More importantly, the southern portion of the Japanese plan to smash the American invasion fleet with a double pincer movement had failed completely. The northern pincer nearly defeated a much weaker American force off Samar, mostly due to Vice Admiral Halsey’s controversial decision to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. But Oldendorf’s cool, meticulous planning and courageous men had crushed the southern pincer.
Why the Japanese attack failed was even easier to answer. The Japanese underestimated American power and resilience, as they had all through the war, and overestimated their own resolve. Bushido code was not enough against American technology and determination. Japanese gunnery and torpedo efficiency was far below the glorious standards of 1942. Even Japanese seamanship, as evidenced by the collision of Nachi and Mogami, was faulty. Nishimura and Shima did not coordinate their forces—they did not even seem to know where their own ships were. Probably the single most intelligent Japanese decision in the entire battle was Shima’s—to withdraw.
The surviving Japanese blamed their late boss, Nishimura. Hiroshi Tanaka of Yamashiro described survivors as saying that Nishimura’s strategy was that of a warrant officer, not an admiral.
Still, it was difficult to see what else Nishimura could have done. His orders were clear and specific—steam into Surigao Strait, punch through the American defenses, and savage the American transports. He had tried to do so with every ship at his command and fiber of his being, paying the price with his own life. The very cause was hopeless, but Nishimura and his sailors did their best to carry out their orders with full and hopeless valor.
The End of the Battle Line Era
It was also the end for a style of warfare that dated back to 1655, when Britain’s Duke of York defeated the Dutch Admiral Obdam in the Battle of Lowestoft … the battle line. It had translated from the age of sail to that of steam.
Now the battle line had been rendered obsolete by the development of air power, the brawling night surface actions of Guadalcanal, and the unsporting but deadly submarine. The even more deadly power of guided missiles and atomic weaponry were yet to come.
Such thoughts probably did not occur to the victorious American sailors as the sun rose over the smoking wreckage, fuming muzzles, and oil fires in Surigao Strait. Aboard Louisville, Oldendorf assessed the desperate messages from Samar and ordered his officers to start plotting courses and formations to support the endangered escort carriers.
On the American battleships, the young sailors marveled that despite a night of sound and fury their battleships had suffered nothing. They were all alive to greet the new day. The loudspeakers blared, “Now hear this. Secure from general quarters. Set torpedo defense watch.”
This article by David Lippman originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
This article is being republished due to reader interest.