As U.S. forces converged on the Philippines in the fall of 1944, Japan’s admirals pieced together an audacious counterattack. In a complex operation, the Japanese lured the larger U.S. carriers from their posts guarding the approaches to the U.S. beachhead on Leyte. Their departure left the task force unit known as Taffy 3, which included Snyder’s ship, the Kitkun Bay, directly in harm’s way in the waters east of Samar.
On October 24, 1944, as the Kitkun Bay’s sailors grabbed a quick breakfast, a Japanese force of nearly two dozen battleships, cruisers, and destroyers approached, concealed in a morning mist. Only the lightly armed escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 stood between Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s armada and the transports gathered along the Leyte beachheads.
Ensign Hans L. Jensen, piloting a TBM Avenger from the escort carrier Kadashan Bay, was the first to spot the Japanese force. At 6:30 a.m., anti-aircraft fire exploded around Jensen’s Avenger, giving Rear Admiral Clifton A.F. “Zippy” Sprague and his skippers the first sign of impending disaster. Moments later, Ensign William C. Brooks, a pilot from the CVE St. Lo, radioed: “Enemy surface force of four battleships, seven cruisers, and 11 destroyers sighted 20 miles northwest of your task group and closing in on you at 30 knots!” For the poorly armed and armored escort carriers, which barely made 18 knots, this was grim news. Sprague ordered his baby flattops to launch all airplanes.
At 6:55, flight quarters sounded in the Kitkun Bay, sending Snyder and his comrades sprinting to their aircraft. By the time the last one catapulted skyward, geysers spouting from Japanese shells bracketed the ship.
Snyder and his section leader, Jack Krouse, headed for the enemy ships. Elsewhere in the overcast sky, in disorganized clusters and even alone, U.S. pilots were hurling their Wildcats and Avengers against the enemy fleet.
Snyder pointed his Wildcat’s stubby nose at the first Japanese ship he saw. Anti-aircraft shells burst around his aircraft and punched holes in its wings and fuselage. Still he roared on, answering its gunners with his .50-caliber machine guns. Then on to the next ship. “We hardly had time to pick out targets,” Snyder recalls. “It was just like one big daisy chain.”
As the morning passed, Japanese gunfire took its toll in the running duel. Shells straddled the escort carrier White Plains, missing it but striking close enough to temporarily knock out the steering control. Japanese guns pummeled the CVEs Kalinin Bay, Fanshaw Bay, and Gambier Bay. Mortally wounded, the Gambier Bay—the ship that, but for a coin toss, would have been Snyder’s home—rolled over and sank. Taffy 3’s destroyers and destroyer escorts valiantly attacked the far larger Japanese warships and suffered grievous losses as well. The destroyers Hoel and Johnston were literally blasted out of the water, as was the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts.
Before long, Snyder, like so many other pilots engaged in the chaotic battle, ran out of ammunition. Still he harassed the Japanese, with mock gun runs, and even “bombed” an enemy ship with his empty drop tank—anything to draw the Japanese away from the practically defenseless escort carriers.
“By then, the gas gauge needle was bobbing around zero,” Snyder says. “I knew that meant I had about 20 minutes of fuel left. Krouse, my section leader and wingman, was facing the same situation. He decided we should head for the airfield the Army had just captured ashore at Tacloban.
“When we got to Tacloban, it was full of wrecked airplanes. There was nowhere to land. Then we remembered another airstrip at Dulag, 15 miles to the south, and turned for it. It was a mess too, but we made it in safely.”