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Pearl Harbor Revenge: The Battleship Battle of Surigao Strait

Pearl Harbor Revenge: The Battleship Battle of Surigao Strait

How a line of American battleships, raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor, decimated a Japanese task force.

At 2:43 pm on October 24, 1944, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf received a dispatch from Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commander of the Central Philippines Attack Force. The message was straightforward and direct: “Prepare for night engagement,” and was duly logged aboard Oldendorf’s flagship, the heavy cruiser USS Louisville. Admiral Oldendorf, commander of the Leyte invasion fire support warships, was not surprised by the order. Naval intelligence had already been apprised of the fact that a Japanese force was on its way toward Leyte Gulf.

Avoiding Another Savo Island

At the height of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral Oldendorf, a stocky man with a cheerful disposition, was to intercept Japanese naval Force C, under the command of Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura. That morning, Nishimura’s task group had been spotted by aircraft from the carriers Enterprise and Franklin. Another task group was sighted less than three hours later. This was Number Two Striking Force, under Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima. The main force, the First Striking Force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, had been intercepted by the submarines Darter and Dace the day before.

The three Japanese task groups were to rendezvous at Leyte Gulf, with Kurita entering from the north and Nishimura and Shima from the south, and attack the American transports and their escorts off the Philippine island of Leyte where American forces under General Douglas MacArthur had landed on October 20. If everything went according to the Japanese plan, the three task groups would arrive at Leyte Gulf at dawn on October 25, sink the American support ships off Leyte, and isolate the American troops on the island.

When he received the order to prepare for a night battle, Admiral Oldendorf decided that his best course of action would be to block Surigao Strait. The northern end of the strait leads into Leyte Gulf, and Oldendorf intended to place a battle line “squarely across the Leyte exit of the strait,” blocking Japanese access to the gulf. And he had enough warships at his disposal to accomplish what he had in mind.

The heart of Oldendorf’s battle line were the old battleships Mississippi, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania. All but Mississippi were veterans of Pearl Harbor and had been either sunk or badly damaged by the Japanese attack. Now they were going to be given the chance to return the compliment.

The rest of the American force consisted of four heavy cruisers, including the Australian HMAS Shropshire, four light cruisers, and at least 28 destroyers including HMAS Arunta. “This was more than enough to take care of the Japanese southern force,” commented historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The Japanese Navy was well known for its lethal night torpedo attacks, and Oldendorf planned to overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers. “We didn’t want them to pull another Savo Island on us,” he commented. The Battle of Savo Island, fought by American and Japanese warships off Guadalcanal in August 1942, was one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the U.S. Navy, and four Allied cruisers had been sunk. This time, nothing was being left to chance.

Admiral Oldendorf’s plan was fairly simple. First, every available PT boat would be stationed at the southern entrance to Surigao Strait. There would be 39 PT boats on patrol in the strait after dark; their instructions were to report the approach of the enemy and to attack with torpedoes. Next, the destroyers would attack with their torpedoes. The cruisers and battleships would then open fire with their large-caliber guns when the enemy came within range.

Scouting the Japanese Fleet

Admiral Nishimura’s Force C, which would be moving north toward Leyte Gulf, consisted of the old battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers: Michishio, Yamagumo, Asagumo, and Shigure. Both Fuso and Yamashiro dated from World War I. Fuso was commissioned in 1915 and Yamashiro in 1917, although neither had taken part in any naval battles. Added armor protection, new boilers, and other improvements modernized both ships in the 1930s, but both were still considered too old and slow for an active role in the fleet. After Pearl Harbor, however, warships were needed for the confrontation with the U.S. Navy, and Fuso and Yamashiro were recalled from their training duties in the Inland Sea. Fuso was part of the Aleutian force during the Battle of Midway and took part in the reinforcing of Truk in 1943.

Nishimura’s force was much smaller than the American fleet it would be facing, but Admiral Oldendorf was not about to show any leniency. “If my opponent is foolish enough to come at me with an inferior force,” he later said, “I’m certainly not going to give him an even break.” Also, one of his destroyer squadron commanders, Captain Jesse Coward, had faced the Japanese at night off Guadalcanal. He knew what the Japanese were capable of doing with their long lance torpedoes and night tactics and was not about to let them do the same thing at Surigao Strait.

At 10:36 pm on the night of October 24, the crew of PT-131 picked up Nishimura’s group on radar. Visual contact was established 14 minutes later. About two minutes after this, the destroyer Shigure sighted the PT boats and began shooting. One shell hit PT-130 but failed to explode. The boat’s captain broke off contact at maximum speed and sent his contact report. Aboard Louisville, Admiral Oldendorf received the report just after midnight on October 25.

Each PT squadron in the strait went through the same sequence of events: making contact with the enemy, usually sending a contact report, firing torpedoes that missed, coming under fire from Japanese destroyers, and retiring behind a smoke screen. Admiral Oldendorf followed the progress of the PT reports closely; they confirmed that he did not need to make any changes to his battle plan. Of the boats that came under fire, 10 were hit and one was sunk. Total casualties were three killed and 20 wounded.

A Devastating Torpedo Salvo

Admiral Nishimura paid no attention to the PT attacks and kept advancing northward toward Leyte Gulf. His next contact with the enemy came at about 3 am, when he encountered the seven destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 54, commanded by Captain Jesse Coward. Captain Coward had already received notification of an unidentified contact at 2:40 am. The contact soon was confirmed to be a column of ships steering due north. Coward ordered his destroyers to attack with only torpedoes since their 5-inch guns would be ineffective against large enemy warships.

Admiral Nishimura’s column had its four destroyers in the lead, followed by Yamashiro, Fuso, and Mogami. Destroyer Squadron 54 split into two groups. Melvin, McGowan, and Remy would attack from the east, while Monssen and McDermut would make their approach from the west. Captain Coward, aboard Remy, closed with Nishimura’s ships at about 30 knots, making smoke. At 2:58, he turned his destroyers to the left, bringing torpedo tubes to bear, and gave the order, “Fire when ready.” Remy, Melvin, and McGowan began launching their torpedoes, firing 27 in about 75 seconds. It would take about eight minutes before they completed their runs of between 8,200 and 9,300 yards. With all torpedoes expended, Coward turned hard to port on a base course of 21 degrees, the three destroyers zigzagging individually and making smoke. None of the American destroyers suffered damage.

Strangely, Admiral Nishimura did not take any evasive action, even though he must have guessed that the American destroyers had fired torpedoes at his column. Several explosions were observed by sailors aboard Coward’s destroyers. A few minutes later, a large ship in the column slowed and began turning slowly to starboard. The battleship Fuso had been hit by a torpedo from the Melvin, but Admiral Nishimura continued to send orders to Fuso as though the ship were still undamaged.

While Captain Coward’s division was withdrawing, the destroyers McDermut and Monssen were still steaming due south. The destroyer division’s commanding officer, Commander Richard H. Phillips, turned to port to get into firing position, swinging his two destroyers back on a southerly course. A moment later, he ordered torpedoes to be fired when ready. McDermut began firing immediately; Monssen followed at 3:11.

This time, Admiral Nishimura did try to take evasive action. He turned 90 degrees to starboard, then 90 degrees to port, but this did not take him away from the torpedoes. At 3:20, flashes from explosions among Nishimura’s ships were observed aboard both destroyers. A searchlight beam, probably from one of the Japanese destroyers, lit up Monssen. Shell splashes followed almost immediately, and some were so close that columns of water drenched the aft guns of both Monssen and McDermut. The destroyers made smoke, changed course, and increased speed. The searchlight beam disappeared along with the bursting shells.

Destroyer Squadron 54 fired a total of 47 torpedoes. Captain Coward was positive that they had scored at least three hits. Actually, five of the torpedoes had found targets, resulting in the sinking of three enemy ships. McDermut’s torpedo salvo accounted for no fewer than three destroyers—Yamagumo, Michishio, and Asagumo. Yamagumo blew up and sank; Michishio was badly damaged and drifting and would sink shortly; Asagumo had her bow blown off but was able to make headway. Monssen scored a hit on Yamashiro, which continued steaming on course, but Melvin’s hit on Fuso would prove to be fatal.