In This 1 Battle America's Old-School Battleships Got Revenge for Pearl Harbor

In This 1 Battle America's Old-School Battleships Got Revenge for Pearl Harbor

This battle at sea made history—for many reasons.

At 4:03, another shell knocked out all lights in the port after engine room. Mogami had lost three engine rooms in as many minutes. The engineers in the port forward engine room ignored smoke and heat to provide Mogami with engine power. As the shaking cruiser rattled away, Lt. Cmdr. Giichiro Arai, the gunnery officer, was told he was in command. But with the ship’s guns firing, he could not report to the bridge. Yamamoto would have to keep the conn.

One Destroyer Against an Armada

Amid all this shellfire and destruction, the destroyer Shigure sailed on, straddled but not hit. There were so many near misses that the gyro compass was out. Her skipper, Commander Shigeru Nishino, barked requests into his radio to the other ships to find out where they were or whom he should shoot at.

On his bridge, Nishino summed up the situation rationally—one destroyer against an armada. At 4:03 am, he aborted his northward charge and started arcing a starboard reverse turn, heading south and out of the battle.

On Yamashiro, fires blazed from the dreadnought’s pagoda mast, looking like ceremonial lanterns back in Sasebo. The fires burned so brightly that the Americans could make out Yamashiro’s 6-inch turrets standing out against the glare of the flames. An American shell destroyed No. 3 turret and its two 14-inch guns in a violent explosion. The ship’s communications and two aft turrets were out. The only good news was that paymaster Ensign Yamauchi was standing guard over the emperor’s portrait in the conning tower.

Incredibly, Yamashiro fought on. The battleship made a wide, slow turn to unmask her 14-inch guns and hurled a broadside at the six American dreadnoughts. Japanese gunners continued to load and train turrets amid intense heat, smoke, and fires. Yamashiro traded shots with HMAS Shropshire with her main battery while firing secondary armament at the pesky destroyers.

At 4:01 am, the American battle line turned to starboard, and the dreadnoughts wheeled 150 degrees, heading back west across Surigao Strait. As the battleships turned, they were nearly parallel and steaming in the same direction as Yamashiro, broadside to broadside. Incredibly, as they made their turns, Tennessee and California started heading right at one another. Tennessee Captain John B. Heffernan fired off a series of orders and with deft ship handling avoided collision.

 

On California, Captain Henry P. Burnett realized what was happening and took his dreadnought out of line. The four battleships that had been shooting checked fire. Mississippi and Pennsylvania, unable to acquire radar locks, never fired a shot.

“All Ships Cease Firing”

Meanwhile, Oldendorf’s cruisers kept up the heat on Yamashiro. As they swapped salvoes, Desron 56, under Captain Roland Smoot, raced in at top speed to launch torpedoes. At 4:04 am, at a range of 6,200 yards, the American destroyers cut loose. The Japanese responded with a flurry of 6-inch shells. The Americans maneuvered to avoid the shells, which brought Albert W. Grant directly into Denver’s radar picture.

Denver mistook Grant for the Japanese Shigure, presumably racing in to fire torpedoes, and the American cruiser opened fire on Grant. Near misses scattered shrapnel. An American shell hit Grant’s fantail, knocking out the No. 5 5-inch turret. More shells from both sides punched into the forward stack and the forward boiler room, the forward engine room, the No. 1 40mm gun, the scullery room, and the port motor whaleboat. The lights, telephones, radios, and radars were blown out.

Grant’s skipper, Commander Terrell A. Nisewaner, reacted quickly. He fired off his five torpedoes at the enemy, then turned away. Simultaneously, Captain Smoot, in Newcomb, seeing the tragedy, shouted a TBS radio warning to Oldendorf, “You are firing on ComDesron 56! We are in the middle of the channel!”

Oldendorf got the message. At 4:09 am, he grabbed the voice radio on Louisville’s flag bridge and issued a blanket order, “All ships cease firing.” The American ships checked fire, and Newcombcame alongside Grant to tow away her damaged sister.

Aboard Grant chaos reigned—her lifeboats were wrecked, engines gone, the ship dead in the water at 4:20 am. She would have to be towed to safety. When the final tally was taken, it was determined that five Japanese and at least 11 American cruiser shells had impacted the destroyer. Six officers and 28 enlisted men lay dead. Ninety-four men were wounded.

Nishimura Goes Down With His Ship

The last shells and torpedoes flew at Yamashiro, scoring more hits. One of them—from the unlucky Grant—smashed the dreadnought’s starboard side at about 4:09, near the starboard engine room. The dreadnought slowed down then cranked back up to 12 knots at 4:09 am. On Yamashiro’s flag bridge, Nishimura told his chief of staff to report to Kurita: “We proceed to Leyte for the main attack. We will proceed until totally annihilated. I have definitely accomplished my mission as pre-arranged. Please rest assured.”

Now, with the firing ceased, Surigao Strait again reverted to blackness lit only by the raging fires on Yamashiro, Mogami, and Grant. The Japanese checked fire, too. Silence descended on the battlefield. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “Admiral Nishimura and the officers and crew of Yamashiro must have regarded this cease-fire as God’s gift to the Emperor.”

Nishimura decided to meet Shima’s force and regroup. The blazing battleship commenced a wide turn to port, heading southwest.

On the American ships, everybody stared down at the radar plots, separating out the various blips. As the Japanese dreadnought retreated, the Americans figured out which one was Yamashiro. For the last time in the history of warfare, a battleship fired its ordnance at another such vessel, as the flagship Mississippi unleashed her first and only broadside of the night, doing so at Yamashiro at a range of 19,790 yards.

With the American battle line in some disorder and the Japanese apparently retreating, Oldendorf turned the pursuit over to his cruisers and destroyers, ordering them to resume fire at 4:19 am. Before they could comply, the fattest pip on the American radar screens abruptly vanished. It seemed that Yamashiro had sunk, probably by capsizing, according to the later Naval War College report.

The War College was right. Four torpedoes hit Yamashiro, possibly from Newcomb, and the stricken battleship went dead in the water, keeling over to port. Fires amidships silhouetted the pagoda superstructure in a lurid glow as it heeled over like a collapsing sand castle.

On the bridge, the skipper, Rear Admiral Katsukiyo Shinoda, calmly passed the word to abandon ship. He and Nishimura remained on their bridges. Within two to five minutes, the blazing dreadnought keeled over and capsized.

Nishimura, his staff of 20 officers, Shinoda, and nearly all of Yamashiro’s crew of 1,636 officers and men went to the bottom of Surigao Strait. While a large number of sailors survived the sinking, only two warrant officers and eight petty officers returned to Japan, the same number as from Fuso.

The Last Japanese Torpedo Salvo

Shigure and Mogami were now the only vessels of Nishimura’s force left afloat, and both were withdrawing. Shigure took an 8-inch shell in her fantail, and her skipper logged “decided to retire.” The battered cruiser and destroyer headed south, and at 4:15 their lookouts were astonished to see a destroyer racing toward them at 30 knots. It was Shima’s lead ship, the Shiranuhi. Behind her was Shima’s flagship, Nachi, starting the next phase of the battle.

Shima’s ships had gone through an interesting journey, passing by raging oil fires and wreckage belonging to Nishimura’s shattered vessels, hearing and seeing gunfire to the north. They advanced through smoke screens. Oil fires blazed on the ocean. The ships passed by the badly damaged and helpless Asagumo. Then radar spotted two contacts dead ahead, at 4:15 am. Figuring it was the enemy, Shima ordered, “All ships attack!”

Shima’s four destroyers and two cruisers dashed forward, unmasked their torpedo batteries, and fired their Long Lance torpedoes, which had caused so much havoc in the grueling struggles for Guadalcanal. The torpedoes had eight miles to run.

As it happened, their target was Oldendorf’s flagship Louisville. But the torpedoes missed. Shima and his men peered into the smoke and mist to observe results—and out of the smoke came Mogami, her No. 3 gun turret a ruin, barrels blackened, forecastle riddled with holes, flames smoldering from her flight deck aft.

With Chief Petty Officer Yamamoto still on the bridge, the blasted Mogami was retiring at last. Crewmen on Nachi howled banzais of encouragement as the two ships closed the range. On Nachi’s bridge, Captain Enpei Kanooka thought that he would pass Mogami a little too close, figuring that Mogami was dead in the water. But to everyone’s amazement, Mogami was actually steaming along—just barely—and right for Nachi.

Kanooka shouted “Full reverse!” and right rudder to avoid Nachi’s sister. Too late. At 4:23, Nachi’s anchor deck converged with Mogami’s starboard at No. 1 turret, and the two ships collided with a sickening, jarring crunch. The collision added more dents to Mogami’s battered hide, wrecked Nachi’s No. 2 antiaircraft mount, and ripped a 15-meter gash in Nachi’s port bow at the waterline. Flooding alarms went off, and the two cruisers pulled themselves apart.