Before the battle, Vice-Admiral Kurita, fully aware of the likelihood that his fleet would be annihilated, addressed his less than enthusiastic commanders:
I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity. Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf. You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.
Admiral Kurita’s battle started badly. In the first of a litany of mistakes Kurita failed to take anti-submarine precautions after a radio operator on board the Yamato picked up signals from American submarines. On the morning of 23 October, Kurita’s flagship Atago was sunk by torpedoes fired from the submarines USS Darter and USS Dace. So rapidly did his ship go down that Kurita was forced to take an early morning salt-water bath in which he was forced to swim for his life. Less fortunate were 359 of his crew who died. Of Atago’s sister ships, the heavy cruiser Maya was sunk, while the Takao was heavily damaged. The Takao was escorted out of the battle taking with it two Japanese destroyers from the battles ahead. In reply, at the so-called Battle of Palawan Passage, the Japanese won a fortuitous, albeit token, prize when Darter ran aground and her entire crew had to be rescued by the USS Dace.
Pressing onward, Kurita’s surface force now faced the onslaught of Halsey’s carrier attacks. Deprived of McCain’s stronger airpower, Bogan’s group’s carriers concentrated their attacks on the battleships Nagato, Yamato and Musashi. Musashi became their principal target. The first torpedoes to strike Musashi barely registered on its heavily armored hull and it maintained its speed at over twenty knots. This was followed up just after midday by a second wave of VB-15 Helldivers and VF-15 Hellcats from the USS Essex (CV-9), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Lexington (CV-16), the Essex Class replacement for the Lexington, (CV-2), that was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Over the next hour and a half Musashi was slowed to ten knots and listed five degrees to port and thirteen feet down at the bow; she began to drop off the back of the fleet.
Commissioned in the summer of 1942, Musashi, sister ship to Yamato, was the last of the behemoth Japanese battleships. They had been built as a result of the Japanese Navy’s strategy to build a navy that was qualitatively better than the US Navy—an outcome of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty . Japan went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the building of the vast new battleships. The chief engineer, Kumao Baba and the director of the steel mill were notified accordingly in 1937. “This project has been classified top secret, and we have been ordered to assign only absolutely trustworthy employees to it. Each of you has been checked out by the secret police. Your political and religious beliefs, family backgrounds, and contacts with foreigners have proven to be acceptable for the project. However, in order to further assure absolute confidentiality from all of you, we would like you to swear an oath of secrecy.” When a blueprint plan of a section of turret was lost, six engineers and two blueprint makers were imprisoned and tortured. Compared to US battleships with their 16-inch guns, the Yamato and Musashi, each sporting nine 18.1-inch guns, twelve 6.1-inch guns and batteries of smaller caliber armaments, were fearsome weapon systems. Each 18.1-inch gun weighed 162 tons and their turrets, with 26-inch armor weighed 2,774 tons, more than many destroyers. Shells weighing 1.5 tons could be fired every forty seconds to a distance of twenty-six miles. The force of fire of one of these guns was enough to severely injure or kill a man standing nearby. In experiments, guinea pigs were blown apart.
At 72,000 tons displacement, Yamato Class battleships were double the displacement of any warships previously built in Japan. In spite of this weight the Yamato Class battleships could travel at twenty-seven knots and had a cruising range of 7,200 nautical miles at sixteen knots. In addition to their fearsome weaponry they sported heavily armored hulls to protect them from torpedo strikes. At least, that was the theory. Designed with a broad beam (a design feature not available to US warships because of the width of the Panama Canal), the battleships could box their enormous engine rooms with relatively short sides that could be heavily protected by 18-inch steel, enough to resist torpedoes. The deck was also heavily defended with 7.8-inch steel that could withstand 1,000-kilogram (2,204 lbs) armor-piercing bombs. These were formidable defenses but the allocation of armor to these critical areas meant that other areas had to be compromised, notably the under bow and stern sections. To compensate, a watertight compartment system was designed along with flooding and pumping systems. Events would show that the damage control calculations were over-optimistic. Nevertheless engineer Shigeichi Koga proudly reflected, “Looking at it taking shape on the slipway, it seems like this battleship could never be sunk.”
In truth Pearl Harbor had demonstrated that the battleship, the weapon of choice during the interwar arms race, the subject of thousands of hours of negotiation at naval disarmament conferences in Washington and London, as well as miles of newspaper column inches, was now a dinosaur. For the Americans, battleships had proved mainly useful in the unglamorous role of offshore batteries to wear down defenders prior to beach landings in the Central Pacific and New Guinea campaigns. Japanese battleships had played a similar role at Guadalcanal. The aircraft carrier now represented a navy’s main strike capability—it lay at the heart of new Japanese naval tactical thinking.
In a shoot-out between battleships and aircraft carriers there could only be one winner. When at 3.30 p.m. a third wave of bombers from the USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Franklin (CV-13), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Cabot (CVL-28, a light carrier) hit the struggling Musashi with eleven bombs and eight further torpedoes, making a total of nineteen torpedo hits and seventeen bomb hits, her fate was sealed. A Helldiver rear gunner, Russ Dustan, serving on the Franklin recalled, “Musashi was huge! I had never seen anything as big in my entire life. It was a magnificent sight.” A ten degree list was corrected by pumping and counter-flooding to six degrees but the bow sagged down by 8 yards and sea water began to sweep over the main deck which was littered with dismembered bodies. Kurita ordered the struggling Musashi to be beached and used as a stationary battery. When her engines failed, the great battleship listed twelve degrees to port and an evacuation was ordered. At 7.36 p.m. Musashi capsized and sank by the bow taking 1,023 men to their deaths. Many of the young seamen could not swim and refused to jump into the sea. Others went down clinging to the propellers. Destroyers subsequently picked up 1,326 survivors. A further fifty of these died when 420 of their number were being shipped aboard the Santosu-Maru. To hide the shame of the sinking, survivors were relocated to a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea. Captain Kenkichi Kato, who was prevailed upon not to go down with his ship, wrote in his notebook, “… I am pleased that almost no damage was sustained by other vessels in the fleet in this battle. I somehow feel that, as the main target, the Musashi managed to save the fleet.” A Japanese seaman recalled that at 7.35 p.m. on 24 October, Musashi’s stern rose out of the water:
Crewmen started to jump off … the stern, which was sticking up like a tower from the ocean surface. Before they reached the ocean surface below, they were screaming with horror. Most of them hit the battleship’s huge screws before they reached the water. Crewmen were running along the battleship, and several men who jumped off the sides were sucked into the huge holes made by the torpedoes.
At a cost of just eighteen planes, Halsey’s Third Fleet had sunk the pride of the fleet, Admiral Yamamoto’s former flagship, and a ship that its designers and builders had believed unsinkable.
The carrier attacks, which had also inflicted damage on the battleships Yamato, Nagato and the heavy cruiser Myoko, forced Kurita to turn away and retreat, but in the late afternoon he turned his ships again toward the San Bernadino Straits. The 259 sorties flown by Halsey’s Third Fleet, denuded of McCain’s stronger Task Group 38.1, had not been enough to turn back the Japanese attack. In diverting American carrier aircraft from attacks on the rest of Kurita’s Center Force, the sacrifice of the Musashi may not have been entirely in vain.