Key point: The battle was large and was very consequential. It was a shown down that helped to further lead to Tokyo's defeat.
The engagement that would become the Battle of Leyte Gulf began as Japanese forces advanced upon the island of Leyte. American forces began landing on Leyte on October 20, taking advantage of its good beaches and flat terrain to establish a foothold. Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet covered the landings, with William Halsey’s Third Fleet offering distant cover. American air raids had devastated Japanese airfields and aircraft across the country, but had not completely eliminated the aerial threat. But the biggest danger to the invasion would come not from aircraft, but from the cruisers and battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The Imperial Japanese Navy (INJ) had carefully husbanded its surface strength during 1943 and 1944, avoiding engagements against superior U.S. forces. This meant that much of the core strength of the IJN remained available for defeating the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. Yamato and Musashi, the two largest battleships ever constructed, formed the core of Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force. Three older battleships accompanied them, along with numerous heavy cruisers and destroyers. Many of these latter were veterans of the Solomons Campaign and had already exacted a toll in blood from the U.S. Navy.
But Kurita’s force would have to run a gauntlet, in daylight, of hundreds of American carrier-based aircraft. Kurita could expect little fighter cover. In fairness, no battleships had been lost to aircraft in the Pacific since December 1941, when Japanese aircraft caught a pair of British battleships in the open sea and sank them in less than two hours. The Japanese hoped that their battleships would prove sturdier, and their anti-aircraft defenses more lethal to fend off the American onslaught. The Japanese also had a few hundred land-based aircraft at their disposal to use against the American carrier groups.
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey worked with an embarrassment of riches, at least by the standards of the early war. He had at his disposal eight fleet and eight light aircraft carriers, vastly in excess of what commanders at the decisive battles of 1942 could have imagined working with. But Halsey had dispatched one of his task forces to rearm and provision, leaving him with five fleet carriers (four Essex class ships and the USS Enterprise, veteran of most of the early battles of the Pacific War) and six light carriers. Halsey also had six fast battleships, including USS Iowa and USS New Jersey, the most advanced battleships in the world. In addition, he had a great many cruisers and destroyersthat escorted the capital ships. Finally, Halsey also enjoyed the advantage of having submarines patrolling along the likely points of Japanese advance.
The battle opened with a devastatingly successful submarine attack against the Japanese. The U.S. submarines Darter and Dace identified the advancing Japanese force and maneuvered into position along its path. Attacks from both submarines sank two heavy cruisers and damaged another in the early morning of October 23. Admiral Kurita himself had to swim for his life after his flagship, the cruiser Atago, sank. Kurita transferred his flag to HIJMS Yamato, and the Japanese task force continued along its way.
The Japanese quickly drew blood in response. Despite the success of earlier raids, the Japanese still had a large force of land-based aircraft in the Philippines. Three waves of these aircraft hit the U.S. carrier groups, although most were quickly dealt with by U.S. combat air patrol. However, at least one Japanese bomber made it through. A D4Y “Judy” hit USS Princeton with a single bomb, causing fires and secondary explosions. Although the crew (with the assistance of the cruiser USS Birmingham) seemed to be getting things in hand, a massive explosion rocked the ship some five hours after the initial attack. The explosion was fatal for Princeton, and also killed over 200 of Birmingham’s crew. USS Princeton was the only fast carrier lost by the United States after 1942, although she would not be the only U.S. carrier lost during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The battle began in earnest on the morning of October 24, as Kurita’s force transited the Sibuyuan Sea in daylight. Hundreds of American aircraft flew multiple sorties against the Japanese force, scoring hits against most of the major units. Eventually, American pilots settled upon Musashi. The U.S. still had only limited intelligence about the two gigantic super-battleships, although both ships had participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Separating Musashi from the herd, the Americans hit her with some seventeen bombs and nineteen torpedoes. The gigantic battleship was difficult to sink, but Kurita allowed her to detach from the rest of the force.
Under the onslaught, Kurita decided to change direction and escape the cauldron. The Japanese sailed south for some forty minutes, leading Halsey to conclude that they were withdrawing. Center Force passed the crippled Musashi along the way, detaching a cruiser and a pair of destroyers to assist. The cruiser Myoko had also been damaged, but the rest of Kurita’s force remained capable of battle. In the late afternoon, Kurita reversed course again, unbeknownst to the Americans, and continued towards Leyte. Musashi was not so lucky; although desperate counter-flooding kept the ship from capsizing, her engines eventually quit, and the order to abandon ship was given. Musashi sank in the early evening of October 24.
American aircraft drew an awful toll on Kurita’s force. The loss of Musashi was more than just a material blow; many Japanese sailors had believed that the battleship was effectively unsinkable. But Halsey had made a critical error, misinterpreting Kurita’s turn to the south as a withdrawal rather than a tactical retreat. In fairness, Kurita himself had not fully decided what to do, but Halsey shifted his attention away from Kurita and toward Ozawa’s carrier fleet. This would leave Kurita’s remaining force, which still included four battleships, with an open path to the invasion fleet off Leyte.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to The National Interest, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.