Finally, the Commander Third Fleet can confidently report that this action and the brilliant operations of the Seventh Fleet resulted in (a) utter failure of the Japanese plan to prevent the re-occupation of the Philippines, (b) the crushing defeat of the Japanese Fleet, and (c) the elimination of serious naval threat to our operations for many months, if not forever.
—W. F. HALSEY
This conclusion to Admiral Halsey’s after-action report to COMINCH via CINCPAC is a fairly accurate summation of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese did indeed fail in their attempt to prevent the reoccupation of the Philippines by American forces, their fleet was certainly defeated, and the Japanese navy had unquestionably been eliminated as a serious threat, with Halsey’s projection of “forever” more accurate than his lesser alternative of “for many months.”
But if there is to be a truly accurate assessment of this great battle, more must be said than what appears in Halsey’s report. His description of the Seventh Fleet’s contribution as “brilliant” is only partially true, and very different adjectives come to mind when attempting to describe the performance of the Third Fleet. His use of the word “crushing” when describing the defeat of the Japanese Fleet is overstated and invites a more telling assessment. And there are many other aspects of the battle, both positive and negative, that are not addressed and must be if this great event is to take its proper place in history.
To begin with, a more penetrating assessment of the strategic significance of the battle is in order. Leyte Gulf was not a decisive battle in the same sense that the Battle of Midway had been. The course of the war had not been altered by what occurred there in Philippine waters. But, perhaps just as significant, the course of the war was permitted to continue as a result of the Leyte Gulf battle. This does not have the same dramatic appeal as a reversal but, from the American point of view, is no less important. Had the Japanese prevailed in their fairly modest goal of disrupting the landings, the impact on American conduct of the war could have had some far-reaching consequences. Admiral Morison, in his monumental and widely revered fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, probably goes too far when, in assessing what might have happened had the Japanese succeeded with Sho Go, he writes that “General MacArthur’s Army would have been cut off, like that of Athens at Syracuse in 413 B.C.,” and adds that “Third Fleet alone could not have maintained its communications.” But Sparta was in a far stronger position in 413 B.C. than was Japan in A.D. 1944. It is difficult to imagine the Japanese Navy—with no air power left at this point in the war—able to prevent the Third Fleet from doing anything it was tasked to do. In a purely military sense, it is doubtful that a Japanese success at Leyte Gulf would have accomplished anything other than a delay, albeit a significant one, in the American march across the Pacific.
It was in the political arena that a potential for an American disaster was greatest. A defeat in the Philippines, even a temporary one, could have had significant reverberations on the homefront. The late October occurrence of this battle placed it just before a presidential election. By late 1944, the American public had grown accustomed to victories; any sudden dramatic change in that trend could have had serious consequences for Roosevelt’s unprecedented bid for a fourth term. At worst, he might have been defeated. A lesser consequence might have been his loss of a clear mandate for his policies. Either of these setbacks might have forced a change in American prosecution of the war, allowing the political opposition to force an abandonment of Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” policy and a resort to negotiated settlement with the Japanese.
A more far-reaching consequence of an American setback in the Philippines might have been the postwar status of the United States in the Far East. MacArthur warned Roosevelt of the ramifications of bypassing the Philippines; a similar loss of credibility could well have resulted from an American defeat there.
The American victory at Leyte Gulf was also strategically significant because it ensured the recapture of the Philippines. For the Japanese this was tantamount to ultimate defeat. Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, Japanese navy minister, said after the war, “When you took the Philippines, that was the end of our resources.” Because of the American submarine threat, the Japanese were having enough difficulty getting oil from the south to the home islands before the American landings at Leyte. Once they lost the Philippines, that tenuous supply line was severed and defeat became an inevitability.
At the conclusion of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the U.S. Navy was supreme in the Pacific. Never again would the Imperial Japanese Navy be able to mount any meaningful resistance to the American march to the Japanese homeland. This is not to say, however, that the war was over for the U.S. Navy. More American sailors would die in the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945 than in any other battle of the war in the Pacific. But those casualties would result primarily from the “divine wind” tactic introduced at Leyte Gulf, not from any actions taken by ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. That once-proud service, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist after the great sea battle off the Philippines.
In its last attempt at the great decisive battle, Japan lost four aircraft carriers, three battleships (including one of her super dreadnoughts), nine cruisers, and a dozen destroyers. Hundreds of aircraft were lost and thousands of airmen and sailors died. It was a tremendous defeat by any standard.
On the American side the battle was less costly, but not without serious consequence. Three aircraft carriers, two destroyers, one destroyer escort, and a submarine did not survive the battle. Hundreds of Americans died in the action and many more were wounded.
Considering that the two American fleets vastly outnumbered their opponents, and that the Japanese had no meaningful air power with which to oppose the Americans, the Japanese did surprisingly well. From a purely statistical standpoint, the U.S. Navy should have decimated the Japanese at Leyte Gulf, but because Ozawa’s decoy worked, American capability was effectively reduced. With the entire Third Fleet removed from the equation by Halsey’s dash northward, the Japanese should have fared well against the remaining forces at Leyte Gulf. With that in mind, it is the Japanese who must be chastised for their disappointing performance. The sinking of so few American ships off Samar in the face of such great potential was a humiliating circumstance for a navy that had once dominated in the world’s largest ocean.
In point of fact, Admiral Ozawa was the only Japanese admiral who accomplished his mission at Leyte. By luring Halsey away from the focus of the battle, he gave the Japanese Navy its one and only chance for success under the circumstances. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Nishimura, Shima, and Kurita were unable to capitalize on this golden opportunity.
Nishimura made a series of errors that not only failed to take advantage of the opportunity offerred by Ozawa’s successful ruse but also cost him his fleet and his life. By not merging his force with that of Shima, he condemned both forces to hopeless impotence. By not slowing down when he received word that Kurita had been delayed in the Sibuyan Sea, Nishimura forfeited the advantage a coordinated arrival at Leyte Gulf would have afforded and allowed Kinkaid to concentrate his forces at the head of Surigao Strait, where one of the greatest ambushes in history was effected.
Shima barely factors into the battle at all. His force, unmerged with Nishimura, was relatively insignificant, and his late arrival at the scene lent little but confusion (and an embarrassing collision) to an already disastrous situation. Shima’s unwillingness to communicate, either with Nishimura before the battle, or with the commanding officer of retreating Shigure during it, is difficult to understand. Perhaps the only credit Shima is due is for his decision to retire from Surigao Strait before he shared the fate of Nishimura. Under the circumstances, this retreat makes more sense than anything else Shima did.
Kurita is the true enigma of the battle. On the one hand, his tenacity in the face of the setbacks in Palawan Passage and the Sibuyan Sea is admirable. On the other, his sudden withdrawal from the battle off Samar—when victory was within his grasp—is difficult to reconcile. Had he then charged off to the north, eventually running into Halsey’s southbound force, much of the controversy would have been removed, even if he had been annihilated by Halsey. His actions would have been attributed to an error in judgment and nothing more. But his subsequent departure through San Bernardino Strait makes his motive suspect. The temptation to call him a coward arises, and his confusing postwar explanations do not help the matter.
Takeo Kurita’s war record is not one of notable intellectual brilliance, but there is not the slightest hint of cowardice to mar his performance in the several years of combat he endured before Leyte Gulf. To attribute his actions at Samar to cowardice is simply not warranted in light of available evidence. Exhaustion is a far more plausible explanation for Kurita’s actions. There can be no argument that this man had been pushed to the limits of human endurance by his experiences over the three days of battle. Submarine and air attacks, the sinking and abandonment of his flagship, the pressures of command, the lack of air support, poor communications, and the steady attrition of his forces all add up to an incredibly draining ordeal.
Kurita, for the most part, refused to comment on the Battle of Leyte Gulf after the war, but Masanori Ito, a Japanese journalist, convinced Kurita to grant him an interview nearly a decade after the battle. Disappointingly, Kurita’s responses in that interview shed little additional light on his motives. He contended, as before, that his reason for breaking off the attack at Samar was to head northward in search of another carrier force, and that when he failed to find that force he decided to retire through San Bernardino Strait. Ito asked Kurita if he had considered going back to Leyte Gulf once he realized he was not going to encounter another carrier force.* Kurita answered, “By that time I believe that Leyte was no longer in my thoughts. As I recall, my mind was filled with such problems as enemy air attacks in the Sibuyan Sea next day, and the state of our fuel supply.” Kurita then conceded that he had erred by going after the carrier force, explaining that “Leyte Gulf was stationary, the enemy task force was not, and so the chances of finding it were an unknown quantity.”
Ito recorded that he “then asked his [Kurita’s] opinion on such subjects as the basic operation orders. … To these questions Admiral Kurita remained silent and merely smiled a wry smile.” Behind that wry smile may be another explanation for Kurita’s actions. It is quite possible that he did not really believe in his mission to begin with, that he was carrying out his orders halfheartedly. This would explain his reluctance to go into Leyte Gulf and would account for his decision to reenter San Bernardino Strait rather than continue north in search of the other carrier task group. Kurita was perhaps hinting at this earlier in the Ito interview when he said, “I had been given orders and, as a military man, I should have carried them out.”
While Admiral Kurita was able to admit his error in judgment, Admiral Halsey was not. Soon after the battle ended, Halsey sent a message to Nimitz and King explaining his actions: “As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernardino Strait, I concentrated Task Force 38 during the night and steamed north to attack the Northern Force at dawn. I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to the Seventh Fleet.”
Nimitz expressed his concern over the matter in a letter to King two days after the battle, in which he said he regretted “that the fast battleships were not left in the vicinity of Samar when Task Force 38 started after the striking force reported to be in the north. . . .” Nimitz added that “It never occurred to me that Halsey, knowing the composition of the ships in the Sibuyan Sea, would leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, even though the Jap detachments in the Sibuyan Sea had been reported seriously damaged.” But Nimitz never formally chastised Halsey directly and was willing to let the matter rest.
Several months later, Halsey and King met face to face. When the subject of Leyte Gulf came up, King cut Halsey off by saying, “You don’t have to tell me any more. You’ve got a green light on everything you did.”
With his two immediate superiors willing to close the matter there, Halsey might well have enjoyed a happy ending to his story. But, though he was losing his hearing as age crept up on him, Halsey was not deaf to the criticisms of his tactics that could be heard in naval circles. So in 1947 when Halsey was invited to publish his autobiography in the Saturday Evening Post, he made several tactical errors that in some ways were more serious than those he committed at Leyte Gulf.
The first six installments of the autobiography were well received by an adoring public, except that some of his remarks regarding the consumption of alcohol brought protestations from a national temperance society and he ruffled some feathers in military circles when he criticized an Army Air Corps commander who was still living. But, all in all, the project seemed to be going well.
In the seventh installment, Halsey had to face the prickly problem of Leyte Gulf, and it was here that he steamed full speed into a mine field. Halsey decided that a national magazine would make an excellent forum in which to vindicate himself. By doing this he brought to national attention a controversy that until then had been kept within fairly tight circles. Had he just left the matter alone by glossing over the business of his northward trek, or had he just admitted that he had been suckered by the Japanese and should not have gone north with his entire fleet, the matter might well have been ignored or forgiven and forgotten. But proud men often make the fatal error of refusing to admit mistakes, and Bull Halsey was certainly no exception to that unfortunate characteristic. As a result of his adamant refusal to admit he was wrong and, worse, his inability to just let the matter lie undisturbed, Halsey stirred up one of the great controversies of naval history—one that would haunt him throughout the remainder of his life and become an indelible blemish on an otherwise sterling career.
His first tactical error was to blame the problems at Leyte Gulf on the divided command situation. Although technically correct in his assessment that the lack of a common commander had led to the difficulties experienced by the Americans at Leyte, he was firing shots at his superiors, and this is rarely a clever thing to do, especially when those superiors have been defending you. Nimitz had no responsibility for the divided command situation and was probably too much the gentleman to be lured into a controversial situation anyway, so he remained silent in the wake of Halsey’s shots. King was another story. Halsey’s criticism of the command structure was throwing shrapnel King’s way and he, unlike Nimitz, was never too much the gentleman to keep his feelings to himself.
Halsey’s more serious error in the seventh installment was to make Kinkaid the scapegoat. Halsey’s version of the battle made his old friend Kinkaid out to be the one who had erred in allowing his Taffy 3 ships to be attacked by Kurita. Such comments as “I wondered how Kinkaid had let Ziggy Sprague get caught like this” left little room for misunderstanding of Halsey’s intent; he was clearly determined to shift the blame for the debacle at Samar away from himself no matter whose head would roll.
Perhaps out of respect for his friendship with Kinkaid, or because he sensed that he might have gone too far in his criticisms, Halsey added the following contradiction to his account:
I have attempted to describe the Battle of Leyte Gulf in terms of my thoughts at the time, but on rereading my account, I find that this results in an implication grossly unfair to Tom Kinkaid. True, during the action, his dispatches puzzled me. Later, with the gaps in my information filled, I not only appreciate his problems, but frankly admit that had I been in his shoes, I might have acted precisely as did he.
This is amazing. Halsey first fired a broadside at Kinkaid, then appeared to realize that he was being “grossly unfair to Tom Kinkaid” after “rereading my account.” But instead of tearing up what he had previously written, he let it stand alongside this confusing rejoinder and gave it to the world to wonder about. Halsey seemed naively unaware that he could not have it both ways.
When the installment appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, it was not long before King responded with a stinging letter to Halsey in which he said, “Personally, I must say that I did not like the tenor of the installment, neither as to Kinkaid . . . nor as to the command set-up. . . .” King added, “You would do well to review—and rewrite—the matter contained in the 7th installment. . . .”
Halsey had burned one bridge by his attack on Kinkaid—the friendship was destroyed and was replaced by a bitter animus that both men would take to the grave—and now he burned yet another by responding to King’s letter with “I have given your letter and my article much thought and study, and have asked for and received counsel. I regret that your point of view and mine do not coincide.”
In the matter of his turning south when almost within gun range of Ozawa’s ships, Halsey made a weak gesture of accepting the blame, writing, “Although Ernie King later assured me that [my orders to head south] were the right ones, I am convinced that they were not.” Halsey admitted that he had given the orders “in rage,” but further watered down his admission of error by explaining that the CINCPAC encoder who had added the “world wonder” phrase was “either drowsy or smart-alecky” and that “Chester [Nimitz] blew up when I told him about it; he tracked down the little squirt and chewed him to bits, but it was too late then; the damage had been done.”
So even this error, which Halsey said he was accepting responsibility for, is really the fault of a “little squirt” on Nimitz’s staff. While there is truth in this claim, it fails as a noble gesture when put this way.