The heroism of the tin can sailors of Taffy 3 in the Battle off Samar is almost unknown; but men like Thomas J Lupo challenged military discipline, and won.
The Battle off Samar
A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour, by James D Hornfischer. It details the Battle off Samar, easily one of the most extraordinary naval victories of all time, one to rival Trafalgar, Gravelines, or Salamis.
And almost no one has ever heard of it.
The basic story is that a tiny flotilla of US ships, Taffy 3 (Task Unit 77.4.3) faced a Japanese contingent representing one of the largest waterborne battle forces in the history of warfare; the battleship Yamato alone displaced almost as much tonnage as all the American ships together. Although most of Taffy 3 spent the engagement trying to evade the Japanese, four of the captains — those commanding the USS Johnston, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, the USS Hoel, and the USS Heermann — ignored their orders and their military discipline, turned around, and attacked the enemy in suicidal efforts. Through sheer pluck and many deaths, the Americans harried the enemy and inflicted enough damage that the Japanese aborted their mission.
At the very beginning of the battle, the aircraft carrier escorts of Taffy 3 scrambled their planes with whatever armament they were already carrying, and the pilots used them in whatever way they could. Planes without weapons simply dove at the Japanese, forcing them to take evasive action, and thereby slowing their pursuit.
Thomas J. Lupo
After he was out of ammunition one pilot, New Orleanian Lt (JG) Thomas J. Lupo, actually threw a clipboard at the Japanese as he dove at them. One can only imagine the surprise of the Japanese sailors who watched it bounce across the deck.
Later on, Lupo landed his plane on Tacloban and told the Army Major there – who clearly outranked Lupo – that his pilots needed fuel & weapons. The Major refused, saying that the Army was preparing for a major offensive. They needed all the fuel and munitions they could get.
So just as he had jettisoned his clipboard, Lupo jettisoned protocol and his military discipline. He pulled his revolver on the Major, called his startled radioman over, and gave him the gun. The he went back to his plane and radioed his fellow pilots. When the Major saw how many planes were landing, he capitulated and helped them load fuel and munitions.
When the US entered WWII, the Japanese and Germans saw us as undisciplined, and therefore weak. Our lack of military regimentation, our freedoms, our liberties, were all proof of how feckless we were, and how easily we would be defeated.
And they were right. We were much less disciplined than the Axis troops, brutally trained by their authoritarian régimes. What well-trained German or Japanese captain would dare to ignore his orders, and turn his ship to charge down the throat of the dragon? What Axis pilot would dare pull a weapon on a superior officer?
Discipline is essential for coordinated action, and for overcoming fear. But war is chaos. What does a well-disciplined soldier do when the original plan isn’t working? What does he do when his commanding officer is absent or incapacitated?
He sticks to his orders. And so he often pointlessly fails and dies.
Tin Can Sailors
We know what the “weak,” undisciplined American servicemen often did in those situations. Over and over throughout WWII, and in many other wars, they did what the tin can sailors who turned their ships and sailed down the maw of the Japanese flotilla did. They did what sailors such as Thomas J. Lupo did. In the best traditions of American independent thought, they spit out an expletive about orders, ignored tradition and authority, and began thinking for themselves.
As the world becomes more complicated, as our problems expand, that’s what we need. We need independent thinking not just in the US military, but in industry, in government, and everywhere. We need people who constantly look at problems anew, who are unafraid to jettison authority and dogma when necessary, and think for themselves.
The world needs more tin can sailors.
Addendum: I happened to do some more reading about the Battle off Samar. One of the reasons that Japanese Admiral Kurita called off the mission was that the ferocity of the air attacks convinced him that there were aircraft carriers nearby. We must wonder how much of Lupo’s actions influenced that: before the pilots landed on Tacloban, it should have been obvious to the Japanese that the planes attacking them were quickly depleting their munitions, and unable to re-arm. With the arrival of the refueled, re-armed planes from Tacloban, it would certainly have appeared that fresh planes were joining the battle.
It is quite possible that Thomas J. Lupo, through his personal initiative— and gross insubordination— may very well have played the deciding role in one of the greatest upsets in naval history. Without Lupo, the Battle off Samar, and perhaps the entire Battle of Leyte Gulf, might have turned out very, very differently.
Tomorrow: When the Strongest Isn’t the Strongest
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Picture of Thomas J. Lupo courtesy of the National WWII Museum, New Orleans.
PS The Lupo family sent me this photo, from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
At the onset of World War II, our pilots in the Pacific theater were at a great disadvantage. The Japanese planes climbed faster and turned quicker. The American planes could not survive a face-to-face dogfight.
Claire Chennault, who with other American pilots, was fighting for the Chinese against the Japanese. He led the development of tactics that took advangate of their planes’ disadvantages (being heavier and better armored) such as flying very high and diving into the formations of Japanese fighters.
I finally read the book. I’d heard of the battle, but had never read such a detailed account. Lupo was just one of very many Americans that day who improvised and did what was necessary, even if it was against orders or in defiance of a superior. It was just this attitude that made the Americans so effective in battles on land, sea, and air.
My favorite line from the book was a radio broadcast made by a signalman, who had just observed that Kurita’s ships were turning to leave the battle and said (over the radio) “God damn it, boys, they’re getting away!” Humor in the face of impossible odds.
There were a lot of great stories and quotes.
I like the one about the skipper of the Fanshaw Bay, Capt. Douglass P Johnson, who once when pursuing an enemy submarine was informed that the boilers were reaching their temperature limit.
He shouted into the voice tube, “Piss on them, then. We need more speed.”
Similar thing happened in the movie “We Were Soldiers”, based on the non-fiction book “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young” by Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway. First major battle of the Vietnam War.
US troops were outnumbered about 10:1 by the North Vietnamese. Their mortars were the only thing keeping the enemy at bay at one point during the battle. But the mortar tubes were overheating, running the risk of a shell exploding when loaded just due to the heat. Colonel Moore was investigating why the mortars had stopped firing. When told why, he unzipped his fly and began pissing on the tubes. The crew immediately jumped up and did the same.
We make our whole lives inside “making meaning of everything,” and we’re so caught in our meanings that we, like fish that cannot recognize the water they are swimming in, cannot recognize the world outside of the meaning we give it. I find your research fascinating, Joseph. I look at it from a different perspective than the accurate history it offers. It is a revealing of humanity in all of its evolutionary glory and insanity. Thank you for offering us what you’ve discovered with your many hours of research.