October, 1944: Battle for Leyte Gulf Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 23- 26, 1944, was history’s largest naval engagement. Its 282 vessels (216 U.S., 2 Australian, and 64 Japanese) outnumbered the ships of the 1916 Battle of Jutland. The battle in Leyte Gulf involved almost 200,000 men and encompassed an area of more than 100,000 square miles. It saw all aspects of naval warfare–air, surface, submarine, and amphibious–as well as the use of the largest guns ever at sea, the last clash of the dreadnoughts, and the introduction of kamikazes. The battle was also distinguished by fine planning and leadership, brilliant deception, failed intelligence, and great controversies.

The Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 23- 26, 1944, was history’s largest naval engagement. Its 282 vessels (216 U.S., 2 Australian, and 64 Japanese) outnumbered the ships of the 1916 Battle of Jutland. The battle in Leyte Gulf involved almost 200,000 men and encompassed an area of more than 100,000 square miles. It saw all aspects of naval warfare–air, surface, submarine, and amphibious–as well as the use of the largest guns ever at sea, the last clash of the dreadnoughts, and the introduction of kamikazes. The battle was also distinguished by fine planning and leadership, brilliant deception, failed intelligence, and great controversies.

Allied Objectives

The invasion of Leyte Island, beginning on October 20, 1944, was the first phase of an Allied campaign to liberate the Philippine Islands from the Japanese. The Philippines occupied a strategically important position between Japan and its important resources base of the East Indies. Leyte is in the middle of the Philippine archipelago.

The Japanese anticipated a U.S. offensive and had plans to combat it; Sho Ichi Go (Operation Victory One) covered defense of the Philippines, to which the Japanese decided to commit the entire Combined Fleet. The Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, knew the operation would be a gamble. He said after the war,

If things went well, we might obtain unexpectedly good results; but if the worst should happen, there was a chance that we would lose the entire fleet. But I felt that chance had to be taken.

Toyoda knew that should the Americans retake the Philippines, even with the fleet left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off, so that if the fleet came back to Japanese waters, it could not obtain fuel. If the fleet remained in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. In Toyoda’s opinion, there would be no reason to save the fleet at the expense of the Philippines.

The Allied armada that advanced toward Leyte in mid-October comprised more than seven hundred ships. The U.S. Third Fleet also was available for strategic support of the operation. Under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey, the Third Fleet was given two tasks: to cover the Leyte landings and, if the opportunity arose, to destroy the Japanese fleet.

Japanese Forces

Opposing the Allied forces were four Japanese naval forces. The Northern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, consisted of one heavy carrier, three light carriers, two hybrid battleship-carriers, three cruisers, and eight destroyers. It was to serve as a decoy, drawing Halsey’s Third Fleet toward the north and away from the beaches. The most powerful of the Japanese units was Central Force (First Division Attack Force), commanded by Admiral Takeo Kurita. It included the two super battleships, Musashi and Yamato. With their 18.1-inch guns, these 862-foot long, 70,000-ton behemoths were, at the time, the largest warships ever built. Kurita also had three older battleships, twelve cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. Kurita’s ships were to slip through San Bernardino Strait. Meanwhile, Southern Force (C Force)–comprising two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and four destroyers, commanded by Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura–would strike eastward through the Sulu Sea in an effort to force its way through Surigao Strait between the islands of Leyte and Mindanao. It was trailed by the Second Division Attack Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima, which had one light and two heavy cruisers and four destroyers. These two prongs would then converge simultaneously on the landing area in the Leyte Gulf and destroy Allied shipping there. At the same time, Japanese shore-based aircraft were to inflict maximum damage on U.S. forces assisting the landings. The main strength of the Japanese fleet lay in its naval gunnery, because its carrier- and land-based aircraft had largely been destroyed in earlier battles and by U.S. Army and Navy air raids during September and early October. Any chance the Japanese had for success lay in using their huge battleships to shell the Leyte beaches. Shō Ichi Go was, at best, a long shot.

U.S. Forces

Opposing the Japanese were two U.S. fleets: the Seventh Fleet, commanded by Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid and operating under General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command, and Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, under Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Leyte was the first landing to involve two entire U.S. fleets and the first landing without unified command. Divided command had unfortunate consequences.

The Seventh Fleet was divided into three task groups. The first consisted of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s six old battleships, sixteen escort carriers, four heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, thirty destroyers, and ten destroyer escorts. The other two elements were amphibious task groups carrying out the actual invasion. Seventh Fleet had escorted the invasion force to Leyte and now provided broad protection for the entire landing area. As most of Halsey’s amphibious assets had been loaned to Kinkaid, Third Fleet consisted almost entirely of Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force (TF) 38: fourteen fast carriers (with more than one thousand aircraft) organized into four task groups containing six battleships, eight heavy cruisers, thirteen light cruisers, and fifty-seven destroyers. Third Fleet’s orders called for it to secure air superiority over the Philippines, protect the landings, and maintain pressure on the Japanese. If the opportunity to destroy a major part of the Japanese fleet presented itself or could be created, that destruction was to be Third Fleet’s primary task.

The Battle Begins

First contact between the rival forces was made on October 23. In the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, U.S. submarines sighted the Central Force and sank two Japanese heavy cruisers, one of which was Kurita’s flagship, Atago. When reports of Nishimura’s Southern Force reached Admiral Halsey, he issued a preliminary order detailing a battle line of battleships known as Task Force 34, to be commanded by Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee. Admiral Kinkaid was aware of that signal and assumed TF 34 had been established. Kinkaid ordered the fire-support portion of Seventh Fleet, commanded by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, to assume a blocking position at the lower end of Leyte Gulf to halt any Japanese attempt to force Surigao Strait; Seventh Fleet escort carriers guarded the eastern entrance to Leyte Gulf.

Halsey, meanwhile, ordered his own fleet carriers to launch air strikes against enemy units then steaming through San Bernardino Strait. These planes concentrated on the Musashi. She took nineteen torpedoes and nearly as many bombs before finally succumbing. Half of her nearly 2,200-man crew perished with her. Several other Japanese ships were damaged. On the afternoon of October 25, U.S. pilots reported that Kurita had reversed course and was heading west; Halsey incorrectly assumed that this part of the battle was over.

Meanwhile, Japanese land-based planes from the Second Air Fleet attacked U.S. ships supporting the land invasion. Most were shot down, but they sank the light carrier Princeton and damaged the cruiser Birmingham. Unknown to Halsey, after nightfall Kurita’s force changed course and resumed heading for San Bernardino Strait.

Halsey broke off the engagement in order to pursue what appeared to be a more tempting target. U.S. scout planes had sighted the Northern Force, and Halsey, believing it to be the most powerful Japanese threat, turned his carrier task forces northward. Several of Halsey’s subordinates registered reservations about his decision, but the admiral would not be deterred. Compounding the error, Halsey failed to inform Admiral Kinkaid, who still assumed that TF 34 was protecting the strait. Halsey’s decision left the landing beaches guarded only by Seventh Fleet’s Taffy 3 escort carrier group commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. Taffy 3 was one of three such support groups operating off Samar. Sprague had six light escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. This was precisely what the Japanese had intended; for the U.S. forces, it was a grave tactical error, because it enabled the Japanese Central Force to sail undisturbed through the San Bernardino Strait toward the landing area.

Leading the U.S. landing at Leyte Island, General Douglas MacArthur makes his triumphal return to the Philippines, to which he had vowed to return two and one-half years earlier. (National Archives)

Late on the evening of October 24, battleships and cruisers of the Seventh Fleet engaged the Southern Force. The October 24–25 Battle of Surigao Strait was a classic example of “crossing the T” in naval warfare. The PT boats discovered the Japanese moving in line-ahead formation, but Nishimura’s force easily forced the PT boats back. While the battleships often get the credit for the Surigao Strait victory, it was U.S. destroyers that inflicted most of the damage. Two converging torpedo attacks sank a battleship and three destroyers. The Japanese then ran into the line of Oldendorf’s battleships. The Allies won a great victory at little cost to themselves; when it was over, the sole survivors of the Southern Force and Second Division Attack Force were five destroyers and a heavy cruiser.

The U.S. escort carriers operating north of Leyte were not as fortunate. Early on October 25, the Central Force emerged from San Bernardino Strait, headed for Leyte Gulf, and surprised the U.S. ships. Crew members of the U.S. destroyers and pilots of escort carriers of Taffy 3, brilliantly commanded by Admiral Sprague, fought a courageous but apparently hopeless battle. The Japanese sank the Gambier Bay, the only U.S. carrier ever lost to gunfire, and also sank the destroyers Hoel and Johnston, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts. Although Japanese guns were registering repeated hits and Kurita was in position to secure a crushing victory, he abruptly broke all contact and retired north toward the San Bernardino Strait. This puzzling action allowed the transports and troops at the beachhead to escape certain destruction.

Giant landing ships (LSTs) open their jaws in the surf, as American soldiers build sandbag piers to facilitate the unloading of the supplies and equipment to be used in the Philippine campaign. (National Archives)

Kurita believed he was under attack by aircraft from Halsey’s fleet carriers. Kurita’s decision was strengthened by the fact that the southern attacking force had been destroyed. After the war, Kurita said, “The conclusion from our gunfire and antiaircraft fire during the day had led me to believe in my uselessness, my ineffectual position, if I proceeded into Leyte Gulf where I would come under even heavier air attack.” Several days of nearly incessant attacks may also have frayed Kurita’s nerves. Kurita hoped to join Ozawa’s force to the north but changed his mind and exited through San Bernardino Strait. Sprague later noted that the failure of Kurita’s force “to completely wipe out all vessels of this Task Unit can be attributed to our successful smoke screen, our torpedo counterattack, continuous harassment of the enemy by bomb, torpedo, and strafing air attacks, timely maneuvers, and the definite partiality of Almighty God.” The four ships lost by Taffy 3 were the only U.S. warships sunk by Japanese surface ships in the Battle for Leyte Gulf.

Meanwhile, Admiral Sprague’s escort carriers and Oldendorf’s force returning from the Battle of Surigao Strait came under attack from land-based kamikaze aircraft, the first such attacks of the war. These sank the escort carrier St. Lô and damaged several other ships.

Aftermath

After the major issues of the battle had been decided, Halsey’s Third Fleet caught the Japanese Northern Force off Cape Engaño. By nightfall, U.S. aircraft, a submarine, and surface ships had sunk all four Japanese carriers of Ozawa’s force as well as five other ships. This blow ended Japanese carrier aviation. Ironically, the entire Northern Force would have been destroyed if Halsey had not yielded to urgent appeals to turn back to intercept the Central Force. The Third Fleet failed to catch up with Kurita and the remainder of Northern Force was able to get away.

Including retiring vessels sunk on October 26 and 27, Japanese losses in the battle were twenty-nine warships (four carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, eleven destroyers, and a submarine) and more than five hundred aircraft. Japanese personnel losses amounted to some 10,500 seamen and aviators dead. The U.S. Navy lost only six ships (one light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers, and a destroyer escort) and more than two hundred aircraft. About twenty-eight hundred Americans were killed and another one thousand wounded. The Battle for Leyte Gulf ended the Japanese fleet as an organized fighting force.

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