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Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf raged from October 23 through 25, 1944. It was the largest naval battle ever fought — ending in the eclipse of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and its last sortie in force. Leyte Gulf also was the scene of the first organized use of Kamikaze (suicide) aircraft by the Japanese. The Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia was hit on October 21, and suicide attacks by the "Special Attack Force" began on October 25th.

Prologue

Naval, air and ground forces had joined hands to bring the Allies to the Japanese-held Philippines. On October 20, Lt. General Walter Krueger's U.S. Sixth Army gained two beachheads on the central island of Leyte. It confronted a 270,000-man Japanese army and air force in the Philippines, commanded by Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi. General Douglas MacArthur and his staff waded ashore at Tacloban about five hours following the first landings — the old warrior had fulfilled his promise to return.

Starting on October 25, 1944, and for more than a month, Japanese re-supply groups called TA convoys headed for Ormoc Bay (west of Leyte), and brought to the defenders of Leyte Island the reinforcements needed to prolong the resistance well beyond what the Allies had expected. By December, however, the Sixth Army had captured the island.

The Princeton and the Birmingham

Four months before MacArthur's Leyte landings, at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese Navy staged its final major effort to defeat the U.S. fleet with carrier-borne aircraft. Nearly 200 of their aircraft were shot down over or near Task Force 58* in one afternoon. Three Japanese carriers were sunk in the battle, and the IJN lost nearly 500 carrier- and land-based aircraft in two days.

As a result of the destruction of the IJN's air groups, the Japanese carriers were drastically reduced in number by the time of the Leyte campaign. Some of the carriers were placed as decoys to divert the Americans. IJN's still largely intact battleship and heavy-cruiser forces would then be able to pursue the U.S. with surprise attacks.

The battle commences

The Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of two preliminary strikes against the Japanese forces on the way to battle and three massive engagements once the fleets tangled. In other words, the last great battleship engagement of World War II, and in all of history, was staged in five parts, each bearing its own name:

The Center Force

The Palawan Passage. The first Japanese force to be located by American forces was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force.** The fleet was encountered in the Palawan Passage early on October 23rd by two U.S. submarines, the USS Darter (SS-227) and USS Dace (SS-247). Kurita had unaccountably failed to deploy destroyers in an anti-submarine screen ahead of his heavy ships — resulting in disaster for the Japanese.

As Kurita sailed his mighty force northward, he was suddenly ambushed by an array of undetected torpedoes. The Darter successfully sank the heavy cruiser Atago (Admiral Kurita's flagship), while the Dace torpedoed two heavy cruisers, sinking the Takao and severely damaging the Maya, which was forced to withdraw. Although Admiral Kurita went down with his flagship, he was quickly rescued from the sea off Palawan by sailors aboard the Maya, putting him back into command of his fleet aboard the Yamato by day's end.

The Musashi under attack

Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Early on the morning of October 24th, the Japanese Center Force was spotted entering the narrow Sibuyan Sea by planes from the USS Intrepid. Two hundred planes from the Intrepid, USS Bunker Hill and other carriers of Task Force 38*** successfully attacked the Nagato, Yamato, and Musashi, and severely damaged the Myoko. The second wave of planes zeroed in on the Mysashi, scoring numerous direct hits with more bombs and torpedoes. Finally, a third wave of terror was once again unleashed by planes aboard the Enterprise — 11 bombs and eight torpedoes. Admiral Kurita turned his fleet around to get out of the range of U.S. planes and passed the sinking Musashi as he retreated.

Amid the bombardment of Kurita's fleet, Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro had directed his First Fleet of 80 planes (based in Luzon) against the U.S. carriers Essex, Lexington, Princeton, and Langley. The USS Princeton was hit by an armor-piercing bomb, killing 200 sailors, and 80 aboard the Birmingham, which was alongside helping to suppress fires. Japanese forces successfully sank the Princeton and forced the Birmingham into early retirement.

The Battle of Surigao Strait. Meanwhile, on October 24th, Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura's southern forces failed to synchronize with other Japanese central forces (Vice Admirals Shima and Kurita) because of strict radio silence that had been imposed. When Nishimura entered the narrow Surigao Strait, Shima was about 25 miles behind him, and Kurita was still in the Sibuyan Sea.

As the Japanese southern forces passed the cape of Panoan Island, they ran into a deadly trap set for them by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf's Seventh Fleet Support Force. In order for Nishimura to pass the strait and reach the Leyte landings, he would have to run a gauntlet of torpedoes from PT boats, evade two groups of destroyers, proceed up the strait under close-range fire from six battleships and then break through a screen of cruisers and destroyers.

Mistakenly, Nishimura's fleet proceeded farther through the Surigao Strait. The destroyers Asagumo, Yamagumo, and Mishishio were hit by torpedoes that severely crippled them. Battleships Yamashiro and Mogami were then riddled by 16-inch armor-piercing shells delivered by American long-range battleships, ultimately sinking the Yamashiro.

When Shima's force entered the site of destruction, he quickly ordered an immediate retreat. As a result, his flagship Nachi collided with the Mogami and quickly went down, while the Mogami fell behind in the retreat and was sunk by aircraft the next morning. Of Nishimura's force of seven ships, only the Shigure survived.

Takeo Kurita

The Battle off Cape Engaņo. On October 24th, while the U.S. was attacking Kurita and dealing with the air strikes from Luzon, Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa's Northern Force intercepted a misleading American communication of Admiral Kurita's withdrawal, and started to withdraw as well. However, Admiral Soemu Toyoda ordered Ozawa's forces to stop their retreat and attack with all means necessary.

Admiral Halsey saw that he had an opportunity to destroy the last Japanese carrier forces in the Pacific, a blow that would cripple Japanese sea power and allow the U.S. Navy to attack the Japanese home islands. With a massive arsenal, Halsey's Third Fleet began to pursue the badly out-gunned northern forces of Ozawa.

On the morning of October 25, Ozawa launched 75 planes to attack the Americans, but inflicted minimal damage. Most of the aircraft were shot down by U.S. covering patrols, while a handful of survivors made it to Luzon.

At 8 a.m., 180 American fighters destroyed the remaining screen of 30 defensive aircraft, then air strikes began and continued until evening, by which time the American aircraft had flown 527 sorties against the Northern Force and sunk three of Ozawa's carriers, the Zuikaku, Zuiho, Chiyoda, and the destroyer Akitsuki. The fourth carrier, Chitose, was disabled, as was the cruiser Tama. Ozawa was forced to transfer his flag to the Oyodo.

With all the Japanese carriers sunk or disabled, the main targets remaining were the converted battleships Ise and Hyuga. Therefore, with word of heavy resistance near Samar, Halsey detached only a small force of cruisers and destroyers, under Rear Admiral Laurence T. DuBose, to sink the disabled Japanese ships. Only the Ise and Hyuga escaped and returned to Japan — where they were sunk at their moorings in 1945.

Battle of Samar. On October 25, 1944, Admiral Kurita passed through San Bernardino Strait at 3 a.m. and progressed southward along the coast of Samar.

Under Admiral Thomas Kinkaid's command, three groups of the Seventh Fleet, each with six escort carriers, eight destroyers and destroyer escorts, would ultimately be responsible for stopping Kurita. Admiral Thomas Sprague's Task Unit Taffy 1, Admiral Felix Stump's Task Unit Taffy 2, and Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit Taffy 3, led the way. Each escort carrier carried about 30 planes, comprising more than 500 aircraft in all.

Incorrect communications led Admiral Kinkaid to believe that Admiral Willis A. Lee's Task Force 34 of battleships was guarding the San Bernardino Strait to the north, and that there would be no danger from that direction.

The Japanese detected Taffy 3 at 6:45 a.m. and took the Americans completely by surprise. Then, with 18-inch guns, Kurita targeted the escort carriers for the fleet carriers — thinking that he had the whole of the American Third fleet in his sights.

In defense, Admiral Sprague's destroyers began to unleash munitions, scattering the Japanese formations as their ships turned to avoid torpedoes. The Yamato found itself between two torpedoes on parallel courses, and for 10 minutes it headed away from the action, unable to turn back for fear of being hit.

The American destroyers Hoel and Johnston, and destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, were sunk, while four others were damaged. However, they had provided enough time for Sprague to get his planes into the air. American fighter planes attacked with whatever they had aboard, including depth charges for some. With artillery raining down all around him, Sprague turned and fled south. The rear carrier Gambier Bay sank while most of the others were hit and damaged.

Taffy 3 could now see the light as Taffy 2 (the next unit to the south) appeared over the horizon, which forced Kurita to the north. The Japanese commander had suffered the loss of his heavy cruisers, the Chokai, Suzuya, and Chikuma, which had been sunk by Taffy 3's desperate sea and air attacks.

With thoughts of perhaps once again steaming in the sea off Palawan, Kurita disengaged the Yamato, Haruna, Kongo and Nagato, followed by the few remaining cruisers and destroyers. As they turned and fled to the north and then west through the San Bernardino Strait under continuous air attack, the Nagato, Haruna and Kongo were severely damaged.

The Imperial Japanese Navy had begun the battle with five battleships; when the remaining forces returned to Japan, only the Yamato was combat worthy.

Kamikaze misses the Sangamon

The Divine Wind

The first organized Kamikaze planes began to dive into the escort carriers that had just fought the Battle off Samar, which inflicted additional losses. That new form of warfare took the Americans by surprise. They had to somehow compensate for it because the Japanese would frequently resort to that deadly tactic until the end of the war.


*The Fast Carrier Force was known as Task Force 58 - consisting of the large fleet carriers of the Essex Class, augmented by the two surviving pre-war carriers Enterprise and Saratoga and the light fleet carriers of the Independence Class.
**Admiral Kurita's powerful Japanese Center Force consisted of five battleships and 12 cruisers, supported by 13 destroyers.
***Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet was known as Task Force 38, which primarily consisted of the same fleet from the earlier Task Force 58.

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