One Carrier’s Battle at Leyte Gulf

The collection of the National Naval Aviation Museum contains thousands of mementos of war.  This includes old uniforms and letters describing momentous events in military history.  Among the items are some jagged pieces of metal recovered from USS Kalinin Bay (CVE 68) after one of the most momentous battles of World War II.

Baby Flattop

Shrapnel from a kamikaze that struck USS Kalinin Bay (CVE 68) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944.

Named for a body of water in Alaska, Kalinin Bay was a “baby flattop.” This was the nickname for small deck escort carriers constructed during World War II. Their missions included providing close air support for amphibious invasions, notably in the Pacific. By October 1944, the Allied offensive had reached the Philippines.  U.S forces went ashore at Leyte, fulfilling General Douglas MacArthur’s famous promise to the Filipino people, “I shall return!” Supporting them were the ships of Taffy 3.  They included Kalinin Bay and other baby flattops screened by destroyers and destroyer escorts.

With their ships slow of speed and thinly armored, the sailors on the escort carriers of Taffy 3 never thought about the possibility of engaging a Japanese fleet.  However, that is what happened on the morning of October 25, 1944. Lookouts spotted the silhouettes of enemy warships approaching and soon colorful splashes began straddling the U.S. ships.  The Japanese  dyed their shells different colors to assist with spotting their naval gunfire.

View of damage to the flight deck of USS Kalinin Bay (CVE 68) after a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944.

Kalinin Bay and the other escort carriers launched their aircraft, the intrepid aviators making repeated runs against the enemy ships.  During the attacks they stared through their cockpit canopies down the barrels of the main batteries of some of the mightiest surface ships afloat. Even after exhausting their ammunition, they continued to press home dummy attacks in a valiant effort to draw fire away from U.S. Navy ships. At the same time, destroyers and destroyer escorts sped toward the enemy, launching torpedoes and firing their guns. Three of these ships were destined to be lost along with USS Gambier Bay (CV 73).

Fight for Survival

Kalinin Bay took a battering from the enemy, including one round that actually passed through numerous compartments and exploded just before penetrating the bottom of the ship. The crew fought valiantly to stem the Pacific waters flowing into the ship, which eventually reached a level of four feet.

Blunted by the determined resistance of the outgunned Taffy 3, the Japanese surface force unexpectedly retired. The commander of the American forces, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, recalled, “I heard one of the signalmen yell, ‘They’re getting away!’ I could hardly believe my eyes, but it looked as if the whole Japanese fleet was indeed retiring. However, it took a whole series of reports from circling planes to convince me. And still I could not get the fact to soak into my battle-numbed brain. At best, I had expected to be swimming by this time.”

The battle-scarred USS Kalinin Bay (CVE 68) pictured after the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Though the Japanese surface ships retired, kamikazes soon dove out of the skies.  They plunged into American warships in a preview of the deadly new weapon employed by a desperate enemy. USS St Lo (CVE 63) went to the bottom, the first major warship lost to kamikaze attack. Two enemy aircraft struck Kalinin Bay.  The crew again engaged in a desperate damage control effort to keep their ship afloat, which they did. At the end of the day, she survived those hits and 15 from the guns of the Japanese surface ships earlier in the day.

The Battle of Samar, which was part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, marked Kalinin Bay’s last combat. She spent the remainder of the war transporting aircraft, equipment and personnel across the Pacific to support the final campaigns of the war. By December 1946, she had been sold for scrap, the demobilization following the end of the war doing what the metal now preserved in the museum, parts of one of the kamikaze aircraft that hit her, could not on that fateful October day.