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  • James Houser

October 23, 1944 - The Battle of Leyte Gulf

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 23, 1944. MacArthur has returned. The United States has launched its great operation to retake the Philippines, with the Army troops landing on Leyte island supported by a vast armada of transports and supply ships. But the Japanese are coming. Three separate strike forces converge on the American landing site, intent on destroying MacArthur’s army and his fleet. The largest naval battle in history is about to begin at Leyte Gulf.

In mid-1944, the United States was very obviously winning the war against Japan. Much of the Japanese Navy had been attritted away in the great battles against the U.S. Navy, including such famous fights as Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Philippine Sea. American forces had advanced island by island across the central and southern Pacific in terrible, desperate island fights that the Americans always won, though at the high cost of Marines and Army troops ordered to take the spits of land. By July 1944, though, the United States had breached Japan’s inner defensive lines in the Pacific with the seizure of the Marianas Islands, including Guam and Saipan.

The American advance had proceeded along two tracks: the Central Pacific advance, led by Admiral Chester Nimitz of the Pacific Fleet, and the South Pacific, led by General Douglas MacArthur of the Army. This two-pronged attack was the result of inter-service rivalries more than anything. The Navy had insisted that the Pacific was their show, while the Army could handle Europe. The problem, though, was the presence of MacArthur, a prima donna if there ever was one and so famous and popular that he was essentially irreplaceable. MacArthur refused to play second fiddle to anyone else, and this turned into an Army vs. Navy argument. The result was that command in the Pacific was divided, with the Army handling the South Pacific under MacArthur and the Navy handling the Central Pacific. This divided command, however convenient early on, would nearly result in disaster in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

MacArthur had won a major strategic debate in mid-1944 when he insisted that the Philippines be the next target for the American drive across the Pacific. He had been forced to evacuate the Philippines in 1942, and the entire American army on the islands had been captured. This still stung MacArthur’s pride, and he nurtured a deep commitment to the Filipinos and their liberation from Japanese rule. MacArthur’s dearest passion was the return to the Philippines, and he more or less got his way. The first target would be the Philippine island of Leyte, in the middle of the island chain, and the operation was slated for October 1944.

The issue with the invasion of Leyte, though, was the divided command structure. The twin South Pacific and Central Pacific forces were essentially coming together at Leyte, and MacArthur would need forces from both commands to carry out his mission. Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet was designated to carry MacArthur’s landing force and provide naval support for the troops landing on Leyte. Kinkaid’s fleet contained mostly of old battleships, transports, supply ships, light carriers and small craft, and reported directly to MacArthur.

To provide a shield against Japanese naval attacks, though, Chester Nimitz assigned the strongest force in the American Navy, the 3rd Fleet of Admiral William F. Halsey. “Bull” Halsey was a colorful, aggressive, fighting admiral, a gregarious man with a hair-trigger temper, a reputation for taking risks, and a zeal for combat. Halsey’s force was the strong striking arm of the U.S. Battle Fleet, containing all the powerful aircraft carriers and fast battleships. Kinkaid’s job was to cover the landings, while Halsey’s job was to fend off any Japanese counterstroke from the sea.

To pave the way for MacArthur’s invasion, Halsey was turned loose throughout September 1944 to raid deep into Japanese territory in an effort to gauge Japanese air and naval strength. Halsey plastered the Philippines, Taiwan and Okinawa with air raids from his carriers, knocking hundreds of planes out of the sky and wreaking havoc on Japanese supply routes. Though Halsey was sorely aching for a showdown with the remaining ships in the Japanese Navy, no major forces came out to challenge him. Halsey came back from this raid satisfied that the Japanese would be nice and docile during the invasion of Leyte. They presented no danger – and if they did, he would come after them with everything he had.

The Japanese, though, had no intention of sitting around. Admiral Soemu Toyoda, who had replaced the deceased Admiral Yamamoto as chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, had been waiting for the opportunity to launch a massive counterstrike against the Americans. With the invasion of the Philippines imminent, the situation would grow critical, since almost all of Japan’s oil came from the East Indies. If the United States captured the Philippines, their aircraft and navy would cut off this vital lifeline, and without it Japan could not hope to continue the war for much longer. If there was ever time to make an all-out effort against the Americans, it was now. So Toyoda devised a plan to somehow stall and maybe even stop the American drive across the Pacific.

First, Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa would lead Japan’s remaining aircraft carriers – Northern Force - south from Japan to menace Halsey’s fleet. Ozawa’s move would be a decoy. With the loss of most of Japan’s experienced fighter pilots at Midway, the Philippine Sea, and other battles, the carrier fleet was virtually useless and the decks were nearly empty. Ozawa’s decoy was only meant to distract Halsey north and get him out of the way.

With the American battle fleet removed from the board, two Japanese battle fleets would converge on Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet and destroy its outdated, weaker vessels. The most powerful of these forces, Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force, would come through the San Bernardino Strait north of Leyte, while Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s Southern Force would come through Surigao Strait to the south. Both of these forces had large battleships and Japan’s veteran heavy cruisers, but Kurita’s force also had the two biggest battleships in the world – the monster vessels Yamato and Musashi, each almost 70,000 tons and armed to the teeth with massive cannon.

The key to the Japanese strategy was simple: Halsey had to be distracted from guarding Kinkaid’s fleet, otherwise the Japanese strike forces would be overwhelmed by air strikes from Halsey’s carriers before they could even come to grips with Kinkaid’s weaker ships. “Bull” Halsey, in essence, was to be distracted by the red cape of Ozawa’s Northern Force, and when he turned his horns to face them, the matador’s dagger – Center and Southern Forces – would sink into the American back. It was a complex, difficult plan to pull off...and despite that, it almost worked.

After preliminary raids by the Army’s 6th Ranger Battalion, MacArthur’s forces stormed ashore onto the beaches of Leyte on October 20, 1944. Four divisions – the 1st Cavalry and 24th, 77th, and 96th Infantry – all piled onto the beaches in a well-rehearsed plan. Behind them, Kinkaid’s massive amphibious force supported them, a virtual city of transports, supply ships, hospital ships, and their light guardians. Halsey’s carrier forces hovered off to the east, sending out recon flights to look for the Japanese fleet. MacArthur himself waded ashore dramatically, making sure that the photographers captured every second of the invasion, before making the pronouncement he had waited years to make: “People of the Philippines, I have returned!”

During the next two days, American troops pushed inland against Japanese resistance, slogging through the swamps and jungles. But trouble was headed their way. On October 23, 1944, as MacArthur was making dramatic statements to the press and American soldiers were clawing their way inland, Halsey began to get reports. The Japanese Navy had been sighted, and they were heading to Leyte.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, their plan had screwed up almost before it began. Halsey had not sited Ozawa’s decoy force; instead, two American submarines had reported the advance of Kurita’s Center Force and Nishimura’s Southern Force – the forces that were supposed to actually launch the decisive blow. Halsey had, ironically, discovered every Japanese force EXCEPT the one that actually WANTED to be discovered, since Ozawa had not advanced south fast enough.

Halsey’s carriers came tearing west, and launched airstrikes at Kurita’s force immediately. Kurita’s ships were threading their way through narrow passages between the Philippine Islands, which made it hard to escape the onrushing waves of American planes. Though Japanese ground-based aircraft from the Philippines tried to interfere, and managed to sink the light carrier USS Princeton, the American air armada was overwhelming. However, the American attack mainly zeroed in on the monster battleship Musashi, which American aviators excitedly reported as the biggest target they had ever seen. Throughout October 24, American airstrikes repeatedly hammered Musashi until she finally went down under the weight of 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes.

Kurita was dismayed by the American attacks. He was convinced that Ozawa’s decoy force had to have failed, and that the whole plan was now a bust. Midway through the airstrikes, Kurita decided to turn back, and his ships reversed course to steam back west for safety from the American planes. The American aviators reported this fact to Halsey, who considered Kurita’s Center Force out of the fight. He was drastically mistaken.

In the meantime, Ozawa’s force – the only undiscovered Japanese force – had finally gotten within range of Halsey’s scout planes. It still took the Americans a while to find them, busy as they were with plastering Kurita’s Central Force, but late on October 24 Halsey finally got word of Ozawa’s approach. The American admiral was excited. Here was the chance he had been waiting for: an epic carrier battle that could finally wipe the Japanese carrier strike force off the ocean. Without a second thought, he set his entire 3rd Fleet in motion at full speed to the north, determined to intercept and punish Ozawa’s force with everything he had. The bull had seen the cape, and he had charged just as the matador wanted.

One of the greatest communication errors in modern military history was about to take place. Midway through his airstrikes on October 24, Halsey sent out an order to his subordinate commanders, stating that a large number of ships “will be formed as Task Force 34” in order to guard San Bernardino Strait against an attack by Kurita’s force. Copies of this order made their way to both Kinkaid, at 7th Fleet, and Admiral Nimitz, who was at his headquarters at Pearl Harbor. The problem was that Halsey had not yet formed Task Force 34. His order implied that he would organize it at some point in the future. But Kinkaid and Nimitz both believed he had already formed it, and assumed that it was in position watching San Bernardino Strait to the north of Leyte.

The upshot of this order was that when Halsey powered off to attack Ozawa, he left San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded, even as everyone else assumed a mythical “Task Force 34” was in place guarding it. Kinkaid had concentrated all his fighting ships to the south at Surigao Strait in order to intercept the Southern Force, safe in the knowledge that Halsey had left “Task Force 34” to cover San Bernardino. With San Bernardino uncovered, a Japanese force could pass through completely unhindered, turn south, and play hell with MacArthur’s virtually defenseless landing ships and Kinkaid’s light ships. A Japanese force such as, say, Kurita’s Center Force, which was very much NOT out of the fight, had reversed course AGAIN, and was steaming for San Bernardino Strait with no one the wiser.

So as Halsey roared north, the bull chasing the cape, and as Kinkaid set up his defensive positions to the south, no one was watching the middle. As night fell on October 24, 1944, Kinkaid was preparing for a night battle in Surigao Strait and Halsey was on his way out of the fight. Unlooked for and unhindered, Kurita’s massive battle fleet – which had only suffered minor damage in the aerial bombardment, besides the loss of Musashi – slipped through San Bernardino Strait at 3:00am on October 25, turned south, and horned in on the scattered transports and light ships of Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet.

Kinkaid himself was down at Surigao Strait, winning one of the great naval battles of the Pacific War. His battle force under Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf had six old battleships, many of them Pearl Harbor victims that had been hauled up, repaired, and refurbished. Four of them had their fire control systems slaved to the ship’s radar, which gave them a priceless edge in night combat against their foes. In addition, Kinkaid had positioned his light PT boats and destroyers in a wide arc along the edges of the strait, prepared for Nishimura’s Southern Force. The Japanese approached Surigao Strait at about 2230 on October 24 and stumbled into a night engagement.

Nishimura never had a chance. The Americans knew he was coming, had assembled virtually every ship they had to stop him, and he sailed into a gauntlet of torpedoes from a swarm of PT Boats and destroyers which crippled many of his ships. The survivors ran head-on into the American gun line. The battleship USS West Virginia – sunk and resurrected from Pearl Harbor – detected Nishimura’s flagship Yamashiro on radar, and at 3:53am plastered it with a salvo of eight 406mm shells fired from over 13 miles away. The American battleships all opened up on the Japanese force, and in less than an hour the Yamashiro was sunk, with its admiral on board. In the night battle of Surigao Strait, the Japanese Southern Force was entirely annihilated. It was not only one of the most lopsided American victories of the Pacific War, but the last battleship versus battleship combat to ever take place on the world’s seas.

As dawn approached on October 25, Halsey had swung into action against Ozawa’s Northern Force, and like the battle at Surigao Strait this was no contest – though the Japanese had never intended it to be. Ozawa’s force was a sacrifice, and sacrificed they were. Against 1,000 American aircraft, the Japanese could only field just over 100, and these were soon knocked out of the sky. Soon three out of four Japanese carriers were sunk, including Zuikaku – the last survivor of the six carriers that had struck Pearl Harbor. Halsey’s triumph was nearly complete, and he bellowed with joy as his force pursued the beaten foe.

Then, like a thunderbolt, came a message from Admiral Nimitz. “WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34? THE WORLD WONDERS.”

During the night battleship duel at Surigao Strait, one of Kinkaid’s officers had mentioned that they should probably check with Halsey to make sure that Task Force 34 was still covering San Bernardino. At 4:12am, as Surigao Strait was wreathed in fire, Kinkaid radioed Halsey “IS TF34 GUARDING SAN BERNARDINO STRAIT?” He only got the reply several hours later, and every man on his staff felt a dark pit in their stomach when they read it. “NEGATIVE. TF34 IS WITH ME.” If they weren’t covering San Bernardino, and Halsey wasn’t…

Nimitz had been monitoring all this traffic back in Pearl Harbor, and realized Halsey’s mistake as soon as he saw this exchange. He frantically fired off the message to Halsey asking about Task Force 34, panicking – just as Kinkaid was panicking, and for good reason. “THE WORLD WONDERS” was a gibberish padding, a routine camouflage for important messages to confuse Japanese codebreakers, but the angry Halsey thought it was part of the actual message. He thought it was a mocking insult, and refused to acknowledge Nimitz’s query, continuing to move north even as disaster threatened to the south.

By sunrise on October 25, Kurita’s massive battle fleet had sited MacArthur’s vulnerable, nearly helpless landing craft near the small island of Samar. Tens of thousands of American seamen were completely unaware of the hell that was about to descend upon them. The only thing standing between MacArthur’s flotilla of supply, transport, hospital and fuel ships and a very angry Japanese battle fleet was Task Force 3. “Taffy 3”, under Admiral Clifton Sprague, consisted of a handful of escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts, mockingly called the “Tin Can Sailors” for their miniscule size. The tiny escort carriers were built to provide support for amphibious assaults, or to provide scouts for antisubmarine protection. None of these ships was made to take on a battleship, and no admiral in their right minds would send Taffy 3 against the main Japanese fleet. But here they were, and the Battle of Samar was about to begin.

It was one of the most truly heroic moments in the history of the United States Navy. Sprague reacted as if he had been born for the moment. He sent his carriers fleeing ahead of the massive Japanese armada, hoping to gain time to turn into the wind and launch his planes. All his ships put out smoke to try and deceive the onrushing enemy, and his tiny destroyer escorts – no match at all for a battleship – charged forward to buy time for the vulnerable, unarmored carriers. It was a lopsided fight that the Americans could not hope to win: the last stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

The Japanese battleships and cruisers roared in, spearheaded by the massive Yamato, blasting away at the tiny ships like a horde of Goliaths against Davids. The carriers were slow and underpowered, and the battleships were gaining on them, but the sailors and aviators of Taffy 3 put up amazing resistance. The few planes that did get launched didn’t even have bombs that could penetrate warship armor, but they made buzzing runs to distract the giant warships. A few planes even scored hits. The destroyers and escorts dashed out of the smoke screen to deliver torpedo attacks, but they were almost helpless against the battleships and cruisers.

The destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts charged two Japanese cruisers and the battleship Kongo, each of which was almost fifteen times larger than the tiny vessel. Lieutenant Commander Copeland told his crew that they were going into a fight against overwhelming odds. The Samuel B. Roberts damaged all three Japanese ships before being slammed by a broadside from Kongo, described by an observer as “like a puppy being hit by a truck.” The Samuel B. Roberts, “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship,” had never stood a chance, but the crew’s courage was undeniable.

The Battle of Samar would have been a guaranteed loss for the Americans, despite their courage, but it was the courage of the Tin Can Sailors that saved the 7th Fleet. Faced with such determination, and mistaking the escort carriers for the large American fleet carriers, Kurita decided that he faced Halsey’s whole force. By continuing this battle, he believed, he was risking his entire fleet. Kurita decided to retreat, steaming back through San Bernardino Strait and leaving Taffy 3, somehow, victorious. The American small ships had, against all odds, bluffed the largest battle fleet the Japanese had into withdrawing. In so doing, they had saved the American invasion of the Philippines.

Kurita’s force escaped before Halsey’s ships could return to destroy them. Halsey’s aggression and carelessness had almost cost the Americans the lives of thousands of men, the destruction of MacArthur’s army, and a horrifying setback to the Pacific War, if not for the last stand of the Tin Can Sailors. Nevertheless, these engagements – collectively known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf – were a massive defeat for the Japanese Navy. They had lost 4 carriers, 3 battleships, 10 cruisers and 11 destroyers, which made up basically their entire remaining surface force. For the remainder of World War II, the Japanese Navy would be a virtual non-factor. The service that had attacked Pearl Harbor had finally had its back broken at Leyte Gulf.

Though MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines would succeed, and Halsey’s carriers would ravage the Pacific to the end of the war, the Battle of Leyte Gulf would never again be equaled. It was the largest naval battle in world history, covering hundreds of miles and involving some of the largest ships ever put to sea, with 200,000 naval crewmen taking part in the gigantic struggle. It was naval warfare of a scale, and a breadth, that will probably never be seen again.

And just to think, for all that, the issue really boiled down to a couple of tiny ships making a suicidal charge. Out of every big ship in the U.S. Navy, it was the little guys that ended up mattering at the critical moment. History’s funny like that.

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