What If: Halsey and Kurita at Leyte Gulf? I

By the autumn of 1944 even the most dedicated Japanese naval officer could recognize that things were not going well in his country’s war with the United States and its allies. Beginning with their seizure of the Marshall Islands in February, the third year of the war had been marked by a string of Allied victories. Everywhere, it seemed the Americans were inexorably advancing in a vast and overwhelming tide that was seizing all of the territory the Japanese had gained during the heady days of 1941 and 1942.

In the summer of 1944 the situation took a further turn for the worse when, in response to efforts to defeat American forces fighting to secure the Marianas Islands—including the critical island of Saipan—Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa’s 1st Mobile Fleet had been decisively defeated at the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19-20, 1944. Known derisively by the Americans as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” the disaster cost Ozawa all but forty-seven of his 473 operational aircraft, as well as two of the Emperor’s precious aircraft carriers. With the Marianas Islands in American hands, Japanese planners knew that the enemy was now within range of the home islands. Soon, waves of American B-29 bombers would be exacting revenge for the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by mercilessly bombing Japanese cities. In the wake of Ozawa’s defeat, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who had done so much to propel his nation into conflict with the United States, was forced to resign. After the fall of Saipan, one prescient Japanese observer was overheard to remark that, “Hell is on us.”

“Act Faithfully and Well”

To forestall this, Japanese planners met in July 1944 to try and determine what to expect next from the enemy and to prepare a course of action that could be followed in response to whatever direction the Americans struck. The resulting “Sho” (Victory) plan, which required that all available resources be carefully husbanded until needed, provided four alternative defensive operations that could be activated as soon as the Americans made their next move. Sho-1 would be activated in response to an attack on the Philippines, Sho-2 for the Kuriles and Ryukyus, Sho-3 for southern Japan, and Sho-4 for northern Japan. Each of these plans was considered an all or nothing operation intended to provide one last opportunity to secure a decisive victory over the Allies and forestall Japan’s total collapse. For any of these plans to be successful, however, the Japanese would need to achieve a level of cooperation among their forces that had heretofore been lacking. They would also need time to train pilots who could replace those lost in the Marianas Islands.

Time ran out in October 1944. In preparation for the upcoming American naval offensive, Rear Adm. William F. Halsey began a series of air attacks starting as far to the north as Okinawa and working southward to the Philippines. Intended to confuse the enemy as to the time and place of the next attack and to further weaken their defenses, the Japanese responded by sending out what available aircraft they had to drive off the American planes.

Adm. Soemu Toyoda, the commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, was in Formosa on October 12 when Halsey’s aircraft struck that island. Believing the attack heralded the start of the invasion of Formosa, Toyoda ordered a partial activation of Sho-2 and sent every available aircraft to attack the Americans. Unfortunately, the air battles in the first weeks of October were merely a repeat of what had happened four months before. Vice Adm. Shigeru Fukodome commented after the American raid that “our fighters were nothing but so many eggs thrown at the stone wall of the indomitable enemy formation.”

Although the Japanese achieved limited successes—sinking two Allied cruisers—the air battles of September and October were a serious setback to the possible success of the Sho plan. The poorly trained Japanese pilots were simply no match for the Americans; slightly more than half of the 1,000 aircraft the Japanese had gathered since June fell to Halsey’s planes. The battle over Formosa seriously diminished what little airpower the Japanese now had available to implement whichever of the Sho plans finally became necessary.

Meanwhile, as Halsey’s aircraft were clearing the skies of Japanese planes, the massive U.S. fleet began to assemble at Hollandia and elsewhere along the coast of New Guinea to begin its journey north. Although there had been a good deal of wrangling between Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who favored an American landing to liberate the Philippines, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, who favored bypassing the Philippines altogether in favor of an attack on Formosa, by September MacArthur’s appeals had their desired effect and President Franklin Roosevelt had made the decision to launch the next Allied attack on the Philippines. Scheduled to begin with an invasion of Leyte on December 20, 1944, the date of the invasion was advanced to October after Halsey excitedly reported that the island was poorly defended and could be taken with little effort.

Believing that the moment had arrived to return to the Philippines, the Americans prepared to launch a massive combined overall command of the operation. Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s 6th Army would land on the island, while Vice Adm. Thomas Kinkaid’s massive 700-ship 7th Fleet supported the operation from Leyte Gulf. Meanwhile, in the unlikely event that the Japanese fleet was able to sail south toward the invasion fleet, Halsey, operating under orders not from MacArthur but from Nimitz, was commanded to use his 3rd Fleet to “cover and support forces of [the] Southwest Pacific in order to assist the seizure and occupation objectives in the Central Philippines… and destroy enemy naval and air forces in or threatening the Philippines Area. . . In case opportunity for destruction of major portion of enemy fleet offers or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.”

Although the two principal fleets were operating under different commanders—Kinkaid under MacArthur and Halsey under Nimitz—it was believed that operations had been going smoothly up to this point, so a split command would not pose any major difficulties.

Despite the most powerful naval force ever known assembled against them, the Japanese remained unaware of exactly where the Americans would strike next—and therefore unable to activate the appropriate Sho plan—until the morning of October 17, when Japanese observers on the tiny Philippine island of Suluan reported that they spotted American ships. The men of the 6th Ranger Battalion had come ashore on Suluan, Dina-gat, and Homophon to secure these islands in preparation for the arrival of Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet. Reports of the American advance on the Philippines were received by Admiral Toyoda, who realized that the time had come to initiate Sho-1 and finally check the American advance. After further discussion among senior Japanese naval officers, at 1110 on the morning of October 18, 1944, Toyoda gave the order to execute Sho-1.

Although Toyoda was unhappy with the prospect of launching his fleet in the face of an enemy overwhelmingly superior in air and naval power, later commenting that making the decision, to activate Sho-1 was “ as difficult as swallowing molten iron, ” he knew that the loss of the Philippines would sever the home islands from their valuable oil supplies in the East Indies, which would have a catastrophic effect on the Japanese war effort. If Japan were to have any hope of survival, therefore, the Philippines must be retained.

Sho-1 called for the Japanese to order what remained of their widely scattered forces to converge at Brunei, where Adm. Takeo Kurita would lead them to attack the American fleet at Leyte Gulf. If he arrived quickly enough, it was hoped that Kurita could destroy Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet before the Americans became strong enough to secure total control of the archipelago. To prevent Halsey’s 3rd Fleet from coming to the aid of Kinkaid, the Japanese planned to use an additional force to entice the Americans northward.

Toyoda knew that in order to lure Halsey away from the landing area he would have to provide a target that was sufficiently tempting to ensure the Americans’ pursuit. Since the air battles in the Philippine Sea and at Formosa had destroyed what little remained of Japanese naval airpower, the decision was made to offer up the Empire’s remaining aircraft carriers as bait. This sacrificial force was commanded by Ozawa and consisted of four carriers, two battleships that had been converted to aircraft carriers by the addition of improvised flight decks, and eleven cruisers. As carriers had come to dominate naval operations by this point in the war, it was reasoned that the site of what remained of Japan’s carrier force would be too lucrative a target for the aggressive Admiral Halsey to pass up.

After arriving in Brunei on October 20, Kurita and his staff briefed the assembled officers aboard his flagship, the cruiser Atago. The plan called for Kurita to split his force into two wings that would travel to Leyte on two separate routes. To the north, the 1st Strike Force under the overall command of Kurita consisted of five battleships, including Yamato and Musashi, the largest and most powerful battleships ever built, seven cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. This force would travel across the Philippine archipelago via the Sibuyan Sea. After passing through the San Bernardino Strait, Kurita would travel around Samar and descend on Kinkaid from the north. Meanwhile, a smaller but still potent force of two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers, led by Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura, would strike Leyte from the south after crossing the Sulu Sea, traveling past Mindanao through the Surigao Strait. As the two forces traversed the narrow passages toward Leyte, what little ground-based aircraft that remained to the Japanese would take to the sky and provide air cover. If everything went well, the two pincers would arrive almost simultaneously at Leyte on October 25.

Every one of the officers present for Kurita’s briefing knew that this was a desperate gamble likely to result in the sinking of many of the Emperor’s finest ships. They also knew they had no other option but to proceed. If they succeeded, they could save their embattled country. If they failed, they would at least ensure that the Imperial fleet met an honorable end. Before the briefing was adjourned, Kurita addressed his officers:

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 a shame to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that 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 this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf.

You must all remember that there are such things as miracles. What man can say that there is no chance for our fleet to turn the tide of war in a decisive battle? We shall have a chance to meet our enemies. We shall engage his task forces. I hope that you will not carry out your duties lightly. I know you will act faithfully and well.

On the same day Kurita briefed his officers, General MacArthur returned to the Philippines at the head of one of the most powerful armadas the world had ever seen. American forces were able to take advantage of the confusion among the Japanese defenders to quickly establish a beachhead on Leyte. While troops and supplies of the 6th Army stormed ashore, Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet pounded enemy positions with the guns of its battleships and cruisers.

When the meeting aboard Atago adjourned, the Japanese officers returned to their ships and began the preparations necessary to get Kurita’s force under way. Japanese sailors, inspired by the sight of the Combined Fleet anchored at Brunei and believing they had an opportunity to reverse the course of the war, worked diligently throughout October 21 to prepare their ships. By evening everything was ready. On the morning of October 22, Kurita’s 1st Strike Force sailed from Brunei toward Palawan, with his flagship in the van just behind a screen of destroyers. As they sailed toward their destination, Kurita was cheered to learn that three cruisers and four destroyers, commanded by Vice Adm. Kihohide Shima, were coming from Formosa to reinforce his southern wing. The latest additions to Kurita’s strike force were instructed to travel south and join Nishimura, who had left Brunei on October 23, before entering the Surigao Strait. So far, everything had gone as well as could be expected; the forces had joined and were now traveling rapidly toward the Philippines.

Strike for Leyte

Lying in the path of Kurita’s advancing ships were two submarines on patrol near the Palawan Passage, USS Darter, commanded by Cmdr. David McClintock, and USS Dace, commanded by Cmdr. Bladen D. Claggett. Just after midnight on October 23, Darter’s radar picked up signals indicating that an enemy convoy was approaching. Immediately, the two submarines submerged and positioned themselves to attack what they assumed was a relief convoy traveling toward the Philippines’ Japanese defenders. As their screens lit up with a number of blips, radar operators on the two submarines soon realized that this was no convoy.

Trained to attack regardless of the odds, the two U.S. submarine commanders positioned themselves immediately in front of the Japanese force and prepared to launch all of their torpedoes at the advancing ships. Both commanders hurriedly plotted targets at several of the larger blips on their radar operators’ screens. Soon, a volley of torpedoes shot out from the two submarines, quickly followed by another volley. Shortly after the second volley left their tubes, the crews of the two submarines could hear a series of explosions. Quickly raising their periscopes, the skippers saw two destroyers and a cruiser breaking up under the damage caused by multiple torpedo hits. McClintock later remembered that the cruiser was:

a mass of billowing smoke from the number one turret to the stem. No superstructure could be seen. Bright orange flames shot from the side along the main deck from the bow to the after turret. Cruiser was already down by the bow, which was dipping under. Number one turret was at water level. She was definitely finished. Five hits had her sinking and in flames. It is estimated that there were few if any survivors.

With his thoughts focused on the difficulties of bringing his force through the Sibuyan Sea without fighter cover, Kurita was startled by the explosions that erupted to his front and right as two of his destroyers and the heavy cruiser Myoko burst into flames and staggered under the blows of enemy torpedoes. The stunned admiral quickly regained his senses, however, and over the objections of some of his officers who wanted to look for survivors, ordered that the fleet continue toward the Philippines without delay. Aware of the long odds against success, Kurita accepted that his force would suffer casualties; what was most important was that he bring as much of his strength as possible to the north side of Leyte Gulf by October 25.

Soon after ordering his fleet to continue, Kurita contacted the commander of the 1st Air Fleet on Luzon, Vice Adm. Takajiro Onishi, and alerted him to the fact that his force had been attacked and that early the next day he could expect to be visited by aircraft of the now alerted American fleet. Onishi agreed and responded with a request to attack Halsey’s forces immediately. Even though they had been able to husband a fair number of aircraft throughout the Philippine Islands, Kurita knew that the numbers were insufficient, and the pilots too ill trained to launch an air attack on the massive American fleet with any hope of causing serious damage. Thus, Kurita denied Onishi’s request and instead ordered him to gather as many aircraft as possible to provide what air cover he could to Kurita’s force. As if to ensure that his orders would be carried out, Kurita concluded his last message to Onishi with a reminder that “the future of the nation rests with the fleet.”9

As the Japanese ships sailed on, hurriedly dropping a number of depth charges as they passed the crews of the two U.S. submarines congratulated themselves on what, by almost any reckoning, had been a tremendously successful evening. What was more important than the sinking of the heavy cruiser Myoko,however, was the information that the Combined Fleet had come out to do battle. While the crew of Darter began to celebrate, McClintock alerted Admiral Halsey that there was a large Japanese fleet headed toward Leyte Gulf.

Halsey Hits Back

Halsey, eager to come to grips with the Japanese, alerted Kinkaid of the approaching enemy force and spent the remainder of October 23 preparing for their arrival. As soon as it was light enough to launch aircraft, Halsey sent up pairs of Hellcats and Helldivers to search for Kurita’s fleet along the most likely approaches to Leyte. One of these search parties consisted of three planes launched from USS Intrepid at 0600 on the morning of October 24. At 0812, while flying over the Sibuyan Sea, one of these aircraft spotted Kurita’s fleet steaming along the western side of the Tablas Strait, headed for the San Bernardino Strait. Within ten minutes this information had been radioed back to Halsey on board USS New Jersey. Following quickly on the heels of the sighting of Kurita’s force was news that aircraft from USS Enterprise had located and attacked Nishimura’s force of two battleships, a cruiser, and several destroyers. Although he had yet to find the Japanese carriers, Halsey now knew where the bulk of the Japanese forces were located and he quickly devised his plan of attack. His available force was divided into three task groups: Task Group 38.4, commanded by Rear Adm. Ralph E. Davidson (off Leyte Gulf); 38.2, commanded by Rear Adm. Gerald F. Bogan (east of the San Bernardino Strait); and 38.3, commanded by Frederick C. Sherman (east of Luzon). A fourth, Task Force 38.1, commanded by Adm. John McCain, had been detached and sent to Ulithi for rest and resupply.

Seeking to come to blows with the enemy, while at the same time mindful of his order to support Kinkaid’s now alerted 7th Fleet and nervous that the report of Kurita’s sighting made no mention of aircraft carriers, Halsey ordered his three remaining task forces to concentrate. While Admiral Sherman was charged with patrolling the northern approaches to Leyte, Admirals Davidson and Bogan were immediately ordered to launch their aircraft against Kurita’s advancing forces. Aware of Nishimura’s approach, Kinkaid detached all of his larger ships to defend the Surigao Strait and to prepare for the Japanese southern strike force’s arrival. Although he cursed himself for the overconfidence that had permitted him to send McCain to Ulithi, Halsey believed, quite rightly, that he still possessed a force potent enough to cause serious damage to Kurita’s ships.

After quickly formulating a plan of attack, Halsey contacted his task force commanders, relayed the necessary information on the approaching Japanese formation, and ordered, “Strike! Repeat. Strike!” Hellcat and Helldiver pilots aboard the carriers of the 3rd Fleet quickly scrambled and were soon ready to launch attacks on Kurita’s fast approaching ships.

Since his radio messages with Kurita the night before, Onishi had been busy preparing to rush his aircraft to the support of the approaching Japanese ships. As soon as it was light, the first of Onishi’s planes were in the sky and headed to Kurita’s aid. Very early on the morning of October 24, the skies above the Sibuyan Sea was full of hundreds of Japanese and American aircraft all racing toward Kurita.

Fortunately for Kurita, Onishi’s planes won the race. A force of fifty planes had taken position above the Japanese fleet by 0958 and was waiting when the first of the American air attacks reached their target. At 1026 a force of twenty-one fighters, twelve dive-bombers, and twelve torpedo bombers from the aircraft carriers Intrepid and Cabot reached the Japanese fleet and were staggered by what they saw. Although the size of the enemy force had been reported earlier, actually seeing an armada of such power was truly awe-inspiring. The Americans did not have long to gawk before Japanese aircraft waiting overhead pounced.

Although the Japanese pilots were not as experienced as their American counterparts, they had the advantage of numbers, surprise, and the overwhelming number of antiaircraft guns of the ships below. A quick pass by Japanese aircraft downed two of the American fighters and three of the dive-bombers before they even had time to react. Soon, American fighter aircraft had engaged the Japanese, while the remaining dive-bombers regrouped and dove on the fleet, focusing on the huge battleships that lay in the center of Kurita’s force.

Despite their bravery, the American dive-bombers never had an opportunity to launch an effective attack. Six of the bombers were blown apart before they even had a chance to launch their weapons. A seventh, badly damaged by enemy fire, crashed into one of the Japanese destroyers in a final act of defiance. Of the remaining eleven aircraft that managed to escape the intense enemy flak, three were destroyed after releasing their torpedoes and the remainder managed to escape intact.

Everything had not gone in favor of the Japanese, however. Of the three torpedoes the Americans had been able to launch, two found their mark. One struck the battleship Nagato. In addition, seven Japanese aircraft had been destroyed. Damage reports from Nagato indicated that it could continue, but its speed would be reduced. Kurita knew that although he had driven off the first American force, others would quickly follow. Slowing the speed of his fleet to that of his slowest ship, Kurita awaited the next attack.

Meanwhile, the stunned survivors of the first American air strike warned their oncoming comrades of what they were about to face. Undaunted Halsey ordered additional air strikes. At 1245 a second strike force from Lexington and Essex reached Kurita. Unlike the first failed attack, additional Japanese aircraft sent by Onishi to relieve the initial flight did not surprise the Americans in this second wave. Nevertheless, after twenty minutes of intense aerial combat, Kurita drove off the attack, but at far greater cost. Faced by far more experienced pilots who were ready for them, twenty-three of Onishi’s airplanes were shot from the sky, at a cost of only three enemy fighters. American bombers had braved the intense antiaircraft fire and managed to successfully hit the giant Musashi with several torpedoes. Although their attack did not sink her, she was sufficiently damaged that she would be unable to keep up with the fleet. While some of the American pilots focused their attention on Musashi, others renewed their attacks on the already damaged Nagato. Unable to maneuver quickly because of damage suffered during the first strike, Nagato could not avoid a string of torpedoes that struck her port side. At 1259, just moments after she was hit, Nagato listed to port and sank.

As the second wave of American aircraft slipped back to their carriers in the east, Kurita surveyed the damage. He had already suffered the loss of two battleships, a cruiser, and two destroyers, losses that under normal circumstances would have sent most naval officers reeling. Several of his staff urged him to retire and save what remained of his fleet before additional American strikes came. Remembering the desperate nature of his mission, however, Kurita decided to continue.

No Matter the Cost

Despite the losses he had suffered, Kurita reasoned that he still possessed a powerful force that might inflict a crippling blow on the Americans if it could reach the transports at Leyte. Unwilling to delay any longer, he silenced critics on his staff, and his own fears, and forged on. For the next several hours the air attacks continued and Kurita’s force suffered additional damage. After a 1330 attack, the mighty Musashi was so severely damaged that her commander informed Kurita that the battleship was sinking and would have to be abandoned. The news of Musashi’s fate staggered Kurita, who wondered if perhaps they were hoping for too much.

Jubilant American aircrews reported back to Halsey that they had inflicted punishing blows on the Japanese. The commander of the 3rd Fleet was convinced that his airplanes had eliminated Kurita’s force as an effective threat. Now all he had to do was to find the enemy’s carrier forces and he could complete the destruction of the Japanese fleet. Unaware of exactly where Ozawa was, Halsey urged Sherman to step up his reconnaissance missions while he prepared to take the three task groups of the 3rd Fleet wherever was necessary. Aware that Kurita’s battered force remained afloat, he also decided to make arrangements to form another force from his larger ships that would be tasked with protecting the San Bernardino Strait. The new force, dubbed Task Force 34, would consist of four battleships, five cruisers, and nineteen destroyers, and, when organized would be commanded by Vice Adm. Willis A. Lee. In order to ensure that his ships were aware of his plans, at 1512 Halsey radioed all of the ships of the 3rd Fleet as well as Admirals Nimitz and King, describing the contingency force, which would be activated upon his command. Radio monitors from the 7th Fleet also picked up this message and relayed the information to Admiral Kinkaid.

As Halsey formulated his plans, Kurita contemplated his future. Overcome by the loss of so many men, the admiral ordered three of his destroyers to turn about and pick up any survivors while the crews of his remaining ships repaired some of the damage they had suffered. On board Atago, Kurita considered his next move. Having been badly battered by American aircraft throughout the day, and having heard little or nothing about the progress of the other Sho forces, at 1600 he wired Tokyo that despite the support of a limited number of Japanese aircraft:

the enemy made more than 250 sorties against us between 0830 and 1530, the number of planes involved and their fierceness mounting with every wave. Our air forces, on the other hand, were not able to obtain even expected results, causing our losses to mount steadily. Under these circumstances it was deemed that were we to force our way through, we would merely make ourselves meat for the enemy, with very little chance of success. It was therefore concluded that the best course open to us was temporarily to retire beyond the reach of enemy planes.

Surveying the remnants of his once powerful force, it was easy for Kurita to assume that the Sho plan had been a disaster. The intensity of the air strikes launched against him throughout the day indicated that Ozawa had failed to draw off the might of the 3rd Fleet. Having heard nothing further from Nishimura, he could only assume the worst there as well. Kurita’s fortunes, however, were soon to change.

After repeated efforts to locate Ozawa’s force, at 1640, bombers from Sherman’s task force spotted the carriers as they steamed south toward Luzon. Locating the Japanese carrier force was just what Halsey—and Ozawa—had been waiting for. Halsey immediately alerted his task group commanders to concentrate and soon had all three of them moving. He radioed McCain to cut short his leave from the 3rd Fleet and rejoin it as it headed north to destroy the Japanese carriers. With Halsey’s force now headed north, the danger of further aerial attack on Kurita’s ships had ended. Given a respite from the constant air attacks, Kurita began to recover some of his nerve. Remembering the “all or nothing” nature of the Sho plan, the admiral decided to continue his advance. Perhaps as confirmation of the correctness of this decision, at 1815 Admiral Toyoda responded to Kurita’s earlier message, informing him, “All forces will dash to the attack, trusting in divine guidance.” His orders now clear and his forces protected by darkness, Kurita proceeded toward San Bernardino Strait. If he experienced no further delays, he planned to pass through the strait at 0100 on October 25.

While Kurita had been battling for his life in the Sulu Sea, Nishimura’s force had proceeded with little interruption from the Americans. Although he endured one attack early on the morning of October 24, after he drove off the American planes he proceeded without difficulty. He also received word that the 2nd Force, commanded by Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, was approaching his fleet from the north and would soon be available to reinforce him as he passed through the strait. Although he had an intense dislike for Shima, Nishimura recognized that the seriousness of the situation demanded that every member of the fleet work together. There would be time enough for personal vendettas after the Americans had been destroyed.

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