Leyte Gulf: History’s Largest Naval Engagement

Leyte Gulf: Historys Largest Naval Engagement

Ian Wang, Journalist

The Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23, 1944, to October 26, 1944) was by historians to be the largest naval engagement in history, having over 200,00 sailors and naval aviators participating. Leyte Gulf was the naval battle that happened off the Philippine islands, while General Douglas MacArthur and his 6th Army along with Philippine guerrillas fought for control over the island. In March 1942, MacArthur and his forces were stuck in a pincer point, and he was forced to evacuate with his chief staff from direct orders from the white house on PT boats. The Battle of Leyte Gulf happened in the waters off the Philippine coast, near Leyte, Samar, and Luzon with combined forces from America and Australia against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). The major battle consisted of four smaller battles, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, The Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle off Cape Engano, and the Battle off Samar.

The Americans and Australians and a major force. They had the commanders, William Halsey (3rd fleet), Thomas Kinkaid (7th fleet), Clifton Sprague (Taffy 3 / Task Force 77.4.3), Jesse Oldendorf (Task Force 77.2), and John Collins from Australia in charge of Task Force 74. Their forces were made up of the 3rd Fleet, with Task Force 38, and the 7th Fleet, with Task Force 77. They had approximately 300 ships in total with almost 1,500 aircraft. The Japanese forces, who had drained much of their ships and aircraft in previous battles, such as The Battle of the Philippine Sea, had a much smaller force, but with grit determination. The Japanese commanders were Takeo Kurita (Center Force), Shoji Nishimura (Southern Force), Kiyohide Shima (Southern Force), Jisaburo Ozawa (Northern Force) and Yukio Seki, in charge of the Kamikazes. They had a combined fleet, comprising the ships from the 2nd Fleet, 3rd Fleet, and 5th Fleet and the Navy Air Service with the 1st and 2nd Air Fleet. The Japanese forces had 67 total ships and 300 carrier-based and land-based planes.

During the previous Allied campaigns from 1942-1944, they had successfully driven Japanese forces from their island bases in the south and the central Pacific Ocean. They used an island-hopping strategy to force Japan to leave their bases most notably in the Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, Marshall Islands and Wake Islands. Earlier, in June 1944, a series of amphibious landings supported by the Fifth Fleets Fast Carrier Task Force captured much of the Mariana Islands. This breached the long-range defensive Japanese air ring, establishing a base for the new long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers to bomb the Japanese homeland.

The top navy officers decided that the next logical step was to cut the Japanese supply lines in the Southeast, making them lose valuable fuel. Admiral Ernest J. King, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Chester Nimitz favored an invasion of Formosa (Taiwan) while Army General Douglas MacArthur wanted a full-on invasion of the Philippine Islands. MacArthur saw that an invasion of Taiwan would be unnecessary, although it could serve as a base for an invasion of Japanese-occupied China, yet it would require almost 12 divisions from the army and the marines. The Australian Army, who had a thin line by many engagements in numerous southern Pacific Islands, would not be able to supply any troops for such a large and costly operation. Eventually, after almost two months of lobbying, meetings and debating, Admiral Nimitz changed his mind and supported the full-on invasion of mainland Philippines, and it was decided that General MacArthur would invade Leyte, inthe  central Philippines.

Combined Fleet Chief Soemu Toyoda prepared four plans for victory. Sho-Go 1 was a naval operation in the Philippines. Sho-go 2, Sho-go 3, and Sho-go 4 were direct military responses in the case of an attack on Formosa, the Ryukyu Islands and the Kurile Islands, respectively. The plans were complicated, committing nearly all available forces for the decisive victory. This would drain their huge stores of gasoline. On October 2, 1944, Admiral Halsey started a series of carrier air attacks against Formosa and Ryukyu Islands, so that the forces there could not interrupt the main invasion of the Philippines. The Japanese commanders put Sho-go 2 into action, launching waves of planes against the American fleet. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the Japanese forces lost about 600 aircraft, almost all air strength in the region. Due to the invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese forces transitioned back into Sho-go 1. Sho-go 1 would make Vice Admiral Ozawas ships, known as the Northern Force, to lure the supporting forces away from Leyte. They were built upon aircraft carriers that lacked the properly trained aviators and armed planes. The Southern Force, meanwhile under Vice Admiral Nishimira would attack at the landing point, going through the Surigao Strait.  The Center Force, under Vice Admiral Kurita, would pass through the San Bernardino Strait in the Philippine Sea, then steam south and attack the landing point. 

On midnight 22-23 October, Takeo Kuritas large fleet of 32 ships, known as Center Force, passed Palawan Island. They were spotted by the two American submarines Darter and Dace. At 01:16, October 23, the radar system on Darter detected the convey at 30,00 yards. Darter sent off three radio contact reports, however, one was picked up by the radio operator on the battleship Yamato, but no anti-submarine precautions were made. The two submarines cruised at full power for several hours, and positioned themselves in front of Kuritas fleet. At 05:24, Darter fired a full salvo of six torpedoes, in which four hit Kuritas flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago. Another spread of torpedoes was fired from Darter and hit Takao, Atagos sister ship, ten minutes later. At 05:56, Dace launched a salvo of torpedoes and made four torpedo hits on the heavy cruiser Maya. On October 24, Darter ran aground on the Bombay Shoal. All of the efforts to save the damaged ship failed, and they were forced to abandon it. Dace and two other submarines tried to scuttle it for a week. Later, several shots with the 6 inch cannon made the abandoned Darter as good as scrap metal.

Despite the strength of the 3rd Fleet, it was not placed in a good position to counter the Japanese threat. This would lead to the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea on October 24, 1944. Earlier, on October 22, Halsey ordered two of his carrier groups to detach and go to the fleet base at Ulithi to rearm. When Darters contact report came in, Halsey ordered Admiral Davidsons group to return, but let Vice Admiral John S. McCain, with the strongest of Task Force 38s carrier groups, to continue to Ulithi. McCain was finally recalled back on October 24. The delay meant that they lost 40% of their aairpower and could play a little role in the upcoming battle. At daybreak, October 24, 1944, only three carrier groups were available to strike Kurita’s force, and the best positioned one, Task Force 38.2 under Gerald F. Bogan, was the weakest, having only one large carrier, USS Intrepid and two light carriers. Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi launched three waves of his aircrack stationed at Luzon against the carrier groups of Rear Admiral Frederick Shermans Task Group 38.3. Each attack wave was made up of about 50-60 planes. Most planes in the waves were driven off or destroyed by the F6F Hellcats of Sherman’s combat air, from USS Essex.

However, at 09:38, a Japanese Yokosuka D4Y3 Judy managed to slip through the defenses and dropped a 551 IB armor-piercing bomb on the light carrier USS Princeton. The bomb smashed through the runway, and exploded in the hangar, where there were six fully loaded Grumman TBD Avenger Torpedo Bombers armed for their next mission. The explosion caused one Avenger to blow up, causing a chain reaction, making all five planes blow up in a fireball. This caused a severe fire in the hanger. At 3:23, the light carrier suffered an enormous fireball, causing severe casualties and even more on the USS Birmingham, which had come to assist the firefighting. Two light cruisers and a destroyer were also damaged. After being evacuated, the Princeton was scuttled at 5:50, being torpedoed by the USS Reno. At 10:30, more sorties were launched from the Intrepid and Cabot, scoring hits on several Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers. Kurita turned his fleet around and retreated. However, several hours later, he had his fleet continue to sail down the San Bernardino Strait. But, due to unclear communication, the fleet was able to reach and sail down San Bernardino Strait without any problems. Halsey sent several telegraph messages and a handwritten message to Admiral Nimitz and several other admirals. Unfortunately, the messages did not reach Nimitz, and Admiral Kurita would hit KinKaids light force right at the doorstep of the Leyte landings. Seeing this, the strength of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral Halsey steamed northwards, leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded, except for a small escort force under Admiral KinKaid. 

Meanwhile, later, on October 25, 1944, the Battle of Surigao Strait was about to begin. This was history’s last battleship to battleship engagement. The US Navy set up a crossing the T, where a line of ships crossing the strait would be against battleships set up in a horizontal row spanning across the strait. From an aerial view, it would look like a T, thus the name, Crossing the T. The Japanese Southern Force, under Admiral Nishimura, was mainly made up of old battleships. As they sailed down the Surigao Strait, they were met by a deadly trap set up by the 7th Fleet under Jesse Oldendorf. Admiral Oldendorf had a substantial force, making up of six battleships, four heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, 28 destroyers and 39 torpedo boats. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, five of the six battleships that had been sunk or damaged had been repaired and put into active service. To pass the strait, Nishimura would have to cross through a deadly gauntlet of concentrated salvos. 

At 22:36, PT-131 were operating off Bohol, when they made contact with the Japanese forces. For over three hours, they unsuccessfully fired torpedoes at the advancing column of Japanese ships. They were able to send off a contact report to Admiral Oldendorf. Although they were able to pass through the PT boat gauntlet undamaged, their luck ran out. At 3:00 PM, they were met by the destroyers at the axis of the American position.  The battleship Fuso was hit by torpedoes from the USS Melvin, forcing it to fall out of position eventually sinking forty minutes later. At 3:16, The USS West Virginia’s radar detected the surviving ships at 42,00 yards or 24 miles. At 03:53, the West Virginia fired 8 of its 16in (408 mm) main guns at the force at the range of 22,800 yards. She hit Yamashiro in the first salvo, and fired a total of 93 shells. Later, the USS California and Tennesese joined in the firing, firing 63 and 93 shells, respectively, from their smaller, 14 inch (356 mm) guns. The Maryland fired a total of 48 (408 mm) shells. The Pennsylvania was unable to find a target and sayed silent. Mississippi fired only once in the battleship-row, firing a full salvo of twelve 14-inch guns. The other Japanese ships were forced to retreat, but it was chaos. Many of them stopped dead in their tracks, becoming targets for the battleships. USS Albert W. Grant was hit by friendly-fire, but did not sink. Later on, the rest of the fleet was destroyed by the American forces. The Southern Force would no longer be a viable threat for the Leyte Landings.

Halsey’s decisions made the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. On October 5, 1944 at 03:00, Kuritas central force emerged from the San Bernardino stait, and sailed south, along the island of Samar. The only units opposing Kurita were three, small, carrier escort groups with the call sign Taffy 1, 2 and 3. Clifton Spragues task force 77.4.3 was caught way off guard. He ordered the fighter planes to take off while ordering the destroyers and launch a smoke screen to conceal the retreating jeep carriers. The action that soon happened afterwards would be known as the Battle off Samar. The small destroyer USS Johnston under Lut. Commander Ernest E. Evans was the closest to the enemy. He sailed forward at flank speed, firing his 5 inch cannon while being hopelessly outgunned and outclassed, hoping to be close enough to  be in range of the torpedoes. The two other destroyers, seeing this, were ordered to attack. The destroyers Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts attacked with their full power, which wasn’t much, compared to the Japanese fleet. The destroyers used up all of their torpedoes, then kept on firing the cannons. Eventually, the USS Johnston and the rest were finally sunk.

The retreating escort carriers were also ordered to defend themselves. Each jeep carrier only had one 5 inch cannon per ship. As soon as the Japanese ships were in range, each carrier had a target to fire on. The Fanshaw Bay had five shots made on a cruiser, and there was smoke rising from the superstructure. The Kalinin Bay fired at a heavy cruiser, hitting the number 2 turret. Gambier Bay sighed in a cruiser, and made three shots. The aircraft on all three task force units were later on ordered to attack with whatever weapons they had. Some were the older F2F Wildcat fighter planes and some only had machine guns and torpedoes. The carrier of Taffy 3 then retreated, but Gambier Bay was shot and sunk with several Avenger TBM Torpedo bombers also went down. The ferocity of the American ships seemed to make Kurita think he was up against a much larger force, forcing him to retreat, too.

Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Ozawas Northern Force, built around the last surviving Pearl Harbor carriers, were sent as a decoy force. They had a total of 108 aircraft. At 16:40, on October 24, 1944, Ozawas force was located. The following air attacks would be known as the Battle off Cape Engano.  At dawn on October 25, Ozawa launched about 75 planes, but most were shot down by the carrier combat air patrol, very few survived and made it to Luzon. Later, Admiral Mitscher was ordered to launch 180 planes, the first wave. Until evening, the American forces launched 527 sorties against the Japanese fleet, devastating the Northern force. 7 carriers, battleships and heavy cruisers were sunk. At 23:10, the light cruiser Tama of Ozawas force was torpedoed, being the last action of Cape Engano, thus ending the Battle of Leyte Gulf.


Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf     https://nationalinterest.org/sites/default/files/main_images/810-lec22-1536×865.jpg