* World War II Pacific naval campaigns -- Leyte Gulf

World War II Pacific Naval Campaign: Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944)

Figure 1.-- Admiral Halsey became a master of carrier warfare, all the Anmericans had after the Pearl Harbor attack. He brilliantly parlayed Japanese movements at a time that they still held the strategic blance. The Japanese after fierce battles in the South Pacific around Guadalcanal (August-December 1942) wihdrew their fleet, seeking to repair the damage and build new ships. Given the massive industrial superiority of the United States, it was an absurd effort. The final showdown between the Pacific and Imperial fleets--the climatic fleet action the two navies were seaking came at Leyte. It would be the largest naval battle in history. This is Battle Line of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet at Leyte. Halksey had both a massive fleet of the new Essex carriers and new fast battleships. And at heart he was a big gun admiral. Nothing would have plased him more than to bring the Imperial Fleet under the big guns of his new battleships, but what he was most concerned about as the battle unfolded was where were the Japanese carriers.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest great naval battle in history, it would also prove to be the last epic naval battle of history. It was the last major fleet action--engagement where opposing battleships faced each other and slugged it out with their big guns. It was a desperately fought series of actions. The Imprrial Japanse Navy essentially decided to pit its battleships against the American carriers. Japan had begun the war with a stratgy based in carrier warfare, but by 1944 the Imperial Navy was forced to rely on its battleships against an overwealming American carrier force. The Battle for Leyte Gulf occurred October 23-26, 1944. The Japanese drew up a highly complex strategy to throw virtually the entire remaining Imperial fleet in a dsperate attempt to oppse the American invasion of the Philippine Islands. The battle evolved in four separate actions thayt both side found difficult to coordinate in the furious battles that ensyed. Once the American landings at Leyte Gulf began the Japanese ordered three separate forces to oppose the Americans. The Japanese Cental Force or main force sailed through the Philippines to reach the American landings at Leyte. It was spotted and intercepted by American carrier from Task Force 38. It was mauled in the Sibuyan Sea. The giant Musachi was sunk. It turned back, but was not destroyed. The Japanese Southern Force tried tried to reach Leyte through the Surigao Strait. They were intercepted by American battleships, some of which had been raised from Pearl Harbor. This proved to be the greatest surface action since Jutland in World war I and the last important action between battleships in history. American destroyers and battleships using radar in a night action virtually wiped out the Southern Force. Next the Northern Force which was a carrier force meant to decoy Halsey's Third Fleet was spotted. Halsey immediately raced to engage this force. It was descimated in an engagement off Cape Engaño. Meanwhile the Japanese Central Force had turned around and was approaching Leyte Gulf. Unprotected by the Third Fleet, the Japanese would have wreaked hhavic on the troop ships and supply vessels. The only force between Leyte Gulf was a small group of American escort carriers and destroyers. The esort carriers were supporting the landings and protecting the invasion fleet from submarine attack. They did not have armour piercing bombs needed for attacks on battleships. Somehow this force managed to turn around the Japanese Central Force in a an action off Samar, altough at great cost. After the battle the Imperial Fleet no longer existed as a creditable naval force.


The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle in history. It was a desperate action by Japan which essentially pitted its battleships against the rebult American fleet and their powerful new carriers. It was the last engagement where opposing battleships faced each other. In the long history of naval war dating back to ancient times, the major battles were fleet engagements. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the last fleet engagement. The Japanese Imperial Fleet was largely destroyed at Leyte. After the War, the Soviets began building a major fleet, but since the disolution of the Soviet Union that fleet has been sharply reduced. The only remaining naval chasllenge is the expanding Chinese submarine fleet.

Course of the War

The Japanese Imperial Fleet began the war with a stratgy based in carrier warfare, but by 1944 the U.S. Navy had sunk all but one of the six Japanese front-line carriers that had been used in the attack on Pear Harbor. Few of the well-trained pilots with which Japan had begun the War remained. the Imperial Navy was forced to rely increasingly on its battleships and cruisers against an increasingly potent American navy. The U.S. Navy in particular had ammassed a massive carrier fleet. The United States had launched many new carriers which were manned by well trained pilots with improved air craft types. In addition the Navy had launched a large number of suface ships. The U.S. Navy by 1944 had a force capable of engaging the combined world fleet--let alone the bady depleted Imperal Fleet. The U.S. Navy also had an enormous technological advantage--radar. Unlike Miday, however, naval intelligence had not developed information on the Japanese plans.

Emperor Hirohito

The militarists that took Japan to war in 1941 had never fully appraised Emperor Hirohito of the dngers that war presented or the military potential of the United States, most did not fully understad it themselves. This was in sharp contrast to Hitler who eems to have had a healthy appreciation or the danger America presented. The Emperor was thus shocked when naval battle began going against the Imperial Navy and even more shocked when the Marines in the Central Pacific began taking one Pacific island after another without the Imperial Navy opposing the landings. He demanded the Imperial Navy stop the Americans in the Marianas. The Battle of the Philippines Sea was a disater for Japanese naval aviation, but the Imperial Navy did not press the action. The Emperor now demanded that the Imperial Navy resist the Americans in force at the expected next target--the Philippines. [Thomas, p. 142.]

American Strategy

The U.S. Navy seriously damaged the Imperial Fleet at Midway (June 1942). This significantly reduced the Japanese capability to conduct offensive operations. It also made possible the first Allied offensive operation of the War--Guadcanal (August 1942). The Allies seized the Solomons, Eastern New Guinea, and Tarawa (1943), Noth sides prepared for a decisive naval battle which occurred in the Battle of the Phillipine Sea (June-July 1944). The Japanese carrier firce was decisively defeated. This left the Imperial Fleet without an effective air arm, meaning the Imperial Fleet was no longer a modern fighting force. American military planners debated the next action. Nimitz and the Navy wanted to attack Formosa (Taiwan). It was close to both the Japanese main islands as well as to China, an American ally also fighting the Japanese. Nimitz considered it to be the most aggressive action feasible. MacArthur was insistent on invading the Philippines. Upon reaching Australia from Corregador in 1942, he had promissed the Fillipinos, "I shall return." (Characheristically for MacArthur it was "I" and not "We" shall return. A strategy meeting was held between MacArthur, Nimitz, and Roosevelt. MacArthur insisted it was a matter of national honor. The President decided on the Philippines. The initial plan was to invade Mindanao in the southern Philippines, closest to the newly won American bases in New Guinea. American pilots and Resiatance units, however, reported that the Japanese were not seriously defending Mindanao. As a result, MacArthur moved up the timetable and targeted Leyte.

Third Fleet

The Third Fleet was known as the Big Blue Fleet and was the most powerful naval force ever assembled. It was command by Admiral William "Bull" Hallsey. It was composed of America's front-line fleet carriers and fast battleships. Halsey was spoiling for fight. He had dreamed from the beginning of the War for a fleet engagement in which he could destroy the Japanse fleet using the big guns of the American battleships. The early fighting in the Pacific had been brilliantly led by Halsey, using the American carriers to strike at Japanese outposts and then to launch the Doolittle Raid. After Coral Sea, however, Hallsey had missed Miday because he was ill. The naval assetts at his disposal during te desperate fighting in the Solomons were limited. He missed the Battle of the Phillipines Sea because of command rotation with Spruance. He saw Leyte as his last opportunity to bring the Imperial Fleet to battle. And now he had the most powerful naval force ever assemmbled to do just that.

The Seventh Fleet

MacArthur to support Army actions in New Guinea had acquired a fleet--the Seventh Fleet. It was primarily composed of transports and supply ships, bu there were also battleships and 16 escort (jeep). Three groups of jeep carriers and eestroyer esorts were organized to provide air cover to the army units invading Leyte and anti-submarine patrol for the transports and supply ships. These three groups were nammed Taffy 1, 2, and 3. They were positioned north of the Leyte invasion beach. Taffy 3 had the northern-most position. Tgere role was not, however, to protect the invasion beaches from attack through St. Bernadinto Strait. This was the assignment of Admiral Halsey's massive Third Fleet. The Seventh Fleet's battleships were positioned to the south to protect possible attack through the Surigao Strait.

Japanese Strategic Planning

The Japanese by late 1944 had prepared four contingency plans depending on where the United States would strike next. The considered strikes possible on the northern and southern Home Islands, Formosa (Taiwan), and the Phillipines. The Japanse Imperial Fleet during much of 1944 was inactive. After the dissaster in the Phillipines Sea they had been licking their wounds and had withdrawn to the occupied Dutch West Indies (Indonesia), Singaport, and the Home Islands. The Imperial Fleet still had powerful suface assests, including six battleships and 13 heavy caruisers. They were now prepared to commit the entire fleet in a final attempt to stop the Americans.

Sho-Go Plan

The Imperial Navy General Staff issued Combined Fleet Top Secret Operations Order Number 85 (August 1, 1944). The Imperial Fleet was ordered "to intercept and destroy the invading enemy at sea in a Decisive Battle". The battle plan was called the Sho-Go (Victory Plan) Number 1. Naval planners revised and changed the plan numerous times until it became very complex. Essentially the Japanese planned to use three separate forces to oppose the Americans. The Japanese plan was to commit everything in one last desperate effort to stop the Americans. It was clear at this stage of the War to all but the most die-hard officers that the Japan could not defeat the Americans. They hoped, however, that a victory in the Philippines and heavy American casualties might enduce America to accept a negotiated peace. The Japanese implemented the Sho-Go Plan. The major Japanese force included the two super battleships (Mustachi and Yamato) was the major force. A smaller southern force included some aging battleships. A northern force was composed of Japan's remmaining carriers, but did not have a full complement of planes nor were there many well-trained pilots left. This was a decoy force. The Japanese we offering up ther remaining carriers in an effort to break through to the landing beaches with their battleships and cruisers. The assumtion was a bloodbath their would cause the Americans to accept a negotiated end to the War. The Philippines had the advantage that land-based planes could be used to provide air support. The Japanese are noted for saying something openly, but having hidden unspoken meanings. This was essentially what the Sho Go Plan was. Japan was losing the War. The loss of the Philippines would cut Japan off from the resources it had won it Southeast Asia. Resources that were needed to contibue the War. The Battle of the Philippine Sea showed that the Imperial Fleet was now outclassed by the U.S. Navy. But to lose the War with the Imperial Fleet still in tact was unthinkable. In esence the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought more to save the hinor of the Imperial Fleet than to win the War.

Japanese Preparations

Japanese preparations for the battle occurred both at Lingga (Maaysia) and in Japanese ports. The Imperial Navy was concerntrated at Lingga. The islands off the tip of the Malay Peninsula offerred a secure anchorage for the princiapla surface units of the Imperial Fleet. Both giant battleships Musashi and Yamato were anchored there. Amazingly this late in the war, neither ships had yet fired at an ememy ship. The Imperial Navy were saving both for the decisive naval battle of the War. It may seem surprising that the Fleet was not anchored in the Home Islands, especially by 1944 when the American drive in the Central Pacific had cracked through the inner defenses of the Marianas. The reason for that was simple--fuel. Lingga was near the Southern Resource Area--meaning the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were concerned tht if they brought the fleet home that they would not be able to fuel it. But even at Lingga, fuel still represented a problem. The American submarine campaign had sunk so many tankers by late 1944 that it was disrupting fleet opertions. The major Imperial Navy vessels not at Linga were the carriers. They were in home waters because Admiral Ozawa was desperately trying to obtain new planes and train new pilots after the devestating losses in the Battle Of the Philippine Sea (June 1944). The Japanese training program had never adjusted to war time needs. It proved terribly inadequate. The program was not geared to producing large numbers of pilots in a short period, but small numbersin an extended period. Also Japanese policy was for pilots to stay with the fleet until killed. Thus their experience and tactics died with them. The U.S. Navy in contrast, rotated its experienced pilots back to training bases where they could share their hard-learned experiences with new pilots. The new Japanese pilots never had the oportunity to learn from experienced pilots. Many of the new pilots when Admiral Ozawa began south could barely take off and were unfamiliar with how to land on a carrier. [Thomas, p. 174.]


Comaanders played a key role in this great battle. Admiral William Halsy commanded the Third Fleet, the most powerful naval squadron ever deployd in a great naval battle. Halsey knew the power he had and was determined to use it. He did not just want to passively prorect the Leyte beachhead, he wanted to destroy the Japanese fleet. And he knew he now possessed the instrument to do it. This set him up as the Japanese expected to pursue a decoy fleet. Adm. Takeo Kurita commanded Central Force, the main Japanese force with Yamato and Musashi, did not believe in the useless sacrifice of men and ships and ny this time of the War had concluded that the War was lost. He would be criticized after the battle for turning back off Samar. [Thomas] Serving unfer him was Adm. Matemo Ugaki. Ugaki had beem Adm. Yamamoto's Chief of Staff and closest associate. He played amajor role in the Midway planning. He had been with Yamamoto they were shot down, but survivd. He had a very different outlook and if he had been in command would not have turned around. After Leyte, Ugaki was put in charge of Japan's air defense and began organizing a massive Kamakaze force to resist the expected American invasion.

Invasion (October 17)

The Filippino people suffered greviously under Japanese occupation. This helped fuel an effective Resistance campaigns carried out by guerillas which had achieved control of substantial areas. The Japanese, however, controlled the population centers, especially on Leyte and Luzaon. The Navy preferred targetting Formosa (Taiwan), but MacArthur eventually prevailed with his insistence that America must retun to the Philippines. He considered his vow to return a pledge to the Philippinp people that had to be honored. Some how his vow, "I shall return" seems less approaptiate than "We shall return", but it was pure MacArthur and he convinced President Roosevelt. Reports from resistance fighters and American pilots revealed that the Japanese were not heavily defending large areas of the Islands. The inasion of Mindanao was considered unecessary and the decession was made to strike first further north at Leyte. It was in this engagement that the Kamakazis first appeared, although still in relatively small numbers. MacArthur President Sergio Osmeña waded ashore with the invasion force at Leyte Gulf (October 20, 1944). The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Japanese resisted, but could not match American fire power. The most serious Japanese resistence occurred at sea. The resulting naval engaement following on Battle of the Philippones Sea is commonly referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the largest sea battle ever fought and resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet as an effective fighting force. This opened the way for the land campaign. Further landings occurred at Ormoc (December 7, 1944). Then the fighting moved to Luzon. The Americans finally reach the main island of Luzon with landings at Lingayen Gulf (January 9, 1945). The initial American landings were unopposed. Japanese Imperial Army General Tomoyuki Yamashita had been tasked with the defense of the Philippines.

Japanese Fleet Movements (October 17-23)

The Japanese once the Amercan target was clear with Ranger landings on Leyte (October 17). The Japanese then proceeded with a highly complex strategy to throw virtually the entire remaining Imperial fleet in a desperate attempt to oppse the American invasion of the Philippine Islands. Admiral Kurita began to move from Lingga at 1:00 am (October 18). The battle evolved in four separate actions that both sides found difficult to coordinate in the furious battles that ensued. Once the American landings at Leyte Gulf began, the Northern, Central, and Southern force were given their orders. The fleet moved northeast along the Borneo coast towrd the Philippines. They were still undected by the Americans. Admiral Kurita reched Brunei Bay at noon (October 20). From here they were a day's sail from the Philippines. At this time the Americans at Leyte Gulf were landing in force. They were soon well established and by October 22 most of the troop ships would have been emptied. The stop at Brunei Bay was for refueling, but there were no tanlets awaiting them there. The destroyers had to be refueled by the battleships which had large tanks. [Thompas p. 181.] Combined Fleet Headqusters ordered Kurit to destroy American surface units, break throuh to Leyte Gulf on Octobr 25, and destroy the landing force. It ws an absurd order. Not only did the Americans out number Kurita's force, but they had air cover. Even if they did break through, the troop transports were empty and bombarding the American bridgehead would be ineffective without spotter aircraft. Kurita briefed his captains (October 21). Thy were astonished. The Combined Fleet Headquaters were essentially asking them to risk the major ssetts of the Imperial Navy to sink empty troop ships. This in particular bothered Kurita's captains. There was no question of cowardice, but for proud captains to risk their magnificent ships and crews to sink empty troop ships was to most of the captains he height of folly. Also it was to be a daylight attack despite the fact the Japanese were most skilled at night attack and most vilnerable to carrier attack during the day. A historian of the battle compares this situation to the cheers Nelson's captains gave him on learning of the simplicity of the battle plan at Trafalgur (Thomas, p. 185.] Given the fact that Leyte was one of the great naval battles of all time, the difference is notable. Kurit'a force began sailing from Brunei Bay at 8:00 am (October 22). Kurita's flag ship was the heavy carrier Atago. When they reached the northern tip of Borneo, th Southern Force commanded by Admiral Nishimura broke off. Kurita continued northeast along the western coast of Palwan Islnd.

Engagements (October 23-26)

The Battle of Leyte Gulf occurred October 23-26, 1944. It was the largest battle in the history of naval warfare fought over a wide area around and north of the Philippines Islands. The Battle was notable for many reasons. It involved the largest number of war ships in naval history. It was Japan's first use of Kamakazis, although on a small scale. It was also the first time the Yamato's massive 18 inch guns had been fired at American ships. It was also the last major surface engagement in world history. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually fought as four separate engagements. Many believe that the Battle was the U.S. Navy's finest hour, especially the engagement off Samar. Of course this is questionable, others might point to Midway in which a decisive victory was achieved against a superior force. At Leyte the U.S. Navy was vastly superior to what remained of the Imperial Fleet, especially because of the American carrier force.

Battle of Surigao Strait (October 23)

Admiral Kurita's departure from Lingga was undetected by the Americans as was the pause at Brunei Bay. The fleet was not sailing in deep blue waters, but rather along the Palawan Island, an area of dangerous shoals and reefs. Kurita had to sail Center Force through a narrow area, the Palawan Passage. The American new the area well and there two submarines were lieing in wait--Darter and Dace. The subs spotted the Japanese and using radar were able to assess the size of the force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf began in the Palawam Passage. The subs radioed the sighting and then attacked. Kurita in Atago led the Japanese column. Atago was hit and sunk. A shaken Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato. The cruiser Tako was badly damaged. The cruiser Maya steaming in front of Yamato virtually disappeared in a spectacular explosion. Darter was lost, although the crew was saved. Most importantly the Americans now knew the location of Kurita's Center Force.

Battle of the Sibuyan Sea (October 24)

The Japanese Central Force or main force under Admiral Kurita sailed through the Philippines in an effort to reach the American landings at Leyte through the San Bernadino Straits. It was the most powerful surface fleet ever assembled by the Imperial Navy. It included in additiion to cruisers and standard battleships, the super-battleships Musashi and Yamato with their imposing 18 inch guns. Before the Central Force reached the Straits, American aircraft spotted it. The Japanese were then intercepted by American carrier aircraft from Task Force 38 in the Sibuyan Sea. The first American aircraft to reach Musashi was Torpedo Squadron 18 flying TBM-1c Avengers from the USS Intrepid. One historian describes the experience of a Musashi crew menber, "Glancing to starboard, Hosoya started to see a thick-bodied American torpedo plane flying low over the water and closing rapidly on the ship through the smoke. He saw Musashi's aircraft gunners shift their short-range weapons toward the attacker and concentrate their fire on the plane, but the attacker kept coming on. Hosoya watched in disbelief as a torpedo slipped like a log from the belly of the American airplane and splashed into the sea. He searched frantically for the torpedo's wakebut he could not see it. Less than forty-five seconds later, the ocean exploded in frint of him, A geyser of sea water shot two hundred feet into the air along Musashi's starboard waterline, inundating the sailors on Musashi's main deck. Musashi shuddered at the blow and Hosoya staggered. Like all Japanese, Petty Officer Hosoya had experienced earthquakes in his homeland; Musashi's steel deck swayed beneath his feet, filling him with the sanme sickening ense of fear and dread." [Fletcher] Torpedo Squadiron 18 ws devestated by Musaahi's anti-aircraft gunners. Pilot Will Fletcher survived and managed to join the Filipino guerrillas and continued the fight against the Japanese. One would have thought that in the middle of the Philippines Archpeligo that Center Force would have been protected by land based Army aircraft. This was anticipated in the Sho-Go planning. It did not, however, occur. Pounding by Third Fleet air strikes had serious weakened Japanese air strength, not only in the Philippines, but also on Formosa and Okinawa. In addition, coordination between the Imperial Army nd Navy was notoriously bad throughout the war. There was as a result no land based air cover for Center Force, The American carrier strikes were unopposed except for ship anti-aircraft batteries. The American carrier planes ravaged Admiral's Kurita's ships. The giant Mustachi was sunk. Yamato was damaged. Admiral Kurita who was now on Yamato decided to turn back. His force was badly mauled, but not destroyed.

Battle of Surigao Strait (October 24-25)

The Japanese Southern Force under Admiral Nishimura tried to reach Leyte through the Surigao Strait. The Japanese dreamed of a night action with the Americans. They were well trained for night fighting as they demonstrated in the Solomons. And at night it would be a ship to ship action as carrier strikes could not be launched at night. The Japanese got just what they wanted in the Surigao Strait. The only problem for the Japanese was that this was 1944 not 1942. The Americans now knew how to use radar. They Southern Force was intercepted by American battleships from the Seventh Fleet. Admiral Oddendorf had six battleships, including five sunk at Pearl Harbor (California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia). As an irony of history, the engagement was fought by the old ships sunk at Pearl Harbor rather the fast new battleships of the 3rd Fleet. Neither the Japanese or the Americans knew it, but the resuling action would be last big-gun battle ship engagement in history. The action in the Surigao Strait proved to be the greatest surface action since Jutland in World War I and the last important action between battleships in history. This honor fell to the ageing battleships of the 7th Fleet, many of them victims of Pearl Harbor, rather then o the modern Iowa-class battleships with Admial Halsey. American PT boats and destroyers first engaged the Japanese. The American battleships laying in wait at the mouth of Surigao Strait had in essence executed the classic naval maneuver of "crossing the "T", the dream of every naval commander in modern history. The American ageing battleships using radar virtually wiped out the Japanese Southern Force as it attempted to stram through the Strait. Admiral Shima with a cruiser force meant to support Admiral Nisgimura encounteted the battered remanents of Southern Force in the morning. He wisely chose not to try to force the Strait and turned around.

Battle off Cape Engaño (October 25)

As the Battle of Leyte Gulf progressed, American commanders kept asking, "Where are the Japanese carriers?" The answer was they were approaching from the north. The carriers surviving the Bttle of the Philippine Sea had retired to the Home Islands where replacement aircraft and air crews could be obtained. The Northern Force with carriers was commanded by Admiral Osawa. It included four carriers. The most impotant Zuikaku, the only survivor of the six Pear Harbor strike force. There were also three light carriers (Zuihō, Chitose, and Chiyoda). There were also two World War I battleships partially which had carrier decks added aft (Hyūga and Ise). The Northern force alsao had escort craft, including three light cruisers (Ōyodo, Tama, and Isuzu) and nine destroyers. There were, however, only 108 aircraft. Only a few months earlier Admiral Osawa had commanded a substantial carrier force that he believed could destoy the American carriers. After the disaster in the Battle of the Phiippine Sea, Admiral Osawa fully realized how greatly the balance of power had shifted in the Pacific. Not only had the Americans sunk the Soikaku, but several hundred pilots had been lost. These pilots has been inadequately trained. Osawa now commanded a smaller force with even more poorly trained pilots. The Northern Force he commanded had only one purpose--to decoy Halsey's Third Fleet north so that the Central and Southern Forces could break through to Leyte Gulf. Halsey in contrst commanded one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled. He had fought the criticl battles of 1942 with only 1-2 carriers and and equally small number of battleships. His force was divided into three groups. There were five fleet carriers (Intrepid, Franklin, Lexington, Enterprise, and Essex). Enterprise as the only survivor of the 1942 battles. The others were the massive new Essex-class carrietrs. There were also five light carriers (Independence, Belleau Wood, Langley, Cabot, and San Jacinto. Halsey also has six battleships (Alabama, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Washington). They were esported by eight cruisers, and more than 40 destroyers. The air groups Halsey commanded included more than 600 aircraft. Osawa did all he could to be discovered by Halsey. He sent uncoded meassages in the clear, but for some reason they were not spotted by the Americans. Finally American aircraft found Osawa's carriers. Halsey immediately raced north not only with his carriers but with the battleship force (Task Force 34). Halsey and others in the Navy had thought that Spruance was overly cautious in the Marianas in deciding to make sure the landing beeches were protected. Halsey was determined not to make this preceived mistake and to engage the main body of the Imperial Fleet. In racing north with his entire force, he left San Beradino Straits unguarded--thinking that the Japanese Central Force had retired. And he did not inform the Seventh Fleet of his decession. At considerable distance, Halsey launched carrier strikes which found the Japanese off Cape Engaño. The air strikes desimated the Japanese carrier force. Itvwas here that the Americans finall sunk Zuikaku. Before the battleships of Task Force 34 reached the Japanese, however, the battle off Samar flared up and Nimitz signaled Halsey? Code padding asking where Task Force 34 was ernraged Halsey. He was forced to race back before he could bring the big guns of his battleships to bear on the Japanese fleet. Before reaching San Beradino Srraits, however, Admiral Kurita has retired his force. The battleships in Task Force 34 failed to see any action in the largest battle in naval history.

Battle off Samar (October 25)

The Battle Leyte Gulf climaxed off Samar. The engagement has been called with considerable accuracy, the bravest 2 hours in American naval history. [Thomas] The Japanese Central Force mauled by American carrier aircraft in the Sibuyan Sea had turned around, but Admirat Kurita decided to sail back toward the Leyte landings. This new approach was not detected by American search planes. Admiral Halsey assumed that Kurita's Central Force had been essential destroyed. Kurita sailed back into the Sibuyan Sea and through San Bernadino Straits unopposed. Kurita's force included the Yamato and 22 other ships made up of battleships and heavy cruisers. Admiral Kinkaid assumed that the battleships of Task Force 34 were protecting San Beradino Straits. The Japanese Central Force moving south could have wreaked havoic on the troop transports and supply vessels at San Pedro Bay. They could have also desimated the American forces that had been landed with devestating artillery fire. On the morning of October 25, an early morning anti-submarine aerial patrol from Taffy 3 spotted Kurita's Cebtral Force headed south toward Leyte Gulf. At first they assumed it was Halsey's Task Force 34 until they noted the pagoda structures on the Japanese battleships before the sky turned black with anti-aircraft fire. [Hornfischer] What followed was the most mismattched engagement in naval warfare. The Yamato alone weighed more than all the ships composung Taffy 3. The only force between Leyte Gulf were three small groups of American escort (jeep) carriers and destroyers (Taffy 1, 2, and 3). Admiral Copeland commanding Taffy 3 ordered an attack off Samar Island despite the fact that his force was almost rediculosly small. [Hornfischer] The esort carriers were supporting the landings and protecting the invasion fleet from submarine attack. They did not have armour piercing bombs needed for attacks on battleships, let alone the Yamato. The planes on the esoort carriers did not have armour piercing bombs, they were using anti-personnel bombs to support infantty. Sone pilots attacked without any bombs at all. The destroyers attacked to protect the carriers. The action fought by the Johnson was one of the bravest naval actions in the War and suceeded in blowing the bow off a Japanese cruiser. Destroyers were made known as "tin cans" because they were made of 3/8" steel plate instead of thick hardenened armour. Miraculosly the thin skin of the destroyers may have saved some. Admiral Kurita assumed that he was engaging Halsey's Third Fleet. Kurita had been unable to establish communication with the Northern Force and had not realize that the decoy operation had worked. The ferocity of Taffy 3's reaction had convinced him that he had engaged the main American force. The Japanese were firing armour piercing shells, without protective armour, many shells passed right through the destroyers' thin skin, leaving holes but did not dedtenate. [Hornfischer] Somehow Taffy 3 managed to turn around the Japanse Central Force. It may been the most mismatched victory in naval warfare. Yhe cost to Taffy 3 was considerable--five ships lost. After the battle the Imperial Fleet no longer existed as a creditable naval force. The Battle off Samar has to be considered the ultimate expression of American heorism in the Pacific war. Famed naval historian Samuel Elliot Morrison maintains that the the U.S. Navy never perform more galantly. Admiral Halsey has been sharply criticised for exposing Taffy 3 to the Japanese Central Force. The destoyer and destroyer escorts escorting the jeep carriers were the smallest ships in the navy. They never should have been put in the position of facing Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers. The U.S. Navy at the time was large enough to have engaged the combined fleets of all other countries. An effecctive disposition of the Third Fleet would have prevented this. Halsey could have been cortmartialed for his actions, bu Nimtz did not want this kind of controversy and Halsey's action in the early phase of the War had made him enormously popular on the home front.

Admiral Kurita's Decesion

One of the questions emerging from the Battle is why Admiral Kurita reversed course off Samar when he could have smashed into Leyte Gulf and disrupted the Leyte beach head and support vessels. The Kamakazee mentality was at the time taking shape. Some of the first Kamakazee flights occurred at Leyte. And the Japanese Northern Force was on a basically suiside decoy mision. Kurita's decesion surely was not a question of bravery. He seems to have concluded that he had encountered Halsey's main battle group and it was just a matter of time before his force would be destroyed. His judgement was surefly affected by the fact that his flag-ship had been destoyed in the earlier action in the Subuyan Sea. He lost half of the Central Force he commanded. Not all the Japanese military accepted the Kamakazee thesis. Many Japanese officers were not well educated and saw the Bushido Code as their guiding spirit. Kurita was a Confusan scholar. He did not believe that anything was to be gained by the useless sacrifice of his men. He was criticise by his commanders. Before he died, however, he told a friend that he turned around at Samar to save the lives of his men. [Thomas]

Suicide Tactics

Given the despeate Kamikaze tactics adopted at Okinawa, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is notable for the Imperial Navy's failure to fully implement Kamikaze tactics. Here commannders were of a mixed mind. Imperial General Headquarters by October was increasingly seeing the upcoming battle as a climativ suiside effort. The Navy's Chief Operating Officer explained the purpose of the Sho-Go Plan, "PLease give the chance to bloom as flowers of death. This is the navy's earnest request." [Thomas, p. 142.] Not all naval commanders had yet excepted the Kamikaze tactic. Amoing them was Admiral Kurita, who commanded the Central Force.


The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the epic naval battle of all time. Never before in history had two nations assembled naval forces on such a scale. [Thomas, pp. 4-5.] There were over 300 ships, including the two largest battleships ever built, and over 200,000 men involved. It was fought over a 100,000 square mile area in and around the Philippine Islands. It was the last major naval battle of World War II. This was becuse the once mighty Imperial Fleet suffered such losses that it no longer had the capability of mounting a major fleet action. After Leyte the Imperial Fleet would not play a major role in the War. The U.S. Navy's victory both in opening up the reconquest of the Philippine Islands and in destroying the Japanese fleet, cut Japan off from its newly won empire in the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia. This ranks Leyte and the decisive naval battle of World War II. Without the resources of its empire, Japan could no longer effectively make war. The U.S. Navy would play a subsequent role, but a role that primarily involved supporting land operations and not important naval engagements. Leyte was not just the last great naval battle, it may well have been the last great naval battle. The major fleet action in World War I (Jutland) had been indesisive. Both American and Japanese commanders had been war gming a final desisive fleet action. Leyte did not develop as eiher side had invisioned, but it was decisive. And it appears to have been the last battle in a series of fleet actions that began Salamis and continued through Actium, Lepato, Trafalgur, and Jutland. Given the nature of modern weaponery, massed fleet action on this scale will probably never occur again.


The Battle of Leyte Gulf combined with the previous Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 1944) fundamentally changed the nature of the Pacific War. The Japanese crrier force tht vhad been rebuilt after Miday was smashed in the Battle of the Philippines Sea. The remaining importnt surface elements of the Imperil Fleet wih only a fe exceptions were destoyed in the Battle of th Leyte Gulf. Thus the splendid Imperial Fleet with which Japan launched the Pacific War was gone. Japan stillpossessed extenive territory in the South Pacific, but there garrisons were isolated. Not only did they without nval and air support not have any offensive capability, but unable toobtain supplies they would be near staevation at the end of the War. And without a Navy, the Home Islands were now wide open to a foreign invasion force forv the first time since the Mongolminvasion. The official Australian history of the War explains just what the American victory at Leyte meant,"... as soon as the Japnese ceased to dominate the seaand the sky above it, the loss of their new island empire was just as inevitable as the loss of the British, American, and Dutch island empires off southeast Asia had been in the opening month of the war. And thenceforward the decisive struggle was the one between Nimitz's naval forces with their attendant infantry and the Japanese opposing them; the operations in the South-West Pacific and Burma becane subordinate ones." [Long, p.584.]


Fletcher, Gregory C. Intrepid Aviators: The True Story of 'USS Intrepid''s Torpedo Squadron 18 and Its Epic Clash with the Superbattleship 'Musashi' (2012).

Hornfischer, James. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

Long, Gavin. The Final Cmpaigns: Australian in thecWar of 1939-45 Series One. Army Vol.7 (Cnberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963).

Morrison, Samuel Elliot.

Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 (Simon & Dchuster: New York, 2006), 414p.


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Created: February 22, 2004
Last updated: 7:35 AM 1/26/2019