By John Long
This month marks the 75th anniversary of a crucial battle in World War II; in fact the largest naval battle in all of history. With your permission I’ll mark the occasion by adapting a column from five years ago, which at least WWII buffs seemed to appreciate. I shall tell you the fascinating story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
By October 1944, the U.S. had island-hopped across much of the Pacific and was well on the way to winning the war. The next target would be the liberation of the Philippines, a goal MacArthur had set back in 1942 when he promised the Filipino people “I shall return.” We would begin the re-conquest of the hundreds of islands in the archipelago with Leyte. While MacArthur’s landing forces would scramble ashore, an immense armada of American ships would rule the waves. The Seventh Fleet under Admiral Thomas Kinkaid would defend the landings, while the powerful Third Fleet under Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey was tasked with locating the remains of the Japanese navy and destroying it. Halsey held the opening of the crucial sea lane at San Bernardino Strait north of Leyte.
Japan naturally wanted to deny the United States any victory, and formulated a complex plan to guard Leyte. The key was a decoy force of aircraft carriers lurking to the north, a tempting target for Halsey. If that decoy could draw Halsey away, a battleship fleet under Admiral Kurita could sneak through Bernardino, turn south, and attack MacArthur’s landings. Meanwhile, two smaller forces would punch through the southern Surigao Strait and converge on Leyte as well, a giant aquatic pincer movement that could doom MacArthur.
On the morning of October 24, Kurita’s force was spotted heading for Bernardino Strait. Halsey’s carriers launched immediate strikes, sinking Kurita’s own flagship and damaging several other vessels. Kurita, not surprisingly, ordered retreat. Almost as soon as Halsey discovered this, he also learned of the carrier force to the north. Itching for a decisive battle, Halsey set out to chase a meaningless decoy, leaving not one ship to guard the strait.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Halsey, Kurita decided to un-retreat. He soon sailed through Bernardino unchallenged, and turned south. The two other Japanese fleets heading for Surigao Strait, however, fared much worse. They were shredded by a force of old battleships commanded by Admiral Jesse Oldendorf.
But Kurita was entirely unchallenged. Confused but relieved, he soon ran into the only American ships in his way, a force of escort carriers and destroyers under Admiral Clifton Sprague, a force which was no match for the mighty Japanese armada. Sprague could not stand long, but worse than that, the Leyte landings were in jeopardy.
Desperate radio traffic began to fly to Halsey. Where was he? Where were the ships which should have been guarding Bernardino, especially the battleships that could oppose Kurita? The gung-ho Halsey had not made it clear to Kinkaid or to Pearl Harbor the disposition of his fleet, and no one else knew that his entire force was too far north to make a difference. (To his credit, Halsey did sink all the Japanese decoy carriers he’d gone to chase.)
The ball was in Kurita’s court. All he had to do to win an inspiring late victory was carry out his orders. If he sailed on to the Leyte landing beaches, even without the southern fleets, he could shell the Americans into oblivion. He couldn’t win the war, but he could extend it, give Japan some breathing space, maybe even convince the US to open negotiations. Victory was in his grasp.
But instead, Kurita made the only error in the battle greater than Halsey’s. Inexplicably, he retreated. Even before finishing off Sprague’s tiny force, he sailed back through Bernardino and headed home. “Aw, hell,” said one of Sprague’s sailors, watching the force that should have killed him suddenly turn tail. “They’re getting away.”
Kurita’s loss of nerve is the only thing that saved the landings. Victory was ours, and in ensuing months the liberation of the Philippines was accomplished. Japan would be defeated in less than a year.
So ended the great Battle of Leyte Gulf. Beyond the compelling drama of the clash, the battle was significant for introducing the new Japanese weapon of the kamikaze, showing the desperation of the enemy at this point. But more than that, the epic battle showed yet again how chance and mischance, human error and misperceptions, and sometimes just plain luck, can turn the tide of history.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.