What If: Halsey and Kurita at Leyte Gulf? II

Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.

Remember Pearl Harbor

But Nishimura had been spotted, and although no further attacks were launched against him for the remainder of the day, the Americans were not idle. Given ample warning of the Japanese approach, and confident that Halsey had seen to the defense of the San Bernardino Strait, Admiral Kinkaid took his time to prepare for his opponent’s arrival at the eastern side of the Surigao Strait. To counter such a move, Kinkaid ordered Rear Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf to plug the twelve-mile-wide northern exit of the strait with a force of six battleships—five of which had been at Pearl Harbor in 1941—eight cruisers, and twenty-eight destroyers. Oldendorf decided to place his largest ships directly across the mouth of the strait with the destroyers divided and placed along each side. To add depth to the defense, he also placed thirty-nine of the diminutive patrol torpedo (PT) boats farther down the strait. Unlikely to be able to halt Nishimura’s advancing battleships, the PTs would serve as a trip wire to provide Oldendorf with important up-to-the-minute information about the opponent he was about to face. They would also be able to harass Nishimura as he advanced perhaps causing some confusion among the enemy.

The evening of October 24, the men of both navies were preparing for the next stage of the battle. While Kurita and Nishimura’s crews made final arrangements before their entrance into the Philippine Sea, Halsey’s sailors readied their planes for air strikes against Ozawa’s carriers, and Oldendorf’s crews made sure their guns were well sighted on the northern exit of Surigao Strait.

While aircrews scrambled around the decks of his carriers, Halsey thought it prudent to inform Kinkaid of his plans. At 2024, Halsey radioed Kinkaid that “strike reports indicate enemy heavily damaged. Am proceeding north with three groups to attack enemy carrier force at dawn.” Kinkaid was pleased with the news. He was ready for Nishimura’s force as it headed through Surigao Strait, and it appeared that Halsey was ready to knock out Ozawa’s force coming from the north with his three task forces. And although it was not a huge force, Kinkaid believed that Task Force 34 should be more than sufficient to halt Kurita’s badly damaged ships from emerging through the San Bernardino Strait. Everything seemed in place to deliver the Japanese a telling blow.

Just ten minutes after Halsey had radioed Kinkaid word was received that one of Oldendorf’s PT boats had spotted Nishimura’s advancing fleet. The tiny American boats charged ahead in a series of brave but disappointing attacks. Despite launching a number of torpedoes, little was accomplished other than disrupting the Japanese advance. Gunners aboard Nishimura’s destroyers were able to destroy a number of the PT boats. At 2136, Nishimura radioed Shima, who was following just behind him, that he was “advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”

Opposition to Nishimura’s advance, however, was soon to become more intense. Alerted to the advancing Japanese ships just after 0200 on the morning of October 25, Oldendorf’s destroyers steamed down Surigao Strait and prepared to deliver a series of torpedo attacks. An hour later the first American torpedoes were sent against the enemy ships. By the time these attacks were over, two destroyers had been sunk and a third badly damaged. Torpedoes had also damaged the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro. Perhaps most important, the PT and destroyer attacks had eliminated all semblance of order among the Japanese ships as they prepared to encounter Oldendorf’s waiting cruisers and battleships.

As the badly disorganized enemy force approached within range of his battleships and cruisers, Oldendorf could not believe his luck. The Japanese were approaching in a column dead ahead. For some reason, perhaps the disruptive effects of the earlier PT boat and destroyer attacks, or Nishimura’s obstinacy, the Japanese had neglected to maneuver and were now presenting a broad front to the enemy. This meant that Oldendorf was about to enjoy the advantage, dreamed of by all naval commanders but seldom experienced, of being able to bring all of his guns to bear at the lead Japanese ship.

At 0351, Oldendorf ordered his ships to open fire. Soon, shells from some of the largest guns in the navy were raining down on the unfortunate Japanese. For the next fifteen minutes salvos quickly shattered what remained of Nishimura’s ships. The flagship  Yamashiro had gone down, Mogami and Fuso were badly battered and left for dead, and although Shigure turned around and began to retreat, she was soon dead in the water as well.

Just as the final salvos of the American battleships began to find their targets, Shima, on board the cruiser Nachi, arrived at the scene. He had hoped to join Nishimura earlier, but American PT boat attacks slowed his advance. Viewing the wreckage of Fuso as he sailed northward, Shima soon realized there was nothing left of Nishimura’s force to join. A little after 0400, in a gesture of false bravado, Shima launched a series of ineffectual torpedo attacks at what he believed were American ships, and then turned and headed south. As he sailed away from the scene of Nishimura’s demise, he came upon the wreckage of Mogami, which he believed was lying dead in the water. Unfortunately he was wrong; Mogami was moving slowly, and at 0430 Nachi collided with the wounded vessel, causing further damage.

The southern arm of the Japanese advance toward Leyte Gulf had been a disaster. As the sun came up on October 25, Shima’s sailors anxiously awaited the inevitable attacks by pursuing American ships as they began to limp back to Brunei. While Shima was contemplating how to get his battered ships away from the enemy, Kinkaid was meeting with his staff. The Americans were discussing the recently concluded action and no doubt congratulating themselves on their stunning victory. Just before adjourning the meeting, Kinkaid turned to his chief of staff, Capt. Richard H. Cruzen, and asked, “Now, Dick, is there anything we haven’t done?” Cruzen responded that he could think of just “one thing. We have never directly asked Halsey if TF 34 is guarding San Bernardino Strait.” Just to be doubly sure, Kinkaid authorized Cruzen to send Halsey a message to confirm that TF 34 was indeed covering the strait.

Although much of the action on the evening of October 24 was in the south, Kurita had not been idle. At 0035, October 25, his fleet passed unmolested through the San Bernardino Strait and into the Philippine Sea. Kurita, still licking his wounds from the air battles the previous day, could not believe his good fortune. How could the Americans have left such a critical passage uncovered? Had Ozawa’s flotilla finally drawn off Halsey’s forces? If his luck continued to hold, in just over six hours he would be in a position to attack the American transports in Leyte Gulf. After convincing himself that, indeed, there were no Americans guarding the passage, Kurita radioed Onishi and requested that he have whatever air cover was available rendezvous with him as he rounded the eastern side of Samar. Onishi, who had suffered severe losses defending Kurita’s force, responded that he would provide what few aircraft remained.

“Where Is Task Force 34?”

Kurita’s passage had been unopposed because of a tragic miscommunication on the part of the Americans. Contrary to what Kinkaid, Nimitz, and King believed, there was no Task Force 34. Halsey’s earlier message had simply indicated that the task force would be formed if necessary. Believing that he had so damaged Kurita that he no longer posed a threat, Halsey elected to take all of his available strength with him, including the ships that would have composed TF 34. The misunderstanding was exacerbated by Halsey’s message the previous evening that declared that he was heading north with “three groups.” This second message seemed to confirm that Halsey had left San Bernardino protected.

The miscommunication between Halsey and Kinkaid might have been avoided had they been serving under a unified command, but that was not the case. Now, this string of errors meant that as Admiral Kurita sailed around the coast of Samar, all that was guarding the vital American landing beaches at Leyte were sixteen tiny escort carriers and a screen of destroyers divided into three groups—Taffy-1, commanded by Rear Adm. T. L. Sprague; Taffy-2, commanded by Rear Adm. F. B. Stump; and Taffy-3, commanded by Rear Adm. C. A. F. Sprague. The escort carriers, nicknamed “jeep” carriers, were intended to provide air support to forces operating ashore and to conduct antisubmarine patrols. They were armed with only one 5-inch gun and a few antiaircraft weapons. To make matters worse, most of the aircraft on board had been armed with ordnance more suitable to support operations against Japanese troop formations on Leyte than against enemy warships.

On the bridge of Atago, Kurita was still trying to figure out how, despite the battering he had taken the previous day and the silence from the other wings of the Sho force, he had been so fortunate. His thoughts were interrupted just before 0600 as he looked up to see thirty-five of Onishi’s aircraft overhead. Although he would have enjoyed greater air support, at this point in the operation he was happy with anything he could get. Soon afterward, he received a radio report from Yamato announcing that radar had spotted American aircraft. Cautious after the previous day’s beating, Kurita ordered his fleet to prepare for an aerial attack. Soon, however, reports were received that Onishi’s aircraft had downed an American reconnaissance plane. Sailors aboard Kurita’s ships were alert and at their positions when, just visible over the horizon, they saw the radar masts of Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague’s six escort carriers. The news electrified the Japanese crews, and Kurita’s chief of staff, Adm. Timiji Koyanagi, recalled that soon after sighting the masts “we could see planes being launched. This was indeed a miracle. Think of a surface fleet coming up on an enemy carrier group? Nothing is more vulnerable than an aircraft carrier in a surface engagement.”

Kurita was astonished. Although his force had suffered a good deal of damage it was still incredibly potent, especially against enemy carriers caught unprepared. He alerted all of the ships of the force to prepare for action and form a battle line. He then steamed toward the U.S. carriers, and at 0658 the massive 18-inch guns of the battleship Yamato fired on them. As they approached additional ships added their salvos to those of Yamato.

On board Fanshaw Bay, C. A. F. Sprague was horrified to see a huge red geyser of water rise up just off his port bow. The admiral knew that the Japanese often used dye to mark the fall of their incoming rounds. What were the Japanese doing there? he wondered. TF 34 was supposed to be guarding the San Bernardino Strait. He had little time to consider what had happened however, as the waters around Taffy-3 were soon alive with color as Japanese shells came closer and closer. Aware that time was of the essence, he immediately ordered his ships to generate smoke launching their aircraft and to retreat toward Taffy-2. He then radioed T. L. Sprague and Kinkaid the desperate message, “Where is Task Force 34?” Kinkaid was alarmed by the message. He was sure the strait had been covered. Then he remembered that he had never received a confirmation from Halsey that TF 34 was, in fact, off the San Bernardino Strait.

Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to buy time, the aircraft from Taffy-3 were throwing themselves at Kurita’s force. Untrained and unequipped for an aerial attack on Japanese ships bristling with antiaircraft guns and supported by circling land-based fighters, Taffy-3’s brave pilots were either shot from the sky or driven away before they could do much damage. Later, waves of fighters launched from Taffy-2 and Taffy-1 proved only slightly more successful, launching a torpedo attack that destroyed one of Kurita’s destroyers. The beleaguered American carriers of Taffy-3 received a brief respite when they were able to enter the protection offered by a nearby rainstorm. However, even that relief proved to be short-lived. Unable to keep pace with the fast-moving storm, the carriers were soon bracketed by renewed enemy shell fire. Aware that he was sending them to their deaths, but having little choice, C. A. F. Sprague ordered his destroyers to attack the Japanese. Given the circumstances, the Americans were incredibly successful, severely damaging the cruiser Kumano as well as two additional Japanese destroyers.

Even this effort, however, was futile. The overwhelming might of Kurita’s battleships and cruisers had soon dispatched the destroyers Johnston and Hoel and left Hermann dead in the water. With his destroyers now gone, Sprague waited for the inevitable, and at 0720, 18-inch shells from Yamato ripped into his flagship, USS Fanshaw Bay, and she quickly went down. White Plains and Gambler Bay soon followed Taffy-3’s flagship to the bottom. Kurita then dispatched a cruiser to deal with the remaining ships of Taffy-3 while the rest of his force continued on toward Leyte Gulf.

Before his ship went down, Sprague was able to alert Kinkaid that unless Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 could do something quickly, it seemed certain that Kurita would reach Leyte Gulf. In perhaps one of the bitterest ironies of the day, because of the inefficient radio link between the two fleets, at 0720 Kinkaid finally received a response to his message to Halsey of the previous evening. Halsey informed him that TF 34 was part of his attack on Ozawa.

Kinkaid now had some difficult decisions to make. He was painfully aware that Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 could do little against Kurita’s fleet, but he had to sacrifice them in order to buy time. The American battleships and cruisers that had been so successful at Surigao Strait were at least three hours away from Leyte, and though Halsey was reluctantly headed south after a good deal of haranguing and pleading from Kinkaid and an alerted Nimitz, it would still be several hours before the now formed TF 34 could reach the area. As expected, the desperate attacks of Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 did little more than cause Kurita to slow temporarily. Attacks by the aircraft and destroyers of the two groups managed to sink the cruiser Chikuma and damage Tone, but at the cost of five more of the tiny “jeep” carriers and most of the destroyer escorts.

The Price of Imprudence

Kurita now ordered another cruiser and a destroyer to join his trailing cruiser in finishing off any remnants of Sprague’s three carrier groups. Just as Yamato’s guns were finishing off the last of Taffy-1, Kurita was informed by an excited Koyanagi that his guns were now within range of the enemy anchorage at Leyte Gulf. Kurita could scarcely contain himself. He immediately ordered that word of this stunning accomplishment be flashed to Tokyo, the troops fighting for their lives around Leyte, and to every ship remaining in the fleet. Elated by what they had accomplished, the Japanese sailors worked relentlessly as the guns of the mighty Yamato and the surviving cruisers raked Kinkaid’s transports trapped within the confines of Leyte Gulf. What few aircraft remained to Kinkaid could do little against the massive barrage of heavy caliber naval shells that came hurtling into the gulf. The slaughter was on a scale that exceeded what had occurred at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, Japan’s greatest naval victory. So tightly packed were the transports inside the gulf that Kurita’s gunners barely had to aim their weapons.

Nimitz was startled when he received Kinkaid’s desperate message for help. He, too, believed that Halsey had left TF 34 guarding San Bernardino Strait. Aware of the magnitude of what this could mean, Nimitz immediately radioed Halsey with the question, “Where is Task Force 34? The world wonders.” Although the second sentence of the message was meant merely to confuse the enemy, Halsey, perhaps now aware of the tragic mistake he had made, was enraged. In response, he ignored the pleadings of Kinkaid and the questions of Nimitz for another hour before reluctantly making the decision to form TF 34 and head it south ahead of the rest of his force. He was far too late to rescue the situation in the south and his momentary confusion meant that Ozawa was able to quickly turn about and escape as well.

Aware that the remaining U.S. ships would soon be rushing to the relief of Leyte Gulf, after little more than an hour of blasting away at the American anchorage Kurita headed back toward San Bernardino Strait. He knew his battle-scarred ships and exhausted men would have an all but impossible time avoiding Halsey’s force, but as had just been demonstrated, there were such things as miracles.

As a final bitter end to the rapidly unfolding American disaster, Halsey’s delay in forming Task Force 34 meant that Kurita was able to escape from the gulf and limp back to Brunei. On the beaches of Leyte, Krueger’s 6th Army was driven back to the water’s edge before the guns of the now combined 3rd and 7th fleets provided sufficient firepower to halt the Japanese attacks. Although the 6th Army was able to hold on, the men endured privation exceeding what the Marines had experienced on Guadalcanal in 1942. Soon, the fighting on Leyte reached a stalemate, with the Americans unable to advance farther inland and the Japanese unable to push the Americans into the gulf. Kurita’s stunning victory had set back the timetable for Allied victory in the Pacific by years.

When word of the disaster at Leyte Gulf reached Washington on October 27, President Franklin Roosevelt and his principal military advisors could scarcely believe it. The impetuous Halsey was immediately, and publicly, sacked and replaced by the victor of Midway, the somewhat more prudent Raymond A. Spruance. And although he escaped the fate of his subordinate, Nimitz’s strategic plans, much to MacArthur’s immense satisfaction, were no longer given much consideration by either King or Roosevelt. After Halsey’s removal, there was simply no way to conceal such a disaster from the American public. Mindful of the fact that the election for his unprecedented fourth term as president was just weeks away, aware that many pundits were calling for his removal, and unwilling to see if the public was prepared to continue to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to subdue Imperial Japan, Roosevelt made plans for peace.

The U.S. president offered the Japanese a means of escaping from the rain of American B-29 bombers that would soon be unleashed. Roosevelt would agree to a conditional surrender that called for a withdrawal from all those possessions the Japanese had taken after December 7, 1941.

Since Tojo’s removal after the Saipan disaster, Japanese peace advocates within Emperor Hirohito’s government had sought a means of saving the country and the Emperor’s dynasty while preserving their country’s honor. Kurita’s victory had provided them with that opportunity. Not only was the Emperor allowed to retain his throne, but Japan was able to retain control of its possessions in Indochina, Manchuria, and most of China.

On November 2, 1944, Roosevelt announced to a jubilant American public that the Japanese had agreed to surrender all of the territory conquered after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After giving his unprecedented fourth inaugural speech on Saturday, January 20, 1945, Roosevelt returned to the Oval Office to celebrate. Piled upon his desk was a stack of the customary congratulatory telegrams from governments across the globe. He thought it particularly ironic that at the bottom of the stack was a letter of congratulations from Emperor Hirohito.

The four main actions in the battle of Leyte Gulf: 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea 2 Battle of Surigao Strait 3 Battle of (or ‘off’) Cape Engaño 4 Battle off Samar. Leyte Gulf is north of 2 and west of 4. The island of Leyte is west of the gulf.

The Reality

Soon after departing Brunei, the Japanese plans began to come apart. On October 23, Admiral Kurita’s flagship was sunk as it was steaming past the Palawan passage, and throughout October 24 his ships, lacking any air cover, were battered by Halsey’s airplanes. Meanwhile, as described previously, Kinkaid destroyed Nishimura’s force on the evening of October 24—25.

Believing that he had sufficiently damaged Kurita’s force on October 24, Halsey steamed northward against Ozawa, leaving the San Bernardino Strait unprotected. Despite the battering the Japanese received on their way to the strait, the absence of Task Force 34 meant that only Sprague’s escort carriers remained between Kurita and Leyte Gulf. In one of the finest displays of courage in the history of the U.S. Navy, the sailors and airmen of Taffy-3 put up a desperate defense against Kurita. Despite the odds against them, Taffy-3’s planes—joined later by the pilots of Taffy-1 and Taffy-2—were able to launch a series of desperate attacks against Kurita. Lacking torpedoes, some planes made dummy bombing runs while others dropped bombs meant for Japanese army units on Leyte. Meanwhile, the destroyer escorts of Taffy-3 launched determined torpedo attacks against Kurita, sank Chokai and Chikuma, and drove off Yamato. So determined were the American attacks that at 0915 Kurita called off his own attack and, at 1236, on the verge of scoring a great victory, turned his ships around and headed back through the San Bernardino Strait. Despite all the damage he had suffered, if Kurita had kept his nerve for just a little while longer, there is every reason to believe he could have sailed into Leyte Gulf and inflicted the damage described previously.

As Taffy-3 fought for its life, Halsey began a series of attacks against Ozawa. By the end of the day the 3rd Fleet had sunk all of the Japanese carriers. By every estimate, the Battle of Leyte Gulf had been a total disaster for the Japanese. While the Americans escaped with the loss of only three light carriers and three destroyer escorts, the Japanese lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers. They also lost any chance of stopping the relentless Allied advance on the home islands.

Bibliography

Cannon, M. Hamlin, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines (Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1993).

Cutler, Thomas X, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944 (Harper, New York, 1994).

Humble, Richard, Japanese High Seas Fleet (Ballantine, New York, 1973).

Morgan, Ted FDR: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985).

Morison, Samuel Eliot, Leyte, June 1944-January 1945 (Little, Brown, Boston, 1971).

Nalty, Bernard (ed.), War in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1991).

Spector, Ronald H., Eagle Against the Sun: The American War Against Japan (Free Press, New York, 1985).

Steinberg, Rafael, Return to the Philippines (Time Life, Alexandria, 1980).

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