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The Battle of Cape Engano: Victory in Spite of Miscommunications and the Lack of Unity of Command

 

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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. It was a momentous battle and study in the principle of unity of command, which the Americans violated with nearly catastrophic results.

Eventually I will write something about the epic Battle off Samar to conclude the series properly but that will have to wait. Today has been a busy day working around the house and taking care of things long needed. Maybe I will do some work on my lack of

Peace

Padre Steve+

Unclear command structures, confusing, and mistaken communications, acts of valor from outnumbered forces who survived, and the intentional sacrifice of a carrier task force as a decoy, so that battleships might provide a victory. Despite the unclear communications and unclear command structures, the United States  Navy was victorious.  But still, this message remains one of the most confusing and infuriating ever sent to the commander of a fleet in action with the enemy fleet nearly in sight: 

“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.

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                                             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.

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                                       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.”

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                                     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.

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                                           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.” 

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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 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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                                            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.

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                                                         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.

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                                                    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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Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely Jr: Pioneer of Integration and Civil Rights in the U.S. Navy

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“I was sure that I could not afford to fail. I thought that would affect other members of my race if I failed anywhere along the line. I was always conscious of that, particularly in midshipman school and any other schools I went to…I tried to set a record of perfect conduct ashore and at sea.” Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely

Things have changed much since 1942 when following the attack on Pearl Harbor a young black college student from Richmond Virginia enlisted in the Navy. Samuel Gravely Jr. was the son of a postal worker and Pullman porter while his mother worked as a domestic servant for white families in Richmond. His mother died unexpectedly when he was 15 in 1937 and he remained to help care for his siblings as his father continued to work. Balancing the care of his family with his education he enrolled in Virginia Union College, a Baptist school in Richmond.

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Fireman Apprentice Samuel Gravely Jr

It is hard to imagine for most of us now to comprehend the world that the young Gravely grew up in. Segregation was the norm. Blacks in the south and many other locations faced personal as well as intrenched institutional racism. Violence against blacks was quite common and the Ku Klux Klan was strong.

The military was still segregated and a great gulf existed between white military personnel and blacks. Though the selective service law of 1940 called for the conscription of people regardless of race, creed or color the services enjoyed much latitude in determining how minorities could serve. The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Frank Knox resisted integration. Knox determined that African Americans would remain segregated and serve only as Mess Stewards to “prevent undermining and disruptive conditions in the Navy.” Knox told President Roosevelt in the presence of black leaders that “because men live in such intimacy aboard ship that we simply can’t enlist Negroes above the rank of messman. “

That sentiment was strong in both the Navy and the Marines the leaders of which resisted attempts to broaden the ability for African Americans to serve and urged that blacks serve in the Army, not the Naval Service.  Marine Corps Commandant Major General Thomas Holcomb agreed with this stance. He commented:

“If we are defeated we must not close our eyes to the fact that once in they [Negroes] will be strengthened in their effort to force themselves into every activity we have. If they are not satisfied to be messmen. they will not be satisfied to go into the constriction or labor battalions. Don’t forger the colleges are turning out a large number of well educated Negroes. I don’t know how long we will be able to keep them out of the V-7 class. I think not very long.”

But Roosevelt was not deterred and by April 1942 changes were announced to allow African Americans to serve in other capacities. Even so African Americans selected for ratings other than messman were to be segregated and commanded by White Officers and Petty Officers.

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The USS PC-1264 and its crew, Gravely is the lone black officer

Gravely enlisted in the Navy under these conditions. Serving as a Fireman Apprentice after receiving training as a Motor Machinist in San Diego he worked in menial jobs. In 1943 Gravely was one of only three sailors in his unit to be selected for the V-12 officer training program. He was the only black to make the cut. He was commissioned as an Ensign on December 14th 1944 and assigned to train black recruits at Great Lakes though the vast majority of his class went to sea. The was mainly due to the policy set forth by the General Board in 1942 that prescribed:

“(a) the white man will not accept the negro in a position of authority over him; (b) the white man considers that he is of a superior race and will not admit the negro as an equal; and (c) the white man refuses to admit the negro to intimate family relationships leading to marriage. These concepts may not be truly democratic, but it is doubtful if the most ardent lovers of democracy will dispute them, particularly in regard to inter-marriage.”

Despite this by 1945 the Navy was beginning to change. Gravely was chosen to serve on one of two ships assigned to the “experiment” of seeing how blacks in general ratings could serve at sea. The USS Mason (DE 539) and the USS PC-1264 were assigned black crews with majority white officers, except that Gravely was assigned to PC-1264. Though his commander was pleased with his service Gravely, who had been denied admittance to Officer Clubs and many other “white only” facilities resigned from the Navy in 1946. He believed that the inherent discrimination of the Navy left him no place for advancement. He returned to complete his bachelors degree at Virginia Union.

In 1949, following President Truman’s integration of the military Gravely was asked by the Navy to return to active duty. But the end of the old order was foreshadowed by a Navy pamphlet published in 1944 entitled The Guide to the Command of Negro Personnel. That publication included the statement that ”The Navy accepts no theories of racial differences in inborn ability, but expects that every man wearing its uniform be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity determined on the basis of individual performance.”

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Gravely’s commands (top to bottom) USS Theodore E Chandler, USS Taussig and USS Jouett

Gravely accepted the offer to return to active duty and never looked back. He worked hard for respect and used his natural talents, personality and size to command respect. He was a man who would blaze the way for other African Americans, and later women and most recently gays to go on to greater things. Gravely would go on to command three ships. He was the first African American Naval Officer to command a Navy warship, the USS Theodore E Chandler (DD 717), the first to command a Navy ship in combat, the USS Taussig (DD 746) and the first to command a major warship, the USS Jouett (CG 29). Promoted to flag rank he eventually became the first to command a Fleet when he took command of 3rd Fleet. He retired in 1980 and passed away in 2004.

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Commander Gravely and his officers on USS Taussig

Gravely gave his parents and conditions of his upbringing much credit for his success. He believed that those conditions which forced him to “capitalize on his strong points, build his weak areas and sustain the positive self-esteem and self-worth that his parents instilled in him as a young child.”

He was a great leader. LCDR Desiree Linson who interviewed him for her Air Command and Staff College project noted that Gravely like many other great military leaders before him learned to manage the image that he presented, be a caretaker for his people, what we would now call a mentor. He said “[If I was CNO] my responsibility would be to make sure enlisted men and families were taken care of. I would do everything in my power to make sure.”

His pursuit of excellence, self confidence and mastery of professional skills empowered him in an institution where he was still an anomaly and where racism still existed. He believed in effective communication, especially verbal communication and in building teams and in being a good follower, listening, learning and proactively anticipating the needs of his superiors. Gravely was also a believer in personal morality and self discipline and preparedness. He said:

“I did everything I could think of to prepare myself. If the opportunity came, I would be prepared for it. [The question would not be] “Why didn’t you prepare for this opportunity.” I would be prepared for whatever opportunity that came. If it came, fine. If it did not, fine, but I would be prepared if it did come.”

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The USS Gravely

Vice Admiral Gravely blazed a trail for those that followed him and set an example for all Naval Officers to follow. He did it under conditions that most of us could not imagine. I am proud to serve in the Navy that he helped to make.  His vision, service and memory are carried on in this navy and in the ship that bears his name, the USS Gravely DDG-107.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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