path. The morning of the 24th, she destroyed a number of enemy installations on Catmon Hill, Leyte.

That afternoon, word was received of an engagement between a powerful Japanese surface force and American carrier planes in the eastern Sulu Sea. It was considered likely that the barely-scathed Japanese force would attempt a nighttime penetration of Surigao Strait, followed by a morning attack against U.S. Seventh Fleet forces supporting the Leyte landings.

Admirals Kincaid and Oldendorf laid out a masterful plan to frustrate such an attempt. All Seventh Fleet ships were notified, and all transits in or out of the gulf were halted at sunset.

Oldendorf’s bombardment group, including 6 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 21 destroyers, augmented with 39 PT boats and 7 destroyers of other commands, was shifted south and arrayed along the shores or across the northern mouth of Surigao Strait. The battleships were placed in an east-west line perpendicular to the channel defined by the strait, thus "crossing the T" of the expected line of advance of the Japanese.

To their south were arrayed two strait-flanking groups of cruisers and 3 squadrons of destroyers, and far down the strait, all the way to Bohol Island, were stationed the PT boats. The Robbie was one of the nine destroyers of Squadron 56 on the left (east) flank of the defensive line, just north of Hibuson Island. The trap was set.

Vice Admiral Nishimura, in command of Force C of the IJN Second Fleet, knew he was sailing into harm's way when, on the evening of 24 October, he ordered his ships into the southwest approach to Surigao Strait. He knew the Americans were expecting him, for they had attacked his force with carrier planes that morning, and undoubtedly surmised his intent to wreak havoc with the Leyte landing forces after transiting the strait. But he had been told the opposing force was about the same strength as his own, and he counted upon the vaunted superiority of the Japanese Navy in night surface engagements.

Also there was his fatalistic fealty to the Emperor and to the SHO-1 plan for the massive air-ground-sea battle-of-battles to blast the Americans from Philippine beaches, waters and skies. SHO-1 had been activated for sea, land and air forces back when the USS Denver fired the ‘shot heard around the Philippines’ near Suluan Island.

At that time, the Japanese Second Fleet was stationed near Singapore, recovering, refitting and retraining in a place conveniently close to the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies.

With the SHO-1 call to action, the fleet was refueled, divided into the two forces, "C" under Nishimura, and "A" under V.Adm. Kurita, and sent north to attack the Leyte landing forces simultaneously - Kurita to approach through San Bernardino Strait and around Samar from the north, Nishimura through Surigao Strait from the south.

The Japanese Fifth fleet, under V.Adm. Shima, consisting of 2 heavy and 1 light cruisers, and 4 destroyers, was sent south from Coron Bay, Calamians, to "cooperate" with Nishimura in his attack from the south.

The Third Fleet, under V.Adm. Ozawa, containing 1 heavy and 5 light carriers, 2 battleships (carrier hybrids), 3 light cruisers and 10 destroyers, sailed south from the Sea of Japan to lure Halsey’s Task Force 38 away from the Leyte action. This would have been a respectable force had it a full complement of planes and carrier-trained pilots, but recent reverses suffered in the Marianas ‘turkey shoot’ and the Battle of the Philippine Sea reduced its air arm to only 109 planes, and far fewer trained pilots to man them. Ozawa’s carrier force had less air power than a single U.S. carrier! But Halsey didn’t know that, and so he was lured away from the scene of the real action at Leyte.

Into ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ rode Nishimura with his 2 old battleships (Fuso, Yamashiro), heavy cruiser (Mogami), and 4 destroyers (Shigure, Asagumo, Yamagumo, Michishio). He had no thought of waiting for Shima’s cruisers and destroyers to catch up and strengthen his hand.

Toward evening, he received word that Kurita’s Force A had reversed course, thus voiding the plan to join forces off Leyte at dawn on the 25th. Further, the Mogami’s search plane had scouted out 4 battleships, 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 15 carriers, 14 PT boats and 80 transports up ahead.

No matter. Force C plowed ahead undeterred. A few minutes before midnight, the battle began off Bohol when the first trio of U.S. PT boats attacked.

While the boats fought ferociously, they scored no torpedo hits, and were themselves hit and hurt. But they did not fail their duty to inform Oldendorf of the whereabouts and actions of Force C.

So it continued as Nishimura sailed on through the night. Wave after wave of PT boats attacked, zigzagging at high speed and firing, but failing to land a single torpedo where it might hurt. The Japanese had managed to sink one and damage nine boats, and were pleased with their performance - at least until about 0300 on "X-day" (25 October).

That’s the time when Force C first detected the destroyers of DesRon 54 in their near vicinity. Several minutes later torpedo tracks were spotted, and all hell broke loose.

Three of the four destroyers were hit: one (Yamagumo) sunk, two (Michishio, Asagumo) disabled. One of the battleships (Fuso) took a torpedo amidships, and fell out of formation.

Now came the second wave of 6 destroyers, DesRon 24 from the right flank commanded by Capt. K. M. McManes. As a result of their run at the now-confused and diminished Force C, the battleship Yamashiro took a torpedo hit and was forced to slow down. Only the Mogami and Shigure were still in the fight along with Yamashiro.

Now, at 0335, it was the turn of DesRon 56, under Capt. Smoot. Three sections of 3 destroyers each were to dash out at the enemy, fire torpedoes, and return to station.

Robbie was in the first attacking section, along with USS Bryant and USS Halford. As this attack started, Oldendorf directed the ‘T-crossing’ line of battleships and cruisers to open fire on the enemy ships, and so they did.

Here is the scene as recalled by Don Fahlberg, one of the Robbie’s torpedomen:

"It was a very black, cool night. For our part in the early morning torpedo run in the Battle of Surigao Straits, my battle station was on the starboard depth charges. We went to battle stations somewhere around 0300. I gathered about 4 or 5 life jackets and laid them along the bulkhead under 5"gun No. 3.

I was connected with the torpedo tubes, the other two depth charge batteries, and the bridge by headphones so I could hear what was going on in the firing of torpedoes. We loafed around for a while, then picked up speed to somewhere around 30 knots.

Soon I could see off to starboard flashes that looked like lightning. I assumed that it was flashes of the Japs firing off their batteries, and also Jap ships burning. I could also see shells from our battleships and cruisers landing on the Jap ships, some exploding, and some hitting armored portions of the Jap battleship and ricocheting up in the sky.

Then came the orders from the bridge to the torpedo tubes to prepare for firing. They trained to starboard and only tubes No. 1 would be fired. Five torpedoes were fired and from my position I could hear each one hit the water.

After the five were fired, we continued on at the same speed of about 30 knots. All of a sudden, the ship began to shudder and shake, and we were attempting a turn to port. We seemed to come to a complete stop broadside to an island. It seemed to me that I could see trees by the false dawn.

And so it was that we came within a hair of running aground on this island. We heard that Capt. Grantham was so engrossed in watching the battle that CIC could not get his attention when we were headed for disaster. I heard that Lt. Zumwalt ran up the ladder from three decks below and yelled at the skipper "Hard port and emergency full astern", which he did. And here we are 55 years later to tell about it. I hope that my memory is reasonably accurate".

You might say that was one close-call torpedo run! The men of the Robbie will tell you they scored a ‘possible’ hit or two on a Japanese battleship (probably Yamashiro, since the Fuso had been left behind in ‘dire straits’), while admitting it was impossible under the circumstances to assign authorship certain.

Sections 2 and 3 of DesRon 56 also made their torpedo runs and rapid retirements, with the sad exception of the USS Albert W. Grant. She alone was hit by enemy torpedo and gunfire, suffering 34 killed, 94 wounded, and loss of power. Many were the acts of heroism aboard that ship before she was towed away and tendered. Some of her hits were from friendly cruisers, so confused had become the battle scene.

Oldendorf stopped the shelling when word reached him of the Grant’s plight, then resumed it later, only to discover there were no more hot pips on the screen. The Yamashiro, now afire from stem to stern, had turned tail and headed south. Soon thereafter she capsized and sank, taking with her Nishimura and all but a handful of her crew.

Mogami was badly hurt, but still fighting. She and plucky little Shigure, all that remained of Force C, also turned south. The battle was, except for cleanup operations, ended. The destroyer sailors had covered themselves with glory this night, and what they were unable to do, the cruisers and battleships were, and did.

Adm. Shima’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers, trailing Force C by about 40 miles, had only fragmentary hints of what lay ahead.

That changed at 0315 when the PT boats, rearmed and itching for a hit, reappeared out of the dark.

This time their luck (or aim) was better. The cruiser Abukuma took a torpedo hit, knocking her out of the fight. Shortly thereafter, Shima came upon the two burning halves of the battleship Fuso, which he took to be two dying battleships.

But, not to worry, gun flashes up ahead could signal an imminent breakthrough of the Mogami and her destroyer escorts into the gulf. And so he sailed on, planning his next moves.

Next he encountered a stricken ship, aflame from bow to stern, and dead in the water (so he thought). By the time he knew it was the Mogami, and that she was not quite dead in the water, the cruiser Nachi had collided with her, knocking itself out of action.

That did it. Shima had had enough. He turned his fleet around and fled the scene.

The stricken Mogami was sunk by friendly fire the next day, leaving the doughty destroyer Shigure as the sole Force C survivor of the Battle of Surigao Strait.

Thousands of Japanese sailors lost their lives in the action, many by refusing to be rescued, or by choosing not to swim ashore. The Robbie survived the battle unscathed, but just barely!

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