With my deep dive back into reading, I've really been interested in naval combat. While I grew up playing with airplanes and tanks, ships and naval operations have taken hold of me. One of my friends noticed, and graciously gave me a few books on naval combat. One of the books was The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer. This book tells a story of one of the most impressive naval battles of history, and I'd like to discuss it.
The Premise of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (abbreviated as Last Stand onward) is a 2004 book written by the late James D. Hornfischer. The book aims to tell the tale of Taffy 3, the US naval group positioned off of Samar in the Philippine Sea. Known as the Battle off Samar, this battle was pitting an immense Imperial Japanese Navy battlegroup against a rag-tag group of US Navy escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts. The name "Tin Can" refers to the tongue-in-cheek name for destroyers, and their small kin, destroyer escorts.
Lets set the scene; It's the day following a massive US victory over an outdated, but impressive, Japanese battlefleet to the South of Leyte Gulf. To the Northeast, a massive Japanese super-battleship, the Musashi, has been sunk by dive bombers sent from Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet. Sandwiched between these conflicts are the bored sailors of the US Navy's Seventh Fleet. They are nestled between two of the largest forces that the US Navy has ever amassed, what could go wrong?
Well, the Japanese knew how hungry Admiral Halsey was to sink aircraft carriers. While Halsey was defending Leyte, Japanese carriers were spotted to the Northeast. Much like a bloodhound on the trail, he took off in chase. This left the Seventh Fleet as the sole defenders of the Philippine Sea, off the coast of the island of Samar. This would lead to the most impressive naval battle in US history.
The Battle off Samar, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
The Japanese Center Force would steam into the waters off of Samar on the early morning of October 25th, 1944. Lead by Admiral Takeo Kurita, this force was massive, containing four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. Seventh Fleet was caught off guard, and Taffy 3 began an engagement for the ages.
Taffy 3 had six escort carriers, 3 destroyers, and 3 destroyer escorts. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, they managed to inflict heavy losses onto their enemy while escaping. The naval airmen from Taffy 2 & 3 completed daring torpedo runs, and dive bombing attacks on the Japanese fleet. Even when out of munitions, they would do passes for their turret gunners to shoot, or even just phony passes to fool the Japanese! One aviator even fired his sidearm from his plane towards a Japanese ship.
The US Tin Cans of the battle were instrumental to the prevention of more death on this day. Without spoiling every detail, these brave men on the Tin Cans charged into battle against a much more significant force, and paid dearly for it. However, their bravery and sacrifice saved many lives, and inflicted much damage on the Japanese. By the end of the battle, two of the US destroyers, and one destroyer escort had been sunk. However, their sacrifices allowed the carriers to continue evading Japanese gunfire. Two US escort carriers would be sunk by the end of the battle, but the sacrifice of the Tin Cans saved the other four.
The Exploits of the Tin Can Sailors
While Last Stand covers the exploits of all of Taffy 3, I want to hone in on the Tin Can Sailors themselves.
An example was the USS Johnston, and her turbo-Chad commander, Ernest E. Evans. When the Johnston was commissioned, CMDR Evans stated: "This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now." Evans meant these words, as his destroyer was the first to charge against the enemy fleet, to get within torpedo launching range, and to lay more covering smoke. Despite taking many hits, the ship fought until it was not able to sail anymore. Evans went down around the time at the Johnston sank, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Another example is the USS Samuel B. Roberts, a destroyer escort. Despite being a third of the size of a destroyer, the Sammy B. fought like a ship 10 times her size. Lead by Commander Robert W. Copeland, the Sammy B. followed her larger sisters into battle just as bravely. She fired her fish, laid smoke, but was eventually sunk by Japanese gunfire.
Eventually, the Japanese fleet was beaten off, and turned back the way they came. However, this was only the start of the ordeal for the sailors that had their Tin Cans blown from under them. For the next 3 days, the men would be floating in the shark filled waters off of Samar. Many would perish, but many would survive too.
What Makes The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors Good?
Hornfischer does an excellent job at making this battle feel personal. The first dozen or so chapters of the book detail the events long before the battle, and introduce us to the crews of Taffy 3. We learn the names of the boys and men of each ship, so when the battle kicks off, we are especially invested in what happens. This reads like fiction, but it's all fact.
The book is paced very well. I marathoned through it over the course of about a week and a half, as I couldn't put it down at times. The tales of valiant action from those on the sea and in the air really pulled me in. While not the most eloquently written piece of nonfiction, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the book.
The book ends with accounts of how the survivors were doing during the time of the writing (early 2000s). I really liked this, as it provides more closure than what I am used to for nonfiction.
Should You Read The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors?
Well, if you've made it this far, I think you can ascertain my answer. The book tells a personal story about groups of brave men fighting against insurmountable odds. It's an easy read, and is well worth your time.
Rest in Peace, James D. Hornfischer. 11/18/1965 - 6/1/2021.