By dusk on 24 October, Ozawa had been unsuccessful in his main mission of luring the powerful TF 38 force northward and facilitating Kurita’s penetration of Leyte Gulf. Among many problems he had to overcome was his scanty information about the situation. Most sorely lacking was up-to-date information on the actions and movements of Kurita’s force. Such information was critical if Ozawa’s force would adjust its movements to facilitate Kurita’s advance toward Leyte Gulf.
What Ozawa Knew
Ozawa received some information in the morning and afternoon of 24 October about the enemy attacks on Kurita’s force. He learned that Nishimura’s force was advancing toward Surigao Strait as planned. At 1830 the same day, Ozawa received a query from Kurita regarding battle results east of Lamon Bay. At 2000, he received another message from Kurita saying that because of damage received during air attacks his force was temporarily retiring outside the attack range of enemy aircraft. His force would resume its easterly course depending on the results achieved by the Japanese air forces.
Shortly before 0500 on 25 October, Ozawa received a message from Nishimura saying that he had planned to penetrate the Dulag area at 0400 on 25 October. Nishimura’s force, he learned, had been completely destroyed in that effort. About 0530, Ozawa received a report from Shima that his force attacked enemy ships and was temporarily leaving Surigao Strait. Another message from Kurita came in the afternoon of the same day, informing Ozawa that he had sunk three or four enemy carriers off Samar. However, he did not say anything about coming north to help Ozawa’s force. At about 0630, Ozawa received a report from the Sixth Base Air Force concerning four separate enemy carrier forces operating east and north off the San Bernardino Strait. From the Combined Fleet HQ Ozawa also received a number of intercepted plain-text messages referring to the attack by Kurita’s Main Body against enemy carriers off Samar. One such message, received at about 0950, indicated that the enemy carrier force being pursued and attacked by Kurita’s Main Body had requested urgent assistance from the (carrier) task force assumed to be operating eastward of Lamon Bay.
Ozawa’s Initial Lack of Success
On 24 October, Ozawa focused on ensuring that his force was detected by enemy carrier groups operating east of Luzon. He obtained first contact with the enemy force at about 0700, when the distance was about 350 miles. Ozawa decided to close the distance to about 130 to 150 miles before launching his attack. By 1115, the distance had been reduced to 180 miles. His search aircraft reported an enemy force of ten ships, without clearly identifying any as carriers. About 30 minutes later Ozawa launched the first strike group of about 75 aircraft. The enemy force was then about 150 miles from his force. Because of bad weather, Ozawa’s aircraft were directed to land at Nichols Field, Manila, or some other naval air base on Luzon. The plan was to recover these planes later on in the waters east of Luzon.
By noon on 24 October, Ozawa, disappointed that the enemy had not taken his bait, formed Force A (2 BBs/XCV, 1 CL, and 4 DDs) to act as an advance guard. The latter’s task was to sail ahead of the Main Body and divert the enemy carrier force northward. This seemed to work—U.S. carrier aircraft detected both parts of Ozawa’s force. At 1650, Ozawa sent a message to all forces taking part in the operation that enemy carrier aircraft had detected his force. In fact, U.S. aircraft had detected the Northern Force ten minutes earlier, when it was about 130 miles off the northern tip of Luzon.
In conducting his estimate of the situation in the late afternoon on 24 October, Ozawa concluded that the enemy had “easily grasped the operational objective of the First Diversionary Attack Force and will make an all-out effort to prevent its accomplishment.” He assumed that the enemy carriers would move south the next day and take further decisive action against Kurita’s force. Ozawa evaluated his actions up to that point as being ineffective in diverting the enemy carrier groups. He believed that it was imperative to divert the enemy force, regardless of losses inflicted upon his own force. In the worst case, his plan was to use his newly formed Advance Guard Force in combination with attacks by the Base Air Forces to divert the enemy. Ozawa’s tentative plan was that if there was no prospect of carrying out a night attack and accomplishing his primary mission, the Advance Guard would rejoin the Main Body.
Ozawa was reportedly surprised that his force was not attacked during the day on 24 October. The reason for that was that Halsey’s carrier groups were busy attacking Kurita’s force in the Sibuyan Sea. However, Ozawa overly trusted reports of his pilots who claimed that they had damaged two enemy carriers. He then detached part of his force that night to carry out a surface night attack against the U.S. force, but the Japanese force was unable to obtain contact.
Halsey’s Fateful Decision to Move Northward
At about 1655 on 24 October, Halsey received reports from the northernmost carrier group, TG 38.3, and from land-based air searches that suspected that an enemy carrier force, later cited as the “Northern Force,” had actually been located. He obtained some clarification from CTG 38.2 at 1730, and finally received a full report from CTF 38 at 1925. The reports from aircraft indicated the presence of two groups of enemy ships; one consisted of two fast and one light carrier, three light cruisers and destroyers on course 270°, speed 15 knots at 18° 25′ north and 125° 28′ east (approximately 210 nautical miles east of Cape Engano) at 1640; the other group was composed of four battleships or heavy cruisers, five cruisers, and six destroyers, on course 210°, speed 15 knots at position 18° 10′ north and 125° 30′ east. One of the battleships was reported to have a flight deck aft. Halsey and his staff believed the Northern Force was composed of 17 and possibly as many as 24 ships. However, these reports were widely off mark because Ozawa’s force was much weaker (1 CV, 3 CVLs, 2 BBs/XCV, 3 CLs, and 8 DDs) than reported by the TF 38’s pilots. Halsey considered the Northern Force—as it turned out, quite wrongly—as the most formidable threat to Allied operations in the Pacific, both present and future. He also learned that Kinkaid was prepared to meet any enemy force that might try passing through Surigao Strait.
At 1950, Halsey made a tactical decision with potentially serious operational consequences to close in with all his carrier groups (minus TG 38.3) and proceed northward to attack Ozawa’s force. At that time Halsey with his two carrier groups was about 100 miles eastward from the entrance of San Bernardino Strait. At 2005, Halsey sent a message to Nimitz (and Kinkaid as information addressee) stating that “CTF 38.3 has scuttled Princeton and is closing 38.2 and 38.4 which are now concentrated off entrance to San Bernardino Strait. Night enemy air attack by enemy possible, more later.” He also informed Kinkaid about 2025 that the Central Force was heavily damaged and that he was proceeding north with three carrier groups to attack the enemy force at dawn. He provided estimated position of Kurita’s force as 12° 45′ north 122° 40′ east, course 120° and speed 12 knots but did not indicate that the enemy’s force in fact was heading toward San Bernardino Strait. Moreover, the wording of that message did not give any hint that any part of the Third Fleet was being left behind to cover San Bernardino Strait or that the composition of the three carrier groups had been changed.
At 2030 on 24 October Halsey directed Rear Admiral John S. McCain’s TG 38.1 to refuel, then after joining the other two carrier groups, to sail north to Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s TG 38.3 at 14° 28′ north and 125° 50′ east by 2400. After completing a new estimate of the situation, Halsey repeated his orders directing TG 38.2 and 38.4 to pass through the same reference position and proceed north at 25 knots. CTF 38 would take charge of all three groups and attack the enemy carrier force. CTG 38.1 would be advised of the movements of other carrier groups and then join TF 38 as early as possible. The message about engaging the enemy’s Northern Force was addressed only to his subordinate tactical commanders.
In his post-action report, Halsey insisted that “it was recognized that the Center Force might sortie and inflict some damage, but its fighting power was considered too seriously impaired to win a decision.” He also somewhat implausibly contended that the “Third Fleet forces could return in time to reverse any advantage that the Center Force might gain.” Halsey was firmly convinced that his decision would “contribute most to the overall Philippine campaign even if a temporarily tight situation existed at Leyte.”
Halsey was apparently much influenced by the reports of his pilots on the damages they supposedly inflicted on the Central Force on 24 October. In addition, there was much concern on the part of Halsey and his chief of staff that the enemy carrier aircraft might conduct shuttle bombing. Halsey believed that he had sufficient force to destroy the enemy carriers, and the battleships of TF 34 would be used to finish them off. Once the enemy carriers were annihilated the way would be open for the Third Fleet to operate freely off Tokyo. No one on Halsey’s staff had offered any alternative course of action. Admiral Carney in fact fully supported the decision; the plans officer was not present when the decision was made; the intelligence officer was not consulted; and the radio officer who listened to all radio traffic all day was not present either.86 One can only conclude that Halsey and his staff in making the decision to move the entire TF 38 north and away from San Bernardino Strait did not conduct a proper running estimate of the situation. The decision was precipitous and not all aspects of the operational situation were considered or properly analyzed.
In the morning of 24 October, Halsey, concerned with the security of his northern flank, had queried CTF 77 concerning the start of seaplane searches from Leyte. He learned at about 2030 that Leyte-based searches of three western sectors would start that night, and searches of two eastern sectors would start as soon as possible. At 2040, the light carrier Independence (from TG 38.2) relayed a report from one of its aircraft that the enemy force was off the west coast of Burias (between southern Luzon and Masbate). The aircraft report was sent at 2005 but the time of sighting was 1935 when the enemy force was at position 12° 45′ north and 122° 40′ east, course 120° and speed 12 knots and sailing on a northeasterly course. In another sighting at 2145 and transmitted 17 minutes later the Central Force was located at 12° 45′ north and 123° 22′ east, speed 12 knots and sailing on a northeasterly course. At 2124 Halsey transmitted the first report about the sighting of Central Force to Kinkaid, but sent no further information during the night 24–25 October.
Dissent from Halsey’s Decision
All three of Halsey’s carrier group commanders immediately grasped the gravity of the decision to engage the Northern Force and the possible consequences of leaving the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. After receiving information that the Central Force had resumed its easterly advance, CTG 38.2, Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan, planned to protest Halsey’s decision. He discussed the matter via TBS with his subordinate commanding officer, Captain E. C. Ewen, of the carrier Independence. Ewen confirmed the sightings of the Central Force. He also pointed out that all navigation lights in the San Bernardino Strait were brightly lit, although they were normally shut down. This was most likely a sign of unusual enemy activity. Bogan prepared a message for the New Jersey, then decided to call Halsey via TBS. He got a staff officer on the phone instead, who confirmed that the flagship had the same information. He reportedly planned to send another message recommending that only two carrier groups (TG 38.3 and TG 38.4) continue north, leaving one (TG 38.2) behind, but in the end he decided against it.
Admiral Willis A. Lee seemed to be the only high-ranking subordinate commander who correctly deduced that the Northern Force must be a decoy with little or no striking power. He also believed that the Central Force’s earlier reversal of course was only temporary. Just before sunset, he sent a message to Halsey about his views. He did not get any response, except for an acknowledgment from the New Jersey that the message was received. After the report from the Independence came in, Lee sent another message via TBS to Halsey, stating, among other things, that he was certain the Central Force would pass through the San Bernardino Strait. After that message, he did not offer any further advice to Halsey.
At about 2030, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher received Halsey’s order to proceed northward. His impression was that it was a preparatory action for Halsey to assume tactical command of all carrier groups for the expected attack on the Northern Force the next day. A few minutes before Halsey’s order came in, TF 38’s chief of staff, Rear Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, received reports from the Independence indicating that the Central Force had reversed its course and was sailing on an easterly course toward the San Bernardino Strait. Both Burke and TF 38’s operations officer, Commander James Flatley, believed that it was critical that the battle line be detached from TF 38. They woke up Mitscher and urged him to send a message to that effect to Halsey. Mitscher reportedly asked, “Does Admiral Halsey have the report?” When he received an affirmative answer, he said that if Admiral Halsey needed his advice he would ask for it. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Attack on Ozawa’s Force
By 2345, after all four TF 38’s carrier groups were concentrated, Halsey had with him a powerful force of five fast and light carriers each, six battleships, two heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and 41 destroyers.91 During the approach phase Halsey’s greatest concern was not to allow Northern Force to place itself between TF 38 and Leyte. Expressed differently, TF 38 had to sail at the speed of advance to overrun the “daylight circle” (the boundary between day and night) of Northern Force.
By 2400 the TF 38 was about 165 miles away from the eastern entrance to San Bernardino Strait and 140 miles from the eastern coast of Samar. Allegedly, Mitscher was then surprised to find out that the battle line was not formed yet and all six battleships were sailing north as part of the carrier screens. Although he was nominally CTF 38 Halsey never gave Mitscher precise instructions about his future course of action. At about 0100 Halsey directed a search from the carrier Independence with radar-equipped aircraft to the north and northeast. Mitscher in contrast wanted a search-strike group to be launched. At about 0205 the first contact with the enemy force was established at the range of some 80 miles north of TF 38. The enemy forces were divided into two groups of six ships each and 40 miles apart sailing on 110° and at 15 knots. Based on that report, Mitscher believed that surface action would take place at about 0430. In fact, this report was false because the Northern Force was some 200 miles away from TF 38. Halsey then made a controversial decision by directing Lee at about 0255 to form the battle line about ten miles ahead of the carriers. This was a rather risky maneuver to pull out of three carrier groups six battleships, eight cruisers and 41 destroyers. This evolution was completed without an accident. Yet it required much more time because the ships had to sail at much-lower-than-cruising speeds. The fleet guide in TG 38.3 had to reduce speed to 15 knots in order to facilitate that evolution.
By 0710, the two opposing carrier forces were about 145 miles apart. Mitscher launched his first aircraft between 0540 and 0600, before he received all the results from his search aircraft. The first strike reached the enemy ships about 0800 (0830 according to the Japanese). The weather was excellent; there were only few clouds; the wind was from the northeast at 16 knots. The second strike reached the enemy ships at about 1000; the third at 1300; and the fourth and fifth strikes were launched between 1500 and 1710. The U.S. aircraft flew about 530 sorties, of which some 200 were fighter sorties. Japanese air defenses were poor; Ozawa had only 12 to 15 aircraft for air cover—his main defenses were AA guns. The Japanese were not overly impressed with the effectiveness of the U.S. carrier strikes that day.
At 0802 on 25 October, Kinkaid informed Halsey that his forces had won a resounding victory over the enemy’s Southern Force in Surigao Strait and that Allied light forces were pursuing the enemy. The situation began to change fast and dramatically after 0822, when Halsey received Kinkaid’s plain-language message (about the attack by the Central Force against TU 77.4.3 off Samar). At about 0830, Halsey received a plain message from Clifton Sprague saying that enemy battleships and cruisers had attacked his escort carriers from a distance of about 15 miles. The attacking enemy ships were apparently part of the Central Force.
Halsey was reportedly surprised by that turn of events, but not gravely alarmed. He wrote after the war that Sprague’s 16 escort carriers should have had enough planes to protect themselves until Oldendorf could bring his heavy ships. He was puzzled that Kinkaid and Sprague were surprised when they had search planes available to reconnoiter the approaches of the San Bernardino Strait. Nevertheless, shortly afterward, Halsey directed McCain’s TG 38.1 to sail at best possible speed to attack the Central Force. Yet he failed to detach Lee’s TF 34 at the same time to block the Central Force’s withdrawal through the San Bernardino Strait.
At 0900, Kinkaid sent a frantic message that the enemy’s force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and other ships had attacked the escort carriers. He requested an immediate strike by fast carriers, and asked Admiral Lee to proceed at top speed toward Leyte. About 20 minutes later, Kinkaid sent another message informing Halsey that TU 77.4.3 was under fire from enemy battleships and cruisers. He repeated his request for immediate air strikes and support from heavy ships. He also informed Halsey that his old battleships were low in ammunition.
At 1000, Halsey received a short, coded, but important message from Nimitz: “Turkey Trots to Water. From CINCPac. Where is, repeat, where is Task Force 34. The world wonders.” The padding was nonsense phrasing added by enciphers at the beginning and closing words. The communicators were supposed to remove all the padding phrases. TF 77’s communicator did that before handing the copy of the message to Kinkaid. However, Halsey’s signalmen on board the battleship New Jersey struck off only the first phrase. The closing phrase was incorporated into the meaning of the message. By his own admission, Halsey was so angry over the last part of the message, perceiving it as a sarcastic remark by Nimitz, that he was unable to talk after reading it. This mix-up led to more delay in deciding just how to deal with the critical situation off Samar. Halsey sent a message to Nimitz informing him that TF 34 “with me engaging enemy carrier force. Am now proceeding with TG 38.2 and all fast battleships to reinforce Kinkaid. One enemy CV sunk, two CVs dead in water. No damage own force. Enemy air group flying out from Luzon arrived too late. TG 38.1 already ordered assist Kinkaid immediately.”
A few minutes after 1000, Halsey received another message from Kinkaid saying that his situation was critical and that fast battleships and air strikes could prevent the enemy force from penetrating Leyte Gulf. Forty-six minutes later another message from Kinkaid said the situation had improved, that the enemy force was retiring toward the northeast. Nevertheless, the enemy still could return, and hence he needed assistance over the San Bernardino Strait. Kinkaid pointed out that there was a good opportunity for TG 38.1 to destroy the enemy forces.
At 1055 (other sources say 1115), Halsey finally (but reluctantly) directed a major part of TF 34 (except for two battleships left behind to finish off Ise and Hyuga), covered by TG 38.2, to proceed on a southerly course at top speed. At that time TF 34 was only about 42 miles away from the Northern Force. TG 38.3 and 38.4 (4 CVs, 3 CVLs, 2 CAs, 3 CLs, and 25 DDs) continued with their attacks on Ozawa’s force. Admiral Lockwood directed his submarines to take positions between 120° east and 128° east to cut off retreat by the enemy force.
Kinkaid sent a message at about 1320 informing Halsey that the Central Force was retiring toward the northeast, that the situation looked better, but that he still needed TF 38’s assistance because the enemy might return. A few minutes afterward he sent another message that the enemy was returning and Halsey’s assistance was badly needed. At 1412, Halsey intercepted a message from Commander Support Aircraft at Leyte that the enemy force turned away again and was headed toward San Bernardino Strait.
The part of TF 34 directed to the San Bernardino Strait consisted of only two battleships (including Halsey’s flagship New Jersey), three light cruisers, and eight destroyers. It was designated TF 34.5 and placed under the command of Rear Admiral Oscar C. Badger. TF 34.5 sailed at a speed of only 20 knots and had to slow down to 12 knots at about 1345 to refuel accompanying destroyers; the refueling was not completed until shortly after 1600. Badger’s task force would arrive off the strait’s eastern entrance at about 0100 on 26 October and afterward search the strait’s approaches, proceed along the eastern coast of Samar, and destroy all enemy ships on the way. However, by the time TF 34.5 arrived off the eastern entrance, the Central Force had slipped away. The only enemy ship left was one destroyer (Nowaki), which was quickly sunk by gunfire at 0110.
Halsey’s decision to release fast battleships to help the hard-pressed escort carriers and prevent Kurita’s escape through the San Bernardino Strait was made with inexplicable delay. His actions showed that he had never made up his mind to quickly release sufficient force to deal with the extremely dangerous situation. One explanation for this unusual lack of decisiveness on Halsey’s part was his obsession with completely annihilating the enemy Northern Force. He learned about the problem with the escort carriers at 0822, and one hour later he learned that the Seventh Fleet’s old battleships were not available to help escort carriers. He delayed making a decision for almost one hour after receiving Nimitz’s query at 1000. After the larger parts of TF 38 and TG 38.2 were released, they were unable to reach the San Bernardino Strait until 0100 on 26 October. TF 34.5’s two-hour refueling of destroyers further held up the schedule.
TF 34.5 was too weak to engage Kurita’s force in a night engagement unless it waited in an ambushing position, as Oldendorf had at Surigao Strait on 24–25 October. TF 34.5 had only two battleships, while Kurita, after all his losses in the Sibuyan Sea and off Samar, still had four battleships with him, including the powerful Yamato. Lee’s battleships had no experience with using heavy guns in night engagement, not even with radar. Hence, the U.S. surface forces’ chances in a night engagement with Kurita’s still-powerful forces were uncertain and could have been catastrophic. TG 38.2 had only one carrier (Independence) capable of night operations; the other four carriers in the group were capable of only day operations.
A Tactical Victory for the U.S. Navy
The Battle off Cape Engano ended as a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy, though not an operational victory. The TF 38 pilots had sunk four enemy carriers and one destroyer. In addition, U.S. cruisers and submarines sank one light cruiser (Tama) and two destroyers. Still, the Northern Force had escaped total destruction. Halsey and the Third Fleet were greatly disappointed that not all the enemy ships had been sunk. Moreover, the Central Force had escaped destruction despite all the damages inflicted on it by TF 38 aircraft on 24 October. Halsey not only greatly overestimated the strength of Ozawa’s force, he also allowed Kurita to move freely for almost 12 hours while he was pursuing the Northern Force with his entire TF 38. The U.S. carrier pilots had not been as effective at sinking enemy ships as in previous engagements. One likely reason was the fatigue; they had been in combat almost uninterruptedly since 6 October. Halsey in his post-action report added that the other contributory factor was the tendency of pilots to attack “cripples rather than undamaged ships and poor torpedo performance or too shallow depth setting.”
Ozawa wrongly claimed that his aircraft had sunk one and damaged another “regular” (fast) carrier, while more than 100 enemy planes had been shot down. He gave his losses as four carriers and one destroyer sunk, one light cruiser and one destroyer missing, and about 30 aircraft lost. His casualties totaled 4,500 killed.
In his post-action report, Ozawa stressed that a feint cannot be fully successful unless a diversionary force possesses a certain level of real strength. This is especially true when the enemy has a fixed operational objective and firmly maintains his “strategic” dispositions. Ozawa believed that his force would have been more effective if its attack had been launched jointly with the Base Air Forces two days before the planned penetration of Leyte Gulf. He believed that the Main Body suffered heavy losses because its best-trained air groups had been deployed to land bases. The surface forces, relying solely on AA weapons, were incapable of dealing effectively with air attacks. He recommended that in the future, in reorganizing the Mobile Force, the emphasis must be on the Base Air Forces. When tactically employed, surface forces should have minimum air search strength to ascertain the enemy’s position and movements. In his view, if his force had had aircraft to reconnoiter the enemy force on the afternoon of 25 October, he might have been able to destroy the enemy in a night battle.
Halsey’s Decision: Why?
Halsey’s decision, made at 1950 on 24 October, to move his three carrier groups north to join Sherman’s group off Luzon, was one of the most controversial decisions of the entire operation. It was a tactical decision, made by an operational-tactical commander, with negative operational consequences. The tactical victory off Cape Engano would have been essentially useless if Kurita’s force had been successful in penetrating Leyte Gulf. This was a case where the commander because of his exclusive tactical focus employed his forces in a manner unrelated to the accomplishment of the principal objective. It was only because of Kurita’s tactical errors that the U.S. Navy did not suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a much smaller and poorly led force. The Japanese came close to accomplishing their mission, not because of their skills, but simply because of the mistakes Halsey made.
Nimitz was not pleased with Halsey’s actions on 24–25 October. In his 28 October letter to Admiral King, marked personal and top secret, he stated two “regrets.” The first was the loss of the carrier Princeton and the use of such a valuable ship as the cruiser Birmingham instead of a destroyer to assist the stricken carrier. His second regret was that fast battleships had not been left to guard the San Bernardino Strait. It had never occurred to Nimitz that Halsey, knowing the composition of the ships in the Sibuyan Sea, would leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, although reports indicated that the enemy force in the Sibuyan Sea had been seriously damaged. That U.S. forces had not been wiped out by the Japanese fleet was, in his words, the “dispensation work of the Lord Almighty.” The damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet in the Sibuyan Sea, he wrote, undoubtedly affected its ability to steam and shoot when it attacked Admiral Sprague’s escort carriers. Although privately critical of Halsey’s action, Nimitz was careful to avoid public criticism or allow critical remarks to be entered into CINCPOA records.
Halsey personally admitted to King in January 1945 that he had make mistakes in the Battle for Leyte. King reportedly said that he did not need to say anything more and “you’ve got a green light on everything you did.” However, his views on the matter apparently changed afterward, because in his autobiography King criticized both Halsey and Kinkaid for their actions in the battle.
For MacArthur, Halsey remained a true “fighting admiral” despite his actions on 24–25 October. He prohibited any criticism of Halsey by his staff. To MacArthur the near disaster off Leyte seemed to demonstrate the dangers of having a divided command. He said that such a policy could not be defended in logic, in theory, or even in common sense; other motives must be ascribed. MacArthur asserted that if he had been in supreme command of the entire operation, Halsey would have been kept back to protect the invading force. In his words, “this would not only insure my base but would insure his fleet being in the action, as the magnetic attraction of my point of landing would draw the enemy’s fleet there.”