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How Fragile Is The Line That Lashes Us To Our Past- Remembering Taffy 3

Editor’s Note:

On Friday, October 25, 2019, Commander Mark Lawrence, Commanding Officer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), provided remarks at the Taffy III memorial event. The event commemorates the sacrifice of the Sailors who served aboard the ships of Taffy III during the Battle off Samar.

Watercolor by Commander Dwight C. Shepler, USNR, depicting an episode during the torpedo attacks by the TG 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) destroyer screen. Ships present are (left to right): Japanese battleships Nagato, Haruna, and Yamato, with salvo (Japanese shells contained dye for spotting purposes) from Yamato landing in left center; USS Heerman (DD-532), USS Hoel (DD-533) sinking; Japanese cruisers Tone and Chikuma (NH 79033 KN).

It’s a daunting task to discuss the history through which these men lived.  It’s humbling to reflect on whether the quality of my service does justice to the ideals of our seagoing profession, which you and your shipmates exemplified under the harshest fire.  It’s a task I take seriously, and one I’d like to think would meet the approval of my grandfather, my four-year-old son’s namesake, who served proudly as a junior officer in USS Growler (SS-215) on several successful Pacific War patrols. 

My son would never have been born, nor would I or my father before me, had my grandfather not missed ship’s movement from Freemantle, due to appendicitis, just a few days before the Battle of Leyte Gulf

For he did so only to learn that all 59 of his shipmates had been lost at sea on  November 8th, 1944– on their 11th combat patrol – probably sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Shigure, which had rather miraculously been the only one of Admiral Nishimura’s ‘Southern Force’ to survive the Battle of Surigao Strait.  I therefore have a sense, if not any first-hand experience, of how fragile is the line that lashes us to our past, or that holds our warships fast in the collective memory of each successive American generation.

USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) returning from deployment in 2009.

Today, I have the privilege of commanding the Aegis guided missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60), named for the Secretary of the Navy who administered our fledgling fleet at the outset of the War of 1812, when the Nation relearned the strategic impact a moral victory at sea could have.  Our Navy’s capture of HMS Guerriere, HMS Macedonian, HMS Java, yes – but also USS Constitution’s escape from a Royal Navy squadron much earlier in the year, in a dead calm, over the course of 57 grueling hours.  Whether the contest hinged on the speed of our gunnery or the ingenuity of our seamanship, what distinguished those early American crews from the competition was their combat readiness. 

USS Paul Hamilton (DD-590) and her sister ship USS Twiggs (DD-591) at Charleston Navy Yard, April 7, 1943.

The same combat readiness USS Paul Hamilton (DD-590) demonstrated in the Philippine Sea, at Iwo Jima, and in the waters off Okinawa – all in one crowded year that began almost as soon as a crew could be formed up in Charleston and trained up in San Diego.  The same combat readiness I speak about with my crew – with the present generation of American Sailors – as our singular charge and highest priority.

Remembering the Battle of Leyte Gulf

And this year, the 75th anniversary of Leyte Gulf, we have had occasion to remember together the true readiness and martial spirit shown by the crews of Taffy 3 on 25 October 1944.  We register the initiative, discipline, and trust that animated the crew of USS Johnston to set sail with CDR Evans looking for a fight. The crew of USS Samuel B. Roberts to ring to general quarters when LCDR Copeland delivered his estimate of the situation into which they would soon charge. The crews on every escort carrier to keep firing that aft five-inch gun while a slow-speed force evasion and relentless air attacks frustrated the efforts of Admiral Kurita’s heavy cruisers. 

We marvel at what CDR Kintberger must have observed in his Sailors on USS Hoel to write that “fully cognizant of the inevitable result of engaging such vastly superior forces, these men performed their assigned duties coolly and efficiently until their ship was shot from under them.” 

I expect some of my Sailors struggle to imagine who you and your shipmates were, and that others wonder whether they are at all like you.  I tell them the truth: they are just like you once were.  That realization comes with immense responsibility – the productive weight we each must feel if we are to be ready to act decisively, with bloody-minded resolve and ingenuity, and to win… as our oath demands.

The only higher honor a destroyer captain can imagine than the opportunity to speak to the survivors of the ‘Last Stand’ is to be able to reassure you that today’s Sailor has that same will to fight.  They will hold fast. 

How could they not when you have shown us all how?  How could we not prepare ourselves for action when you have shown us what Theodore Roosevelt must have meant by cautioning that “no courage can ever atone for lack of that preparedness which makes the courage valuable; and yet if the courage is there, if the dauntless heart is there, its presence will sometimes make up for other shortcomings; while if with it are combined the other military qualities the fortunate owner becomes literally invincible.”  You gentlemen are certainly that in the eyes of every Surface Warrior, as were your shipmates lost on that fateful morning and in the many decades since the battle ended, because you showed us exactly what it takes to prevail.  You knew your jobs, you fought with abandon, and you strained like greyhounds in the slips unto the breach once more… regardless of the odds.  You won.

On behalf of a grateful Navy, my shipmates and I salute you.