The Matsu-class destroyers would come into their own during the TA Operations. As depicted by Takeshi Yuki, “Color Paintings of Japanese Warships”)
THIS IS THE LAST OF THREE INSTALLMENTS DETAILING THE JAPANESE ATTEMPTS TO REINFORCE LEYTE. PART I COVERS TA Nos. 1-2, AND PART II, TA Nos. 3-4
31st ESCORT SQUADRON
Among the consequences of Japan’s Leyte-related destroyer losses was the deactivation, on 20 November 1944, of Fifth Fleet’s Desron 1, with Admiral Kimura and most of his surviving units going to Second Fleet’s Desron 2. In exchange, Fifth Fleet was allocated 31st Escort Squadron from Combined Fleet.
31st Escort Squadron, organized on 20 August 1944, became the parent formation for the Empire’s lesser escort forces, including the divisions of new Matsu-class destroyers rapidly entering service. It lost its first commander, Rear Admiral Edo Heitaro, along with his entire staff, on 25 November when flagship SHIMOTSUKI was sunk by a submarine. A new squadron headquarters was organized in Japan in early December under Rear Admiral Tsuruoka Nobumichi, but he would not reach Manila until later in the month. On 5 December 1944, Fifth Fleet and its “headless” 31st Escort Squadron were officially assigned to Southwest Area Fleet for Admiral Okochi’s use in TA Operation.
The setbacks of mid-November led to a two-week hiatus in Japanese transport missions to Leyte, which the troops ashore could ill afford. The American Sixth Army gained ground steadily, certainly slowed but not stopped by 1st Division and General Suzuki’s other battered formations. It had originally been planned that in TA Nos. 5 through 7 Admiral Soji’s amphibious craft would be used to ferry in troops of the 68th Brigade while merchantmen carried supplies. But 26th Division’s having been put ashore with so little of its munitions, combined with the recent heavy losses among merchant tonnage, now forced Admiral Okochi to employ Soji’s naval transports as emergency supply ships while 68th Brigade cooled its heels at Manila. And other than TAKE and sister-ship KUWA, just in from Mako with a convoy, only subchasers and other small patrol craft were available for their escort.
TA No. 5
TA No. 5’s first echelon, landing ships T.111, T.141 and T.160 escorted by Subchaser No. 46, got underway from Manila on 23 November and had reached Port Cataingan on the island of Masbate by early the next morning. They were to hole up there during the day to avoid detection, but the Americans found them anyway. Shortly after noon bomb-toting P-40s roared in to the attack and left the three beached landing ships and their cargos blazing beyond salvage. The subchaser had little recourse but to remove their crews and head back towards Manila.
The second echelon fared little better. Comprising the trusty trio of T.6, T.9 and T.10 escorted by TAKE, it cleared Manila on 24 November and put in at Port Balanacan, Marinduque, on the 25th. But that morning the fast carriers of Task Groups 38.1 and 38.2 once again returned to their launch positions east of Luzon and flew off flights of heavily-armed aircraft to blanket the area. Some of these found TAKE’s little convoy and struck savagely, sinking T.6 and T.10 and damaging T.9. Others found Subchaser No. 46, fleeing homeward from the previous day’s ambush, and sank her as well. TAKE and T.9 were fortunate to make it back to Manila on their own bottoms. TA No. 5 was thus a complete and costly failure.
And 1st Transport Squadron suffered further before the day was out. One of the American fliers’ primary targets was crippled heavy cruiser KUMANO, which had been towed to Dasol Bay north of Manila after U. S. submarines added torpedo damage to her already heavy Leyte Gulf wounds. The carrier planes found KUMANO there on the 25th and finally put her out of her misery. But a small Transron 1 detachment was also operating in the area, and by the end of the day YASOJIMA and landing ships T.113, T.142 and T.161 had joined KUMANO on the bottom. Admiral Soji survived the loss of his flagship, but none could deny that his command had been dealt a severe blow to the head.
TA No. 6
By now General Suzuki’s forces were beginning to run short of such basics as food, ammunition and medical supplies. For TA No. 6 two rather smallish cargo-carriers, SHINSHO MARU and SHINETSU MARU, were piled high with these items and sent off accompanied by Subchasers Nos. 45 and 53 and Patrol Boat No. 105 (the ex-ALAYAT, an ancient gunboat of Spanish-American War vintage that had previously flown both those countries’ flags). The little convoy sailed out of Manila late in the morning of 27 November, somehow avoided damage in air attacks the following morning and afternoon, and arrived off Ormoc to begin unloading early in the evening of the 28th.
That night American PT-boats achieved their first success against a TA convoy. PTs 127 and 331 stole into the bay near midnight, were promptly engaged by the Japanese escorts, and in return loosed off four torpedoes apiece. The night was soon rent by explosions, and Subchaser No. 53 and the patrol boat went down (the latter not for the first time in her career!). PTs 128 and 191 claimed a hit among the transports as well, but this could not be confirmed.
With sunrise of 29 November came the inevitable U. S. fighter-bombers: their attacks forced the Japanese to beach SHINSHO MARU in flames and beat a hasty retreat with SHINETSU MARU and Subchaser No. 45. But the American planes pursued relentlessly, sinking the subchaser later in the day east of Cebu, then finishing off the cargo ship north of that island on the 30th.
Some accounts to the contrary, TA No. 6 was successful in getting most of its badly- needed supplies to the troops on Leyte, but in doing so became the only TA convoy to be wiped out to the last ship.
TA No. 7
Against this backdrop of unremitting disaster and loss, TA No. 7, aided considerably by inclement weather, unexpectedly got through the enemy defenses to deliver mixed loads of men and munitions at fairly light cost, while at the same time inflicting a rare reverse on American naval forces sent to intervene.
The movement was made in three echelons, the first two of which made infrequent frontline use of the Japanese army’s own landing ships — virtually identical to the T.101s — known as “SS-boats.”
First echelon’s SS.5, SS.11 and SS.12, escorted by Subchaser No. 20, left Manila on 28 November. The next day they laid over at Masbate Island, where SS.5 went hard aground and was lost to the operation. The other three vessels reached Ipil, just south of Ormoc, late on the 30th. The SS-boats landed food, ammo, medical supplies and about 200 men, while the subchaser picked up NAGANAMI’s survivors from TA No. 3. Remaining shielded by bad weather, the convoy sailed again early on 1 December and returned safely to Manila on the afternoon of the 2nd.
Much less is known of TA No. 7’s second echelon, unescorted landing ships SS.10 and SS.14, which cleared Manila on 30 November. They were presumed lost when they failed to reach Ormoc as scheduled, but in fact landed their cargo north of Palompon on 1 December, having been diverted from Ormoc by enemy air activity. The two vessels’ subsequent fate has gone unrecorded, but they may have fallen victim to U. S. surface forces. PT-491 reported an “escorted freighter” off the San Isidro Peninsula, and destroyers USS CONWAY (DD-507), CONY (DD-508), EATON (DD-510) and SIGOURNEY (DD-643) swept the region in response, claiming a sinking on the night of 1 December.
The third echelon of TA No. 7 is itself sometimes referred to as two separate groups: tireless naval transport T.9 and landing ships T.140 and T.159 comprising the first, and escort destroyers TAKE and KUWA, also carrying troops and/or supplies, the second. All stood out of Manila in the evening of 1 December, took advantage of squalls to dodge air attack on the 2nd, and arrived off Ormoc late that night. There then ensued a brief and chaotic naval engagement, one in which a destroyer-launched Long-Lance torpedo scored its final success of the Pacific War.
Unloading had just commenced when an enemy naval force entered Ormoc Bay from the south and took TAKE and KUWA under fire. This was the American Desdiv 120 of ALLEN M. SUMNER (DD-692), MOALE (DD-693) and COOPER (DD-695), three big new destroyers sent from Leyte Gulf specifically to derail this express. The Americans’ heavy radar-directed gunfire quickly reduced KUWA to a sinking wreck and damaged TAKE as well. But in return the latter got off a salvo of four Long-Lances, one of which caught COOPER squarely amidships. The U. S. ship blew up, broke in two, and went to the bottom with 191 of her crew. How many perished with KUWA is unknown, but reportedly a boatload of her survivors drifted near enough to those from COOPER for an English- language conversation to ensue — what was said being better left to the imagination!
The rest of Desdiv 120, further harassed by night-flying Japanese aircraft, then withdrew, leaving the Japanese to complete their unloading in relative peace. Victorious TAKE, limping along on one set of engines, took the three amphibious ships back to Manila without further incident on 4 December. They had defied all the odds to deliver their cargo successfully while at the same time dealing a superior enemy force a shocking blow.
TA No. 8
The success of TA Nos. 6 and 7 enabled Admiral Okochi to once again turn his attention to getting the long-delayed 68th Brigade to Leyte. To do so he organized the biggest convoy since TA Nos. 3 and 4, loading 4,000 soldiers onto transports AKAGISAN MARU, HAKUBA MARU, SHINSEI MARU No. 5 and NICHIYO MARU, with recently-arrived naval transport T.11 carrying her share of troops while doubling as an escort. The screen comprised destroyers UME, MOMO and SUGI and Subchasers Nos. 18 and 38. Captain Kanma Ryokichi, past skipper of legendary destroyer YUKIKAZE and now Comdesdiv 43, led the operation in UME. TA No. 8 departed Manila in mid-morning of 5 December.
The Japanese were little noticed over the next 48 hours as they crept in toward Leyte, but as they neared their destination on the morning of 7 December heavy air attacks began. At the same time word reached Captain Kanma that the Americans had commenced their own amphibious landings just south of Ormoc, at Albuera, supported by a fleet of 80 vessels. Kanma promptly directed his transports to run themselves ashore at San Isidro, 30 miles north of Ormoc, then drew off to the north with the escorts.
The Japanese landing area remained under constant assault from American fighter- bombers throughout the day. The soldiers were gotten ashore, but only two field guns and very little other material could be landed. T.11 and all four merchantmen were total losses, and personnel casualties numbered 350. In late afternoon Kanma sent MOMO back to assist them, but little could be done. UME and SUGI suffered light damage in air attacks, and MOMO clipped a reef while rejoining them near Masbate that night, but all the destroyers and subchasers made it back to Manila on 8 December.
TA No. 9
American landings and attendant naval forces notwithstanding, the ninth and final TA operation got underway from Manila in the afternoon of 9 December, even as the land battle for the port of Ormoc itself raged. The main convoy of merchantmen MINO MARU, SORACHI MARU and TASMANIA MARU carried 4,000 soldiers of the Takahashi Detachment (5th Infantry Regiment) plus food and ammo. Their escort, under Comdesdiv 30 Captain Sawamura Seiji, numbered destroyers YUZUKI, UZUKI and KIRI and Subchasers Nos. 17 and 37. Sailing in conjunction with this convoy were landing ships T.140 and T.159 with 400 amphibious tank-equipped marines of the Ito Naval Landing Force. In a parallel operation naval transport T.9 — she of the charmed life — would carry two midget subs to Cebu.
The plan for TA No. 9 included provision for landing at Palompon instead of Ormoc if necessary, and only a few hours after sailing Captain Sawamura received a signal from Southwest Area Fleet that Palompon should indeed be his destination. The convoy thus marked time in the vicinity of Tablas Strait through the morning hours of the 10th in order to hold to the previously agreed upon timetable for air cover. But Admiral Okochi then had a change of heart, and on the morning of the 11th ordered “do or die” landings at Ormoc itself, with Sawamura’s warships to bombard enemy positions and otherwise distract attention from his transports as best he could.
Only one B-24 had been sighted from the convoy on 10 December, but as it neared Leyte the next morning it was hit by some 40 fighter-bombers. These did little damage in their first assault but returned in the afternoon as the convoy was passing Palompon. Both TASMANIA MARU and MINO MARU were hit and left dead in the water, with the result that Sawamura ordered SORACHI MARU to head into Palompon after all, while the smaller escorts closed the cripples to remove survivors.
Sawamura directed Captain Miyashita Makoto, commanding 21st Subchaser Division, to cover and complete the Palompon landings, and detached UZUKI to assist him. He then continued south to Ormoc with YUZUKI, KIRI, T.140 and T.159, and the marines were sent ashore there in their amphibious tanks shortly before midnight.
These Ormoc landings provoked a fierce and confused firefight with enemy gunners both ashore and afloat. U. S. army artillery, mortars and tank destroyers opened up on the beached landing ships and claimed to have destroyed both; T.159 was indeed abandoned in flames but T.140 somehow escaped with heavy damage. And USS COGHLAN (DD-606), in the process of escorting two LSMs to virtually the same spot, also claimed a sinking, her target erupting in a pillar of flame before disappearing from the radar scope. COGHLAN was probably also firing on unlucky T.159.
The Americans may have driven Sawamura off but they hadn’t sunk him, as YUZUKI and KIRI were both able to withdraw from the embattled beachhead in good order early on 12 December. Sawamura in YUZUKI even turned back to take battered T.140 under his wing while KIRI landed more men at Palompon.
There, Captain Miyashita had completed his own landings, departed for Manila with SORACHI MARU and his two subchasers, and released UZUKI to rejoin Sawamura at Ormoc. She never made it. PT-boats 490 and 492 picked her up on radar, then used the darkened Leyte shoreline as a backdrop to mask themselves as they crept up on the slow-moving destroyer. The two boats launched six torpedoes from only 1,000 yards and scored at least two hits, with the result that the veteran UZUKI blew up violently and sank within seconds, yielding up few if any survivors.
TA No. 9 withdrew towards Manila during the day of 12 December without suffering enemy interference until late in the afternoon. When some 65 miles northeast of Cebu, YUZUKI, KIRI and T. 140 were struck by an estimated 46 U. S. aircraft. Both KIRI and YUZUKI were severely strafed and damaged, the latter so heavily that the old ship became unmaneuverable, began flooding, and went down several hours later with 20 dead. KIRI removed 214 survivors, including Captain Sawamura.
Considering the scale of opposition that they were up against, it seems amazing that any of the Japanese ships survived this operation, but in fact most of them did. SORACHI MARU and Subchasers Nos. 17 and 37 made it back to Manila in the afternoon of 13 December and were followed in by KIRI and T.140 several hours later. And “indestructible” transport T.9 had meanwhile completed her mission to Cebu without interference or damage.
TA No. 9 exemplified the Leyte reinforcement operation as a whole, its mission of bringing in the troops more or less successfully completed but at high cost and to no good end. Elements of both the Ito Naval Landing Force and 5th Infantry managed to straggle into the line on Leyte, but could do little to prevent the fall of Ormoc. Nor could units of 30th Division which, arriving at Palompon via small craft from Mindanao and Cebu at about the same time, are considered to have been the final Japanese troop reinforcements to reach Leyte.
And there TA Operation abruptly ended, overtaken by events and the inexorable American advance, as had so many Japanese plans and deployments before it. Ormoc fell to the enemy on 12 December, even as the last of the TA convoys recoiled towards Manila, and Palompon two weeks later. But even more significant were the American landings on Mindoro, at Luzon’s very doorstep, on15 December 1944. These effectively relegated Leyte to backwater status and led General Yamashita to advise General Suzuki on the 18th that he could expect no further succor from Manila. Although mopping-up operations would continue into May 1945, the battle for Leyte was as good as over.
Total Japanese ship losses on the Manila-Ormoc run, TA Nos. 1 through 9, came to sixteen merchantmen of 73,651 tons, three T.1-type naval transports, nine landing ships (T.101s and SS-boats), one light cruiser, nine destroyers, three subchasers, and one each kaibokan, minesweeper and patrol boat. And these figures of course do not reflect the further heavy shipping losses in Manila and Dasol Bays. Nor is it possible to estimate with any degree of accuracy the Japanese aircraft and personnel losses.
But despite these losses, the TA convoys managed to land an estimated 45,000 men and 10,000 tons of provisions in the face of all that the powerful American air and naval forces could throw at them — an accomplishment all the more noteworthy in that it followed directly on the heels of the Imperial Navy’s crushing defeat at Leyte Gulf. And while these reinforcements ultimately proved insufficient to enable the Japanese to hold Leyte, they did manage to deny the island to the Americans far longer than either side had ever expected.