In the distance, they could see the jagged flashes of lightning, an incoming squall in the dark. Just before the rain arrived, so did St. Elmo’s Fire, and the gun barrels and radio antennas on the PT boats crackled with blue sparks and streamers of static electricity.
Then there was another lightning flash, and suddenly Lieutenant (j.g.) Terry Chambers, the executive officer of PT-491 saw them—a column of seven Japanese warships advancing in the dark, headed for Surigao Strait and the waiting U.S. Seventh Fleet. It was the extremely early morning of October 25, 1944, and two battleships and a heavy cruiser of the Imperial Japanese Navy were steaming toward what would become one of the most one-sided battles in naval history, and the last duel between battleships of the line.
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.
The Leyte Gulf battle began with the American decision on July 27, 1944, to target the Philippines instead of Formosa as their next invasion site. General Douglas MacArthur would redeem his pledge to return to the Philippines. The initial objective was the invasion of the island of Leyte to secure air and sea bases for the next stages: seizing Mindoro and the climactic assault on the main island of Luzon.
Recommended: North Korea’s Most Lethal Weapon Isn’t Nukes .
Recommended: 5 Worst Guns Ever Made .
Recommended: The World’s Most Secretive Nuclear Weapons Program .
Codenamed King II, the invasion of Leyte would involve two U.S. fleets, the 7th, under Vice Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid, and the 3rd, under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.
Sho-1: The Imperial Navy Strikes Back
The 3rd Fleet was the offensive arm of the invasion, with nine fleet carriers, eight light carriers, and six fast battleships at its heart. The 7th Fleet was the amphibious force, with more than 100 transports and other vessels (including the British minelayer HMS Ariadne), protected by a swarm of cruisers, destroyers, and escort carriers for close air support, backed by six old battleships configured for shore bombardment, in a Fire Support Force, headed by Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, flying his flag in the heavy cruiser USS Louisville. Among his ships were the Australian cruiser HMAS Shropshire and the destroyer HMAS Arunta. A-day for the invasion was to be October 20, 1944.
The invaders were not spotted by the Japanese until October 17, when the whole American armada appeared at the mouth of the Gulf of Leyte. When they did so, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, who headed the Imperial Japanese Navy, ordered their long-planned response, Victory Operation One, or Sho-1, into operation.
Sho-1 was one of four plans the Japanese had prepared in anticipation of America’s next offensive move, and they all called for the same reaction: the bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy steaming forth to attack and destroy the U.S. fleet, regardless of losses to themselves.
Sho-1 was like most Imperial Japanese Navy plans of World War II: a decoy force would lure the Americans in one direction, while the real punch would come from other directions in a complex series of coordinated movements. This time, the decoy force was Japan’s surviving aircraft carriers, under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, steaming down from the home islands. With barely 100 planes between them, these carriers lacked offensive punch, but the Japanese believed the aggressive Halsey would race after them with his entire 3rd Fleet.
While Halsey was drawn off, the powerful battleships and heavy cruisers of the Imperial Navy, mostly based at Lingga Roads near Singapore and the Borneo fuel stocks, would strike east and ravage the 7th Fleet’s amphibious forces while they lay in Leyte Gulf. The surface ships would pound the 7th Fleet to death with torpedoes and shells, isolating the American invaders on shore. The combination of a trapped army in the Philippines and a smashed navy in the Pacific might at least buy Japan time, or even persuade America to make peace.
The Task Forces of Kurita and Nishimura
The battlewagons at Lingga were commanded by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita and consisted of a powerful force. They were headed by two immense dreadnoughts, the Yamato and Musashi, sister ships that packed the heaviest armament ever loaded on a battleship, 18.1-inch guns. They were supported by five more dreadnoughts and a screen of cruisers and destroyers, all of which brandished the legendary Type 95 Long Lance torpedo , one of the best in the world. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have been worn down by hard war, but it was still a powerful force with highly skilled sailors and officers well trained in night fighting.