Sunday, October 12, 2014

Battle off Formosa, 1944

The Battle off Formosa was a naval air battle that took place between October 10th and 20th, 1944, off the eastern coasts of Formosa, the Ryukyu Islands, and Luzon. Task Force 38 of the U.S. Third Fleet carried out the attacks to prevent Japanese aerial forces there from interfering in the planned landings at Leyte in the Philippines on October 20th.

The U.S. fleet launched carrier-based air attacks against Formosa (present-day Taiwan) on this date in 1944. The Japanese responded by sending waves of fighters and bombers against the attacking carrier fleet. On the 13th, the cruiser USS Canberra was seriously damaged by an aerial torpedo. For the first time in the war, the Japanese ordered suicide pilots into battle. One of these "kamikaze" strikes lightly damaged the carrier USS Franklin. The next day, the light cruiser USS Houston also was seriously damaged by an enemy torpedo.

Source: United States Army In World War II: The War In The Pacific
Overall, the battle was one-sided in favor of the Americans. The U.S. force dominated the air, and by the 14th, the aerial forces based on the island were all but neutralized. However, the Japanese initially misinter-preted the outcome. They mistook the American force attempting to withdraw dam-aged Canberra and Houston to safety as the fleeing remnants of the entire Third Fleet. So, with additional aircraft transferred from Japan to Formosa, the Japanese launched a new attack on the 15th. But the Americans successfully repelled it, inflicting heavy losses.

A final Japanese attack came on October 16th, but only 3 aircraft managed to get past the fighter screen. One of the enemy planes was able to launch a second torpedo into the Houston, but remarkably, the badly damaged cruiser remained afloat and, along with the Canberra, made a harrowing trip to reach safety at Ulithi.*

Other U.S. ships were damaged in the fighting. The carrier USS Hancock, the light cruiser USS Reno, and 2 destroyers also received damage. Eighty-nine aircraft also were lost. On the enemy's side, they lost around 500 aircraft and many ships, almost their entire air strength in the area.

Perhaps more importantly, Japan's ability now was seriously weakened for defending the Okinawa Islands in the upcoming campaign to take them. And, the Battle off Formosa also had a major impact on the course of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944). The loss of enemy aircraft meant that the Japanese carriers had no air groups and could only be used as decoys. Therefore, the rest of the Japanese fleet lacked air cover, making it much easier for the Americans to find and attack it.

USS Langley leads a very impressive force returning to Ulithi in
December 1944, from strikes on targets in the Philippines.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison waxed prosaic in his description of the mighty and majestic fleet in 1944:
The modern age has afforded no marine spectacle comparable to a meeting of these big warships, which have become as beautiful to the modern seaman's eye as a ship of the line to his bell-bottomed forbears. The great flattops, constantly launching and recovering aircraft; the new battleships with their graceful sheer, tossing spray and leaving a boiling wake; the cruisers bristling with antiaircraft guns; the destroyers darting, thrusting and questing for lurking submarines, all riding crested seas of deepest ultramarine; the massy tradewind clouds casting purpleall together composed a picture of mighty naval power. It corresponded to a fleet of ships of the line with their attendant frigates and sloops majestically sailing cross the Caribbean in the eighteenth century.

*Houston's War Diary for October 1944 provides a fascinating account of the 14-day ordeal on the stricken ship. At Ulithi on October 27th, my dad's repair ship, USS Hector, received the damaged Houston alongside for repairs. Crews completed the work by December 14ththis in spite of a typhoon and suicide submarine attacks.

Sources: The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliiot Morison

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