(The illustration above depicts, from left to right, T.102, T.6, and T.9 arriving in the Philippines to begin TA Operations. As depicted by Takeshi Yuki, “Color Paintings of Japanese Warships”)
THIS IS THE FIRST OF THREE INSTALLMENTS WHICH WILL DETAIL THE JAPANESE ATTEMPTS TO REINFORCE LEYTE. PART II WILL COVER TA Nos. 3-4, AND PART III, TA Nos. 5-9
TA was the designation assigned to Japanese naval operations aimed at getting reinforcements, supplies and munitions to their troops fighting the U. S. invasion forces on Leyte, in the Philippines. Between 23 October and 11 December 1944, nine major convoys attempted the perilous sea passage, some 600 miles from Manila to Ormoc, Leyte’s major port on its western shore. These made extensive use of the Empire’s dwindling supply of merchantmen, naval transports, destroyers and smaller escorts.
The reinforcement of Leyte commenced just a few days after the American landings of 20 October, when Lieutenant General Suzuki Sosaku, commanding Thirty-fifth Army on that front, began marshalling all manner of barges, sailing boats and other small craft to help shift his scattered units from throughout the Visayas to Ormoc. Quite apart from the TA operations to be outlined hereunder, these small-scale sailings succeeded in transferring to Leyte at least 6,000 men, primarily of the 30th and 102nd Divisions, by the end of December, and continued throughout the campaign.
NEW TRANSPORTS INTRODUCED
The TA operations would see the first large-scale employment of Japan’s new, purpose-built naval transports, which were generally divided between two classes or types. The T.1-class fast naval transports were essentially APDs based on Matsu- class destroyer hulls with one set of engines removed to make space for troops and cargo. The resulting 1,500-ton vessel remained quite swift for a troop-carrier at 22 knots and, with its distinctive stern pared down to the waterline, was capable of the rapid launching over rails of up to four large daihatsu barges, even as the transport steamed at up to 16 knots. The smaller, 950-ton T.101-class, hereinafter referred to as landing ships to differentiate them from the T.1s, were basically LSTs which landed their troops and vehicles via bow-ramps lowered onto the beach. At 13 1/2 knots they were slower than the T.1s and were not considered good sea boats, but performed adequately in the coastal waters of the Philippines. Both types were quite heavily armed for their size, with AA guns, depth charges, radar and sonar, yet could be considered expendable in the counter-landing operations for which they had been designed.
These vessels were administratively assigned to 1st Transport Squadron, established on 25 September 1944 under the command of Rear Admiral Soji Akira. Transron 1 was initially assigned naval transports T.6, T.9 and T.10, and six of the T.101s, with a further half-dozen of the latter having been added to its rolls by the time TA Operation got well underway. The small ex-Chinese cruiser YASOJIMA served as Admiral Soji’s flagship.
Transron 1 came south from Japan about mid-October to come under the orders of Southwest Area Fleet, Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi commanding, at Manila. A portion of the command was used to transport the army’s 68th Brigade from Formosa to Luzon, while others of its units continued south to the Visayas, probably led in by landing ship T.131. T.9 and T.10 are known to have reached Cebu by 23 October, with T.6, T.101 and T.102 most likely in close attendance.
TA No. 1
The first major coordinated troop movement to Leyte involved these transports, joined by units of Cruiser Division 16 out of Manila, the objective being transfer of 2,500 soldiers of the 41st Regiment from Cagayan, on Mindanao, to Ormoc. This operation has gone into the books as TA No. 1, but it should be noted that the Japanese themselves only designated it thus in retrospect, after Admiral Mikawa formally opened the TA Operation on 29 October.
Rear Admiral Sakonju Naomasa’s Crudiv 16 (heavy cruiser AOBA, light cruiser KINU, destroyer URANAMI) only made the rendezvous at Cagayan with difficulty. Previously a unit of Vice Admiral Kurita’s Second Fleet at Lingga, it had been detached from Brunei on 21 October to assist with Southwest Area Fleet’s transport movements. As Sakonju approached Manila on the morning of the 23rd, submarine USS BREAM (SS- 243) put a torpedo into flagship AOBA, leaving her dead in the water. Sakonju transferred to KINU, which that night towed AOBA into the Cavite Navy Yard for emergency repairs.
KINU and URANAMI sortied for Mindanao on the morning of 24 October, even as wide- ranging patrols of U. S. aircraft from the fast carriers of TF 38 began their sweeps over the central Philippines to herald the opening of the Leyte Gulf battles. Sakonju had barely cleared Manila Bay when the first of these appeared overhead, and over the next three hours had to dodge the attentions of three separate flights totalling 40 planes. Structural damage was light, but strafing caused heavy casualties, 47 in KINU and 25 in URANAMI, and left the latter trailing oil from a punctured fuel tank. But American attention was soon drawn to the heavy units of Admiral Kurita’s fleet in the Sibuyan Sea, so Sakonju proceeded without further damage to reach Cagayan early on the 25th.
The naval transports had arrived the previous evening, spent the night embarking troops, and were already outward-bound for Ormoc as Sakonju came in. T.6, T.9 and T.10 each carried 350 men, while T.101 and T.102 loaded 400 apiece. KINU embarked 500 and URANAMI 150, then both sped after the transports. By this time the Leyte Gulf battles were reaching their climax off Samar and Cape Engano, so this troop transfer went relatively unnoticed by the Americans. P-38 fighters strafed and inflicted a few casualties on T.6 but all reached Ormoc in good order by the morning of 26 October, and 41st Regiment was swiftly put ashore and marched toward the front. T.101 and T.102 were then ordered back to the Visayas to pick up more troops while Crudiv 16 and the three naval transports headed for Manila.
By mid-morning of the 26th KINU and URANAMI were transiting Jintotolo Channel between Masbate and Panay when American retribution finally caught up with them. Some 80 aircraft from two groups of TF 77 escort carriers swarmed overhead, remorselessly bombing, strafing and rocketing both warships to a standstill. Battered URANAMI sank around noon, but KINU remained afloat, her rudder hopelessly jammed. Two more waves of enemy planes struck her, and a bomb in an engine-room set the cruiser ablaze. The three naval transports were on the scene by mid-afternoon and removed 300 survivors, Sakonju transferring his flag to T.10, then continued on to reach Manila on the 27th. KINU finally went under some seven hours after the first attack, completing the destruction of Crudiv 16 as a fighting force. Admiral Sakonju would play no further role in TA Operation.
The two landing ships fared little better. T.102 got as far as the entrance to Guimarras Strait, en route to Bacolod on Negros, when she also fell victim to the escort carrier planes on the 26th. That same day T.101 succeeded in embarking the 169th Independent Infantry Battalion at Tagbilaran (Bohol), then headed back to Ormoc. On the 27th, when north of Cebu, T.101 was roughly handled by ten enemy planes, with her skipper and navigator among the 20-odd casualties that resulted. A junior officer was able to conn the landing ship into Ormoc and get the troops ashore, but on 28 October more enemy planes struck the port and destroyed T.101 where she lay.
One further loss should be chalked up to TA No. 1. When Crudiv 16 suddenly went off the air on the 26th Captain Inoue Yoshio, Comdesdiv 18, was ordered out from Coron in destroyer SHIRANUHI to locate and assist the missing ships. By the morning of 27 October she was searching the area north of Cebu when set upon by the aroused TF 77 planes. The crew of destroyer HAYASHIMO, wrecked and aground nearby, witnessed SHIRANUHI being overwhelmed and sunk by these planes. Rescue teams sent out from shore found no survivors.
Thus TA No. 1 saw the successful transfer to Leyte of close to 3,000 troops, but at the cost of a light cruiser, two destroyers, and two landing ships. It was a grim beginning.
GATHERING AT MANILA
By now, surviving Japanese warships of the Leyte Gulf battles, primarily destroyers, were arriving in Manila to augment Admiral Mikawa’s forces. The first such had come in on 25 October, when HAMAKAZE and KIYOSHIMO brought in survivors of MAYA and MUSASHI, followed by Desdiv 21’s HATSUHARU and HATSUSHIMO with those from sunken WAKABA. HAMAKAZE and KIYOSHIMO left again on the 29th to rejoin Kurita at Brunei, but Desdiv 21 remained to assist with TA. Reaching Manila on the 28th were most of Vice Admiral Shima Kiyohide’s 2nd Diversion Attack Force (heavy cruisers NACHI and ASHIGARA, destroyers KASUMI, USHIO, and AKEBONO), plus crippled cruiser KUMANO and destroyer OKINAMI of the Kurita force. KUMANO was definitely out of the fight, but the other two heavies were designated the “TA Support Force,” to be held on alert in the Manila area. The destroyers would go to Ormoc.
27 October saw the arrival in Manila of an important troop convoy from Shanghai, bringing in the army’s crack 1st Division. The Fourteenth Area Army commander, General Yamashita Tomoyuki, who reviewed the troops aboard their ships, was personally opposed to sending them on to Leyte, but had orders from his superiors at Southern Army headquarters to do so. He nonetheless directed that one battalion of each regiment be off-loaded at Manila, a hedge against losing the whole division should the convoy meet disaster. He then alerted 26th Division, on Luzon since August, for passage to Leyte as well.
TA No. 2
The arrangements for conveyance of 1st Division’s main body, about 10,000 men plus equipment, were first-rate all the way. The four big transports to be used, NOTO MARU, KINKA MARU, KASHII MARU and TAKATSU MARU, were all modern, high- speed vessels: the last-named had been specially fitted-out for military landing operations and was lavishly equipped with deck cranes and 20 barges (daihatsu) for rapid unloading. The 7th Convoy Escort Group, which had brought them over from Shanghai, would remain with them right on through to Ormoc. This unit comprised kaibokans (literally “coast defense vessels,” or CDs) OKINAWA, SHIMUSHU, and Nos. 11 and 13. Its commander, Rear Admiral Matsuyama Mitsuharu, was an old hand at this type of work: while commanding Crudiv 18 in November 1942 he had also led the Eastern New Guinea Reinforcement Force, and had enjoyed considerable success in getting soldiers through to the besieged Buna-Gona positions in Papua.
KASUMI, USHIO, AKEBONO, HATSUHARU, HATSUSHIMO and OKINAMI were formed into a destroyer screen for TA No. 2. Screen and overall commander was Rear Admiral Kimura Masatomi, Comdesron 1 in KASUMI, who was also no stranger to this kind of thing. Some twenty months previous he had been in command when a similar troop convoy was annihilated in the Bismarck Sea — and TA No. 2 would be the first Japanese attempt at opposed troop reinforcement on such a scale since that debacle.
In addition to Admiral Kimura’s main convoy, TA No. 2 comprised sub-elements, and these led off the show. Landing ship T.131, which had returned to Manila from the Visayas two days before, loaded 340 men and weapons of the 20th Independent Antitank Battalion and was off in mid-afternoon of 28 October. She reached Ormoc safely on the night of the 30th, traded the antitankers for the stranded crew of T.101, and left on her return voyage to Manila just after midnight of the 31st. All contact with T.131 was lost later that day and she was presumed sunk — but her story would have a happier ending than most.
A second echelon comprised T.6, T.9 and T.10 again, carrying 1,000 men of the Imabori Detachment (12th Independent Infantry Regiment). They cleared Manila early on 31 October, weathered sporadic air attacks en route without damage, and put their troops ashore at Ormoc on the afternoon of 1 November. T.6 and T.10 then returned to Manila while T.9 was detached to Cebu to pick up General Suzuki and about 100 men of Thirty-fifth Army headquarters. T.9 was back at Ormoc with them at dawn of 2 November, to find the bay crowded with the ships of TA No. 2’s third and main element.
The big convoy had departed Manila about two hours behind the naval transports on 31 October. All that day and most of the next it proceeded under cover of stormy weather, the kaibokan providing close cover while Kimura’s destroyers ranged further afield. On the afternoon of 1 November a formation of P-38s approached as if to attack, but these were drawn off by patrolling Japanese fighters without doing the convoy any harm. The transports dropped anchor off Ormoc early that evening and began unloading.
The landing of 1st Division’s men and equipment consumed the better part of the next 24 hours. Strafing attacks by P-38s on the morning of the 2nd caused some casualties but generally just speeded up the unloading process. An early afternoon attack by two dozen B-24s had more success. Most of the transports lay under cover of a smoke screen laid by the escorts, but NOTO MARU was in the clear, and the string of B-24s that passed over her managed to land a heavy bomb close alongside. NOTO MARU filled with water and was on the bottom within the half-hour. USHIO was also near- missed but suffered only slight damage.
NOTO MARU had been 90 percent unloaded when sunk, and her consorts were empty and able to clear the area by nightfall of the 2nd. The retiring Japanese convoy was not attacked, and most of Kimura’s ships were safely back in Manila by 4 November.
Meanwhile, the missing T.131 had come back on the air. She had been strafed by a single B-24 near Panay on 31 October and left without power or communications. Not until 2 November was the radio patched up enough to enable her to get off a distress call. Transport T.9, having just landed General Suzuki and his staff, was sent to her assistance. By the morning of the 3rd Kimura’s retiring convoy was also passing near the area, and he detached Desdiv 21 to help out. T.9 took T.131 in tow, HATSUHARU and HATSUSHIMO deployed as escorts, and all reached Cavite Naval Yard on the morning of the 5th. T.131 was out of the TA Operation, and would survive the war to be surrendered at Saigon.
TA No. 2 was by far the most successful of all the TA operations, and 1st Division was to have a profound effect on the campaign ashore. “This unit more than any other,” claimed General Walter Krueger, the American commander, “was responsible for the extension of the Leyte operation.”
TA No. 2 proved a fitting swan-song for the veteran Admiral Mikawa, victor of Savo Island and longtime nemesis of Allied forces in the Solomons, whose deteriorating health now forced him to relinquish command of Southwest Area Fleet. His successor was Vice Admiral Okochi Denshichi, who had commanded the China Area Fleet earlier in the war and now came to Manila from the post of Superintendent of the Naval War College. He took over the reins of TA Operation around the first of November.
Admiral Okochi’s destroyer force continued to be augmented by transfers from other commands. TAKE returned to Manila on 30 October from a convoy escort mission to Formosa. Desdiv 31 (ASASHIMO and NAGANAMI) and big SHIMAKAZE arrived from Brunei on the 31st, and WAKATSUKI came in from Japan with cruiser OYODO on 1 November. A final three from Brunei, HAMANAMI, AKISHIMO and KIYOSHIMO, arrived on the 4th. The latter brought Rear Admiral Hayakawa Mikio, Comdesron 2, who shortly transferred his flag to SHIMAKAZE. OYODO and KIYOSHIMO soon joined Kurita at Brunei, but all the rest were attached to Southwest Area Fleet for TA Operation.
On 5 November U. S. carrier planes from Task Group 38.3 struck the Manila area. Damaged cruisers AOBA and KUMANO had gotten away in the nick of time, having departed that morning with a Formosa-bound convoy. But NACHI was far less fortunate. The big cruiser was caught in Manila Bay by four separate strike groups of aircraft, which during the course of the afternoon are estimated to have hit her with no fewer than nine torpedoes, 20 bombs and 16 rockets! NACHI broke up and sank just off Corregidor, taking her captain and over 800 crewmen down with her. Destroyer AKEBONO attempted to go to NACHI’s assistance but was herself attacked and left blazing and dead in the water, to be towed back into the Cavite Navy Yard by HATSUSHIMO. Strafing also cost OKINAMI 28 casualties, which on top of the 34 she had suffered at Leyte Gulf all but crippled her.
Serious as these losses were, they could have been far worse. For in concentrating on NACHI, the American fliers missed ASHIGARA and most of the other vessels gathered at Manila for TA. Certainly, all the ordnance expended on NACHI alone could have wrought fearful destruction among Okochi’s thin-skinned transports and destroyers. In drawing this massive thunderbolt down upon herself, NACHI afforded TA Operation far greater service than she could ever have rendered as part of any “Support Force.”
© 1996 Allyn D. Nevitt