A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
Tin cans -- destroyers and destroyer escorts -- are not supposed to take on an enemy's main surface fleet. In fact, it had never been done before October 25, 1944. That morning off the coast of Samar in the Philippine Sea, history was about to change. And the result would spell the end of Japanese naval and air power.
On the defensive since Midway in 1942, the Japanese knew that if they failed to stop the American invasion of the Philippines, they likely would never recover. Therefore, they committed their naval forces to an all-out, last-ditch effort to defeat MacArthur's invasion. The plan called for a three-pronged effort: a Northern Force of aircraft carriers to lure Adm. Halsey's Third Fleet away from the Philippines where he was supposed to be guarding MacArthur's northern flank; a Southern Force to attack through the Surigao Strait and approach Leyte -- the site of MacArthur's beachhead -- from the South; and a Central Force to attack through the San Bernardino Strait and attack Leyte from the North.
The Southern thrust was routed in the early hours of October 25 by the American Seventh fleet (known as MacArthur's Navy). But Halsey ignored warnings from his subordinate commanders and took the Japanese bait. Abandoning his blocking position north of Leyte, Halsey raced away to chase the Northern Force and left the northern approach to Leyte exposed except for a small task force of escort carriers -- bargain-basement aircraft carriers with little of the speed or firepower of their larger cousins. The task force was divided into three groups -- Taffy 1, Taffy 2, and Taffy 3 -- with Taffy 3 the northernmost and directly in the path of the Japanese fleet.
Taffy 3 was made up of thirteen ships: six escort carriers and seven tin cans (three destroyers and four destroyer escorts). They faced a Japanese force of twenty-three ships -- most of which dwarfed their opposition. Led by four battleships, the force included six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Furthermore, few of the 7200 officers, sailors, and airmen of the American task force were professional military men. Most were recent recruits or naval reservists like Bob Copeland and Jack Roberts. Copeland, the skipper of the destroyer escort Roberts, was a lawyer and reservist from Tacoma, Washington. Roberts, who had just finished boot camp prior to sailing with the Roberts, was the younger brother of Sam Roberts -- a twenty-one-year-old reservist who died at Guadalcanal -- after whom the ship was named.
It was David vs. Goliath, and few gave David much of a chance. Task Force commander Rear Adm. Ziggy Sprague figured that Taffy 3 might last fifteen minutes against the Japanese, but he had no other option but to commit it to battle. Before charging into the gathering tempest, Copeland addressed his crew: "'This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.'"
Against all odds, the heroic stand of the tin cans inflicted severe damage on the Japanese ships and managed to hold the line until the combined air power of the task force was able to turn the tide. After 2 ½ hours, the Japanese commander, having overestimated the opposing force, ordered his ships to withdraw. In perhaps the most one-sided engagement in naval history, the underdog Americans had carried the day.
It had been costly though. Four Taffy 3 ships were sunk and 850 sailors and airmen killed. Japanese losses, however, were estimated at up to 10,000.
Much has been written about the Battle off Samar but nothing as comprehensive and gripping as The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. Hornfischer, a professional writer, has scoured the archives for official reports and government documents and has interviewed dozens of survivors to tell the story of these ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things on that October morning in 1944. Told with unflinching detail that takes the reader into the horror of engine rooms and fire rooms turned into raging infernos by enemy torpedoes and shells, the Tin Can Sailors remind one of the tribute paid to Marines at Iwo Jima: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."