Quite a while back, I talked about one of those “David vs. Goliath” encounters (the Winter War between Russian and Finland) that ended up going Goliath’s way in the end. Though the Finnish army fought with incredible bravery, tenacity, and intelligence, there was only so much they could do against an emeny that completely outnumbered them.
But sometimes, the actions of the “David” give the “Goliath” the distinct impression that “David” isn’t just a little boy with a slingshot, thus causing the “Goliath” to delay the fight for another day. Such is the subject of Today’s History Lesson.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf had started well for the U.S. Navy, with a couple of submarines drawing first blood around Palawan Island. The next day saw Kurita’s powerful Center Force bloodied again, when U.S. carrier aircraft succeeded in taking down the super-battleship Musashi. With two other battleships and another heavy cruiser damaged, Kurita turned tail to get out of aircraft range. Japanese land-based aircraft were swatted from the skies like those slow-moving flies you have in your house during the fall months, though one plane did manage to plant itself (and a bomb) in the light carrier USS Princeton, which eventually sank.
But the Japanese Northern Force was also discovered that afternoon. Set up as a decoy to draw off forces, it worked precisely as planned. Thinking the Center Force was retiring, Admiral Bill Halsey went north in pursuit. Miscommunications meant that he took his entire task force (the most powerful surface fleet on the planet) with him, so when the Center Force (the 2nd most powerful surface fleet on the planet) turned around an hour later, the San Bernardino Strait (and the gateway to MacArthur’s invasion forces) was wide open.
Goliath came through the Strait, drove south, and in the morning hours of October 25, 1944, ran into David, played by Admiral Clifton Sprague’s small group of destroyers and escort carriers. The result was mismatch of unbelievable proportions: the 2nd most powerful surface fleet floating versus small, slow, lightly armed carriers and thin-skinned destroyers.
Sprague’s Task Unit tried to get away, but the shells were coming fast. Enter Commander Ernest Evans and the USS Johnston (shown above). The 2,000 ton destroyer broke ranks and charged straight towards the Center Force. With her piddly 5-inch guns blazing and torpedo tubes smoking, she managed to blow the bow off the heavy cruiser Kumano before being plastered with 14-inch shells from the 30,000-ton battlewagon Kongo. With only one engine working and all rear guns out of action, Johnston kept fighting, shooting at the Kongo and scoring numerous (though largely ineffective) hits. And when Evans saw another carrier under fire from a cruiser, he drove his dying destroyer between them to draw fire.
By this time, Admiral Sprague had dispatched his other destroyers into the fray and launched his planes, though most had no weapons or bombs that were effective against surface ships. But all this served to convince Center Force commander Kurita that he had run into a much more powerful force and, miraculously, he turned tail and split. The U.S. Navy would lose 3 destroyers (including the Johnston) and a carrier, and nearly every other ship in Sprague’s group would be damaged. But “David” had sunk 3 heavy cruisers, damaged a fourth, and had driven off a colossus of a “Goliath”.