It remains, and probably will for a very long time to come, the largest naval battle in history, in terms both of tonnage displaced, and area traversed. By any measurement, the Battle for Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle in history. The United Stated Navy slugged it out with the Imperial Japanese navy around the Philippine Archipelago from 23 to 26 October 1944. Four battles were fought, the second of which, the Battle of Surigao Strait, remains the last time two surface fleets of battleships engaged in naval gunfire. These four battles that make up the Great Battle (Battle of Surigao Strait, Battle of Sibuyon Sea, Battle Off Cape Engano and Battle Off Samar) did sound the death knell of the Japanese fleet as a fighting force.
In late 1944, after extensive debate, Allied leaders elected to begin operations to liberate the Philippines. The initial landings were to take place on the island of Leyte, with ground forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. To assist this amphibious operation, the US 7th Fleet, under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, would provide close support, while Admiral William “Bull” Halsey‘s 3rd Fleet, containing Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38), stood further out to sea to provide cover. Moving forward, the landings on Leyte commenced October 20, 1944.
Aware of American intentions in the Philippines, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, initiated plan Sho-Go 1 to block the invasion. This plan called for the bulk of Japan’s remaining naval strength to put to sea in four separate forces. The first of these, Northern Force, was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, and was centered on the carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Zuiho, Chitose, and Chiyoda. Lacking sufficient pilots and aircraft for battle, Toyoda intended for Ozawa’s ships to serve as bait to lure Halsey away from Leyte.
With Halsey removed, three separate forces would approach from the west to attack and destroy the US landings at Leyte. The largest of these was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force, which contained five battleships (including the “super” battleships Yamato and Musashi) and ten heavy cruisers. Kurita was to move through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait, before launching his attack. To support Kurita, two smaller fleets, under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima, together forming Southern Force, would move up from the south through the Surigao Strait.
Beginning on October 23, the Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of four primary meetings between Allied and Japanese forces. In the first engagement on October 23-24, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Kurita’s Center Force was attacked by American submarines (USS Darter & USSDace) and aircraft losing a battleship (Musashi) and two cruisers (Kurita’s flagship Atago andMaya) along with several others damaged. Transferring his flag to Yamato, Kurita retreated out of range of US aircraft, but returned to his original course that evening. In the battle, the escort carrier USS Princeton was sunk by land-based bombers.
On the night of the 24th, part of the Southern Force, led by Nishimura entered the Surigao Straight where they were attacked by Allied destroyers and PT boats. As they pushed north through the straight they encountered the six battleships (many of them Pearl Harborveterans) and eight cruisers of the 7th Fleet Support Force led by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. Crossing the Japanese “T”, Oldendorf’s ships sank two Japanese battleships (Yamashiro & Fuso) and a heavy cruiser (Mogami), forcing the remainder of Nishimura’s squadron to withdraw.
Entering the strait, Shima encountered the wrecks of Nishimura’s ships and elected to retreat. At 4:40 PM on the 24th, Halsey’s scouts located Ozawa’s Northern Force. Believing that Kurita was retreating, Halsey signaled Admiral Kinkaid that he was moving north to pursue the Japanese carriers. By doing so, Halsey was leaving the landings unprotected. Kinkaid was not aware of this as he believed Halsey had left one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight. On the 25th, US aircraft began pummeling Ozawa’s force in the Battle of Cape Engaño.
By the end of the day all four of Ozawa’s carriers had been sunk. As the battle was concluding, Halsey was informed that the situation off Leyte was critical. Toyoda’s plan had worked. By Ozawa drawing away Halsey’s carriers, the path through the San Bernardino Straight was left open for Kurita’s Center Force to pass through to attack the landings. Breaking off his attacks, Halsey began steaming south at full speed. Off Samar (just north of Leyte), Kurita’s force encountered the 7th Fleet’s escort carriers and destroyers.
Launching their planes, the escort carriers began to flee, while the destroyers valiantly attacked Kurita’s much superior force. As the melee was turning in favor of the Japanese, Kurita broke off after realizing that he was not attacking Halsey’s carriers and that the longer he lingered the more likely he was to be attacked by American aircraft. Kurita’s retreat effectively ended the battle.
In the fighting at Leyte Gulf, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as 10,000+ killed. Allied losses were much lighter and included 1,500 killed as well as 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, 1 destroyer escort sunk. Crippled by their losses, the Battle of Leyte Gulf marked the last time the Imperial Japanese Navy would conduct large-scale operations during the war. The Allied victory secured the beachhead on Leyte and opened the door for the liberation of the Philippines. This in turn cut off the Japanese from their conquered territories in Southeast Asia, greatly reducing the flow of supplies and resources to the home islands. Despite winning the largest naval engagement in history, Halsey was criticized after the battle for racing north to attack Ozawa without leaving cover for the invasion fleet off Leyte.
Leyte Gulf resulted in one extremely important advantage to the Americans, in that it deprived the Empire of Japan of all of its oil reserves. Without the Philippines Japan was doomed much faster. Some of its admirals argued later that they could have held out for another year or two, regardless of the atomic bombings.