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 October 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.
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.
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.
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: