Leyte Victory

USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413) Survivors’ Association

[excerpted from David M. Kennedy, “Victory at Sea,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 283, No. 3, March 1999, viewed at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99mar/victory5.htm, 19 April 1999]

Leyte Gulf: The Largest Naval Battle in History

[B]y 1944 the enormous productive apparatus of the U.S. economy was pouring out war munitions in overwhelming volume. The abundance of resources made possible not only the invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, but two distinct offensives against Japan: an assault by MacArthur in the southwestern Pacific, up the northern New Guinea shore toward the Philippines, and a thrust by Nimitz across the Central Pacific, through the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas.

Underlying the Central Pacific drive was the Navy’s old Orange Plan, which had envisioned a decisive battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the western Pacific. To that end the Navy assembled a stupendous flotilla whose fighting heart was composed of fourteen or more “Essex-class” carriers, each of them a nearly 900-foot-long floating airfield with a 3,000-man crew and embarking up to a hundred aircraft. Somewhat confusingly designated Task Force 38, or Third Fleet, when commanded by the impulsive, charismatic Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, and Task Force 58, or Fifth Fleet, when commanded by the methodical, self-effacing Admiral Spruance, this armada wielded several times the striking power of Nagumo’s force that had attacked Pearl Harbor.

On June 19, 1944, Spruance led Task Force 58 to a stunning victory in the Philippine Sea, southwest of the Mariana Islands, over a Japanese carrier force led by Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Known to American fliers and sailors as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” the battle cost the Japanese three fleet carriers, nearly 500 aircraft, and hundreds of irreplaceable pilots.

Nevertheless, some senior U.S. Navy commanders criticized Spruance for letting Ozawa escape with as many ships as he did, denying Spruance the right to claim that he had indeed fought the legendary decisive battle. The unsated yearning of both navies to fight that battle would have telling consequences four months later, as the Southwest Pacific and Central Pacific campaigns converged for the invasion of the Philippine Islands.

On October 20, 1944, the invasion convoys began unloading on the lightly defended beach at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines. In a carefully arranged ritual, MacArthur walked down the ramp of a landing craft and waded ashore through the shallow surf, a moment captured in one of the war’s most famous photographs. “People of the Philippines,” MacArthur intoned into a waiting microphone, “I have returned…. The hour of your redemption is here…. Rally to me.”

U.S. submarines had by now cut Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. What little there was reached Japan from the Dutch East Indies behind a screen of islands that ran from the Philippines through Formosa and the Ryukyus. Japan had to defend the Philippines or risk seeing its lifeline to the south completely severed.

To conserve precious fuel, the Japanese navy had been forced to base nearly half its battle fleet at Lingga Roads, near Singapore and close to the East Indian oil fields. From there, and from two other fleet anchorages, three Japanese naval formations steamed toward Leyte to check the American landing. Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s force left Brunei and Vice-Admiral Kiyohide Shima’s column came down from the Ryukyus. The plan was to rendezvous in the Mindanao Sea and proceed together through Surigao Strait into Leyte Gulf. Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita headed from Lingga Roads across the Palawan Passage and the Sibuyan Sea. He was to pass through San Bernardino Strait and descend on Leyte from the north just as the Nishimura-Shima force emerged out of Surigao from the west. To this already dauntingly intricate plan the Japanese added a further complication: Ozawa, his air strength reduced to just a handful of warplanes after the catastrophe in the Philippine Sea, would steam southward from Japan with his remaining aircraft carriers, using the largely planeless ships as sacrificial decoys to lure away at least part of the American force.

The Americans meanwhile brought two fleets of their own to Leyte. The Seventh Fleet, under Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was composed of several big gunships and eighteen escort carriers. The battleships and cruisers took up station off the eastern end of Surigao Strait. Kinkaid deployed his escort carriers in three groups of six, code-named Taffy 1, 2, and 3, off Samar Island on the east side of Leyte. Halsey’s Third Fleet meanwhile held his big carriers off San Bernardino Strait to the north.

Six naval forces, four Japanese and two American, were converging on Leyte Gulf to fight the largest naval battle in history, a titanic clash spread over three days and 100,000 square miles of sea, engaging 282 ships and 200,000 sailors and airmen.

Nishimura’s two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers arrived in the Mindanao Sea on October 24. Not finding Shima, Nishimura proceeded on his own into Surigao Strait, through waters that Ferdinand Magellan had sailed in 1521. As darkness fell, American PT (patrol torpedo) boats harassed the Japanese column while it ploughed eastward, disrupting Nishimura’s formation but inflicting little damage. Then five U.S. destroyers, withholding gunfire that would disclose their positions, raced down either side of the strait and loosed several volleys of torpedoes that knocked out one of the battleships and three of the destroyers. There followed a maneuver whose classic naval geometry Magellan himself would have appreciated. Arrayed in a battle line across the neck of the strait were Kinkaid’s six battleships, five of them survivors of Pearl Harbor, together with four heavy and four light cruisers.

Kinkaid had effortlessly “crossed the T” — the dream of every sea commander since the dawn of gun-bearing ships. Perpendicular to Kinkaid’s six-, eight-, fourteen-, and sixteen-inch guns, Nishimura’s truncated column lay all but naked under round after round of thundering American broadsides, while the forward-facing Japanese could bring to bear only a fraction of their ships’ firepower. Firing by radar direction from a range of a dozen miles, the American battle line laid down a fearsome barrage. The Japanese formation disintegrated. The second battleship went down, the cruiser was crippled, and the lone surviving destroyer reversed course and withdrew. When the late-arriving Shima sailed into this chaotic melee and collided with Nishimura’s wallowing cruiser, he, too, decided to withdraw, but pursuing U.S. warships and planes sank three of his ships. All told, the Battle of Surigao Strait cost the Imperial Japanese Navy two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers. The Americans lost one PT boat, along with thirty-nine sailors killed and 114 wounded, most of them on the U.S. destroyer Albert W. Grant, which was caught in a murderous crossfire from both Japanese and American guns during the bedlam of the night battle.

In the pewter morning light U.S. rescue vessels crept into the strait to pick up the thousands of Japanese survivors. Most of the swimmers submerged themselves below the oil-stained surface as the Americans approached, choosing death by drowning over the shame of capture.

To the north, meanwhile, U.S. submarines had intercepted Kurita’s formidable group of more than two dozen warships as they made their way across Palawan Passage on October 23. Several well-placed torpedo volleys damaged one cruiser and sank two others, including Kurita’s flagship. Fished from the sea, Kurita transferred his flag to the Yamato. The Yamato and its sister ship, the Musashi, the biggest battleships in the world, mounted eighteen-inch guns that fired one-and-a-half-ton projectiles, far larger than anything any gun in the U.S. Navy could throw. Halsey’s fliers caught Kurita again in the Sibuyan Sea on the following day and sank the supposedly impregnable Musashi. Land-based Japanese aircraft meanwhile attacked the Third Fleet and sent the carrier Princeton to the bottom.

The Americans had mauled Kurita but had not yet stopped him. Halsey was spoiling for a finish-fight. He drafted a contingency battle plan, signaling to Nimitz at Pearl Harbor that he intended to detach several ships to form a new “Task Force 34” that would stop Kurita at the mouth of San Bernardino Strait. But there was one thing wrong: Kurita’s force was composed entirely of surface gunships. Where were the Japanese carriers, the great prize for which Halsey thirsted?

The answer was that they were to Halsey’s north, doing their best to be discovered and tempt Halsey away from San Bernardino. When some of the Third Fleet’s fliers reported at midday on October 24 that they had engaged planes with tailhooks, unmistakably identifying them as carrier-based aircraft, Halsey was off like a greyhound after a hare. Faced with the choice of protection or pursuit, and believing erroneously that he may have already inflicted enough damage on Kurita to stop him, Halsey scarcely hesitated. He scrapped the plan to create Task Force 34 and steamed away with his entire fleet to chase the Japanese carriers. He had swallowed Ozawa’s bait, leaving the door of San Bernardino Strait wide open for Kurita.

Kurita steamed through San Bernardino unopposed shortly after midnight on October 25. His depleted but still powerful force bore down on the most northerly of Kinkaid’s escort-carrier squadrons, Taffy 3. A colossal mismatch ensued — the Yamato and three other battleships, along with several heavy and light cruisers, against a handful of destroyers and six escort carriers never designed for full-scale battle at sea. Slow, thinly armored, undergunned, and mostly munitioned with ordnance for tactical air support, the baby flat-tops were sitting ducks. Great green, purple, and yellow geysers erupted among them, as Japanese shells, with their telltale dye-marked bursts, scattered the surprised American ships. Taffy 3’s little carriers made smoke and dove into a rain squall for further concealment, while the U.S. destroyers brazenly charged the larger and more numerous Japanese ships. The destroyer Johnston took so many hits from the Japanese gun batteries that one crewman compared it to “a puppy being smacked by a truck.” Eventually, he said, “we were in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world could not save us,” and the order “Abandon ship” came. A swimming survivor saw a Japanese officer salute as the Johnston slipped beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, Kinkaid and Nimitz were frantically signaling to Halsey for help. At 10:00 A.M. on October 25 a signalman handed Halsey a message from Nimitz that was destined to become notorious: “Where Is, Repeat, Where Is Task Force 34, The World Wonders?” The last phrase, “The World Wonders,” was padding, the kind of verbiage, frequently nonsensical, that was routinely inserted in encrypted messages to foil enemy cryptographers. But the decoding officer on Halsey’s flagship apparently believed that the end padding in Nimitz’s signal was part of the message. He typed it onto the page that was handed to the admiral. The presumed insult unnerved Halsey. He threw his hat to the deck and began to sob. An aide shook him by the shoulders and said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? Pull yourself together!”

The Third Fleet’s carriers continued to press the attack on Ozawa, all four of whose carriers eventually went down, including the Zuikaku, the last survivor from the force that had lofted the planes that opened the war at Pearl Harbor. Halsey, however, headed back to Samar with his battleship group. He was too late to relieve Kinkaid, but it scarcely mattered. Kurita, perhaps rattled by his unplanned swim in Palawan Passage, had incredibly concluded that the little scratch force of baby flat-tops desperately trying to evade him off Samar was Halsey’s powerful big-carrier Task Force 38. Ironically, at about the time that Halsey was reading Nimitz’s radiogram, Kurita decided to break off the attack and head back to Lingga Roads.

The epic battle of Leyte Gulf was not quite over. Even as Kurita was withdrawing, the Japanese launched a fearsome new weapon against the Taffy groups: suicide attacks by land-based kamikaze warplanes. Kamikaze means “Divine Wind,” in a reference to the typhoon that scattered Kublai Khan’s invasion fleet as it headed for Japan in the thirteenth century. Kamikaze pilots prepared for their missions with elaborate ceremonials, including ritual prayer, the composition of farewell poems, and the presentation to each flier of a “thousand-stitch belt,” a strip of cloth into which a thousand women had each sewn a stitch, symbolically uniting themselves with the pilot’s ultimate sacrifice. Late in the morning of October 25 the first wave of kamikazes lashed out of the sky over Taffy 3. One headed straight for the escort carrier St. Lô. Disbelieving anti-aircraft gunners tried desperately to knock it down, to no avail. The plane crashed into the St. Lô’s flight deck and disgorged a bomb deep in the ship’s interior. As sailors on nearby ships watched in horrified fascination, the St. Lô exploded, heeled over on its side, and sank with 114 men aboard. It was a grisly demonstration of the kind of resistance Japan was still prepared to offer.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended an era, but it did not end the war. The encounters at Surigao and Samar were the last of their kind. They closed an epoch of ship-to-ship gunnery duels, the standard form of naval warfare for centuries before 1944. No nation would ever again build a battleship; aircraft carriers had proved themselves the final arbiters of battle at sea. At Leyte Gulf the Japanese navy had suffered a crushing defeat, losing four carriers, three battleships, nine cruisers, a dozen destroyers, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of sailors and pilots. But as the kamikaze raids spectacularly illustrated, Japan had not lost its will to fight.

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