Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval engagement of World War II, made up of two small and three large separate engagements over four days in October 1944. It resulted in a devastating defeat of the Japanese Navy including the loss of four of their carriers. The battle included the first use of suicidal "kamikazes" by the increasingly desperate Japanese.

Smoke rising from an explosion in the hangar deck of USS Princeton (CVL-23) shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57), 24 October 1944, 1000 hours
Smoke rising from an explosion in the hangar deck of USS Princeton (CVL-23) shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57), 24 October 1944, 1000 hours.

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Prelude to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23-26 October 1944

On 20 October 1944, the U.S. Sixth Army, supported by naval and air bombardment from the U.S. Seventh Fleet under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, landed on the favorable eastern shore of Leyte, one of the large Philippine Islands, north of Mindanao. The Seventh Fleet invasion force assembled in Leyte Gulf was immense, the largest of the war in the Pacific Theater. To stop these landings, to forestall the loss of the Philippines, and to reduce the growing threat to the Japanese home islands, the Imperial Japanese Navy decided to commit nearly its entire surface fleet to a campaign in Leyte Gulf against the U.S. Navy, a decision that turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation.

Luring the Third Fleet Away From Leyte Gulf

Map of the area of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944
Map of the area of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944.

As the U.S. Seventh Fleet covered the sea east of Leyte, supporting MacArthur's landings, Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet was poised off the coast of Samar Island (northeast of Leyte), ready to deal with the Japanese Navy if they appeared. To confront and destroy these American forces, the Japanese sent out three task groups, most of what the Japanese had left.

The first Japanese task group, called Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, was comprised of four aircraft carriers stripped of planes, to act as a decoy, luring Third Fleet north away from Leyte. The carriers had no aircraft because the enormous Japanese losses at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and elsewhere could not be replenished, but even without aircraft it was hoped they would be an irresistible lure to the Americans.

The Japanese feared Adm. Bull Halsey and the Third Fleet, with nearly a dozen aircraft carriers, and six of the fastest battleships in the world, including the huge Iowa and New Jersey. For the Japanese, success of the decoy would permit the other two groups, consisting primarily of heavy surface vessels, to slip through the Philippine Islands from the west and enter the Leyte Gulf area. There they could successfully attack the American transports and escorts of the Seventh Fleet, mostly slow, and unarmored vessels good for invasion support, but very vulnerable to the Japanese Navy.

The Japanese Attack Plan for Leyte Gulf

The plan was straightforward. With the Sixth Fleet drawn away by the decoy Northern Force, the Japanese Navy's ships in two additional task groups would approach the battle area from west of Leyte and pounce on the Seventh Fleet from two directions. The Southern Force, under Vice Admiral S. Nishimura with the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, supported by the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, planned to come through the Surigao Strait, south of Leyte, followed on the same path by three more cruisers and four destroyers brought into the battle from Japan, under Vice Admiral Shima. They would then attack the Seventh Fleet in Leyte Gulf from the south.

Simultaneously, sailing from Brunei in Borneo, the Center Force, the main striking force of five battleships, twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita would come through San Bernardino Strait, north of Leyte, go around the island of Samar, then confront the Americans by entering Leyte Gulf from the north.

With the two pronged pincer maneuver, the Seventh Fleet transports, tankers, jeep carriers and destroyers would be attacked and sunk by the full force of the Japanese Navy.

Opening Moves in the Battle of Leyte Gulf

The first engagement was on 23 October 1944 off Palawan Island, when the Japanese armada was detected on route and American submarines sank two cruisers. Alerted by the sightings, the next day, 24 October, Seventh Fleet units moved into position to block the southern approaches to Leyte while Third Fleet aircraft, searching west of Leyte, found and attacked the Japanese task forces in the Sibuyan Sea (Center Force) and Sulu Sea (Southern Force), the second engagement. These preliminary engagements, before the main battle had begun, sank two heavy cruisers and a Japanese battleship and caused extensive damage forcing some of the ships of the Japanese Center Force to return to Brunei. The main American loss was the USS Princeton (CVL-23), sunk by an air attack (top photo on this page).

Admiral Halsey Takes the Bait

On the afternoon of 24 October, as the battles to the west of Leyte wound down, one of Admiral Halsey's search planes spotted the Japanese Northern Force decoy fleet of four carriers far to the north of Leyte. Admiral Halsey took the bait and ordered his entire Third Fleet into pursuit, leaving Leyte Gulf exposed as the Japanese had hoped. By the next morning, 25 October, at Cape Engaño, a lopsided battle was fought resulting in the loss of most of the Japanese Northern Force to Halsey's carrier planes and battleships' guns, the third engagement. But the main battle was yet to be fought to the south, at Leyte Gulf, and Halsey had to break off the Cape Engaño action to return.

The Battle of the Surigao Strait

During the night of 24-25 October, the Japanese Center Force and Southern Force, having survived the air attacks, moved on their separate paths toward Leyte Gulf and MacArthur's transports and escort carriers. On the morning of 25 October, in Surigao Strait south of Leyte, Nishimura's Southern Force Van ran into a heavy battle line of PT boats, destroyers, cruisers and refurbished old battleships of the US Seventh Fleet, prepared and waiting for battle by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. The highly effective American ships and tactics prevailed over Nishimura, sinking a carrier, two battleships, and three of four destroyers in a battle that also killed Nishimura himself.

The second wave of the Southern Force, Southern Force Rear, under Vice Admiral Shima, seeing that the first wave had been cut to pieces, reversed course and returned to Japan, thus ending the Battle of the Surigao Strait, the fourth engagement.

The Battle Off Samar Island

Kurita's Center Force, which included the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi, successfully moved through the narrow San Bernardino Strait, then south along the east coast of Samar Island, northeast of Leyte, to within range of the Seventh Fleet's soft targets by dawn on 25 October 1944. A communications snafu led Kinkaid to think the San Bernardino Strait was still guarded by Halsey who had steamed north after the decoy Northern Force. Although surprised and outnumbered, and intially confused by unexpected reports of sightings of the Center Force fleet, thirteen ships of Taffy III, the Seventh Fleet task unit under Rear Admiral Sprague, went on the attack.

In this engagement, called the Battle off Samar, the Japanese were opposed by smaller, lightly armored ships in principle no match for Kurita's heavyweights. The Japanese Center Force commander, Kurita, believed he was engaged with the U.S. Third Fleet carriers, cruisers, and destroyers, misinformation that marred his judgement. Sprague took advantage of smoke screens and a rain squall to reduce Japanese visibility and fire accuracy. American destroyers (which the Japanese mistook for heavier cruisers) and carrier based pilots of Taffy III and other nearby task groups performed heroically. Ultimately Sprague out-maneuvered and out-fought Kurita. The remnants of Center Force withdrew, ending the fifth engagement. It remains controversial why the Japanese withdrew when they had the firepower to continue the fight and possibly slaughter the Seventh Fleet.

Summary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf

These engagements became known collectively as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, together the largest naval battle in the Pacific during World War II and often cited as the largest in history. The battle cost the Japanese Navy 26 vessels, most of its remaining warships, including three battleships, one of which was the huge Musashi. Although a few ships survived, the Imperial Japanese Navy was finished as an effective fighting force. The U.S. Navy lost six warships at Leyte Gulf, five of them in the Battle off Samar.

The Americans knew that they had dealt the Imperial Japanese Navy a severe blow, but in the immediate aftermath of the sea battle, Japanese commanders falsely believed they had destroyed the American carrier force. Thinking MacArthur's ground forces were now trapped on Leyte, the Japanese command planned to wipe out the U.S. Sixth Army, moving units to Leyte from other islands in the Philippines as well as from Japan and China. Although it did not change the outcome, these reinforcements complicated MacArthur's ground operations and extended the time needed to secure Leyte.

Recommended Books about the Battle of Leyte Gulf

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