USS Gambier Bay being attacked by Japanese Surface Forces battle
I will break into Leyte Gulf and fight to the last man…would it not be shameful to have the fleet remaining intact while our nation perishes?” Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita – 1944
”In case opportunity for destruction of a major portion of the enemy fleet is offered, or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.”
Admiral Chester Nimitz – In his order to Halsey, prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf – October 1944
The Old Battleships of the 7th Fleet
Sixty-nine years ago the largest and most geographically expansive naval battle ever fought began. A few days before the forces of General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command and Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Central Pacific command joined to invade and liberate the Philippines from the Japanese. It was less than three years since Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and two and a half years after MacArthur had left the Philippines vowing “I shall return.”
The Japanese knew that the battle for the Philippines was a must win. An American victory would ensure that Japan would be cut off from the vital natural resources of Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies and Borneo, particularly oil, without which it could not remain in the war.
The Imperial Navy was tasked to work with land based air forces to thwart the invasion by drawing off the American Fast Carrier task forces and allowing heavy surface forces to seek out and destroy potentially vulnerable troop transports and supply ships in Leyte Gulf.
It was a complicated plan, but one which had a chance of disrupting the American invasion, and came perilously close to doing so.
Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern force of four aircraft carriers without viable air groups was a decoy. Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima commanded separate task forces both committed to breaking into Leyte Gulf through Surigo Strait. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita who commanded the main effort, the powerful Center Force which was to break into Leyte Gulf through San Bernardino Strait. Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi commanded the Philippines based 1st Air Fleet which turned to the use of Kamikazes as a means to destroy American warships.
The US forces included the American Third Fleet commanded by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was the primary naval force composed of the Fast Carrier Task Forces and fast battleships. Adusmiral Thomas Kinkaid commanded the 7th Fleet which was the invasion force and its escorts, including a number of carrier task forces built around the Escort Carriers and the old battleships of Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Group. The latter included a number of the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack including the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland and USS Pennsylvania. Oldendorf’s flagship, the USS Mississippi was not at Pearl Harbor but likewise one of the “old ladies” of the fleet.
The battle was unique because of how long it went and how many separate engagements were included. Not counting patrol craft, submarines and auxiliaries close to 300 warships and nearly 2000 aircraft were engaged in 5 separate engagements waged by surface ships, naval air forces and submarines.
USS St Lo blows up after being hit by Kamikaze
The battles included an engagement in which American Submarines took on the Center Force, naval aircraft engaged the Center and Southern Forces, the old battleships fought the last battleship against battleship engagement in history, heavy surface forces engaged and were repulsed by light forces and a decoy force which would suffer terribly would keep the bulk of the best American forces out of the main battle. It would also see the first coordinated use of Kamikaze suicide attack aircraft by Japan.
USS West Virginia
Tonight I am linking a number of articles that I have written previously about this amazing battle. In the next few days I will add a couple new articles to the collection.
For those unfamiliar with the battle that would like a deeper treatment than I provide in these links I recommend The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944 by Thomas C Cutler, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James Hornfisher, Battle Of Leyte Gulf by Edwin P Hoyt, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945 (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II) by Samuel Elliott Morrison and Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony P Tully. Hoyt and Morrison’s books were the first that I ever read on the subject back when I was in Junior High School but for an overview I think Cutler’s work is better. The other two works present interesting and informative views of two of the decisive engagements of the battle.
As I said in the next few days I plan on adding more articles on this fascinating battle. If things work out I should have something on the Battle off Samar, the Battle of Cape Engano and the Kamikaze debut.
Have a nice night and never forget the sacrifice of all of the brave sailors.