Ed Huxtable led the valiant airmen of the escort carrier Gambier Bay against overwhelming odds during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
By Cindy Hayostek
It is one of those wonderful twists of fate that the man who commanded the aviation squadron of the only U.S. carrier sunk by naval gunfire during World War II became the person who flew the surrender documents into Japan.
That man, Edward J. Huxtable, Jr., was born in 1913 and grew up in Douglas, Ariz., a town where community leaders actively promoted aviation during the 1920s and 30s. As a result, many area boys grew up to become aviators during World War II. Ed Huxtable was one of them.
Huxtable graduated from Douglas High School in 1931, attended prep school and in 1932 entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. There he was on the football and outdoor rifle teams every year until his graduation in 1936.
His first assignment was as assistant navigator aboard the cruiser USS Quincy. He served briefly on the destroyer USS Truxton as torpedo officer before beginning flight training in Florida in February 1939.
In January 1940, Huxtable became part of the scouting squadron serving the carrier USS Ranger. This was followed by service with USS Yorktown’s anti-submarine squadron in 1941 as that carrier escorted British ships across the Atlantic.
Huxtable spent the next two years of World War II in Florida as an instructor with the advanced carrier training command. Then he was transferred to California to assume command of a composite squadron of planes assigned to USS Gambier Bay.
Gambier Bay was an escort carrier with the designation CVE, a classification that resulted from the United States’ prewar insistence on making battleships the stars of its fleet. In the early days of World War II, it was soon learned that naval fleets needed air cover that only carrier planes could provide. But the United States had few carriers.
Henry Kaiser, whose company produced the famed Liberty Ships for the U.S. merchant fleet, proposed building a small carrier to take up the slack. The first of these ships was commissioned in early 1943. During the summer of 1943, the hull of the 19th escort carrier was laid. In November this ship was commissioned USS Gambier Bay. Named after an Alaskan bay, which had in turn been named for a British naval officer, the carrier was quite small. It was also lightly armed and slow because of temperamental engines. The ship’s real weapons were the 30 planes it carried.
The shortcomings of the so-called “jeep carriers,” or “baby flattops,” were pointed out the same month Gambier Bay was commissioned. In November 1943, Liscombe Bay, the second baby flattop built, was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sunk in 15 minutes, prompting cynics to label the carriers “Kaiser koffins.” Veterans would say that CVE stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, Expendable.”
VC-10, Huxtable’s squadron of fighters and bombers, boarded Gambier Bay on April 5, 1944. By the end of May, the ship was in Pearl Harbor and on June 15 saw its first action during the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands.
Huxtable, then a lieutenant commander, flew the Grumman TBM Avenger, a torpedo bomber. He had tried flying the Grumman FM2 Wildcat, a fighter, while still Stateside but quickly gave it up. Edwin P. Hoyt, in the book Men of the Gambier Bay, explains that Huxtable had no trouble with the Wildcat until he tried to land. He cranked the wheel-locking handle 32 times instead of the required 33. So the wheels retracted upon landing, and the plane skidded down the runway.
Hoyt wrote: “Gasoline began spilling out of the tanks, ignited, and flames began to chase the plane. The Wildcat came to a screeching halt, with the firemen spraying furiously, and Skipper Huxtable got out and walked away disdainfully. ‘It takes a dammed athlete to fly one of those,’ he muttered as he went.”
But Huxtable soon proved he could perform outstanding service with a torpedo bomber. The citation that accompanied his Distinguished Flying Cross says:
“For extraordinary achievement as commander of a carrier based aircraft squadron in the brilliant and heroic leadership of his squadron in many attacks against ground installations and personnel in the battles for the occupation of Saipan and Tinian Islands from 15 June to 30 July 1944. In air-support of ground troops, work of a most exacting, important and dangerous nature, he demonstrated remarkable ability for cool and intelligent attack leadership.
“On one occasion his flight, against determined anti-aircraft opposition, attacked enemy guns that were severely harassing our troops, knocking them out, and contributing directly to the advance that immediately followed. On another occasion, a hazardous low-level attack on enemy troops in a gully resulted in particularly heavy enemy casualties. In addition to these and many other successful attacks, he, as air coordinator, directed an extremely accurate bombing attack on the Tinian landing beach which materially reduced opposition [to] the first invading troops, and later sent an attack against coastal guns that were firing on and damaging our naval warships and landing craft. His work at all times was conspicuously and consistently brilliant, fearless and intelligent, and contributed directly to the success of our forces in these important operations. His actions were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.”
Gambier Bay and its planes next supported the occupation of Guam and the invasion of the Palau Islands. Huxtable scouted Ulithi Atoll in September, before Gambier Bay became the first U.S. vessel to anchor there since the war began. In mid-October, Gambier Bay headed for the Philippines and its fate in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The escort carrier Gambier Bay became part of Taffy 3, six baby flattops with three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, assigned to provide air cover for troops invading Leyte Island. On October 24, 1944, Gambier Bay’s planes did just that all day from a position west of Samar Island.
Taffy 3’s commander, Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague, knew Japanese ships sent to destroy the Leyte beachhead were in the vicinity. But a combination of circumstances favorable to the Japanese meant that Taffy 3 personnel were completely surprised to spot the pagoda masts on Japanese warships steaming through San Bernardino Strait and around Samar Island early on the morning of October 25.
Mishaps the previous night in the hangar and on the flight deck prevented Gambier Bay’s planes being ready for a quick launch that morning. The other jeep carriers were equally unprepared to launch aircraft.
At 6:30 a.m., Huxtable was in the wardroom. When general quarters sounded, he thought it was going to be just another long day and he would miss lunch. Determined to get at least toast and juice, he stayed in the wardroom as all the other men ran out. The ship’s personnel officer fetched him from the wardroom, Huxtable related later. They ran for the flight deck, and Huxtable climbed into his Avenger.
“I asked Gutzwiller, my plane captain, if I had a bomb load,” Huxtable wrote. “When he said no, I told him to call Borries, the air officer, over the voice tube about a load. We hadn’t turned up the engines yet, and I couldn’t see any use of going off without a bomb load. I saw Borries move forward to talk to Capt. [Walter] Vieweg [the ship’s skipper] and the captain made a sweeping motion with his arm as though to say ‘Get ’em off!’
“About this time, I heard what seemed like a big bore rifle shot next to my left ear. I looked and saw a salvo of heavy caliber stuff splashing alongside USS White Plains [another jeep carrier]. Until that instant, I had no idea the enemy was so near! I was more than ready to get on the catapult.”
Through an overcast, Huxtable saw the Japanese fleet of four battleships, six cruisers, two light cruisers and 11 destroyers. Huxtable decided to attack the cruisers. His only weapon was less than 100 rounds in his .50-caliber machine guns.
“Suddenly, we broke into the clear again on the starboard side of the cruisers,” recalled Huxtable. “They were in line and directly ahead of us. The red balls of anti-aircraft fire were coming at us in what seemed like torrents; they were passing just below us. I broke to the left and started for the after cruiser in a shallow dive doing about 190 knots.
“When I got within 2,000 to 3,000 yards, the anti-aircraft fire was getting just too hot. I couldn’t see being a hero without a load, so I turned left and pulled out.
“I made a wide circle to the left and came in on their starboard side…paralleling them except on a reverse course; I was watching their next move. I thought I was far enough out at about 3,000 to 4,000 yards so they wouldn’t shoot me. Five different colored 5-inch bursts appeared about 150 yards ahead of me and I flew through the smoke of the middle burst.”
Huxtable had survived the anti-aircraft fire of eight cruisers, despite flying straight down their line. He then flew past the battleships, trying to give the impression he might drop a bomb or torpedo although he had none.
As air group commander for Taffy 3, he radioed a course proposal to Sprague on Fanshaw Bay, another escort carrier. Then he called Gambier Bay. The assistant air officer suggested he arm at Tacloban Airfield on Leyte. “I doubted that there was anything at Tacloban since they had just gone ashore two days before,” said Huxtable, “and thought instead we could do a good job of just harassing the Japs by making dummy runs, and this all planes did from then on, mostly on an individual basis.” Some Taffy 3 pilots, augmented by other Seventh Fleet planes, were eventually armed and made hits on several Japanese ships.
A Navy Department release noted some planes did not drop bombs on their first runs. Some made two and three runs through anti-aircraft fire to get sure shots. Afterward they joined Huxtable in “dry” runs. “I made a dummy run on the lead cruiser from ahead,” said Huxtable. “After a while, I made another run on the starboard bow. I made pullouts with the bomb bay doors open to feign a torpedo drop.
“I flew back to our carriers and noted one of them was listing to port and slowed….I thought it was White Plains…but it was Gambier Bay.”
Gambier Bay was in serious trouble. Along with Kalinin Bay, Gambier Bay had been left exposed to salvos from the Japanese ships as Taffy 3 turned toward Samar. Fortunately, a rain squall and heroic destroyer action kept the Japanese from finishing off Kalinin Bay.
Gambier Bay was not blessed with such good fortune. At first Captain Vieweg managed to predict the Japanese shooting pattern and evade the salvos. But after about half an hour, Gambier Bay was bracketed by geysers as the Japanese gunners zeroed in on their target.
Huxtable continued to make dummy torpedo runs at the Japanese cruisers, watching the U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts attack the Japanese fleet pursuing the baby flattops. “Our destroyers were taking a beating and some were afire,” he noted. “They were magnificent in their actions from the very first attack and throughout the battle. Being an old destroyer man myself, I really felt for them when I saw them turn to go in on their first attack.”
The destroyers Johnston and Hoel were sunk that day, as was the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts. Gambier Bay would also share that fate.
A salvo from the mammoth battleship Yamato fell very near Gambier Bay, smashing a hole in the hull near the forward engine room. Gambier Bay’s speed dropped from 17 to 11 knots, and the ship fell behind the rest of Taffy 3. It was 8:20 a.m.
Despite the harassing actions of American aircraft and destroyers, the Japanese ships increased their rate of fire. Soon every other salvo was damaging Gambier Bay. A bulkhead near the forward engine room split, flooding the forward machine shop. A shell penetrated the starboard magazine, blowing it up.
As the barrage continued, power failed. The helm switched to manual steering, but then the pilothouse was hit when another shell destroyed the other engine room; Gambier Bay’s fate was sealed. She was burning and dead in the water. The Japanese ships were a mile away.
Every few seconds another shell hit the helpless baby flattop. Vieweg ordered abandon ship at 8:50. About 20 minutes later, Gambier Bay slid under the waves, the only U.S. aircraft carrier to be sunk by naval gunfire during World War II.
Shortly before Gambier Bay sank, Huxtable decided to see if he could get a bomb load at Tacloban. Fighters low on fuel were given priority at the Philippine air base, so Huxtable led a group of torpedo planes back out to sea. They found their carriers but none could land planes because of extensive damage. So the pilots again turned toward Leyte.
The heroic sacrifice of Taffy 3, however, was not in vain. The Japanese commander, Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita, was stunned by the ferocity of the outgunned Americans, leading him to believe he was up against the U.S. Navy’s first-line Essex-class aircraft carriers. With victory in his grasp and the opportunity to annihilate the American ships supporting the Leyte invasion, Kurita lost his nerve and ordered his force to retire.
For American sailors in life rafts or clinging to flotsam, the sight of their airplanes harassing the Japanese fleet was heartening. It was the only uplifting spectacle some of them would see for the next three days. The sailors fought sharks, thirst and exhaustion before a rescue team found them. Some of Gambier Bay’s crew were rescued after 40 hours in the water, others not until 72 hours had passed.
The men were taken to the Philippines and then placed on ships to return to the United States. Of the 950 men on board Gambier Bay after its planes took off, about 700 were rescued.
Huxtable did not know Gambier Bay had sunk until late that day. He finally landed at Dulag, south of Tacloban. No bombs were available, but there was fuel. Around 3 p.m., he led planes back to Leyte Gulf. As before, no carrier could land planes. So Huxtable went back to Dulag, where the fate of Gambier Bay was confirmed.
The next day, Huxtable said, “We took off with orders to go back to our fleet….We broke up into groups; three of us landed aboard Kalinin Bay. From there, we went on back to Eniwetok, where we gathered again. All of our squadron personnel were in clothes that we left the ship in, so we were sort of a sorry looking outfit.”
After a few days at Eniwetok, Huxtable’s men returned to the United States on the carrier Belleau Wood. During that time, the first steps were taken by the Philippine government to give Gambier Bay a unit citation and by the U.S. government to award Huxtable a Silver Star.
Huxtable’s citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as squadron commander of Composite Squadron 10, attached to the USS Gambier Bay in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle off Samar, Philippine Islands, on Oct. 25, 1944. Organizing and leading the early morning attack against enemy surface units which were shelling our escort carriers, Cmdr. (then Lt. Cmdr.) Huxtable pressed home repeated attacks against heavy cruisers and, although he had been launched without bombs, flew at extremely low altitude to divert intense antiaircraft fire from the planes he was directing. His leadership, courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Early in 1945, Sprague wrote about the battle for American magazine. He recalled, “For two hours, without so much as a machine gun bullet to fight with, Lt. Cmdr. Edward J. Huxtable, USN, glided his Avenger through the flak to make dry runs on enemy capital ships, once flying down a line of eight enemy cruisers to divert them from their course and throw off their gunfire for a few precious minutes.”
In Oxnard, Calif., Huxtable re-formed VC-10, which was assigned to the escort carrier Fanshaw Bay. Then Huxtable and his squadron deployed to the Pacific for another tour of duty.
On August 31, 1945, Fanshaw Bay became the first aircraft carrier to drop anchor in Japanese home waters. On September 10, Huxtable and his wingman flew to Toyko to deliver the surrender papers to the Japanese Northern Army. This was the final military action of Fanshaw Bay and VC-10 in World War II.
On September 30, 1945, in Alameda, Calif., VC-10 was decommissioned. Huxtable’s tenure as its commander was the longest of any CVE unit in U.S. naval history.
In January 1946, Huxtable reported to Virginia’s Norfolk Naval Station. He was promoted to captain before retiring from active service in 1949 and returning to Arizona. There he worked in the Phelps Dodge copper smelter in the assay office, was a crop duster and later taught algebra and geometry at Douglas High School. He was also a flight instructor at Douglas Municipal Airport, which his father had helped found 25 years before. He still had his pilot’s license at age 70.
Huxtable died on October 31, 1985, at his Douglas home. The next year the surviving members of VC-10 decided to dedicate a memorial to their skipper. An elaborate plaque was placed aboard USS Yorktown, moored at Patriot’s Point near Charleston, S.C.
Cindy Hayostek was a geometry student of Ed Huxtable at Douglas High School in Douglas, Ariz. Further reading: The Men of the Gambier Bay, by Edwin P. Hoyt; and Decision and Dissent: With Halsey at Leyte Gulf, by Carl Solberg.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]