Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Battle off Samar

By all accounts, Thomas Lupo was a wild kid in his youth. Growing up Italian in New Orleans could do that. After all, the lynching of eleven Italians for the murder of Police Chief David Hennessey was still in the memory of the older members of the population.

He enlisted as soon as he heard the news of Pearl Harbor. The Navy taught him to fly TBM Avengers and in October 1944 he was part of VC-68 on board the USS Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70). They were part of Task Unit 77.4.3, known as Taffy 3, providing air cover and ground support for the invasion of Leyte in the Phillipines. Things had been active since 20 October when MacArthur staged his return and the Navy had been particularly busy in decimating the Japanese Naval Forces in several historic actions, including the last classic naval gun duel, during the week. But on 25 October, the action was going to involve Lt (jg) “Lucky Loop” Lupo.

The Japanese had devised a typically complicated attack plan which involved splitting their forces and using decoys. The US Navy had decimated the Japanese fleet but had lost track one group of Japanese ships. It was also about this time that Admiral Halsey, with his attack carriers, was lured out of position by the Japanese decoy operation. That left the landing beach on Leyte Island exposed when Adm. Kurita’s fleet led by the Yamato came through the San Bernadino Strait from north side of the island of Samar. The only thing between him and the almost defenseless landing operation was Task Unit 77.4.3 which consisted of a 3 destroyers, 4 destroyer escorts and 6 escort carriers commanded by Adm. Clifton “Ziggy’ Sprague. The Japanese brought 4 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 11 destroyers to the party. The US Navy was heavily outgunned.

If the Japanese fleet reached the landing beaches they could decimate the troops and spoil MacArthur’s great return. The only option was to attack to try to gain some time until help arrived. Adm Sprague ordered the DDs and DEs to attack, launched all his planes and then turned the CVEs around and tried to escape.

It was a target rich environment for the pilots and they quickly expended their ordinance. “Lucky Loop” Lupo was one of the first to empty his bomb racks and his guns. Then, in keeping with his wild boy persona, he buzzed at the Japanese ships and threw loose items from his cockpit at them. Other pilots did the same or fired their pistols at the ships. By all accounts, the Japanese were dumbstruck at the sight of pilots firing their handguns at battleships. The image would be comical if the circumstances weren’t so deadly. But the tactic proved useful. When faced with an aircraft lining up for a bombing run, the captain had no choice but to take evasive maneuvers and this prevented them, at least for a little while, from pressing their attack on the landing beach.

Now some 400 planes (while the only the ships of Taffy 3 had direct contact, the aircraft from all “Taffy” groups attacked the Japanese) had the problem of where to go. They couldn’t return to their ships as they were under fire and steaming away from the big Japanese ships as fast as they could. Lupo headed for the only place he could land – the newly captured landing strip at Tacloban. When he arrived, the Army was still bulldozing the strip to fill in bomb craters. Nevertheless, Lupo was able to land successfully and alert the Army that more Navy planes would be arriving soon. He then spotted a neat stack of bombs and “asked” to talk to the person in charge of it because he wanted to re-arm his plane. A US Army colonel then informed him that those bombs were for the use of the US Marines that would be arriving in a few days. Lupo’s response was an extreme example of “argumentum ad baculum”. He pulled his service revolver, pointed it at the Army officer and informed the Colonel that if he didn’t load those bombs, the Japanese were going come and take his precious bombs away from him. This bit of “upward management” was soon cooled off by a couple of junior officers who organized an impromptu air traffic control and re-arming system for the Navy planes. It was rough and definitely not by the book. In some cases, planes on their take off run played chicken with planes that landed behind them going in the opposite direction. But it worked. Planes were re-armed and they returned to harass the Japanese.

And at the height of the battle, when the DDs and DEs were dead in the water or sinking and everything seemed to be lost, Adm. Kurita inexplicably turned around and retreated. Perhaps he thought he was engaging a larger force. Perhaps he was a little gun shy after having his flagship torpedoed out from under him the day before. (It seems he made a habit of having ships sunk out from underneath him. The same thing happened to him at Midway) Perhaps he thought Halsey and the big carriers were going to arrive soon. No one knows, but leave he did, thereby saving the Yamato for another day. (When he was in his eighties, he finally admitted that he retreated because he did not see the sense in wasting more lives since he knew the war the lost.) He died in 1977.

Taffy 3 sank 2 heavy cruisers and knocked a third out of action. Taffy 3 lost 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers and 1 destroyer escort.

Halsey never got a chance to join the battle and spent the rest of his life trying to explain his absence that day. That one action tainted his entire career. But that’s another story.

Thomas Lupo was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He returned to New Orleans and lived there until his death in 2004. The Italian Navy named the LUPO class frigates after him. And that’s a little bit of Italian history from New Orleans.


Steve Sailer said...

Thanks. Great story. I'd never heard of Lt. Lupo before today.

I wonder if they could make a movie out of this cheap these days with all the CGI?

Anonymous said...

I'm working on making a movie out of this. You can email me at or visit our website as we get up to speed: