The battle resulted from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to follow the conquest of the Mariana Islands with the recapture of the Philippines. This idea was proposed by the commander of Southwest Pacific Forces, General Douglas MacArthur; the chief of naval operations, Ernest J. King, wanted to land on Formosa instead. The latter move made sound military sense, the former political sense.
On 20 October, the U.S. Sixth Army began an invasion of Leyte, with more than 132,000 men going ashore the first day. Warned by the preliminary bombardment, the Japanese put into effect their overly complicated contingency plan. As early as 21 July 1944, the Naval General Staff in Tokyo had issued a directive for an operation in which the Combined Fleet would seize the initiative "to crush the enemy fleet and attacking forces." On 26 July, the General Staff informed the Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Toyoda Soemu, that the "urgent operations" would be known by the code name sho ( victory). The Japanese had four of these operations to combat the next U.S. offensive; sho ichi-go (Operation victory one) covered defense of the Philippine Archipelago, to which the Japanese decided to commit the entire Combined Fleet. Toyoda knew it was a gamble but believed the chance had to be taken. Should the Americans retake the Philippines, they would be in a position to cut Japanese access to oil from the Netherlands East Indies.
Prior to the battle, Japanese naval air strength had been severely reduced in the June 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea ("the great Marianas turkey shoot"), and between 12 and 14 October, U.S. carrier planes and army B-29 bombers struck Japanese airfields on Formosa, Okinawa, and the Philippines. These strikes denied the Japanese navy badly needed land-based air support and alone doomed the Japanese plan. The Japanese did add extra antiaircraft guns to their ships in an attempt to offset the lack of aircraft, but offensively, they had to rely on naval gunnery and some 335 land-based planes in the Luzon area.
The Japanese plan was to destroy sufficient U.S. shipping to break up the Leyte amphibious landing. There were four prongs in the Japanese attack. A decoy force would draw U.S. naval covering forces north while two elements struck from the west on either side of Leyte, to converge simultaneously on the landing area in Leyte Gulf and destroy Allied shipping there. At the same time, shore-based aircraft were to attack U.S. naval forces offshore.
On 17 October, on receiving information that U.S. warships were off Suhuan Island, Admiral Toyoda alerted his forces. The next day, he initiated sho ichi-go. The original target date for the fleet engagement was 22 October, but logistical difficulties delayed it to 25 October. Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo's decoy Northern Force (Third Fleet) consisted of the heavy carrier Zuikaku, 3 light carriers, 2 hybrid battleship-carriers, 3 cruisers, and 8 destroyers. Ozawa had only 116 aircraft, flown by poorly trained pilots. His force sortied from Japan on 20 October, and on the evening of 22 October, it turned south toward Luzon. At the same time, Japanese submarines off Formosa were ordered south toward the eastern approaches to the Philippine Archipelago, and shortly before 23 October, what remained of the Japanese Second Air Fleet began to arrive on the island of Luzon.
The strongest element of the Japanese attack was the 1st Diversion Attack Force, which reached Brunei Bay in northwest Borneo on 20 October, refueled, split into two parts, and resumed its movement two days later. The Center Force under Admiral Kurita Takeo had the bulk of the Japanese attack strength, including the giant battleships Musashi and Yamato with their 18.1-inch guns; Kurita also had 3 older battleships, 12 cruisers, and 15 destroyers. Center Force sailed northeastward, up the west coast of Palawan Island, and then turned eastward through the waters of the central Philippines to San Bernardino Strait. Meanwhile, the Southern Force (C Force) of 2 battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, and 4 destroyers, commanded by Vice Admiral Nishimura Shoji, struck eastward through the Sulu Sea in an effort to force its way through Surigao Strait between the islands of Mindanao and Leyte. The Southern Force was trailed by Vice Admiral Shima Kiyohide's 2nd Diversion Attack Force. Shima had 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 4 destroyers. Shima's warships left the Pescadores on 21 October, steamed south past western Luzon, and refueled in the Calamian Islands. Late in joining Nishimura's ships, Shima's force followed them into Surigao Strait.
Opposing the Japanese were two U.S. Navy fleets: Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet, operating under General MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Command, and Admiral William F. Halsey's Third Fleet, under the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, at Pearl Harbor. Leyte was the first landing to involve two entire U.S. fleets and also the first without a unified command, which would have unfortunate consequences.
Seventh Fleet was divided into three task groups. The first consisted of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's 6 old battleships, 16 escort carriers, 4 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 30 destroyers, and 10 destroyer escorts. The other two elements were amphibious task groups carrying out the actual invasion. Seventh Fleet had escorted the invasion force to Leyte and now provided broad protection for the entire landing area. As most of Halsey's amphibious assets had been loaned to Kinkaid, Third Fleet consisted almost entirely of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's Task Force (TF) 38 of 14 fast carriers, with more than 1,000 aircraft, organized into four task groups containing 6 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, and 57 destroyers. Third Fleet had the job of securing air superiority over the Philippines and protecting the landings. If the opportunity to destroy a major part of the Japanese fleet presented itself or could be created, that was to be Third Fleet's primary task.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually a series of battles, the first of which was the 23–24 October Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Early on 23 October, the U.S. submarines Darter and Dace discovered Kurita's Center Force entering Palawan Passage from the South China Sea, and they alerted Admiral Halsey, whose Third Fleet guarded San Bernardino Strait. The submarines sank two Japanese heavy cruisers, the Atago (Kurita's flagship) and the Maya, and damaged a third. Kurita transferred his flag to the Yamato, and his force continued east into the Sibuyan Sea where, beginning in the morning of 24 October, TF 38 launched five air strikes against it. The first wave of carrier planes concentrated on the Musashi, which absorbed 19 torpedoes and nearly as many bombs before sinking, taking down half of her 2,200-man crew. Several other Japanese ships were also damaged. In midafternoon on 25 October, American pilots reported that Kurita had reversed course and was heading west; Halsey incorrectly assumed that this part of the battle was over. He did issue a preliminary order detailing a battle line of battleships known as TF 34, to be commanded by Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee. Admiral Kinkaid was aware of that signal and assumed TF 34 had been established.
Meanwhile, Japanese land-based planes from the Second Air Fleet attacked a portion of TF 38. Most were shot down, but they did sink the light carrier Princeton and badly damaged the cruiser Birmingham. Also, unknown to Halsey, Kurita's force changed course after nightfall and resumed heading for San Bernardino Strait.
Warned of the approach of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Kinkaid placed Oldendorf's 6 old Seventh Fleet fire-support battleships (all but 1 a veteran of Pearl Harbor), flanked by 8 cruisers, across the mouth of Surigao Strait to intercept it. He also lined the strait with 39 patrol torpedo (PT) boats and 28 destroyers. In terms of naval warfare, the 24–25 October Battle of Surigao Strait was a classic case of crossing the T. The PT boats discovered the Japanese moving in line-ahead formation, but Nishimura's force easily beat them back. Although the battleships often get the credit for the Surigao Strait victory, it was U.S. destroyers that inflicted most of the damage. Their converging torpedo attacks sank the battleship Fuso and 3 destroyers. The Japanese then ran into the line of Oldendorf's battleships, which sank all the Japanese warships save the destroyer Shigure. Nishimura went down with his flagship, the battleship Yamashiro.
Shima's force, bringing up the rear, then came under attack by the PT boats, which crippled a light cruiser. Shima's flagship collided with one of Nishimura's sinking vessels. Oldendorf's ships pursued the retreating Japanese. Another Japanese cruiser succumbed to attacks by land-based planes and those of Admiral Thomas L. Sprague's escort carriers. The rest of Shima's force escaped when Oldendorf, knowing his ships might be needed later, turned back. The battle was over by 4:30 a.m. on 25 October.
Meanwhile, during the night of 24–25 October, Kurita's force moved through San Bernardino Strait, issued from it unopposed, and turned south. In the most controversial aspect of the battle, Halsey left San Bernardino Strait unprotected near midnight to rush with all available units of Third Fleet after Ozawa's decoy fleet, which had been sighted far to the north. Several of Halsey's subordinates registered reservations about his decision, but he would not be deterred. Compounding the error, Halsey failed to inform Admiral Kinkaid, who, in any case, assumed TF 34 was protecting the strait. Halsey's decision left the landing beaches guarded only by Seventh Fleet's Taffy 3 escort carrier group, commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. It was one of three such support groups operating off Samar. Sprague had 6 small escort carriers, 3 destroyers, and 4 destroyer escorts.
Fighting off Samar erupted about 6:30 a.m. on 24 October, as Taffy 3 found itself opposing Kurita's 4 battleships (including the Yamato), 6 heavy cruisers, and 10 destroyers. The aircraft from all three of the Taffy groups now attacked the Japanese. Unfortunately, the planes carried fragmentation bombs for use against land targets, but they put up a strong fight, harassing the powerful Japanese warships. Sprague's destroyers and destroyer escorts also joined the fight. Their crews courageously attacked the much more powerful Japanese warships, launching torpedoes and laying smoke to try to obscure the escort carriers. These combined attacks forced several Japanese cruisers to drop out of the battle.
Kurita now lost his nerve. By 9:10 a.m., his warships sank the Gambier Bay, the only U.S. carrier ever lost to gunfire, as well as the destroyers Hoel and Johnston and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts. But Kurita believed he was under attack by aircraft from TF 38, and at 9:11 a.m., just at the point when he might have had a crushing victory, he ordered his forces to break off the attack, his decision strengthened by news that the southern attacking force had been destroyed. Kurita then exited through San Bernardino Strait. The four ships lost by Taffy 3 were the only U.S. warships sunk by Japanese surface ships in the entire battle.
At 9:40 p.m., Kurita's ships reentered San Bernardino Strait. As the Japanese withdrew, they came under attack by aircraft from Vice Admiral John S. McCain's task force from Halsey's fleet, losing a destroyer. Meanwhile, Sprague's escort carriers and Oldendorf's force returning from the Battle of Surigao Strait came under attack from land-based kamikaze aircraft, the first such attacks of the war. These attacks sank the escort carrier St. Lô and damaged several other ships.
At about 2:20 a.m. on 25 October, Mitscher's search planes, from Halsey's force, located Ozawa's northern decoy force. At dawn, the first of three strikes was launched, in what became known as the Battle of Cape Engaño. Ozawa had sent most of his planes ashore to operate from bases there and thus had only antiaircraft fire with which to oppose the attack. While engaged against Ozawa, Halsey learned of the action off Samar when a signal came in from Kinkaid at 8:22, followed by an urgent request eight minutes later for fast battleships. Finally, at 8:48, Halsey ordered McCain's TG 38.1 to make "best possible speed" to engage Kurita's Center Force. The task group was en route from the Ulithi to rejoin the other elements of TF 38. Since it had more carriers and planes than any of the three other task groups in Halsey's force, it made good sense to detach this unit. Several minutes later, Halsey was infuriated by a query from Nimitz at Pearl Harbor: " where is rpt where is task force thirty-four rr the world wonders." (The last three words were simply what was known as "padding," drawn from the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," but Halsey took them to be an integral part of the message and felt they were a reproach delivered in an insulting manner.)
At 10:55 a.m., Halsey ordered all 6 fast battleships and TG 38.2 to turn south and steam at flank speed, but they missed the battle. After the war, Kurita admitted his error in judgment; Halsey never did. In fact, Halsey said his decision to send the battleships south to Samar was "the greatest error I committed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf."
By nightfall, U.S. aircraft, a submarine, and surface ships had sunk all 4 Japanese carriers of Ozawa's force, as well as 5 other ships. In effect, this blow ended Japanese carrier aviation. But the battle of annihilation that would have been possible with the fast battleships had eluded Halsey. Still, of Ozawa's force, only 2 battleships, 2 light cruisers, and a destroyer escaped.
Including retiring vessels sunk on 26 and 27 October, Japanese losses in the Battle of Leyte Gulf came to 29 warships (4 carriers, 3 battleships, 6 heavy and 4 light cruisers, 11 destroyers, and 1 submarine) and more than 500 aircraft; in addition, some 10,500 seamen and aviators were killed. The U.S. Navy lost only 6 ships (1 light carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and 1 destroyer escort) and more than 200 aircraft. About 2,800 Americans were killed, and another 1,000 were wounded. The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended the Japanese fleet as an organized fighting force. Spencer C. Tucker
Cutler, Thomas J. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23–26 October 1944. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.; Field, James A., Jr. The Japanese at Leyte Gulf: The Sho Operation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Potter, E. B. Bull Halsey. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
Spencer C. Tucker