Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.
Approach of the Fleets to Leyte Gulf
The Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 23–25, 1944
Admiral Halsey, reacting to the presence of the IJN Center Force, which consisted of 5 battleships, 9 cruisers, and 13 destroyers, ordered McCain, then 600 miles east of the Philippines, en route to Ulithi, to reverse course and refuel in order to be ready for whatever might develop. He ordered Sherman and Davison to close on Bogan’s group, off San Bernardino Strait, and gave all three groups their combat orders in one word, “Strike!”
Davison’s search planes discovered and attacked the Southern Force. The plotting officers at CinCPac headquarters, drawing their blue and orange lines on the chart, noted that, by closing on Bogan, Davison would be in the optimum position to attack the Center Force, but his planes would no longer be able to reach the Southern Force. Admiral Kinkaid must have noted the same thing, for he took it on himself to engage the Southern Force with his surface units. He sent Admiral Oldendorf, commanding his fire-support ships, a message, listing Halsey, Nimitz, and King as information addressees: “Prepare for night engagement. Enemy force estimated 2 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 10 destroyers reported under attack by our carrier planes in eastern Sulu Sea at 0910, 24 Oct. Enemy can arrive Leyte Gulf tonight.”
Sherman, commanding Task Group 38.3, could not comply with Halsey’s order to close on Bogan because an enemy air attack had left his light carrier Princeton afire and dead in the water. The damage to the Princeton was bad news, indeed, but to Halsey it was no excuse for neglecting the attack mission he had assigned. He radioed Mitscher, who was with Sherman’s group: “Assume ComTaskGroup 38.3 is striking large enemy force near Mindoro. Advise results of strike earliest possible.”
To Nimitz it was obvious that a piece of the Japanese puzzle was missing: the enemy would hardly commit so much surface strength in an area guarded by an American carrier force unless he intended to use his own carriers. Those carriers were known to have been training in Japan’s Inland Sea, and Nimitz assumed that they were coming down from the north under Ozawa to form a Northern Force which, together with the Southern Force and the Center Force, would attempt a triple attack on Leyte Gulf. Halsey evidently had come to the same conclusion, for at 1:34 p.m. he radioed Mitscher: “Enemy carrier strength not located. Keep area to north under observation.”
At 3:12 Halsey, listing CominCh and CinCPac as information addressees, sent his task group commanders a message that Nimitz found highly gratifying. Headed “Battle Plan,” it announced that a Task Force 34 would be formed, consisting of 4 battleships, including his flagship New Jersey, 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, and 14 destroyers—all drawn from Bogan’s and Davison’s task groups. Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee was to command the new task force, which would “engage decisively at long ranges,” while the carriers kept clear of the surface fighting.
CinCPac and his staff judged this the proper tactic to meet the situation—pulling out of the carrier screens a surface force to engage an enemy surface force, while retaining supporting air power in the background. Although Kinkaid was not an addressee of Halsey’s message, he knew about it because his communicators had intercepted it and shown it to him. Naturally, he, Mitscher, Nimitz, and King all assumed that Halsey would order his plan executed—possibly by short-range voice radio since the two task groups involved were close together.
At about 4:00 p.m. Mitscher notified Halsey that a magazine in the burning Princeton had exploded, damaging the cruiser Birmingham and two destroyers that were alongside fighting the carrier’s fires. The Birmingham’s casualties were severe, estimated at 150 killed and 400 wounded. Nimitz wondered why Sherman had risked such a valuable and heavily manned vessel as a cruiser to do the sort of rescue work ordinarily assigned to destroyers.
In the late afternoon Mitscher radioed Halsey that Sherman’s search planes had located the Northern Force, evidently in two sections, and that the carrier section was some 180 miles east of the northern tip of Luzon. In the circumstances he recommended scuttling the Princeton, whose flames might serve as a beacon for enemy planes after dark. Halsey told him to use his discretion about the Princeton, After a further exchange, in which Mitscher reported the Princeton scuttled, Halsey informed Nimitz and MacArthur that the enemy carrier force had been sighted—information that Nimitz had already obtained through intercepts.
At 8:24 p.m. Halsey sent a message to Kinkaid, with CominCh and CinCPac as information addressees. He gave the location, course, and speed of the Center Force, which suggested that it was headed for San Bernardino Strait and could pass through in a few hours. Strike reports, however, indicated that the Center Force had been heavily damaged. Halsey concluded: “Am proceeding north with three groups to attack enemy carrier force at dawn.” At Pearl Harbor it was assumed that this meant three carrier groups, Task Force 34, the surface group, being formed and left behind.
Nobody at CinCPac headquarters was surprised at Halsey’s northward dash. Given a choice of objectives, he could always be expected to go after carriers, the warships with the longest reach and the hardest punch. He was frustrated at having missed a chance to get at the carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea and again in the Battle of Midway. He had condemned Spruance’s failure to go after the carriers on the night of June 18–19. Lastly, he could hardly do otherwise than go charging off after the toughest enemy force, because he had come to identify himself with the ferocious character invented by the press: “Bull” Halsey, Nemesis of the Japs. It was predictable, too, that he would not head north until it was dark, so as not to reveal his intention to any snooping enemy planes, and then he would steam toward the enemy carriers through the night, in order to cancel the enemy’s advantage in outranging the Americans with their planes.
Of course, the Japanese Center Force, damaged or not, also had to be considered, for unless something stopped it, it would soon have passed through San Bernardino Strait and be in the Pacific, heading along the east coast of Samar for Leyte Gulf. Admiral Spruance, looking at the chart, placed his hand on it just to east of the strait and said softly, as if to himself, “If I were there, I would keep my force right there.” It is not likely that many naval aviators would have agreed with him. To remain so near enemy airfields could invite shuttle-bombing by an enemy carrier force. While fighting a battle, Spruance could hardly have cratered the complex of airfields on Luzon, as he had cratered the few on Rota and Guam during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Certainly it was comforting to know that Halsey had had the wisdom to leave Task Force 34 behind to guard San Bernardino Strait. One nagging question, however, was whether he was wise to lead all three of his available carrier groups against the Northern Force. That move left Admiral Lee without any air support, as he opposed an enemy that might be supported by planes from Luzon. Nimitz must have considered this problem, but he kept hands off. In the first American carrier counterattack of the war, he had learned from Halsey himself the wise practice of not interfering with the man at the scene.
Toward dawn on October 25, two messages came into CinCPac headquarters almost simultaneously. One was from Halsey, who, still disregarding radio silence, reported that one of his night snoopers had contacted the enemy carrier force 100 miles north of his own northbound force. Halsey had succeeded in canceling the enemy’s advantage by bringing him before dawn well within the attack range of the American carrier planes.
The second message was from Kinkaid. At anchor in Leyte Gulf, he had no need to observe radio silence. Reporting on Oldendorf’s operations, the dispatch read: “Our surface forces are engaging enemy surface forces in Surigao Strait and southern Leyte Gulf.” Subsequent dispatches from Kinkaid described the progress of the battle. Sent at 4:12 a.m.: “Enemy force sighted in strait by PT boats about 0200 I, arrived entrance gulf about 0300 I. Consists of 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and destroyers. Question: Is TF 34 guarding San Bernardino Strait?” Sent at 6:23: “About 0500 I, 25 enemy surface vessels Surigao Strait pursued by our light forces.” Sent at 7:03: “At 0645 I 25th, our forces closing to polish off four Nip cripples near Kanihaan Island, Surigao Strait.”
Obviously the Seventh Fleet gunnery vessels had won a resounding victory over the enemy’s Southern Force. This was cheerful news indeed. Still, Nimitz was worried. The course and speed of the Center Force, as given in Halsey’s 8:24 message to Kinkaid, should have carried it through San Bernardino Strait a little after midnight. If Task Force 34 had been waiting outside the strait, there should have been a night battle. On the other hand,
Admiral Lee, as Nimitz knew, had developed a distaste for night combat in the battleship night action of the Battle of Guadalcanal. Perhaps Lee had managed somehow to hold off till dawn. Now the sun had risen over the Philippines, but there was still no word from him. If the Center Force had met no opposition, it could be east of Samar heading straight for Leyte Gulf. The only ships that might challenge it in that area were the three little escort carrier units, Taffy 1, 2, and 3.
A suspicion was growing in Nimitz’s mind that Task Force 34 had not been formed after all, or that, if it had been formed, it had not been left behind on October 24. Halsey in his battle plan had assigned his own flagship New Jersey to that force, yet in the 8:24 dispatch he had said: “Am proceeding north with three groups.” That he personally had gone north with three groups was indicated by his contact report, which concluded, “Own force in three groups concentrated.” Nimitz knew that he was not alone in his concern; Kinkaid’s inquiry about Task Force 34 showed that he too wanted assurance.
Nimitz buzzed for his assistant chief of staff. When Captain Bernard Austin entered his office, Nimitz asked him if there were any dispatches regarding the situation off the Philippines that he had not seen. Austin replied that he knew of none and added, “Will you tell me in particular what you are looking for?”
“I’m very concerned,” replied Nimitz, “because nothing I have seen indicates that Admiral Halsey has left San Bernardino guarded against Japanese units coming through there and getting our ships off Leyte.”
“Well, Admiral,” said Austin, “that is an unclear point in dispatches, and several other people are wondering the same thing.”
“If anything comes in,” said Nimitz, “let me know right away.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Austin and left the room.
Admiral Nimitz sounded a good many buzzers that morning in his search for information and opinions. About the third time he called in Austin, the latter got up his courage sufficiently to suggest that Nimitz ask Halsey if he had left any force to guard San Bernardino. “That’s what you want to know,” said Austin. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Nimitz thought a moment and then gave Austin the expected answer—he did not want to send any dispatch that would directly or indirectly influence the responsible tactical commander in the tactical use of his forces.
Out in the Philippine area about this time, communicators were startled to intercept a dispatch in plain English. The sender was Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague, the commander of Task Unit 77.4.3, known as Taffy 3, northernmost of the three Seventh Fleet escort carrier units stationed outside Leyte Gulf. This message, addressed to Commander, Third Fleet, and Commander, Task Force 34, read: “Enemy battleships and cruisers 15 miles astern this unit and firing on it. My position is 80 miles bearing 060 from Homonhon Island.” Taffy 3’s bearing and distance from Homonhon, which is at the mouth of Leyte Gulf, placed it due east of Samar.
Taffy 3’s call for help was not heard at Pearl Harbor. It was soon followed, however, by an encoded message from Kinkaid to Halsey. Sent by the Wasatch’s powerful transmitter, this message was read by both Admiral Nimitz and Admiral King: “About 0700 CTU 77.4.3 reported under fire from enemy battleships and cruisers in position 11-4, 126-25. Evidently came through San Bernardino Strait during the night. Request immediate air strike. Also request support from heavy ships. My old battleships low in ammunition.”
Kinkaid followed this message almost immediately by another to Commander, Third Fleet, this time in plain English—evidently intended as much to frighten the Japanese as to prod Halsey into action. This message read : “Enemy force attacking our escort carriers composed of 4 battleships, 8 cruisers, and other ships. Request Lee proceed top speed cover Leyte. Request immediate strike by fast carriers.”
Kinkaid continued to call on Halsey and Lee for help. “Fast battleships are urgently needed immediately at Leyte Gulf,” he cried by radio. Nearly an hour later, he was signaling, “My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by carrier strikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying escort carriers and entering Leyte.”
Evidently these cries for help were not reaching the Lexington, for Admiral Mitscher was notifying Admiral McCain that Task Force 38 was attacking four enemy carriers. They were reaching the senior commands, however. At Pearl Harbor the usually serene Nimitz was pacing the floor. In Washington Admiral King was pacing, too—and swearing.
Finally at 8:48 a.m. Halsey indicated his awareness of the situation off Samar. It was later learned that Kinkaid’s dispatches had reached him after much delay and confusingly out of sequence. Halsey’s response was to order McCain to proceed at best possible speed toward Samar and strike the enemy force, whose position he gave. To Kinkaid he signaled: “Am now engaging enemy carrier force. Task Group 38.1 with 5 carriers and 4 heavy cruisers has been ordered to assist you immediately.” He gave McCain’s estimated position, which was nearly 300 miles northeast of the beleaguered Taffy 3, and his own, which was more than 350 miles due north. The implication was that help from McCain’s Task Group 38.1 would be considerably delayed and that timely help from the rest of Task Force 38 was out of the question.
Halsey’s message to McCain answered the main question in Nimitz’s mind. Had Task Force 34 been anywhere near Samar, Halsey would have ordered Lee to attack the enemy that was attacking Taffy 3. He would probably have ordered McCain to attack also, but he would certainly have signaled Lee. That he did not implied that Lee was with Halsey. There was a possibility that Task Force 34 had never been formed, but Nimitz conjectured otherwise. Knowing Halsey, he was convinced that Halsey had formed it that morning and was now in it, forging out ahead of the carrier groups to fight an old-fashioned surface battle with stragglers and with the cripples left by Mitscher’s carrier planes.
Austin, who had brought the latest dispatches to Nimitz, was several miles behind his chief’s thinking. He could see that the admiral was perturbed, and he concluded that he was still wondering where Task Force 34 was. Trying to be helpful, he suggested, “Admiral, couldn’t you just ask Admiral Halsey the simple question: Where is Task Force 34?”
Nimitz thought for a minute and then said, “Go out and write it up. That’s a good idea.”
Austin thought the question was intended as a simple inquiry, but Nimitz was using it as a nudge. What Nimitz meant was: “Where ought Task Force 34 to be—and hadn’t it better get the hell there as fast as possible?” He was sure that Halsey would take the hint. Now, in Nimitz’s considered opinion, these were extraordinary circumstances that justified his interfering with the man on the scene.
Because Nimitz’s Task Force 34 message became famous, or notorious, and because it produced a remarkable effect on Halsey, it is interesting to trace its progress to the addressee. Captain Austin went to his office and dictated the message to his yeoman: “Where is Task Force 34? From Admiral Nimitz to Commander Third Fleet, with information to Admiral King and Admiral Kinkaid.”
The yeoman, having caught a certain emphasis in his boss’s voice and feeling that he ought to indicate the emphasis in the message, stuck in the words “RPT [repeat] where is.” He then took the message down to the communication department, Jack Redman’s domain, and handed it to an ensign on duty. The ensign prepared the dispatch for transmission. He changed the words Admiral Nimitz to CinCPac, Admiral King to CominCh, and Admiral Kinkaid to CTF 77, added padding, and assigned a date-time group, 250044, meaning 44 minutes past midnight, Greenwich time, on the 25th of the month (9:44 a.m. in the Philippines).
Padding consisted of nonsense phrases placed at both ends of encrypted radio messages to bury the opening and closing words which, because they tended to be stereotyped, might provide easy points of attack for enemy cryptanalysts. The rules for padding specified that it may not consist of familiar words or quotations, it must be separated from the text by double consonants, and it must not be susceptible to being read as part of the message.
At this point we shall digress to point out that October 25 is no ordinary day in military history. For one thing, it is Saint Crispin’s Day, the date of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). It is also the date of the Battle of Balaklava (1854). The latter was marked by the magnificent, futile charge of the Light Brigade, of which Tennyson wrote:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Did the ensign who prepared Nimitz’s dispatch remember that this was Balaklava Day and recall the lines of Tennyson? It would not be too surprising if he did, for English professors and students of literature tend to be attracted, or assigned, to communications. If our anonymous ensign did remember the Light Brigade, he must have compared its charge into the teeth of the Russian guns with Taffy 3’s combat with the battleship force, the story of which had been coming in over his desk in dispatches all that morning. The padding he wrote at the beginning of Nimitz’s message, “Turkey trots to water,” was nonsensical enough, but his end padding, “The world wonders,” echoed Tennyson. Perhaps it was an unconscious echo, because when he was called on the carpet about it, he said, “It was just something that popped into my head.”
Admiral Halsey had a standing order that, when he was in his flagship New Jersey and a “hot” message came in addressed to him, the communicators were not to take time transferring it to a dispatch form but were to rush it to flag country as quickly as possible by the pneumatic tube. When Admiral Nimitz’s message was deciphered in the New Jersey’s communication department, a yeoman tore the strip off the ciphering machine and handed it to Ensign Burton Goldstein, who realized at a glance that this was a message that should go to Halsey without delay. He routinely ripped off the opening padding, but the end padding puzzled him. Although it was separated from the rest of the dispatch by a double consonant, it read devilishly like a part of the message. Goldstein showed the strip to his superior, Lieutenant Charles Fox, who advised him to send it on with the words attached. The liaison officer in flag country, said Fox, could point out to the admiral that the concluding phrase was probably padding.
So up the tube went the strip. The liaison officer plucked it out of the holder, noted that it was addressed to Commander, Third Fleet, and immediately handed it to Halsey. It read:
FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY-FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS.
Halsey, not accustomed to seeing padding, took the final phrase to be part of the message. It looked to him like heavy-handed sarcasm, with King and Kinkaid called in to witness his humiliation.
“I was stunned as if I had been struck in the face,” recalled Halsey. “The paper rattled in my hands. I snatched off my cap, threw it on the deck, and shouted something that I am ashamed to remember. Mick Carney rushed over and grabbed my arm: ‘Stop it! What the hell’s the matter with you? Pull yourself together!’
“I gave him the dispatch and turned my back. I was so mad I couldn’t talk. It was utterly impossible for me to believe that Chester Nimitz would send me such an insult.”
Admiral Nimitz’s surmise was correct. Halsey had formed Task Force 34 that morning; it included all six of his fast battleships, and with it he had forged ahead to attack stragglers and finish off cripples. After brooding for an hour over the supposed insult from CinCPac, Halsey angrily ordered Task Force 34 to reverse course from due north to due south. “For me,” he later wrote, “one of the biggest battles of the war was off, and what has been called ‘the Battle of Bull’s Run’ was on.”
As Halsey passed Task Force 38, which was still northbound, he picked up Bogan’s Task Group 38.2 to provide air cover for Task Force 34 and detached from Task Force 34 four cruisers and ten destroyers to provide additional surface support for the carriers remaining under Mitscher. To CinCPac he reported: “Your 250044. TF 34 with me engaging enemy carrier force. Am now proceeding with TG 38.2 and all fast battleships to reinforce Kinkaid. 1 enemy carrier sunk. 2 carriers dead in water. No damage own force. . . . TG 38.1 already ordered assist Kinkaid immediately.”
To Kinkaid, Halsey radioed: “I am proceeding toward Leyte with Task Group 38.2 and 6 fast battleships. My position, course, and speed later, but do not expect arrive before 0800 tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Kinkaid continued to sound off by radio. First, he reported that the Center Force had turned away, then that it was threatening Leyte Gulf again. The enemy force was, in fact, retiring. To intercept it, Halsey detached his fastest ships, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 8 destroyers, and with these sped ahead. When Halsey reached the vicinity of San Bernardino Strait a little past midnight, the only ship of the Center Force that had not passed back through the strait was a destroyer that had lingered behind to pick up Japanese survivors of the battle with Taffy 3. Halsey’s cruisers and destroyers darted ahead and sank this lone vessel with gunfire and torpedoes. His fast battleships had steamed 300 miles north and 300 miles back south between the two main enemy forces without making contact with either.
Afterward, when U. S. naval officers reviewed the Battle for Leyte Gulf, they gave each of the four main actions a name. They called the air attacks made on the Center Force as it plowed its way eastward on October 24 toward San Bernardino the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. In this phase, Halsey’s carrier planes put a heavy cruiser out of action, damaged several other ships, and sank the superbattleship Musashi.
The Southern Force was actually two enemy groups that never got together. The first group, consisting of 2 battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, and 4 destroyers, was nearly annihilated in the Battle of Surigao Strait, fought before dawn on October 25. Oldendorf had set a trap for it by lining the sides of the strait with his destroyers and PT boats and placing his battleships and cruisers on T-capping courses across its northern end. The second Japanese group, seeing what happened to the first, prudently withdrew.
The action, fought a few hours later, between the Center Force and Taffy 3 was named the Battle off Samar. The Center Force opened fire on the six jeep carriers of this unit, sinking the Gambier Bay and heavily damaging two others. The unit’s destroyers and destroyer escorts made smoke and courageously counterattacked with torpedoes. Three of these vessels were sunk by gunfire, but the enemy was thrown into confusion. Planes from the Taffies and from Leyte struck at the Center Force, sinking three of its cruisers and inducing the remainder of the force to retire. In the afternoon of October 25 aircraft from McCain’s Task Group 38.1 attacked the Center Force but did little damage. Striking from extreme range, they were hampered by wing tanks and were obliged to carry bombs instead of the heavier torpedoes. That same afternoon Japanese pilots, flying land-based planes, crashed into five carriers of Taffy 3 and nearby Taffy 1, heavily damaging all and causing one to sink. These suicide, or kamikaze, attacks were the beginning of a development that was ominous for the Americans.
Task Force 38’s attack on the Northern Force was called the Battle off Cape Engaño. In this operation, U.S. carrier planes sank the fleet carrier Zuikaku, last of the Pearl Harbor raiders, three light carriers, and two destroyers. They also damaged a cruiser, which was sunk by an American submarine as she limped homeward.
Because the Northern Force made no counterattack and its carriers appeared almost bare of planes, some officers concluded that it was as helpless as the Combined Fleet had been two years earlier and was being used merely to lure Halsey away from Leyte so that the Southern and Center forces could close in on American shipping in the gulf. After the war the Japanese confirmed that this conclusion was correct. Their carriers had lost most of their planes in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Any Japanese fleet aviators who had attained proficiency after that time had been sacrificed in trying to protect the Formosan bases from Halsey’s carrier attacks.
As long as he lived, Admiral Halsey rejected all evidence and every assertion that the Northern Force was bait. The notion that he had been lured away to the north did not sit well with him.
During the cocktail hour and at dinner in Admiral Nimitz’s quarters on the evening of October 25 (east longitude date), discussion of the day’s battles was lively and sometimes caustic. In addition to high-ranking officers present on this occasion, there was a lieutenant commander who, having just relinquished command of a submarine, was en route to the United States for leave. This young man was by no means awed into silence by the age and rank of the other guests. He felt free to express his opinions in such lofty company for the very good reason that his name happened to be Chester W. Nimitz, Jr.
Chet was amazed that CinCPac and his staff had let hours pass while they wondered whether Task Force 34 was covering San Bernardino Strait. Why, he asked, had they not asked Admiral Halsey point-blank where it was and told him to send it forthwith to wherever they wanted it to be. Patiently Admiral Nimitz explained that he and his staff were thousands of miles away from the operational area, and it was his policy to avoid like the plague interfering with the judgment of the tactical commander at the scene of action.
Later in the evening someone read or quoted the directive in Op Plan 8-44 specifying that if Halsey saw an opportunity to destroy a major portion of the enemy fleet, such destruction would become his primary task. Chet was again surprised. In signing such an order, he said brightly, Admiral Nimitz was practically giving Admiral Halsey carte blanche to abandon the beachhead. He said it was a mistake to offer Halsey any alternative whatever to supporting the landings in Leyte Gulf. “It’s your fault,” he concluded, looking at his father.
The room fell silent. This was too much. The elder Nimitz turned a bleak gaze upon his impertinent offspring. “That’s your opinion,” he said, ending the discussion.
At a little after 7:00 p.m. (Philippine time), Kinkaid, by then reasonably sure that the Center Force was retiring, expressed his appreciation to the Tames by radio: “For your magnificent performance of today my admiration knows no bounds. You have carried a load that only fleet carriers could be expected to carry. Well done. Kinkaid.”
At 9:26 p.m., Halsey, still southbound with Task Force 34, radioed Nimitz (date-time group 251226): “It can be announced with assurance that the Japanese navy has been beaten, routed, and broken by the Third and Seventh Fleets.” Nimitz passed the message to the Navy Department, and King told him not to release it because Halsey had not had sufficient time or opportunity to evaluate the situation completely. Secretary Forrestal concurred with King but nevertheless informed President Roosevelt.
The Navy’s hand was forced by MacArthur, who, on his own, released a victory communiqué to the Reuters news agency. Harry Hopkins, special assistant to the President, called Forrestal and suggested that Halsey’s message be given to the press. Forrestal was, he said, dubious about releasing good news without being absolutely certain of the facts. Hopkins thought it was worth taking a chance. Consequently, at six o’clock on the evening of October 25 (Washington time), the President called in the White House reporters and read them a paraphrase of Halsey’s victory message to Nimitz.
When the facts became known, they more than justified Halsey’s optimism. Not only had the Japanese been thwarted in their scheme to sink American shipping in Leyte Gulf, but they had lost 306,000 tons of their own combat ships—3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, and 9 destroyers. The Americans, at a cost of 37,000 tons of warships—1 light carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and 1 destroyer escort—had utterly destroyed Japan’s capacity to wage another fleet battle. In short, they had won uncontested command of the Pacific Ocean.
At 10:17 in the evening of the 25th, Halsey sent a top-secret message (date-time group 251317) to Nimitz and King explaining his tactics:
Searches by my carrier planes revealed the presence of the Northern carrier force on the afternoon of 24 October, which completed the picture of all enemy naval forces. As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernardino Strait, I concentrated TF 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 Seventh Fleet.
In a letter to King, dated October 28 and marked PERSONAL and TOP SECRET, Nimitz observed:
I am greatly pleased with the Fleet operations of the past week with two exceptions. My first exception and regret is that so valuable a unit as the BIRMINGHAM was taken alongside the damaged PRINCETON instead of relying on destroyers for the rescue, salvage, and fire fighting operation. My second exception and regret is 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 end of the Philippines Sea, and composed of carriers, two battleships, cruisers and destroyers in support. It never occurred to me that Halsey, knowing the composition of the ships in the Sibuyan Sea, would leave San Bernardino Strait unguarded, even though the Jap detachments in the Sibuyan Sea had been reported seriously damaged. That Halsey feels that he is in a defensive position is indicated in his top secret despatch 251317.
That the San Bernardino detachment of the Japanese Fleet, which included the YAMATO and the MUSASHI, did not completely destroy all of the escort carriers and their accompanying screen is nothing short of special dispensation from the Lord Almighty; although it can be accepted that the damage the Japs had received the day before in the Sibuyan Sea undoubtedly affected their ability to steam and shoot when they attacked Sprague’s escort carriers.
Nimitz was careful not to criticize Halsey publicly or to permit criticism of him in any records that might subsequently be made public. When Captain Ralph Parker, head of the CinCPac’s Analytical Section, sharply condemned Halsey’s tactics in the official CinCPac report of the battle, Nimitz refused to sign the report. He sent it back with a note written across it: “What are you trying to do, Parker, start another Sampson-Schley controversy? Tone this down. I’ll leave it to you.”
Halsey reported in person to Admiral King the following January, and his first words were, “I made a mistake in that battle.”
King held up his hand. “You don’t have to tell me any more,” he said. “You’ve got a green light on everything you did.”
In his autobiography, however, King criticized both Halsey and Kinkaid. He attributed “the element of surprise in the Battle of Samar not only to Halsey’s absence in the north but also to Kinkaid’s failure to use his own squadrons for search at a crucial moment.”
Rarely in military history have two successive battles presented more similar tactical problems than those of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, and rarely have the commanders responded so differently. Long afterward Halsey sadly suggested that it might have been better if he had commanded in the Philippine Sea and Spruance at Leyte Gulf.
One reason why historians have treated Halsey’s blunder so gently is that his earlier advice had led to the speeding up of the timetable for action against the Philippines. Had the Leyte invasion taken place on December 20, as originally scheduled, Ozawa would have had time to train his aviators enough to give the Americans a real fight. Since Halsey was responsible for the speed-up, his strategic insight more than offset his tactical lapse.