Fessie Pennington participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf , the last great naval battle of World War II as well as the largest naval battle ever fought anywhere. On the first day of battle - October 24, 1944 - the USS Reno spent most of the day assisting the USS Princeton, as noted in an earlier post. The following day the light cruiser rejoined the task force under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey and proceeded to engage the Northern Force of the Japanese Navy at Cape Engano, the final battle in the Gulf of Leyte. At the end of the three day conflict, the task force had destroyed 3 Japanese battleships, 2 light carriers, 1 large carrier, 10 carriers and 11 destroyers.
Fessie served as a gunner's mate, responsible for feeding ammunition to the anti-aircraft guns while the gunner shot down enemy planes. After the war he spoke about seeing the eyes of Japanese pilots as they swooped down upon the ship. They came close enough for Fessie to see the grimaces on their faces, and once he had to take over the firing of the gun when the gunman of his turret was wounded.
The Japanese increased their use of kamikaze planes to counter their diminished air strength. Prior to World War II, kamikaze, or “divine wind,” was a relatively obscure world and referred to the typhoon that sunk a Mongul fleet in its attempt to invade Japan in the 13th century. Following the war, however, nearly everyone knew what a kamikaze pilot was.
One of the first recorded kamikaze attacks of World War II took place on the USS Reno. In the waters off Formosa, on October 14, five planes converged upon the cruiser at the same instant. One of the planes never waivered from its course, crashed into the fantail of the ship, skidded across and then exploded on the USS Reno’s main deck, badly burning six seamen.
The USS Reno survived the kamikaze attack and survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf but faced even larger challenges in the days ahead.