On Oct. 25, 1944, a fleet of 13 United States Navy vessels came toe to toe with 23 larger, more weaponized Japanese ships off the coast of Samar Island in the Philippines in what is coming to be known as the greatest naval battle of all time.
In the World War II Battle off Samar, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 898 U.S. men died and 913 more were wounded. Of the 13 ships assigned to the Taffy III 77.4.3 task unit, six were lost in the battle, including the Casablanca-class escort carrier USS Gambier Bay, the only U.S. aircraft carrier to be sunk by surface fire in World War II, and the USS St. Lo, the first American aircraft carrier sunk by kamikaze.
The Allied forces were victorious despite their obvious vessel and fire power disadvantages -- the Japanese lost 26 warships and 10,500 sailors in the combined Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The Taffy III task unit received a presidential citation for holding off the Japanese from the Philippine Islands.
“Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait towards Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear,” the citation reads. “Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor-piercing shells, anti-personnel projectiles and suicide bombers.”
In his history of the battle, Rear Adm. Samuel Elliot Morrison states that the Battle off Samar was the epitome of U.S. naval bravery.
"In no engagement in its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar,” he wrote.
Although many of the task force’s survivors have since passed away and the remaining veterans are mostly in their 90s, the Taffy III will hold a 70th anniversary reunion from Oct. 22 to 26 to reconnect those living veterans and honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
The gathering -- which some initially wanted to be held in Fredericksburg, Texas, home of the National Museum of the Pacific War -- is instead coming to San Diego at the request of the survivors themselves, since this is where the task unit departed from 70 years ago.
Marlene Hughes, treasurer of the USS Gambier Bay/VC-10 Association and the reunion planner, said she is hoping for roughly 40 veterans of the battle to attend, and expects total attendance to top 300 people.
This reunion won’t be the last, but may be the final opportunity that many of the veterans will have to reconnect with one another and share their stories, she said.
To ensure their tales of heroism remain for future generations, the U.S. Naval Academy is sending several midshipmen from the history department to the reunion to document the stories. Hughes said she doesn’t know exactly how many are coming, but figures it will be “several.”
The reunion will be held at the Holiday Inn Bayside, which already has 130 rooms booked for the event and will feature a banquet with a Q-and-A with the midshipman, a hospitality room on the fifth floor open for the veterans to gather, an optional tour of the city and Fort Rosecrans, and a memorial service Saturday on the USS Midway Museum flight deck.
Hughes said the veterans enjoy being together and sharing their stories with one another and younger generations, but when it comes time for the memorial service, the memory of all those lost is present in the atmosphere.
“They enjoy being together,” she said. “We have a hospitality room and they all want to sit around and talk. The thing is now that they’re getting older, they appreciate the fact that younger people are wanting to know about this. Because really, if they didn’t do what they did, we wouldn’t be here.
“They’re really happy to be with each other but once we get to the memorial service they’re pretty somber. Some start crying, and it’s a situation where sometimes I can’t even stop from crying.”
For Hughes, these reunions are personal.
"As long as I'm alive I'll be doing this," she said. "My uncle was on the ship, and I never got to meet him. He died in the water the next day."
Hughes is encouraging anyone with a tie to the Battle off Samar to get in touch with her and register to attend the reunion. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 520-326-0747.
She’s also searching for anyone interested in sponsoring part of the reunion.
“We really would love if someone in the San Diego area would be so enamored about helping us that they would want to help sponsor it,” Hughes said. “Even though they’re paying for their own hotel rooms, we have to charge to go on the bus together, we have to get flowers and pay for a singer and pay for extra time in the welcome reception room and things like that.”