Where's Point X-Ray?
The Battle of Leyte Gulf
October 24 & 25, 1944
My grandson, Ned -- Neil Edwards Bridgers, Sam's and Tina's first born -- wanted to interview me for a school project.
His assignment was to talk to a military service veteran in his family about that person's most exciting wartime experience.
Of course, by choosing me, he chose the conflagration that those of my generation call "The War" -- World War II.
When he posed this question I had the presence of mind to tell Ned that meeting and marrying his grandmother was at the top of my list.
I meant that, but the fact that Edie and Sam were listening to the interview didn't hurt my setting of priorities -- in truth, our courtship and wedding does remain my strongest memory of those hectic days.
Ned acknowledged this with a shrug, but let me know I wasn't getting off that easy.
This whole transaction was no duress for I, like most veterans, love to tell stories, and easily the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines campaign was the single most memorable combat event for me.
I'll not review this set-to here in any overall sense as books have been written on the subject, and my part has been remarked upon in some of those -- briefly, to be sure, but, as the British put it, at least I was "mentioned in the dispatches."
That's not too bad when it's remembered that Leyte Gulf was the largest of all naval battles to take place on the open seas.
After all how many can name today a Greek who fought in the Battle of Salamis or an Englishman from the Battle of Jutland in World War I?
The name of Admiral Horatio Nelson is remembered from the Battle of Trafalgar in the Napoleonic Wars, but, after all, he was running that show, was killed in the process, and the battle and man have been immortalized in a London landmark.
Rare is the historian who remembers anyone who was crucially involved in any of these hostilities yet remains relatively unheralded.
Mine was the first dive-bomber down on the Japanese carrier fleet to the north of Luzon on the second day of the battle, and the CHITOSE, the carrier struck by the group of planes I was leading, sank immediately after it was attacked.
This is the crux of the matter, but there are details which give the affair life and breath, substance and color and which to my knowledge have never been recorded elsewhere.
I tell it now, as my interview with Ned was unlikely to have gained wide circulation -- as a matter of fact, he has never mentioned it since, at least in my hearing.
It was in late 1944 when the American forces sallied forth from their several western Pacific anchorages to sail as the Third Fleet under Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey in support of an invasion of the Philippines.
By that time our leaders and planners had developed a strategic scenario for "island hopping" across the Central Pacific.
The Fast Carrier Task Forces, made up of four Task Groups, each usually organized around two large Essex-class flat-tops and two "light carriers" -- ships laid down on cruiser hulls.
Each Task Group also contained at least one new-type super-dreadnaught, several cruisers and a coterie of destroyers, each unit being larger than all the fleet forces we had been able to muster in the Southwest Pacific just a year before.
And, of course, this was only one-fourth of the strength of our overall armada, and there was also a separate surface fleet organized around our older battleships.
In addition there were invasion forces and these were supported by a flotilla of "jeep carriers" which would supply close-air cover and bombardment to the troops ashore.
The overture for all this was for the entire fast carrier armada to strike the invasion site, establish control of the air and soften-up the land defenses about a week before the scheduled landings.
Then at the time of the landings per se we would have moved toward the home islands, striking bases which could be used for staging supplies and reinforcements.
Under Adm. Raymond Spruance, we first attacked the Philippines in the late summer and early fall reaching ahead from the invasion of the Marianas by the Fifth fleet.
As I recall the Philippines were viewed as a redoubtable bastion and had been scheduled to be by-passed in favor of smaller and less formidable archipelagos.
However, an American pilot -- shot down in our earlier sorties over the Philippines -- had managed to work his way back to the fleet, thanks to native guerillas.
They had slipped him onto Leyte and he had found that island mainly in the hands of the Philippinos, and relatively unoccupied and undefended by the Japanese.
Thus, plans were changed so that -- with the Navy's help -- Gen. MacArthur could make good on his promise to return to the American territory from which he was ousted by the Japanese in the early, dark days of the war.
The news reports at the time made much about our having two massive fleets operating in tandem for successive operations in the Pacific -- what was actually very remarkable had been distorted to seem stupendous.
The truth was that the only difference in these two armadas was in their overall commanders and their immediate staffs.
The fleets -- that is the ships, their crews and the constituent units into which they were organized -- were all the same.
While Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet was embarked on a campaign, Admiral Spruance would be out of the immediate battle zone, at an anchorage at a major atoll or later at Pacific Fleet headquarters on Guam, planning the next big action -- and vice versa.
This subterfuge seemed forgivable in the exigencies of warfare, but was laughable to those of us who knew we were only exchanging "cocked hats."
Thus it was that one of the largest naval flotillas yet marshaled in human history was abroad in hostile waters.
The Third Fleet did not sail as an assembled unit, but was spread over a wide area with each Task Group operating more-or-less independently in its assigned zone, and were, in time, to converge and take stations in various parts of the Philippines.
An exception to this dispersion was when all the vessels of the Fast Carrier Task Forces sortied from the massive lagoon of Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands.
My particular chore on the day we embarked was to participate in the anti-submarine patrol along one flank of this mammoth array of ships.
In my final sweeps past this disposition, when most of the vessels had cleared the anchorage, it took nigh a half-an-hour to fly from the atoll to the van of the column.
There was a single small jeep carrier out in front of all; its planes carrying out anti-submarine cover ahead.
According to Time Magazine, after a day or two of steaming in this arrangement, the skipper of this diminutive carrier radioed back to Admiral Halsey: "My assignment is complete -- you're on your own."
In keeping with campaign plans we struck the Philippines in early October and then moved northward to strike staging bases on Formosa and the Bonin Islands -- Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima -- while the Army was establishing its beachhead on Leyte.
While these things were in train the Imperial Fleet made a similarly massive thrust to thwart Allied plans.
The Japanese moved Army planes into Luzon and marshaled their Naval forces from the south and west from bases in Malaysia.
Thus was set the stage for the desperate confrontation which came to be known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, though the fighting would spread far a field from this immediate arm of the sea.
The gathering of the opposition became known as submarines intercepted a large task group of heavy surface ships traversing the inland waters of the Philippines, apparently bound for the San Bernardino Straits between Samar and Leyte with the aim to disrupt our landings at Leyte Gulf on the eastern shore of that island.
In the early afternoon of October 24th our first strike was sent out.
Our squadron launched two six-plane divisions, the first led by our skipper, Cdr. James H. "Jimmy" Mini, who was also acting as Target Coordinator for all the planes from our Task Group.
We flew west, intermittently within, among and above a cover of broken but heavy cumulus clouds in which the overall strike group became separated, though our Air Group per se managed to stick together.
We flew across the southern tip of Luzon and out over the inland waters, which in the area we were over, were empty of ships.
Cdr. Mini sent a division of our covering fighters, led by my good friend, Lieut. Baynard Milton, to scout around to the south.
In short order a message came back, "Jesus Christ, the whole Jap Fleet is down here!"
We headed there, cruising at 15,000 feet, flying above the scattered clouds.
After a few minutes the emptiness of the sea was cut by a wide trail of oil across the surface, leading to a nearby cove in which a cruiser was beached, bow-first on the shoreline.
I had heard nothing of such a casualty and, in retrospect, wondered if this ship had been torpedoed by our submarines when they discovered this incursion.
Because, I suppose, of more pressing developments I never heard of it again and never even figured out exactly where the ship had gone aground.
I've often wondered if she's still sitting there, settled on the bottom, abandoned and rusting.
In any event, neither it nor we threatened one another.
Again in retrospect, I've wondered why the cruiser didn't take us under fire with long-range flak, for it must have been evident to their commander that we would soon encounter the main body of their force.
We continued on our way leaving behind one of those by-plays of war which seem but a lesser event in the grand scheme of things, but to those involved, such as the crew of that cruiser, likely seemed the gist and whole of the conflict.
We proceeded, with the Skipper's division slightly ahead of us and off to the starboard, when suddenly the enemy announced its presence with a large spread of variously colored burst of anti-aircraft fire, coming up through the clouds and mostly clustered around the lead planes.
Cdr. Mini radioed that he was preparing to attack a battleship directly ahead, and he directed me to turn east and concentrate on another battle-wagon, which he promised I would see as soon as I reached the edge of the cloudbank I was over.
He took a division of torpedo planes with him and sent the other with me.
His prediction came to pass, and suddenly from beneath the clouds steamed a dreadnaught of vast proportions -- the largest I had ever seen.
In practice we had carried out dummy dives on sundry of our own battleships, including the newer ones of the North Carolina-class, which indeed, were huge vessels; but these were surpassed by the ship on which we were committed on this day.
Compared to the sleek lines yielded by the clipper bows of our newer battleships, this one looked like a gigantic bathtub pointed in front.
Mounting upward came multiple streams of tracer fire, and the deck blossomed with muzzle-blasts from larger AA guns, presumably the sources of the clusters of colored burst of smoke in the sky around -- all of which were augmented by similar fire from her screening vessels.
I radioed that we were starting our high-speed approach so that the torpedo leader would know to start his let-down to sea-level.
We entered a power-glide down to 12,000 feet, keeping the target in sight on our port bow; then I signaled to attack, pulled up slightly across the plane of Warren Parrish, who was flying stepped-down on my port wing, and I gradually steepened into my dive and opened my dive flaps.
It was everyman for himself and I suddenly had my hands full.
I started my dive stern-to-bow on the target, but my plane was twisted around in a violent skid which I could not control with full rudder pressure and trim-tab adjustment.
In this condition the aim of my plane was away from its flight path and the trajectory my bomb would follow after its release.
I figured that if this was how it was to be then my greatest dropping error would be a deflection laterally and, to wit, not in range, either ahead or behind the target.
I did my best to skid down across the ship in order that my major dropping fault would be for-and-aft along the ship's greatest dimension.
This was something unusual, an aberrancy I had never before experienced in the hundreds of dive-bombing runs I had made.
The anti-aircraft fire, evidenced by tracers and puffs, was coming from all quarters, from ships large and small.
During my dive I saw the main battery of heavy guns on the battle-wagon I had targeted train toward what I assumed were our torpedo planes coming in low on either bow.
When they fired the ship literally disappeared in a cloud of smoke illuminated by an internal blossom of flame.
It was more frightening than dangerous, as large caliber projectiles meant for heavily armored ships were an inefficient armament against small, speeding aircraft.
This effect, however, must have been even more fearsome to the torpedo crews when seen head-on.
All this took place in less time than it now takes to tell or read.
My dive, rather than being a smooth, even descent had been a wild, spiraling ride, thanks to the unexplained skid.
I released my bomb at 2500 feet as usual but with a sense of fruitlessness, knowing my aim was guess-work at best.
I broke my dive, closed my dive-flaps, and in a full-power glide headed for low altitude just above the water, which we always thought was the safest place in a totally hostile environment.
To my surprise the plane once more flew with good trim and easy control, as it should.
Fleeing the enemy ships I couldn't see what had happened to our target, but the anti-aircraft puffs in the air and the splashes in the sea around our plane let me know the fleet was still in business.
It seemed at least five minutes before I could fly out of range, though it must have taken less time than that.
Once I could turn and look back, the big ship seemed undamaged and still running at flank speed, undeterred from its chosen heading, and with guns yet blazing at planes still coming in after us.
We had planned to rendezvous to the east of the enemy disposition toward where our own ships cruised far over the horizon.
At first I had jerked around, abruptly changing altitude and heading in the thought that an erratic target was harder to hit.
This was our wont, though I often wondered if this weren't pointless -- like trying to keep dry by running through the rain in a crooked path.
These maneuvers gradually gave way to gentle "S-turns," which gave the planes of my division a better chance to join-up while we worked toward haven.
Gradually the other five planes found me and it was of much relief to see all were essentially intact and air-worthy.
None of our other planes were to be seen -- not the Skipper's division of dive-bombers, not the fighters nor any torpedo planes.
As we headed home, the pieces began to fall into place.
First my gunner, Bob Cribb, called me on the intercom and revealed an incredibly inopportune circumstance.
From the rear-seat he had been able to see that my dive flaps had opened on only one side, which accounted for the wild ride we'd had and the fact that flight returned to normal after the dive.
The dive-flaps are formed when a panel on the upper hailing edge of each wing opened to match the landing flap panel on the under surface of the wing, providing V-shaped air-brakes.
These gave the plane a stable and slow terminal velocity in the dive rather than allowing progressive acceleration -- this eliminated an aiming variable due to speed.
Cdr. Mini then radioed that his plane was badly damaged but flyable, and that he doubted he would be able to land aboard.
He made it back to our ships and then ditched in the sea. He and his gunner, Arne Frobon, were picked up by a plane-guard destroyer where they spent an eventful and harrowing night.
Landing aboard ship, I was sent to the bridge, in the absence of the Skipper, to report to the Admiral and to the Captain.
The practice was that each squadron flight leader would give a personal account of the air action to those who were calling the shots, but had no vision of what happened at the cutting edge.
The few times this fell to my lot I was reminded that in every functional hierarchy all above and all below work for one no matter at what level one operates.
That truism is potentially evident to one who serves as "the final common pathway" in an enterprise, such as flying from an aircraft carrier.
The naval aviator is an eyewitness to crucial events denied to the admiral under whose flag he sails.
This struck me whenever I reported to the bridge.
So it was that I climbed high in the island to "flag country" to talk with Admiral Frederick Sherman, a relaxed but decisive gentleman.
He was a welcome change from Adm. Harrill as Commander of Task Group Four under whom we had functioned with less than brilliance in the Marianas campaign, save for the performance of our fights in the "Turkey Shoot" and the several days around the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
I suppose I excitedly told the Admiral of "the damned big battle ship" which my division had attacked -- unable to give name to our target or the battleship Cdr. Mini's division dived on.
I also told him of the malfunction of my dive-brakes, and indeed, my uncertainty as to hits by bombs or "fish."
I had no idea as to the results of this attack, but I was certain we had done little substantial damage to our target.
The Admiral shook his head and said, "Well, Son, we had some excitement back here too!"
He related how a lone Jap bomber had put a bomb on the PRINCETON, which had set in train a series of explosions, which eventually did her in.
At the time I did not know of the valiant efforts that many of Adm. Sherman's ships had expended trying to save the light carrier and her crew.
Then I went to the ship's bridge and repeated my story to Capt. Weibel, commanding officer of the ESSEX.
Some of the aviators from the PRINCETON who had been in the air when their ship was hit had landed aboard the ESSEX.
Among them in our Ready Room was Lieut. Carl Brown, a fighter pilot and an old shipmate from SARATOGA days.
When we first noticed one another a fellow from my division was proclaiming that he had seen my bomb "land right on that damned big battle ship."
I shook my head and told him of my dive-flap problem and unbalanced dive and that there was no reasonable way in which I could have scored a hit.
Carl looked incredulous, "J.D., now I've heard everything -- a combat pilot arguing that he didn't get a hit!"
We were debriefed by Lieut. John Sullivan, our squadron intelligence officer who showed us silhouettes of various Japanese battleships, and it was the consensus we had attacked either the MUSASHI or the YAMATO.
These sister ships had been launched in 1942 and were the world's largest and most powerful fighting ships, mounting 18.1-inch guns.
These were larger than any other Navy rifles, and it was small wonder that their full salvo had been so impressive during our attack.
We also all agreed that we seem to have inflicted precious little damage or as one wag put it he could imagine the Japanese commander having the Boson sound his whistle and announce, "Attention All Hands -- Clean sweep down, fore and aft!"
Later we were much surprised that subsequent sorties by other air groups reported damage to the ship, that it was listing and had turned back.
It was difficult to envision this, but it was possible.
We subsequently learned it had been the MUSASHI and she did indeed sink. (Warren Parrish was awarded a Navy Cross for this attack.)
Here was an error that need not have been.
Later, a friend of mine -- whose name I can no longer recall and who had flown a night torpedo plane from the ENTERPRISE -- told me that he had followed this Japanese force through the San Barnardino Straits through most of the night, but that his radio report of this had been consistently ignored.
This would not be the only foul-up in communications, which would plague Adm. Halsey as this confrontation unfolded.
In my opinion this would bias the reports of future historians about our part and performance in the fighting to come.
So ended the first day of the battle with our having little idea as to what was happening that night or would be coming up the next day.
The squadron's only casualty had been the Skipper, and fortunately, he and his gunner, Chief Froban were safe, though out of it -- or so we thought.
At evening mess the Ward Room was abuzz, and afterwards we repaired to our cabin where I polished off a couple of tots of liquor.
After a combat mission each pilot was issued a small one-shot bottle of bourbon or Scotch, which ever was his choice; and as Warren Parrish, my old friend and room-mate was a teetotaler, I usually got his ration as well.
I was in hope the spirits would help me settle down for the night.
However, just as we were turning in the Squadron Duty Officer came by with news that both raised and answered questions, but did little to ease us into the arms of Morpheus.
We were told that a Japanese carrier fleet was coming down north of Luzon, and that our division would lead the squadron on a pre-dawn "group grope" to be led by the Air Group Commander.
I hit the bunk with troubled thoughts that led to uneasy dreams as, I'm sure, did the others.
Since earliest history when tribes, principalities or nations have competed at arms for space, power and commodity, warriors have dreaded anticipated battle.
Shakespeare told of English kings, their knights and archers restive in the Channel mists on the eve of Agincourt.
The hymnist tells of Union and Confederate troops alike, huddled around campfires "in the evening dews and damps" on the night before they matched arms at Gettysburg.
Just so on this late October evening in 1944 we were too tired to stay awake and too tense to truly sleep.
The day started for us before it did for the sun.
The Duty Officer roused us from our bunks two hours before dawn, we had our usual pre-strike breakfast of steak and eggs, and soon we were in the Ready Room being briefed and setting up our chart boards for the day's navigation.
A new plan of attack had been devised.
During the night our battleships and some of the cruisers and destroyers had been withdrawn from the Fast Carrier Task Force and had been reconstituted as a surface force.
These ships were then stationed about a hundred miles north of the carriers, the idea being that we only try to disable ships by aerial bombardment and leave them for the surface ships to sink with their deadlier and more accurate gunfire.
Experience had proven that aircraft were efficient at damaging ships when fleets were miles apart, often stopping them dead in the water, but that aerial bombs and torpedoes were not particularly effective in putting them beneath the waves.
For attacking carriers, these ever being our prime targets, we customarily carried general purpose bombs that exploded immediately on contact, specifically damaging the flight deck and exposed aircraft to at least temporarily if not indefinitely disrupt flight operations.
On this day, however, we loaded semi-armor piercing bombs (S.A.P.'s), sharp-nosed like a shell for penetration and armed by a delayed-action fuse which promised detonation further into the bowels of a target ship, and in order to enhance our ability to stop a ship.
This would surely affect the work of our squadron on this day.
The plan was for us to take-off and circle the battle field and thus be that much farther along when the precise location of the enemy fleet became known.
We manned our planes under a still black sky, and we started our engines with no lights showing.
As we waited, with engines idling, for the ship to turn into the wind for launching there came a call from a night-flying plane stating that enemy ships were at such-and-such a direction and such-and-such a distance "from Point X-ray."
It was Naval procedure to establish fictitious points in the open ocean to use for reporting the enemy's location without giving away the location of one's own position or the position of friendly forces.
I pulled out my chart board, and with hooded pen-light held in my clenched teeth, searched through my navigation data for some reference about "Point X-ray" -- none could be found.
Another call came through, this one using the call sign of our task group flag, Rear Admiral Frederick Sherman, commander of T.G. 38.3, "Where the hell is Point X-ray?"
I was relieved, for at least I was keeping good company in my ignorance, so I listened carefully for an answer.
Just as it came someone else -- patently oblivious to the radio traffic then in train -- came on the air about some entirely different matter and garbled the answer to the Admiral.
I despaired at not having this information, knowing I would be expected to do the navigating for the Air Group.
Our group tactics called for the unit to form on the dive-bombers. As we climbed toward the target, the torpedo planes took position beneath.
They stopped climbing at about 8000 feet, but kept their position directly below as the dive-bombers climbed to fifteen-to-eighteen thousand feet.
The fighters, divided into four-plane sections, weaved several thousand feet above the formation.
With this arrangement the fighters could get to the attack planes by diving straight down and not having to spend crucial time dropping back or overtaking them to give succor.
Thus it was that he who led the dive-bombers, for navigation purposes, set the course.
A deck-load strike usually was comprised of forty planes -- twelve dive-bombers in two six-plane divisions, eight torpedo bombers in two four-plane divisions and a fighter for each of the attack planes.
Thus we launched that morning.
Our group commander, Cdr. David McCampbell was not only leading the fighters, but was to act as Target Coordinator for all the planes which worked their way north from that pre-dawn launch from all the flight decks of The Fast Carrier Task Force.
The Air Group 15 squadrons came together as we flew along, and we reached the surface flotilla just as the sky began to brighten.
We were the first there, but in short order other air groups fell in behind, and there was an aggregation of planes extending over half-way around the battle fleet.
It was the largest formation of planes that I had ever seen, much less in which I had flown -- and the amazing thing was that they were all following me.
Two and a half years before I would have been "tail-end Charley," if indeed, I had made the team.
I asked Bob Cribb, my gunner, if he had any idea how many aircraft were with us and he answered, "I lost count when I got to two hundred twenty-five."
I would estimate it took about fifteen minutes for this crescent of aircraft to make a complete circuit of the battle-line.
I would also estimate that we had made several such circuits before anything happened.
We had two VHF radio sets in our planes -- very high frequency bands that served for communication between planes and between ship and planes.
With the advent of Kamikazes I had started guarding both channels, one for our purposes and to listen on the other for traffic between the Combat Air Patrol over our ships and the Fighter Director who was controlling their movement.
A message came over the C.A.P. frequency vectoring a section of fighters out on a given heading for a hundred miles to scout for the Japanese carrier force.
In a few minutes their call came back -- they had sighted a flotilla of four carriers and surface support heading south.
Almost immediately The Fighter Director read off their distance and it was easy to plot out their position.
As we continued our circle I worked out my navigation to intercept the force, and the next time I passed the appropriate heading I rolled out of my turn and started northward.
Shortly thereafter I received a call from Cdr. McCampbell, "Rebel Seven this is Rebel Ninety-nine" -- he gave me essentially the same position I had calculated -- "Complete your navigation to intercept the enemy."
I responded, "Rebel Ninety-nine this is Rebel Seven -- we have been on course for the past two minutes."
However, ahead I saw only an empty sun-sparkled sea and for awhile this same view obtained.
This was still the state of affairs when the C.A.G. called me in a few minutes and said he had the targets in sight.
I then remembered that he carried binoculars in his plane.
He began to assign targets to various air groups before any of us could see the vessels.
He first told me to take the ship in the van, but by the time I could see the ships he redirected me to take a carrier that was rejoining the formation from the starboard quarter -- it was returning from reaching into the wind to launch aircraft.
Oddly enough, however, the only fighter activity I saw was in the distance where I saw what I took to be two Hellcats chasing a Zero.
We didn't know then that most of their aircraft had been flown into Philippine airfields, and the carriers had been sent to decoy our carriers away from Leyte Gulf, the Japanese planners rightly assuming their flat-tops would be bait that Halsey couldn't resist.
I radioed my intention to the rest of the flight, began my high-speed approach -- at twelve thousand feet we carried out a "bursting fart break-up," I did a mild wing-over across my wing-man, Warren Parrish, and we were into our dives.
This day my plane flew smoothly, I dived fore-and-aft along the ship, took the bow as my aiming point and carried my attack to fifteen hundred feet before releasing, and was low over the water before attaining level flight.
I found myself completely surrounded by enemy ships, and had not noticed the anti-aircraft fire until then -- it was not near the intensity of that thrown up by the battleships the day before.
I weaved between the ships, maintaining whatever distance possible from each.
I took a moment to kick my plane up on its wing, saw two splashes close aboard the port side and smoke coming up through the deck.
Whose bomb hit where I had not the foggiest notion -- in a group attack it was impossible for me to be sure who hit and who missed.
The C.A.G. called, probably too late, and instructed the torpedo planes to choose another target as the carrier we had attacked was sinking already.
It ran through my mind, that whether or not I could be sure of having gotten a hit, at least, the Navy had gotten its seed back.
Several others reached the rendezvous area before I did, and I found Vincent Zanetti, my other veteran wingman, orbiting in so tight a circle that the rest of us could not cut across his flipper turn to join up -- surely adrenalin was bolstering his effort.
I finally had to ask him to roll-out of his turn a bit and in short order we were in formation and headed home.
All our squadron planes were accounted for.
When we were aboard and being debriefed, we had a chance to look at ship silhouettes. The consensus was that we had hit and sunk the CHITOSE, a light carrier similar to our CVL's. (Jigs was awarded a Navy Cross for this action.)
We learned that our ship's captain had directed C.I.C. to patch radio dialogue over the targets into the ship's intercom systems, so that, more-or-less, the ship's company experienced a blow-by-blow account.
In all, four carriers had been hit, along with support vessels -- we had faced the Japanese carrier fleet head-on and had prevailed.
Those in the fighter Ready Room called us over the "squawk-box" and paid us somewhat of a left-handed compliment, "That was some bombing. You guys usually can't hit the broad side of a barn, but you did yourselves proud today."
The truth is, considering the vagaries of dive-bombing; I would have been amazed if I could hit a barn, even a broad one.
We had a quick sandwich lunch from our Ready Room pantry and prepared for another strike that afternoon.
Just before we had landed back aboard after the morning sortie, a second deck-load strike had been launched.
Our third strike of the day went out in mid-afternoon, led by John Broadhead, with my leading his second division.
John had recently stepped up to Executive Officer, replacing Lieut. Roger Noyes who had held that position since the squadron had been formed back in Virginia, and sadly this popular officer and his gunner had been lost on a raid just before the big battle, attacking a cruiser in Manila Bay.
That afternoon, as we made our way back up beyond Luzon, we passed a large Japanese carrier, dead in the water and listing markedly -- I figured the surface ships were on their way to dispatch her.
Continuing northwest we reached the remnant of the carrier force which was still underway, a small and struggling pack of ships much reduced form the full flotilla we had struck in the early morning.
As a target we were assigned the ship at the head of this array.
It was the ISE, the one enemy vessel whose appearance was burned into my memory from our many recognition drills, this because of her singular appearance, being an older battleship to which a short flight deck had been added across her "after" gun deck, obviously displacing that portion of her main body.
I had often wondered how functional was such a hybrid carrier and exactly how she operated -- was she a ferry vessel or a fighting ship -- she had what appeared to be a take-off runway running along side a battle-wagon bridge.
Anyway, for a change, our target had a name I knew before I dropped my bombs.
My dive was satisfactory, almost directly aft-to-fore, and the target was large.
The attack per se was memorable because the character of the anti-aircraft fire was different than we had experienced in our other attacks on the fleet.
Not particularly notable were the multi-colored high altitude puffs of larger caliber guns.
Instead we were greeted with an intense out-pouring of tracer fire -- it was like upside-down rain.
As I pulled out of my dive the plane was nose-heavy and I found myself reticent to reach out and spin back the elevator trim-tab and take the pressure off the stick -- I didn't want to expose my hand and arm beyond the armor plating behind and beneath my seat.
The only hitch was that such armor -- present in planes we had flown earlier in the war -- had long since been removed in the interest of weight reduction.
Old comforts tend to die slowly and re-surface easily.
Our attack was smooth enough that it seemed some of us, at least, would have scored.
It has been suggested that the most accurate way to assess hits in a group attack is on the basis of discrepancy between the number of bombs dropped and the number of splashes observed.
I saw some splashes but didn't take time to count them -- also, I had no idea how many, if any, planes from other groups had also dropped on the ISE.
In his classic work on Leyte Gulf, Samuel Eliot Morison, from post-war interviews, said that enemy observers had said this last attack did no additional damage to their ships.
It was not clear whether this meant we had all missed or that the missiles we dropped did not significantly damage the ships.
One Japanese admiral commented that we weren't very good pilots, which may have been so, but over looked the fact that with the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, both of which were primarily air-sea affairs, the Imperial Fleet was essentially neutralized as an effective weapon system for the remainder of the war.
Whatever, we all got through this sortie unscathed and were soon on our way home.
Our part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf was essentially over.
Most of our pilots had thrice struck at capital ships in two days -- an eventuality we rated as "hitting the jackpot."
Back aboard the ESSEX we found that Cdr. Mini and his gunner had been returned by breeches buoy form their rescue destroyer.
Like the rest of us, the Skipper had his own tale to tell.
In the flurry and indecisiveness of the night, a pitched surface battle was threatened, and the destroyers of the screen had been prepared to make night torpedo attacks against the enemy fleet.
He said that he had been tempted to ask if he could just be put back over the side in his rubber raft.
He was much relieved when he realized the whereabouts of the enemy was not precisely known -- one report said they had turned back across Philippine waters toward home, though in truth, they had pursued their intent of entering Leyte Gulf by continuing through San Bernardino Straits.
They appeared the next morning almost among the jeep carriers who were escorting the U.S. invasion forces -- a task group known as TAFFY I and commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague.
This sowed great confusion on this second day for Admiral Halsey with his forces split.
In any event, The Skipper said he wasn't eager to sit through a destroyer torpedo attack against heavier surface ships, even on the giving end.
He said that since Academy days, he had heard that such a foray was undertaken "for the service" -- in other words, it was essentially a suicide maneuver.
It took several days to appreciate what had happened in the Philippines, and even now, 50 years later, the details are yet debated.
It comes out as a convoluted tale because from the limited standpoint of one involved it was a convoluted affair -- partly from being entered upon from the tactical viewpoint of one caught up in only several of sundry pieces of action, whereas it can best be understood from a strategic view.
The truth seems that the opposing war lords were in the grasp of mutual ambition with both seeking a "show-down" engagement between their fleets -- the Americans as the quickest way to end the war and the Japanese as the only way to stave off abject defeat and open the way for a negotiated settlement.
The American forces were organized for this by orientation to task i.e. invasion forces, support forces, fast carrier task forces and surface forces.
The Japanese were organized geographically -- the Southern Force coming primarily from homeports in Malaysia, and the Central and Northern Forces mainly coming down from the home islands.
Thus, was the stage being set, with neither adversary aware of precisely what the other had in mind.
The "show-down" was well-orchestrated in detailed plans by the Japanese whereas the Americans planned basically an invasion and depended on practical reaction to manage other developments.
Thus it was that the Battle of Leyte Gulf was not a single engagement but several -- some individual and remote from one another and others over-lapping, some transpiring in a single day and others requiring several days, and some fought solely by one group while others by units which figured in more than one action.
The action started, in fact, when our submarine screen around the western approaches to the Philippines began tracking and harassing the Imperial Forces as they marshaled and merged onto the archipelago.
From Malaysia Japanese elements had been dispatched to approach our beach-head from the south, coming through the Surigao Strait encompassed by Mindanoa, Dingabat and Leyte -- here was the Southern Force.
Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, with an array of older battleships and other surface ships ranging from cruisers to motor torpedo boats, had been disposed to intercept these forces.
Among the early salients of action was Oldendorf's harassment of two columns of enemy vessels as they merged coming up Surigao, culminating in his "crossing the T" on his adversaries as they broke into the lower reaches of Leyte Gulf.
This was the classic maneuver pursued by surface-ship commanders wherein they could bring thunderous broadsides to bear on ships, which could only retaliate with forward-firing batteries.
So was the Southern Force repulsed and sent scurrying back through Surigao Strait.
Then there was the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, this being the name ultimately given to the first engagement with the Central Force, which was essentially an air-sea engagement on October 24th taking place the inland waters of the Philippines in which the MUSASHI was sunk along with other ships being damaged, an outcome more propitious for us than first realized.
As related, these enemy forces, after first appearing to retire, re-grouped to enter Leyte Gulf through the San Bernardino Strait, and in fact, infiltrate the invasion fleet.
It was here that they were opposed by the TAFFY task groups of jeep carriers, ostensibly there to provide close-air support for the landing forces, and who deterred the Japanese heavy surface forces in what was later termed the Battle Off Samar.
Morison called this the "The Main Action," though to me his interpretation depends on one's view of the purpose of the engagement, whether it was to mainly be a naval "show-down" or in the interest of the invasion forces.
Morison was much taken with the valor and perseverance of the jeep carrier task groups -- as indeed is warranted -- but to say they caused more damage than the Fast Carrier Task Forces is to overstate the limited potential of small bombs, strafing and even "dummy runs" which gave needed respite to the beleaguered small carriers and their escorts.
The final engagement was our encounter with the Northern Force, which historically has been called the "Battle off Cape Engano" and occurred mainly on October 24th, but tailed into the next day, and has been a major topic of this vignette.
It seems more meaningful to look at all this together and acknowledge that all did well the duties they were called upon to carry out.
We were soon back to what had become a usual and obnoxious chore -- the further bombing of Manila Bay assignments more perilous to us than the fleet engagements.
As I mulled over the several confrontations which comprised the Battle of Leyte Gulf, it suddenly dawned on me that one question remained unanswered.
When I had reported to the admiral after our successful attack on the CHITOSE on the second morning of the fracas I had failed to ask if he ever found out just where was Point X-ray.
Great things were astride in the Philippines when they were invaded as a Japanese bastion, but for me a minor side issue persists -- where was Point X-ray?
Probably no one yet survives who knows.
Point X-ray! -- a place of infinitely small dimensions in a trackless sea, marked but for a day.
For this brief period known by few, but sought by many.
Probably no living mortal can locate it today, and it's likely unremembered save here.
It was no small wonder that my grandson, Ned wanted his assigned questions answered simply and quickly.
Getting into comprehensive responses wasn't on his agenda but his grandfather was never one to let pass the opportunity to spin a good web.
Surely this was more than Ned wished to know about Point X-ray.
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