Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I worked most of the day with Judy to straighten out her art room after the contractors stuffed a Buch of stuff in it in order to paint. This caused us to downsize a huge amount of linens. I also built a printer table for her printer and cleaned got all office, art, and photo paper stored in it.
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. This is the edited version of that article.
Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf
Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima
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 led the charge. They were followed by a second force commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with the Heavy Cruisers Nachi and Ashigara, Light Cruiser Abukuma and four destroyers. Because of strict radio silence neither Nishimura or Shima could coordinate their attack which resulted in Shima arriving late and taking losses before he could retire.
All three commanders had served with distinction, but the two Japanese Admirals were on a desperate mission with little chance of success. Their mission 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 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.
Yamashiro and Fuso
The Fully Modernized USS West Virginia in 1944 (above)
USS Tennessee 1944
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 Virginia, California 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.
Oldendorf described his plan in Naval Institute Proceedings a decade later:
“… Admiral Kinkaid’s order to prepare for night action came as no surprise. … It was obvious that the objective of the Japanese Forces was the destruction of our transports and that my mission was to protect them at all costs. In order to accomplish my mission, the force under my command must be interposed to between the enemy and the transports. I realized that I must not lose sight of my mission no matter how much I might be tempted to engage in a gunnery duel with him.
I selected the position of the battle line off Hingatungan Point because it gave me the maximum sea room available and restricted the enemy’s movements. This position also permitted me to cover the eastern entrance to the Gulf should the Central Force under Admiral Kurita arrive ahead of the Southern Force. I selected the battle plan from the General Tactical Instructions and modified it to meet the conditions existing, i.e., lack of sea room to maneuver and possible enemy action. … I thought that quite possibly he planned to slip some of his light forces into the Gulf by passing them to the eastward of Hibuson Island after the battle line was engaged. For that reason I stationed the preponderance of my light forces on the left flank. One duty which was never delegated to my staff was the drafting of battle plans.”
Oldendorf’s Task Force 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.
Nishimura’s force entered the southern entrance to Surigao Strait and was discovered by the American PT Boats at about 2236. 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 continued north with Mogami and the last destroyer Shigure. At 0353 West Virginia opened fire and scored hits on her first salvo. She was joined by California and Tennessee at 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 Virginia, California and Tennessee. Mississippi logged the final salvo of the battle and Pennsylvania got no shots off. West Virginia fired 16 salvos, 96 round 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 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.
Mogami, a ship that almost miraculously escaped being sunk at the Battle of Midway was attacked again by American cruisers and aircraft. She was abandoned at 1047 and scuttled a torpedo from the destroyer Akebono, finally sinking at 1307 on 25 October.
A PT Boat Rescuing Japanese Survivors
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, ran out of luck when she was sunk by the submarine USS Blackfin on 24 January 1945.
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. Ashigara was sunk by the British submarine HMS Trenchant on 8 June 1945.
With the exception of the destroyer USS Albert W Grant and a PT Boat the American force was unscathed. The old Battlewagons dredged from the mud of Peal Harbor under command of Admiral Oldendorf led the fleet to a decisive victory in the last duel between Dreadnaughts ever fought. All of the battleships present were either in commission or designed during the First World War. The Japanese died as Samurai warriors trying to complete a hopeless mission against a far superior force. The Americans executed a perfectly designed plan to perfection. It wasn’t a battle but the slaughter of an inferior force attempting to do the impossible. But when all was said and done the West Virginia, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania executed the judgement that only victims of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
2 responses to “The Slaughter at Surigao Strait: The Last Battle Between Battleships in History”
I’m a battleship geek (used to volunteer on the Texas), and I gotta say, the history of battlewagons in WW2 is interesting. I’m amazed how little’s been said about this battle before. Granted, I haven’t read all of Morison’s naval history yet (used some of it for research papers, but that’s it). Perhaps it’s a reflection of acknowledging the superiority of aircraft carriers, so the battleship battles were kinda just going on.
Always heard about Leyte, but not this part of it. Fascinating read. Thanks a ton.
I think Surigao, due to the irony of that five of the surviving Pearl Harbor Battleships were there to avenge it, and that it was the last battleship versus battleship engagement in history that fascinates me the most. I think that it would have been interesting had West Virginia, Tennessee, and California which had been completely modernized after Pearl Harbor Harbor had been able to go with their supporting cruisers and destroyers to engage Kurita’s Center Force. Their fire control and radar systems were far in advance of every Japanese battleship present, their armament, and protection better than all but Yamato, though they were slower. But the number of cruisers and destroyers with them would made them more than a match for Kurita’s Force. The weight of shell and number of main armament Guns, 16x 16” and 48 x 14” with better fire control systems against 9x 18”, 8x 16”, and 16 x 14” guns and nearly twice the numbers of cruisers and destroyers combined with the 400 aircraft from the three “Taffy’s” would have doomed the Japanese even without TF 34.