All of this was the prelude to the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which Admiral Mitscher s airmen practically denuded Ozawa’s remaining carriers of pilots and sent the broken fleet to refuge in Empire waters minus one more carrier, the Hiyo (also called the Hitaka). Four others were damaged, but not so seriously that they could not be patched up for Japan’s last try, four months later, in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea.
In that battle the submarines again provided the fleet’s best eyes. They gave the first warning that the powerful forces of Admirals Kurita and Nishimura were on their way, and once more a setup was provided for our two fleets, the Third and Seventh. But this time, at a very critical stage the ball was fumbled and only merciful Providence prevented stark tragedy from being visited upon the hundreds of defenseless cargo and troop ships in Leyte Gulf.
When the Japanese fleet left Tawi Tawi anchorage for Philippine waters in June, 1944, hopes of smashing our fleet still were high. After the First Philippine Sea Battle, when only headlong flight had saved the Japanese, the senior officers of the Imperial Navy realized that the American Navy was too much for them and only desperate measures could, at best, achieve face-saving retaliation. But what could they do with Admiral Kurita’s potentially powerful fleet, licking its wounds far to the south in the Lingaa-Singapore area, with the full array of the American sea power between it and Ozawa’s carrier force frantically endeavoring in Empire waters to replace the pilots lost in the disastrous Marianas campaign?
The Japanese knew they were violating one of the cardinal principles of naval warfare thus to separate the fleet. But there were compelling reasons for the Japanese decision to leave
Kurita’s force in Lingaa and Ozawa’s in Empire waters, until the day arrived for their last desperate thrust against the enemy, and the most compelling of the list was the American submarines.
Since the beginning of the war the submarines had been biting deep into the arteries of the Empire. The Imperial supply line to the south had become but a broken thread since the submarines, selecting tankers as their favorite targets, had bled the Japanese fleet of its life-giving fluids. After the toll they had taken, and were continuing to take, it would have been impossible to fuel Kurita’s fleet if it had been moved to Empire waters.
Since this was true it might have been easy enough to balance Kurita’s force with the necessary carriers by moving Ozawa’s fleet south. But Ozawa was confronted with the all but insurmountable task of replacing the pilots he had lost, and Singapore was no place to achieve that. The task could only be accomplished in Empire waters, at the source of supply, rather than in an area hundreds of miles to the south.
So the problem which devolved upon the shoulders of Admiral Toyoda, the Navy High Commander in Tokyo, was how to make the most use of his ships in face of the double dilemma. Certainly it would not benefit the Empire to have them.just sit out the rest of the war. All illusions about overpowering the United States fleet in conventional battle had been dissipated. The only ambition now was to make the Americans pay extravagantly for anything they got. The striking force that had streamed for the Marianas in June charged like a lion, although it had to run like a hare. Now Toyoda determined to employ a different approach. This time he decided they would use the tactics of the fox.
The next Allied move pointed to the Philippines. The Japanese were certain that we would want to make good MacArthur’s publicized promise, “I will return,” nor did the United States conceal that intent.
Toyoda’s plan—Plan Sho-Go—for the defense of the Philippines was extremely daring and no wonder, since it was born of desperation. Time was running out fast for the Nipponese. If disaster was ever to be visited upon the Allies it would have to come when their forces descended upon the Philippines, the Imperial planners figured, and so they decided that if they could compute the psychological moment to bring up their powerful fleet from the south, separate it into two groups to attack the Americans from two directions, they could divide the Allied strength and then unite their two forces to crush the Allied transport and cargo ships wherever we had chosen to land.
One force under Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura, consisting of two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers, termed the Southern Fleet, would go in through Surigao Strait. The main or Central Fleet of five battleships, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, fifteen destroyers, under Admiral Kurita, would slip in through San Bernardino Strait. And if Ozawa’s carriers were only good to bait the trap, that was honorable enough a job if it meant the humiliation of the incredible Americans.
Of course, Admiral Toyoda was perfectly aware that Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet and Admiral Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet could be overwhelming obstacles to the success of their plan, but the Japanese Admiral had confidence—at least hope —in the efficacy of the fox’s skin. Mentally, he had written off Admiral Nishimura’s small force. It would probably be lost, but it would serve its purpose if it divided the Allies and kept their full force from joining the main battle. It was Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet of fast, large battleships and carriers that had to be taken out of the play until Kurita could complete his work of destruction. On this gamble Toyoda was agreeable to hazarding some of his best blue chips. He guessed that Halsey’s fliers were itching to get the carriers that had slipped out of their grasp at the Marianas, and that the Bull would quickly charge at anything that looked like carriers on the rampage. But how far could Halsey be lured away? That was the dominating question in Toyoda’s thoughts.
Ozawa was accomplishing a near miracle in remanning his denuded carriers with pilots, but time was too short to give the fliers the necessary training and experience needed to challenge the American naval aviators. However, they would have to do, training or no, and it must be admitted that the Japanese aviators were willing and eager.
The plan, therefore, called for Admiral Ozawa and his carriers, augmented by two battleships, three light cruisers and ten destroyers, to sail boldly down from home waters and practically dare Admiral Halsey to come up and meet the Japanese “Main Fleet.” If the Third Fleet Commander should fall for the tempting bait and leave San Bernardino Strait unguarded long enough for Kurita to get through to his objective, the Philippine invasion could become the war’s greatest debacle for the Allies. The success of the plan depended entirely on whether, and for how long, Halsey could be fooled by the “Main Fleet” illusion.
It is interesting to note how well their strategy worked.
Kurita and Nishimura left the Lingaa area on October 18, topped off with fuel at Brunei, Borneo, and on October 22 set off for their respective straits. They were supposed to sweep into Leyte Gulf three days later to commence their annihilation of Allied landing forces.
But the American submarines were the incalculable factor in materially upsetting the execution of this beautifully conceived plan. Specifically, the Darter and the Dace, working as a wolf pack, showed up the seams in Toyoda’s foxy disguise.
The value of the Darters contact report of the movement of the enemy forces can best be judged by the remarks of Admiral Kinkaid, the Seventh Fleet Commander, upon whose shoulders fell the brunt of the blow from the Japanese forces.
“The Fourth War Patrol of the USS Darter,” said Admiral Kinkaid, “embraces one of the most outstanding contributions by submarines to the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Navy. On 23 October the Darter intercepted in Palawan Passage a strong enemy task force composed of heavy cruisers and battleships which was bound for Leyte Gulf, bent on destroying our forces. As the result of a brilliantly executed dawn attack the Darter stopped two heavy cruisers, sending one to the bottom and seriously damaging the other. The selection of the time for the attack is considered well advised in view of the difficulty in attacking radar-equipped war vessels at night and considering the intelligence desired on the composition of the enemy forces. This intelligence, which was promptly transmitted, was the first tangible evidence of the size and magnitude of the forces which the enemy was assembling to dislodge our position in Leyte. The early receipt of this information enabled our forces to formulate and put into execution the countermeasures which resulted in major disaster for the Japanese in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea.”
The important role the Darter and Dace played in the prelude to the subsequent battle was not accidental. Commander Submarines had placed them where they were in conformance with the general plan of supplying our High Command with information on enemy movements. Figuring that a movement of Japanese naval forces was probable, if not inevitable, in view of the Philippine invasion, Commander Submarines stationed submarines where task forces would be most likely to travel en route to the Philippine Sea.
During the latter part of September, 1944, the Darter, commanded by Commander David H. McClintock, and the Dace (Commander Bladen D. Claggett) shifted their reconnaissance duty from the Celebes Sea northward to the South
China Sea. During the entire period culminating in the historic contact with the main Japanese task force the two skippers held frequent conferences to plan their work. Radio intercepts indicated that there was a big movement of ships afoot and both subs carefully patrolled their assigned end of the Palawan Passage, the Darter taking the southern end near Balibac Island between Palawan and Borneo. A fleet coming up from Lingaa via Brunei, Borneo, would have to steam through the channel. It was just a question of waiting for it.
On October 12 the Darter made a daylight attack on seven large cargo ships, escorted by two destroyers, and badly damaged two of them.
The Dace, working with the Darter as a pack, joined next night in a combined surface attack on a convoy, sinking two ships and damaging others. But this was not the big game the two were seeking.
After the Darter picked up a broadcast on the night of October 20 reporting the Philippine invasion in Leyte, all small fry were ignored by the submarines. The remaining torpedoes were now reserved for the big fellows, for it would be now or never for the Japanese fleet to attempt to smash the invasion.
On Saturday night, October 21, the Darter made a radar contact on a group of ships that appeared to contain heavy cruisers. While she was getting off contact reports to her own task force commander and the Dace, the Darter took off in pursuit, but though she cut comers by going through the treacherous Dangerous Ground, the targets were making too much speed to be overtaken. However, this presaged the movement of the enemy toward Leyte. ‘
At midnight on the twenty-second with the subs surfaced within speaking distance, the two skippers discussed plans rather disconsolately. It seemed likely that the enemy had in some manner slipped by unnoticed, they agreed, when the
Darter’s radar operator sauntered up to his dapper skipper. “A rain squall contact on the radar screen, Captain,” he reported casually.
Acting on a hunch the skipper quickly took a look.
“Squall, hell! Those are ships and plenty of them!” And they were coming up from the west of Borneo! Just what they had been waiting for!
McClintock grabbed a megaphone and called over to the Dace. “We have radar contacts. Let’s go!”
He heard the immediate and enthusiastic response: “Roger! What are we waiting for?”
The long wait was over. This was it!
Keeping ahead of the formation by employing their highest speed, the two subs carefully studied the enemy ships. There were eleven heavy ships in two columns with numerous destroyers acting as screens. This was no doubt one of the expected heavy enemy forces, perhaps even the largest one.
Before dawn the Darter had gotten off three contact reports to the Boss, each one confirming and expanding on the others, describing the make-up of the enemy formation and its speed.
Their intelligence work now being completed, the subs were free to lessen the problem for the surface forces. The Darter gave the word to the Dace, “Let’s get ’em!” The Dace had already selected her target.
Admiral Kurita, in his flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago, was having early morning tea in his sea cabin with his chief of staff, Rear Admiral Koyanagi, when the first of five Darter torpedoes struck the cruiser. He had only a few minutes to leap into his barge and make speed for the destroyer Kishinami before his proud flagship slid under the water bow first and in flames. Before he could clamber aboard the destroyer Kurita gloomily watched another cruiser, the Takao, belching smoke, fire and steam and calling for help. The stern tubes of the Darter had accounted for her grievous condition. Two destroyers were detailed to escort her back to Brunei.
The swirls of the sinking Atago were still in evidence when the Admiral watched a heavy cruiser on the other flank, the Maya, disintegrate and disappear under the impact of four torpedoes from the Dace.
On the same day, off Luzon, the Bream, commanded by Commander Wreford G. (Moon) Chappie, caught one of the heavy cruisers, the Aoba, coming down from the Empire to join up, and put it out of action. And Commander Tommy Wogan, in the Besugo, reported Ozawa’s carrier force streaming down from the Inland Sea. Positive information of the approach of the enemy and of the composition of his forces had now been sent to our High Command. That was the submarines’ mission. Subtracting four heavy cruisers from the enemy’s fleets was sheer cumshaw, but it was now up to the commanders of the Third and Seventh Fleets to carry the ball.
Admiral Kinkaid sent his tactical commander, Vice-Admiral Oldendorf, to handle the situation at Surigao Strait, and during the early hours of October 25 his units quickly annihilated the force of Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura, the American battleships executing another dream-book tactic, “crossing the T” of,the Japanese battle line. So much for the Southern Fleet.
The burden of success for the Japanese scheme rode on Admiral Kurita’s Central Fleet.
Kurita’s confidence was somewhat shaken in the Palawan Passage when he saw three of his heavy cruisers taken from his fleet by the Darter and Dace. It could be an omen of things to come, he thought, as he sipped bitter tea in his sea cabin on the battleship Yamato, the “unsinkable” battleship whose 18-inch guns were the heaviest ordnance anywhere afloat
The next morning Kurita drank his tea in more tranquility. From all appearances, everything was going well, and it looked as if his ships would have a field day in Leyte Gulf. That would make up for a lot of past disasters, the admiral thought with grim anticipation.
Soon after ten that morning his complacency was rudely shaken when radar reported the approach of a large flight of planes. A few minutes later the first wave of United States carrier dive bombers and torpedo planes were screaming down in a savage attack, and when the skies were cleared another cruiser commenced limping back to Brunei. The giant battleship Musashi showed no bad effect from the one torpedo hit registered on her.
In the early afternoon the second wave of planes from the Intrepid, Cabot and Independence came down and concentrated their fury on the Musashi, and three more torpedoes hit that battleship. This time Kurita glumly watched the sister ship of the Yamato slow down and circle, badly hurt.
Why fighter planes had not come out from the Manila fields according to plan had Kurita worried. Not that it would have eased his mind any, but he couldn’t know that the Manila fighters were having plenty to occupy their attention from Admiral Sherman’s carriers off Luzon.
The carrier attacks against Kurita’s ships continued with increasing fury and volume. By four that afternoon five waves of planes had reduced the Jap fighting power considerably. The huge Musashi was definitely unable to proceed to Leyte and was told to retire. The four remaining battleships had been bombed but not enough to impare their fighting power. It takes torpedoes to get a battleship. No battleship was sunk by bombs alone during the war.
By this time Kurita was convinced that the Ozawa plan had failed completely in view of the continuous carrier attacks and that it would be wiser for him to retire beyond the range of carriers, particularly as he had no air coverage or hope of any. Kurita therefore reversed his course.
The blood-red sun was hanging low in the western sky when planes from the Intrepid, Cabot and Independence swooped down for a final performance, giving the coup de grdce to the badly damaged Musashi, the battleship sinking in the twilight off Sibuyan Island due north of Panay. Her executive officer, Captain Kenkichi Kaot, later testified that the ship had received thirty bombs and twenty-six torpedoes—no ship is unsinkable under such punishment.
Kurita duly reported his westward flight to the Navy High Command in Tokyo, Admiral Toyoda, but even before he received the answer, “With confidence in heavenly guidance the entire force will attack,” Kurita’s courage had returned under the protecting cloak of darkness and his force was again steaming eastward to carry out the original plan. His fleet had now been reduced to four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers, still a very formidable force.
At 1:00 a.m. on October 25 he expected to complete his passage of San Bernardino Strait. The course would then be along the east coast of Samar. At 11:00 a.m. they would arrive at Leyte Gulf!
Two people received the news of Kurita’s appearance on October 25 with mingled emotions and considerable concern: Admiral Kinkaid, whose heavy forces under Admiral Oldendorf were at Surigao Strait where they had smashed the Jap Southern Fleet that morning but who in consequence were out of ammunition; and Rear Admiral C. A. F. Sprague, commander of the escort “jeep” carriers, upon which Kurita’s big ships were descending.
Both confidently expected Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 34 to contain any force appearing at the Strait. But the Ozawa lure was finally working and Task Force 34 was hot after Ozawa’s ships, believing that it was the enemy main force. It was just what the Japs had hoped and gambled on.
That morning Leyte’s prospects looked pretty grim. Kinkaid’s battleships and cruisers could not get back in time to defend it even if they had anything to shoot with, and Sprague’s “jeep” carriers, their planes providing all the air support the ground forces on Leyte possessed, would be wholly ineffective. The transports appeared doomed.
At 7:00 a.m. that fateful day Admiral Sprague and his six small carriers and seven escorts bravely prepared to put themselves in the way of the onrushing Japanese. It was one of those “magnificent but futile” actions, cousin-german to the Charge of the Light Brigade, that men will do just to be doing something in a hopeless situation.
For two hours Kurita’s heavy cruisers and battleships peppered the “jeeps” and their destroyer-escorts at will. The escorts delivered desperate torpedo attacks but the Japanese tide rolled on unchecked. The Gambier Bay was ripped to pieces by shell fire; then the Kitkun Bay and Saint Lo came in for the same treatment, the latter sinking. Three escorts, the Johnson, Samuel B. Roberts, and Hoel were sunk.
Admiral Kinkaid, in his headquarters ship, Wasatch, at Leyte, anxiously followed the course of the battle off Samar. Ship after ship was put out of battle, and still no Task Force 34, fully capable of handling the situation once it arrived. The troop ships and cargo-carriers in Leyte Gulf were doomed, sure as shooting fish in a barrel.
Then an inexplicable thing occurred and saved Leyte and the invasion forces.
Kurita was a troubled man. He simply couldn’t believe what he saw. Everything was too easy. His ships just couldn’t go on picking off the escort carriers and their escorts one by one indefinitely, without more show of resistance. The savage carrier attacks the day before were proof to him that Halsey had not been fooled. Kurita was certain that the Americans were deliberately sacrificing the escort carriers and destroyers just to lure him into a trap of their own. Any minute now waves of planes would come screaming down on him as on the previous day, and that would be the end of the Japanese Navy.
So, with the destruction of the escort carriers within his grasp and Leyte only two hours away, he ordered his fleet to reverse course and head for San Bernardino Strait at full speed! He was questioned closely after the war for an explanation regarding his sudden withdrawal when he had all the trump cards in his hand, but he could give none except that he feared another deluge of carrier planes.
Once the jittery Kurita regained confidence again and reversed course to resume his work of destruction.
But his courage quickly oozed again, and, this time for good, once more he raced for the Strait, leaving Admiral Sprague gazing after him with puzzled but grateful eyes.