The United States and the Imperial Japanese Empire were at war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Campaign for the Philippines was one of the most important of these wars; many battles were fought during this campaign, the most notable of which was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This fight was actually a series of conflicts fought at the same time, with the Battle of Samar being the most important of them all. The US was prepared to land troops on the island of Leyte, while the Japanese were plotting an attack on Admiral Halsey’s American fleet. Admiral Kurita’s centre force was the major force in this attack. The main American fleet would be drawn away by a separate northern force, leaving the island of Leyte vulnerable to attack. Only a tiny destroyer task force known as Taffy three stood in the way of the centre force. The Yamato, the Japanese centre force’s only ship, weighed more than the combined weight of Taffy’s three battleships. To win the war, the Americans would rely on pure bravery and steel balls.
The Battle off Samar
On the morning of October 25, 1944, a young Electrician’s Mate from Southern California stood on the flight deck, scanning the horizon for a Japanese fleet approaching his Task Force, Taffy 3, from a distance of 20 miles, as reported by the St. Lo’s antisubmarine patrol. The Japanese Admiral Takeo Kurita’s strong force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and 12 destroyers had just intercepted Bethard’s St. Lo and the rest of Taffy 3. On paper, the incoming Japanese fleet’s six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts were no match for the approaching Japanese fleet.
Despite this, the antisubmarine patrol deployed by Bethard’s St. Lo, armed only with depth charges, began an attack on the incoming enemy fleet’s lead elements. Under heavy antiaircraft fire, the American aircraft withdrew without causing any damage.
On the horizon, Bethard could see Japanese antiaircraft fire, and not long after, he heard the report of big naval weapons. At a range of 17 miles, the Japanese super battleship Yamato, the world’s largest warship, opened fire with her 18-inch main armament. The massive enemy shells began splattering about St. Lo and other American ships soon after. Huge splashes sprang up along the American ships’ wakes, vibrantly coloured with dye.
Knowing that a single hit from an enemy battleship could sink his small escort carrier, the commander of St. Lo manoeuvred his ship into and out of rain squalls to disguise his ship from Japanese range finders on battleships and cruisers getting increasingly closer. St. Lo bobbed and dodged amid the deluge of enemy shells, managing to launch all of her planes and strike back at the German fleet. Bethard sought refuge in the ship’s upper works, believing the Japanese were attempting to sink the flight deck and that he would be safe there. He could see the opposing ships’ fire and the gigantic battleship shells as they ripped through the air from his vantage point. “Out of the corner of my eye, here comes three, three big ole shells that went barely over the bow,” Bethard recalled. They were so close that one of the shell casings flopped over on our deck and shook there for a bit.”
The Japanese force began to close in 90 minutes after the combat began. The fight intensified as the range between ships moved closer, allowing the American destroyers to begin fire. Taffy 3’s valiant American destroyers and destroyer escorts closed in on their adversary and sparred at terrifyingly close range, often as near as 5,000 yards.
The destroyer Johnston (DD-557), commanded by Captain Ernest Evans, sped to flank speed, pulled full left rudder, and assaulted the Japanese at roughly 7:00 a.m. The Johnston was able to rake the larger Japanese cruiser Kumano with gunfire and score three torpedo hits, which blew the Japanese vessel’s bow off and just missed the battleship Kongo. As Johnston drew away from the befuddled Japanese cruiser force, she was hit by at least two 18-inch Yamato rounds, which slowed the ship significantly. Captain Evans, undeterred, ordered his little ship back into the fray and engaged at least eight enemy ships for over 60 minutes before his destroyer was mortally wounded by hostile gunfire. As the Johnston came to a halt, she was encircled by her adversary, who battered her until the order to abandon ship was given. Captain Evans was among the 186 crew members who perished when the brave little ship went down. Evans would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as commander of the Johnston. According to survivors floating in the ocean, the Japanese destroyer Yukikaze’s captain could be seen saluting the sinking American destroyer as she sailed by.
The majority of Taffy 3 was able to escape thanks to the activities of the Johnston and the courageous sacrifices of the crews of the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), as well as the destroyers Heermann (DD-532) and Hoel (DD-533). The Japanese retreated, believing they had run into the majority of the American fleet due to the severity of the destroyer and destroyer escorts’ defence. Sailors on the surviving American ships exhaled a sigh of relief as the Japanese moved away. However, St. Lo’s ordeal was about to begin.
The Return of the Japanese Fleet
The Japanese A6M5 Zero fighter arrived, part of the Shikishima Special Attack Unit, a special Japanese task group. The first designated kamikaze unit of the war was this special attack unit. Taffy 3’s escort carriers were subjected to a ferocious kamikaze bombardment over the following 40 minutes. The new and terrifying weapon damaged several escort carriers, including Bethard’s St. Lo.
The Japanese Zero that Bethard noticed approaching his ship was carrying a bomb, which it detonated before colliding with the St. Lo flight deck. “The bomb passed through our hardwood flight deck and exploded in the hangar deck,” says the narrator. We blew ourselves apart from there because we were gassing up planes, bombs out, no real protection, fire…the torpedo bay blew.”
The extreme heat of the initial explosions of both the Japanese bomb and the suicide plane rocked St. Lo, causing her aircraft ammunition to cook-off. Despite this, her crew remained adamant about putting out the fires and saving their ship. Following the first explosion, a second explosion blasted through the ship, “followed in a couple of seconds by a far more intense explosion, which rolled back a part of the flight deck…,” according to the after-action report. The second powerful explosion ripped more of the flight deck apart, as well as blowing the elevator shaft out of its shaft.” St. Lo had reached the end of his journey.
When Bethard was ordered to abandon ship, he dragged himself down a line over the starboard side and into the water. Another explosion occurred as he swam away from the ship, allowing water to flow into the escort carrier’s innards. St. Lo began to settle towards the stern, gently listing port before capsizing and sinking, earning the distinction of becoming the first American ship to be sunk by a kamikaze attack. Sadly, St. Lo would not be the only ship to succumb to the “divine wind” before the war ended.
Orville swam as far as he could from St. Lo before being picked up by the destroyer escort Dennis (DE-405), one of 746 survivors from an 889-man crew. Orville returned to Southern California after the war, married, had two kids, and graduated from USC with a degree in engineering in 1956. Bethard died in the year 2012.
Bethard’s ship, St. Lo, languished undiscovered for nearly 75 years off the shore of the Philippine island of Samar. On May 14, 2019, that changed. Bethard’s ship was discovered lying upright 4,376 metres beneath the surface of the Philippine Sea by investigators aboard Paul G. Allen’s Research Vessel Petrel. When you view her, you can see her battle scars: pieces of her hull have been torn out by explosions, her flight deck has a huge hole, and some of her antiaircraft armament is scattered on the seafloor. Despite this, she sits defiantly and proudly on her keel.
The battle’s aftermath was instantly apparent. The Japanese would never be able to conduct any significant naval operations again. The majority of the Japanese ships involved in the conflict would remain stranded in dry dock until the Battle of Okinawa, where the Yamato would be sunk. The US successfully invaded the island of Leyte, and they would eventually take over the remainder of the Philippines. This would open the way for the engagements of Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the Japanese mainland. The United States would have total command over the Pacific Ocean. The conflict also exposed the Japanese ships’ and naval officer corps’ flaws, including a lack of fire control systems, sloppy construction, inferior building materials, and inadequate ammunition. Rigidity, inadequate training, lack of awareness, lack of cohesiveness, and lack of logistical planning would be highlighted as Japanese officers’ flaws. The US was fortunate not to have suffered a disastrous defeat; Admiral Halsey was widely chastised for leaving the island of Leyte undefended, and Taffy three would be awarded a presidential unit commendation for courage during the combat.