The Battle for Leyte Gulf

By Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

If the two fleets had been under the same command, with a single system of operational control and intelligence, the Battle for Leyte Gulf might have been fought differently and with better coordination.

My Fleet was composed of Task Force 38 under Vice Admiral Pete Mitscher. It was divided into four Task Groups. Task Group 38.1 commanded by Vice Admiral McCain, Task Group 38.2 commanded by Rear Admiral Bogan, Task Group 38.3 commanded by Rear Admiral Ted Sherman, and Task Group 38.4 commanded by Rear Admiral Davidson. These Groups were not uniform in strength but averaged a total of 23 ships per group, divided approximately as follows: two large carriers, two light carriers, two new battleships, three cruisers, and fourteen destroyers.

On October 23 we learned from one of our submarines, U.S.S. Darter, that a sizeable portion of the Japanese Navy was proceeding northwestward in the China Sea and would undoubtedly attempt passage through one of the Straits to reach the Leyte Gulf Area. We had been at sea since October 6 and during the entire time had repeatedly struck air fields and enemy installations on Formosa, Okinawa, and Luzon. We had been under severe enemy air attacks and had been most active throughout this period at sea. We planned to send each of the Groups in rotation into Ulithi for repairs and replenishment, and Task Group 38.1, on October 23rd, was en route to Ulithi for this purpose. The other three Task Groups were standing eastward on the Philippines, awaiting their turn to retire, and meanwhile preparing further offensive strikes in support of MacArthur. On the basis of the Darter ’s report, I ordered them to close the islands and to launch search teams next morning in a fan that would cover the western sea approaches for the entire length of the chain.

Accordingly, by daylight on October 24, the three carrier groups were disposed off the east coast of the Philippines from Central Luzon to just north of Surigao Strait, from which points they could search and attack any shipping that entered either San Bernardino or Surigao Straits, or the waters immediately to the westward thereof.

Our early searches on the 24th of October found two Japanese Forces: one apparently headed for Surigao Straits (this Force will be hereafter referred to as the Southern Force) and a second and stronger Force in the Sibuyan Sea (hereafter called the Central Force).

The Group on its way to Ulihi was ordered to reverse course and prepare to fuel at sea.

Our planes hit the Central Force repeatedly throughout the day and reported sinking the battleship Musashi , three cruisers, and a destroyer, and inflicting severe damage on many other units. These seemed to mill around aimlessly, then withdraw to the west. They were still in the Sibuyan Sea at 1600 on course 290, but later turned east again.

That they might attempt to transit San Bernardino Strait, despite their fearful mauling, was a possibility I had to recognize. Accordingly, at 1512 I sent a preparatory dispatch to all Task Force Commanders in the Third Fleet and all Task Group Commanders in Task Group 38, designating four of their fast battleships, with supporting units, and stating that these ships will be formed at Task Force 34 under Vice Admiral Lee, Commander Battle Line, with the mission of engaging decisively at long ranges.

This dispatch, which played a critical part in next day’s battle, I intended merely as a warning to the ships concerned that, if a surface engagement offered, I would detach them from Task Force 38, form them in Task Force 34, and send them ahead as a battle line. It was definitely not an executive dispatch, but a battle plan, and was so marked. To make certain that none of my subordinate commanders misconstrued it, I told them later by voice radio: “IF THE ENEMY SORTIES, TASK FORCE 34 WILL BE FORMED WHEN DIRECTED BY ME.”

Meanwhile, at 0943, we had intercepted a message from one of Task Group 38.4’s search teams, reporting that it had sighted the enemy’s Southern Force—two old battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and eight destroyers, southwest of Negros island, course 060, speed 15 knots—and had scored several damaging hits with bombs and rockets. We did not send a strike against this comparatively weak force.

It was headed for Surigao Strait, where Kinkaid was waiting with approximately three times its weight of metal—six old battleships, four heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers, plus thirty-nine PT’s. Our estimate, at the time, was that this Force would be soundly defeated by Oldendorf’s group of the 7th Fleet.

Task Group 38.3, the northernmost Group off Luzon, was under continuing violent attack by carrier planes. The Group shot down 110 of them, but they succeeded in bombing the light carrier Princeton , which later had to be abandoned and sunk. The Birmingham and three destroyers were damaged by the explosion of the Princeton ’s magazines and were sent to Ulithi with the Princeton survivors.

The discovery of the Southern Force buttressed my conviction that the Japs were committed to a supreme effort, but the final proof was still lacking. There was no naval carrier strength (CV’s or CVL’s) involved in these known forces converging on the Philippines. It did not seem probable that the Japanese would commit such a large portion of their naval strength without providing some measure of naval air support. The location of their carriers up to this point was a mystery. We believed that a strong carrier Task Force was probably also converging on the Leyte Gulf area from the north, probably having sailed directly from Empire ports. On this basis, orders were issued to the Northern Task Group to conduct an intensive air search to the north and east of their positions to attempt to locate the suspected enemy carrier force.

During the late afternoon reports were received from our Northern Carrier Group 38.3 and from land based air searches that the suspected Japanese Northern Force had actually been located. We had also received information indicating that Commander Seventh Fleet was prepared to meet any enemy force which might attempt the passage of Surigao Strait. The enemy force to the north, as reported from our air searches, was shown to consist of practically all the remaining operative Japanese carrier strength plus supporting surface ships, and was thought at the time to be the most formidable threat to our present and future operations in the Western Pacific.

We had all the pieces of the puzzle, and fitting them together, we noticed that the three Forces had a common factor: A speed of advance so leisurely—never more than 15 knots—that it implied a focus of time and place. The crippled Central Force’s second approach to San Bernardino against overwhelming strength, after being heavily mauled, was comprehensible only if they were under adamant orders to rendezvous with the other forces off Samar next day, the 24th, for a combined attack on the transports at Leyte.

Three battles offered. The Southern Force I could afford to ignore: it was well within Kinkaid’s compass. The Central Force, according to our pilots, had suffered so much topside damage, especially to its guns and fire-control instruments, that it could not win a decision. I believed it, too, could be left to Kinkaid. (The pilots’ reports proved dangerously optimistic, but we had little reason to discredit them at the time.) On the other hand, not only was the Northern Force fresh and undamaged, but its carriers gave it a scope several hundred miles wider than the others. Moreover, if we destroyed those carriers, future operations need fear no major threat from the sea.

We had chosen our antagonist. It remained only to choose the best way to meet him. I had three alternatives:

  1. I could guard San Bernardino with my whole fleet and wait for the Northern Force to strike me. Rejected. It yielded to the enemy the double initiative of his carriers and his fields on Luzon that would allow him to use them unmolested.
  2. I could guard San Bernardino with Task Force 34 while I struck the Northern Force with my carriers. Rejected. The heavy air attacks on Task Group 38.3 which had resulted in the loss of the Princeton indicated that the enemy still had powerful air forces and forbade exposing our battleships without adequate air protection. It is a cardinal principle of naval warfare not to divide one’s force to such extent as will permit it to be beaten in detail. If enemy shore based planes joined with his carrier planes, together they might inflict far more damage on my half-fleets separately than they could inflict upon my fleet intact. Furthermore I was confident from the reports of my aviators that Kurita’s Force in the Sibuyan Sea had been damaged to such an extent that even if they sortied through San Bernardino Strait, Kinkaid had adequate strength to defend against them.
  3. I could leave San Bernardino unguarded and strike the Northern Force with my whole fleet. Accepted. It preserved my Fleet’s integrity, it left the initiative with me, and it promised the greatest possibility of surprise. Even if the Central Force meanwhile passed through San Bernardino and headed for Leyte Gulf, it could only hope to harry the landing operation. It could not consolidate any advantage, because of its reported damage. It could merely hit-and-run. I felt Kinkaid was amply strong to handle this situation if it should develop.

My decision was to strike the Northern Force. Given the same circumstances and the same information as I had then, I would make it again.

About 1950 on the 24th, I informed Commander Seventh fleet: CENTRAL FORCE HEAVILY DAMAGED ACCORDING TO STRIKE REPORTS. AM PROCEEDING NORTH WITH THREE GROUPS TO ATTACK CARRIER FORCE AT DAWN. At 2330, I ordered Mitscher: SLOW DOWN TO 16 KNOTS. HOLD PRESENT COURSE UNTIL 2400, THEN PROCEED TOWARD LAT 16 LONG 127 (northeastward). The purpose of this was to permit the three Groups to close up and to avoid over-running the Northern Force’s “Daylight Circle,” the limit which it could reach by dawn from its last known position.  If the enemy slipped past my left flank, between me and Luzon, he would have a free crack at the transports. If he slipped past my right flank, he would be able to shuttle-bomb me—fly from his carriers, attack me, continue on to his fields on Luzon for more bombs and fuel, and attack me again on the way back. I had to meet him head-on. It was also essential to bring him under attack at dawn. Otherwise I would, at least partially, lose the advantage of initiative and surprise. I was trusting the Independence ’s night search planes to set my course.

They began to report and by daylight the composition of the Northern Force was established as one large carrier, three light carriers, two hermaphrodite battleships with flight deck afts, three light cruisers, and at least eight destroyers.

I ordered Task Force 34 to form and take station 10 miles in advance, and my Task Group Commanders to arm their first deck-load strike and launch it at earliest dawn, and launch a second strike as soon afterwards as possible.

The first strike took off at 0630. At 0850, a flash report reaches me: ONE CARRIER SUNK AFTER TREMENDOUS EXPLOSION. TWO CARRIERS, ONE LIGHT CRUISER HIT BADLY, OTHER CARRIER UNTOUCHED. FORCE COURSE 150 SPEED 17.

We had already increased our speed to 25 knots. If the enemy held his course and speed, he would be under our guns before noon.

At 0648, I had received a dispatch from Kinkaid: AM NOW ENGAGING ENEMY SURFACE FORCES SURIGAO STRAIT. QUESTION IS TASK FORCE 34 GUARDING SAN BERNARDINO STRAIT. To this I replied in some bewilderment: NEGATIVE. IT IS WITH OUR CARRIERS NOW ENGAGING ENEMY CARRIERS. Here was my first intimation that Kinkaid had intercepted and misconstrued the preparatory dispatch I had sent to my Fleet the preceding day. I say “intercepted” because it was not addressed to him, which fact alone should have prevented his confusion. I was not alarmed, because at 0802 I learned from him: ENEMY VESSELS RETIRING SURIGAO STRAIT. OUR LIGHT FORCES IN PURSUIT.

When the Southern Force pushed into Surigao soon after midnight of the 24th, it pushed into one of the prettiest ambushes in naval history. Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, Kinkaid’s tactical commander, waited until the enemy line was well committed into the narrow waters, then struck from both flanks with his PT’s and destroyers, and from dead ahead with his battleships and cruisers. Almost before the Japs could open fire, they lost both their battleships and three destroyers. The rest fled, but the heavy cruiser Mogami was badly damaged, later collided with the heavy cruiser Nachi , and was sunk by Japanese destroyers about noon. About 1000 on the 25th, Army B-24’s sank the light cruiser Abukuma , which had been previously torpedoed by our PT’s. One of Oldendorf’s PT’s was sunk, and one destroyer was damaged.

At 0822, twenty minutes after Kinkaid’s second dispatch, I received his third: ENEMY BATTLESHIPS AND CRUISERS REPORTED FIRING ON TASK UNIT 77.4.3, FROM 15 MILES ASTERN. Task Unit 77.4.3, commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton A.F. Sprague and comprising six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts, was the northernmost of three similar Task Units in the Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 77.4, assigned to guard the eastern approaches to Leyte. The enemy ships were evidently part of the Central Force, which had steamed through San Bernardino during the night. I wondered why search planes had not given warning of the enemy’s approach, but I still was not alarmed. I figured that the sixteen little carriers had enough planes to protect themselves until Oldendorf could bring up his heavy ships.

Eight minutes later, at 0830, Kinkaid’s fourth dispatch reached me: URGENTLY NEED FAST BATTLESHIPS LEYTE GULF AT ONCE. That surprised me. I was not previously committed to protect the Seventh Fleet. My job was offensive, to strike with the Third Fleet, and we were even then rushing to intercept a force which gravely threatened not only Kinkaid and myself, but the whole Pacific strategy. However, I ordered McCain, who was fueling to the east: STRIKE VICINITY 11-20 N 127-00 E AT BEST POSSIBLE SPEED,—and so notified Kinkaid.

At 0900 I received his fifth dispatch: OUR LIGHT CARRIERS BEING ATTACKED BY FOUR BATTLESHIPS, EIGHT CRUISERS PLUS OTHERS. REQUEST LEE (Commanding Task Force 34, and Battle Line) COVER LEYTE AT TOP SPEED. REQUEST FAST CARRIERS MAKE IMMEDIATE STRIKE. I had already sent McCain. There was nothing else I could do.

Then came the sixth dispatch, at 0922: COMMANDER TASK UNIT 77.4.3 (Rear Admiral “Ziggy” Sprague’s Unit) UNDER ATTACK BY CRUISERS AND BATTLESHIPS 0700 11-40 N 126-25 E. REQUEST IMMEDIATE AIR STRIKE. ALSO REQUEST SUPPORT BY HEAVY SHIPS. MY OLD BATTLESHIPS LOW IN AMMUNITION.

This was a new factor, so astonishing that I could hardly accept it. Why hadn’t Kinkaid let me know before? I looked at the date-time group of his dispatch. It was “242225” or 0725 local time, one hour and fifty-seven minutes ago, and when I compared it with the date-time groups of the others, I realized that this was actually his third dispatch, sent eighteen minutes after he had first informed me that Task Unit 77.4.3 was under attack.

My message was on its way to him in five minutes: I AM STILL ENGAGING ENEMY CARRIERS. MCCAIN WITH FIVE CARRIERS FOUR HEAVY CRUISERS HAS BEEN ORDERED ASSIST YOU IMMEDIATELY—and I gave him my position, to show him the impossibility of the fast battleships reaching him.

The next two dispatches arrived close to 1000, almost simultaneously. The first was from Kinkaid again: WHERE IS LEE. SEND LEE. I was impressed by the fact that it had been sent in plain language, not code. I was speculating on its effect. The second dispatch was from CinCPac and asked the location of Task Force 34.

At that moment the Northern Force, with its two remaining carriers crippled and dead in the water, was exactly 42 miles away. However, in view of the urgent request for assistance from Commander Seventh Fleet, I directed Task Force 34 and Task Group 38.2 to proceed south toward San Bernardino Strait, and directed Commander Task Force 38 with Task Groups 38.3 and 38.4 to continue attacks against the enemy carrier force.

I notified Kinkaid: TASK GROUP 38.2 PLUS SIX FAST BATTLESHIPS PROCEEDING LEYTE BUT UNABLE TO ARRIVE BEFORE 0800 TOMORROW.

While I rushed south, Task Groups 38.3 and 38.4 repeatedly struck the Northern Force and late that afternoon it retired in straggling disorder. When it was over the score for the Northern Force was:

Sunk—four carriers, one light cruiser, and two destroyers.

Slightly damaged—two battleships, one light cruiser, and two destroyers.

A curious feature of this engagement is that the air duel never came off. Our strikes found scarcely a handful of planes on the enemy carriers’ decks and only fifteen on the wing. We assumed that the rest had ferried into Luzon, and that our attack had caught them by surprise, because during the morning our radars picked up large groups of bogeys approaching from the westward, but they presently reversed course and disappeared.

Meanwhile, Kinkaid had been sending me another series of dispatches: ENEMY RETIRING TO NORTHEASTWARD. Later: LIGHT CARRIERS AGAIN THREATENED BY ENEMY SURFACE FORCES. Still later: SITUATION AGAIN VERY SERIOUS. YOUR ASSISTANCE BADLY NEEDED. LIGHT CARRIERS RETIRING LEYTE GULF. Finally, at 1145: ENEMY FORCE OF THREE BATTLESHIPS, TWO HEAVY CRUISERS, NINE DESTROYERS, 11-43 N. 126-12 E., COURSE 225, SPEED 20.

This position was 55 miles northeast of Leyte Gulf, but the course was not toward the entrance. Moreover, the dispatch had been filed two hours before I received it, and I had no clue as to what had happened since then. The strongest probability was that the enemy would eventually retrace his course through San Bernardino Strait, and my best hope of intercepting him was to send my fastest ships in advance.

I threw a screen of light cruisers and destroyers around the battleships New Jersey and Iowa as Task Group 34.5, and told them on TBS: PREPARE FOR 30 KNOTS AND BE READY FOR NIGHT ACTION. I also notified Kinkaid that we would arrive off San Bernardino at 0100 next morning, seven hours earlier than my original schedule.

I was puzzled by the Central Force’s hit-and-run tactics and still more puzzled when I learned the complete story. Four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers which had survived our air attacks on October 24th had transited San Bernardino that night, while two destroyers remained until the sinking of Musashi and the damaged Myoko . When they were sighted next, at 0631 on the 25th, they were only 20 miles northwest of Sprague’s Task Unit.

The enemy continued to close, and presently his fire began to take toll. Sprague’s losses to the guns were three ships from the screen, and one escort carrier.

At 1050 the enemy’s shore-based air struck, but at 1310 planes from Task Group 38.1 arrived. In the emergency, McCain had launched them from far outside their range of return. After their attack, they had to land and rearm at Tacloban and Dulag fields on Leyte, which had fallen to MacArthur only a few days before. Together with planes from Task Group 77.4, they sank a light cruiser and a destroyer and damaged most of the other ships. Task Group 77.4 had lost 105 planes.

The Central Force was in full retreat by late afternoon, and by 2200 it was reentering San Bernardino, with my force still two hours away. However, shortly after midnight one of my van destroyers made contact with a straggler, and sank it. This was our last surface action.

Thus ended the major action of the threefold Battle for Leyte Gulf. Six of our ships had been sunk and thirteen damaged. In my official report, I was able to write with conviction that the results of the battle were: “(1) The utter failure of the Japanese plan to prevent the reoccupation of the Philippines; (2) the crushing defeat of the Japanese Fleet; and (3) the elimination of serious naval threat to our operations for many months, if not forever.” The Japanese had lost one large carrier, three light carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, and nine destroyers.

In all of the foregoing I have attempted to describe the battle as it unfolded before my eyes at the time, using only the information which was available then. No battle of such magnitude can be fought without someone getting hurt. The later established facts that no Japanese air attacks developed from Luzon on the 25th; that the Central Force suffered less damage due to air attacks on the 24th than originally reported; and that this force did finally make its sortie from San Bernardino Strait to surprise the Seventh Fleet. Units could not be determined in advance. Only “Monday Morning Quarterbacks” can speak of such items with certainty. As seen on the afternoon of the 24th and as viewed in retrospect, a Japanese Carrier Force to the north, particularly if allowed the initiative, was the most urgent and serious threat to the final success of our forces. 

After the surrender, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey learned, from the study of Japanese documents and the interrogation of Japanese naval officers, the Japanese plans for the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Japanese were divided into three forces, the Northern, designated Mobile Attack Force; the Central, designated Second Diversionary Attack Force; and the Southern, divided into two forces designated the First Diversionary Attack Force and “C” Force.

The plan called for two segments of the Southern Force to enter Leyte Gulf via Surigao Strait and attack the transports and supporting units off the Leyte beach-head. The Central Force was to arrive in Leyte Gulf via San Bernardino Strait two hours later and attack what remained of our forces after their engagement by the Southern Force. The planes from the carriers in the Northern Force had been launched on October 24, and had attacked Task Force 38.3 and then landed on Luzon, from which point they were to continue to attack our forces within range. Few planes remained aboard these carriers. The carriers were to permit themselves to be attacked by my Task Forces so that my Fleet would be pulled north and brought under attack by land based planes in Formosa and Luzon. The Japanese northern forces were expendable so long as they have the southern forces the opportunity to destroy our forces lying off the beaches at Leyte.

The plan failed because the Southern Force never passed Admiral Oldendorf’s Force and the Central Force was so badly damaged by air strikes on October 24 that it was retiring and had so advised CinC Combined Fleet. However, CinC Combined Fleet on receipt of this message sent the following dispatch: “With confidence in heavenly guidance the entire force will attack.” The Central Force again changed its course toward San Bernardino Strait. The attack on Sprague’s Forces were broken off and the enemy withdrew without pressing into the Gulf because the air and torpedo attack launched by Kinkaid’s Forces had further damaged his communication and fire-control facilities, had resulted in severe damage to four of his cruisers, and had caused his force to fall into disorder. Furthermore he was far behind schedule and he was afraid of our air attacks. When he heard that the Northern Force was attacking my fleet he decided to join this attack, but when no engagement offered in daylight he retired through San Bernardino. The Northern Force was disposed of by my Task Forces.

In conclusion I would like to emphasize certain principles and lessons which was illustrated by this action.

It had always been a cardinal principle of our naval tactics to bring all force of the opposing enemy under effective attack. In modern naval warfare there is no greater threat than that offered by an enemy carrier force. To leave such a force untouched and to attack it with anything less than overwhelming destructive force would not only violate this proven principle but in this instance would have been foolhardy in the extreme.

The battle also illustrates the necessity for a single naval command in a combat area responsible for and in full control of all combat units involved. Division of operational control in a combat area leads at the least to confusion, lack of coordination, and overloaded communications, and could result in disaster.

For two and a half days during the progress of this battle my communication officers decoded no dispatch on the circuit linking me with Commander Seventh Fleet that had a precedence lower than urgent. Much of this traffic consisted of intelligence summaries of previous unrelated action and other matters not directly related to the tactical situation of the battle. I am certain there should always be a command circuit linking all commanders in a combat area which is kept clear of all traffic except that of an urgent tactical nature.

The Battle for Leyte Gulf stands as a tribute to the effective employment of seapower and sea-air-power and of close mutual support. There was glory in it for all.

The credit for our overwhelming victory belongs in full measure to all who participated in its many phases and most particularly to those pilots and sailors who made the supreme sacrifice in order that our cause might prevail.

 

Graduating from the Naval Academy in the Class of 1904, Admiral Halsey was a destroyer skipper in World War I. Progressing through higher commands, taking Naval War College and Army War College courses, and qualifying as a naval aviator in 1934, he became first commanding officer of the Saratoga, then Commandant, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, and, in 1940, Commander Aircraft Battle Force with the rank of Vice Admiral. During World War II, as a leader of the greatest naval force ever assembled, he opened up the road to Tokyo.

At Admiral Halsey’s request, the Naval Institute has sent payment for this article to the Naval Historical Foundation’s Endowment Trust Fund.

 

 
 

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