Roy Romano holds a photo of the USS West Virginia and crew, where he served during World War II. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
When the 16-inch guns of the USS West Virginia opened up on approaching Japanese ships 72 years ago, Roy Romano only knew that a big battle was happening.
What no one realized was that an era was ending.
The Baton Rouge resident was a gunner’s mate second class aboard the West Virginia when the Battle of Surigao Strait was fought in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 1944. A resounding victory for the U.S. Navy, it marked the last time that battleships — long the pride of every fleet — would attack each other in a major battle. Already, aircraft carriers had become the most important naval vessels.
“You hear about great battles — Midway, Coral Sea, Battle of the Bulge, D-Day,” said Romano, 80. “All were decisive battles, but you never hear about Surigao Strait. This was the last battleship battle in history.” It occurred during the American invasion of the Philippines. For the previous two years, U.S. forces had pushed the Japanese military from island to island westward across the Pacific, but the Philippines was a big prize. Its air force having been severely degraded, Japan mounted a large naval effort to disrupt the invasion.
The Japanese sent a decoy force with four aircraft carriers to lure the U.S. Third Fleet away so other forces could attack the Seventh Fleet invasion force off the island of Leyte. The decoy worked, and a Japanese force with two battleships, followed closely by a second force, moved in.
American Adm. Thomas Kinkaid knew the Japanese were coming, and the route they had to take to attack the invasion fleet. As a result, he laid a trap that was every naval officer’s dream.
Japanese were severely outnumbered. The U.S. had six battleships to Japan’s two, as well as more cruisers, destroyers and PT boats. More important, the Americans had a tremendous positional advantage.
The Japanese ships would pass northward through the narrow Surigao Strait. Six American battleships would be positioned in a line across the north end of the channel. In naval terms, this was known as “crossing the T.” The American ships could turn all their heavy guns toward the enemy in a broadside attack. The Japanese could only fire their forward guns.
The battle had an additional sense of retribution for the U.S. Navy. Five of the six battleships — the West Virginia, Maryland, California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — had been at Pearl Harbor when Japan’s surprise attack triggered America’s entry into World War II. The West Virginia had been sunk and was still undergoing extensive repairs when Romano came aboard in 1943.
“For about six months we chipped paint,” he said. “They gave us a respirator and a chipping gun and we chipped paint.”
When the West Virginia was recommissioned, Romano became a gunners mate second class and was assigned to a 5-inch gun on the starboard side. The Pearl Harbor battleships, joined by the Mississippi, set up across the northern end of the channel, with cruisers and destroyers and PT boats positioned closer to the expected Japanese advance.
“We had rumors we were going to meet the Japanese fleet,” Romano said. “We didn’t know how true it was until the captain came on the PA system and informed us to get ready, that we were going to be involved in a night surface attack with the Japanese fleet.
“We had to get everything ready. We had to tie down all loose stuff aboard ship. We didn’t know how long we were going to be in general quarters. Sure enough, the fleet showed up. What we couldn’t secure down on the ship we threw overboard.”
The two fleets would not get close enough for Romano’s gun to fire. But, when the Japanese ships closed within about 11 miles, all eight of the West Virginia’s big 16-inch guns, aimed off the starboard side, went off at once.
“That just rocked the ship,” Romano said. “I was in the (5-inch gun) mount, and I didn’t know if we were firing at them or if we were taking on a hit. The concussion was so strong.
“With all eight guns going off it would knock you up against the bulkhead. It actually pushes the ship sideways. It was just a tremendous experience.
“The concussion was so hard it busted a lot of the light bulbs. Our ship was sunk at Pearl Harbor and welded together, and even the bulkheads … some of them were split. The welding had come loose. That’s how bad it was. It was just like being hit, but it wasn’t. We weren’t being hit, but we had a lot of damage from our own guns.”
Not nearly as much as the Japanese ships were experiencing. Before getting in range of the big guns, the Japanese fleet had already lost one battleship to a destroyer’s torpedo.
Then, the American battleships attacked.
The West Virginia fired 93 rounds, mostly armor-piercing shells; the Tennessee and California combined for 132 more. These ships, which had more sophisticated night radar than the others, did the bulk of the work. The Maryland fired 43 shots, while the Mississippi got off one and the Pennsylvania none.
When it was all over, both Japanese battleships were sunk, along with one cruiser and three destroyers.
“We got even for Pearl Harbor,” Romano said. “We got even.”