The Japanese Vice Admiral scanned the urgent message just handed him by his flagship communications officer and placed the order on his gleaming mahogany desk. The commander of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s powerful Central Force Fleet walked to his operation center and glanced out the ship’s port side to see the shimmering yellow-green South China Sea reflecting the setting sun. The archipelago of the Philip-pines was over the horizon to the east.
So the time has come, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita informed his staff. Execute the battle plan for Operation SHO-1! His armada included four new super battleships averaging eight 14- and 16-inch guns, twenty 5.5-inch and eight 5-inch guns; seven heavy cruisers, speed 35 knots, averaging eight 8-inch and eight 5-inch guns and ten 24-inch torpedo tubes; and 11 destroyers each with five 4-inch guns and four torpedo tubes. This huge naval force was charged with mounting a general decisive battle ¡ ¬ to vanquish once and for all the United States Navy’s Pacific fleet and was ordered to fight to the death.
October 23, 1944
Kurita’s juggernaut fleet, boasting the newest and largest battleships in the world, steamed toward Luzon to destroy General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious landings. It was to be a last-ditch effort by Japan to cling to the Philippines or all would be lost. His would be one of three Nipponese task forces that hoped to find and destroy the Pacific fleet of the United States Navy. Thus began the greatest battle in the history of all naval surface warfare, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
October 25, 1944, 0645
Lt. Cmdr. William Lloyd Carver, USN, Executive Officer (XO) of the USS Heerman adjourned his staff after the daily morning briefing and left the Combat Information Center (CIC). The ship was conducting anti-submarine operations just east of the island of Sumar. His Fletcher-class destroyer was one of three in a small task force under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague. Called Taffy 3, it also included six small aircraft carriers and four destroyer escorts, smaller than destroyers. The small task force was lightly armed. The aircraft carriers had but one 5-inch gun each and the largest firepower in the task force were the five 5-inch guns on each destroyer. The assumption was Taffy 3 would be protected by the air and sea umbrella of the rest of the Pacific fleet. It was never intended to be a participant in surface warfare.
At 0645 that same morning Admiral Sprague received the following voice report sent by the pilot of one of his aircraft on anti-submarine patrol: Enemy surface force of 4 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers sighted 20 miles northwest of your task group and closing in on you at 30 knots.
Light from a newborn eastern sun turned the horizon from black to grey and illuminated the crests riding on the swells of the Philippine Sea. Partway up the ladder to the bridge something amiss to the northwest caught the 28-year-old officer’s eye. Bill Carver stopped dead in his tracks. Streams of 25 mm antiaircraft fire lit up the distant horizon as high as 18,000 feet. Hundreds of black-red air bursts made the sky tremble.
It could only mean one thing, the young officer concluded. Kurito’s powerful fleet had somehow negotiated the treacherous waters of San Bernardino Strait in a daring full-speed night voyage to enter the Leyte Gulf just east of the main body of the Philippines. Then the clever Admiral must have somehow skirted under Admiral William Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet undetected. Now, Kurita was closing fast toward Task Force Taffy 3, while under attack from American warplanes. Bill Carver dashed up to the bridge and sounded the call for General Quarters.
Twenty-seven year-old Bill Carver had been an excellent student at Marist High School in Atlanta. He was a star on the football squad, a member of the staff of the Cadet Corps at the Catholic, all-male, military school, and graduated from high school a year early. Popular with blond, all-American features, he dated one of the best-looking girls in town. At Georgia Tech, he was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity, majored in Mechanical Engineering, enrolled in the NROTC program, and played golf with his idol Bobby Jones every chance he got at East Lake Country Club. Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Ensign in the United States Navy.
As Executive Officer, he was the chief administrator aboard the Heerman and the director of navigation. In combat situations, he would be a decision-maker in strategic and tactical situations and the delivery and choice of weapons. In combat, he would be the busiest man on the ship.
Bill Carver entered the bridge and saw all eyes looking north. Out of the fog, the Japanese huge battleships loomed, closing fast, and opened up with their powerful weapons. Soon Japanese salvos of deadly naval gunfire shells slammed into the waters around Taffy 3. At 0650, Admiral Sprague ordered his fleet to sail to the east at full speed to draw the Japanese away from the vulnerable supply ships at anchor supporting the amphibious landing. Not only was his small group outgunned, the enemy’s ships were twice as fast.
Through the fog, Sprague saw that the whole Japanese force of 22 warships was attacking him.
The Battle off Samar had begun.
Sprague later said, I didn’t think we’d last 15 minutes with our peashooters against their powerful guns so I thought we might as well as give them all we’ve got before we all go down.
At 0656, the American admiral ordered all six carriers to launch aircraft for bombing and tor-pedo strikes on the Jap fleet. At 0657, he ordered his carriers to throw up all possible smoke from their stacks and for his destroyers and destroyer escorts to whip up and lay all the smoke they could generate. The fog and smoke collided above the rolling sea, placing a shroud from the water to the dark clouds above, reducing the visibility of the attacking Jap navy. Heavy rain squalls abounded in the area. In the gloom the silhouettes of the tiny American destroyers looked to Japanese observers similar to those of Baltimore-class heavy cruisers. Kurita did not recognize how small and vulnerable the American force was.
At 0659, the huge battleship Yamato began shelling Taffy 3 with its 18-inch powerhouse guns, the largest ever mounted on any warship, from twenty miles away, hurling salvos of 3,500 pound armor-piercing shells. Seconds later, the first salvos splashed near the escort carriers USS White Plains and USS St Lo. Admiral Sprague knew that within minutes his undermanned task force faced annihilation. He had also noticed Kurita had given total tactical control to each of the 22 captains in his fleet and the Jap ships were like individual killer wolves away from the pack, each on its own.
The attackers drew closer, firing torrents of heavy shells. The sea was boiling with Japanese shell splashes. Sprague decided to engage the enemy with unorthodox, desperate measures.
He decided to send his three destroyers to almost certain destruction straight into the battle line of the Japanese cruisers and battleships on a likely suicidal torpedo run.
¨DAll small boys (destroyers) go in and launch torpedo attack!
At 0715, the American destroyers USS Heerman (DD-532), USS Johnston (DD-557, and USS Hoel (DD-533), carrying a total of 30 torpedoes, joined by the destroyer-escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), turned north passing out of their recently laid smokescreens and into the open. In a loose, wide column, the destroyers went to flank speed and powered directly at the Jap fleet to make the closest torpedo run in naval warfare history. It was insane, like wasps attacking eagles, or grasshoppers versus elephants.
In the CIC, Bill Carver helped steer the Heerman with his radar and sonar, narrowly avoiding collisions with his comrade ships. The small destroyer sprung headlong at the powerful enemy force comprised of ships up to 30 times larger. Racing through rain squalls in a zigzag fashion, it laid heavy smoke to confuse the Jap observers. The XO had prepared his sailors to face a day like this. The Heerman’s best allies would be her speed, leadership, and the fighting will of her crew. Their tactic was to head for the nearest shell splash while assuming that no shells would hit the same spot again.
Each of the destroyers entered into running gun battles with super-sized Jap cruisers and the American vessels began taking powerful hits from 8-inch guns. The light swift destroyers, armed only with 5-inch guns and torpedoes, fought so savagely and fired so repeatedly that Kurita became convinced he was battling the main American task force.
At 0754, Bill Carver ordered his weapon’s officer to launch seven of the ten torpedoes aboard
as his ship engaged the brutish Jap cruiser, the Haguro. He then directed the firing of 125 5-inch shells at the big target. At the same time, the other American destroyers loosed multiple torpedoes at the enemy armada. Minutes later the Jap battleship Haruna spotted the Heerman and began firing broadsides from its massive guns, sending shells as large as small automobiles overhead and turning the nearby sea into a cauldron of fury. William Carver called the coordinates of the enemy ship and his cannons fired over 200 shells at his target. His crew saw multiple hits on the Haruna’s superstructure.
At 0800 and at a distance of 4,400 yards, the Heerman fired its last three torpedoes at the Haruna, reversed course, began laying smoke, and made its way to the south to provide cover for the vulnerable United States carriers. The torpedoes missed the Haruna but continued on a path at the massive battleship Yamato, which lay in the line of fire behind Heerman’s intended target. Vice Admiral Kurita saw the approaching torpedoes, reversed course, and sailed north for ten miles to avoid the American torpedoes streaking at him. By doing so he lost command and control of the action. At the same time he voided the threat of his big guns which were nearing range to the vulnerable American baby carriers.
But at 0845, the Heerman came under fire from four heavy cruisers and took multiple blows from 8-inch shells. One enemy shell blasted into the bridge, killing four men. Another direct hit below the waterline at the bow blew a five-foot wide hole in the hull. Water poured in so fast that the anchors began dragging in the water. The XO helped organize a damage control team that stemmed the tide of flooding water.
Soon the enemy began Kamikaze air attacks on the American fleet, the first ever delivered by the Japanese. The aircraft off the carriers of Taffy 3 continued their assault on the enemy, making runs on the Japanese fleet to slow their speed of advance even after expending all their torpedoes, bombs, and machine-gun bullets.
The Heerman gunners downed four enemy dive-bombers. The American carrier St. Lo, after being repeatedly hit, suffered a series of explosions and sank into the fathoms above the deep Philippine Trench, almost seven miles below the surface. The Heerman raced to rescue sailors in the water. Bill Carver later told his daughters Judy and Carolyn how many of the 260 survivors that he and his crew dragged aboard were burned and oily.
Confusion abounded in Vice Admiral Kurita’s command center on the massive Yamato. He continued to act on the belief he was fighting the major American task force. The Japanese staff was slow to recognize the situation and adapt. Shortly after receiving an erroneous report that another group of six fleet carriers, three cruisers, and destroyers were closing toward him he made his final decision.
At 0911, he reversed course, disengaged, and sent the following message to all his ships: Cease action! Come north with me at 20 knots. He never knew he was inches away from destroying the entire Taffy 3 task force.
The other American destroyers had been severely damaged by repeated shelling during their brave assault. Soon all sank. Two of the six small Taffy 3 carriers were sunk. Taffy 3 lost 898 men during the victory. Six American ships were lost in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese suffered 26 ships sunk including three aircraft carriers, three battleships, and ten cruisers. The Heerman became the only destroyer to have ever fought four battleships singlehandedly and live to tell about it.
Bill Carver sent the following censored letter to his father in Atlanta, a man all referred to as “Colonel.”
November 7, 1944
USS Heerman (DD532)
c/o Fleet Post Office – Air Mail
San Francisco, Cal.
Our mail hasn’t caught up with us but I suppose it will one of these days. I did get a letter from Mother dated September 17, 1944.
I still don’t know how the Georgia Tech football team has fared since the Duke game. Glad that brother John got to play in the game against Clemson.
Well, I guess as might as well tell you we were in the Leyte battle east of Samar. I didn’t get hurt at all, not even a scratch, so don’t even begin to worry about me. We gave them holy hell and the ship did a wonderful job. We made a successful torpedo run in the middle of the Japanese battle line and we poured the lead into them for well over an hour. But we were sure lucky to get out. Those prayers of Mother’s sure were answered in one fell swoop. I was so proud of our crew as they fought like hell, every one of them. Will have to wait to tell you the details when I get home. Also don’t say too much about us being in the fracas. We can only write just what I told you. We sure need some liberty and I badly need a vacation. We’ve been out here thirteen months now and it’s getting pretty bad. Ever since the battle I’ve been working day and night on reports, etc.
Also everyone is a wee bit nervous after the party of 25 October. I was scared during the action but I knew everyone else was too. I know I didn’t show it.
Just don’t let Mother worry about me as every-thing is O.K. now. I did want you to know we were in the scrap and did a damned good job.
Hope everyone back home is fine.
Love to all,
Six months later, Bill Carver received the Silver Star Medal, America’s third highest honor for bravery in combat. The Citation read:
For distinguishing himself by gallantry and intrepidity in the performance of his duty as evaluator of a destroyer … in her daylight surface attack against a major enemy task force … while delivering the attack against a column of enemy vessels … Lieutenant Commander Carver organized an immediate and effective attack on the enemy battle line. During the entire engagement his skill, bravery, and leadership materially contributed to the successful outcome of the battle. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the best traditions of the Navy of the United States”
Bill Carver was my Mom’s brother and the oldest of three uncles. When I got back from Vietnam all he wanted to talk about when we visited was what it was like for me to have been a Marine Forward Observer in combat. He never mentioned his own incredible exploits and heroism. I had been vaguely aware he was a U.S. Navy officer out in the Pacific in World War II and had seen some action. It wasn’t until January 2, 2011, the day my Mom died, that I found some old scrapbooks in her basement. That’s the day I read the articles about what a hero my uncle had been. He has gone to his grave now, so I will never be able to have him tell me what he saw transpire on the tempestuous waters of the ocean the day he raced his small, valiant vessel dead aim in a frontal assault against a Japanese battleship. Now I know he made sure the grasshopper beat the elephant.
May he Rest in Peace.