The campaigns of August 1942 to early 1944 had driven Japanese forces from many of their island bases in the south and central Pacific Ocean, while isolating many of their other bases (most notably in the Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, Marshall Islands, and Wake Island), and in June 1944, a series of American amphibious landings supported by the U.S. 5th Fleet's Fast Carrier Task Force captured most of the Mariana Islands (bypassing Rota). This offensive breached Japan's strategic inner defense ring and gave the Americans a base from which long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers could attack the Japanese home islands. The Japanese counterattacked in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The U.S. Navy destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers (and damaged other ships) and approximately 600 Japanese aircraft, leaving the IJN with virtually no carrier-borne air power or any experienced pilots.
For subsequent operations, Admiral Ernest J. King and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff favored blockading Japanese forces in the Philippines and attacking Formosa (Taiwan) to give the Americans and Australians control of the sea routes between Japan and southern Asia. U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur championed an invasion of the Philippines, which also lay across the supply lines to Japan. Leaving the Philippines in Japanese hands would be a blow to American prestige and a personal affront to MacArthur, who in 1942 had famously pronounced "I shall return."
The considerable air power the Japanese had amassed in the Philippines was thought too dangerous to bypass by many high-ranking officers outside the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. However, Nimitz and MacArthur initially had opposing plans, with Nimitz's plan centered on an invasion of Formosa, since that could also cut the supply lines to Southeast Asia. Formosa could also serve as a base for an invasion of mainland China, which MacArthur felt was unnecessary. A meeting between MacArthur, Nimitz, and President Roosevelt helped confirm the Philippines as a strategic target, but had less to do with the final decision to invade the Philippines than is sometimes claimed. Nimitz eventually changed his mind and agreed to MacArthur's plan.
It was also estimated that an invasion of Formosa would require about 12 divisions of U.S. Army soldiers and Marines. This was more land power than the Americans could muster in the whole Pacific Ocean area at that time, and the entire Australian Army was engaged in the Solomon Islands, on New Guinea, in the Dutch East Indies, and on various other Pacific islands. The invasion of Formosa would require much larger ground forces than were available in the Pacific in late 1944, and would not have been feasible until the defeat of Germany freed the necessary manpower.
It was eventually decided that MacArthur's forces would invade the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. Amphibious forces and close naval support would be provided by the 7th Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. The 7th Fleet at this time contained units of the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. Before the major naval actions in Leyte Gulf had begun, HMAS Australia and USS Honolulu were severely damaged by air attacks; during the battle proper these two cruisers were retiring, escorted by HMAS Warramunga, for repairs at the major Allied base at Manus Island.
The U.S. 3rd Fleet—commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., with Task Force 38 (TF 38, the Fast Carrier Task Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher) as its main component—would provide more distant cover and support for the invasion. A fundamental defect in this plan was there would be no single American naval admiral in overall command. Kinkaid and his 7th Fleet fell under MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander Southwest Pacific, whereas Halsey's 3rd Fleet reported to Nimitz as C-in-C Pacific Ocean Areas. This lack of unity of command, along with failures in communication, was to produce a crisis, and very nearly a strategic disaster, for the American forces.
By coincidence, the Japanese plan, using three separate fleets, also lacked an overall commander. The American options were apparent to the IJN. Combined Fleet Chief Soemu Toyoda prepared four "victory" plans: Shō-Gō 1 (捷１号作戦 Shō ichigō sakusen) was a major naval operation in the Philippines, while Shō-Gō 2, Shō-Gō 3 and Shō-Gō 4 were responses to attacks on Formosa, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Kurile Islands, respectively. The plans were for complex offensive operations committing nearly all available forces to a decisive battle, despite this substantially depleting Japan's slender reserves of fuel oil.
On 12 October 1944, the U.S. 3rd Fleet under Admiral Halsey began a series of carrier raids against Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, with a view to ensuring that the aircraft based there could not intervene in the Leyte landings. The Japanese command therefore put Shō-Gō 2 into action, launching waves of air attacks against 3rd Fleet's carriers. In what Morison refers to as a "knock-down, drag-out fight between carrier-based and land-based air", the Japanese were routed, losing 600 aircraft in three days, almost their entire air strength in the region. Following the American invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy made the transition to Shō-Gō 1.
Shō-Gō 1 called for Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa's ships—known as the "Northern Force"—to lure the main American covering forces away from Leyte. Northern Force would be built around several aircraft carriers, but these would have very few aircraft or trained aircrew. The carriers would serve as the main bait. As the U.S. covering forces were lured away, two other surface forces would advance on Leyte from the west. The "Southern Force" under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima would strike at the landing area via the Surigao Strait. The "Center Force" under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita—by far the most powerful of the attacking forces—would pass through the San Bernardino Strait into the Philippine Sea, turn southwards, and then also attack the landing area.
This plan was likely to result in the destruction of one or more of the attacking forces, but Toyoda later explained this to his American interrogators as follows:
Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.
(Note: this action is referred to by Morison as "The Fight in Palawan Passage", and elsewhere, occasionally, as "the Battle of Palawan Passage").
As it sortied from its base in Brunei, Kurita's powerful "Center Force" consisted of five battleships (Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongō, and Haruna), ten heavy cruisers (Atago, Maya, Takao, Chōkai, Myōkō, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Tone and Chikuma), two light cruisers (Noshiro and Yahagi) and 15 destroyers.
Kurita's ships passed Palawan Island around midnight on 22–23 October. The American submarines Darter and Dace were positioned together on the surface close by. At 00:16 on 23 October, Darter's radar detected the Japanese formation at a range of 30,000 yd (27,000 m). Her captain promptly made visual contact. The two submarines quickly moved off in pursuit of the ships, while Darter made the first of three contact reports. At least one of these was picked up by a radio operator on Yamato, but Kurita failed to take appropriate antisubmarine precautions.
Darter and Dace traveled on the surface at full power for several hours and gained a position ahead of Kurita's formation, with the intention of making a submerged attack at first light. This attack was unusually successful. At 05:24, Darter fired a blast of six torpedoes, at least four of which hit Kurita's flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago. Ten minutes later, Darter made two hits on Atago's sister ship, Takao, with another spread of torpedoes. At 05:56, Dace made four torpedo hits on the heavy cruiser Maya (sister to Atago and Takao).
Atago and Maya quickly sank. Takao turned back to Brunei, escorted by two destroyers—and was followed by the two submarines. On 24 October, as the submarines continued to shadow the damaged cruiser, Darter ran aground on the Bombay Shoal. All efforts to get her off failed, she was abandoned; and her entire crew was rescued by Dace. Efforts to scuttle Darter failed over the course of the next week, including torpedoes from Dace and Rock that hit the reef (and not Darter) and deck-gun shelling from Dace and later, Nautilus. After multiple hits from his 6" deck guns, the Nautilus commander determined on 31 October that the equipment on Darter was only good for scrap and left her there. The Japanese did not bother with the wreck.
Takao returned to Singapore. She was joined in January 1945 by Myōkō.
Atago sank so rapidly that Kurita was forced to swim to survive. He was rescued by the Japanese destroyer Kishinami, only then to be transferred to the battleship Yamato.
Around 08:00 on 24 October, the Center Force was spotted entering the Sibuyan Sea and attacked by VF-20 squadron F6F-5 Hellcat fighters, VB-20 SB2C-3 Helldiver dive bombers, and VT-20 TBM Avenger torpedo bombers from USS Enterprise of Halsey's 3rd Fleet. Despite its great strength, 3rd Fleet was not well-placed to deal with the threat. On 22 October, Halsey had detached two of his carrier groups to the fleet base at Ulithi to provision and rearm. When Darter's contact report came in, Halsey recalled Davison's group, but allowed Vice Admiral John S. McCain, with the strongest of TF 38's carrier groups, to continue towards Ulithi. Halsey finally recalled McCain on 24 October—but the delay meant the most powerful American carrier group played little part in the coming battle, and the 3rd Fleet was therefore effectively deprived of nearly 40% of its air strength for most of the engagement. On the morning of 24 October, only three groups were available to strike Kurita's force, and the one best positioned to do so—Gerald F. Bogan's Task Group 38.2 (TG 38.2)—was by mischance the weakest of the groups, containing only one large carrier—USS Intrepid—and two light carriers (the failure to promptly recall McCain on 23 October had also effectively let some 4 heavy cruisers of the 3rd Fleet sink).
Planes from the carriers Intrepid and Cabot of Bogan's group attacked at about 10:30, making hits on the battleships Nagato, Yamato, and Musashi, and severely damaging the heavy cruiser Myōkō. A second wave from Intrepid, Essex and Lexington later attacked, with VB-15 Helldivers and VF-15 Hellcats from Essex, scoring another 10 hits on Musashi. As she withdrew, listing to port, a third wave from Enterprise and Franklin hit her with an additional 11 bombs and eight torpedoes.
Kurita turned his fleet around to get out of range of the aircraft, passing the crippled Musashi as his force retreated. He waited until 17:15 before turning around again to head for the San Bernardino Strait. After being struck by at least 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes, Musashi finally capsized and sank at about 19:30.
Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi had directed three waves of aircraft from his First Air Fleet based on Luzon against the carriers of Rear Admiral Frederick Sherman's TG 38.3 (whose aircraft were also being used to strike airfields in Luzon to prevent Japanese land-based air attacks on Allied shipping in Leyte Gulf). Each of Ōnishi's strike waves consisted of some 50 to 60 aircraft.
Most of the attacking Japanese planes were intercepted and shot down or driven off by Hellcats of Sherman's combat air patrol, most notably by two fighter sections from Essex led by Commander David McCampbell (who is credited with shooting down nine of the attacking planes in this one action). However, one Japanese aircraft (a Yokosuka D4Y3 Judy) slipped through the defences, and at 09:38 hit the light carrier USS Princeton with a 551 lb (250 kg) armor-piercing bomb. The resulting explosion caused a severe fire in Princeton's hangar and her emergency sprinkler system failed to operate. As the fire spread rapidly, a series of secondary explosions followed. The fire was gradually brought under control, but at 15:23 there was an enormous explosion (probably in the carrier's bomb stowage aft), causing more casualties aboard Princeton, and even heavier casualties – 233 dead and 426 wounded – aboard the light cruiser Birmingham which was coming back alongside to assist with the firefighting. Birmingham was so badly damaged, she was forced to retire. Another light cruiser and two destroyers were also damaged. All efforts to save Princeton failed, and after the remaining crew were evacuated, she was finally scuttled—torpedoed by the light cruiser Reno—at 17:50. Of Princeton's crew, 108 men were killed, while 1,361 survivors were rescued by nearby ships. USS Princeton was the largest American ship lost during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
In all, U.S. 3rd Fleet flew 259 sorties—mostly by Hellcats—against Center Force on 24 October. This weight of attack was not nearly sufficient to neutralize the threat from Kurita. It contrasts with the 527 sorties flown by 3rd Fleet against Ozawa's much weaker Northern Force on the following day. Moreover, a large proportion of the Sibuyan Sea attack was directed against just one ship, Musashi. This great battleship was sunk, the cruiser Myōkō was also crippled; but every other ship in Kurita's force remained battleworthy and able to advance.
As a result of a momentous decision about to be taken by Admiral Halsey, Kurita was able to proceed through the San Bernardino Strait during the night, to make an unexpected and dramatic appearance off the coast of Samar on the following morning.
After the Japanese Southern and Center forces had been detected, but before Ozawa's carriers had been located, Halsey and the staff of 3rd Fleet, aboard the battleship New Jersey, prepared a contingency plan to deal with the threat from Kurita's Center Force. Their intention was to cover the San Bernardino Strait with a powerful task force of fast battleships supported by two of the 3rd Fleet's equally swift carrier groups. The battleship force was to be designated Task Force 34 (TF 34) and to consist of four battleships, five cruisers and 14 destroyers under the command of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee. Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison of TG 38.4 was to be in overall command of the supporting carrier groups.
At 15:12 on 24 October, Halsey sent an ambiguously worded telegraphic radio message to his subordinate task group commanders, giving details of this contingency plan:
BATDIV 7 MIAMI, VINCENNES, BILOXI, DESRON 52 LESS STEVEN POTTER, FROM TG 38.2 AND WASHINGTON, ALABAMA, WICHITA, NEW ORLEANS, DESDIV 100, PATTERSON, BAGLEY FROM TG 38.4 WILL BE FORMED AS TASK FORCE 34 UNDER VICE ADMIRAL LEE, COMMANDER BATTLE LINE. TF 34 TO ENGAGE DECISIVELY AT LONG RANGES. CTG 38.4 CONDUCT CARRIERS OF TG 38.2 AND TG 38.4 CLEAR OF SURFACE FIGHTING. INSTRUCTIONS FOR TG 38.3 AND TG 38.1 LATER. HALSEY, OTC IN NEW JERSEY.
Halsey sent information copies of this message to Admiral Nimitz at Pacific Fleet headquarters and Admiral King in Washington, but he did not include Admiral Kinkaid (7th Fleet) as an information addressee. The message was picked up by 7th Fleet, anyway, as it was common for admirals to direct radiomen to copy all message traffic they detected, whether intended for them or not. As Halsey intended TF 34 as a contingency to be formed and detached when he ordered it, when he wrote "will be formed" he meant the future tense; but he neglected to say 'when' TF 34 would be formed, or under what circumstances. This omission led Admiral Kinkaid of 7th Fleet to believe Halsey was speaking in the imperative, not the future tense, so he concluded TF 34 had been formed and would take station off the San Bernardino Strait. Admiral Nimitz, in Pearl Harbor, reached exactly the same conclusion. Halsey did send out a second message at 17:10 clarifying his intentions in regard to TF 34:
IF THE ENEMY SORTIES (THROUGH SAN BERNADINO STRAIT) TF 34 WILL BE FORMED WHEN DIRECTED BY ME.
Unfortunately, Halsey sent this second message by voice radio, so 7th Fleet did not intercept it, and Halsey did not follow up with a telegraphic message to Nimitz or King. The serious misunderstanding caused by Halsey's ambiguous wording of his first message and his failure to notify Nimitz, King, or Kinkaid of his second clarifying message was to have a profound influence on the subsequent course of the battle.
The 3rd Fleet's aircraft failed to locate Ozawa's Northern (decoy) force until 16:40 on 24 October. This was largely because 3rd Fleet had been preoccupied with attacking Kurita's Centre force and defending itself against the Japanese air strikes from Luzon. Thus the one Japanese force that wanted to be discovered was the only force the Americans had not been able to find. On the evening of 24 October, Ozawa intercepted a (mistaken) American communication describing Kurita's withdrawal; he therefore began to withdraw, too. However, at 20:00, Soemu Toyoda ordered all his forces to attack "counting on divine assistance." Trying to draw 3rd Fleet's attention to his decoy force, Ozawa reversed course again and headed southwards towards Leyte.
Halsey was convinced the Northern Force constituted the main Japanese threat, and he was determined to seize what he saw as a golden opportunity to destroy Japan's last remaining carrier strength. Believing the Center Force had been neutralized by 3rd Fleet's air strikes earlier in the day in the Sibuyan Sea, and its remnants were retiring, Halsey radioed (to Nimitz and Kinkaid):
CENTRAL FORCE HEAVILY DAMAGED ACCORDING TO STRIKE REPORTS.
AM PROCEEDING NORTH WITH THREE GROUPS TO ATTACK CARRIER FORCES AT DAWN
The words "with three groups" proved dangerously misleading. In the light of the intercepted 15:12 24 October "…will be formed as Task Force 34" message from Halsey, Admiral Kinkaid and his staff assumed, as did Admiral Nimitz at Pacific Fleet headquarters, that TF 34—commanded by Lee—had now been formed as a separate entity. They assumed that Halsey was leaving this powerful surface force guarding the San Bernardino Strait (and covering the Seventh Fleet's northern flank), while he took his three available carrier groups northwards in pursuit of the Japanese carriers. But Task Force 34 had not been detached from his other forces, and Lee's battleships were on their way northwards with the 3rd Fleet's carriers. Halsey had consciously and deliberately left the San Bernardino Strait absolutely unguarded. As Woodward wrote: "Everything was pulled out from San Bernardino Strait. Not so much as a picket destroyer was left".
Halsey and his staff officers ignored information from a night reconnaissance aircraft operating from the light carrier Independence that Kurita's powerful surface force had turned back towards the San Bernardino Strait, and that after a long blackout, the navigation lights in the strait had been turned on. When Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan—commanding TG 38.2—radioed this information to Halsey's flagship, he was rebuffed by a staff officer, who tersely replied "Yes, yes, we have that information." Vice Admiral Lee, who had correctly deduced that Ozawa's force was on a decoy mission and indicated this in a blinker message to Halsey's flagship, was similarly rebuffed. Commodore Arleigh Burke and Commander James H. Flatley of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's staff had come to the same conclusion. They were sufficiently worried about the situation to wake Mitscher, who asked, "Does Admiral Halsey have that report?" On being told that Halsey did, Mitscher—knowing Halsey's temperament—commented, "If he wants my advice he'll ask for it" and went back to sleep.
The entire available strength of 3rd Fleet continued to steam northwards, leaving the San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded.
Nishimura's "Southern Force" consisted of the old battleships Yamashiro and Fusō, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers. This task force left Brunei after Kurita at 15:00 on 22 October, turning eastward into the Sulu Sea and then northeasterly past the southern tip of Negros Island into the Mindanao Sea. Nishimura then proceeded northeastward with Mindanao Island to starboard and into the south entrance to the Surigao Strait, intending to exit the north entrance of the Strait into Leyte Gulf where he would add his firepower to that of Kurita's force.
The Second Striking Force was commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and comprised heavy cruisers Nachi (flag) and Ashigara, the light cruiser Abukuma, and the destroyers Akebono, Ushio, Kasumi, and Shiranui.
The Southern Force was attacked by U.S. Navy bombers on 24 October but sustained only minor damage.
Nishimura was unable to synchronise his movements with Shima and Kurita because of the strict radio silence imposed on the Center and Southern Forces. When he entered the Surigao Strait at 02:00, Shima was 25 nmi (29 mi; 46 km) behind him and Kurita was still in the Sibuyan Sea, several hours from the beaches at Leyte.
As the Southern Force approached the Surigao Strait, it ran into a deadly trap set by the 7th Fleet Support Force. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf had a substantial force. There were six battleships: West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania. All but Mississippi had been sunk or damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor and repaired, Tennessee, California, and West Virginia having been rebuilt. Four heavy cruisers (USS Louisville (flagship), Portland, Minneapolis, and HMAS Shropshire) carried 35 8-inch (203 mm) guns, and 54 6-inch (152 mm) guns were mounted by four light cruisers (Denver, Columbia, Phoenix, and Boise). Added to this were the smaller guns and torpedoes of 28 destroyers and 39 motor torpedo boats (Patrol/Torpedo (PT) boats). To pass through the narrows and reach the invasion shipping, Nishimura would have to run the gauntlet of torpedoes from the PT boats followed by the large force of destroyers, and then advance under the concentrated fire of the six battleships and their eight flanking cruisers deployed across the far mouth of the Strait.
At 22:36, PT-131 (Ensign Peter Gadd) was operating off Bohol when it made contact with the approaching Japanese ships. The PT boats made repeated attacks for more than three-and-a-half hours as Nishimura's force streamed northward. No torpedo hits were scored, but the PT boats did send contact reports which were of use to Oldendorf and his force.
Nishimura's ships passed unscathed through the gauntlet of PT boats. However, their luck ran out a short time later, as they were subjected to devastating torpedo attacks from the American destroyers deployed on both sides of their axis of advance. At about 03:00, both Japanese battleships were hit by torpedoes. Yamashiro was able to steam on, but Fusō was torpedoed and sunk by USS Melvin. Two of Nishimura's four destroyers were sunk; the destroyer Asagumo was hit and forced to retire, but later sank.
At 03:16, West Virginia's radar picked up the surviving ships of Nishimura's force at a range of 42,000 yd (38,000 m). West Virginia tracked them as they approached in the pitch black night. At 03:53, she fired the eight 16 in (410 mm) guns of her main battery at a range of 22,800 yd (20,800 m), striking Yamashiro with her first salvo. She went on to fire a total of 93 shells. At 03:55, California and Tennessee joined in, firing a total of 63 and 69 14 in (360 mm) shells, respectively. Radar fire control allowed these American battleships to hit targets from a distance at which the Japanese battleships could not return fire, with their inferior fire control systems.
The other three U.S. battleships also had difficulty, equipped with less advanced gunnery radar. Maryland eventually succeeded in visually ranging on the splashes of the other battleships' shells, and then fired a total of 48 16 in (410 mm) projectiles. Pennsylvania was unable to find a target and her guns remained silent.
Mississippi only fired once in the battle-line action, a full salvo of 12 14-in shells. This was the last salvo ever fired by a battleship against another battleship.
Yamashiro and Mogami were crippled by a combination of 16 in and 14 in armor-piercing shells, as well as the fire of Oldendorf's flanking cruisers. The Japanese command had apparently lost grasp of the tactical picture, with all ships firing all batteries in several directions, "frantically showering steel through 360°." Shigure turned and fled but lost steering and stopped dead. Yamashiro sank at about 04:20, with Nishimura on board. Mogami and Shigure retreated southwards down the Strait.
The rear of the Southern Force—the "Second Striking Force" commanded by Vice Admiral Shima—had departed from Mako and approached Surigao Strait about 40 mi (35 nmi; 64 km) astern of Nishimura. Shima's run was initially thrown into confusion by his force nearly running aground on Panaon Island after failing to factor the outgoing tide into their approach. Japanese radar was almost useless due to excessive reflections from the many islands. The radar was equally unable to detect ships in these conditions, especially PT boats, as PT-137 hit the light cruiser Abukuma with a torpedo that crippled her and caused her to fall out of formation. Shima’s two heavy cruisers, Nachi and Ashigara, and eight destroyers next encountered remnants of Nishimura's force. Shima saw what he thought were the wrecks of both Nishimura's battleships and ordered a retreat. His flagship Nachi collided with Mogami, flooding Mogami's steering room and causing her to fall behind in the retreat; she was sunk by aircraft the next morning. Of Nishimura's seven ships, only Shigure survived. Shima’s ships did survive the Battle of Surigao Strait, but they were sunk in further engagements around Leyte, while Shigure survived long enough to escape the debacle, but eventually succumbed to the American submarine Blackfin on 24 January 1945, which sank her off Kota Bharu, Malaya, with 37 dead.
It is noteworthy that the Battle of Surigao Strait was one of only two battleship-versus-battleship naval battles in the entire Pacific campaign of World War II (the other being the naval battle during the Guadalcanal Campaign) and was the last action of this type in history. It was also the last battle in which one force (in this case, the U.S. Navy) was able to "cross the T" of its opponent. However, by the time that the battleship action was joined, the Japanese line was very ragged and consisted of only one battleship (Yamashiro), one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer, so that the "crossing of the T" was notional and had little effect on the outcome of the battle.
Halsey's decision to take all the available strength of 3rd Fleet northwards to attack the carriers of the Japanese Northern Force had left San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded.
Senior officers in 7th Fleet (including Kinkaid and his staff) generally assumed Halsey was taking his three available carrier groups northwards (McCain's group, the strongest in 3rd Fleet, was still returning from the direction of Ulithi), but leaving the battleships of TF 34 covering the San Bernardino Strait against the Japanese Center Force. In fact, Halsey had not yet formed TF 34, and all six of Willis Lee's battleships were on their way northwards with the carriers, as well as every available cruiser and destroyer of the Third Fleet.
Kurita's Center Force therefore emerged unopposed from San Bernardino Strait at 03:00 on 25 October and steamed southward along the coast of the island of Samar. In its path stood only the 7th Fleet's three escort carrier units (call signs 'Taffy' 1, 2, and 3), with a total of sixteen small, very slow, and unarmored escort carriers, protected by a screen of lightly armed and unarmored destroyers and smaller destroyer escorts (DEs). Despite the losses in the Palawan Passage and Sibuyan Sea actions, the Japanese Center Force was still very powerful, consisting of four battleships (including the giant Yamato), six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers.
Kurita's force caught Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 ('Taffy 3') entirely by surprise. Sprague directed his carriers to launch their planes, then run for the cover of a rain squall to the east. He ordered the destroyers and DEs to make a smoke screen to conceal the retreating carriers.
Kurita, unaware that Ozawa's decoy plan had succeeded, assumed he had found a carrier group from Halsey's 3rd Fleet. Having just redeployed his ships into anti-aircraft formation, he further complicated matters by ordering a "General Attack", which called for his fleet to split into different divisions and attack independently.
The destroyer USS Johnston was the closest to the enemy. On his own initiative, Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans steered his hopelessly outclassed ship into the Japanese fleet at flank speed. Johnston fired its torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Kumano, damaging her and forcing her out of line. Seeing this, Sprague gave the order "small boys attack", sending the rest of Taffy 3's screening ships into the fray. Taffy 3's two other destroyers, Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, attacked with suicidal determination, drawing fire and disrupting the Japanese formation as ships turned to avoid their torpedoes. As the ships approached the enemy columns, Lt. Comdr. Copeland of Samuel B. Roberts told all hands via bull horn that this would be "a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected." As the Japanese fleet continued to approach, Hoel and Roberts were hit multiple times, and quickly sank. After expending all of its torpedoes, Johnston continued to fight with its 5-inch guns, until it was sunk by a group of Japanese destroyers.
As they were preparing their aircraft for attack, the CVEs returned the Japanese fire with all the firepower they had – one 5 in gun per carrier. The officer in tactical command had instructed the carriers to "open with pea shooters," and each ship took an enemy vessel under fire as soon as it came within range. Fanshaw Bay fired on a cruiser, and is believed to have registered five hits, one amidst the superstructure that caused smoke. Kalinin Bay targeted a Nachi-class heavy cruiser, claiming a hit on the cruiser's No. 2 turret, with a second just below the first. Gambier Bay sighted a cruiser, and claimed at least three hits. White Plains reported hits on multiple targets, two between the superstructure and forward stack and another on the No. 1 turret of a heavy cruiser.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague (no relation to Clifton) ordered the sixteen escort carriers in his three task units to immediately launch all their aircraft equipped with whatever weapons they had available, even if these were only machine guns or depth charges. Collectively, Sprague had a total of some 450 aircraft from the carriers at his disposal. Although most of these aircraft were older models, such as the FM-2 Wildcat and TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, the fact that the Japanese force had no air cover of its own meant that American planes could commence their attacks unopposed. Consequently, the air counterattacks were almost unceasing, and some, especially several of the strikes launched from Felix Stump's Task Unit 77.4.2 (Taffy 2), were relatively heavy.
The carriers of Taffy 3 turned south and retreated through the shellfire. Gambier Bay, at the rear of the American formation, became the focus of the battleship Yamato and sustained multiple hits before capsizing at 09:07. Several other carriers were damaged but were able to escape.
The ferocity of the defense seemingly confirmed the Japanese assumption that they were engaging major fleet units rather than merely escort carriers and destroyers. The confusion of the "General Attack" order was further compounded by the air and torpedo attacks, when Kurita's flagship Yamato turned north to evade torpedoes and lost contact with the battle. Kurita abruptly broke off the fight and gave the order 'all ships, my course north, speed 20', apparently to regroup his disorganized fleet. Turning again towards Leyte Gulf, Kurita's battle report stated he had received a message indicating a group of American carriers was steaming north of him. Preferring to expend his fleet against capital ships rather than transports, Kurita set out in pursuit and thereby lost his opportunity to destroy the shipping in Leyte Gulf. After failing to intercept the non-existent carriers, Kurita finally retreated towards San Bernardino Strait. Three of his heavy cruisers had been sunk, and the determined resistance had convinced him that persisting with his attack would only cause further Japanese losses. In addition, Kurita's decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that he did not know that Ozawa had lured Halsey's entire fleet away from Leyte Gulf. Poor communication between the separate Japanese forces and a lack of air reconnaissance meant that Kurita was never informed that the deception had been successful, and that only a small and outgunned force stood between his battleships and the vulnerable transports of the invasion fleet. Thus, Kurita remained convinced that he had been engaging elements of the 3rd Fleet, and it would only be a matter of time before Halsey surrounded and annihilated him. Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague wrote to his colleague Aubrey Fitch after the war, "I ... stated [to Admiral Nimitz] that the main reason they turned north was that they were receiving too much damage to continue and I am still of that opinion and cold analysis will eventually confirm it."
Almost all of Kurita's surviving force succeeded in escaping. Halsey and the 3rd Fleet battleships returned too late to cut him off. Nagato and Kongō had been moderately damaged by air attack from Taffy 3's escort carriers. Kurita had begun the battle with five battleships. On their return to their bases, only Yamato and Haruna remained battleworthy.
As the desperate surface action was coming to an end, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi put his 'Special Attack Force' into operation, launching kamikaze attacks against the Allied ships in Leyte Gulf and the escort carrier units off Samar. The escort carrier St. Lo of Taffy 3 was hit by a kamikaze aircraft and sank after a series of internal explosions.
Ozawa's "Northern Force" comprised four aircraft carriers (Zuikaku—the last survivor of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941—and the light carriers Zuihō, Chitose, and Chiyoda), two World War I battleships partially converted to carriers (Hyūga and Ise—the two aft turrets had been replaced by a hangar, aircraft handling deck and catapult, but neither ship carried any aircraft in this battle), three light cruisers (Ōyodo, Tama, and Isuzu), and nine destroyers. His force had only 108 aircraft.
Ozawa's force was not located until 16:40 on 24 October, largely because Sherman's TG 38.3—which was the northernmost of Halsey's groups—was responsible for searches in this sector. The force that Halsey was taking north with him—three groups of Mitscher's TF 38—was overwhelmingly stronger than the Japanese Northern Force. Between them, these groups had five large fleet carriers (Intrepid, Franklin, Lexington, Enterprise, and Essex), five light carriers (Independence, Belleau Wood, Langley, Cabot, and San Jacinto), six modern battleships (Alabama, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Washington), eight cruisers (two heavy and six light), and more than 40 destroyers. The air groups of the 10 U.S. carriers present contained 600-1,000 aircraft.
At 02:40 on 25 October, Halsey detached TF 34, built around the 3rd Fleet's six battleships and commanded by Vice Admiral Willis "Ching" Lee. As dawn approached, the ships of Task Force 34 drew ahead of the carrier groups. Halsey intended Mitscher to make air strikes followed by the heavy gunfire of Lee's battleships.
Around dawn on 25 October, Ozawa launched 75 aircraft to attack the 3rd Fleet. Most were shot down by American combat air patrols, and no damage was done to the U.S. ships. A few Japanese planes survived and made their way to land bases on Luzon.
During the night, Halsey had passed tactical command of TF 38 to Admiral Mitscher, who ordered the American carrier groups to launch their first strike wave, of 180 aircraft, at dawn—before the Northern Force had been located. When the search aircraft made contact at 07:10, this strike wave was orbiting ahead of the task force. At 08:00, as the attack went in, its escorting fighters destroyed Ozawa's combat air patrol of about 30 planes. The U.S. air strikes continued until the evening, by which time TF 38 had flown 527 sorties against the Northern Force, sinking Zuikaku, the light carriers Chitose and Zuihō, and the destroyer Akizuki, all with heavy loss of life. The light carrier Chiyoda and the cruiser Tama were crippled. Ozawa transferred his flag to the light cruiser Ōyodo.
Shortly after 08:00 on 25 October, desperate messages calling for assistance began to come in from 7th Fleet, which had been engaging Nishimura's "Southern Force" in Surigao Strait since 02:00. One message from Kinkaid, sent in plain language, read: "MY SITUATION IS CRITICAL. FAST BATTLESHIPS AND SUPPORT BY AIR STRIKES MAY BE ABLE TO KEEP ENEMY FROM DESTROYING CVES AND ENTERING LEYTE." Halsey recalled in his memoirs that he was shocked at this message, recounting that the radio signals from the 7th Fleet had come in at random and out of order because of a backlog in the signals office. It seems that he did not receive this vital message from Kinkaid until around 10:00. Halsey later claimed he knew Kinkaid was in trouble, but he had not dreamed of the seriousness of this crisis.
One of the most alarming signals from Kinkaid reported, after their action in Surigao Strait, 7th Fleet's own battleships were critically low on ammunition. Even this failed to persuade Halsey to send any immediate assistance to the powerful 7th Fleet. In fact, the 7th Fleet's battleships were not as short of ammunition as Kinkaid's signal implied, but Halsey did not know that.
From 3,000 mi (2,600 nmi; 4,800 km) away in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz had been monitoring the desperate calls from Taffy 3, and sent Halsey a terse message: "TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS." The first four words and the last three were "padding" used to confuse enemy cryptanalysis (the beginning and end of the true message was marked by double consonants). The communications staff on Halsey's flagship correctly deleted the first section of padding but mistakenly retained the last three words in the message finally handed to Halsey. The last three words—probably selected by a communications officer at Nimitz's headquarters—may have been meant as a loose quote from Tennyson's poem on "The Charge of the Light Brigade", suggested by the coincidence that this day, 25 October, was the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Balaclava—and was not intended as a commentary on the current crisis off Leyte. Halsey, however, when reading the message, thought that the last words—"THE WORLD WONDERS"—were a biting piece of criticism from Nimitz, threw his cap to the deck and broke into "sobs of rage". Rear Admiral Robert Carney, his Chief of Staff, confronted him, telling Halsey "Stop it! What the hell's the matter with you? Pull yourself together."
Eventually, at 11:15, more than three hours after the first distress messages from 7th Fleet had been received by his flagship, Halsey ordered TF 34 to turn around and head southwards towards Samar. At this point, Lee's battleships were almost within gun range of Ozawa's force. Two-and-a-half hours were then spent refuelling TF 34's accompanying destroyers.
After this succession of delays it was too late for TF 34 to give any practical help to 7th Fleet, other than to assist in picking up survivors from Taffy 3, and too late even to intercept Kurita's force before it made its escape through San Bernardino Strait.
Nevertheless, at 16:22, in a desperate and even more belated attempt to intervene in the events off Samar, Halsey formed a new task group—TG 34.5—under Rear Admiral Badger, built around Third Fleet's two fastest battleships—Iowa and New Jersey, both capable of a speed of more than 32 kn (37 mph; 59 km/h)–and TF 34's three cruisers and eight destroyers, and sped southwards, leaving Lee and the other four battleships to follow. As Morison observes, if Badger's group had succeeded in intercepting the Japanese Center Force it may have been outmatched by Kurita's battleships.
Cruisers and destroyers of TG 34.5, however, caught the destroyer Nowaki—the last straggler from Center Force—off San Bernardino Strait, and sank her with all hands, including the survivors from Chikuma.
When Halsey turned TF 34 southwards at 11:15, he detached a task group of four of its cruisers and nine of its destroyers under Rear Admiral DuBose, and reassigned this group to TF 38. At 14:15, Mitscher ordered DuBose to pursue the remnants of the Japanese Northern Force. His cruisers finished off the light carrier Chiyoda at around 17:00, and at 20:59 his ships sank the destroyer Hatsuzuki after a very stubborn fight.
When Admiral Ozawa learned of the deployment of DuBose's relatively weak task group, he ordered battleships Ise and Hyūga to turn southwards and attack it, but they failed to locate DuBose's group, which they heavily outgunned. Halsey's withdrawal of all six of Lee's battleships in his attempt to assist Seventh Fleet had now rendered TF 38 vulnerable to a surface counterattack by the decoy Northern Force.
At about 23:10, the American submarine Jallao torpedoed and sank the light cruiser Tama of Ozawa's force. This was the last act of the Battle of Cape Engaño, and—apart from some final air strikes on the retreating Japanese forces on 26 October—the conclusion of the Battle for Leyte Gulf.
Halsey was criticized for his decision to take TF 34 north in pursuit of Ozawa, and for failing to detach it when Kinkaid first appealed for help. A piece of U.S. Navy slang for Halsey's actions is Bull's Run, a phrase combining Halsey's newspaper nickname "Bull" (in the U.S. Navy he was known as "Bill" Halsey) with an allusion to the Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War.
In his dispatch after the battle, Halsey justified the decision as follows:
Halsey also argued that he had feared leaving TF 34 to defend the strait without carrier support as that would have left it vulnerable to attack from land-based aircraft, while leaving one of the fast carrier groups behind to cover the battleships would have significantly reduced the concentration of air power going north to strike Ozawa.
However, Morison states that Admiral Lee said after the battle that he would have been fully prepared for the battleships to cover the San Bernardino Strait without 'any' carrier support. Moreover, if Halsey had been in proper communication with 7th Fleet, it would have been entirely practicable for the escort carriers of TF 77 to provide adequate air cover for TF 34—a much easier matter than it would be for those escort carriers to defend themselves against the onslaught of Kurita's heavy ships.
It may be argued that the fact that Halsey was aboard one of the battleships, and "would have had to remain behind" with TF 34 (while the bulk of his fleet charged northwards to attack the Japanese carriers), may have contributed to this decision, but this is in all likelihood a minor point. It has been pointed out that it would have been perfectly feasible (and logical) to have taken one or both of 3rd Fleet's two fastest battleships (Iowa and/or New Jersey) with the carriers in the pursuit of Ozawa, while leaving the rest of the battle line off the San Bernardino Strait (indeed, Halsey's original plan for the composition of TF 34 was that it would contain only four, not all six, of the 3rd Fleet's battleships); thus, guarding the San Bernardino Strait with a powerful battleship force would not have been incompatible with Halsey personally going north aboard New Jersey.
Probably a more important factor was that Halsey was philosophically against dividing his forces; he believed strongly in concentration as indicated by his writings both before World War II and in his subsequent articles and interviews defending his actions. In addition, Halsey may well have been influenced by the criticisms of Admiral Raymond Spruance, who was widely thought to have been excessively cautious at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and so allowed the bulk of the Japanese fleet to escape. Halsey was also likely influenced by his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Robert "Mick" Carney, who was also wholeheartedly in favor of taking all of 3rd Fleet's available forces northwards to attack the Japanese carrier force.
However, Halsey did have reasonable and, in his view, given the information he had available, practical reasons for his actions. First, he believed Admiral Kurita's force was more heavily damaged than it was. While it has been suggested that Halsey should have taken Kurita's continued advance as evidence that his force was still a severe threat, this view cannot be supported given the well-known propensity for members of the Japanese military to persist in hopeless endeavours to the point of suicide. So, in Halsey's estimation, Kurita's weakened force was well within the ability of Seventh Fleet to deal with, and did not justify dividing his force.
Second, Halsey did not comprehend just how badly compromised Japan's naval air power was and that Ozawa's decoy force was nearly devoid of aircraft. Halsey, in a letter to Admiral Nimitz on 22 October 1944 (three days before the Battle off Samar) wrote that Admiral Marc Mitscher believed "Jap naval air was wiped out." Mitscher, with Admiral Spruance at the Battle of the Philippine Sea (the Marianas Turkey Shoot), drew his conclusion from the very poor performance of the Japanese. Halsey ignored Mitscher's insights, and made an understandable and, to him, prudent threat-conservative judgment that Ozawa's force was still capable of launching serious attacks. Halsey later explained his actions partly by explicitly stating he did not want to be "shuttle bombed" by Ozawa's force (a technique whereby planes can land and rearm at bases on either side of a foe, allowing them to attack on both the outbound flight and the return), or to give them a "free shot" at the U.S. forces in Leyte Gulf. He was obviously not similarly concerned with giving Kurita's battleships and cruisers a free shot at those same forces.
The fact that Halsey made one seemingly prudent threat-conservative judgment regarding Ozawa's aircraft carriers and another rather opposite judgment regarding Kurita's battleships probably reflects his understandable bias toward aircraft carriers as the prime threat of the war. At Leyte Gulf, Halsey failed to appreciate that under certain circumstances battleships and cruisers could still be extremely dangerous, and ironically, through his own failures to adequately communicate his intentions, he managed to bring those circumstances about.
Clifton Sprague—commander of Task Unit 77.4.3 in the battle off Samar—was later bitterly critical of Halsey's decision, and of his failure to clearly inform Kinkaid and 7th Fleet that their northern flank was no longer protected:
In the absence of any information that this exit [of the San Bernardino Strait] was no longer blocked, it was logical to assume that our northern flank could not be exposed without ample warning.
Regarding Halsey's failure to turn TF 34 southwards when 7th Fleet's first calls for assistance off Samar were received, Morison writes:
If TF 34 had been detached a few hours earlier, after Kinkaid's first urgent request for help, and had left the destroyers behind, since their fueling caused a delay of over two and a half hours, a powerful battle line of six modern battleships under the command of Admiral Lee, the most experienced battle squadron commander in the Navy, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait in time to have clashed with Kurita's Center Force… Apart from the accidents common in naval warfare, there is every reason to suppose that Lee would have "crossed the T" and completed the destruction of Center Force.
Instead, as Morison also observes:
The mighty gunfire of the Third Fleet's Battle Line, greater than that of the whole Japanese Navy, was never brought into action except to finish off one or two crippled light ships.
Vice Admiral Lee said in his action report as Commander of TF 34 —
No battle damage was incurred nor inflicted on the enemy by vessels while operating as Task Force Thirty-Four.
The losses in the battle of Leyte Gulf were not evenly distributed throughout all forces; for instance, the destroyer USS Heermann—despite her unequal fight with the enemy—finished the battle with only six of her crew dead. More than 1,000 sailors and aircrewmen of the Allied escort carrier units were killed. As a result of communication errors and other failures, a large number of survivors from Taffy 3 were unable to be rescued for several days, and died unnecessarily as a consequence. HMAS Australia suffered 30 officers and sailors dead, and another 62 servicemen wounded in a kamikaze-like attack 21 October 1944 at the start of the battle.
Due to the long duration and size of the battle, accounts vary as to the losses that occurred as a part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and losses that occurred shortly before and shortly after. One account of the losses lists the following vessels:
The United States lost six warships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf:One light carrier: USS Princeton
Two escort carriers: USS Gambier Bay and USS St. Lo (the first major warship sunk by a kamikaze attack)
Two destroyers: USS Hoel and USS Johnston
One destroyer escort: USS Samuel B. Roberts
Four other American ships and HMAS Australia were damaged.
The Japanese lost 26 warships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf:One fleet aircraft carrier: Zuikaku (flagship of the decoy Northern Forces).
Three light aircraft carriers: Zuihō, Chiyoda, and Chitose.
Three battleships: Musashi (former flagship of the Japanese Combined Fleet), Yamashiro (flagship of the Southern Force) and Fusō.
Six heavy cruisers: Atago (flagship of the Center Force), Maya, Suzuya, Chokai, Chikuma, and Mogami.
Four light cruisers: Noshiro, Abukuma, Tama, and Kinu.
Nine destroyers: Nowaki, Hayashimo, Yamagumo, Asagumo, Michishio, Akizuki, Hatsuzuki, Wakaba, and Uranami.
Listed Japanese losses include only those ships sunk in the battle. After the nominal end of the battle, several damaged ships were faced with the option of either making their way to Singapore, which was close to Japan's oil supplies but could not undertake comprehensive repairs, or making their way back to Japan where there were better repair facilities but scant oil. The cruiser Kumano and battleship Kongo were sunk retreating to Japan. Cruisers Takao and Myoko were stranded, unrepairable, in Singapore. Many of the other survivors of the battle were bombed and sunk at anchor in Japan, unable to move without fuel.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf secured the beachheads of the U.S. Sixth Army on Leyte against attack from the sea. However, much hard fighting would be required before the island was completely in Allied hands at the end of December 1944: the Battle of Leyte on land was fought in parallel with an air and sea campaign in which the Japanese reinforced and resupplied their troops on Leyte while the Allies attempted to interdict them and establish air-sea superiority for a series of amphibious landings in Ormoc Bay—engagements collectively referred to as the Battle of Ormoc Bay.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had suffered its greatest loss of ships and crew ever. Its failure to dislodge the Allied invaders from Leyte meant the inevitable loss of the Philippines, which in turn meant Japan would be all but cut off from its occupied territories in Southeast Asia. These territories provided resources that were vital to Japan, in particular the oil needed for her ships and aircraft. This problem was compounded because the shipyards and sources of manufactured goods, such as ammunition, were in Japan itself. Finally, the loss of Leyte opened the way for the invasion of the Ryukyu Islands in 1945.
The major IJN surface ships returned to their bases to languish, entirely or almost entirely inactive, for the remainder of the war. The only major operation by these surface ships between the Battle for Leyte Gulf and the Japanese surrender was the suicidal sortie in April 1945 (part of Operation Ten-Go), in which the battleship Yamato and her escorts were destroyed by American carrier aircraft.
The first use of kamikaze aircraft took place following the Leyte landings. A kamikaze hit the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia on 21 October. Organized suicide attacks by the "Special Attack Force" began on 25 October during the closing phase of the Battle off Samar, causing the destruction of the escort carrier St. Lo.
J.F.C. Fuller, in his The Decisive Battles of the Western World, writes of the outcome of Leyte Gulf:
The Japanese fleet had [effectively] ceased to exist, and, except by land-based aircraft, their opponents had won undisputed command of the sea.
When Admiral Ozawa was questioned... after the war he replied 'After this battle the surface forces became strictly auxiliary, so that we relied on land forces, special [Kamikaze] attack, and air power... there was no further use assigned to surface vessels, with the exception of some special ships'.
And Admiral Yonai, the Navy Minister, said he realised the defeat at Leyte 'was tantamount to the loss of the Philippines.'
As for the larger significance of the battle, he said, 'I felt that it was the end.'
Months after the battle, the U.S. Navy knew the American public had to be told something. The battle had been too large, involved too many U.S. military personnel, and had resulted in too much loss of life just to ignore. To this end, the U.S. Navy provided most of the information to the publication Popular Mechanics to publish an article on the battle showing the American public that the battle had gone exactly as Halsey had planned. It was several years before the true story of Halsey's decision to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded became known to the American public.At the U.S. Naval Academy, in Alumni Hall, a concourse is dedicated to Lt. Lloyd Garnett and his shipmates on USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), who earned their ship the reputation as the "destroyer escort that fought like a battleship" in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32) was named for the battle.
The Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55) is named for the battle.
The Dealey-class destroyer escort USS Evans (DE-1023) was named in honor of Lt. Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, commanding officer of the USS Johnston (DD-557)