The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Dennis J. Ringle
By James D. Hornfischer
Bantam Books, New York, 2004

In this naval version of "David versus Goliath," author James D. Hornfischer masterfully brings to life the heroic actions of a handful of officers and sailors. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is a fresh look at the men, ships and events that shaped one of the U.S. Navy’s finest hours, the monumental naval engagements of October 23-26, 1944, known collectively as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The author’s ability to combine official reports and eyewitness accounts in novellike prose makes this book a must read for those who are interested in naval history and ships that go into harm’s way.

Hornfischer is especially skilled at introducing the reader, in a very personal way, to the key players in the unfolding drama. This is a compelling section of the book, and it addresses not only the senior naval officers, but also the junior officers and enlisted sailors who would bear the brunt of the fighting. This personalization of the participants adds a great deal of emotion to the drama as the battle is joined.

The author also does a commendable job of introducing the various ships that played such an integral role in the contest. He views them as a sailor would, and he has an uncanny knack of personalizing them, just as he does the men. The author’s description of life at sea on the small rolling and pitching deck of a destroyer is highly realistic. His detailed account of the daily work routine, the duties, food and entertainment–not to mention the time-honored "crossing the line" ceremony–leaves the reader feeling like a member of the crew.

Most of the book deals with the critical daytime surface engagement between the overwhelming firepower of the Imperial Japanese Center Force and Task Unit 77.4.3 ("Taffy 3"), Rear Adm. Clifton A.F. Sprague’s vastly outgunned force of escort carriers and destroyers. The Battle of the San Bernardino Strait opened with the simultaneous sighting by the two adversaries around 7 a.m. Sprague soon realized that Admiral William F. Halsey had departed the area with the majority of the surface ships in pursuit of the Japanese carriers. Sprague’s "tin cans," therefore, were all that stood between the massive Japanese fleet and the invasion force of General Douglas MacArthur. Adding to the peril, the Japanese ships enjoyed a speed advantage, denying Sprague the prudent course of flight. Knowing full well the hopelessness of the situation, but also seeing the necessity of buying time, he ordered his destroyers to attack the vastly superior force of battleships and heavy cruisers. Naval aviators were also ordered to attack and harass the enemy despite lacking armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes. Armed only with aerial depth charges, antipersonnel bombs and .50-caliber machine guns, the aviators descended upon the Japanese like a swarm of angry hornets.

The combination of surface torpedo attacks from the destroyers and the harassing attacks from the air hindered a Japanese pursuit of the hapless carriers. Following their torpedo attacks, the destroyers actually closed to within 4,000 yards of the Japanese leviathans and engaged them with their 5-inch guns. The enemy answered the American fire with 8-, 14-, 16- and even 18.1-inch rounds. Despite the early success of the American destroyers, their luck finally ran out after an hour of fighting as the Japanese gunners found their mark and methodically demolished one escort carrier, two destroyers and one destroyer escort.

It was not in vain, however. Just after 9 a.m., the enemy commander ordered a withdrawal of his forces. The Japanese inability to close with the escort carriers had deprived them of the initiative and cloaked Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita in a true fog of war. MacArthur’s invasion force had been saved by the sacrifices of the tin can sailors and a handful of aviators, although the cost was high. In addition to the enormous loss of life on the destroyers and escort carriers, another 116 men perished due to the poorly coordinated rescue efforts of Admiral Halsey and his staff. The survivors of the three destroyers were left to the mercy of shark attacks, dehydration and exposure as the men drifted helplessly on the high seas for 2 1/2 days.

Hornfischer closes this epic by describing the reunion in 2001 of three of the tin can survivors. During the meeting, the former commanding officer of USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) delivered an emotional speech describing the ship’s near destruction by a mine in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq–Iran war. He described how the men fought to save their ship and received inspiration from a bronze plaque listing the names of the men who had served on its namesake. As each man went to his station he touched the plaque that bonded him to the men who had fought to save the ship 44 years earlier. With their legacy intact, the silver-haired veterans took solace in the fact that their sacrifices had not been in vain. They had participated in the Navy’s "finest hour" and had established a standard of heroism for all who go down to the sea in ships.

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