‘Survival could not be expected’ (‘Why I may appear to have been writing less of late,’ Part Two of Three)

1941. War came. The Navy, sometimes befuddled but even then the wisest of the services, made dad a radio man, on the little destroyer escort Raymond.

As most 20-year-olds would, dad took the rigors of tropical service in stride, writing in his surviving notebook about the traditional ceremony of the pollywogs’ first crossing of the equator under the supervision of King Neptune. But things got serious when Rear Admiral C.A.F. Sprague, commander of the northern escort carrier group of the Seventh Fleet off the island of Samar, looked up on the morning of Oct. 25, 1944, to see the Japanese central force –- the 63,000-ton battleship Yamato, largest in the world with her 18-inch guns, the battleships Nagato, Haruna, and Kongo with full cruiser escort, bearing down on his little task force, which lacked even a single capital ship.

Vice Admiral Tokusaburo Ozawa’s carrier force had drawn off Bull Halsey’s fast battleships to the north, as planned, and Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s central force found the San Bernardino Strait undefended. Thousand-pound shells started raining down on the light escort carriers from a range of 15 miles. Naval historians say the little force was probably within five minutes of destruction when Admiral Sprague gave the still astonishing order for the destroyers and even the little destroyer escorts to make smoke . . . and attack.

Aboard the destroyer Johnston, Captain Ernest E. Evans (in a statement sometimes attributed to Lt. Cdr. Robert Copeland of the DE Samuel B. Roberts, which went in a little later, though I’m sure each commander said something similar) told all hands over the bull horn that they were entering ”a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected,” but that they would do what damage they could.

So relentless and unhesitating was the attack -– the little tin cans closed to 6,000 yards and actually shot up the superstructures of the cruisers with their little five-inch guns — that out there in the smoke Admiral Kurita thought he was facing cruisers, so his forces fired armor piercing shells. This may be the reason several of the American ships survived. Since the AP shells were set to explode only after penetrating heavy armor, many went right through the little tin cans – through and through — without detonating.

Still, Capt. Evans was right. Shot to pieces, the Roberts and the destroyers Johnston and Hoel went down soon after launching their torpedoes. The escort carrier Gambier Bay was sunk by shellfire. This was also the first day the Japanese launched their kamikaze suicide attacks, claiming at least one more escort carrier.

Following the desperate American counter-attack, having already endured days of repeated U.S. air raids which had sunk the Yamato’s sister ship, the Musashi (10 torpedo hits will do that), Admiral Kurita turned his force around and withdrew, without reaching the otherwise undefended beachhead at Leyte Gulf. Every member of the little task force off Samar, never intended to face down even a single enemy capital ship, shared a Presidential Unit Citation. Lt. Cmdr. Robert Copeland of the Roberts survived and was awarded the Navy Cross. Ernest E. Evans of the Johnston, a Native American, did not survive. Look him up under “Medal of Honor.”

The little destroyer escort Raymond made it through. After the war, thanks to the G.I. Bill, dad finished his undergraduate work at Ohio State. He met a pretty nurse from White Cross Hospital there and married her, which worked out well for me. Moving back to Connecticut, he took his Ph.D. in Physics under Ernie Pollard at Yale. Ernie had come from England to continue his work on something called “RADAR.” He also thought Yale should have a cyclotron, so in 1939 he built one. Dad’s thesis adviser, Richard Setlow (later to become known for his work on DNA damage and repair) said he thought the cerebral Polish kid would do OK in any related field, except teaching. The kid should definitely not try to teach.

So of course my dad became a full professor of Electrical Engineering at UConn, the school that back in 1941 had been unable to find him a dormitory room.

Dad wasn’t much for bringing in military-industrial research contracts, though, so he was relegated to teaching undergraduate lecture courses usually pawned off on graduate assistants. He took it as a challenge to enliven these courses — usually limited to the plodding memorization of various formulae — with anecdotes about the personalities and feuds and idiosyncrasies of the men who had developed all this science, including the antics of a little Boston telephone company scheming to find a way to get hold of a patent for something that by law was not patentable: the long-distance Alternating Current telephone transformer that had been invented — and published, without any effort to “protect” it — by Britain’s Oliver Heaviside.

They managed, and the “Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph Company” is a little regional Boston service provider no more.

NEXT TIME: What would an engineer need to know about ethics?

2 Comments to “‘Survival could not be expected’ (‘Why I may appear to have been writing less of late,’ Part Two of Three)”

  1. Harvey Russell Says:

    As always, Vin, you, as the consummate wordsmith, have again brighten the day for me. It brings back old memories. My Dad was at Leyte Gulf aboard a minesweeper, so I owe a debt of gratitude to your Dad for helping save mine’s bacon. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Fredricksburg, Texas, be sure and visit the Nimitz Museum. ( the new name escapes me ) Plan on at least one day to do it justice.

    Very Glad you are back, Sir. My condolences for your great loss.

  2. Bob McMahan Says:

    Mr Suprynowicz,

    I have missed your commentary in “Shotgun News” recently. I trust you are well.

    Best Regards,

    Bob McMahan