Pearl Harbor Revenge: The Battleship Battle of Surigao Strait
Captain Smoot was in position to observe this display while his destroyers were withdrawing. “The devastating accuracy of this gunfire was the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed,” he later reported. “The arched line of tracers in the darkness looked like a continual stream of railroad cars going over a hill. No target could be observed at first; then shortly there would be fires and explosions, and another ship would be accounted for.”
Aboard Louisville, Admiral Oldendorf received a message that Albert W. Grant and other destroyers were being hit by friendly fire, and he ordered all ships to cease firing at 4:09. Oldendorf wanted to give the destroyers time to get out of the battle area, but he also gave Nishimura some breathing room. Yamashiro turned 90 degrees and began to retire southward. In spite of the damage, the battleship was still able to make 15 knots, although she had sustained fatal wounds. No records exist to indicate exactly how many shell hits had penetrated Yamashiro’s armor, but a realistic estimate would be several hundred. At 4:19, the big ship rolled over and sank. Nishimura and most of the crew went down with the ship.
Mogami had already begun to withdraw, turning south at 3:53. As she made her way out of the strait, she was targeted by American cruisers and destroyers. By 3:53, Mogami was on fire and still taking hits. At 4:02, a shell, probably from Portland, exploded on the bridge, killing all officers including the captain. Other hits to the engine room slowed her to a crawl. She launched torpedoes at 4:01, but this was probably done as a precaution to prevent them from exploding.
Whatever the motive behind it, Mogami’s torpedo salvo certainly made the Americans take notice. The destroyer Richard P. Leary, which was heading north toward the battle line, reported that torpedoes were overtaking her at 4:13. The West Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee turned due north with their sterns away from the approaching torpedoes, while the other three battleships headed westward. When Oldendorf ordered all ships to resume firing at 4:19, the battleships were out of position. It didn’t really matter, though, since there were no targets remaining. Yamashiro had gone down, and Mogami and Shigure were too far away.
The Second Striking Force
By this time, Mogami was too badly damaged to be of any threat, and Shigure was leaving the battle area. But Vice Admiral Shima’s Second Striking Force had not yet made its presence known. Shima’s force was made up of two heavy cruisers, Nachi and Ashigara; the light cruiser Abukuma; and the destroyers Shiranuhi, Kasumi, Ushio, and Akebono. Throughout the night action, Shima had been receiving reports from Nishimura as he continued toward the strait. At midnight, he received a communiqué that Nishimura was being attacked by torpedo boats. About an hour later, his leading destroyers could see muzzle flashes from gunfire ahead. At about 3:15, the seven warships were attacked by torpedo boats. No hits were scored.
Ten minutes later, Shima’s luck took a turn for the worse—another torpedo fired by a PT boat hit the Abukuma, killing about 30 men and slowing the cruiser to 10 knots. The PT boat’s captain had actually been aiming at a destroyer in the column and hit Abukuma by mistake.
Undeterred, Shima continued northward. At about 4:10, he sighted two ships on fire and decided that they must be Fuso and Yamashiro. Actually, they were the drifting bow and stern sections of Fuso. Shima hurried due north to aid Nishimura. At about 4:20, just after Nishimura went down with Yamashiro, Shima’s radar detected what appeared to be two enemy ships at 13,000 yards, bearing 25 degrees. Nachi and Ashigara fired eight torpedoes each at the targets. The enemy ships were actually the two Hibuson Islands.
Shima had not heard from Nishimura for some time and tried to size up the situation himself. He could only guess at what had happened to Nishimura. His four destroyers had ventured ahead of the cruisers and could not find any targets, just a seemingly impenetrable smoke screen that had been laid down by American destroyers. At 4:25, Shima recalled his destroyers and sent a dispatch to headquarters in Manila: “This force has concluded its attack and is retiring from the battle area to plan subsequent action.”
Admiral Shima had exercised more discretion and common sense than Nishimura. Had he continued toward the American battle line, his cruisers and destroyers would have been chopped to pieces by Oldendorf’s battleships and cruisers. Shima’s force did, however, endure another bit of bad luck before leaving the area. The Nachi, Shima’s flagship, was overtaking the damaged Mogami, which appeared to be dead in the water. Mogami had not stopped, though. She was actually moving south at a greatly reduced speed, almost a crawl. Nachi’s captain misjudged both the speed and distance of Mogami, and the two ships collided at 4:30.
Nachi lost part of her port bow in the collision, and her speed was reduced to 18 knots. Mogami joined up with Shima’s column and steamed southward out of the strait. Shigure also joined the column but, before falling in with Shima’s force, the captain sent this dispatch to Combined Fleet headquarters: “C Force has been annihilated, location of enemy unknown, please send me instruction. I have trouble with my rudder, my wireless, my radar, and my gyro, and I received one hit.”