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Shō-Gō 1: Introduction to and the Beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; the Greatest Naval Battle of All Time

leaving brunei

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year it seems that I return to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the largest and most expansive naval battle in history. Thousands and ships and aircraft, including the largest battleships ever constructed. Tens of thousands of sailors and Marines on both sides died in the battle. The Japanese first employed the Kamikazes aviators determined to sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks to save their country, as great storms, typhoons did against the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. It is a battle that should not be forgotten, and one which the lessons of should be remembered, even 75 years later.

This is the first of a five article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. I may add a sixth this year. The battle was the largest in history both in terms of the number of ships involved and the amount of area covered. The action was triggered by the American invasion of the Philippines causing the Japanese to initiate their Shō-Gō 1 (Victory Plan 1) to attempt to defeat the Americans. The plan relied heavily on land based air power which most of unfortunately for the Japanese was destroyed during the American carrier air strikes on Formosa earlier in the month.

Leyte_map_annotated

The battle was necessitated by the absolute need for the Japanese to hold the Philippines in order to maintain their supply lines with the oil resources in Southeast Asia, and in the process defeat the Americans at all costs. As Admiral Soemu Toyoda the Chief of the Combined Fleet explained under interrogation after the war

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.

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                                              Atago Class Cruiser 

The battle was comprised of 5 battles, the Battle of Palawan Passage, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All told about 70 Japanese warships and 210 American and Australian ships were engaged. A further 300 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based and 1500 American carrier aircraft took part in the battle.

The Japanese order of battle included 1 Fleet and 3 Light Fleet Carriers with a minimal air group, 9 Battleships including the two largest ever built the Yamato and Musashi, 14 Heavy and 6 Light Cruisers and about 3 destroyers. They were divided into four task forces, the Northern Force under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa which had all of the Carriers including the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack the Fleet Carrier Zuikaku plus the converted hybrid Battleships Ise and Hyuga; the Southern Force which was two distinct and independent task forces. One was under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and was built around the ancient battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and 3 Heavy Cruisers; and the Center Force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kuritawhich had the Battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, 10 Heavy and 2 Light Cruisers and 1 destroyers. The Center force was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait and converge on the American landing forces off Samar with the Southern Force which as to come through the Surigo Strait. The Japanese also planned for the first use of Kamikazes as part of the action.

atago color

                                            Heavy Cruiser Atago

The American fleet was comprised of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral William Halsey which was built around the Fast Carrier Task Forces and Fast Battleships of Task Force 38 under the Command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and the Battle Line Task Force 34 under the Command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee; and the 7th Fleet under Vice Admiral William Kinkaid which was the naval support for the landings.

The 7th Fleet had under its control the old Battleships West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado and Pennsylvania and 18 Escort Carriers which provided the close air support for the Invasion. All told the Americans had 8 Fleet and 8 Light Fleet Carriers, 18 Escort Carriers, 12 Battleships, 24 Cruisers and 141 Destroyers as well as submarines, PT Boats, Transports, Landing Ships and Auxiliaries. 7th Fleet was not the glamour Navy, its task was the protection and support of the amphibious landings by Douglas McArthur’s Army units.


                                                            Maya

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle.

This section will focus on the action of the Submarines Darter and Dace against the Center force in the Palawan Passage. The next will be the sinking of the Musashi during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it will be followed by the revenge of the Old Battleships at Surigo Strait. The next will be the great decision of Admiral Halsey to pursue the Northern Force and leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, followed by the Battle off Samar and last the death of the Japanese Naval Aviation at Cape Engaño.

takao

                                                         Takao

                                  The Battle of Palawan Passage

Admiral Takeo Kurita and the powerful Center Force departed their anchorage at Brunei on 20 October 1944. The task force entered the Palawan Passage on the night of 22-23 October where they were sighted by the American Submarines Darter and Dace which had been posted at the strait for such a possibility. Darter made radar contact at 30,000 yards at 0018 hours on the 23rd and sent out contact reports. The two submarines shadowed the Center Force on the surface to gain an intercept position and submerged just before dawn.

Darter struck first at 0524 firing a spread of 6 torpedoes scoring 4 hits on Admiral Kurita’s flagship the Heavy Cruiser Atago. She reloaded and stuck the Heavy Cruiser Takao with 2 torpedoes at 0634. At 0554 Dace hit the Heavy Cruiser Maya with 4 torpedoes.

uss-darter

                                                    USS Darter

The blow was severe. Atago was mortally wounded she capsized and sank at 0553 with the loss of 360 crew members. She sank so rapidly that Kurita had to swim and was rescued with his Chief of Staff by a destroyer, but many of his staff members were lost with the ship. Though Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato, he was now without the advice and counsel of experienced and trusted staff officers that might have prevented his later mistakes during the Battle off Samar.

 Takao suffered heavy damage and though she did not sink she had to proceed crippled to Singapore under the guard of two destroyers. Though she survived the war she never saw action again. Maya, struck at 0554 by 4 torpedoes suffered much damage and was wracked by powerful secondary explosions. By 0600 she was dead in the water and sank five minutes later with the loss of 337 crew members.

The attack of the two submarines was significant; the Japanese lost 3 powerful Heavy Cruisers and had to send two of their destroyers away to guard Takao as she limped away from the action. Likewise the loss of Kurita’s experienced staff hindered his conduct of the battle on the 24th. The cruisers were a big loss, at 13,000 tons and armed with ten 8”guns they could steam at 35 knots and would have been a significant help during the action off Samar.

                                            The Wreck of USS Darter
Darter
 and Dace conducted a pursuit of the crippled Takao which had to be broken off when Darter ran aground on Bombay Shoal. Despite the best efforts of her crew and that of the Dace to free her she was hopelessly stuck. Her crew was unable to scuttle her and the Japanese were able to board her after she was abandoned and for the first time get a look at the details of a Gato class submarine.

Kurita’s force would continue on into the Sibuyan Sea where they would be attacked again, this time by the aircraft of Admiral Bull Halsey’s carriers. But that is the subject of the next article.

To be continued…

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Forerunners of the Next Generation: The New Mexico Class, USS New Mexico, USS Idaho and USS Mississippi

New Mexico BB-40 in 1930 before moderization

The Battleships of the Nevada and Pennsylvania classes had established American ship design as second to none in 1916.  At the same time the US Navy was planning advances in engineering systems that would change naval engineering forever.

Idaho  BB-42 in 1931 after modernization

The ships of the New Mexico class were improvements on the preceding Nevada and Pennsylvania class half sisters.  Their hull was lengthened and beam increased. Additionally the new class was given a clipper bow to improve sea keeping capabilities.  While they maintained the same main battery layout of four turrets mounting three 14” guns each, however the guns were a higher caliber 14”/50 models that would also be mounted on the California class.  The New Mexico was also the test bed for a new power plant which featured General Electric geared turbines with electric drive which would be standard on succeeding classes of battleships as well as carriers, cruisers and destroyers.  The Mississippi and Idaho retained the older geared turbine design. The practical effect was that the New Mexico required less horsepower to attain the same speeds as the earlier design turbines.

USS Mississippi BB-41 in the North Atlantic September 1941

Displacing 32,000 tons the ships were slightly larger than their predecessors.  New Mexico was launched on 23 April 1917 and commissioned on May 18th 1918.  Her sisters Mississippi and Idaho were actually launched and commissioned sooner being launched on January 25th 1917 and commissioned on December 18th 1917.  None of the ships saw action in the First World War and in 1919 the three would become the nucleus of the newly formed Pacific Fleet. They would serve in the Pacific but conduct exercises with the Atlantic Fleet in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic and Caribbean.  All three were modernized in the early 1930s receiving improvements in armor protection, anti-torpedo blisters, a modernized bridge structure to replace their cage masts, improvements to machinery and their secondary armament.

The Three Sister Moored Together, Late 1943

They would return to the Pacific but with the outbreak of war in Europe the three ships were transferred to the Atlantic Fleet where they took part in the Neutrality Patrol. When Pearl Harbor was attacked the three sisters went back to the Pacific where they spent much of 1942 escorting convoys and being prepared to repel any Japanese assault on the US Mainland.  In April 1943 they took part in the Aleutian campaign and the assaults on Attu and Kiska.  They would then sail to the Central Pacific where the provided support to the invasions of the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas islands by protecting the transports and providing naval gunfire support to Marines ashore.

Idaho in her final 1945 configuration. Note the 5″/38 DP Guns in single enclosed mounts used by US Fletcher Class DDs. The Idaho was the only Battleship to have this type of 5″ mount

The three would again operate together during the invasion of the Philippines where the Mississippi served with other battleships of the 7th Fleet’s battle line under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldenforf at the Battle of Surigo Strait where they annihilated a Japanese force including the battleships Fuso and Yamisharo.   Both Mississippi and New Mexico were damaged by Kamikaze hits in Philippine waters, the New Mexico taking a hit on her bridge which killed her Captain and 27 crewmembers.  Both would require repairs and both would miss the invasion of Iwo Jima which Idaho took part in.  The three joined forces again at Okinawa where they provided fire support to Marines and Soldiers ashore.  They would serve until the end of the war in the Pacific and take part in Operation Magic Carpet to return military personnel from the Pacific to the United States.

Idaho at Okinawa

Following the war the New Mexico and Idaho were decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1948.  Mississippi however was converted into a gunnery training ship and reclassified as AG-128.

Idaho (lower left) New Mexico (top left) and Wyoming being scrapped at Newark NJ 1948

In this capacity she served as a test bed for new weapons including the Terrier guided missile systems which would be mounted on the first generation of US Navy Guided Missile Cruisers.   She was decommissioned in 1956 and sold for scrap after an abortive attempt by the state of Mississippi to acquire her as a memorial ship.

USS Mississippi AG-128 firing Terrier Missiles

The ships provided valuable service during the Second World War and the technical innovations in propulsion and protection would become standard in subsequent classes of US Navy battleships.  Additionally the post war service of the Mississippi helped propel the Navy into the missile era helping to build a foundation that is in evidence today in the Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruisers and Arleigh Burke class Guided Missile Destroyers and their Aegis air defense and ballistic missile defense systems.  The ships of the New Mexico class and their stalwart crews should not be forgotten.

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific