25 October 2010

Sixty-six Years Ago Today - The Battle of Leyte Gulf

Sixty-six years ago this week, one of the greatest naval battles in recorded history was fought in the waters off the Philippine Islands near Leyte, Samar, Luzon.  The battle was joined when on 20 October 1944, United States troops invaded the island of Leyte as part of a strategy aimed at isolating Japan from the countries it occupied in South East Asia and in particular, depriving Japanese forces and industry of vital oil supplies.

The invasion of the Philippines marked the joining together of General MacArthur’s forces, driving up from Australia since 1942 and Admiral Nimitz’s fleets, advancing across the Central Pacific in an offensive which began after the successful  repulse of the Japanese Navy at Midway in June 1942.
The Japanese knew they had to hold the Philippines to have any hope of concluding the war on terms remotely favorable to them.  Accordingly they prepared the SHO-GO 1 plan in which all that remained of the Japanese Navy would be thrown into an all-or-nothing fight to defeat the US invasion forces on Leyte and hold the Philippines as an unsinkable “aircraft carrier” for Japanese airpower.  The Japanese were in a desperate situation, and this plan reflected that desperation.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf)
In the words of Japanese Combined Fleet Chief Soemu Toyoda, “Should we lose in the Philippine operations, even though the Fleet should be left, the shipping lanes 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 ammunitions and arms.  There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.”
The Japanese plan, SHO-GO 1, called for Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s ships, the Northern Force, to lure the main US covering forces away from Leyte.  The Northern Force would be built around the several remaining Japanese aircraft carriers, but these ships would have very few aircraft or trained aircrew.  The US Navy’s central Pacific campaign had decimated Japanese naval aviation; those huge losses of aircraft and experienced pilots in 1943-1944 were never replaced.
The Japanese carriers would serve as the bait.  As the US Navy’s covering forces (led by Admiral Bull Halsey and his 3rd Fleet) were lured away, two other surface forces would advance on the Leyte landing areas from the west.  The Southern Force under Vice Admiral Shōji Nishimura would strike at the Leyte landing area via the Surigao Strait.  The Center Force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, the most powerful of the attacking forces, would pass through the San Bernardino Strait into the Philippine Sea, turn south and also attack the Leyte landing areas.  While Japanese losses were sure to be heavy, there was no other choice –everything depended on defeating the Leyte landings.
The American landings, conducted by Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet under General MacArthur’s command, took place on 20 October.  The Japanese launched their plan and Admiral Halsey, operating under Admiral Nimitz’s command, took the bait and charged north to finish the job on the Japanese carriers.  Halsey’s forces had earlier struck Vice Admiral Kurita’s Center Force a severe blow that Halsey believed, erroneously, had forced Kurita to turn back.  The day before, the Center Force had also been hit by US submarines DARTER and DACE, lying in ambush in the Palawan passage; two Japanese heavy cruisers were sunk, another severely damaged.
But Admiral Kurita had not turned back.  Although his forces were diminished by Halsey’s earlier air strikes and the US submarine attacks, they continued toward the Leyte landing areas while Halsey steamed north at flank speed, anxious to get the Japanese carriers.  While he had developed a plan to block the San Bernardino Strait with his battleships, Task Force 34, Halsey had not executed it.  Task Force 34 steamed north with the rest of the 3rd Fleet leaving San Bernardino Strait wide open to the advancing Japanese forces.  Vice Admiral Kurita steamed through the unguarded waters at 0300, 25 October and steamed southward along the coast of Samar.  In the path of Kurita’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers were the 7th Fleet’s three escort carrier (CVEs) units – call signs Taffy 1, 2, and 3; a total of 16 small, slow and unarmored escort carriers protected by a small screen of destroyers and destroyer escorts.
With the success of the landings at stake, and the assembled transports and support ships facing certain destruction at the hands of the powerful Japanese force, the USS JOHNSTON, USS HOEL, USS HEERMANN, and USS SAMUEL B ROBERTS unhesitatingly attacked the 4 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers of Admiral Kurita’s Center Force.
This destroyer attack, conducted at first light on 25 October 1944 against overwhelming odds, sixty-six years ago today, was one of the finest moments in our Navy’s history.  The story of JOHNSTON’s and SAMUEL B. ROBERTS’ attacks have become the stuff of legends.  The CO of USS JOHNSTON, LCDR Ernest E. Evans was awarded the Medal of Honor for continuing to attack Japanese battleships despite his grievous wounds and the catastrophic damage to his ship.  In SAMUEL B. ROBERTS, GM3 Paul Carr was awarded the Medal of Honor for continuing to man his 5” gun mount and direct fire into the Japanese cruiser CHIKUMA despite the loss of all electrical and hydraulic power to the gun mount and suffering mortal wounds.  Both LCDR Evans and GM3 Carr died that morning; their ships were sunk.  But the ferocity of the US destroyer attacks and the strikes from the Avengers and Wildcats of Taffy 3 convinced Vice Admiral Kurita he had engaged major United States fleet units, and he broke off his attack to regroup.  He eventually withdrew his force back through the San Bernardino Strait – the landing area was saved, but at a very heavy cost.
Over 1000 Sailors and aircrew were killed that morning.  Escort carriers GAMBIER BAY and ST LO, destroyers JOHNSTON and HOEL, and destroyer escort SAMUEL B. ROBERTS were sunk.
There is much more to the story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; far too much to tell here (you can read the CTF-77 after action report here).  Let us simply focus on the actions of our Sailors on 25 October, 1944 in the battle off Samar, where US destroyers fought like battleships.
As a direct result of their action, the Japanese Navy failed to defeat the Allied invasion of the Philippines, suffered very heavy losses, and never sailed again into battle with a comparable force.  Taffy 3’s historic last stand off Samar Island showed the world the courage, strength and tenacity of our Sailors when facing overwhelming odds.  They are the same traits in our Sailors today, as demonstrated by the crew of the SAMUEL B. ROBERTS in April 1988 when a mine explosion broke the keel of their ship in the Persian Gulf and they fought fire and flooding for five hours to save their ship.  Or on COLE in October 2000, when a terrorist attack created a 40 x 60 foot breach in the hull, opening the ship up to the sea.  Surviving the first 72 hours following the attack and saving their ship took every ounce of courage, toughness and strength COLE’s Sailors possessed.  In each case, our Sailors prevailed against overwhelming odds and defined what is meant by the phrase “upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
We must never forget those who went before us, who wore the uniform of the United States Navy, and what they’ve done to show us the way today.
“Honor, courage, commitment” are not just words to be hurriedly said at a ceremony and then quickly forgotten.  These words - honor, courage, commitment - define the very essence of our Navy.  What we’ve been, what we are, and what we must always be.
As Herman Wouk wrote in War and Remembrance, “The vision of Sprague’s three destroyers – the JOHNSTON, the HOEL, and the HEERMANN – charging out of the smoke and the rain straight toward the main batteries of Kurita’s battleships and cruisers, can endure as a picture of the way Americans fight when they don’t have superiority.  Our schoolchildren should know about that incident, and our enemies should ponder it.”
Sixty-six years ago today, the Sailors of Taffy 3 showed us what honor, courage, and commitment really meant.  Just as the Sailors of SAMUEL B. ROBERTS did in 1988 and the COLE Sailors did in 2000.  Now it’s our turn.  All the best, JCHjr.


Anonymous said...

Strongly suggest reading an excellent book:

Last Stand of The Tin Can Sailors

If you want to read an outstanding book about three little DEs and their CL baby flattops ran off the cream of the IJN battlship force, this is the book to read.


ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN said...

Byron, I concur completely - it's a great book. Please also give Sea of Thunder by Evan Thomas a look. Thomas examines all aspects of this battle from the various Fleet commanders' perspectives - an excellent read as well. All the best, JCHjr


An Admiral that posts his thoughts on history... Epic.

YN2(SW) Battle Yeoman