The battle of Leyte Gulf ensured American maritime supremacy in the last months of World War II. The destruction of Japanese naval air power in the Battle of the Philippine Sea forced the Imperial Navy to prepare for a decisive battle using surface ships. The Imperial Navy's plan was to become effective when the U. S. Navy entered Philippine waters to liberate that country. Japanese carriers would decoy Admiral William F. Halsey's Third Fleet away, allowing Japanese warships to converge on and destroy the American ships supplying the invasion force. The plan was sound, playing to Halsey's fixation with enemy carriers, but the execution was flawed.
With the appearance of the liberation force of 216 American and two Australian warships off the Philippines on Oct. 17, 1944, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, placed the 64 ships in his four main elements on alert. When the American intention of landing on Leyte became clear, Toyoda ordered his units to execute the plan. Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa's carrier decoy Northern Force, stationed in Japan steamed out on Oct. 20, as did Admiral Shoji Nishimura's Southern Force. Admiral Kiyohide Shima's Southern Force sailed on Oct. 22. Admiral Takeo Kurita's powerful Center Force got underway Oct. 21.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf included four decisive naval actions: that of the Sibuyan Sea on Oct. 24; the Battle of Surigao Strait on Oct. 24 and 25; the Battle off Samar on Oct. 25, and the Battle off Cape Engano on Oct. 25 and 26.
The battle opened on Oct. 23 when submarines Darter and Dace sank two of Kurita's heavy cruisers and severely damaged another. Before attacking, they radioed information concerning the Center Force. As the Japanese approached the Sibuyan Sea, Halsey, whose Third Fleet provided support for the Leyte operations, readied his carriers to strike. However, the Third Fleet suffered the first loss when land-based planes sank the light carrier Princeton on the morning of Oct. 24. During the late morning and early afternoon, Task Force 38 made four air strikes on Kurita's ships, sinking battleship Musashi and damaging a heavy cruiser. Kurita's advance became confused; Halsey interpreted disorder for retreat.
As Ozawa sailed south, he began to fear that Halsey would not spot his ships until they were too close to perform the decoy mission. That afternoon he ordered several ships to proceed ahead of his main group to atttract Halsey's attention. By evening Halsey, certain that Kurita was in full retreat westward, and learning of enemy carriers to the north, began preparations for a radical shift of operations. He too personal command of Task Force 38 and ordered it north. Kurita faced no opposition in passing through San Bernadino Strait.
Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commander of the Seventh Fleet at the Leyte beachhead, believing that Halsey protected his northern flank, prepared to intercept Nishimura's Southern Force. Although the Americans lost track of Nishimura's ships, it was obvious that their destination was Surigao Strait. Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf arranged his ships, centered around six Pearl Harbor battleships, as the northern entry of the strait. He placed PT boats along the southern end of the strait. Destroyers patrolled behind them waiting to launch torpedoes and two groups of cruisers reinforced the battle line.
Nishimura proceeded, unaware of the overwhelming forced ahead of him; Shima with the rest of Southern Forced steamed 40 miles to his rear.
The last great surface action of the 20th century lasted four hours. Nishimura bravely steamed through PT boat and destroyer attacks to near annihilation by cruisers and battleships. American torpedoes and gunfire destroyed five of his seven ships. As the Pearl Harbor battleships gained their revenge, Shima's seven ships entered the strait. The PTs again attacked and severely damaged a cruiser. With Oldendorf's flotilla hidden by a smoke screen, Shima executed the unusually discreet maneuver of retreating. Oldendorf sent his cruisers and destroyers in pursuit, but recalled them before they caught Shima. The next day American planes sank two crippled cruisers.
Battle off Samar
While Nishimura steamed to defeat, Kurita pushed on to what should have been a glorious victory. Just before 7 a.m. the opposing forces sighted each other. Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Spragues's Taffy 3 had a meager force of six slow escort carriers and seven fast destroyers to battle 24 warships grouped around battleships.
In an amazing morning-long action, Sprague's force, assisted by the planes of Taffys 1 and 2, so bewildered and savaged Kurita that he withdrew, having inflicted moderate casualties. In the Battle off Samar, Center Force suffered five cruisers lost or severely damaged. Dazzled by the performance of the American ships, Kurita overestimated their size and feared Halsey would cut off his line of withdrawal. After steaming aimlessly off Samar for several hours, Kurita retreated. In a harrowing postlude to the surface ation the escort carriers endured the first series of kamikaze attacks.
What of Halsey's Third Fleet? During the morning of Oct. 25 Kinkaid pleaded for help against Kurita. Halsey eventually ordered Vice Admiral John S. McCain's Task Group to aid Kinkaid's ships, but its air strikes scored only one hit on Center Force. However, in the Battle of Cape Engano, Hasey's carriers and surface ships sank four carriers and one destroyer.
On Oct. 26, American planes and submarines struck relentlessly at the retiring Japanese forces. In this phase of the battle, Admiral Naomasa Sakonju's Transport Group lost three ships.
The greatest naval battle the world had ever seen was over. The victory was overwhelming; at a cost of 10 ships, the U. S. Navy sank 35 ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Americans had eliminated the threat of Japanese warships to amphibious operations in the Philippines and had effectively isolated the Japanese garrisons on the islands for the duration of the war.
Dr. Furgol is curator of The Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D. C. He researched and wrote the text for the museum's World War II exhibit, one of the largest World War II exhibits on view in the country.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 12. Leyte, June 1944-January 1945. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958.
Potter, E. B. Bull Halsey, a Biography. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Battle for Leyte Gulf. New York: Norton, 1965.
Ships Sunk During Battle
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