Note: Leyte map annotated // Yamato hit by bomb // Leyte map annotated
Battle of Surigao Strait (25 October 1944)
The Battle of Surigao Strait is significant as the last battleship-to-battleship action in history. The Battle of Surigao Strait was one of only two battleship-versus-battleship naval battles in the entire Pacific campaign of World War II (the other being the naval battle during the Guadalcanal Campaign). It was also the last battle in which one force (in this case, the U.S. Navy) was able to "cross the T" of its opponent. However, by the time that the battleship action was joined, the Japanese line was very ragged and consisted of only one battleship (Yamashiro), one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer, so that the "crossing of the T" was notional and had little effect on the outcome of the battle.
Nishimura's "Southern Force" consisted of the old battleships Yamashiro and Fusō, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers. This task force left Brunei after Kurita at 15:00 on 22 October, turning eastward into the Sulu Sea and then northeasterly past the southern tip of Negros Island into the Mindanao Sea. Nishimura then proceeded northeastward with Mindanao Island to starboard and into the south entrance to the Surigao Strait, intending to exit the north entrance of the Strait into Leyte Gulf where he would add his firepower to that of Kurita's force.
The Japanese Second Striking Force was commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and comprised heavy cruisers Nachi (flag) and Ashigara, the light cruiser Abukuma, and the destroyers Akebono, Ushio, Kasumi, and Shiranui.
The Japanese Southern Force was attacked by U.S. Navy bombers on 24 October but sustained only minor damage.
Nishimura was unable to synchronise his movements with Shima and Kurita because of the strict radio silence imposed on the Center and Southern Forces. When he entered the Surigao Strait at 02:00, Shima was 25 nmi (29 mi; 46 km) behind him and Kurita was still in the Sibuyan Sea, several hours from the beaches at Leyte.
As the Japanese Southern Force approached the Surigao Strait, it ran into a deadly trap set by the U.S. 7th Fleet Support Force. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf had a substantial force. There were six battleships: West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania. All but Mississippi had been sunk or damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor and repaired, Tennessee, California, and West Virginia having been rebuilt. Four heavy cruisers (USS Louisville (flagship), Portland, Minneapolis, and HMAS Shropshire) carried 35 8-inch (203 mm) guns, and 54 6-inch (152 mm) guns were mounted by four light cruisers (Denver, Columbia, Phoenix, and Boise). Added to this were the smaller guns and torpedoes of 28 destroyers and 39 motor torpedo boats (Patrol/Torpedo (PT) boats). To pass through the narrows and reach the invasion shipping, Nishimura would have to run the gauntlet of torpedoes from the PT boats followed by the large force of destroyers, and then advance under the concentrated fire of the six battleships and their eight flanking cruisers deployed across the far mouth of the Strait.
At 22:36, PT-131 (Ensign Peter Gadd) was operating off Bohol when it made contact with the approaching Japanese ships. The PT boats made repeated attacks for more than three-and-a-half hours as Nishimura's force streamed northward. No torpedo hits were scored, but the PT boats did send contact reports which were of use to Oldendorf and his force.
Nishimura's ships passed unscathed through the gauntlet of PT boats. However, their luck ran out a short time later, as they were subjected to devastating torpedo attacks from the American destroyers deployed on both sides of their axis of advance. At about 03:00, both Japanese battleships were hit by torpedoes. Yamashiro was able to steam on, but Fusō was torpedoed by USS Melvin and fell out of formation, sinking forty minutes later. Two of Nishimura's four destroyers were sunk; the destroyer Asagumo was hit and forced to retire, but later sank.
The traditional account of Fusō's sinking was that she exploded into two halves that remained floating for some time. However, this view has been questioned recently because additional evidence has come to light. Fusō survivor Hideo Ogawa, interrogated in 1945, wrote an article on the battleship's last voyage. He says that "shortly after 0400 the ship capsized slowly to starboard and Ogawa and others were washed away." Fusō was hit on the starboard side by two or possibly three torpedoes. One of these started an oil fire. The fuel used by IJN ships in this period was poorly refined and had a tendency to burst into flame; burning patches of fuel were most likely the source of the story of Fusō blowing up. It is unlikely that a vessel as strongly built as a battleship could be blown in half and both halves remain upright and afloat, so the traditional version of Fusō's fate is improbable. Samuel Morison states that the bow half of Fusō was sunk by gunfire from Louisville, and the stern half sank off Kanihaan Island.
At 03:16, West Virginia's radar picked up the surviving ships of Nishimura's force at a range of 42,000 yd (38,000 m). West Virginia tracked them as they approached in the pitch black night. At 03:53, she fired the eight 16 in (406 mm) guns of her main battery at a range of 22,800 yd (20,800 m) or 12.9 miles, striking Yamashiro with her first salvo. She went on to fire a total of 93 shells. At 03:55, California and Tennessee joined in, firing a total of 63 and 69 14 in (356 mm) shells, respectively. Radar fire control allowed these American battleships to hit targets from a distance at which the Japanese battleships could not return fire, with their inferior fire control systems.
The other three U.S. battleships also had difficulty, equipped with less advanced gunnery radar. Maryland eventually succeeded in visually ranging on the splashes of the other battleships' shells, and then fired a total of 48 16 in (406 mm) projectiles. Pennsylvania was unable to find a target and her guns remained silent.
Mississippi only fired once in the battle-line action, a full salvo of 12 14-in shells. This was the last salvo ever fired by a battleship against another battleship in history, closing a significant chapter in naval warfare.
Yamashiro and Mogami were crippled by a combination of 16 in and 14 in armor-piercing shells, as well as the fire of Oldendorf's flanking cruisers. The cruisers who had the latest radar equipment fired well over 2,000 rounds of armor piercing 6-inch and 8-inch shells. Louisville (Oldendorf's flagship) fired (37) salvos - 333 rounds of 8-inch shells. The Japanese command had apparently lost grasp of the tactical picture, with all ships firing all batteries in several directions, "frantically showering steel through 360°." Shigure turned and fled but lost steering and stopped dead. At 0405 Yamashiro was struck by a torpedo fired by Bennion, and suddenly sank at about 04:20, with Nishimura on board. Mogami and Shigure retreated southwards down the Strait. The destroyer USS Albert W. Grant was hit by friendly fire during the night battle, but did not sink.
The rear of the Japanese Southern Force—the "Second Striking Force" commanded by Vice Admiral Shima—had departed from Mako and approached Surigao Strait about 40 mi (35 nmi; 64 km) astern of Nishimura. Shima's run was initially thrown into confusion by his force nearly running aground on Panaon Island after failing to factor the outgoing tide into their approach. Japanese radar was almost useless due to excessive reflections from the many islands. The radar was equally unable to detect ships in these conditions, especially PT boats, as PT-137 hit the light cruiser Abukuma with a torpedo that crippled her and caused her to fall out of formation. Shima’s two heavy cruisers, Nachi and Ashigara, and eight destroyers next encountered remnants of Nishimura's force. Shima saw what he thought were the wrecks of both Nishimura's battleships and ordered a retreat. His flagship Nachi collided with Mogami, flooding Mogami's steering room and causing her to fall behind in the retreat; she was sunk by aircraft the next morning. Of Nishimura's seven ships, only Shigure survived. Shima’s ships did survive the Battle of Surigao Strait, but they were sunk in further engagements around Leyte, while Shigure survived long enough to escape the debacle, but eventually succumbed to the American submarine Blackfin on 24 January 1945, which sank her off Kota Bharu, Malaya, with 37 dead.
Battle off Samar (25 October 1944)
Halsey's decision to take all the available strength of 3rd Fleet northwards to attack the carriers of the Japanese Northern Force had left San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded.
Senior officers in 7th Fleet (including Kinkaid and his staff) generally assumed Halsey was taking his three available carrier groups northwards (McCain's group, the strongest in 3rd Fleet, was still returning from the direction of Ulithi), but leaving the battleships of TF 34 covering the San Bernardino Strait against the Japanese Center Force. In fact, Halsey had not yet formed TF 34, and all six of Willis Lee's battleships were on their way northwards with the carriers, as well as every available cruiser and destroyer of the Third Fleet.
Kurita's Center Force therefore emerged unopposed from San Bernardino Strait at 03:00 on 25 October and steamed southward along the coast of the island of Samar. In its path stood only the 7th Fleet's three escort carrier units (call signs 'Taffy' 1, 2, and 3), with a total of sixteen small, very slow, and unarmored escort carriers, protected by a screen of lightly armed and unarmored destroyers and smaller destroyer escorts (DEs). Despite the losses in the Palawan Passage and Sibuyan Sea actions, the Japanese Center Force was still very powerful, consisting of four battleships (including the giant Yamato), six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers.
Kurita's force caught Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 ('Taffy 3') by surprise. Sprague directed his carriers to launch their planes, then run for the cover of a rain squall to the east. He ordered the destroyers and DEs to make a smoke screen to conceal the retreating carriers.
Kurita, unaware that Ozawa's decoy plan had succeeded, assumed he had found a carrier group from Halsey's 3rd Fleet. Having just redeployed his ships into anti-aircraft formation, he further complicated matters by ordering a "General Attack", which called for his fleet to split into divisions and attack independently.
The destroyer USS Johnston was the closest to the enemy. On his own initiative, Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans steered his hopelessly outclassed ship into the Japanese fleet at flank speed. Johnston fired its torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Kumano, damaging her and forcing her out of line. Seeing this, Sprague gave the order "small boys attack", sending the rest of Taffy 3's screening ships into the fray. Taffy 3's two other destroyers, Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, attacked with suicidal determination, drawing fire and disrupting the Japanese formation as ships turned to avoid their torpedoes. As the ships approached the enemy columns, Lt. Comdr. Copeland of Samuel B. Roberts told all hands via bull horn that this would be "a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected." As the Japanese fleet continued to approach, Hoel and Roberts were hit multiple times, and quickly sank. After expending all of its torpedoes, Johnston continued to fight with its 5-inch guns, until it was sunk by a group of Japanese destroyers.
As they were preparing their aircraft for attack, the escort carriers returned the Japanese fire with all the firepower they had – one 5 in. gun per carrier. The officer in tactical command had instructed the carriers to "open with pea shooters," and each ship took an enemy vessel under fire as soon as it came within range. Fanshaw Bay fired on a cruiser, and is believed to have registered five hits, one amidst the superstructure that caused smoke. Kalinin Bay targeted a Nachi-class heavy cruiser, claiming a hit on the cruiser's No. 2 turret, with a second just below the first. Gambier Bay sighted a cruiser, and claimed at least three hits. White Plains reported hits on multiple targets, two between the superstructure and forward stack and another on the No. 1 turret of a heavy cruiser.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague (no relation to Clifton) ordered the sixteen escort carriers in his three task units to immediately launch all their aircraft equipped with whatever weapons they had available, even if these were only machine guns or depth charges. Collectively, Sprague had a total of some 450 aircraft from the carriers at his disposal. Although most of these aircraft were older models, such as the FM-2 Wildcat and TBM Avenger torpedo bombers, the fact that the Japanese force had no air cover meant that American planes could attack unopposed. Consequently, the air counterattacks were almost unceasing, and some, especially several of the strikes launched from Felix Stump's Task Unit 77.4.2 (Taffy 2), were heavy.
The carriers of Taffy 3 turned south and retreated through the shellfire. Gambier Bay, at the rear of the American formation, became the focus of the battleship Yamato and sustained multiple hits before capsizing at 09:07. Several other carriers were damaged but were able to escape.