Battle off Cape Engano II

The Japanese aircraft carriers Zuikaku, left, and (probably) Zuihō come under attack by dive bombers early in the Battle off Cape Engaño.

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 Reasons for Halsey’s Decision

In Halsey’s first report on the battle, sent to Nimitz, MacArthur, and Kinkaid on 25 October, he tried to justify his decision to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. Among other things, he insisted that although it was apparent that the enemy planned a coordinated attack, his real objective could not be ascertained. The enemy carrier force was not detected until late afternoon on 24 October. Halsey’s claim that just to guard the San Bernardino Strait would have been a “waste of time” is hard to understand. Halsey explained that he decided to direct all three carrier groups to concentrate and move north and then use all his groups for a surprise attack on the enemy carrier force at dawn. He estimated that the Central Force was so badly damaged that it could not pose a threat to the Seventh Fleet. In his words, this was “a deduction proved correct by events of 25 October off Surigao.” Interestingly, he did not mention events off Samar on 25 October, which would not support his case. In the same report, he regretted that “just when his overwhelming force was within 45 miles of the crippled enemy” he got a call for assistance from Kinkaid. He had no alternative but to turn south in response.

Halsey believed until the very end that he had made a sound decision. Despite the facts to the contrary, he rejected all evidence that the Northern Forces had been bait and the enemy commander had deceived him. In his view, his only mistake had been the decision to turn south when on the verge of annihilating the Northern Force.

Halsey maintained that he had three courses of action open to him. He could guard the San Bernardino Strait with the entire force and wait for the Northern Force to attack first. He rejected that course of action because the enemy would have the initiative for when to attack. In addition, the enemy could use his airfields undisturbed. The second course of action was to leave TF 34 guarding the San Bernardino Strait while moving the three carrier groups north to attack the Northern Force. He rejected that course as well, explaining that the attack on TG 38.3 that day (resulting in the loss of the Princeton) indicated that the enemy still had powerful air strength. He noted, correctly, that his battleships should not be exposed to the possibility of an enemy air attack without adequate protection from friendly air. He also was correct in stating that it was a danger to have divided forces, as it allowed the enemy to beat them in detail. However, forces can be divided if each element is stronger than any possible enemy combination, or if each force is deployed within mutually supporting distance of the other.

In short, Halsey had an option of either leaving behind TF 34 and one carrier group, or leaving TF 34 off the San Bernardino Strait and moving with all three carrier groups north but staying at all times within supporting distance of TF 34. Halsey’s intent to attack the Northern Force at dawn to achieve a surprise does not seem terribly important, since, surprise or not, Halsey had overwhelming force to deal with Ozawa’s much smaller and less powerful force. The Northern Force, even with the full air complement on board, was no match for TF 38. As it turned out, the first strike by TF 38 did not take place until 0800.

Halsey had largely based his decision on the reports of his pilots. He apparently believed that the Central Force in the Sibuyan Sea was so badly damaged that even if it sortied through the San Bernardino Strait, Kinkaid would have adequate strength to defend against it. Halsey’s decision to leave Kinkaid’s covering forces to deal with both threats could not be justified. The Third Fleet’s mission of distant cover and support was to remove or at least neutralize any enemy threat to Allied shipping at Leyte originating beyond striking distance of Kinkaid’s forces. Halsey should have done the utmost to prevent the Central Force from reaching the open waters of the Philippine Sea. It would have been much better had the U.S. carrier groups dealt with the enemy’s heavy surface forces, especially when operating without air cover, than to risk losses to friendly forces in a surface engagement.

Halsey’s third course of action, the one he followed, was to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and strike the Northern Force with his entire force. In his view, this option provided the advantages of maintaining the “fleet’s integrity” and preserving the initiative, and it offered the greatest chance of achieving surprise. This was a clear case of a commander observing the principle of mass and surprise but violating the principles of objective, economy of effort and security. Not all principles of war are equally important, and none is more important than adhering to the principle of objective. Also, the principle of mass should not be applied to an extreme that, in the process, violates the principle of security. If Halsey had made a decision that fully observed the principle of objective together with the principles of security and economy of effort, the situation off Samar on the morning of 25 October would simply not have occurred.

Halsey insisted that even if the Central Force had slipped through the San Bernardino Strait and headed for Leyte, it could only have made a harassing hit-and-run raid. It was too weak to achieve anything more. Even so, a superior force such as the U.S. Third Fleet should not have left open the way for a much weaker force to enter a landing objective area and inflict losses upon Allied forces. This would have been an embarrassment to the Allies at a critical time in the Pacific war.

Despite all that did happen on 24–25 October, Halsey stubbornly insisted of his decision that, “given the same circumstances and the same information . . . , I would make it again.” This view was easier to defend on 25 October than many years after the fact, when the events and decisions on both sides were well known. Moreover, no decision can be considered sound if the commander does exactly what the enemy wants him to do.

Elements of the Decision

One of the most important factors in assessing a decision is the mission of the higher commander and the information available to the commander of both the enemy and friendly forces. Other factors include the commander’s personality traits, experience, command style, biases, and predilections; the experience and effectiveness of the staff; and the commander’s relationship with subordinate commanders.

Halsey’s mission of providing distant cover and support was clear and straightforward. However, he either intentionally or subconsciously misunderstood his mission. He apparently believed that his mission was offensive, even after he received orders to cover the Leyte landings. Halsey’s main tasks were to obtain air superiority over the Philippines, protect the landing at Leyte, maintain “unremitting” pressure against Japan, and apply maximum attrition by all possible means in all areas.

Nimitz gave Halsey full freedom to act in employing the Third Fleet. Halsey, he hoped, would draw out and fight the enemy fleet, thereby completing the task Admiral Spruance had started in June 1944. Nimitz reiterated Halsey’s mission to Admiral King at their meeting in San Francisco in late September 1944. He explained that, unlike Spruance, Halsey would not be given vague orders—hence the inserted part to Para (3), “in case opportunity for destruction of major portion of the enemy fleet is offered or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.” Nimitz issued these orders allegedly without any consultation with MacArthur.

Both Nimitz and Halsey had almost identical views on the need to complete the destruction of the Japanese fleet. Halsey, like many flag officers in the Pacific Fleet, was critical of Spruance’s “mistake” in not completely destroying the Japanese fleet in the Battle in the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Nimitz found a personal letter from Halsey waiting for him after his return to Pearl Harbor from Washington, D.C., on 2 October. Halsey wrote: “I intend, if possible, to deny the enemy a chance to outrange me in an air duel and also to deny him an opportunity to employ an air shuttle against mc. If I am to prevent his gaining that advantage, I must move smartly. Inasmuch as the destruction of the enemy fleet is the principal task, every weapon must be brought into play and the general coordination of these weapons should be in the hands of the tactical commander responsible for the outcome of the battle. My goal is the same as yours—to completely annihilate the Jap fleet if the opportunity offers. . . . ” This letter is a reliable indicator of his state of mind at the time.

Halsey’s command style contributed to his unsound decisions. As the Third Fleet commander, he should have had Mitscher, the TF 38 commander, in charge of all fast carrier groups. Halsey, as the numbered fleet commander, should have exercised broad supervision over Mitscher, intervening only if actions by either Mitscher or subordinate carrier group commanders endangered the mission. However, Halsey consistently bypassed Mitscher. For all practical purposes, he took over the tactical command of TF 38. This was not a standard command style in the U.S. Navy of the day. Halsey defended his decision because his flagship, New Jersey, was already part of the force so it was supposedly natural that he be directly in charge of TF 38, even though Mitscher was formally CTF 38. The Third Fleet essentially consisted of TF 38 after the amphibious forces were temporarily put under the Seventh Fleet’s command. Obviously, it was difficult for Halsey to stand aside. Halsey insisted that by issuing orders directly to carrier group commanders he could reduce radio traffic and thereby enhance secrecy of the movements of his forces. Also, the communications facilities on the New Jersey were superior to those on the carrier Lexington, flagship of CTF 38. This was all true, except that operational or operational-tactical commanders should not constantly interfere with and even make decisions that are the responsibility of the subordinate tactical commanders. Halsey also preferred to exercise his command and control via radio rather than according to meticulously prepared plans.

For all his aggressiveness, Halsey often lost valuable time in making a final decision. At other times, he acted too quickly, without weighing all essential elements of a situation. His subordinate tactical commanders never knew what his plans were. Halsey apparently conducted running estimates of the situation, but one has to wonder whether that process was followed properly or whether, true to his character traits, it was too quick, omitting or perfunctorily evaluating many elements bearing on making a sound decision.

Halsey was not much helped by his staff. Ideally, a chief of staff should be someone who is willing to tell the unpleasant truth to the commander. This was apparently not the case with the chief of staff, Admiral Carney. Also, temperamentally he was similar to Halsey. Reportedly, he was unwilling to tell Halsey that he disagreed with certain decisions. This is just the opposite of what a good chief of staff should be or do.

Halsey was intensely loyal to his officers and men, and they were in turn loyal to him. He scolded in private and praised in public, and when errors were made, Halsey took full responsibility. Halsey’s staff argued a lot. All staff officers, regardless of their rank, were able to express themselves. However, all arguments ended after Halsey made a decision; then all the staff members had to carry out that decision as their own. When more time was available, he reportedly expected the staff to prepare studies and present the options available. He listened to the staff’s advice with little or no argument. At other times, his decisions were made rather quickly and based on his intuition. Halsey was highly respected as a leader by his subordinates, yet he was said not to have earned the high respect as a professional that Spruance or Mitscher did.

In contrast to Admiral Spruance who was very meticulous and methodical, Halsey did not pay much attention to written instructions to his subordinates. His staff never kept orders up to date as Spruance’s staff did. The Third Fleet staff was known for sloppiness and ad hoc planning. All too often, Halsey sent unclear and poorly written messages to both subordinates and superiors. Halsey was known for making decisions without waiting on all the information or weighing the information he had. He displayed that bad trait on several occasions during the Leyte operation. Moreover, his staff was not well suited to planning and conducting carrier operations. Both Carney and Captain Ralph E. Wilson, his operations officer, were nonaviators.

Halsey showed inexperience in fast carrier operations when he ordered TF 34 on 24 October to pull out and form a battle line ten miles ahead of carriers in the middle of the night. By contrast, all four subordinate carrier group commanders, with the exception of Vice Admiral McCain, had had a great deal of experience in carrier operations because they had participated in both TF 38 and TF 58 operations.

Other factors that influenced Halsey’s rash decision in the evening on 24 October included a number of assumptions later proven to be wrong. Halsey was under the impression that the attack on the Princeton and its subsequent sinking had been carried out by carrier aircraft from the Northern Force. In fact, the attacks against TG 38.3 were conducted entirely by the enemy land-based naval aircraft. Accepting the optimistic claims of his pilots, Halsey believed that the damage inflicted on the Central Force was much greater than it actually was. Similarly, exaggerated claims were made in regard to the size and composition of the Northern Force. This was not the first time Halsey had accepted his pilots’ claims at face value. He’d done the same in the air battle off Formosa.

Another probable reason for Halsey’s decision was his determination to fight and win the last carrier battle of the war. He missed the great carrier battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Philippine Sea and was supposedly determined to destroy the Japanese carriers at the first opportunity.

Others’ Mistakes

Not only Halsey, but also the JCS, Nimitz, and Kinkaid share some responsibility for the course of events on 24–25 October. In the broadest sense, the divided command and the unresolved command relationships between supported and supporting CINCs were never satisfactorily resolved. The solution was in the hands of the JCS alone. Nimitz unnecessarily complicated Halsey’s mission by inserting an additional task that in fact seemed to supersede the task of distant cover and support assigned by MacArthur. This, in combination with Halsey’s distaste for providing distant cover and support, his aggressiveness and impatience, and his predilection for seeking out the enemy fleet, made the events on 24–25 October possible. Nimitz usually left his numbered fleet commanders wide freedom of action. However, in this instance he should have intervened and reversed Halsey’s decision, since it potentially endangered the success of the entire operation. Another option for Nimitz would have been to make clear to Halsey in most emphatic terms that MacArthur’s mission assigned to the Third Fleet had priority at all times.

Some highly respected historians think that Kinkaid’s responsibility was more a matter of inaction than bad decisions. He relied too much on Halsey to cover the northern approaches to Leyte Gulf. Kinkaid assumed in his operation plan that any major enemy naval forces approaching from the north would be intercepted and attacked by the Third Fleet’s covering force. Reportedly, Kinkaid was not overly concerned with Halsey’s decision to go north because he had intercepted Halsey’s message about TF 34 the previous day. He also assumed that Halsey had taken his three carrier groups with him but left TF 34 to guard the San Bernardino Strait. He notified Halsey about his plans for the battle in Surigao Strait. He did not need any help, provided Halsey took care of the Central Force.131 However, Kinkaid had sufficient forces to cover all the approaches to the landing objective area from both the west and the north and thereby prevent any nasty surprise. In short, he should have taken everything that was in his power to ensure protection of his forces from the enemy heavy surface forces.

Nimitz in his comments on the battle insisted that if Kinkaid had-correctly interpreted Halsey’s messages, he could have moved his escort carriers either farther southward or eastward where they would have not been so close to possible daylight circle of the Center Force. The daylight air search that Kinkaid had ordered would detect any approaching enemy force with a greater margin of time and distance. Such a force could have been kept at bay by air attacks before it closed to Leyte Gulf. Nimitz also argued that Kinkaid could have directed TG 77.4 to move inside Leyte Gulf for protection. He realized, however, that in such a case escort carriers would have had limited space for maneuver and would have had to reduce their speed. Kinkaid could have also stationed an adequate number of radar pickets to the north and east of the eastern entrance to Leyte Gulf to provide warning of the approaching enemy until daylight air search could take over.

Kinkaid also allowed too much freedom of action to Oldendorf and Thomas L. Sprague. He should have taken timely and stronger measures to use his own aircraft for conducting searches of Leyte Gulf’s northern approaches. Clifton Sprague, CTU 77.4.3, claimed that his force had never been assigned any responsibility for covering the San Bernardino Strait, either by reconnaissance or surface forces. Captain Richard F. Whitehead, Commander, Support Aircraft, Seventh Fleet, advised Kinkaid to launch searches covering the approaches to the San Bernardino Strait, but they weren’t carried out expeditiously.

Because of poor communications procedures between their fleets, Halsey did not obtain timely information on Kinkaid’s plans or actions. Kinkaid was unable to communicate with the Third Fleet directly. Messages sent by Kinkaid to Halsey had to be first encoded and sent to the radio station at Manus, Admiralties, which then retransmitted them on the “Fox” fleet radiobroadcast schedule. Operators on all U.S. naval ships copied the latter in its entirety. However, the communicators were expected to decode only the messages that carried the call sign of their ship or force.

Another problem hindering cooperation between the Third and Seventh Fleets was that radio messages weren’t properly prioritized, a reflection of the divided theater command. Many messages were graded “urgent,” so that truly urgent messages were unable to reach the addressees in a timely manner. The operators at Manus simply stacked urgent messages in the order they were received, or made a guess as to which one had higher priority. Consequently, it sometimes took hours for a message sent by Kinkaid to reach Halsey. Also, urgent messages often arrived out of the sequence. Kinkaid’s staff, in fact, violated orders and regulations just to keep track of what was going on. It listened to Halsey’s communications and decoded everything it intercepted, whether the messages were intended for Kinkaid or not.

The communications’ problem was greatly compounded by poorly worded messages, which were often misinterpreted by the recipients. Both Kinkaid and Halsey made several decisions based on misinformation. The lack of a common superior, combined with the failure of Halsey and Kinkaid to exchange information promptly, made it very difficult to achieve cooperation between their two fleets.

Not until 11 December 1944 did King ask Kinkaid what actions he had taken to ensure that the Central Force did not exit the San Bernardino Strait. Kinkaid responded that he had ordered a night search by aircraft from TU 77.4.4. He told King about intercepting Halsey’s message on TF 34. His assumption was that TF 34 had been left behind to guard the San Bernardino Strait. King was also told that searches by PBYs had not resulted in any contact, because the escort carrier searches were not carried out expeditiously. However, Kinkaid, in his typical fashion, did not put the blame on Thomas Sprague or Stump, CTU 77.4.2. (Admiral Wilkinson, in fact, advised Kinkaid to order CTG 77.4 to conduct dawn searches.)

In Kinkaid’s view, the real reason for the crisis off Samar was that Halsey had been unwilling to stick with his mission. He said that his own mission was different from the one given to Halsey. Halsey was supposed to provide “strategic (operational) cover,” while Kinkaid would provide direct cover and protection of landing forces. In his view, if both he and Halsey had carried out their respective missions, there would have been no confusion.

Kinkaid apparently did not keep MacArthur informed of the progress of naval battles on 24–25 October. This was most likely why MacArthur did not react on the worsening situation at the approaches to Leyte, not because of his supposed lack of interest in naval matters. On 25 October, he informed Kinkaid that the Navy communications center at GHQ did not provide any information about events at sea. He requested from Kinkaid to take necessary action so that he could be fully informed. The same day Major General S. B. Akin (GHQ Chief Signals Officer) informed General Sutherland that he personally delivered messages to Kinkaid on board the flagship (Wasatch). Kinkaid reportedly expressed regrets at the lack of flow of information to the CINCSWPA and promised that he would take immediate steps to correct it.

Two days later, MacArthur in another message expressed his annoyance that Kinkaid was not submitting operational reports to him. He reminded Kinkaid that standing orders provide “that such reports shall be rendered to the CINC with such information addressees as are pertinent in special cases. This procedure which has been in effect for the last two years has not been followed during the present operation.” He requested that Kinkaid’s operational reports to higher authorities continue to be addressed to the CINCSWPA. They should be of such frequency as to keep MacArthur informed about the situation. He reminded Kinkaid that the only report he had received was Kinkaid’s written memorandum. He requested to have a further report by 2001 on 27 October on which he could base his communiqué.

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