At 6 am on the morning of October 24, the nearest carriers to Nishimura, the veteran USS Enterprise and the new USS Franklin, launched reconnaissance planes to fan out over the Sulu Sea, hunting for Japanese warships.
At 8:30 am, an Enterprise search team under Lieutenant Raymond E. Moore spotted Nishimura’s battleships and identified them correctly. A strike group of 12 bombers and 16 fighters headed for the dreadnoughts. For Enterprise Ensign Robert J. Barnes, seeing the massive battleships beneath him was “something you dream about as a dive-bomber pilot. The antiaircraft fire was terrific.”
On the Japanese ships, signal halyards and bugle calls summoned everyone to battle stations; the 14-inch guns loaded Type 3 antiaircraft ammunition and opened fire. The barrage of shells shook Asagumo’s chief engineer, Tokichi Ishii, in his engine room. On Fuso, Yeoman 2nd Class Hideo Ogawa, in the powder magazine, considered that if the battleship were hit his end would be quick, as he was surrounded by main battery powder canisters.
The American planes swooped down on the Japanese warships, subjecting them to bombing, strafing, and rockets. On Yamashiro, 20 men died from strafing. A bomb scored a direct hit on Fuso,bouncing No. 1 turret on its barbette. It crashed through the deck and killed everyone in the secondary battery. Another bomb hit Fuso’s quarterdeck, setting two floatplanes ablaze and gutting the wardroom. Another bomb grazed the Shigure’s No. 1 turret.
Lieutenant Commander Fred Bakutis, skipper of Enterprise’s fighter squadron, was shot out of the sky during the battle and had to ditch. Luckily, the Japanese did not spot him, and he spent seven days in a life raft before he was spotted and picked up by the submarine USS Hardhead, dehydrated, hungry, blistered, but otherwise in good shape. He recovered to resume flying.
The American planes flew off, and damage control parties on the Japanese ships went to work. Both battlewagons suffered from burst seams and minor damage. Nishimura ordered his ships to proceed with their mission. He fired off Mogami’s scout planes to check on the enemy. One of them reported four battleships, two cruisers, four destroyers, 15 aircraft carriers, 14 PT boats, and 80 transports in Leyte Gulf, a close approximation of the defense. At 4 pm, Nishimura blinkered his battle plan. Mogami and the four destroyers would steam ahead and mop up the enemy PT boats, then reassemble, and all ships would charge up Surigao Strait.
Oldendorf’s Advantages and Disadvantages
Meanwhile, the Americans, aware of Nishimura’s advance, made their preparations. Rear Admiral Jesse C. Oldendorf was a burly Californian and a member of the Annapolis class of 1909. Known as “Oley” to his pals, he had commanded the heavy cruiser USS Houston before the war, which had carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his voyages. In 1942 and 1943, he was in charge of countermeasures in the Caribbean against U-boats and screening big transports on convoy duty. He took over the Pacific Fleet’s gunfire support battleships in 1944, flying his flag on the heavy cruiser USS Louisville.
With short notice, Oldendorf planned his defenses with skill. He summoned his subordinate admirals aboard his flagship in the early evening to lay out his plans. He had several advantages: large numbers of ships, new fire-control radar, combat information centers to channel information flow in and orders out, and above all the narrow geography of Surigao Strait, which offered opportunities for ambushes. He set up a gauntlet for the Japanese. PT boats would be the opening screen, alerting Oldendorf to the enemy’s location, size, and movements. Then Oldendorf would harry them with destroyers armed with torpedoes. The Japanese would be worn down by the time they reached his battle line of six older battlewagons and 10 cruisers, which included Australia’s HMAS Shropshire.
The crowded nature of Surigao Strait would enable Oldendorf to form a battle line “crossing the T” of the Japanese advance, the dream of every naval commander, which would hammer the Japanese ships.
Still, the U.S. Navy had not shown a good record in night naval engagements up to this point, losing battles or suffering heavy casualties in the Solomons. His destroyers lacked replacement torpedoes. The American battleships were not the Navy’s first team of fast dreadnoughts, but older, slower vessels, built just after World War I. At least two lacked modern radar.
Most importantly, Oldendorf’s ships’ ammunition scales were for providing support fire for ground troops. They had been doing so for days. Some of the destroyers were down to 20 percent of their ammunition. The battleships were loaded with 77 percent bombardment shells for ground targets and 23 percent armorpiercing ordnance for enemy ships—and they had been on the bombardment line for days, shooting off 58 percent of all their ammunition. Oldendorf told his battleship men to hold fire until the Japanese had closed to 17,000 to 20,000 yards, use armor-piercing shells to rip open the enemy hulls, and high explosive ordnance thereafter.
Oldendorf took other precautions. Remembering that at Savo Island in 1942, Japanese shells blasted American cruisers’ seaplanes to start fires, he ordered his ships to park their seaplanes in hangars and rely on PT boats, radar, and good communications to track the enemy. The destroyers and cruisers took up positions on the right and left wings of the battle line to minimize the risk of friendly fire. All afternoon, Oldendorf’s ships took on additional ammunition.
PT Boats Make Contact
Everybody in the American force was eager for battle. Five of the battleships in Oldendorf’s line had been present at Pearl Harbor: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California, and Tennessee. Their crews were eager to avenge that humiliation. The sixth battleship was the veteran USS Mississippi.Some of the American cruisers were new warships, like Denver, Columbia, and Cleveland, while others trailed lengthy records of combat. Portland had been at Midway, Minneapolis at Guadalcanal, Phoenix had steamed boldly out of the carnage of Pearl Harbor, while Boise survived overwhelming Japanese power in the defeats in the Philippines and Dutch East Indies. The Australians aboard HMAS Shropshire had bitter memories of the fiasco at Savo Island, having served aboard and survived the sinking of HMAS Canberra before she could fire a shot.
Captain Jesse G. Coward, a Guadalcanal veteran commanding Destroyer Squadron (Desron) 54, a fresh addition to Oldendorf’s force, signaled his boss: “In case of surface contact to the southward I plan to make an immediate torpedo attack and then retire to clear you. With your approval I will submit plan shortly.” Oldendorf gave the aggressive Coward the green light 15 minutes later.
The Japanese were going in, too. Nishimura intended to hit the American transports at 4 am. The night wore on, with Japanese lookouts peering into the dark as the two forces moved separately through the Mindanao Sea and toward the island of Leyte.
Waiting in the dark for Nishimura’s split force were 39 PT boats in 13 groups of three, engines idling, ready to fire torpedoes and crash start their main engines to escape. There was no wind, a flat sea, and visibility only about three miles. Aboard Louisville, Oldendorf could only see two ships in front of and behind him.
At 10:36 pm, Ensign Peter R. Gadd’s PT-131 spotted the Japanese force on its radar. Gadd throttled up and closed in to attack, joined by other PT boats. To their amazement, they saw the immense bulks of Nishimura’s capital ships heading north. The PT boats headed in to loose torpedoes, and lookouts on Shigure spotted the American vessels. Shigure opened fire and illuminated with starshells.
Realizing they were attacking a force many times their power, the PT boats turned away, making smoke to obscure their exits. The battleships joined in with their secondary armament. One 6-inch shell struck a glancing blow right against the forward torpedo in its rack on PT-130, smashing the nose, splintering the deck. The shell knocked out the PT boat’s radio and flew out of the bow without detonating.
The PT boats reported their contact up the chain of command, and Oldendorf got the messages an hour and a half after the Japanese were sighted.
The PTs Continue Their Harassment
Meanwhile, the terrier-like PT boats kept connected with the advancing Japanese force. Two PT boats fired torpedoes at Nishimura’s ships but missed. Neither side scored hits, but the scrapping frayed Japanese nerves.
Nishimura was afraid that Mogami would mistake him for the enemy in the deteriorating visibility. Sure enough, at 1:05 am, Fuso lookouts saw a suspicious silhouette off the port bow. Trained in recognizing enemy ships, but not to distinguish Japanese vessels, they reported the silhouette as American. The battleship hurled 6-inch shells in that direction and got an angry voice-radio message back, “Cease firing, cease firing! Friendly ships!” It was Mogami. Unfortunately, just as the message got transmitted, another 6-inch shell hit the cruiser, killing three sailors who were lying in sickbay, wounded in the morning’s American air attack.
Nishimura ordered his ships to cease fire, and the entire Japanese formation regrouped and resumed heading north with the battleships in the lead and Mogami behind. Some distance behind them, Shima’s cruisers followed, his intentions vague. Shima had no plan to cooperate with Nishimura, merely to follow along.