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The Battle of Leyte Gulf October, 1944

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf
October, 1944


If you want to look back at the last great battleship engagement in history, you must look to the battle of Leyte Gulf in October of 1944. And there you will find several. Two Iowa Class battleships were there – the Iowa and the New Jersey. The Japanese super-battleships Yamato and Musashi were there, too, although the Musashi would not survive the engagement. And there were the old battleships, too. The pride of the Japanese Navy from the First World War, as well as several old battleships raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor, and at the perfect place and time to exact a measure of revenge for that day nearly three years earlier.

By late 1944, it was becoming obvious to Japan that desperate measures were required to stop the onslaught of the United States Navy. Since 1942, the strength of Japan's enemy in the Pacific had been growing at an alarming rate, while the Japanese Navy was not even able to replace war losses. To make matters worse, ever since Pearl Harbor, nearly every time the Japanese Navy came to blows with the United States Navy in a fleet action, the Japanese Navy took a terrible beating. About all that could be counted on for any engagement would be the aggressiveness of the American commanders as they pursued the remnants of the Japanese fleet without mercy. And this was the basis of a brilliant plan to crush the Seventh Fleet conducting an invasion of the Philippines.

The fall of the Philippines would be a terrible blow to the Japanese. Most of their navy had been based at Brunei on the island of Borneo, close to the fleet’s oil supply. But that was all but exhausted now, and what little fuel remained was unrefined - barely burnable in warship boilers. The Air Arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy was all but obliterated, too. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea (dubbed "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" by American pilots) Japan had only a handful of planes, and even fewer pilots to fly them. Because of this, her carriers were largely useless for any practical duty. Except, perhaps, to serve as decoys to lure away the American Thrid Fleet under Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey who had been itching for a chance at a massive engagement since he missed the battle of Midway.

So plans were drawn up for a massive fleet action against the Americans. The result would be victory, or the death of the Japanese Navy. Nothing was held back, as there was everything to gain with a victory, and little if any possibility of a second chance. If this mission failed, the war would be lost. So elements of the remnants of the Japanese fleet sailed from home waters, and other ships from the island of Borneo. The plan was actually quite simple. Admiral Ozawa was to sail in from the North East with his "bait" of four aircraft carriers, and the two hybrid battleship-carriers Ise and Hyuga featuring four battleship turrets forward, and small flight decks aft. But, for this mission, they would carry no aircraft at all, as none were available. Even the large fleet carriers were not carrying a full complement of planes.

The American invasion was concentrated on Leyte Gulf, in the central Philippines. Earlier plans had called for an invasion of the southern island of Mindanao as the next stepping stone in the successful "island-hopping" campaign employed to date by the two fleets in the Pacific – the Third Fleet under Admiral Nimitz, and the Seventh Fleet under General MacArthur. But, with the apparent collapse of the Japanese fleet and air power, the plan to invade the central Philippines was advanced two months from December to October of 1944. The Seventh Fleet, under MacArthur would conduct the actual invasion. This fleet consisted of the old battleships intended to provide naval gunfire support for the invasion forces. Also in the Seventh Fleet were several "jeep" carriers, which were former merchantmen or tankers converted to serve as light aircraft carriers. These ships were unarmored, and had very slow speeds, and were therefore too slow to keep up with traditional fleet operations. However, they were perfect as escorts to the invasion fleet, and their planes and pilots were trained for combat air support operations against ground targets. And, of course, the Seventh Fleet had its complement of destroyer escorts, the tincans providing the usual services of picket duty, anti-submarine patrols, and a myriad of other roles. The Seventh Fleet was perfectly constructed to conduct a massive invasion. However, since it was slow, and unarmored for the most part, it would be very vulnerable to an attack by the Japanese Navy.

But, the Third Fleet could certainly deal with that possibility. Boasting nearly a dozen fleet aircraft carriers, and six of the fastest battleships in the world (including the Iowa and New Jersey) and led by Bull Halsey, the Third Fleet was not afraid of an engagement with the Japanese. In fact, it was hoping for one. The massive third fleet was poised off the coast of Samar, ready to deal with the Japanese swiftly if they should dare to appear on the scene.

And this was the problem for the Japanese. If they sailed their surface navy into the teeth of the Third Fleet, what little remained could be lost. But, if you believe the old saying that every problem also presents an opportunity, the Japanese had a terrific opportunity. If the Third Fleet could be lured away to chase the empty aircraft carriers coming in from the north, the extremely vulnerable Seventh Fleet would be totally exposed and subject to annihilation.

And so Admiral Ozawa steamed down from the north, presenting what were hoped to be the irresistible targets of Japanese flat tops (including the Zuikaku – the last remaining veteran of the Pearl Harbor raid.) Meanwhile, the surface units of the Japanese Navy would sneak in from the west under the command of Admiral Kurita, and attempt to spring a deadly trap on the Seventh Fleet. A small force consisting of the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and supported by the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers would sneak through the Surigao Strait, followed by three more cruisers and four destroyers sailing in from Japanese home waters. But the main force of the attack was to come in another way. Sailing from Brunei, five battleships (including the aforementioned Yamato and Musashi) twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers were to sneak through San Bernardino Strait, loop around the island of Samar, and smash the Americans. With attacks from the North and South, the Seventh Fleet would have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. The unarmored transports, tankers, jeep carriers and destroyers would be helpless against the mighty Japanese Navy.

This invasion force of the Seventh Fleet, the greatest of the war in the Pacific, would consist of 151 LSTs (landing ships, tank), 58 transports, 221 LCTs (landing craft, tank) and 79 LCIs (landing craft, infantry), and hundreds of other vessels. The combatants assembled in the combined Third and Seventh Fleets to protect and support the invasion were awesome. Ship based aircraft would number nearly 1500, flying from thirty-two fleet carriers, light carriers, and escort carriers. In support would be twelve battleships, twenty-three cruisers, and over a hundred destroyers. Against this formidable force, the Japanese committed to action virtually all that was left of the operational forces, afloat and in the air, of Japan’s once proud navy. Putting to sea would be four aircraft carriers, two hybrid battleship/carriers, seven battleships, nineteen cruisers, and thirty-three destroyers. The Japanese can match no more than one tenth of the number of carrier-based aircraft deployed by the Americans.

The resulting engagement would occur over an area roughly the size of Texas, and would involve more ships, planes, and men than any naval battle ever fought. And, amazingly, there were operations by virtually all types of naval forces, doing exactly what they had been designed to do. The aircraft carriers and invasion forces that had already fought so many battles in the Pacific campaign were present once again at Leyte Gulf. But so were submarines – scouting and attacking the Japanese fleet on the way to battle. The Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boats were there, operating between the islands and swarming about the Japanese battleships like so many flies harassing elephants. Destroyers and destroyer escorts performed heroically, launching torpedoes, firing their guns and laying smoke against impossible odds. And even heavy cruisers and battleships engaged in classic fleet surface actions – fought in the same battle line actions of centuries ago, and probably for the last time ever.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of two preliminary strikes against the Japanese forces on the way to battle, and three massive engagements once the fleets tangled. On the map that accompanies this article, these five actions are numbered 1 – 5, and are summarized below.  (Follow the links to each phase of the battle.)

Together, these five engagements constitute the Battle of Leyte Gulf – the largest naval engagement of all time, and the last time that battleships slugged it out against enemy fleets and against each other.

In the end, Japanese losses were greater than US losses and was therefore a crushing blow to the Japanese navy.

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