How the U.S. Navy's Battleships Got Revenge for Pearl Harbor

December 5, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HistoryPearl HarborWorld War IIBattleshipsMilitaryTechnology

How the U.S. Navy's Battleships Got Revenge for Pearl Harbor

The Battle of Surigao Strait was a major portion of the titanic Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest and last major naval battle ever fought, an epic engagement that saw the use of every type of naval warfare except the mine.

On Mogami’s bridge, Yamamoto bawled through a megaphone, “This is Mogami! Captain and XO killed! Gunnery officer in charge. Steering destroyed. Steering by engine. Sorry!”

Shima and Kanooka, exasperated, accepted the blame. Nachi began crawling southward at five knots. Mogami struggled to get in line behind her two sisters. Everyone listened for explosions from the 16 torpedoes fired, but there was no sound.

While Shima’s cruisers maneuvered in clumsy fashion, her destroyers tried to attack, torpedo tubes ready. There was no American gunfire to track—Grant’s mishap had silenced Oldendorf’s guns.

At 4:35, Shima signaled his destroyers, “Reverse course to the south and rejoin.” The irritated destroyer skippers did so, pulling out of American range.

A Fighting Retreat

On Nachi, Shima was assessing the situation. His flagship was damaged from the collision but could still do 18 knots. But it was clear disaster already reigned, as exemplified by the battered Mogami. Shima and his officers conferred. Torpedo officer Kokichi Mori said to Shima, “Admiral, up ahead the enemy must be waiting for us with open arms. Nishimura’s force is almost totally destroyed. It is obvious that we will fall into a trap. We may die anytime. In any case, it is foolish to go ahead now.” Shima got the point. Time to withdraw.

On Louisville, Oldendorf studied the smoke, oil fires, and silence through his binoculars and ordered a cautious pursuit of his beaten enemy. He had no idea if there were more enemy ships out there—intelligence suggested there might be as many as three battleships, five cruisers, and six to eight destroyers beyond the smoke—ready to ambush him with shells and Long Lance torpedoes. And his battle line was increasingly short on ammunition. At 4:37 am, Louisville, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver, and Columbia headed south.

At 4:41, Shima ordered his ships to follow behind Nachi. Hobbling along at 20 knots, they were retreating at a slow speed. On the battered Mogami, ammunition started cooking off, hampering repairs and endangering the crew. Arai ordered his men to jettison torpedoes to prevent them from exploding, but four of them exploded, adding to the smoldering fires. Incredibly, the engines kept turning, and Arai used hand steering to maneuver his ship.

The battle still sputtered on. As the Japanese ships retreated, they met up with the PT boats that had not expended their torpedoes earlier in the struggle. Lieutenant Carl T. Gleason’s Section 11, consisting of three PT boats, attacked the destroyers Shigure and Asagumo. The Japanese fire was ragged and off target, but one American torpedo detonated prematurely. Another slithered out of its tube on PT-326 and clattered to the deck, a defective “hot run.” The blazing fish provided the Japanese with a target, and the Japanese hurled 5-inch shells at the PT boats. Shrapnel injured one man before the burning torpedo could be rolled overboard.

The Japanese ships continued to withdraw, now hooking up with the Abukuma, which had repaired its damage and was ready to attack. Shima declined the offer but was happy to add another escort to his damaged force.

Oldendorf’s Pursuit Called Off

By 5:20 am, Louisville was eight miles west of Esconchada Point, where Nachi and Mogami had collided an hour earlier. Oldendorf studied the scene through his binoculars and told his column to turn right and prepare to shell the fleeing Japanese with full broadsides. The open fire gongs rang at 5:29, and the Americans hurled more shells at the Mogami, scoring several direct hits. Yet the cruiser survived this latest bombardment, cranking up to 14 knots.

Other American shells rained down from Minneapolis on Asagumo, starting a fire, holing her oil tanks. Barely able to make seven knots, the destroyer was on fire, spreading and menacing its torpedoes. At 6 am, Asagumo’s skipper, Commander Kazuo Shibayama, ordered his men to abandon ship.

Worried about Japanese torpedoes, Oldendorf ceased fire at 5:39 am and swung back north. Now the American destroyers began nosing into the wreckage in the growing dawn to pursue survivors of the two battleships and two destroyers sunk in Surigao Strait. Oldendorf ordered his ships, “Do not overload your ships with survivors. Search each man well to see that he does not have any weapons. Anyone offering resistance—shoot him. Proceed independently to pick up survivors.”

By now Shima’s weary collection of ships was heading out of Surigao Strait into the Mindanao Sea, enduring further brushes with PT boats. First up was PT-491, which charged Mogami, firing torpedoes. Mogami hit back with 8-inch shells, and PT-491 retreated.

Back in Surigao Strait, American destroyers slowly steamed into debris-strewn waters filled with Japanese survivors who refused American entreaties to surrender. Other ships pursued the crippled Asagumo, whose bows had been torn open. PT-323 hurled a torpedo into the immobile tin can, throwing men on her weather decks into the water. Hearing word of this target, Oldendorf sent in the cruisers Denver and Columbia and six destroyers to polish off Asagumo.

Oldendorf was beginning to receive frantic messages from his bosses at 7th Fleet—Kurita’s battleships had steamed through the unguarded San Bernardino Strait and were bearing down on the poorly defended escort carriers off Samar. The fox was among the chickens, and Oldendorf had to steam to the rescue, despite his shortages of ammunition. Nishimura had succeeded in one thing—drawing off Kinkaid’s heavy warships to expend ammunition and energy against the attack from the south instead of Kurita’s thrust from the north.

Attacked from the Air

Meanwhile, Shima’s retreating ships, heading home in the early morning, awaited the one certainty of the day—American air attack. Shima radioed for fighter cover but instead received an attack of nine Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers and four Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from the escort carrier USS Santee and two Avengers and six Hellcats from USS Sangamon, launched at 5:45 am. They pounced on Shima’s battered vessels and incorrectly reported them as two battleships. That happened often. Japanese heavy cruisers had massive superstructures and looked like battleships to airmen. The Americans swooped in to attack. Strafing killed nine and wounded 25 on Shiranuhi, and the luckless Mogami took yet another torpedo hit.

Ten Avengers and five Grumman FM-2 Wildcats from USS Ommaney Bay’s VC-75 came next, storming down on the smoking Mogami, scoring two more hits, starting fires, and bringing the ship to a halt. The destroyer Akebono sprayed hoses on the cruiser. Everyone but the antiaircraft crews fought the fires.

The American bombs smashed into the cruiser’s oil tanks, setting them ablaze. Gunnery officer and acting commander Arai ordered the three forward 8-inch magazines flooded to prevent an explosion. But the warped bulkheads meant that the valves for the No. 1 gun room would not open. The cruiser was blazing and could sink at any moment.

In tears, Arai ordered his men to abandon ship at 10:30 am. With her davits broken, Mogami could not use her cutter, so Akebono closed Mogami’s port quarter to take aboard the cruiser’s crew.

At 9:33 am, Shima faced his last attack of the day: 13 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers, which strafed the Japanese ships, punching holes in the destroyer Ushio.

On Mogami, the exhausted crew mustered topside on weather decks to abandon ship after three hours of desperate fire fighting, shuffling aboard Akebono. At 12:56, Akebono fired a Long Lance into Mogami’s port side, and the cruiser began to sink, her demise hastened by an explosion in No. 1 magazine. At 1:07, as her crew stood by on Akebono watching and crying, Mogami slipped beneath the waves. All but 20 officers, 171 enlisted men, and one civilian of Mogami’s 850-man crew were saved by Akebono.

At 1:33, Shima got more bad news—a message from Kurita that the main force was canceling its planned attack on the Leyte anchorage and was retreating, having failed in its mission. Shima’s reaction is unrecorded, but he continued his retreat.

Shigure headed for Brunei and ultimate safety in Japan. But when Shigure tied up at Sasebo on November 14, her skipper, Nishino, faced relief of command at the end of the month, accused of lack of aggressiveness in Surigao Strait.

The fallout continued. Abukuma was caught a day later, on October 26, by U.S. Army Air Forces Consolidated B-24 Liberators of the 33rd Squadron, which hammered her. Japanese antiaircraft gunners knocked down three B-24s, but flames spread across Abukuma’s decks, igniting torpedoes. Her skipper, Captain Takuo Hanada, ordered the ship abandoned. He and 25 officers and 257 enlisted men of her 438-man crew survived.

One of the Most One-Sided Naval Actions in History

What had happened was simple enough. Nishimura and Shima had steamed into a gauntlet of gunfire and had been defeated in one of the most one-sided naval actions in history. The Japanese could not count their dead, but they numbered in the thousands, including Nishimura. Two battleships, a heavy cruiser, and three destroyers were lost in the action, and the light cruiser Abukuma was lost shortly after. The Americans lost exactly 39 killed and 114 wounded, most of them on Albert W. Grant due to friendly fire, and a single PT boat.