The Revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships: The Battle of Surigao Strait

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was another busy but weird day as I am in the middle of trying to do my checkout from my current base even as I await the official short fused orders that are moving me to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth sometime next week. So today, after successfully completing my Physical Readiness Test, I did some of my checkout that I could complete without my orders; I am posting the third article of a series on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This article discusses the Battle of Surigao Strait which ended in the near annihilation of most of the of the Japanese Southern Force. The battle was the last ever where battleships engaged each other in a surface action.

Surigao_straight

The two task groups of the Japanese Southern Force passed the daylight hours of 24 October relatively unscathed despite an air attack that caused minor damage. The group commanded by Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura comprised of the elderly Battleships Yamashiro and Fuso the Heavy Cruiser Mogami and four destroyers was leading the charge and was followed by that commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with the Heavy Cruisers Nachi and Ashigara, Light Cruiser Abukuma and four destroyers.

The mission of these two groups which were unable to coordinate their actions due to orders to maintain strict radio silence was to fight their way through the Surigao Strait to assist the Central Force in destroying the US invasion force in Leyte Gulf.  The mission was for all practical purposes a suicide mission, a naval “Charge of the Light Brigade” as they sailed into the Valley of Death against the Battle Line of the US 7th Fleet.

USS West Virginia Surigao strait

                      USS West Virginia firing a Broadside at Surigao

The Japanese Battleships had spent the majority of the war in home waters and had seen little action.  They had not been part of any of the great Japanese victories in 1941 and 1942 and they had not been blooded in the Solomons.  Instead the two elderly battlewagons passed the war conducting training in the inland sea.  They were no longer first line ships but the Japanese were desperate.  During the afternoon Admiral Nishimura received an accurate report from one of Mogami’s scout planes telling him exactly what he was up against yet he pushed on in the manner of a Samurai.

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                                                Yamashiro and Fuso

Facing him was a force built around the 6 old Battleships of Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s 7th Fleet Battle Line.  The Americans heavily outnumbered the Japanese, the Battleships West VirginiaCalifornia and Tennessee were the heart of the force. Fully modernized after Pearl Harbor they no longer resembled the ships that they were before the war. Equipped with the latest Mark 8 Fire Control radar they had the ability to put their 16” and 14” shells on target at ranges farther than anything that the Japanese could counter.  Joined by the less fully modernized Maryland, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, 4 Heavy Cruisers, 4 Light Cruisers, 28 Destroyers and 39 PT Boats they outnumbered the combined Japanese forces with sixteen 16” and forty eight 14” guns to twenty 14” guns on the antiquated Yamashiro and Fuso.  The disparity in lesser guns was just as stark, thirty five against twenty six 8” guns, and fifty one 6” guns against six 5.5 inch guns.  This massive imbalance didn’t count the nearly one hundred fifty 5” guns on the US destroyers and as well as nearly 200 torpedo tubes.

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                 Yamashiro and Shigure ride into the Valley of death

No one can ever criticize the Japanese Navy for its courage in battle, even in hopeless ones. Nishimura’s force entered the southern entrance to Surigao Strait and was discovered by the American PT Boats at about 2230.  Though the PTs scored no hits they provided critical updates on the Japanese to Oldendorff.  At 0300 the American destroyers began a devastating series of attacks on the Japanese flanks.  They sank two destroyers and damaged another which had to turn back, but the real damage occurred when both Fuso and Yamashiro were hit. Fuso took two torpedoes fired by the destroyer USS Melvin.  She slowed and then blew up and broke in two sinking with all hands.  This account has been contested in recent years but many find the new version less believable than the first. Key in the evidence was the rescue and capture of Yamashiro’s Executive Officer in the north end of the strait and the surviving logs of the other Japanese ships which reported the sinking. Yamashiro though hit continued north with Mogami and the last destroyer Shigure.  At 0353 West Virginia opened fire and score hits on her first salvo. She was joined by California and Tennesseeat 0355, the other battleships with their Mark 3 fire direction radars were slow to open up. Maryland got off six full salvos by ranging in on the splashes of West VirginiaCalifornia and Tennessee.  Mississippi logged the final salvo of the battle and Pennsylvania got no shots off.  West Virginia fired 16 salvos, 96 rounds of 16”armor piercing shells, Tennessee got off 69 rounds and California 63 each of 14” armor piercing shells, while  Maryland added another forty eight 16” rounds.

The Yamashiro and Mogami sailed into the maelstrom absorbing hit after hit and gamely fought back. Yamashiro hit the destroyer Albert W Grant which was also hit by friendly fire badly damaging her. Finally both ships ablaze they turned back down the strait with Yamashiro sinking with few survivors at 0420.  Shima’s force then entered the fray and the Light Cruiser Abukuma was damaged by a torpedo fired by PT-137 and fell out of the formation. She was sunk on 26 October by Army Air Force B-24s. As Shima came up the strait his force entered the battered remnants of Nishimura’s force, the burning halves of Fuso and the retreating Mogami and Shigure. Assuming the halves of Fuso to be the wreckage of both battleships Shima beat a hasty retreat but in the process his flagship Nachi collided with Mogami flooding Mogami’s steering engine room and leaving her crippled.  She was attacked again by American cruisers and aircraft and as abandoned at 1047 and scuttled a torpedo from the destroyer Akebono sinking at 1307 on 25 October.

nachi

                                              Nachi Under Air Attack

The battle was one of the most lopsided surface engagements of the war.  When it was over only one of Nishimura’s ships had survived the “lucky” Shigure.  Shima’s force survived the night but most of his ships were sunk in the following by war’s end. Nachi was sunk in Manila Bay on 5 November by aircraft from the USS Lexington with a loss of over 800 sailors while Shima was in a conference ashore.

With the exception of Albert W Grant and a PT Boat the American force was unscathed the old Battlewagons dredged from the mud of Peal Harbor had led the fleet to a decisive victory in the last duel between Dreadnaughts ever fought. The Japanese died as Samurai trying to complete a hopeless mission against a far superior force.

9 Comments

Filed under History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

9 responses to “The Revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships: The Battle of Surigao Strait

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    Thanks again Padre for this history lesson of courage.

    • padresteve

      You are welcome. I am the kind of person who can recognize courage in an enemy even when the odds are completely against him.

  2. Steven

    Hey Padre,

    Well…no, you don’t. You and I often agree, Padre. But you have never quite bested that youthful zeal that runs through your veins—you shifted it, you muted it, but it still brings down the blinders when you’ve got the wind up.

    So I’ll agree with:
    “…courage in a **non-German, non-Confederate** enemy”.

    General Hoepner’s courage does not get recognised. I would say it is was callously minimised, in fact. As for that of General Lee, to cite another example, I would say “brushed off” might serve better than “recognised”.

    And the particular difference between the Japanese War Criminals who still acted “heroically as soldiers”—I beg your pardon, “Samurai”—and the German War Criminals you constantly denigrate regardless of their conduct as soldiers, is that Germans (largely) committed their atrocities against Europeans, while the Japanese committed their atrocities (largely) against Asians.

    There is no single point on which the Japanese can be excepted from their conduct of the war that does not apply to the Germans, EXCEPT THAT GERMANY HAD AN ACTIVE RESISTANCE; which finally made a stand so that the the record would show that **some** Germans could stand up and be counted.

    The Japanese had special groups active in China; they used the Army to perform wholesale slaughter on the Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Burmese, Vietnamese, and all other Asians; they used slave labour; they had camps where medical and pseudo-scientific experiments were carried out; they were brutal to PWs and to European civilians; they used starvation as a means of dominating conquered populations. And so on.

    The German State was absolutely better organised about the systematic killing of Eastern Europeans than the Japanese State about the murder of the Chinese and other East Asians. But the Japanese Army was far more brutish and bestial than ever was the German Army. As far as I can learn, the numbers come out to sickeningly similar totals.

    So while you may call the Japanese of 1930-1945 “Samurai”, the code of the Bushi has nothing in common with the Japanese Army and Navy of the Imperial period (between 1870-1946), except perhaps arrogance.

    General Hoepner, in the end, stood up to be counted. For all his heinous actions and inactions, he made the deliberate choice to act in the forefront of the attempt to kill Hitler and seize power from the Nazis. He did not die easily—though a botched hanging cannot be said to be humane, it has to be better than a meat hook after physical torture—nor swiftly. He did not get poison for sitting on the fence. He did not kill himself. He endured, and he died. That is courage, Padre. How does that compare to the Slave Master of Nazi Industry, Albert Speer, who lied his way into freedom and comfort in West Germany, while Saur, who procured the slaves Speer “ordered up” hanged?

    And what did all your brave Samurai do? Nothing…still…to this very day. Ask any other Asian about how that sits. Wonder why that is?

    • padresteve

      Steven, I was more specifically referring to the men of the Imperial Navy going into harm’s way, not it’s Marines, or the Imperial Army. The Japanese atrocities against Asians are well documented. When the dust clears with my transfer I plan on writing about them. The Rape of Nanking was just the tip of the iceberg. Biological experiments on human beings, the activities of Unit 731, the crimes committed against non-Asian POWs, and their high command’s complicity rank them high in my list of abominable nations. They have refused to apologize for their war crimes and additionally have a revanchist historical cult that dominates much of their academia. The war crimes trials against them were mitigated by McArthur and they did not go nearly as far as the Western Allied trials against the Germans. The Japanese also purported themselves as a Master Race, which in their minds gave them cover to do whatever evil they wanted.

      Again my remarks were directed toward the sailors who sailed into incredible odds and certain death. I know it was the Samurai tradition/cult that led them there.

      Cheers and thanks for your comments as always.

      Steve

      • Steven

        Hey Padre,

        Tsk, Tsk….you dodged my point, there, Padre. You have a harder view of Germans (and Confederates) than you do of other “brave enemies”.

        For example, you curse R. E. Lee for not ending a war that you believe was “clearly lost” in the Winter of 1864-1865. How much more clearly lost was the Japanese War in the Summer and Fall of 1944? Their own war plan is a sieve of hopelessness. Why should R. E. Lee be damned, but Toyoda be excused?

        That the Imperial Navy was better than the Imperial Army is undoubtedly true, but the same may be said for the Waffen SS as against the Allgemeine SS, and you’d get yourself tied in knots about that.

        SFH

      • padresteve

        Toyoda is not excused, not the rest of the high command, Army or Navy. They were as culpable for war crimes as the Germans ever war, or for that matter Lee. I was very limited in my remarks to the sailors of Nishimura’s Southern Force who charged into a valley of death. In fact had MacArthur not limited the scope of the Japanese War Crimes trials many more of these individuals would have faced the gallows, including those who overthrew the civilian government in the early 1930s. I promise, I will get around to them, and will not let them off the hook. I have praised the courage of German and Confederate troops in hopeless battles despite the causes they fought for, I am not dodging of setting different standards. My specialties are in German history and the history of the American Civil War, thus I spend more time on them.

      • Steven

        Well…..OK…..I **suppose** I can be patient and not pass judgement on a handful of articles….

        …but now we’re really acting our age….aren’t we supposed to be calling each other names, and refusing to speak to one another, and making stuff up?

        This seems like what people did way back when I learned how grown-ups acted…

        You know…talk…listen…revise…talk some more. Or in our case, write.

      • padresteve

        With the exception of the Rape of Nanking I have done little writing about the Japanese War Crimes. I am continuing to read and prepare new articles. The Japanese Commander at Nanking was a member of the Royal family. The sad thing is that we let them off the hook far too easily. As the dust clears with my transfer, there will be more articles, their crimes cannot be ignored. The funny thing is that I get more hate mail from Japanese Nationalists and revisionists than the pro-Confederates or Holocaust deniers, and I have hardly scratched the surface of their crimes.

      • Steven

        As you pointed out, the US had a very powerful interest in glossing over Japanese War Crimes. And unlike in Europe—where there was a powerful and ethical High Command with significant political clout, reporting about crimes committed to Peoples seen as “white” to white voters in the US and Great Britain—the Far East had a powerful but adversarial High Command in no way united by an ethical tradition.

        Chinese War Crimes were always going to go the way of Allied war Crimes generally—despite high words at Nurnberg, ignored and suppressed. Adolph Hitler understood the thing exactly when he pointed out to the German Generals that no one was going question the victors. No one did.

        Don’t blame it **all** on MacArthur, though. I’ll admit he is problematic as a political entity, but the Constitution of Japan is arguably a greater credit to West Point than most of the General Officers graduated from it.

        SFH

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