The Battle for Leyte Gulf

Introduction:

The Battle for Leyte Gulf consists of four battles; The Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Sibuyon Sea, the Battle off Cape Engano and the Battle off Samar. In one sense, these four battles make up the Greatest Naval Battle in our history.

The Commencement:

In late 1944, allied leaders elected to establish operations to liberate the Philippines. The primary landings were planned to take place in Leyte, with ground forces to be commanded by the renowned General Douglas MacArthur. To assist in these oceanic operations US 7th Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Kincaid, would provide unwavering support. Admiral William Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, on the other hand, would be containing Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38) and they will be staying at sea to provide added cover. With everything all set, the landings on Leyte finally commenced on October 20, 1944.

Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, has already been aware of the United States plan on the Philippines. This is why the Japanese had already set the initiated plan Sho-Go 1 to block the invasion and to set the ball running. This plan required the whole bulk of Japan’s enduring naval strength to put up four separate Navy entities. The first of these was the Northern Force and it was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Also, the Northern Force was centered on the carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Zuiho, Chitose, and Chiyoda. Yet since the Japanese did not have sufficient pilots and aircraft for battle, Toyoda intended for Ozawa’s ships to serve as bait to lure Halsey away from Leyte.

With Halsey temporarily removed from the scene, three separate forces were formed and initiated to approach the west part of Leyte. This was the plan that was supposed to destroy the United States’ plan on landings within Leyte. The largest of these naval forces was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force. The Center Force contained five battleships (including the renowned battleships Yamato and Musashi) together with ten other heavy cruisers. Kurita was to move through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait before being able to launch his attack on the US Navy’s. To support Kurita, two smaller fleets, under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima, formed the Southern Force. It was this naval force that was initiated to move up from the south through the Surigao Strait, moving closer to Leyte.

On October 23, 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of four primary meetings that went on between the Allied and Japanese forces. In their initial engagement during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea on October 23, the Japanese Center Force was attacked by American submarines, USS Darter & USS Dace, and also by US aircraft. This caused the Japanese to lose one of their battleships, Musashi, and two cruisers namely flagship Atago and Maya. After delegating his flag to Yamato, Kurita went out of the US aircraft’s range but then returned to his original course that evening. In the subsequent battle, the escort carrier USS Princeton was lost due to the land based bombers of the Japanese.

Nishimura was able to enter the Surigao Straight on the night of the 24th, as part of the Southern Force. This is also where they were led and where they were attacked by Allied destroyers and a number of PT boats. As they diligently moved north through the Surigao straight, they encountered six Pearl Harbor veterans battleships and eight cruisers of the 7th Fleet Support Force led by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. Unfortunately, Nishimura’s squadron was forced to withdraw after Oldendorf’s ships sank two Japanese battleships, Yamashiro & Fuso, and also the heavy cruiser, Mogami.

Kiyohide Shima, who was part of the Sourthern Force with Nishimura, encountered the derelict and damages that Nishimura’s ships and ordered his men to retreat. At 20 minutes before 1700, Halsey’s scouts were able to locate Ozawa’s Northern Force. And after believing that Kurita was finally retreating, Halsey signaled Admiral Kinkaid his plans to pursue the rest of the Japanese carriers. In doing so, Halsey left the landings unprotected. Admiral Kinkaid, however, was not aware of this because he believed that Halsey had left at least one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight. And on the next day, October 25th, the US aircraft forces began to pummel Ozawa’s force in the Battle of Cape Engaño.

At the end of the day, all four of Ozawa’s carriers had sunk. And with the battles finally concluding, Halsey received information that the situation within Leyte was critical. It seems like Toyoda’s plan had actually worked. By drawing away Halsey’s carriers, the path through the San Bernardino Straight was left open for the Japanese’ Center Force to pass through to attack the landings. Halsey began steaming south at full speed after breaking off his current attacks. And just north of Leyte, Kurita’s force encountered the raging force of the 7th Fleet’s escort carriers and destroyers.

Launching their aircrafts, the escort carriers began to flee whilst the destroyers valiantly attacked Kurita’s superior force. Yet as the melee was favoring the Japanese, Kurita broke off after coming to the realization that he was not attacking Halsey’s carriers. And if Kurita was to linger in its current position, the possibility of it being bombarded by American forces was highly likely. It was due to Kurita’s retreat that the battle was effectively ended.

Operations:

Leyte, one of the more prominent islands of the Philippines, extends up to 110 miles from north to south with ranges in between 15 and 50 miles in width. The land surface was what first presented features that were both inviting and forbidding to U.S. military analysts. Due to its deep water approaches on the eastern area of Leyte and its sand-beaches, the coast of Leyte offered opportunities for hidden assaults and even receipt for supply items. One of the noted embellishments of supplies was when the USS Nautilus SS-168 landed in San Roque, Abuyog, Leyte on its 11th patrol to release supplies to Colonel Ruperto Kangleon who was in charge of the 81st Infantry Division. With thick forests along the mountains surrounding the inland of Abuyog, the area was a perfect place to unload the supplies of ammunitions that were crucial in General Mac Arthur’s plans to liberate Leyte.

Aside from the successful landing of the narwhal submarine, USS Nautilus SS-168, the island also provided more advantages because of the inland that consists of forests in the north-south range. This separates two sizable valleys or coastal plains. The larger valley, Leyte Valley, ranges from the northern coast to the eastern shore. And at the time, it contained most of the civilized towns and roads on Leyte. One of its roads, Highway 1, runs along the eastern coast for more than forty miles between the town of Abuyog to the northern end of the San Juanico Strait, which lies between Leyte and Samar. The other smaller roads and routes extending from Highway 1 to the mainland provided roads for tank infantry operations as well as a base for an airfield.

The Islands mountainous peaks reaching more than 4,400 feet, together with the jagged ravines, outcroppings, and unassuming caves provided promising and formidable defensive opportunities. Also, the last quarter assault schedule forced combat troops, supporting pilots and logistical units to contend with the expected monsoon rains. On a more positive note, there are a lot of residents who choose to support the American forces in ceasing the repression of the Japanese people. With over 900,000 local people from Abuyog and other parts of the island, mostly farmers and fishermen, had a lot of manpower on their side.

Aftermath:

The Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Apart from these, there were also more than 10,000 people killed. Allied forces incurred a loss of 1,500 people, 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers and a 1 sunken destroyer escort. Having been crippled by their losses, the Battle of Leyte Gulf marked the last instance wherein Japan’s Imperial Navy was able to conduct a large-scale operation during the war. Due to the Allied forces, victory was secured on Leyte and this was what opened the door for the liberation of the Philippines. It was also due to this victory that the Japanese were cut off from other territories in Southeast Asia that they have conquered. Halsey, on the other hand, was criticized after the battle for racing north to attack Ozawa despite winning the largest naval engagement in history.

For the American Army, the end-results of the entire operation were mixed. The battle for Leyte lasted longer than they had anticipated, and the island proved to be difficult to develop as a military base than they had initially thought. Most importantly, General Mac Arthur’s headquarters had failed to realize intentions of the Japanese to fight an all-out battle on Leyte. Thus, due to a lack of air and naval support covering the area, the US Army was not able to prevent the substantial enemy troop influx between the 23rd of October and 11th of December. This reinforcement, in turn, prolonged the battle for Leyte and forced the units to be reserve for subsequent operations. Of course, an ever present factor that truly made the Japanese wary in war was the dedication of the soldiers and the willingness of commanders to sacrifice the lives of those in action.

Soldiers amongst fallen trees in Leyte

 

Soldiers watching the battle of Japanese and American Aircrafts while waiting to reach the shores of Leyte

 

The arrival of the American ship tanks needed to liberate the island of Leyte