John T. Ryan US Navy
October 1944 continues and my father, Seaman First Class, John Thomas Ryan is still serving on the USS Hornet (CV-12).
20-26 Oct 1944 – Strikes on Leyte supporting invasion of the Philippines as stated in the ships log for the USS Hornet (CV-12).
Second Battle of the Philippine Sea (Leyte Gulf) – largest naval battle in history. I will tell this part of the story in multiple parts (anticipating five parts) because the Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of four separate engagements between the opposing forces: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar, as well as other actions. For Part 1, I will cover background and the submarine action in Palawan passage on October 23, 1944.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, also called the Battles for Leyte Gulf, and formerly known as the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, is generally considered to be the largest naval battle of World War II and, by some criteria, possibly the largest naval battle in history.
It was fought in waters near the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar and Luzon from 23–26 October 1944, between combined US and Australian forces and the Imperial Japanese Navy. On 20 October, United States troops invaded the island of Leyte as part of a strategy aimed at isolating Japan from the countries it had occupied in Southeast Asia, and in particular depriving its forces and industry of vital oil supplies. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) mobilized nearly all of its remaining major naval vessels in an attempt to defeat the Allied invasion, but was repulsed by the US Navy’s 3rd and 7th Fleets. The IJN failed to achieve its objective, suffered very heavy losses, and never afterwards sailed to battle in comparable force. The majority of its surviving heavy ships, deprived of fuel, remained in their bases for the rest of the Pacific War.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of four separate engagements between the opposing forces: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar, as well as other actions. It was the first battle in which Japanese aircraft carried out organized kamikaze attacks. ka·mi·ka·ze (kä m -kä z ). n. 1. A Japanese pilot trained in World War II to make a suicidal crash attack, especially upon a ship
A Japanese Kamikaze suicide plane shown swooping down on a U.S. warship in a dramatic action in World War II. In the three-day battle of Leyte Gulf, in Oct. 1944, the Japanese threw the suicide planes into action for the first time in a desperate effort to save their fleet. (AP Photo)
By the time of the battle, Japan had fewer aircraft than the Allied Forces had sea vessels, demonstrating the difference in power of the two sides at this point of the war.
The campaigns of August 1942 to early 1944 had driven Japanese forces from many of their island bases in the south and central Pacific Ocean, while isolating many of their other bases (most notably in the Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, Marshall Islands, and Wake Island), and in June 1944, a series of American amphibious landings supported by the US 5th Fleet’s Fast Carrier Task Force captured most of the Mariana Islands (bypassing Rota). This offensive breached Japan’s strategic inner defense ring and gave the Americans a base from which long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers could attack the Japanese home islands. The Japanese counterattacked in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The US Navy destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers (and damaged other ships) and approximately 600 Japanese aircraft, leaving the IJN with virtually no carrier-borne airpower or experienced pilots. You can read about many of the 1944 engagements especially the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot in my previous posts.
Admiral Ernest J. King
For subsequent operations, Admiral Ernest J. King and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff favored blockading Japanese forces in the Philippines and attacking Formosa (Taiwan) to give the Americans and Australians control of the sea routes between Japan and southern Asia.
“I have returned” — General MacArthur returns to the Philippines with Philippine President Sergio Osmena to his right, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos P. Romulo at his rear, and Sutherland on his left. Photo taken by Gaetano Faillace
US Army General Douglas MacArthur championed an invasion of the Philippines, which also lay across the supply lines to Japan. Leaving the Philippines in Japanese hands would be a blow to American prestige and a personal affront to MacArthur, who in 1942 had famously pronounced, “I shall return.”
The considerable air power the Japanese had amassed in the Philippines was thought too dangerous to bypass by many high-ranking officers outside the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. However, Nimitz and MacArthur initially had opposing plans, with Nimitz’s plan centered on an invasion of Formosa, since that could also cut the supply lines to Southeast Asia. Formosa could also serve as a base for an invasion of mainland China, which MacArthur felt was unnecessary. A meeting between MacArthur, Nimitz, and President Roosevelt helped confirm the Philippines as a strategic target, but had less to do with the final decision to invade the Philippines than is sometimes claimed. Nimitz eventually changed his mind and agreed to MacArthur’s plan.
Pictured above: MacArthur, Roosevelt & Nimitz on board USS Baltimore, July 1944
It was also estimated that an invasion of Formosa would require about 12 divisions of US Army soldiers and Marines. This was more land power than the Americans could muster in the whole Pacific Ocean area at that time, and the entire Australian Army was engaged in the Solomon Islands, on New Guinea, in the Dutch East Indies, and on various other Pacific islands. The invasion of Formosa would require much larger ground forces than were available in the Pacific in late 1944, and would not have been feasible until the defeat of Germany freed the necessary manpower.
It was eventually decided that MacArthur’s forces would invade the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. Amphibious forces and close naval support would be provided by the 7th Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid.
Vice Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid had had a distinguished naval career when he took command of the United States Seventh Fleet, also known as MacArthur’s Navy.
The 7th Fleet at this time contained units of the US Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, including the County-class heavy cruisers HMAS Shropshire and Australia, and the destroyer Arunta, and possibly a few warships from New Zealand and/or the Netherlands.
The US 3rd Fleet—commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., with Task Force 38 (TF 38, the Fast Carrier Task Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher) as its main component—would provide more distant cover and support for the invasion.
For the Leyte operation, as ‘Task Force 38,’ and constituting almost all of the US Third Fleet, the Fast Carrier Force contained nine large fleet carriers and eight light carriers. Of the nine heavy carriers eight were of the new Essex Class, the ninth being the old Enterprise (of the Yorktown Class), a ship with a matchless combat record.
A fundamental defect in this plan was there would be no single American naval admiral in overall command. Kinkaid and his 7th Fleet fell under MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander Southwest Pacific, whereas Halsey’s 3rd Fleet reported to Nimitz as C-in-C Pacific Ocean Areas. This lack of a unified command structure, along with failures in communication, was to produce a crisis, and very nearly a strategic disaster, for the American forces.
By coincidence, the Japanese plan, using three separate fleets, also lacked an overall commander. The American options were apparent to the IJN.
Soemu Toyoda is an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy
Combined Fleet Chief Soemu Toyoda prepared four “victory” plans: Shō-Gō 1 was a major naval operation in the Philippines, while Shō-Gō 2, Shō-Gō 3 and Shō-Gō 4 were responses to attacks on Formosa, the Ryukyu and Kurile Islands, respectively. The plans were for complex offensive operations committing nearly all available forces to a decisive battle, despite this substantially depleting Japan’s slender reserves of fuel oil.
On 12 October 1944, the US 3rd Fleet under Admiral Halsey began a series of carrier raids against Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, with a view to ensuring the aircraft based there could not intervene in the Leyte landings. (See a previous blog post) The Japanese command therefore put Shō-Gō 2 into action, launching waves of air attacks against 3rd Fleet’s carriers. In what Morison refers to as a “knock-down, drag-out fight between carrier-based and land-based air”, the Japanese were routed, losing 600 aircraft in three days, almost their entire air strength in the region. Following the American invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy made the transition to Shō-Gō 1.
Shō-Gō 1 called for Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa’s ships—known as the “Northern Force”—to lure the main American covering forces away from Leyte.
Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa of the Imperial Japanese Navy
Northern Force would be built around several aircraft carriers, but these would have very few aircraft or trained aircrew. The carriers would serve as the main bait. As the US covering forces were lured away, two other surface forces would advance on Leyte from the west. The “Southern Force” under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima would strike at the landing area via Surigao Strait.
Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita
The “Center Force” under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita—by far the most powerful of the attacking forces—would pass through San Bernardino Strait into the Philippine Sea, turn southwards, and then also attack the landing area.
Photographed just prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Ships are, from left to right: Musashi, Yamato, a cruiser and Nagato.
This plan was likely to result in the destruction of one or more of the attacking forces, but Toyoda later explained this to his American interrogators as follows:
Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.
—United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific) – ‘Interrogations of Japanese Officials’
The submarine action in Palawan Passage (23 October)
As it sortied from its base in Brunei, Kurita’s powerful “Center Force” consisted of five battleships (Yamato, Musashi, Nagato,Kongō, and Haruna), ten heavy cruisers (Atago, Maya, Takao, Chōkai, Myōkō, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, Tone and Chikuma), two light cruisers (Noshiro and Yahagi) and 15 destroyers.
Kurita’s ships passed Palawan Island around midnight on 22–23 October.
Map of the Philippines with Palawan highlighted
The American submarines Darter and Dace were positioned together on the surface close by.
USS Darter (SS-227)
USS Dace (SS-227)
At 00:16 on 23 October, Darter‘s radar detected the Japanese formation at a range of 30,000 yd (27,000 m). Her captain promptly made visual contact. The two submarines quickly moved off in pursuit of the ships, while Darter made the first of three contact reports. At least one of these was picked up by a radio operator on Yamato, but Kurita failed to take appropriate antisubmarine precautions.
Darter and Dace traveled on the surface at full power for several hours and gained a position ahead of Kurita’s formation, with the intention of making a submerged attack at first light. This attack was unusually successful. At 05:24, Darter fired a spread of six torpedoes, at least four of which hit Kurita’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago. Ten minutes later, Darter made two hits on Atago‘s sister ship, Takao, with another spread of torpedoes. At 05:56, Dace made four torpedo hits on the heavy cruiser Maya (sister to Atago and Takao).
Atago and Maya quickly sank. Takao turned back to Brunei escorted by two destroyers—and was followed by the two submarines.
Japanese Heavy Cruiser Atago sunk by planes from the U.S.S. Natoma Bay CVE-62 on October 25, 1944 at the battle of Leyte Gulf.
Japanese Heavy Cruiser Maya torpedoed October 23, 1944
On 24 October, as the submarines continued to shadow the damaged cruiser, Darter ran aground on the Bombay Shoal. All efforts to get her off failed, and she was abandoned. Her entire crew was, however, rescued by Dace.
Takao returned to Singapore. She was joined in January 1945 by Myōkō.
Atago had sunk so rapidly, Kurita was forced to swim to survive. He was rescued by one of the Japanese destroyers, and he then transferred to the battleship Yamato.
In my next post, I will continue with this campaign in Leyte Gulf with the The Battle of the Sibuyan Sea (24 October, 1944)