In October 1944, U.S. troops landing on Leyte Island in the Philippines were menaced from the sea by an enormous Japanese naval fleet that was divided into three separate attack forces.
Summarizing aggressively, the American ground forces were protected against an attack from the sea by the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet, commanded by Bull Halsey. But Halsey suddenly wasn’t there anymore, taking the bait of a decoy attack force and chasing it out into the sea. The Third Fleet’s departure uncovered Leyte Gulf, and the largest of the Japanese attack forces sailed in. Disaster became likely.
There were two American naval task forces, Taffy 2 and Taffy 3, in the path of the Japanese attack force, but neither were meant for serious naval combat. They were supporting forces designed to help the troops on the ground: a few escort carriers, a few lightly armed destroyer escorts, a very few destroyers. Aircraft on the American escort carriers were armed with 100-pound bombs to provide close air support to the infantry. The Japanese First Task Force had four battleships, eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers. One of the Japanese battleships was the Yamato, armed with 18-inch guns. The Japanese attack force sailed directly into contact with Taffy 3, which didn’t realize they were about to face the main Japanese attack force until they were already within range of its guns.
The commander of Taffy 3, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, saw immediately that his task force couldn’t survive the engagement, so he tried to salvage what he could: He ordered his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack and to cover the hoped-for withdrawal of the escort carriers. The resulting battle is one of the best-known in naval history—and one of the least plausible because Taffy 3 kicked the everloving shit out of that much larger Japanese attack force, compelling the Japanese to withdraw in the panicked belief that they’d sailed into the bulk of Halsey’s Third Fleet.
If you haven’t read James Hornfischer’s magnificent book about the battle, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, you should read it. The details are far beyond anything that could be summarized in a single piece. But the battle was won by a remarkable combination of disciplined obedience, independent audacity, and a paradoxically disciplined disobedience—by men aggressively refusing to obey orders that threatened their cause . . .