Battle of Leyte Gulf

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from Mark Arnold-Forster, The World at War

 

With the Marianas and the Carolines in American hands MacArthur and Halsey decided to go straight for the Philippines. By September 1944 MacArthur's forces controlled New Guinea. He and Halsey decided to strike north for the southern Philippine Islands of Mindanao and Leyte and to leave the Japanese forces--still in control of the Netherlands East Indies, the Celebes, and Borneo--to their own devices. Lesser commanders might have hesitated before making so bold a leap.

     On the way, however, they needed three bases--Peleliu in the Palau archipelago which possessed a needed airfield, another air base, Morotai, and a fleet anchorage at Ulithi in the Carolines. There was fierce Japanese resistance on Peleliu but the other two bases were taken more easily. MacArthur was now ready to return--as he had promised--to the Philippines whence he had come.

     The first consequence of the landings on Leyte was a major naval engagement which, although this was not known at the time, virtually eliminated the Japanese fleet as an offensive force. The Japanese had divided their naval forces into three groups. Their main carrier task force, its striking power reduced by the recent loss of many experienced pilots, was stationed to cruise north-east of the Philippine archipelago, in the hope that the American carrier task forces would be tempted to divert their attention and their aircraft from two other Japanese task forces which were to destroy the landing force. One force, under Admiral Nishimura, had orders to penetrate to Leyte Gulf itself by way of the Surigao Strait. This force was virtually destroyed by an American squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Oldendorf in the first and last battle of the Pacific war to be fought by surface war ships and in the classical manner.

     Like many another Admiral before him Oldendorf prevailed by 'crossing the enemy's tee'. Nishimura was advancing through the strait with his ships in line ahead. Oldendorf led his force across Nishimura's line of advance. Every American gun in the fleet could be brought to bear on the Japanese but the Japanese ships at the rear of the line were unable to reply. One Japanese cruiser and one destroyer survived.

     OIdendorf ensured success by arranging for a number of torpedo attacks on the enemy force as it approached the head of Surigao Strait. He disposed several units of motor torpedo boats towards the southern entrance of the Strait. On each side of the Strait itself he had positioned destroyers. At the head of the Strait he kept four lines of heavier ships--six battleships, three heavy cruisers, and two units of light cruisers including one Australian cruiser--on the move but ready. When his main force, moving like a line of sentries from one side of the Strait to the other, eventually opened fire at ranges of between eight and ten nautical miles, the spectacle and the consequences were memorable. Captain Roland Smoot, commanding a destroyer division, reported that 'the arched line of tracers in the darkness looked like a continual stream of lighted railroad cars going over a hill. No target could be observed at first. Then shortly there would be fires and explosions and another smp would be accounted for.'

     The third Japanese task force, under Admiral Kurita, also had orders to head for Leyte Gulf and to attack MacArthur's transports. American submarines sank three of Kurita's heavy cruisers and pilots from Mitscher's task force 58 sank a battleship in the Sibuyan sea. Halsey believed wrongly that Kurita had been beaten. The landings proceeded. Halsey, unwilling to let the Japanese carrier task force escape unharmed, sent his main carrier groups north in pursuit. But Kurita, with four battleships and six heavy cruisers left, was steaming eastwards through the night. By midnight on 24 October he had passed through the narrow Strait of San Bernardino and was heading south towards Leyte Gulf and MacArthur's still-precarious bridgehead. There was a command muddle. Halsey still thought Kurita was finished. MacArthur thought Halsey would deal with Kurita. In the event six light American escort carriers under Admiral Sprague met Kurita east of Samar island early on 25 October.

   Admiral Sprague's escort carriers were converted merchant ships designed to carry a maximum of thirty aircraft whose main duty was to fly reconnaissance missions for the protection of convoys. The escort carriers had been developed for use against submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic. They did not have the capacity to mount the air strikes which were the main offensive and defensive weapon of the far bigger fast, fleet carriers. Moreover, the ships themselves were slow. At the start of the battle of Samar Island Admiral Sprague's main force of escort carriers had a 14-knot speed disadvantage. In the event, he was able to take advantage of rain. He also used artificial smoke, the traditional ally of every out-gunned admiral. His comparatively few planes did their best, refuelling meanwhile on the only Philippine airfield that was usable, thereby sparing Sprague from the necessity to keep his ships heading into the wind so that the aircraft could land on the small carriers during a period when this obligatory heading would have been fatal. It is likely, however, that the actions of Sprague's destroyers decided the issue. Half an hour after the battle began Sprague reported that the enemy was closing his force 'with disconcerting rapidity and the volume and accuracy of fire was increasing', The screening destroyer closest to the enemy was the USS Johnston.

    The Johnston had been 1n commission for two days short of one year when the battle was joined. Her captain, Commander Ernest E. Evans, was a Cherokee Indian who had taken to the sea and was determined that Japan should not prevail. On 27 October 1943, he told his new crew: 'This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way. Any one who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now'.

    The Japanese force, as identified aboard Johnston, consisted of four battleships, seven cruisers, and twelve or more destroyers. For twenty minutes Commander Evans experienced the warship captain's supreme nightmare-that of being within range of the enemy's guns without being able to hit back. He made smoke to protect the escort carriers. He 'steered for the last burst'-the outranged captain's traditional method of upsetting the calculations of the gunnery officer of the ship which is firing at him.

     At sea the normal calculations for aiming artillery are complicated by the fact that both the gun which is fired and the target at which it is to be fired are moving. The gunnery officer of the firing ship must calculate the course and speed of his target and must also take into account the course and speed of his own ship, the time of flight of the shells, and the speed and direction of the wind. If he observes from the splashes made by his shells that he is firing short he will increase the range. If he sees that his shots are falling ahead of the target he will increase his estimate of the target's speed. The practice of 'steering for the last burst' is calculated to make the gunnery officer's first calculations correct and his recalculations incorrect. The art of 'steering for the last burst'--which is more sophisticated than it may sound--is to persuade the man who is firing at you to overcorrect his initial mistakes. If his first salvo misses astern he will conclude that you were going faster than he thought. The correct response is not to go faster still, but to go slower. Steering for the last burst is a well-tried technique which, with variants, continued to delude intelligent gunnery officers throughout World War II. But it is an art which requires steady nerves. Commander Evans had to practice it for twenty minutes-which is a very long time in a destroyer action. As soon as the enemy was within range of his 5-inch guns, he fired 200 rounds and 10 torpedoes, most of them at the Japanese cruiser Kumano, which later sank. However the Johnston received three hits herself which knocked out one engine, power for the steering gear, power for three of the ship's 5-inch gun turrets and the gyro compass. After an encounter with a Japanese battleship, the Johnston engaged a Japanese cruiser which was firing at the escort carrier Gambier Bay.

     Evans' object was to draw fire away from the carrier and then to engage a Japanese destroyer flotilla which was approaching the carriers. With no torpedoes left, with only one engine working, with the ship under hand steering, and with the bridge on fire, Johnston finally lost all power on her gun turrets and her second engine also failed. Japanese destroyers finished her off at about quarter past ten in the morning. She had been in action for nearly three hours. Commander Evans and 185 of his crew of 327 were lost.

     Two other American destroyers, the Hoel and the Samuel B. Roberts, were lost in the same gallant action after similar deeds. It had been one of the most desperate destroyer actions of the Pacific war but it had suceeded. The crews of the USS Johnston, Hoel, and Samuel B. Roberts were first among those who made MacArthur's return to the Philippines not only possible but secure.

     Admiral Sprague had lost five ships. Two escort carriers, Saint Lo, and Gambier Bay, were sunk despite the efforts of the destroyers to protect them. (Saint Lo was sunk by one of the first Kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese naval airmen.) Sprague's opponent, Admiral Kurita, nevertheless decided that he had been beaten. During the afternoon he headed back for the San Bernardino Strait and later for the East Pass intending to return to Brunei in Borneo.

     The Battle of Samar Island was a close-run thing. The Americans stood to lose many ships. Neither of the admirals immediately concerned-Sprague and Oldendorf-for Halsey was then committed to pursuit of the main Japanese carrier task force-could be certain at the time as to whether or not the force that had come through San Bernardino was or was not Japan 's main effort against the Leyte Gulf landing. Oldendorf, who had already won his precise, mathematical, rule-book victory in the Surigao Strait and who had his fleet intact, decided rightly to stay where he was in close support of MacArthur. His fleet was strong on battleships, short on carriers and he could not have got there in time. Sprague was on his own. Samar Island was a sea fight conducted by the US navy in the highest traditions of John Paul Jones. An inferior force refused to give in to a superior one.

     MacArthur was able to consolidate his position in Leyte but only in spite of dreadful difficulties. In barges and destroyers, Japanese reinforcements crowded onto Leyte from the other Japanese-occupied Philippine islands. For the first time the surprised Americans had to contend with the Kamikaze pilots who flew planes loaded with explosives and stayed with them until they hit their targets. The Americans were not prepared for this strange and deadly practice.

     MacArthur's men made slow progress on Leyte. Halsey's carriers, providing air cover, suffered considerably. MacArthur's forces did not secure full control of the Philippines or of its main island Luzon until early in 1945. MacArthur saw his next task as the invasion of Japan. The Philippines were to become the main base from which in November 1945 an army of five million men would invade Japan.

     But all these preparations were unnecessary. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had been a much more important victory than the Americans realized. They knew they had defeated the major Japanese naval force in the Philippines. What they did not know was that this had been the only major naval force that the Japanese still possessed.

     Hindsight can be a cruel messenger. Had the Americans known after Leyte that they were already supreme at sea they might have fought the rest of the war in a different way and many lives might have been spared. As it was, however, they thought that they needed yet more islands.