Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I am finishing up a series of posts about the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This one is about the Battle of Cape Engano in which a force of Japanese carriers with very few aircraft were used to lure the main part of the American Third Fleet under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey away from the vulnerable troop transports and supply ships supporting the invasion. Eventually I will write something about the epic Battle off Samar to conclude the series properly but that will have to wait.
Have a great day,
“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.” Admiral Nimitz to Admiral Halsey
After Admiral William “Bull” Halsey felt that he had heavily damaged the Japanese Center Force during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea he withdrew the Fast Battleships of Task Force 34 from the San Bernardino Strait in order to use them in a surface engagement against Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern Force. Halsey assumed that Ozawa’s carriers were the main threat to the American invasion forces. However he did not know that Ozawa’s carriers had very few aircraft embarked and that the Northern force was in fact a decoy, designed to draw him away from Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center and the two task forces of the Southern force.
The Zuikaku under attack at Cape Engano
When Halsey’s aircraft reported the Center force withdrawing he believed that the threat had been removed. He wrote in his memoirs “I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.”Thus he moved with haste to intercept, engage and destroy the Northern force and its carriers and battleships. Halsey believed that his engagement against the Northern force would culminate when his fast battleships destroyed whatever Japanese surface forces remained.
It was not a bad assumption. Ever since the early days of the Pacific war the truly decisive engagements had been decided by carriers. Unfortunately for the American sailors of Taffy-3, the group of Escort Carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts which encountered Kurita’s Center force which had doubled back overnight and passed through the San Bernardino Strait surprising Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s task group of “Jeep” Carriers.
The Battle off Samar
The unequal battle that ensued off Samar was a near run thing for the Americans. Had Kurita not been confused about what forces he was facing and pressed his attacks he may have inflicted painful damage on the actual invasion forces. However after a morning of battle, in which Taffy-3’s destroyers, destroyer escorts, aircraft and even the Jeep carriers themselves inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese force Kurita withdrew.
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey
However as Taffy-3 battled for its life against Kurita’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers Halsey’s carrier air groups were pounding Ozawa’s hapless carriers and their escorts. About 0800 on the 25th Kinkaid’s desperate messages began to reach Nimitz and Halsey. However since Halsey did not believe just how serious the situation was he continued to pursue Ozawa’s force. When he received Nimitz’s message he was incensed. The 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 was composed of three parts. The preface “Turkey trots to water” was padding, as was the last part “the world wonders.”
Light Carrier Zuiho under attack
However the communications officer on Halsey’s flagship only removed the first section leaving “Where is Third Fleet, the world wonders.” Halsey was flabbergasted and though the battleships of Task Force 34 were almost in range of the Japanese force he sent them south to relieve Kinkaid’s beleaguered force. However by the time Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s battle line arrived Kurita had withdrawn, losing 3 heavy cruisers sunk, three heavy cruisers and one destroyer heavily damaged.
Zuikaku being abandoned
All the Japanese carriers were sunk along with a light cruiser and a number of destroyers, but Kurita’s heavy forces escaped. Among the Japanese losses was the carrier Zuikaku the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack. Naval historian Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:
“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.”
The Battle of Cape Engano closed the epic extended battle of Leyte Gulf. The victory of the US Navy was decisive even without the final destruction of Kurita’s forces. The remnants of the Japanese forces would never mount a serious offensive threat again. The survivors would be hunted down over the next 9 months, some sunk by submarines, other in surface engagements, still more to air attacks at Okinawa and in Japanese ports.
Halsey received much criticism for his decision to withdraw TF 34 from San Bernardino Strait. However in his defense the action exposed one of the key problems in any kind of warfare, the problem of seams. Kinkaid’s escort carriers belonged to 7th Fleet which came under the operational control of Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Region while Halsey commanded 3rd Fleet fell under Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific region. This created a situation where two fleets belonging to two regions under two separate commanders were attempting to fight a single battle. The principle of unity of command and unity of effort was violated with nearly disastrous results.
5 responses to ““Where is Task Force 34? The World Wonders: The Battle of Leyte Gulf Part Five”
I really enjoyed reading this mini-series on the Battle of Leyte. Well done, Steve. You cut Halsey some slack here, whereas I would be more critical. Yes, the division of commands was a problem. Yes, it’s understandable that Halsey might overestimate the damage he inflicted upon Kurita and the threat posed by Ozawa. However, and correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t Halsey’s main priority to guard the San Bernardino Strait? Considering the strength of his 3rd Fleet, couldn’t he have left a sufficient force behind and still pursued Ozawa? Didn’t the Japanese count on Halsey’s over-aggressiveness in their battle strategy?
In the movie The Hunt for Red October the character played by Sean Connery remarked: “Halsey acted stupidly.”
The mission to defend San Bernardino Strait was one of his main missions. He could have easily left TF 34 there and pursued Ozawa with TF 38 and not lost anything. His carriers and cruisers would gave still destroyed the Japanese carriers while TF 34 would have crushed Kurita’s Central Force. It would have been a lot like Surigao, and it would have been the last action between battleships in history. The US would have taken some losses but the Japanese defeat would have been decisive.
Re: Kurita’s early withdrawal with a great victory so close at hand “those who have endured a similar ordeal may judge him” Churchill
I have, over time, cut Halsey more slack also, though he was careless in just assuming Kurita was done. He was also careless with his messages, though they still had to route through Nimitz back to the other local admirals due to the flawed command structure.The lack of unity of command resulted in each part of the fleet acting independently based on its own limited sense of its mission, which played straight into the Japanese plan to use the carriers as a decoy.
Halsey was given freedom at the outset by Nimitz to act as a hunter, and did not have the obligation to protect the invasion fleet. This should be seen as a response to the recent arguments about the Battle of Phillipine Sea fought only four months earlier. There, Nimitz had expressly ordered Spruance to protect the invasion fleet, resulting in Spruance avoiding movements to chase Japanese carriers that would remove protection from the invasion fleet. Spruance was criticized later, but he acted in conformity with orders.
So for Leyte, the invasion force had its own protection fleet under separate command, and Halsey was not given the same limitation. Dashing north to destroy the Japanese carrier force was exactly what he was supposed to do, and consistent with doctrine which stressed the primacy of the threat of carriers. Still, he did not take adequate precautions as to Kurita, nor communicate adequately what he was doing.
Kinkaid was misled by Halsey’s bad message about Task Force 34 such that he believed that he could remove his protection from the invasion fleet and crush the southern force, which he did. But no one was coordinating Halsey and Kinkaid. Kinkaid was not an intended recipient of the Task Force 34 message – he just picked it up as part of a standard practice of reading all traffic sent without regard to whether it was directed to him. A unified command would have coordinated these various parts, and not leave the Center force unguarded while each portion of the US fleet acted independently to do what if thought best, but without coordination as to an overall plan.