It was October 25th, 1944, off Leyte Gulf, somewhat south-east of the island of Samar, that Japanese battleships for the first and last time encountered U.S. carriers on the high seas. Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo's Center Force, with four battleships, had hit the escort carriers of Rear-Admiral Clifton Sprague. In a running battle, Kurita's ships chased the American baby flattops toward the on rushing forces of Vice-Admiral Oldendorf coming to their rescue.
Gallantly, the little escorts of the carriers needled the huge enemy pursuiers, but could not drive them off. Despite their fight, the carrier Gambier Bay succumbed to heavy cruisers pumping shells into her.
The silver lining that every cloud is supposed to have, however, came in the form of Kurita's nerves breaking. Having lost several ships to continous air attacks, he abandoned his effort to strike at the enemy, and retired unattacked to the safety of IJN bases in Borneo, then to Singapore. On the small flattops, sailors relaxed at the sight of the departing enemy. But at least for the men of St. Lô, the relaxation came too early.
She had been commisioned as Midway, but that name had been assigned to a battle carrier class, and accordingly, the carrier was re-named St. Lô, for a battle recently victoriously concluded by U.S. troops in Europe. Every sailor would be able to tell that changing a ship's name cannot but bring bad luck.
appear so at first. St. Lô had come out of the Battle off
Samar unscathed, but she was nevertheless not to survive the action to
follow. It was eleven A6M Zero
fighters, from Vice-Admiral Onishi's Special Attack Corps, that, having
taken off from Clark Field near Manila, homed in on the beat-up ships of
Rear-Admiral Sprague. From his vantage point in the bridge of White
Plains, Sprague could witness the attacks. Under heavy AA, one of the
planes struck the side of Kitkun Bay, inflicting slight damage,
one more hit close aboard his own ship. A third one steered toward White
Plains, but AA fire hit it, and the lone kamikaze turned and headed
for the deck of USS St. Lô, under a steady stream of tracers
until it was too close for any vessel to fire safely. Over the flight deck,
it nosed further down, released its bomb, and hit amidships. There, it
blew up, throwing pieces into the water, while its bomb travelled into
the interior of the hangar deck and exploded there. Fires where the result,
and fire threatened the explosion of armaments on and near the hangar deck.
That detonation threw overboard the elevator, much of the after portion
of the flight deck, and subsequently, further explosions caused the captain
to order abandon ship. Those still alive left the carrier by all means
possible, some jumping, some taking ropes. Destroyers would rescue the
lives of these men, but St. Lô was lost: no more than fifteen
minutes after the hit, the small flattop slid beneath the waves and disappeared.
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