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Michael Clark

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

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I am a Hstory buff. I have a particular interest in WWll Pacific Naval history. Back in October of 2016 I wrote a short recap of the Battle of Leyte Gulf for my Facebook page. It was, being intended for Facebook, necessarily brief; I wanted to give the story a chance to be read by a wide range of readers. Having some background in journalism, I have a respect for brevity; it is something for which I did seem to have knack, back in the day. Creating a brief history of such an Epic 5-day struggle was the challenge. 

So, I thought I would share those entries here. The accompanying photos and charts from the Facebook post are missing so it may be a bit awkward to read until I get it cleaned-up. Here it is....

 

As my tribute to the armed forces of the US, and in commemoration of a WW2 battle that has fascinated me for years, I will remember, here, the events of The Battle of Leyte Gulf; which occurred from October 23-26, 1944. In fulfilling the promise made that we "Shall Return" to the Philippines, the US Navy fought what was and still is, arguably, the largest Naval battle ever. Meanwhile, in an amphibious landing on a scale comparable to that of Normandy, but with far less initial opposition, US forces landed in the Phillipines at Letye Gulf, and began the process of liberating that country.

The Submarine Action at Palawan Passage,
The opening salvos of The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Two American submarines, on the night of October 22, spotted the massive center force of the Japanese Navy, moving west to east in the South China Sea. The two subs reported their sighting, chased the fleet and attacked. In an unusually effective attack with torpedoes, the SS Dace and the SS Darter sunk two heavy cruisers and damaged another so severely that it had to limp home. The SS Darter grounded on a reef as it chased the damaged cruiser and it was never refloated. The sailors were rescued by the Dace and the first action in the Battle was over. Our forces were alerted, the Japanese Admiral had his flagship sunk from underneath him, his fleet took a serious punch to the gut, and the battle was on.

Ulithi Atoll, about 700 miles east of Leyte Gulf, a ring of islands and reefs was large enough to shelter nearly 1000 Naval vessels. For seven months during WW2, Ulithi atoll was the busiest port in the world.

Four months prior to the Leyte Gulf landings, US naval forces clashed with the Japanese in the Battle of the Philippine sea in the final of 5 engagements where the main fleets never saw one another. The Japanese lost around 600 airplanes and their crews. Three Japanese fleet aircraft carriers were also sunk; 2 lost to submarine torpedoes and one to US air strikes. US losses were minimal in comparison. This battle was dubbed The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot by pilots.

In September, while Adm. Bill Halsey was throwing jabs at the Japanese here and there, he noticed that the beaches at Leyte Gulf were undefended and that resistance to air strikes was minimal. Upon alerting Nimitz and MacArthur to this opportunity, plans for a landing further to the south were abandoned and all resources were thrown at a plan to invade the Philippines at Leyte, months ahead of schedule.

In early October, Halsey launched strikes at the Japanese held island of Taiwan. Again, about 600 Japanese planes were destroyed to a comparably few number of US planes.

This set of circumstances and aggressive actions set in motion the invasion and devastating blow to the Japanese a few weeks later at Leyte and all around the Philippine islands.

On October 23, 1944, two Japanese battle groups were making their way through the western Philippines with the plan to emerge on the eastern shores and attack the American landing forces at Leyte, one from the south and one from the north. Further north, a Japanese force of the remaining aircraft carriers was sent to be sacrificed as decoys to draw away US forces to allow their two fleets of surface vessels to attack the US landing zone unhindered. The decoy aircraft carrier force had few planes and pilots due to the devastating blows delivered by the Americans over the prior months. Of note, the two largest battleships ever built, with the largest guns ever mounted on a ship were part of the Japanese center force; the Yamato and the Musashi. Admiral John Mccain SR.'s fleet was released to go replenish at Ulithi and it would miss the upcoming battle.


October 24, 1944

As the Japanese center fleet made its way through the Philippine islands, heading for the open waters of the South Pacific on its way to challenge US forces at Leyte Gulf, It was spotted by US planes. Over the course of the day, the US threw 259 missions at them. Hits were scored on several ships. One heavy cruiser was severely damaged and had to turn away from the battle. The Musashi, sister ship to the Yamato, both being the largestbattleships ever constructed, received the brunt of the American air attacks and was sunk.

Japanese land base planes were effectively fended off yet one plane hit the light carrier USS Princeton with a 500 lb. bomb at 9:30 AM. The crew fought to contain the fires on the Princeton and the Cruiser Birmingham pulled up along side to assist fighting the fires. An explosion from the ignition of fumes wracked the Princeton, and the Birmingham was severely damaged as well. 9 hours after being hit with a single bomb, the Princeton was given up as lost and intentionally sunk.

The center Japanese force turned around apparently in retreat, but they were not done yet.

The southern force continued on its way, was also spotted and attacked but received only minor damage.

The northern decoy force was maneuvering and trying to be spotted so the Americans would be diverted to attack them. Ironically it took until the afternoon on the 24th for the one fleet of Japanese ships that wanted to be spotted to be detected. Admiral Halsey made preparations and headed north to destroy them. He had believed that the center force was more damaged than it was and that they would not be heard from again.

On the morning of October 25th, Halsey's force launched 527 devastating Airstrikes against the Northern decoy force but the guns of his battleships and cruisers never opened fire because he had to turn back when the Japanese center force reappeared after having, again, reversed course during the night. The American forces guarding Leyte gulf were surprised to find their fleet of destroyers and small escort carriers facing the massive Japanese fleet alone and without warning. Halsey's fleet would be of no help as it was too far north. 

The ensuing desperate battle is well documented and is truly a David and Goliath tale of epic proportions. It is one of the reasons I find this 5 day engagement so compelling. These short entries, for the purpose of remembrance, cannot do these engagements any justice; but I will continue to summarize.

The massive Japanese fleet appeared on the horizon. 18" shells started splashing and the little escort carriers turned south, launched every plane they could with whatever weapon they had on them. A single five inch gun on the back of each of the carriers began throwing peas. The small band of destroyers started making a smoke screen for the carriers and then attacked, desperately and suicidally. The combined affect of the ferocious attacks made the Japanese think they were attacking a much stronger fleet and they once again retreated, for good, after sinking one escort carrier and several destroyers. The Americans left their mark by sinking and heavily damaging a number of Japanese ships.

Halsey's fleet arrived too late, but had sunk three light aircraft carriers and one fleet carrier before it turned around.

To the south, the southern Japanese fleet approached in two waves. The first wave was devastated by accurate fire from a line of American Battleships and cruisers, after having been attacked by patrol boats and destroyers with torpedoes. The second wave reversed direction and avoided the complete destruction that it had witnessed the first wave suffer. It was the last time that battleships would ever fight In such a naval gun duel.

This was also the first battle that saw the use of Kamikaze strikes. A second escort carrier became a victim of such an attack and was sunk.

For the most part, the Battle of Leyte gulf had ended. The Japanese were defeated tactically and strategically. Many lives were lost. It is a battle which gets little attention, but the sacrifices and efforts were monumental. I hope that these efforts and sacrifice will be remembered. I hope that this small effort to memorialize this engagement will result in one or more persons reading about this epic battle for the first time.

US Navy                                                                 Imperial Japanese Navy

~300 ships in total[1]
8 fleet carriers
light carriers
18 escort carriers
12 battleships
24 cruisers
166 destroyers and destroyer escorts
Many PT boatssubmarines, and fleet auxiliaries
About 1,500 planes
67+ ships in total
1 fleet carrier
3 light carriers
9 battleships
14 heavy cruisers
6 light cruisers
35+ destroyers
300+ planes (including land-based aircraft)[2]
Casualties and losses
~3,000 casualties;
1 light carrier,
2 escort carriers,
2 destroyers,
1 destroyer escort sunk
200+ planes
~12,500 dead;
1 fleet carrier,
3 light carriers
3 battleships,
10 cruisers,
11 destroyers sunk
~300 planes[3]
 

 

 

Edited by Michael Clark

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