You never met Paul Henry Carr. He lived and died before the last century was halfway over. But if you’re an American citizen, you owe him at least a moment’s thought this Veterans Day. What Carr did epitomizes the American fighting man in spirit and in deed.
General Douglas MacArthur had promised to return to the Philippines and take them back from the Japanese invaders who had overrun the islands two years before. On this 25th of October 1944, MacArthur’s troops were even now disembarking and meeting comparatively light resistance from defenders. Everything was going according to plan, and there was optimism in the command ranks.
But the wheels started to come off when naval commander Admiral William F. Halsey, hearing a report of enemy naval forces far to the north, took off in hot pursuit, taking most of his ships with him. (In one of those ironies that war can produce, the Japanese were observed off the northernmost tip of the Philippines at a place called Cape Engaño, which means “lure.” Halsey would later face a Court of Enquiry about his actions.)
Meanwhile, a small force of 4 escort carriers protected by 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts were left to guard the invasion beaches as best they could. This force, know as Taffy 3, was commanded by Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague. He had no reason to expect trouble—until one of his lookouts reported a sizable group of Japanese warships bearing down on him like wolves on the fold. Somehow the Japanese had achieved that most desirable of military objectives—complete surprise.
Through his binoculars, Sprague could see what he was up against: 4 battleships (including the mighty Yamato) armed with 14-, 16-, and 18.1-inch guns; 8 cruisers armed with 8- and 6-inch guns; and 11 destroyers with 5-inch guns and Long Lance torpedoes. What Admiral Sprague said next about Admiral Halsey leaving his forces with no protection is choice and understandable but a little too pungent to be reproduced here.
Undismayed, however, the quick-thinking Sprague immediately commenced a running gun battle-cum-retreat from the enemy’s superior forces, with every gun and torpedo being brought to bear on the Japanese. Some men cracked under the strain—one petty officer curled up in a gibbering ball inside a canvas bag—but these would prove to be the exception. The majority of the officers and men fought valiantly against overwhelming odds.
One of Taffy 3′s ships, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts (“the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship”), managed to bob and weave safely among the huge geysers of exploding Japanese shells for some time, but eventually her luck ran out: 8- and 14-inch shells ripped a 40-by-10-foot hole in her near the waterline, sealing the Roberts’ doom. (Like most destroyers and destroyer escorts of the time, the Roberts had at most 3/8-inch armor, while most of her opponents had between one and two feet of protection.)
But the fight the Roberts put up before she sank is legendary, and most of it was due to Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Paul Henry Carr, U. S. Naval Reserve, who was captain of the No. 2 5-inch gun mount. The Roberts’ skipper, Lt. Commander Copeland, later wrote in his report:
“… these two guns, No. 1 and No. 2, beat a regular tattoo on the Jap cruiser’s upper works. The boys took the ammunition just the way it came up the hoist, nobody cared what it was. They just took it as it came. Five-inch blind loaded and plugged, 5-inch AA [anti-aircraft], 5-inch common, 5-inch AP [armor piercing], 5-inch starshells, 5-inch proximity fuse: just whatever came up the ammunition hoist. It was fodder for the guns. They threw it in as fast as they could get it. It was very odd to see those starshells banging off over there in the daylight …. The boys set up a terrifically rapid rate of fire. We carried 325 rounds per gun and it’s almost unbelievable that from the time those guns received word to commence firing till the time they ceased firing … it was a period of only thirty-five minutes … gun No. 2 had put out 324 rounds of 5-inch ammunition.”
In his book Defiance at Sea, Jon Guttman describes the horror … and the valor:
“Roberts’ No. 2 gun, which had fired about 300 shells during the past hour, continued to bark defiance as its crew, commanded by Gunner’s Mate Paul Henry Carr, loaded and fired six more rounds by hand—ignoring the hazards presented by the failure of the gun’s gas ejection system. Indeed, while they attempted to fire a seventh shell, an internal explosion killed all but three of the crew outright. Lt. W. S. Burton described what followed: ‘The first man to enter the mount after the explosion found the gun captain, Carr, on the deck of the mount holding in his hands the last projectile available to his gun. He was completely torn open and his intestines were splattered throughout the inside of the mount. Nevertheless, he held in his hand the 54-pound projectile, held it up above his head and begged the petty officer who had entered the mount to help him get that last round out … The Petty Officer, who entered the mount, took the projectile from Carr and removed one of the other men, who was wounded and unconscious, to the main deck in order to give him first aid. When he returned to the mount, there was Gunner’s Mate Carr again with the projectile in his hand, still attempting, though terribly wounded, to place the projectile on the loading tray.’ Dragged from the gun mount, Carr died minutes later, as did another of his wounded crewmen. Only one of the crew, Samuel Blue, survived.”
Eventually the Roberts sank, taking nearly half her crew with her. Lt. Commander Copeland was later rescued and wrote in his report:
“To witness the conduct of the average enlisted man aboard this vessel, newly inducted, unaccustomed to Navy ways and with an average of less than one year’s service, would make any man proud to be an average American. The crew were informed over the loudspeaker system at the beginning of the action of the Commanding Officer’s estimate of the situation, that is, a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could. In the face of this knowledge the men zealously manned their stations wherever they might be, and fought and worked with such calmness, courage, and efficiency that no higher honor could be conceived than to command such a group of men.”
The Americans fought back with such ferocity that Admiral Kurita, the Japanese commander, thought he had run afoul of Halsey’s major forces and broke off the attack, victory easily within his grasp; the almost undefended troop transports were just over the horizon and would have been easy pickings for the superb Japanese gunners. But “victory disease” had by now given way to a fatalism that had infected most of the Japanese leadership, and Kurita was as debilitated by it as anybody. Instead of pushing on to the beaches, he turned around. He would live to a ripe old age.
Six months later, off Okinawa, the Yamato, dispatched on a suicide mission, met the same fate—a watery tomb—as the Roberts, but almost 90 percent of her crew went down with her. There is no way of knowing how many of Yamato’s men were killed by bombs and torpedoes, but it is known that many of them lashed themselves to the ship just before she sank.
Paul Henry Carr received a Silver Star posthumously. The citation reads in part:
“His aggressive determination of duty reflected the highest credit upon Carr and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
Unlike the Japanese, who fought their last battle nourishing a death wish, Paul Henry Carr fought his final battle striving to save lives. He is the quintessential American citizen-soldier.