Melvin the Giant Killer

By John Dudek 04 Jan 2014 0

In the faint, quarter-moonlit wee hours of an otherwise pitch black 25 October, 1944 morning, the Japanese combined battleship and cruiser Task Force C and the US Navy destroyers of DESTROYER SQUADRON 54 quickly approached each other on opposing course headings, with a combined speed of well over 45 knots - like two run-away locomotives headed on a collision course on the very same track.  Radar lookouts on two US destroyers, McDERMUT and MONSSEN, sighted the oncoming Japanese at a range of almost 15 miles at 0254 hours. The US destroyers in their two separate columns were ordered to make a smoke screen to hide their torpedo attack approach.  The US destroyers rang up full speed as they started their torpedo attack runs.  Their sterns dug deep into the ocean's trough of the Surigao Strait as their torpedo tube mounts swung out to track the oncoming Japanese task force. The torpedo crews anxiously awaited a planned crucial change of course turn to starboard that would give them the best possible torpedo firing solution for shooting at the rapidly oncoming Japanese ships.  Two of the distant Japanese warships stood out over all the other ships of FORCE C. Both of these massive warships had distinctive, impressive and very high "pagoda masts" atop their forward superstructures.  They were the veteran WWI era sister battleships, the IJN FUSO and the IJN YAMASHIRO.

The two opposing task forces continued to draw rapidly ever closer. At around 0300 hours the command for a turn was given and the three US Destroyers, REMEY, MCGOWAN and MELVIN heeled hard to starboard as the torpedo firing order of "Fire when ready!" was received via radio. In less than two minutes some 27 torpedoes were launched and swimming towards the Japanese FORCE C.  In response, YAMASHIRO and FUSO's blindingly bright search lights snapped on, brilliantly illuminating the night with their million candlelight arcs while probing for the US destroyers.  Japanese counterbattery salvos rang out from the twin battleships and their four escorts, straddling the three retreating US destroyers, and sending up dozens of massive gouts of angry water all around them.  Another louder and more frantic command was now heard over the US destroyer's short range TBS (talk between ships) radios.  "LET'S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!"

On 24 March, 1914, the Imperial Japanese Battleship, FUSO slid down the ways and was launched as part of Japan's pre-WWI construction boom to build Dreadnought battleships worthy of their mentor British counterparts. Both she and her sister ship YAMASHIRO, completed two years later, displaced some 39,000 tons and were some 698' in length.  They carried 12-14 inch guns, 16-6 inch guns, 8-5 inch dual purpose guns and up to 97-25mm anti- aircraft guns.  During one of the reconstruction improvements throughout their long career, their coal fired boilers were replaced by oil fired Kampon boiler turbine engines that gave them a top speed of 25 knots, an exceptionally high rate of speed for elderly pre-WWI battleships.  Perhaps their only weakness lay in the outdated and discarded riveted construction of the battleship's hull seams. Both battleship sisters served long, but relatively uneventful careers during the first three years of World War II.

The US Navy Fletcher Class destroyer USS MELVIN was laid down, built and later launched at the Federal Ship Building and Dry Dock Company at Kearny, New Jersey on 17 October, 1943.  She displaced some 2,050 tons, with a length of 376 feet, 6 inches and a beam width of 69 feet, 9 inches.  Fletcher Class destroyers were propelled by 4 Babcock & Wilcox oil-fired boilers: 2 General Electric geared steam turbines, generating 30,000 ship horsepower to a top speed of 36.5 knots.  They were armed with five, single mount 5-inch, 38 caliber dual purpose guns, between 6 and 10 40mm Bofors and between 7 and 10 20mm. Oerlikon anti aircraft guns.  The Fletcher's main armament "Sunday Punch" lay in the destroyer's ten Mark 15 torpedo tubes each ship carried, giving it the ability to cripple or sink a ship several times larger than a destroyer.

Whereas the careers of the sister battleships IJN YAMASHIRO and FUSO were relatively uneventful, the career of the USS MELVIN was anything but.  Following her shakedown cruise off Bermuda, the MELVIN set sail to join the Pacific Fleet and arrived at Pearl Harbor on 4 March, 1944.  Within five days, she set sail for the Marshall Islands, where she conducted constant anti submarine patrols, while maintaining the US Naval blockade of the island atolls for over a month.  Upon returning to Pearl Harbor, the MELVIN underwent intensive gunfire support instruction for her gun crews, before departing for the Marianas Island of Saipan to support the US invasion landings there.  On the same evening the MELVIN arrived, she picked up a surfaced enemy submarine radar contact and opened fire on it with her main battery armament.  The Japanese submarine RO-36 crash dived and the MELVIN destroyed her with a string of depth charges. Later that same night, off the north shore of Saipan, the MELVIN sighted a Japanese merchant ship and destroyed her with gunfire.  For almost a month, the MELVIN remained on the gun line off Saipan and later Tinian Islands, providing accurate counter battery fire for the US Marine and Army troops ashore, while conducting anti-submarine patrols.  During this time, the MELVIN detected, attacked and damaged another Japanese submarine that somehow avoided destruction and managed to limp away.

October 1944 found the MELVIN cruising the waters off Leyte in the Philippine Islands with her sister ship destroyers as part of the screening force of DESRON 54 in the Surigao Strait.  General MacArthur's US Army troops had returned to the Philippines while making their initial invasion landings at Leyte.  This set the stage for the largest naval battle in modern history.

With the US invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy and Army knew the seizure of these strategically located islands would signify the death knell for the Japanese Empire, as their home islands would largely be cut off from its sources of raw strategic materials, minerals, fuel and food.  In addition, their lines of communication and supply with their dwindling number of colonies in the Orient would be forever broken.  To further amplify this, Japanese Admiral Toyoda later stated to his interrogators after the war. 

"Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines."

Therefore, the Japanese Navy devised a desperate, highly complex but workable plan to attack and destroy MacArthur's huge invasion force and its troop transports, along with a sizeable portion of US Navy supporting warships.  Their plan called upon all of the remaining available assets of the Imperial Japanese Navy, whose battle shattered carrier air groups had not yet been replaced, nor their inexperienced, green air crews fully trained following the disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea a few short months before.  The Japanese gambled heavily that they could lure away Admiral Halsey's US aircraft carriers from protecting the invasion landing beaches by dangling the truly rich decoy of one of their fleet carriers and three light carriers in front of him. These Japanese aircraft carriers possessed but heavily attritted, battle depleted numbers of pilots, crews and their available aircraft numbered just over a hundred.  With the primary US carrier air support lured far out of range and well to the north, attacking Japanese battleships and cruisers would theoretically be free to pounce upon the remaining Allied warships and transport ships anchored off the invasion beaches of Leyte and destroy them.  Should the Japanese Navy battleships and cruisers inflict heavy enough losses upon US combat transport shipping and landing craft, this alone could cripple any further US invasion landings in the Pacific for quite some time to come.  It was a desperate gamble, but one the Imperial Japanese Navy had no choice but to make.  

The plan for the Japanese attack on Allied shipping in Leyte Gulf called for dual attacks by two separate task forces forcing their way through the narrow bottleneck of the Surigao Strait, before falling upon and striking the anchored invasion fleet and whatever remaining warships there after Admiral Halsey's aircraft carrier, fast battleship Third Fleet, Task Force 34 had been lured away far to the north by the decoy Japanese aircraft carriers.  The stronger of the two Japanese task forces was under the command of Vice Admiral Nishimura.  It consisted of the battleships FUSO and YAMASHIRO, the heavy cruiser MOGAMI and four escorting destroyers.  The second strike force located to the rear of Force C consisted of 2 heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and 7 destroyers. The Japanese operational plan for the southern leg of this operation was given the title of "Sho-Go" or Victory.

What Admiral Nishimura didn't know was the Americans knew they were coming by way of the Surigao Strait, and as a result set a trap for them under the guise of a truly massive force of six old WWI era US Battleships, many of them raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor, repaired and completely modernized. The battleships would be arrayed across the northern mouth of the strait so as to cross Nishimura's T, meaning having the ability to bring all of their main gun and secondary armament to bear upon the approaching Japanese warships.  In addition, there were also four Allied heavy cruisers, one of them the HMAS Shropshire, four light cruisers, 28 Allied destroyers and 39 PT boats.  The Japanese were sailing directly into an unprecedented hellfire storm of unmatched fury of both heavy medium and light gunfire, perhaps the heaviest concentration of naval gunfire in history; and this was after the Japanese managed to emerge from a seaway teaming with Allied torpedoes.  Before Admiral Nishimura could even begin engaging the US Battleship cruiser force, he would first have to run a hellish gauntlet of patrol torpedo boats, followed by attacking picket destroyers and their many torpedoes as well.

The five picket destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 54 were led by Captain Jesse Coward.  He'd already ordered them to proceed in two separate, attacking columns along opposing sides of the oncoming Japanese battleship task force in order to strike them using a classic "hammer and anvil" torpedo attack, meaning the Japanese warships would be unable to maneuver out of the way of any US torpedoes coming at them from two separate directions.  Coward further decided to make his attack using torpedoes only, so as not to alert the Japanese gun crews.  As the three US Destroyers completed their firing turn, the MELVIN in the rear of the column was the last to fire all of her ten torpedoes.  Her torpedo crews concentrated on the battleship closest to them as they let fly with their entire ordinance.  Nearly ten minutes later the torpedoes began hitting the ships of the Japanese task force.  The destroyers MICHSIO and YAMAGUMO blew up and sank, while the ASAGUMO had her bow blown off.  She somehow managed to stay afloat and withdraw from the battle, although she sank later that same morning.  The battleship YAMASHIRO took two torpedo hits, but managed to stay in position at a slightly reduced rate of speed, but the FUSO took two serious torpedo hits on her starboard side from the last destroyer in the attacking column, the USS MELVIN.  One torpedo struck near the forward magazine beneath Number One gun turret, flooding it as the second struck in the after boiler room.  The FUSO tried to maintain speed, but her damage control crews were unable to keep up with the torrents of water flooding into her interior.  What's more, her elderly and brittle riveted hull soon began to fail, split and cave-in from the stress of trying to continue operating at full speed.  FUSO was finally forced to slow and leave the formation to retire from battle - but it was too little, too late.  Her list to starboard continued to grow as the battleship's damage control crews were unable to make any headway against the inrush of water flooding deep into her side.  Around 0400 hours, FUSO plunged downward bow first as she headed for the bottom of the Surigao Strait.

In all, some five Japanese warships were hit or sunk by the picket destroyers of DESRON 54, rating it as one of the most successful surface torpedo attacks of the entire Pacific war.  For the Japanese, the hellish nightmare continued as their remaining warships of FORCE C finally came into range of the US Battleships at the northern bottle neck of the straits and with Allied cruisers on either flank.  When the US battleships and Allied cruisers opened fire on the remaining Japanese ships, the pyrotechnic display was described as ?...watching endless numbers of lighted railroad cars vanish over the brow of a hill." as the YAMASHIRO, cruiser MOGAMI and other warships came under heavy gun fire.

The YAMASHIRO was immediately struck numerous times and ablaze by both torpedoes and gunfire. She tried to withdraw from the action but soon sank stern first, taking Admiral Nishimura and much of her crew to the bottom along with her.  The MOGAMI took direct hits to her bridge that killed her captain and executive officer. The remaining Japanese cruisers and destroyers in the follow-up column, shocked at the degree of destruction of Force C and the unremitting gunfire now directed at them, quickly turned about and withdrew, but not without taking further damage.  The heavy cruisers MOGAMI and NACHI collided and inflicted serious damage upon each other.  The NACHI escaped, but the MOGAMI was later savaged further by pursuing Allied cruisers and soon sunk.  OPERATION SHO-GO became a complete naval disaster of epic proportions that the Japanese were unable to recover from.

For the USS MELVIN, she is credited as having sunk the battleship FUSO with her torpedoes, making her the only destroyer of WWII to achieve this, so perhaps she can be rightfully referred to as "MELVIN the Giant Killer.?

 

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