My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So we’ve reached the point in our discussions of WWII where writing about individual battles isn’t exciting enough, and we need to start breaking up the action even further. This book, for instance, is the story of the near catastrophe off Samar, which was one component of the naval action usually grouped together as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It also covers, in some detail, the previous day’s Battle of the Sibuyan Sea and the previous night’s Battle of Surigao Strait, and Halsey’s decision to take the Third Fleet after the Japanese decoy carriers, so even though the focus is on the Center Force action off Samar, it gives a pretty good gloss on the entire battle.
So here’s the arc: the Japanese Navy, in an attempt to forestall the liberation of the Phillipines, and with no real naval air power remaining after the Marianas Turkey Shoot, concoct an elaborate plan to split their surface ships into two large fleets and catch the American invasion force in a pincer, while using empty carriers to draw off the main strength of the American Third Fleet. Halsey and the Third Fleet do take the bait and go chasing off, leaving the Army forces covered only by small escort carriers and a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts. The Southern Force is destroyed in the Surigao strait, but after a brief retreat, Admiral Kurita’s center force falls upon the US Navy’s tiny escort carrier group with a far superior surface force of battleships and cruisers, including the massive Yamato. With no choice but to fight, the captains of the task force known as “Taffy 3” take their tiny ships into action and sink three cruisers, forcing the Japanese into retreat. The Japanese fleet spends the rest of the war in harbor and never threatens the American advance again. It is a big deal.
Like most recent books about naval warfare, Last Stand spends a lot of time detailing the events leading up to the battle, and a lot of time detailing the aftermath of the battle. The survivors of the crippled DDs and DEs spent a long time in the water, dealing with the elements, delirium, and shark attack, and it makes for pretty grim reading. If your interest is just in naval strategy and the timeline of the battle, you could, I suppose, skip the last several chapters, but you could also simply read the pretty detailed wikipedia page here and give the whole book a miss. The human story is important and well told.
All in all, a very solid read