THE SACRIFICE OF THE MOBILE FLEET Part I

Ise 1944.  IJN Ise & IJN Hyuga, despite the expensive reconstructions, both vessels were considered obsolete by the eve of the Pacific War, and neither saw significant action in the early years of the war. Following the loss of most of the IJN’s large aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway in mid-1942, they were rebuilt with a flight deck replacing the rear pair of gun turrets to give them the ability to operate an air group of floatplanes. A lack of aircraft and qualified pilots, however, meant that they never actually operated their aircraft in combat. While awaiting their air group the sister ships were sometimes used to ferry troops and material to Japanese bases. They participated in the Battle of Cape Engaño in late 1944, where they decoyed the American carrier fleet supporting the invasion of Leyte away from the landing beaches. Afterwards both ships were transferred to Southeast Asia; in early 1945 they participated in Operation Kita, where they transported petrol and other strategic materials to Japan. The sisters were then reduced to reserve until they were sunk during American airstrikes in July. After the war they were scrapped in 1946–47.

Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo

Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo put his worries about fuel on hold while feeling his way southward. A full set of searches went to a distance of 300 miles, ending with a 40-mile dogleg. The ships were alerted for battle from 6:18 a.m. 24 October 1944, onward, and antiaircraft positions were fully manned. The admiral, whose nickname in the fleet was “Gargoyle” for his stony countenance, showed no reaction when they received a sighting report of Task Force 38 carriers from the First Air Fleet in the Philippines, or when his own scouts confirmed the information with better location data. Then, and only when Ozawa had become confident his fleet had been spotted, did he send his own planes to add to the hell of the Princeton.

Here is a mystery of Leyte Gulf: Early this day Halsey had only suspicions about Ozawa’s presence. Yet the Japanese admiral acted based upon a belief that his lure had worked—that a scout had spotted him. But no U.S. aircraft filed any sighting of Ozawa before late afternoon. Oyodo noticed that scout at 4:42 p.m. Captain Mudaguchi added that it was an SB-2C Helldiver that made a strafing run on his ship from thirty degrees to port, giving the report a concrete character. U.S. Navy interrogators pressed Ozawa about the morning sighting and the admiral insisted he had it right. Ozawa said he had seen the scout planes himself.

“I expected complete destruction of my fleet,” Ozawa told U.S. interrogators, “but if Kurita’s mission was carried out that was all I wished.” He lacked confidence in the success of his decoy mission but knew it was the only thing they could do. That, too, was characteristic of Ozawa. His only sign of agitation was a slight shaking in his hands. The JNAF scout confirmed the Halsey fleet at 11:15 a.m. Half an hour later, Ozawa’s carriers turned into the wind to launch. Shortly after noon, the cool Ozawa came around to a northwest course, but no Allied attack materialized.

Out of options, at 2:40 p.m., the main body commander pulled his own version of forming the battleship task force. Ozawa directed Rear Admiral Matsuda Chiaki to separate, take most of the destroyers, and operate as an advance force to make a night torpedo attack. Matsuda complied. In the dusk, lookouts saw flashes against the horizon. Staff thought it could be from the pyrotechnics of JNAF attacks on the Halsey fleet. Admiral Matsuda thought the sky looked more like an electrical storm and felt that even more strongly as darkness gathered. Matsuda also had radar indications of aircraft, however. The occasional flashes persisted until about nine o’clock. Deciding to observe strict radio silence, Matsuda made no report. But he shaped a course toward the lights. Around 10:30 p.m., as Matsuda expected to close with the phantom fleet, Admiral Ozawa recalled the vanguard, planning an early-morning rendezvous.

Meanwhile, the main body turned due west toward Cape Engaño. This marked a departure from standard carrier tactics, in which the force launching a strike against an adversary heads away from the enemy to put maximum distance between the sides. Instead, Ozawa maneuvered so as to maintain a constant distance from Task Force 38.

But that did not last. Suddenly the Oyodo reported an American scout plane and its strafing attack. Admiral Ozawa turned the fleet due north. Elated, he dashed off a dispatch to Combined Fleet, Kurita, Mikawa, and everyone else that the Americans had found him and were tumbling for the lure. That transmission failed to go through. The Zuikaku’s communication problems cost the Imperial Navy dearly.

The Zuikaku overheard the message where Admiral Kurita reported his decision to withdraw temporarily in the Sibuyan Sea. This must have tried Ozawa’s stolidity when he learned of it at about eight o’clock. He had already sacrificed the carrier air groups, deliberately kept his fleet in harm’s way, detached his biggest surface ships as bait, all to enable the Kurita fleet’s penetration mission, and now they were turning away. Ozawa ordered a course change too, northeastward toward Empire waters.

With Admiral Matsuda’s advance force dangling, the main-body commander altered course again around midnight, coming around to the south-southeast to rendezvous with the vanguard unit. Admiral Matsuda had not been able to find the Allies in the dark, so his attack mission turned into a bust—probably just as well since his warships were no match for the escort of even one of Halsey’s task groups.

It was on Ozawa’s 140-degree heading that the night scout from Independence found him after two o’clock. There is no indication the Japanese were aware of this sighting, since Ozawa coolly maintained his course. Once the Matsuda vanguard unit rejoined, at about dawn, the admiral began evasive maneuvers for the first time. The fleet turned through many points of the compass to head, first northeast, then to the northwest, and the Zuikaku crew went to battle stations at 5:30 a.m.

A couple of hours after dawn, all doubt evaporated. At 7:13, lookouts saw American air scouts. Ozawa knew Halsey’s attack would begin shortly. The one bit of good news—a dispatch from Kurita showed he had gone through the San Bernardino after all and was engaging the Allies off Samar. At 7:45, Ozawa ordered his fleet to prepare for air attacks. The Gargoyle would need all his faculties.

Airman John Yeager of the Essex would always remember October 25 as the day he and his comrades raised a lot of hell. That wouldn’t be obvious at first—Mick Carney later admitted to Bill Halsey, “I chewed my fingernails down to my elbows,” while awaiting news of the first wave. But the combat power of the Third Fleet had grown enormously, and after the happy hunting against Kurita the day before, the pilots were on a roll.

The lead attack that Dave McCampbell managed set the tone. The Japanese detected about eighty planes inbound at 8:17 a.m. Barely ten minutes later, the strike arrived overhead. Ozawa launched what fighters he had, but the powerful strike force simply brushed aside the dozen or more interceptors. Ozawa’s only defenses would be maneuver and flak. He ordered fire opened at 8:23 a.m.

In contrast to the Musashi earlier, the Ozawa fleet had no compunction about using the dangerous sanshikidan shells from the 14-inch guns of Ise and Hyuga. Flak began assailing the strike aircraft as far as ten miles away. Enterprise fliers found the fire surprisingly accurate, and far enough downrange that the Japanese could take more than one shot. The powerful explosions were unnerving but not especially effective. The huge shells destroyed no planes, and the same went for the rockets the Imperial Navy had installed so assiduously on its big ships. Their firing angles and slant ranges were so restrictive that they served primarily to disrupt attackers’ aim. The conventional medium and light flak was another matter. Enterprise crews observed intense fire and shell bursts in many colors. Avenger pilot Robert Barnes decided the flak was “the most intense I have ever seen.” As he went in, “all ships were firing everything they had . . . every ship you flew by was shooting at you.” TBM crewman John Underwood of the Lexington remembered the flak as “awesome.” Given the fierce opposition, it is fortunate that only eleven American warplanes were lost—Halsey’s assault had involved 527 sorties (cruiser Oyodo claimed twenty-seven planes were shot down).

Dave McCampbell would be only the first Task Force 38 strike manager. This offensive was different from the fight at Philippine Sea. Engaño was carried out at such short range that Admiral Mitscher could rotate coordinators and keep up a constant, well-directed assault. Here, McCampbell had the leisure to fly home to refuel and return to resume his coordination role. Commander Theodore H. Winters, the Lexington’s air group boss, estimates spending six to six and a half hours orbiting the Ozawa fleet that day. The Japanese were less than 100 miles away. Mitscher sent his planes at Ozawa in five waves starting with this early-morning attack. McCampbell’s strike pitched the Ozawa fleet immediately into turmoil. First into Davy Jones’s locker would be Commander Yogata Tomoe’s destroyer Akitsuki. On that vessel Lieutenant Yamamoto Heiya was chief boilerman. He had a bad feeling about this sortie—third time, unlucky—as Akitsuki had survived a couple of tight scrapes already. In any case, there had been so many phony submarine and other alerts that he and the fifty-odd sailors in the boiler gang were exhausted. In addition, Ozawa had maneuvered so much throughout the day on the twenty-fourth that it had added to their burdens. Commander Yogata’s vessel sailed with Matsuda’s vanguard force. There had been no battle, but the chief engineer, maintaining eighteen knots, kept switching orders to prepare for twenty-four or not. The boilermen were constantly to-ing and fro-ing.

Suddenly Yamamoto heard the noise of flak, then sounds of battle. Moments later a bomb burst in the engine room. Before the battle, the boiler gang had neglected to close and seal the hatch between the compartments. More explosions followed; then steam and smoke poured in, causing real confusion. The space became unbearably hot, with fires above them too. When the fumes became noxious, Yamamoto and a few boilermen pushed their way up, despite how scalding the ladders were, and became the only survivors. The lieutenant reported to Commander Yogata, his ship otherwise undamaged, who wondered why Akitsuki had lost power. Yamamoto’s burn injuries stunned the skipper. Suddenly the destroyer lurched and listed. At 8:57 a.m. the Akitsuki rolled over and sank.

From the Oyodo sailors saw the destroyer emit innocent-looking white smoke, but the color changed to oily and black after just six minutes. Observers on the cruiser thought the Akitsuki had simply blown up. The entire episode took less than ten minutes.

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