Glorious Death: The Battle of Leyte Gulf,
October 23 — 25, 1944
By Tim Lanzendörfer
The four-day battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 marked the eclipse of Imperial Japanese naval power, the last sortie in force of the Imperial Navy, and the largest naval battle ever fought on the face of the earth.
It was separated in four parts, each carrying its own name: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, when U.S. carrier planes struck the IJN’s Center Force and sank battleship Musashi; the Battle of Cape Engaño, where U.S. carriers destroyed the Japanese carrier force that had served as a deception; the Battle of Surigao Strait, where U.S. and Japanese battleships fought the last dreadnought engagement of all times; and lastly, the Battle off Samar, where the Japanese Center Force took to sinking the U.S. escort carriers defending the beachhead and were soundly defeated by miniscule forces.
At the conclusion of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the debate on the continuation of the war once more started. Two distinct factions were opposing each other: the Navy, led by Admirals Nimitz and King, vowed to take Formosa in the ultimate extension of island-hopping, neutralizing the Philippine Japanese Army garrison by air blockade. Formosa, sitting astride the seaways from the Dutch East Indies to Japan, would be the perfect base for economic strangulation of Japan and was capable of serving as base for the final attack on the Japanese home islands.
On the other side was General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the South-west Pacific Forces, who had dedicated himself to recapturing the Philippines in 1942. He was convinced that military reasons alone should not dictate the primary objective of the next months, but also political considerations: MacArthur argued that leaving the Philippines in Japanese hands would be an irreversible loss of American prestige in Asiatic eyes (and obviously a blow to his own prestige, he did not say).
To resolve this conflict of interests, President Roosevelt came to visit senior American commanders in Hawaii in July 1944. Meeting with General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz, the President listened to the arguments presented by each, and, being a politician in an election year, listened very closely to what MacArthur told him in a private discussion the day of Roosevelt’s departure: should he elect to leave the Philippines alone, he had better be prepared for a negative reaction from American voters.
The influence of this remark to Roosevelt is hard to estimate: how much Roosevelt felt threatened by MacArthur’s comments is not known. Likely, Roosevelt did not need MacArthur to estimate for him the possible political results of leaving the Philippines in Japanese hands.
Whatever the results of MacArthur’s prodding, Roosevelt decided that the Philippines would have to be taken.
Both services quickly adapted to the new strategic situation. Preparation for the invasion of Mindanao tentatively set for December 20th, entailed invasions of the Palau group and Morotai, and strikes against the Philippines and connecting island groups, including Formosa. These preliminary operations would be executed by the two separate Pacific commands, Pacific Ocean Areas and South-West Pacific, without joint forces, while the actual Mindanao landings would be conducted by 7th Fleet amphibious forces (MacArthur’s naval units) covered and supported by 3rd Fleet’s warships (under Admiral William F. Halsey). Halsey took command of 3rd Fleet in August 1944, and met with his opposite number from 7th Fleet, Vice-Admiral Kinkaid, at Manus in the Admiralty-Islands in early September. While the two Admirals were conferring, Admiral Marc A. Mitscher took Task Force 38 and struck Iwo Jima, the Palaus, and Mindanao, against weak resistance. When Halsey and his flagship, the fast battleship New Jersey, met up with Mitscher on September 12th, attacks were renewed against Leyte, Cebu, and Negros. Two days of attacks cut up Japanese air power in the Philippines, and more: a downed aviator reported that Leyte was virtually clear of the enemy. That island, having once figured as fleet anchorage in the Orange War Plan and still considered one of the finest places to establish a foothold in the Philippines, seemed like a god-sent present.
The aviator’s report and his aerial successes convinced Halsey that there was no need whatsoever to carefully position air units within range of the islands – a swift invasion two months ahead of schedule would be able to secure a base in the middle of the Philippine Islands without fussing about in the smaller islands around them.
Nimitz, back at Pearl Harbor, listened to Halsey’s arguments, but refused to cancel the attack on the Palaus (and the capture of Ulithi atoll in the western Carolines), scheduled for September 15th, as did MacArthur the attack on Morotai, set for the same date. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, ordered Nimitz and MacArthur to take Leyte, instead of Mindanao, on October 20th, instead of December 20th.
The invasions of Morotai and Peleliu were vastly different operations. On Morotai, the Army units landed on the smaller of two adjacent islands against little opposition and soon had airfields in operation. On Peleliu, the same held true – but the campaign, after easily grabbing the local airfield, ran into the horrible terrain of the Umurbrogol Ridge, where Japan had carved a veritable fortress out of the hard surface of the atoll. It took an entire month to secure the island, costing two thousand American lives. The conquest of Ulithi atoll saw no ground and limited aerial resistance and provided the U. S. Navy with a superb advance base, immediately made serviceable by elements of the Service Fleet. Peleliu never served in any especially remarkable function, and was not at all vital to any of the succeeding operations. For once, Nimitz had made a mistake, costing 2000 servicemen’s lives.
While MacArthur’s 7th Fleet in Manus and Hollandia harbors was getting ready for sortie to Leyte (a long voyage given the slow speed of the prime mover, the LST), Admiral Halsey took Task Force 38 out of Ulithi on October 4th, 17 carriers and about seventy escort vessels from battleships to destroyers. Target of this sortie in force was the island of Formosa – if Nimitz was not allowed to take it, at least he would make sure that there would be no hindrance from that island’s air units in the assault on Leyte. For three days, the air battle smashed wave after wave of U.S. and Japanese planes against each other. For hits on cruisers Canberra and Houston, and 79 U.S. planes shot down, the Japanese suffered 600 planes lost on the ground and in the air.
It was an unqualified disaster for the Combined Fleet. After the Philippine Sea debacle in June, Admiral Toyoda Soemu, Combined Fleet chief, at Tokyo had distributed the SHO (Victory) plans – Sho-1, for a major sea action in the Philippines, Sho-2 for a similar operation at Formosa, and Sho-3 for the Ryukyu chain.
The fundamental part of this operation was an immediate reinforcement of the threatened area by aerial units and the sortie of all available Combined Fleet units to repel the invaders in yet another decisive battle. It would be horrendously complex, bound to the precise timing that always seemed to attract Japanese planners.
Thus, when Halsey’s planes struck Taiwan on October 12th, with Admiral Toyoda and Admiral Fukudome, Chief of the 2nd Air Fleet, visiting local air fields, SHO-2 was initiated to repel the attackers. It cost the Japanese almost their entire air force, certainly 90% of those forces who, two weeks later, could have been so valuable to support the Leyte Gulf operation.
Now, there remained only the sea-going elements of Toyoda’s plan. At Lingga Roads, south-east of Singapore, in the middle of Japan’s rich, if cut-off, oil fields, lay Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo with seven battleships, Yamato, Musashi, Kongo, Haruna, Nagato, Fuso and Yamashiro, a dozen cruisers and around twenty destroyers. In Japan’s Inland Sea, Vice-Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo had four carriers, two hybrid-battleships, three cruisers and nine destroyers. With him was Admiral Shima Kiyohide, with three cruisers and seven destroyers. Ozawa’s role was sad: under the SHO plans, he would serve as a bait to draw the U.S. carrier forces away from the landing they were to cover, to allow Admiral Kurita and Shima to strike the landing forces and deliver a stunning defeat to them.
Admiral Thomas Kinkaid and his 7th Fleet sailed in several convoys starting October 10th. On October 17th, after an essentially eventless voyage, the minecraft that were to sweep clear channels arrived in Leyte Gulf. The unexpected appearance of enemy minecraft spelled out to Admiral Toyoda what was to come. He immediately ordered the execution of SHO-1. While the Combined Fleet prepared to sortie (Vice-Admiral Shima had gone to sea on October 15th, ostensibly to finish off claimed damaged carriers from the Formosa battle), Rangers secured the islands off Leyte to prepare a free passage into the gulf. After a two-day naval bombardment by Rear-Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s 3rd Fleet battleships, the amphibious groups under Rear-Admiral Daniel E. Barbey and Vice-Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson went ashore at Tacloban and Dulag respectively, creating a beachhead without major trouble and establishing themselves at Tacloban airfield on October 21st. By midnight on the 21st, most troops had been landed, most ships departed, and most warships established blocking positions along likely Japanese routes of attack – 7th Fleet to the south across Surigao Strait, 3rd Fleet in the Philippine Sea to the north-east of Samar Island.
Vice-Admiral Kurita at Lingga Roads received the telegram detailing the Combined Fleet to conduct Operation SHO-1 at 0928 on October 17th, two hours after an initial warning on the subject. A British diversionary raid against the Nicobar Islands had been dismissed as a viable threat, and Kurita sailed his entire force for Brunei on the 18th. Following him on the 20th was Vice-Admiral Ozawa at the head of his “Bait Force”, called the “Main Body”. Arriving at Borneo on the 21st, Kurita and his subordinates were for the first time informed on how the First Air Fleet intended to support the Combined Fleet in its sortie to Leyte. Vice-Admiral Onishi Takijiro, newly appointed commander of the First Air Fleet, had witnessed at first hand the devastation wrought by U.S. air defenses and was determined to devise methods to use his air power. From 24 Zeros, crewed by volunteers, he created after discussing the idea with subordinates and superiors a “Special Attack Corps” – what soon became known as the “kamikazes”. Kurita and his commanders discussed battle plans, including a major change: instead of sailing as a unit, Kurita split off the 2nd Battleship Division under Vice-Admiral Nishimura Shoji, battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, the cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers, to sortie through Surigao Strait and meet him again in Leyte Gulf to envelop the U.S. forces. Another force, that of Vice-Admiral Shima, sailing from the Pescadores, would take that route as well.
After tanking in Brunei (from tankers brought up from Singapore, likely because Brunei oil had the irritating tendency to give off highly volatile gases that could cause dangerous explosions, as witnessed by Taiho’s demise in the Philippine Sea battle), Kurita set sail for the Sibuyan Sea at 0800 on October 22nd, a Sunday.
The Battle October 23rd – 25th, 1944
Kurita intended to pass through the narrow passage between the island of Palawan and the shallow part of the South China Sea known on the maps as “dangerous area”, then enter the Sibuyan Sea, and finally pass through San Bernardino Strait and south along the coast of the island of Samar, into Leyte Gulf. So far so good – but events would turn out much more problematic than Kurita anticipated.
The first disaster was partially of his own making. Passing the Palawan Passage, he utilized an odd five-column formation that could neither serve as screen, nor battle formation, and actually put half the destroyers of his formation inside his battleships – how he supposed to defend himself in that formation, is impossible to discern, and how, as Admiral Ugaki Matome indicates, the Japanese could have regarded this as a formation against submarines, is, too.
Events would prove that there was little protection from submarines. Shortly after midnight on the 23rd, the submarines Darter and Dace, sent to cover the Palawan Passage, noted the impressive contact that Kurita’s force made on the greenish screens of the SJ-radars of the two U.S. subs. As usual during such major operations, the first priority was to radio a contact report to the fleet; that, Commander Dave McClintock did quickly. Then, the two submarines parted and prepared for attack.
On Yamato, Vice-Admiral Ugaki’s flagship, the radio room had intercepted Darter’s message to the U.S. fleet and correctly recognized it as being close; inexplicably, no change whatsoever was made in the Japanese formation. Thus, when Darter fired her first six torpedoes on the flagship Atago and four more on Takao, no one in the Japanese fleet was prepared for what was going to happen.
Darter’s shots were well timed. Four ripped open Atago from stem to stern; she capsized and sank in twenty minutes, fortunately not taking Admiral Kurita down with her. Takao was heavily damaged. As she witnessed the scene, Dace was presented with a perfect shot at the other heavy-ship column; four torpedoes from her salvo blew up heavy cruiser Maya; only the lack of torpedoes in her aft tubes prevented even more devastation. She retired, fearing having gone to close for comfort and being sure of having sunk a battleship. The same did Darter; the Japanese, meanwhile, were too busy surviving to care much for their U.S. assailants.
While Kurita was fished from the water and moved by destroyer to battleship Yamato, cruiser Takao and two destroyers were sent back to care to Takao’s wounds.
As the two U.S. submarines stalked wounded Takao throughout the day and into the night, there seemed little chance the heavy cruiser would come home without further damage. Luck, however, would not have it. Shortly after midnight with terrific noise, Darter ran aground on an uncharted reef, and would not come loose. Finally, Commander McClintock asked Dace for assistance. The other sub took off Darter’s crew and commenced attempts to destroy the wreck. However, although the boat was riddled by 5-inch fire, she did not blow up. The next day, a Japanese destroyer came alongside and took off again with valuable information, blueprints of radar and engine systems, and various other material. Although the code books and other highly classified material had been burned, the take was still not to be regarded lightly.
Meantime, the Imperial Japanese forces entered the Sibuyan Sea, closing their certain encounter with U.S. air power.
Battle of the Sibuyan Sea
The contact report issued by Darter and Dace made the weight resting on the shoulders of Admiral William Halsey so much lighter. Halsey had been determined from the very start to be liberal in the adoption of CINPAC Chester Nimitz’ fighting orders. He much preferred whatever way there was to fight the Imperial Navy over the laborious and less than glorious task of protecting the South-West Pacific forces of Admiral Kinkaid. He assumed that the IJN would not sortie in defense of the Philippines, and that he would have to go after them. He proposed to pass through the Philippine islands, instead of around them, to hit the Imperial Navy beyond. This dangerous and dumb scheme of operations, which Halsey had not discussed with Nimitz, was ripped apart by a message from CinCPac directing that 3rd Fleet units only with the express permission of Nimitz would be allowed to sail through the archipelago.
This order might well have denied Halsey his chance for a fleet action, but now, with Kurita dauntlessly steaming in his direction, all Halsey had to do was sit and wait.
On the morning of October 24th, it was Intrepid’s Air Group 18 that drew air search duty for the area including the Sibuyan Sea, one of the larger bodies of open water in the Philippine archipelago. There, shortly after 0800, on of the fighter/bomber teams that were send out to search the area, dispatched the news back to Halsey: at the entrance of the green Sibuyan Sea, they had found the fleet under Vice-Admiral Kurita.
Several hundred miles to the south, in a different search sector, it was planes from the veteran Enterprise and her Air Group 20 that located the two old battlewagons of Admiral Nishimura.
Halsey wasted no time: from the fleet flagship battleship New Jersey, at 0837 the call went to the available three carrier task groups: “Strike, Repeat, Strike. Good Luck.”
While aboard the carriers of Bogan and Davison, the crews, as if reiterating a long-learned poem, flawlessly readied the attack planes for their strikes against the oncoming dreadnought fleet, Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s Task Group 38.3 consisting of carriers Essex, Lexington, Princeton and Langley, had more immediate concerns than Kurita.
Vice-Admiral Onishi Takijiro had decided to utilize the remaining weak firepower of his 1st Air Fleet in attacking the U.S. carriers, rather than covering Kurita. As a result, he was able to muster almost 80 planes in a powerful strike against Sherman’s forces. From Essex, Lexington, Princeton and Langley, fighters scrambled in intercept of the enemy.
There seemed to be little reason for worry – but there was. It was not a massive strike that dealt damage to the U.S., but a single D4Y Judy dive-bomber, clinging closely to the returning U.S. fighters and escaping detection, that singled out the light carrier Princeton as its target. Furiously fired at by the small flattop, the Judy planted an armor-piercing bomb in the middle of the flightdeck. In her interior, the bomb wrecked the ready-made Avengers that had been intended for the strike on Kurita, igniting severe fires inside her hangar deck. The damage was not looking bad – but indeed, it was disastrous. Sherman left behind the light cruiser Birmingham and three destroyers, and went his ways to strike Kurita. In the meantime, Birmingham and her supporting destroyers tended to the ailing Princeton in every way possible. It seemed possible to heal her; but at 1530, her aft magazines, heated by the blaze in the hangar deck, ignited, sending splinters in all directions, killing 230 Birmingham crew members and maiming others. With her aft deck blown away and the hangar deck fires relentlessly spreading forward, Captain Buracker decided to abandon his ship. At 1630, he left as last man alive.
Destroyer Irwin was ordered to scuttle the carrier with torpedoes, but she had little luck – almost hit by her own, circle-running torpedoes, frustration spread among her crew. Finally, the light cruiser Reno was ordered to take the unhappy task from Irwin. A torpedo hit Princeton near her forward magazine, another at her fuel tanks, and blew her apart.
As Princeton struggled for her survival, deckload strikes from Gerry Bogan’s task group swooped down on the Center Force of Kurita’s. Simultaneously, from Dave Davison’s forces came air strikes on Nishimura’s smaller, but still potent force. The results were less than expected. As bomb churned the waters around giant Yamashiro and Fuso, others merely ignited small fires aboard the battlewagons. The cruiser Mogami, tagging along with the battleships, was hit by rockets but showed no sign of damage; the destroyers likewise had been strafed, but went on.
Bogan’s planes meanwhile, at half past 10, had found what had been reported as three battleships to be five, among them the largest naval vessels to sail the face of Earth. Like magnets, the two super-battleships attracted the attention of the majority of U.S. strike planes. 1000lbs bombs hit on and around Yamato and Musashi, a torpedo hit Musashi, but the giants continued on, seemingly impervious to the assault from the air. Ahead of Musashi and ahead and to starboard of Yamato sailed the heavy cruiser Myoko, easily confused for a battleship. She was damaged and forced to retire at 15 knots to Brunei.
With the Nishimura force obviously less powerful (and also well blocked from Leyte by the battleships of the 7th Fleet), Rear-Admiral Davison’s planes soon entered the fray. In the second wave at 1200, three more torpedoes hit Musashi, hit because her size permitted her no escape, still swimming because it also prevented her succumbing to so little effort. The third wave included Enterprise planes, scoring an incredible 11 hits out of 18 bombs and eight torpedo hits along the superbattleship Musashi’s length. Her command facilities were destroyed; one torpedo buried itself in the hole left by another torpedo and blew apart the machinery of the dreadnought. At the same time, Kurita radioed his fleet to turn about. He would try to pass San Bernardino Strait during the night.
As he had done with the previous victims of attack, Kurita dispatched Musashi (which had been largely singled out by the U.S. and prevented them from attacking other valuable targets) to Brunei, shepherded by two destroyers and the cruiser Tone. But she did not make it. Her innards wrecked, her superstructure aflame, the huge vessel capsized and sank at 1835, taking with her 1000 men.
After five strikes, however, and with the coming of the night, the Kurita force was left to itself, turning about yet again at 1715, headed for San Bernardino. Battleships Nagato and Yamato had been damaged, as had been cruiser Tone and a number of destroyers. Finally, after an entire day of relentless aerial assault, Admiral Ozawa had managed to get himself to the attention of Admiral Halsey, where he fatally stayed to the end of the battle.
Battle of Cape Engaño
The role that Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa had been supposed to play in the SHO-Plan was in itself considerable cause for worry to the fleet under his command. The four carriers under his command, Zuikaku, Zuiho, Chitose and Chiyoda, the latter three converted submarine tenders, were home to merely a hundred planes – each of Halsey’s groups had 250 planes ready for use. Ozawa had sailed from Kure naval base on the 20th of October, keeping to the south of the Ryukyu island chain, and heading for the Philippines. Ozawa’s task was to make himself known to the U.S. fleet and thus draw it away from Kurita. An easy task under any normal circumstances, but in this case, there gods of war thought it a better proposition to deny Ozawa his sighting. The reasons are easily found: by the time Ozawa had desired to be found, on the morning of the 24th, the U.S. group which had the northern sectors to cover was busy with other things: Admiral Sherman had his hands full combating Vice-Admiral Onishi Takijiro’s air strikes from Luzon to care much about searches. When Ozawa intercepted the news of Kurita’s temporary retirement, he opted to retire to the north. Despite having no idea of Kurita’s whereabouts, Ozawa felt obliged by a 2000 order from Combined Fleet commander Toyoda, who ordered all forces to attack. On the morning of the 25th Ozawa began his active part in the battle. Having received a position report from a scout plane he had sent out earlier, he launched a 75-strong air strike against the target, which the Americans didn’t even realize came from a carrier.
He did not realize that in fact, he had already been sighted: at 1640 on the 24th, a Helldiver had found him, but no attack materialized because of the swiftly coming night. Now, Halsey had his three available carrier groups moving north at swift speed, poised to strike Ozawa and to wipe out the enemy carriers for good.
Behind him, Halsey left nothing, despite repeated pleas from Vice-Admiral Willis Lee, in command of Halsey’s battleships, to let him have two light carriers and stay south to cover the San Bernardino Strait. Halsey would have none of it; he was determined to get his first crack at Japanese carriers and do it right here.
In doing so he left in considerable problems Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, commanding the 7th Fleet in Leyte Gulf. Kinkaid had arrayed his available naval power so as to repulse the threat posed by Admiral Nishimura Shoji’s smaller Southern Force – including the six battleships of his bombardment squadron. He firmly believed, a set of mind bestowed upon him by confusing signals from Halsey, that Lee was indeed guarding his northern flank. The road to Leyte, however, was wide open to anyone willing to try it.
While disaster loomed for the 7th Fleet forces placed in the middle of the Leyte Gulf, the same held true for the redoubtable Admiral Ozawa. In the perfect knowledge of standing no chance against Halsey, he regardless committed himself to the battle. He had placed himself to the north of the U.S., abreast Cape Engaño. He retained little aerial firepower, only a rudimentary air defense group, which was hurriedly reinforced when, at 0707, the Japanese detected the incoming Americans to their south.
The initial air strike of five was already telling the battle’s story: against miniscule resistance, the Americans brushed aside the aerial defenses, then concentrated on the flat-top vessels. Carrier Chitose was disabled, Zuikaku severely damaged, destroyer Akizuki sunk. The next wave, two hours later, found Zuikaku and Zuiho behind the main part of the fleet, as it did Chitose. The combined force of the second and third waves smashed the small Chiyoda.
At the end of the fifth wave, the Ozawa fleet had been bombed into submission, although the Americans had not managed to destroy the two battlewagons Ise and Hyuga; as an interesting note, the Americans had, all through the war, only had the luck to sink two operating battleships by air attack alone, and, oddly enough, those were the two super-battleships Yamato and Musashi. Four other battleships were destroyed via air attack: Hiei, which had been crippled in prior surface action, and Haruna, Ise and Hyuga in harbor at Kure, Japan.
As Ozawa retired north, luck helped him for a final time. Just as Halsey was releasing Admiral “Ching” Lee to use his fast battleships to sink the remnants of Ozawa’s force, news arrived from Kinkaid and Nimitz: Leyte Gulf was under attack and Halsey was thought to have had done something against that possibility. Left to mop Ozawa up was a small cruiser/destroyer force under Rear-Admiral Laurence T. DuBose, who sank Chitose with gun and torpedo fire. Lee and the battlewagons, as well as a carrier TG were speeding south, desperate to aid their beleaguered comrades in the Gulf.
Battlle of Surigao Strait
The Battle of Surigao Strait must rate as one of the primary puzzles of the entire Leyte Gulf operation. Under Vice-Admiral Nishimura Shoji, two battleships, a heavy cruiser and four destroyers, under Vice-Admiral Shima Kiyohide three cruisers and seven destroyers would penetrate Surigao Strait, the southern entrance to Leyte Gulf, in the night hours of October 24/25. Inside Leyte Gulf, the force would meet up with Kurita and then smash the enemy.
This operation had not been in the original SHO plans, but was added at Brunei by Kurita. His reasons are unclear. He may have regarded this force as a useful diversion or even as a useful strike force, presuming the U.S. to be unable to mass against both approaching forces. As it turned out, Nishimura would sacrifice himself and his ships running into a massive Allied barrier of warships. However, certain details are still unclear.
Nishimura sortied from Brunei on October 22 at 1500. He sustained the above mentioned air attacks rather well, although superficial damage was incurred by both Fuso and Yamashiro. It was clear that Nishimura would be hard pressed now that he was sighted, but incredibly he did not try to make the best of Kurita’s plans by following closely Kurita’s movements. Instead of turning and waiting for Kurita to head back towards Leyte, he pressed on. Behind him by 40 miles was Shima’s smaller force. Neither Admiral seemed inclined to join forces, which would have given both far better chances of survival in combat. Instead, seemingly oblivious to anything going on around him, Nishimura led his force into the fray.
The fray would be created by a carefully set-up trap of major proportions involving the greater part of Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet. The first line of defense and especially reconnaissance were 49 torpedo-boats, positioned along the approach to Surigao. Their first priority was to report the incoming vessels, then attack.
Second in the line were destroyer forces tasked with putting torpedoes into the approaching foe. Their number was ten, divided into two DesRons, to attack within ten minutes of each other. Their attacks would open the final phase of the battle, involving the six battleships of Vice-Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Bombardment Force and the cruisers previously screening transport and battle forces. Their concentrated artillery fire would put under any survivor of the other battles.
As Nishimura pressed his vessels into the tight strait leading up to Leyte, he was first detected by the torpedo boats. From them, the call went out that the enemy was approaching. Nishimura pressed on, firing on the torpedo boats on his flanks and sustaining no damage from the torpedoes fired. As he headed onward, however, doom came to his force.
It was Captain Jesse G. Coward’s DesRon 54 which attacked first, with five ships from two sides. His spread was incredibly successful, matching that of Tanaka at Tassafaronga. Torpedoes sank destroyers Michishio and Yamagumo and damaged Asagumo and battleship Yamashiro. Another sinking made the success of this attack definitive: several torpedoes plowed into battleship Fuso, blowing her to pieces and putting her under in a matter of minutes.
Nishimura, oblivious to the loss of Fuso, headed on, jumped by the second group of U.S. destroyers just in the planned time interval. Another torpedo ripped into Yamashiro. Aboard her, Nishimura realized he was missing Fuso; slowing to five knots, he awaited his companion to come out of the confusion behind him. The torpedo, compliment of Monssen, had bereft Nishimura of the services of two magazines and their attendant four turrets; he desperately needed the firepower that Fuso could provide.
But even as Yamashiro headed north at five knots, she could not long delay her demise. Approaching Leyte Gulf, she also neared the narrows where Oldendorf had assembled his battleships. Behind a screen of cruisers Columbia, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland and Louisville on his left flank, and Boise, HMAS Shropshire and U.S.S. Pheonix on his right, the six battleships of his force trained their guns toward the approaching radar contacts. At 0351, his cruisers opened up; West Virginia followed at 0353; Tennessee and California at 0355.
Only Pennsylvania expended no rounds, Maryland joined the other BBs at 0359, and Mississippi got off one salvo towards the enemy as well. Their problem was technical: on their superstructures rested the Mk3 fire-control radar system, whereas the three other ships mounted Mk8. The latter’s improved resolution, range, and accuracy helped them to deliver devastatingly accurate fire.
Only ten minutes of furious gunfire followed the opening up; at 0401, with Oldendorf’s battleships brought on a course of 270° (exactly opposite to base course held at 0351), West Virginia and California ceased firing. Oldendorf, realizing his target was smothered, ordered a general cease fire at 0409. Desperately, Yamashiro attempted to extract herself from the danger facing her. Realizing no asssistance was forthcoming from Fuso and her own survival was unlikely in the face of such overwhelming fire, she turned south and increased speed to 15 knots. As she did so, she enabled U.S. destroyers to cap their success that night with yet another battleship. Newcomb, Albert W. Grant, and Richard P. Leary. Two torpedoes fired by Newcomb impacted on the battleship. At 0419, having taken the coup de grâce, Yamashiro turned over and sank into the strait.
It had not really been a battle. Each American ship had fired between 60 and one hundred rounds; Yamashiro was torn apart by the explosions of these shells and the torpedoes and sank at 0419. Six minutes later, Admiral Shima behind the now-dead Nishimura realized the senselessness of following him, and ordered his forces to retire. Joining him were the two survivors of the Nishimura force: destroyer Shigure, the famous Solomons veteran, and cruiser Mogami, badly battered in the Midway battle. As Nachi, Shima’s flagship, passed Mogami, the men aboard her realized they had badly misjudged the other vessel’s speed. Franticly, they attempted to avoid a collision, but Mogami’s bow buried itself in Nachi’s stern; damage to the latter ship was minor, but Mogami had her steering room flooded by the concussions of the impact and her bow deformed. As slowly, the two ships parted and headed south, Mogami fell back. Coming up behind her were the cruisers of Oldendorf’s screen, sent to mop up the straits. They shelled and stopped her, but with the coming of the morning, they decided to retire to less submarine-endangered areas. In the light of the new morning, however, Mogami was an easy target for repeated air attacks. The situation became untenable: a destroyer took off her crew and scuttled her.
As the scenes closed over the Surigao Straits, Yamashiro having joined the selected few of her kind of dreadnought ever sunk in combat with another dreadnought, the curtain fell over an era of naval warfare dominated by the sound of large guns; for Surigao Strait marked the last engagement between battleships, and the Battle of Samar would prove the battleship hopeless against an aerial onslaught. And even in Surigao, the battleship had found its master in the deadly combination of destroyer torpedoes and radar.
Battle off Samar
While Halsey pursued Ozawa to the north, he had opened the doors to disaster for the U.S. fleet off Leyte. In his confused communications with Admiral Kinkaid of the 7th Fleet, he had left the impression of guarding San Bernardino Strait with Admiral Willis Lee’s fast battleships, six formidable battlewagons that Kurita would have found difficult to overcome. So unclear were his communiqués that Admiral Nimitz and his staff in Pearl Harbor had essentially come to the same conclusion.
In fact, however, Halsey had not left anything behind. Task Force 34, as the hypothetical battleship formation was called, had accompanied him north – even though Halsey knew of Kurita’s coming back toward San Bernardino, he had not left a single ship in the vicinity of the strait, or even bothered informing Kinkaid (who did not make night searches, of the kind that found Kurita, over the area) of the impending danger and absence of Task Force 34. It must have been with relief and surprise that Kurita passed the empty San Bernardino Straits at around midnight on the 24th, then made his way down the east coast of the island of Samar during the early morning hours. At 0620, the radar screens of the Japanese battleships suddenly reported enemy planes in the vicinity, and Kurita assumed air defense formation. Not long thereafter, the lookouts in the tall pagoda masts of the Imperial battleships sighted masts and smoke on the horizon. As he came closer, the distinctive outlines of carriers became visible, as did smaller surface warships. However, the excited reports of large fleet carriers, battleships and cruisers were hopelessly optimistic.
Kurita had stumbled upon a much more modest force, Task Unit 77.4.3, or “Taffy Three”, six escort carriers and seven escorts, three destroyers and four destroyer-escorts. It was a pitiful force that Rear-Admiral Clifton A. Sprague was able of putting up against Kurita, especially since his composite squadrons were not equipped to deal with warships. Armor-piercing bombs and torpedos were not needed for their ground-support role, and everything else would have little effect on the oncoming behemoths.
As the Japanese closed the weak U.S. forces, however, confusion reigned. Under the impression of having encountered one of Halsey’s fast carrier forces, Admiral Kurita decided to rush his attack and not wait until his forces were placed in the most favorable way. There was obvious reason for choosing such a course of action: the art of maneuvering one’s ships into position for battle, called “evolution”, took precious time and was supposed to be exercised before battle was joined. Now, however, speed became imperative – against the determined opposition a carrier force could put up, it was essential that sinkings were scored early and the enemy not be allowed to assemble and prepare his forces, or even worse, open up the range. As his destroyers and cruisers left behind the sluggish battleships, then, Kurita had sacrificed coherence in his force for the only prospect for victory he had.
Meantime, Rear-Admiral Sprague had turned his ships due east, and begun launching his planes to commission even so weak a defense as they provided.
As the Japanese closed the slow U.S. force, the first shells were dropped between the flattops. From the flagship Fanshaw Bay, Admiral Sprague signaled his escorts to start covering attacks against the superior Japanese. Peeling off the screen of the fleeing baby flattops, destroyers Hoel, Heerman and Johnston, as well as destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, headed off and engaged the Imperial cruisers and battleships farther off.
All the while, the Japanese had continued with their uncontrolled, desperate hunt. Kurita’s only command to that point had been “Charge” – he was not inclined to specify exactly what or exactly how, even now.
On the easterly course that they were on, they chased and slowly closed the U.S. force, steadily straddling the fleeing flattops. By this time, there remained no planes on the U.S. carriers: they had all taken off, now picking at the battleships, destroyers and cruisers with machine-guns, depth charges and small bombs. They continued on to Leyte, where they were turned around and continued their pinpricks against the IJN fleet.
As the U.S. destroyers continued their loosing battle against the IJN fleet, they did more than their fair share of damage. Hunting the shell splashes enabled the U.S. ships to escape damage for an unduly long amount of time, and offered the opportunity to do real damage to the IJN. The first victim of the U.S. assault was heavy cruiser Kumano, flagship of the commander of the Seventh Cruiser division, loosing her bow to one of Johnston’s torpedoes. In return, the brave little destroyer was ripped into pieces by three 356mm shells from Kongo and left burning, though not sinking.
Then, the three other U.S. destroyers joined the fray, The miniscule artillery fire that the four ships offered could not hinder or delay the Imperial fleet, but their torpedoes were a different matter entirely. While the U.S. air attacks increased and the Japanese closed dangerously with cruisers, the powerful batteries of the battleships were kept out of the fight by the dedication of the U.S. attackers. Torpedoes forced Yamato to turn away and open up the range, causing her to loose value time. A charge by Johnston against Kongo forced that battlewagon to concentrate on her without success. Hoel attracted the fire of several battleships and cruisers that were thus unable to attack the U.S. carriers.
Support gradually became available to the U.S. As Sprague moved his forces east, then south, Taffy 1 under Rear-Admiral Felix B. Stump had became aware of the danger it was itself in and headed away from the danger, continuously launching planes to aid the sister force that was being hard-pressed by Kurita; together with Sprague’s own planes they created an impossible tactical situation: Kurita was desperately trying to get at the U.S. carriers, hampered by enemy air and destroyer attacks as much as by his own damaged cruisers.
As Kurita’s situation became more and more desperate, the air attacks that had been such a nuisance earlier became a real danger. Shortly after aiding Tone in the sinking of carrier Gambier Bay, which succumbed at 0907 the only carrier loss by surface engagement ever sustained by the U.S. Navy, Chikuma became the victim of concentrated air attacks, as did Chokai. Both vessels were crippled and sunk.
The sinking of Gambier Bay had peaked the Japanese assault. At 0911, Kurita had ordered retirement in fact of ever increasing danger from the air, correctly as it turned out. On his retirement, cruiser Suzuya, to which ComCruDiv7 had shifted his flag, was sunk by air attack.
Aiding his decision to retire was a clearly obvious development: he had made his bid when he launched his all-out attack on sighting the baby flattops; now, he was minutely paying a heavy price for no gain. Under the impression of heavy air attacks, Ozawa’s and Nishimura’s demise, and the likelihood that any delay now would only risk the return of Halsey before a successful retirement could be made, nothing could have been a wiser decision; and nothing could have made clearer the ultimate truth the Battle of Leyte Gulf showed: Japan’s Nihon Kaigun was finished.
Kurita’s sortie from Brunei had been Japan’s last bid for naval success. In its course, he had lost superbattleship Musashi; cruisers Atago, Maya, Chokai, Chikuma and Suzuya, with Kumano and Takao damaged severely. Several destroyers had suffered a similar fate. On the win side, he could note Gambier Bay, Hoel, Johnston, Samuel B. Roberts, and if one was kind to him, Darter. He had been repulsed from his main objective. He had played his role in the SHO plans with the necessary audacity and professional ability, and upon losing his last chance for a decision, made the courageous decision not to follow the way of Nishimura and add death to defeat, but retired his remaining forces successfully to Brunei. The Imperial Navy had engaged in the greatest battle of all times – and it was beaten bloodily. This was no Midway, no claim to bad luck could be made here: it was as fair a fight as war permits, and yet, the grave truth to Japan was that spirit had given way to technology.
Spirit had given way to technology; but by using greater spirit, the Japanese hoped they could turn technological odds. Leyte Gulf witnessed the first of perhaps the most harrowing type of attack delivered in World War II: Kamikaze.
“Kamikaze”, the “Divine Wind”, as Japanese a description for such a horrific weapon as there could be.
Although Tommy Sprague’s Taffy One would receive the dubious honor of being first to experience that assault, the damage incurred by his ships was comparatively slight: carriers Suwannee and Santee were hit, but not damaged heavily.
The next victims of the onslaught would be the already battered ships of Taffy 3, relaxing slightly after seeing Kurita’s masts vanish over the horizon. At 1050, the first Zeros appeared over the force. Weakened by combat losses, the ships were unable to put up too heavy defenses, and three hit home: two smashed into Kalinin Bay without major consequences, but the final one slammed himself into St. Lô, and in a huge ball of flame the baby carrier erupted and sank.
Thus, as it marked the eclipse of the seagoing Imperial Navy, it also marked the ascension of a new kind of warfare, that of guided missiles, for Kamikazes were no more than that. This last desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war would cost thousands of Allied sailors their lives; but there was no chance of it changing the outcome of the battles that followed – Luzon, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.
And though the battle of Leyte Gulf ended on a sour note for the U.S., the fact remained that on the evening of October 26th, 1944, there remained no Navy on any of the planet’s seven seas that would be capable of challenging Allied naval dominance.