Smoke rises after a massive explosion in Princeton's hangar deck, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944. A destroyer is visible at right.

Smoke rises after a massive explosion in Princeton’s hangar deck, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944. A destroyer is visible at right.

Smoke rises from an explosion in Princeton's hangar deck at 1000.5 hrs. on 24 October 1944, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).

Smoke rises from an explosion in Princeton’s hangar deck at 1000.5 hrs. on 24 October 1944, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).

USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning, but still underway, about twenty minutes after she was hit by a Japanese air attack, 24 October 1944. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).

USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning, but still underway, about twenty minutes after she was hit by a Japanese air attack, 24 October 1944. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).

In what some regard as the largest Naval engagement in history, certainly in World War II, the US 3rd and 7th Fleets clashed with the Imperial Japanese Navy off the Philippines between 23rd and 26th September in the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. The US Navy was there to provide support for the invasion of the Philippines.

Leyte Gulf consisted of a series of engagements, each one of which would be considered a significant naval battle. The 24th October saw the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, during which US planes bombed and sunk the Musashi, one of the largest battleships ever built.

US carrier based planes were largely successful in preventing the Japanese planes getting through to their own ships. However, it would only took one plane to get through the screen to cause serious damage.

Henry Popham was on the USS Birmingham and had a full view of events after he had completed his shift in the engine room:

October 24 dawned with broken clouds and occasional squalls, but there was good visibility, allowing continuing airstrikes in support of land operations on the island of Leyte. The day began before sunrise, with general quarters sounded for all the ships in Task Force 38.

To start the day, Princeton contributed 20 fighter planes to the air battle over Leyte Gulf. The first wave of 40 to 50 Japanese planes was intercepted and their attack broken up with many enemy losses. A second group of about 30 enemy aircraft quickly took to the air.

Out of the two waves, Princeton’s planes alone shot down 34 enemy aircraft with a loss of only one. Pilots became aces in a matter of minutes. The planes returned to the carrier for refueling and arming in preparation for an airstrike against a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers southeast of the island of Mindoro.

At 9:12 a.m., USS Essex reported a possible bandit plus a friendly aircraft about six miles away. No other unidentifieds were within a radius of 25 miles.

At 9:38 a.m., a single Judy was sighted by Princeton’s lookouts, diving on their vessel from out of the low cloud cover ahead of the ship. The plane immediately came under fire from the forward 20mm and 40mm batteries, and the helm was put over to port in an evasion attempt. The Judy dropped two bombs. One missed Princeton and fell harmlessly into the sea. The other 550-pound bomb fell almost in the center of Princeton’s deck, causing jarring on the bridge and a dull thud in central station. Black smoke issued from the hole in the flight deck, the forward elevator and every access trunk to the hangar aft of the island. Ed Butler, a radarman, said, “I saw him [the Japanese pilot] high-tailing it away from our stern, trailing smoke.”

Pete Callan, one of the crew who had refueled and armed the torpedo planes, says he heard machine-gun fire at a more rapid rate than any of the guns aboard Princeton were capable of. He heard bullets striking the wooden planking of the flight deck.

Fifty years later, Pete told me, “The Japanese pilot utilized the striking bullets to guide his aim by stitching the deck and the surrounding water, then making the appropriate corrections to his bombing run.” The bomb passed through the flight deck, leaving a small jagged hole about 15 inches in diameter, continuing downward and severing the main gasoline line used to fuel the planes. The bomb then passed through an auxiliary drop tank under one wing of Lieutenant Tom Mooney’s torpedo plane parked in the hangar. The bomb continued on its path, piercing the hangar deck and detonating in the crew’s galley on the second deck. The bomb blew a hole through the second deck into the third, above the after engine room.

Structural damage was relatively minor, but a raging gasoline fire flared up in the wreckage of Mooney’s plane and spread rapidly to the other five planes parked there. The quantity of gasoline dumped onto the hangar deck from the severed gasoline main is unknown, but those six fully fueled planes had held more than 2,500 gallons of high-test aviation gasoline. The bomb had created a 5-foot indentation around the small 15-inch hole, which acted as a funnel for the gasoline spilling onto the hangar deck, directing it into the lower decks where the fire raged. Within seconds of the explosion there were fires on the third deck over the after engine room, on the second deck, and in the hangar. Billowing black smoke from burning gasoline poured from every opening in the lower decks.

Less than 10 minutes after the bomb was dropped, the firefighting sprinkler system was completely disabled. Within the same short timespan, the main engines lost almost all power, which first slowed Princeton, then brought her to a halt and turned her into a drifting, burning hulk.

Nearly 90 minutes after the bomb hit, Birmingham was ordered to fall out of formation and assume command of the firefighting operations.

Princeton's port forward area, as seen from USS Birmingham (CL-62) during attempts to control her fires during the afternoon of 24 October. She had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note damage to Princeton's 40mm gun position and catwalk, caused by Birmingham's Number Two 6"/47 gun turret as the two ships grind together. Also note flight deck tractor partially hung up on Princeton's deck edge, F6F and TBM airplanes parked forward, floater nets and life rafts on Birmingham's gun turret.

Princeton’s port forward area, as seen from USS Birmingham (CL-62) during attempts to control her fires during the afternoon of 24 October. She had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note damage to Princeton’s 40mm gun position and catwalk, caused by Birmingham’s Number Two 6″/47 gun turret as the two ships grind together. Also note flight deck tractor partially hung up on Princeton’s deck edge, F6F and TBM airplanes parked forward, floater nets and life rafts on Birmingham’s gun turret.

To be effective, Birmingham had to stay in direct contact so firefighters could move from ship to ship. To stay in physical contact, Birmingham deliberately crowded Princeton. Princeton’s anti-torpedo blisters on both sides below her waterline amidships effectively limited the approach of any supporting ships to the bow or stern areas.

After an extended all-night shift belowdecks making repairs in the after engine room of Birmingham, I was relieved from duty. I went above with Vernon Trevethan and George Thompson. No longer serving under general quarters, we were off duty and sightseeing.

George, Vernon and I headed for the open bridge above the starboard flying bridge. We wanted to observe the firefighting efforts on Princeton but still stay out of the way. Clearly, Birmingham’s starboard side and Princeton’s port side were severely damaged by the grinding impacts that ensued during Birmingham’s attempt to maneuver to the advantage of the firefighters aboard both ships.

View from the foredeck on USS Birmingham (CL-62) as she stood alongside Princeton to help fight her fires, during the afternoon of 24 October. The carrier had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note fire hoses on Birmingham's deck and details of the underside of her Number Two 6"/47 gun turret.

View from the foredeck on USS Birmingham (CL-62) as she stood alongside Princeton to help fight her fires, during the afternoon of 24 October. The carrier had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note fire hoses on Birmingham’s deck and details of the underside of her Number Two 6″/47 gun turret.

Damaged by the constant collisions between the two vessels, a hatch door was ripped from Princeton’s hull, exposing the interior of what appeared to be a companionway. Today the memory of what I saw scares me. Then, however, I was only 23 and not easily intimidated by potential danger. What I saw was a row of bombs standing upright. If memory has not failed me, those bombs were in the neighborhood of 5 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter.

Firefighters on Birmingham were directing streams of water onto those bombs, causing them to sizzle like a hot frying pan when water is sprinkled onto its surface. This effort by Birmingham’s crew to cool down the bombs with fire hoses was desperately hampered because of the narrow quarters and the constant rolling of the ships. The bombs were hissing and generating clouds of steam. My buddies and I watched this activity from our vantage point less than 20 feet away from the nearest bomb. Birmingham’s skipper, Captain Thomas Inglis, was just below us on the flying bridge, directing the entire operation. The grim expression on his face indicated his deep concern at the stress of the situation.

At around 1:32 p.m., Birmingham sounded general quarters as she pulled clear of Princeton due to threats of air and submarine attacks.

About 90 minutes later, general quarters ended with the all clear. Again Birmingham moved alongside Princeton. My little group reconvened. Now we perched on the after mushroom ventilator, between the No. 3 and No. 4 turrets, intently watching the activities on Princeton. Birmingham prepared to rig for towing.

From an estimated distance of 50 to 75 yards, absolutely no smoke or fires were observed, only patches of foglike vapors coming from the numerous openings in Princeton’s flight deck. Princeton appeared to be serenely drifting with the current. It appeared as if the fires had gone out on their own. Our little group on Birmingham figured the excitement was all over. The fires aboard Princeton had been extinguished.

The ships were still separated by about 50 feet when sailors shot their messenger lines across in order to secure a spring line between the two ships. George, on my right, suddenly exclaimed, “Look at that flame!” We saw a single tongue of flame shoot out from the area of the after elevator, followed by an enormous puff of white smoke like a billowy cumulus cloud. To our horror, a slender column of pale orange-colored smoke shot several hundred feet straight up. All hell broke loose with an enormous eruption. One hundred and thirty feet of Princeton’s stern blew off, as well as 180 feet of her flight deck.

As a high-speed shock wave headed my way, my reflexes took over. I threw myself backward before the concussion could hit me head on. This reflex action undoubtedly saved my life. Still, the force of the shock wave tumbled me backward 30 or 40 feet and about 10 feet into the air before dropping me on the deck. The shock wave hit me a split second before the thunder of the explosion reached my ears.

Heavy explosion aft on USS Princeton (CVL-23), with USS Birmingham (CL-62) alongside, 24 October 1944.

Heavy explosion aft on USS Princeton (CVL-23), with USS Birmingham (CL-62) alongside, 24 October 1944.

USS Birmingham (CL-62), at left, and a destroyer pull away from USS Princeton (CVL-23) following the big explosion that destroyed the carrier's stern at about 1523 hrs. on 24 October 1944. This blast killed over two hundred men aboard Birmingham, which was alongside Princeton fighting fires. Note the light smoke over Birmingham's midships and stern areas. Princeton's stern, and a good deal of her after superstructure, has been blown off.

USS Birmingham (CL-62), at left, and a destroyer pull away from USS Princeton (CVL-23) following the big explosion that destroyed the carrier’s stern at about 1523 hrs. on 24 October 1944. This blast killed over two hundred men aboard Birmingham, which was alongside Princeton fighting fires. Note the light smoke over Birmingham’s midships and stern areas. Princeton’s stern, and a good deal of her after superstructure, has been blown off.

While I was tumbling, I was aware that Vernon, my best friend, was also somersaulting. I saw him land on his feet andrun around the barbett of No. 3 turret to disappear from my sight. Some time later, I learned he had dropped dead on the other side of the turret.

I was stunned momentarily, yet at the same time my senses were heightened. When the roar of the explosion abated, I became aware of an ear-splitting silence that seemed to last for an eternity and was almost painful to my ears. The deafening hush was finally brought to an end by the sound of burning hot shrapnel raining down all around me. The shrapnel was burning through my clothes in what seemed to be hundreds of places.

I had to get out from under that shower of hot steel. When I glanced down I saw that my right knee was mangled, so I thought I would get up on my left leg and hop to the overhanging No. 4 turret. But my left leg would not support me because it was broken. I tried to crawl on my belly, but the pea-sized, gravel-like bits of Princeton on the deck painfully burned my hands and forearms as well as the nape of my neck. All I could do was roll around on the deck, trying to escape the searing pain.

Finally, the shrapnel stopped falling and the pieces of steel cooled. I collected myself enough to look around at hundreds of dead or unconscious bodies. Out of maybe 300 crew members on the after starboard deck of Birmingham, there was only one person other than myself who was conscious. There was no moaning, only an eerie quiet.

108 men died on the Princeton but casualties were ben heavier on the Birmingham, 233 dead and 426 wounded. Read the whole account at History Net

Contemporary British newsreel of the battle including footage of the plane that bombed the USS Princeton being shot down:

USS Princeton (CVL-23) blows up after being torpedoed by USS Reno (CL-96) on 24 October 1944. Princeton had been fatally damaged by Japanese air attack earlier in the day, and was scuttled by torpedoing to permit U.S. forces to clear the area.

USS Princeton (CVL-23) blows up after being torpedoed by USS Reno (CL-96) on 24 October 1944. Princeton had been fatally damaged by Japanese air attack earlier in the day, and was scuttled by torpedoing to permit U.S. forces to clear the area.

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Oct

23

1944

US submarines narrowly miss the battleship Yamato

Dramatic picture of Yamato during sea trials.

Therefore, following the turning of the Fifth Heavy Cruiser Division, we turned to port and formed a column. At this moment Maya, fourth ship of the Fourth Heavy Cruiser Division, sailing starboard ahead, exploded. Nothing was left after the smoke and spray subsided. The firing position of the torpedo could be seen at about 1500 meters port ahead of her.

Oct

22

1944

The US supply line stretches across the Pacific

Canines of the QM War Dog Platoon were used on Biak Island, off the coast of New Guinea, to track down Japanese hidden in caves and jungle fastness.

The war goes well on all fronts. Advances in Holland reported. Aachen has fallen after a week of street fighting, and other minor gains in France. In Italy continued small gains toward Bologna. Russians are fighting in Belgrade. Greece is close to completely liberated. The Russians are beginning to pierce Prussia and advancing south from Riga. The net tightens, it will strangle Germany soon.

Oct

21

1944

HMAS Australia hit by Kamikaze plane

On 21 October 1944, after bombardments in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, Australia (II) was hit by a Japanese suicide plane. Six officers and 23 ratings were killed and her Commanding Officer, Captain E.F.V. Dechaineux DSC, RAN, later died of wounds. Nine officers, 52 ratings and one AIF soldier were wounded. Whether this was the first deliberate Kamikaze attack on an Allied ship remains the topic of debate. After this action Australia (II) was escorted by HMAS Warramunga (I) to Manus Island and thence to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides for repairs.

It was a complete surprise when I saw an enemy aircraft fly across our stern, bank, then fly from our port quarter, apparently aiming at our bridge. ‘I called to our captain, who came over to the port after corner of the compass platform. We watched the kamikaze strike our tripod foremast, debris and flames, apparently from the petrol, covered the whole of the upper bridge.

Oct

20

1944

General MacArthur “I have returned” to the Philippines

The famous image of General Douglas MacArthur making his return to the Philippines.

People of the Philippines: I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil – soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible strength, the liberties of your people.

Oct

19

1944

Belgium: US troops stuck on the Siegfried Line

A wounded US soldier is attended to during fighting in the heavily wooded Ardenne region, Autumn 1944.

After that tragedy they began to probe every inch of ground with trench knives, gently working the knives in at an angle, hoping to hit only the sides of mines. This way they came upon many devilish little mines handmade from cottage cheese-type crocks and sealed with wax. Their only metal was the detonator, which was too small to be picked up by mine detectors.

Oct

18

1944

USAAF Liberator explodes in mid air over the Wirral

A USAAF Consolidated Liberator takes off in the early morning light from a bomber base 'somewhere in England'

Several bodies were half embedded in the soft soil, having clearly fallen from a height. We left the scene quite soberly. Several days later the police visited our school and others in the area warning against possessing live ammunition. Apparently, every single dangerous round of half inch calibre ammunition had been removed from the gun turret, and it was believed that schoolchildren were responsible.

Oct

17

1944

Germans civilians caught in Battle for Aachen

GI M1919 machine gun crew in action against German defenders in the streets of Aachen on 15 October 1944

Unfortunately, that was not all. Terrible things happened: Three Americans came to search the house for German soldiers. They were most friendly and polite. The commanding officer, a young, handsome, adorable boy… Yes, I was young! And then the unthinkable: they combed through the house and the factory… but they did not find anything, of course. The situation eased. They stayed for a while to discuss the situation.

Oct

16

1944

One man versus three machine guns

A 5.5-inch gun of 77th (Duke of Lancashire's Own Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery being manhandled into position to fire in support of 3rd Division advancing on Venray, 16 October 1944.

The destruction of these three machine gun posts singlehanded by Sergeant Eardley, carried out under fire so heavy that it daunted those who were with him, enabled his Platoon to achieve its objective, and in so doing, ensured the success of the whole attack. His outstanding initiative and magnificent bravery were the admiration of all who saw his gallant actions.

Oct

15

1944

Holland: Death in a minefield on the front line

A sniper demonstrates the superior 'Hawkins' prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.

Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).