The Old War Horse
[Oil on canvas 76 x 61.2 cm AWM ART25696]
'The Old War Horse'
At Terowie railway station, 220 kilometres north of Adelaide, South Australia, is a plaque. It states that General Douglas MacArthur, United States Army, stopped here on his way south to Melbourne after his escape from Corregidor on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. He arrived from Alice Springs at 2.00 pm on 20 March 1942 to a waiting crowd of local people and journalists. To the press, MacArthur made his legendary statement, which is also recorded on the plaque:
I came out of Bataan, and I shall return.
Exactly two years and seven months after MacArthur’s promise at Terowie, a huge Allied invasion force, under his overall command, was assembled at Manus Island in New Guinea and Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaya). It was bound for the Philippines. Among hundreds of landing craft and transports were the Australian infantry landing ships HMA Ships Manoora, Westralia and Kanimbla. In the naval task forces assigned to guard the soldiers on their way to their designated landing beaches in Leyte Gulf were a number of RAN warships: the cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire; the destroyers HMA Ships Arunta and Warramunga; the hydrographic and minesweeping frigate HMAS Gascoyne; and, also attached to the hydrographic unit, the fairmile HDML1074. Years later, Able Seaman David Mattiske, HMAS Shropshire, recalled:
Well here we were in Shropshire, fulfilling a prophecy, a promise and creating history. The lowliest seaman can say to his grandchildren with pride, ‘I helped take MacArthur back’.
On 20 October 1944, the invasion began. At 9.00 am, the Australian cruisers assisted in the preliminary bombardment of the Leyte Island landing beaches, and at 10.00 am US Army troops stormed ashore. Later that afternoon, General MacArthur waded from a barge through the water to the sands of Beach Red and uttered the words: ‘People of the Philippines, I have returned’.
Unknown to the Allied sailors, the Japanese were planning a great counter-attack. As the consolidation phase of the invasion continued between 21 and 24 October, three large enemy naval task forces made their way towards the Philippines, their intention being to break through the Allied covering warships and get among the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf. One of the Japanese task forces under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, consisting of two battleships, a cruiser and four destroyers, was to make its way from the south through the Surigao Strait and fight its way, if necessary, into the gulf. On the afternoon of 24 October, Nishimura’s fleet was sighted by patrolling Allied aircraft, and Allied warships were instructed to take up defensive positions at the northern reaches of the strait. In the Shropshire, Geoffrey Pettit realised that something was in the wind:
For Shropshire’s ship’s company the first indication that something different to bombardment and intermittent air attacks was afoot, came after lunch …In a corner of Leyte Gulf a none too successful smoke screen was being put down over the oilers and ships of the US Seventh Fleet, of which the Australians were part …
Australian warships were assigned to the guarding of the Surigao Strait. Shropshire was part of a right flank of three cruisers operating with the main force of six American battleships and a left flank of six American cruisers. This force, with destroyer escorts, was to cruise back and forth from east to west in a classic ‘battle line’, waiting for the enemy to appear. HMAS Arunta was placed in a destroyer group with the cruisers on the right flank and another destroyer group operated with the left flank. Scouting out ahead of the battle line were American PT Boats.
At seven minutes past midnight on 25 October 1944, the moon set, there was no wind, and the sea was dead calm. Nishimura’s fleet was detected. The first substantial damage inflicted on Nishimura’s approaching warships came from the flanking destroyer groups. First, the Americans attacked with torpedoes, sinking the battleship Fuso and putting three enemy destroyers out of action. Then it was Arunta’s turn to take part in an attack on Nishimura himself in the battleship Yamashiro. Able Seaman James Allerton recalled:
As we went in I prayed that I might do my job well and remain calm at all costs. This actually did happen, and I felt a Nearer Presence all night. As sightsetter I followed a range repeater that kept closing the range up to date … ‘All guns follow director’ we headed directly for the Yamashiro. ‘Rapid salvos’ was the next order, and the gun crew stepped up the rate of fire. A sharp turn to starboard, and the next order received over the earphones was ‘All torpedoes gone’. A Blue searchlight came on suddenly and enveloped the ship, but seconds later a ship had knocked it out. We retired under a smokescreen … a call came through from the Flagship [USS Louisville] ‘Happy Hour this is Jumbo Five, come out or be blown out’ … Arunta could now only stand and watch as the Big Boys took over.
The ‘Big Boys’ were the battleships and cruisers. They proceeded to pour devastating broadside fire into the Yamashiro. Sub Lieutenant Peter Adams in the Shropshire recalled these accurate and deadly salvos:
Shropshire’s broadsides were really something at night. Unlike most US ships we didn’t have ‘flashless’ charges … at the first DING … DING [gongs warning of guns about to fire] I shut my eyes, but many didn’t – and were blinded for many minutes. The broadsides went on to a regular beat about every 30 seconds.
Returning fire from Japanese warships flew over Shropshire but no hits were registered. After ten minutes of concentrated gunfire from this massive array of Allied battleships and cruisers, the Yamashiro, burning badly, turned around and headed back down the strait. Minutes later, the great battleship capsized and sank, taking most of its crew, including Nishimura, with it.
As they cruised down the strait at daylight, a pitiful sight met the eyes of the Australian sailors. All around was wreckage from sunken enemy vessels and dying men in the water. Allerton in the Arunta described the scene:
... back in the battle zone, a Jap destroyer was sinking by the bow but her Y gun was still firing. As she sunk below the sea, she fired her last shot … gallant men were still at their posts. The water was filled with black heads refusing aid.
This action was the last time in history that such great warships lined up against each other to fight it out shell by shell. Of the Battle of the Surigao Strait, fought to keep the enemy from the Leyte beaches, the American naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote:
Thus when Mississippi [the American battleship] discharged her twelve 14-inch guns at Yamashiro, at a range of 19,970 yards [18260m], at 0408 October 25, 1944 … she was not only giving the battleship the coup de grace, but firing a funeral salute to a finished end of naval warfare.
The RAN’s role in this last great naval engagement had been a significant one. As the Shropshire arrived back at base at Manus Island on 21 November 1944, the Americans acknowledged the cruiser’s part in the sinking of the Yamashiro, as Pettit recalled:
As she proceeded slowly down harbour the US flagship’s band was drawn up on the battleship’s quarter-deck, and across the water came distinctly the music of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. A congratulatory signal was flashed from the US base commander …
According to Pettit, before Surigao Strait the Americans had nicknamed the elderly British-built cruiser with her high profile and three tall funnels the ‘Helpless’. Now, instead, HMAS Shropshire was affectionately dubbed ‘The Old War Horse’.