Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944

The naval Battle of Leyte Gulf, was fought from October 23-26 in 1944.1 Four major engagements took place in waters near the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar, and Luzon between combined American and Australian forces of the Third and Seventh Fleets, and the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was the largest and most complex naval battle in history, and it ended as a massive American victory that effectively destroyed the fighting capability of the Japanese navy.

In late 1944, the Allies began a campaign to recapture the Philippines, lost to the Japanese in 1942. On October 20, ground forces commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur made a successful amphibious assault on the island of Leyte.

Expecting an invasion, Japan ordered its force naval force of 4 fleets to sea at the very first sign of Allied landings. One of these fleets, whose carriers' planes had almost entirely been destroyed in the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, would serve as bait to lure the Third Fleet away from Leyte. The rest would approach from the west and destroy the U.S. landings at Leyte. Part of that force would move through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait for its attack. The 2 other smaller fleets would move up from the south through the Surigao Strait.

In committing to this action the Japanese command was throwing into combat just about everything it had left of its navy and air force. It hoped to be victorious in a decisive battle against the United States Pacific Fleet as well as stopping MacArthur's army's advance at Leyte.

Two American fleets were stationed in the Pacific at that time: Admiral William Halsey's Third Fleet and the Seventh Fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Both shared significant roles in defeating the Japanese in the Naval Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kinkaid's 7th Fleet was assisting Gen. Douglas MacArthur's amphibious assault at Leyte by providing close support, while Halsey's Third Fleet provided cover further out to sea.

Battle of Leyte Gulf
Source: Wikimedia Commons
As the Japanese forces were converging into position southwest of Leyte, submarines of the U.S. Seventh Fleet discovered the first enemy attack force and sank 2 of its heavy cruisers in the Palawan Passage on October 23rd. A series of almost continuous surface and air clashes followed, especially in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea on the 24th. In those American air attacks, a Japanese battleship was sunk along with a cruiser. The light carrier USS Princeton was sunk and other American ships were damaged.

Meanwhile, Admiral Halsey had allowed his Third Fleet to be drawn away by the Japanese decoy force, leaving the San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded. This part of the Japanese plan seemed to be working.

On October 25th, 3 major engagements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf were fought almost simultaneously. At the Battle of Surigao Strait, battleships and cruisers from the Seventh Fleet destroyed one of the Japanese forces and compelled a second to withdraw. In the meantime, another attack force passed through the unguarded San Bernardino Strait and inflicted heavy damage on the Seventh Fleet escort carriers in the Battle off Samar. But, unexpectedly the enemy force withdrew just as it seemed ready to attack. In the Battle of Cape Engaño in the north, the Third Fleet sank 4 Japanese carriers, which had been acting as bait to lure the fleet away from Leyte Gulf. Except for some final air strikes on the retreating enemy on the 26th, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was over.

In the fighting the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as more than 10,000 killed. Allied losses were much lighter, about 1,500 killed in addition to the loss of 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 escort carriers, and 3 destroyers. Crippled by its losses, this was the last time the Imperial Japanese Navy would conduct large-scale operations.

The naval victory in the Battle of Leyte Gulf didn't immediately change the situation for the Allied ground forces. However, it did secure the beachhead on Leyte won by the invasion force on October 20th. It also contributed to the eventual liberation of the Philippines. And, Japan was soon cut off from its conquered territories in Southeast Asia, which greatly reduced the flow of supplies and resources it required to win the war.

During this action my dad, Frank Dolan, was at Ulithi with his repair ship USS Hector, tending to USS Houston, seriously damaged on October 14. During this part of the war, Hector supported Carrier Task Force 38, which was confronting the Japanese navy at Leyte on this date. Four months later, Hector will be stationed in San Pedro Bay in Leyte Gulf, repairing ships, while battles continue nearby.
When the Princeton was hit by a single 550-pound bomb the explosion quickly turned into a raging fire. Fire-fighting crews were not able to control the flames fast enough, and massive explosions ripped apart the flight deck. Other ships moved alongside to take on nonessential sailors from Princeton and to help pump water onto the ship. The light cruiser Birmingham was assisting alongside when Princeton's magazine exploded, sweeping Birmingham's deck. Hundreds of men were killed instantly or horribly wounded—over half of her crew. Because of its condition, Princeton had to be sunk. But, amazingly, the damaged Birmingham was still seaworthy. It carried the wounded to Ulithi where they and the ship were cared for.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was Japan's first use of its Kamikaze Special Attack Force. During the battle, several modern day samurais piloted suicidal missions into American and Australian ships. The American escort carrier, USS St. Lo, was one of the ships sunk as a result of a kamikaze attack. To compensate for its losses, Japan will continue to use k
amikaze tactics, and by war's end the desperate empire will send over 2,500 suicide aircraft against American and Allied ships.

Sources: The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morison; The Battle of Leyte Gulf, Thomas J. Cutter; Battles Lost and Won, Hanson W. Baldwin; USS Birmingham War Diary, October 1944; Encyclopedia Britannica

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