The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a major engagement of the Pacific War during World War II which resulted in the Japanese Navy ceasing all offensive operations for the rest of the conflict. From October 23-26, 1944, American, Australian, and Filipino forces battled against the Empire of Japan for control of the Philippines. Their goal was to cut off the Japanese shipping lanes between their colonies and the mainland, depriving the Empire of oil, rubber, and other raw materials needed for the war effort. American General Douglas MacArthur was also determined to make good on his promise to return to the Philippines two years earlier.
Lead Up to the Battle
By this point in the war, the Japanese had been driven from the Soloman Islands and the Marianas. They attempted to counterattack in the Battle of the Philippine Sea but were devastated, suffering the loss of three carriers and hundreds of aircraft. Now, the Americans were looking to push further into the Pacific by either invading Formosa (Taiwan) or the Philippines. In order to cut off Japanese shipping and provide land bases for strategic bombers to strike Japan’s inner islands, either Formosa or the Philippines had to be captured. Only one of the landmasses was required for the next phase of their plan, and there was much debate over which to pursue.
If successful, both invasion plans would accomplish the goal of providing bases from which to prevent shipping between Japanese colonies and the mainland. Ernest J. King favored invading Formosa and blockading the Philippines. Douglas MacArthur, however, favored the opposite. Ultimately, MacArthur got his way, as the Philippines was American territory lost earlier in the war, and it would be worthwhile to American morale to retake it from the Japanese. Either the Philippines or Formosa would provide the tactical benefit, yet Formosa would not necessarily provide the same morale boost as the Philippines.
The Drums Begin to Sound
Throughout September, Allied planes bombed Japanese positions in the Philippines and conducted recon in preparation for the landing. From their reconnaissance, they learned that Leyte Island was undefended and decided to invade earlier than was originally planned. A diversionary force of carriers was sent to attack Okinawa, Formosa, Luzon, and Pescadores in early October. The Japanese knew what the Allies planned to do, as it was obvious to them. Nevertheless, the diversionary forces prevented Japanese air units from deploying into Leyte Gulf, and the Japanese Navy was left to intervene with little support.
By mid-October, the Allies would strike Leyte by sea, land, and air. Admiral Chester Nimitz provided logistical support with the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Admiral William Halsey led the U.S. Third Fleet which provided cover for General MacArthur to land with the Sixth Army. Vice Admiral Thomas Kincaid led the Seventh Fleet which helped to secure the waters around the landing and prevent Japanese naval intervention. The Seventh Fleet was split into three task forces: Taffy I under Admiral Thomas Sprague, Taffy II under Admiral Felix Stump, and Taffy III under Admiral Clifton Sprague. Task Force 44 was a joint American-Australian naval group under the command of Vice Admiral John Collins which participated in the pre-landing air raids, but was badly damaged and forced to retreat by a kamikaze attack just two days before.
The Japanese Navy was split into three main groups: the Center Force, the Southern Force, and the Northern Force. Admiral Takeo Kurita led the Center Force out of Brunei Bay from aboard the Yamato (“Great Harmony”) – a powerful battleship and the flagship of the Japanese Navy. The Southern Force was separated into two strike groups from two separate bases – the first under Vice Admiral Shōji Nishimura out of Brunei Bay and the second under Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima out of Pescadores. Lastly, the Northern Force was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa and deployed from the Japanese home islands. The Japanese had a total of 67 ships involved in the battle opposed to the more than 300 ships of the Allies. The Japanese had a total of 13 capital ships mixed between 6 carriers and 7 battleships. The Allies brought 47 capital ships mixed between 35 carriers and 12 battleships.
The Battle Begins
The first fight of the naval engagement took place when Center Force encountered two American submarines tracking their movements. Admiral Kurita was leading Center Force through the Palawan Passage, oblivious to the threat nearby. The Yamato was able to intercept communications from the submarines and should have been able to evade or destroy them. However, the intercepted communications were ignored and the Americans were able to sink a cruiser and damage another. The Center Force returned to bay after the attack.
Soon after, the battle began in earnest in the Sibuyan Sea. The Center Force under Kurita entered the area early in the morning on October 24th and was spotted by the Third Fleet. The Americans launched 260 planes from the USS Intrepid and the USS Cabot. Using bombs and torpedoes, the first wave of American planes damaged the Nagato, Yamato, Musashi, and Myōkō. The second wave of planes critically damaged the Musashi. Then, the third wave of planes came from the USS Enterprise and the USS Franklin. The third wave also focused on the Musashi, as it was clearly the most vulnerable. Kurita pulled his ships back, leaving the Mushashi to sink.
While the battle raged in the Sibuyan Sea, the Japanese air forces at Luzon did not give up without a fight. They launched a counterattack against the four American carriers from the Third Fleet attacking their airfield, scoring critical damage on two ships. The USS Princeton suffered a major blow from a bomb, killing hundreds of sailors aboard and starting a massive fire aboard the carrier. A cruiser was badly damaged by the fire as it tried to assist in firefighting operations, and the carrier was lost. However, the Americans did prevent the Japanese air forces at Luzon from intervening at Leyte.
In the Surigao Straight, the Southern Force under Nishimura and Shima encountered ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The Southern Force was ordered to maintain radio silence and consequently split into two groups, as they were unable to coordinate their movements as a single group without radio communication. Nishimura’s group was attacked first. The Americans possessed superior targeting technology and opened fire with their torpedoes and guns from outside the range of the Japanese weapon systems. One Japanese battleship – the Fusō – was broken in half and several other ships were damaged. Nishimura tried to retreat, losing more ships in the process. When Shima’s ships arrived, he immediately ordered a retreat after seeing the wreck of the Fusō and believing it to be two separate battleship hulls. In the retreat, one of Shima’s ships accidentally collided with another Japanese vessel and sunk it.
The Northern Force under the command of Admiral Ozawa made contact with Admiral Halsey and the U.S. Third Fleet near Cape Engaño. Halsey thought he would be able to wipe out all of the Northern Force and cripple the Japanese Navy with ease. He ordered his ships and planes to pursue, leaving San Bernardino undefended. Halsey believed the Center Force had been routed and was in full retreat, and he ignored information that the Center Force was still operational and moving toward San Bernardino. As Halsey attacked the Northern Force early in the morning of October 25, he received a message from Admiral Kinkaid for urgent assistance. A second message came in from Chester Nimitz back at Peal Harbor from which the radio operator forgot to remove the junk text on the end, leading Halsey to think it was part of the message. It read: “WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR REPEAT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR THE WORLD WONDERS.” Halsey abandoned his attack on the Northern Force, managing only to sink a single cruiser.
Contact Near Samar
With the San Bernardino straight left undefended, the Center Force under Admiral Kurita was able to enter the area near Samar and engage Taffy III. Admiral Kurita thought the carriers of Taffy III were fleet carriers rather than the escort carriers they actually were, and this led him to believe he had the main force of the American fleet in his sights. Admiral Clifton Sprague was in command of Taffy III – a detachment of the U.S. Seventh Fleet comprised of 13 ships. Sprague had 6 escort carriers carrying 30 planes each, 3 destroyers, and 4 destroyer escorts. His planes were only equipped with machines and depth charges for air combat and anti-submarine warfare. They were unprepared to deal with even a single battleship, assuming the San Bernardino straight was still defended by Admiral Halsey and the Third Fleet.
Admiral Kurita struck out at Taffy III with his force of 4 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers. It should have been an easy fight for the Japanese, though it would not turn out that way. Once under attack, and realizing the gravity of the situation, Sprague ordered his planes to take off and flee from the battle. The Japanese began targeting the fleeing planes, and the destroyers of Taffy III deployed smoke screens to try and obscure the hostile fire. During this time, the USS Johnston under the command of Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans made a suicide run on one of the Japanese heavy cruisers.
The USS Johnston was a destroyer and would be easily disabled or destroyed if hit by the heavy cruiser’s guns. However, if the destroyer could get close enough without being hit, it could deliver a crippling blow to a heavy cruiser with a torpedo. The USS Johnston managed to avoid enemy fire and get close enough to fire upon the Kumano with its guns and a salvo of torpedos. This split the Kumano in half and took the Suzaya out of the battle as it stopped to assist the Kumano. The USS Johnston was pummeled by Kurita’s battleships, disabling the ship, killing many of its crew, and wounding Evans. However, the USS Johnston managed to limp back towards the rest of Taffy III and Admiral Sprague was emboldened by the daring attack.
Sprague then ordered the rest of his destroyers to move in and attack. After restoring electrical power to his ship and receiving medical attention, Evans even ordered the USS Johnston to turn around and rejoin the assault. The destroyers used smoke screens, mobility, and their superior numbers to swarm around the battleships and cruisers under heavy fire, launching salvos of torpedos which made the waters dangerous for the larger ships to navigate without being hit. The American destroyer USS Heermann even got so close to the battleships that the Japanese were unable to fire upon them, but the destroyer could still fire upon the battleships. After several hours of missing and taking chip damage from the smaller vessels, the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts finally took a direct hit and eventually sank.
Emboldened by the unexpected success against the seemingly superior force, Admiral Sprague ordered all the planes under his command to turn around and attack Kurita’s ships with whatever they had. Despite not possessing any weapons capable of sinking battleships or cruisers, the planes were able to harass the weapon crews aboard the Japanese ships and prevent them from firing effectively. They even managed to disable some of the guns aboard the Japanese vessels. After running out of ammo, some of the American pilots continued to make dry runs on the Japanese ships and scare the gun crews into taking cover.
By this time, the American carriers were so close to the action they became directly involved in the fight. The carriers exchanged gunfire with the battleships in the only recorded instance of an aircraft carrier engaging another surface vessel with its guns. The USS Gambier Bay was sunk and the other carriers received damage. However, by a miraculous stroke of luck, the USS St. Lo managed to strike the magazines of one of the Japanese cruisers with its anti-aircraft guns, causing some damage of note. However, luck would soon seem to be running out for Taffy III.
About six hours after the engagement began, Admiral Kurita was able to bring destroyers into the fight. Attempting to use the same tactics which the American destroyers had used against his capital ships, he sent his destroyers to launch torpedos against the American carriers. Lieutenant Commander Evans ordered the USS Johnston to intercede and soak the hits for the carriers. This worked, but the Johnston was sunk. Evans gave the order to abandon ship, but he was lost during the evacuation, and his body was never recovered. Evans received the Medal of Honor posthumously. The valiant efforts and chaos of the engagement soon after led Kurtia to order a retreat, despite his ships sustaining relatively minor damage and only three of his cruisers being sunk.
Upon seeing the Japanese retreat, Admiral Sprague heard one of his sailors yell, “Dammit boys, they’re getting away!” Taffy III received a Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism against a superior enemy. No one would have expected Taffy III to have survived the attack by Center Force. That is why Admiral Halsey was meant to cover them from such an event. Nevertheless, Taffy III not only survived the encounter but forced the superior enemy to retreat.
Significance and Legacy
Due to the efforts of the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleet at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, American troops and Filipino guerillas were able to expel Japanese ground forces from the Philippines without the Japanese Navy intervening. MacArthur led American and Filipino troops to victory in the arduous Battle of Leyte, securing the Philippes as a staging ground for strategic bombers to attack the Japanese home islands. The Japanese Navy was also cut off from oil and other critical materials they sourced from their colonies in the Pacific. The Japanese would be on the defensive for the rest of the war, never again being able to field their navy offensively due to their oil supply being severed. The lopsided victory of Taffy III against Center Force also emboldened many of the Allies to keep hope during the dark and uncertain times.
Historically, the Battle of Leyte Gulf – and the simultaneous Battle of Leyte – also holds significance in the hearts of many due to the stories of heroism, friendship, and self-sacrifice it inspires. Many in the Philippines fought against the Japanese occupation without any hope of relief. The Americans, who left the Philippines as conquerors, returned as liberators. The Australians also came together with the Americans and Filipinos to stand against an enemy that threatened them and many more. A year later, the Mexicans would also join the Allies in the battle against the Empire of Japan as part of the Fifth Air Force and fight in the Battle of Luzon as well. Some reports also claim that Mexican air units were involved as early as the Battle of Leyte.
The Pacific War is an unfortunate blemish on the history and relationship between the United States and Japan. Our two nations were unlikely allies just before, which was part of the reason why the war was a shock to some. Nevertheless, the stories of heroism and bravery from the Pacific War are some of the most profound tales from across all of human history. The efforts of Taffy III against Yamato are of particular note in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The escort group should have been annihilated by the Japanese forces, yet they not only held their own but forced their opponents to retreat.
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