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The Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a naval battle fought between allied American and Australian forces and the Imperial Japanese Navy off the Philippine island of Leyte during the winning years of World War Two. In 1944 the United States was looking to take the Philippines from the Japanese Empire, having had to withdraw several years earlier in the war. Controlling the Philippines would mean splitting the Japanese Empire in half and denying much needed raw material such as oil which could suffocate the Japanese war machine. Although the Battle of Leyte Gulf was the culmination of many different engagements, I will only be covering two major conflicts: the Battle of Surigao Strait and the Battle off Samar.

In order to defend their stronghold in the Philippines, the Imperial Japanese Navy gathered their remaining strength to form a task force to repel the American invasion force. As most of Japanese carriers had been sunk by 1944, most of the Japanese strength was in their heavy battleships and cruisers, such as the fearsome Yamato. Out of the three Japanese fleets formed from the task force, the ‘Southern Force’ lead by Shōji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima was tasked with sailing towards the Gulf of Leyte from the south of the island, through Surigao Strait. 

Unbeknownst to the Japanese was that the US 7th fleet had set up a trap along this narrow stretch of water: an initial line of torpedo boats, a second line of destroyers, and a final line composed of a formidable six battleships. Preceding Vice Admiral Shima, Nishimura ran into the torpedo boats first, and decided to continue to push his force of two battleships, a cruiser, and four destroyers through the strait. 

Although the torpedo boats failed in scoring any hits on the Japanese vessels, their warning allowed the line of American destroyers to inflict heavy damage — sinking a battleship and three destroyers. Despite these losses Nishimura decided to steam ahead, but right into the full broadsides of the final line of American battleships. 

The concentrated fire of these six battleships led to the death of Nishimura and the sinking of his entire fleet except for a single destroyer. When Vice Admiral Shima had sailed to near the location of the battle and saw the wreckage of Nishimura’s fleet, he ordered a retreat.

A second Japanese force, the Center force led by Vice Admiral Kurita, sailed around the Northern side of Layte and was tasked with striking the American invasion force from the Northern side of the gulf. Kurita’s formidable force comprised four battleships, including the Yamato, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. 

This movement from the North caught American command by surprise, which had consolidated a majority of its firepower at Surigao Strait or Sibuyan Sea.  As a result, the American landing craft were only being protected by several destroyers and destroyer escorts, along with minor air support from aircraft stationed on unarmed escort carriers. This curial information was unknown to Admiral Kurita, who believed that he had found the much more well armed American 3rd Fleet which in reality was still in the Sibuyan Sea. 

The battle between the Japanese ‘Center Force’ and hopelessly outmatched American escort group began when Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans of the USS Johnston decided to bravely charge his destroyer into the enemy fleet. The destroyers Hoel and Herman as well as the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts also followed suit in an offensive that seemed almost suicidal. 

All 450 carrier escort aircraft, many of which were either outdated or under armed, were sent to deter the Japanese fleet as best they could. After some fighting it was actually Admiral Kurita who chose to withdraw from the battle, perhaps under the impression that the American’s confidence meant that it was actually the Japanese fleet that was underpowered. When the smoke cleared, the Americans had lost the USS Johnston, Hoel, Samuel B. Roberts, and Gambier Bay, an escort cruiser. Most importantly, the invasion force was spared due to the heroics of the defending American fleet.

Kurita

The Battle of Leyte Gulf stands as the largest naval battle in the Second World War, and the final battle where battleships would slug it out against each other. The allied victory at Leyte meant the green light for the recapture of the Philippines, and another dagger in Japanese ability to fuel its war machine.

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