The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the biggest and most multifaceted naval battle in history. It involved hundreds of ships, nearly 200,000 participants, and spanned more than 100,000 square miles. Some of the largest and most powerful ships ever built were sunk, and thousands of men went to the bottom of the sea with them. Every facet of naval warfare—air, surface, subsurface, and amphibious—was involved in this great struggle, and the weapons used included bombs of every type, guns of every caliber, torpedoes, mines, rockets, and even a forerunner of the modern guided missile.
But more than mere size made this battle significant. The cast of characters included such names as Halsey, Nimitz, MacArthur, even Roosevelt. It introduced the largest guns ever used in a naval battle and a new Japanese tactic that would eventually kill more U.S. sailors and sink more U.S. ships than any other used in the war. It was the last clash of the dreadnoughts and the first and only time that gunfire sank a U.S. aircraft carrier. It was replete with awe-inspiring heroism, failed intelligence, sapient tactical planning and execution, flawed strategy, brilliant deception, incredible ironies, great controversies, and a plethora of lessons about strategy, tactics, and operations.
If all this is true, why is Leyte Gulf not a household word—like Pearl Harbor? Why have fewer Americans heard of it than the Battle of Midway or the Normandy invasion of Europe? The answer lies in timing. Leyte Gulf occurred late in the war, after several years of conflict, when great battles had become commonplace. Tales from such places as Midway, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, and Normandy were by then frequent fare. More significant, however, was that the Battle of Leyte Gulf happened when most of the United States had accepted ultimate victory as merely a matter of time rather than as a debatable question. Midway was accepted widely as the turning point of the war in the Pacific, a dramatic reversal of what had been a losing trend. The D-Day invasion at Normandy was seen as the true beginning of the end of war in Europe. But many saw Leyte Gulf as the continuation of a normal and inevitable trend. Lacking the drama of earlier battles, Leyte Gulf was then eclipsed by later events—a near-reversal at the Battle of the Bulge, ferocious fighting at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the cataclysmic dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the Battle of Leyte Gulf was indeed pivotal. It represented the last hope of the Japanese Empire and the last significant sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was vastly important to millions of Filipinos and thousands of Allied prisoners of war whose liberation from Japanese oppression depended upon it. And, while a U.S. victory in the battle may have been viewed as somewhat mundane by that stage of the war, a defeat would have been disastrous.
On 11 March 1942, a U.S. Army general stood at the water's edge and surveyed his wilting domain. Where lush vegetation and vibrantly colored tropical flowers had flourished, all that remained was the shattered remnants of an army on the verge of capitulation. Trees had been reduced to mere jagged stumps. Buildings that had housed a proud garrison lay in ruin. General Douglas MacArthur, 25 pounds lighter than he had been three months earlier, removed his gold-encrusted khaki cap and raised it in a final salute to Corregidor, the island-fortress he had been ordered to abandon.
In the gathering darkness of those early days of the war, when defeat had followed defeat, the brave but futile stand that MacArthur's forces had made on the fortified peninsula of Bataan had been a welcome ray of light. MacArthur had been elevated to heroic proportions not equaled since Admiral George Dewey had defeated the Spanish Fleet in these same Philippine waters at the close of the last century. To allow him to fall into the hands of an enemy whose propagandists predicted that they would see him hanged publicly in the Imperial Plaza in Tokyo was simply unthinkable. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the general to leave.
This was no simple order. First, there was the natural reluctance of the general to abandon his command. Then came the realization that escape from the Philippines was more easily ordered than carried out. Japanese forces virtually controlled the air and sea approaches such that only a bold and clandestine move had any hope of success. And finally, there were MacArthur's special ties to the Philippines. His father, General Arthur MacArthur, had been both war hero and military governor there, and young Douglas's first assignment after graduating from West Point had been a tour of duty in the Philippines as a second lieutenant in the elite Corps of Engineers. He returned there several more times during his career, and by the time the Japanese landed troops at Lingayen Gulf in December 1941, MacArthur had become a field marshal of the Philippine Army and commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East.
As evening darkness descended upon Manila Bay and rain-laden clouds erased the moon, Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley's PT-41 threaded its way through the defensive minefield and headed for the blackened waters of Mindoro Strait, where enemy ships were known to prowl. On board, General MacArthur vowed to recover from this ignominious moment, to avenge the inevitable defeat, to come back as soon as possible with the forces necessary to drive out the invading Japanese, and to restore the honor of the United States—and his own. In a few days he voiced this determination to the world, capturing the imagination of those Americans and Filipinos who had placed their faith in him with three small but powerful words: "I shall return."
The course of the war dictated that two years would pass before MacArthur could make good on his promise. By the time U.S. forces were poised to recapture the Philippines, the Battle of Midway had turned the tide of battle in the Pacific, amphibious assaults on Japanese island strongholds had become almost commonplace, and the most powerful fleet in U.S. history roamed the Pacific in search of a final showdown with the Imperial Japanese Navy.
But at last, in October 1944, MacArthur was able to make his promised return, bringing a huge invasion force to land on Leyte Island on the eastern side of the Philippine archipelago. In support of that momentous invasion, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had assigned Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid to command the naval forces that would actually carry out the assault. Kinkaid's forces were designated the Seventh Fleet. Admiral William F. Halsey, in command of the awesome striking power of the Third fleet—consisting of four powerful task forces containing 14 aircraft carriers and more than 1,000 aircraft—lurked nearby in case the Japanese Navy showed up to contest the landing.
On 20 October, a landing craft crunched up onto the shore of Leyte Island, and the bow-door rattled down into the surf. The craft was still some distance from the dry sand of the beach, so General MacArthur and his entourage had to step off into knee-deep water and wade the rest of the way in. It was one of those moments that carved a graven image in the American heritage.
MacArthur strode across the sand to a waiting microphone and transmitter. He took the handset and held it close to his lips.
"People of the Philippines," MacArthur said in his resonant voice. "I have returned."
The gray skies above opened suddenly, and rain cascaded from the clouds like tears so fitting to this emotional moment.
"By the grace of Almighty God," MacArthur continued. "Our forces stand again on Philippine soil—soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples."
With the sounds of mortal combat still thundering around him, soldiers of both sides dying not far away, this man, whom many characterized as an egotistical demagogue and others worshipped as a military saint, sent his words out over the Philippine archipelago to a people who had long awaited his return. "The hour of your redemption is here," he intoned, and countless numbers of Filipinos rejoiced. "Your patriots have demonstrated an unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom that challenge the best that is written on the pages of human history."
In the years that followed, MacArthur's detractors panned this moment. They accused him of "grandstanding," which is undeniable. They criticized his use of the first-person, which is certainly questionable. Some even characterized his speech as trite and overblown, which is arguable. But an objective observer would recognize that this was truly an important moment in history. Just as General Dwight D. Eisenhower h ad spoken on the shores of Normandy to a people long-suffering under the boot of Adolf Hitler's tyranny, so General MacArthur had given new hope to a people who had trusted in the United States to free them from Japanese domination.
"Rally to me," MacArthur challenged. And many did. In the months following the landing at Leyte, many Filipinos laid down their lives, fighting as guerrillas in the Japanese rear as U.S. troops pushed on inexorably through the islands. These people, at least, had listened when MacArthur said, "Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike.
Just after midnight on 18 October 1944, the sound of anchor chains rattling in hawsepipes drifted across the still waters of the Lingga Roads anchorage as seven battleships, 15 cruisers, and 20 destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to get under way. Deep in the bellies of these great steel whales, young sailors, firing their boilers, turned huge valve-wheels to regulate the flow of the oil, which at the moment was more precious than gold to the Japanese Empire. Most of these vessels were combat-hardened veterans of the Pacific War, many still pocked with the scars of battle, some partially debilitated by the ravages of war and long ocean transits. The cruiser Mogami had endured a horrific pounding at Midway. Yet there she was, still afloat, still able to inflict great harm, under way for the Philippines and a chance for revenge. The battleship Haruna, which had struck a German mine in World War I and had been reported sunk time and again in this one, steamed out of the Lingga anchorage, her shadowy form hauntingly vague in the subdued light of the distant stars. The destroyer Shigure, veteran of the Coral Sea, Solomons, and New Guinea campaigns, had been the sole Japanese survivor at the battle in Vella Gulf. As her crew worked to bring her anchor into short stay, some of them surely wondered if their luck would continue through the coming engagement.
Of all the ships making up this powerful force, the most formidable were the gigantic battleships Yamato and Musashi. At the time, these two 862-foot-long, 70,000-ton behemoths were the largest surface warships ever built.
This formidable task force, under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, was the most powerful element in a multifaceted operation the Japanese had dubbed Sho Go, Operation Victory. This complex plan relied heavily upon both timing and surprise and called for Kurita to hit the U.S. forces from two different directions in what is traditionally called a pincer attack. After refueling in Brunei, the larger of the two elements, including the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi, would remain in Kurita's tactical command and proceed northward, then cut through the Philippine archipelago using the Sibuyan Sea as passage. Once across this rather narrow inland waterway, this force would pass through San Bernardino Strait, proceed south along the coast of the island of Samar and attack the U.S. landing forces at Leyte Gulf from the north.
Meanwhile, the other, smaller element, consisting of the battleships Yamashiro and Fuso, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers, was placed under the command of Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura. It would sortie from Brunei after Kurita's force and take the shorter but more hazardous route through the Philippines via the Sulu and Mindanao seas. With proper timing, Nishimura would pass through Surigao Strait and enter Leyte Gulf from the south at about the same time Kurita's force was attacking from the north.
Complexity and the need for near-perfect timing were obvious disadvantages to the plan, but the biggest problem facing the Japanese was that the United States had such an overwhelming advantage in available forces. Japanese intelligence reports, though not perfect, were providing a reasonably accurate assessment of what was waiting at Leyte. The Japanese were aware of the large amphibious fleet (Kinkaid's Seventh) that was spearheading the invasion. If this were the only force to contend with, Kurita thought his two-pronged attack would have an excellent chance for success. But the Japanese knew that Halsey's forces were also lurking about, spoiling for a fight, and they also knew that they had no hope of surviving a battle with such a gargantuan agglomeration of naval striking power. Halsey and Kinkaid together had more than enough forces available to take on any number of pincer elements, coming from any number of directions. How then could the Japanese hope to contend with such overwhelming odds?
The answer lay in an age-old weapon that served inferior forces for as long as there has been warfare. Deception was to be the offsetting element that might negate some of the preponderant U.S. advantage. Although the Japanese knew that their carrier striking forces h ad been rendered impotent by their lack of trained pilots, they reasoned that the U.S. forces might not fully appreciate this fact and might still consider the carriers a force to reckon with. So the Japanese command had decided that Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa's role in the forthcoming battle would be to serve as a decoy. His carrier striking forces had been rendered virtually useless by catastrophic losses of pilots and aircraft at the Battle of the Philippine Sea the previous June (known popularly as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot"). These carriers had been operating in Japanese home waters since the June battle, trying desperately but hopelessly to train new pilots and effect repairs.
Hoping that the United States was not fully cognizant of how limited these carriers were, the Japanese plan called for Ozawa to approach from the north in a straightforward manner, hoping to be detected in order to lure some portion of the U.S. forces away from Leyte Gulf. With luck, it would be the U.S. carrier striking forces that would be lured away, giving Kurita's powerful surface ships a fighting chance of carrying out their mission against the amphibious forces at Leyte. The success of the plan depended upon how much the Japanese could draw off the U.S. Navy's air power to chase Ozawa. Except for the support land-based air forces stationed in the Philippines could provide, Kurita would be very vulnerable to air attack once he moved within range of U.S. aircraft. Operation Victory was a long shot. But the plan was workable.
Sibuyan and Sulu Seas
On the morning of 24 October 1944, Admiral Halsey initiated the first phase of the Battle for Leyte Gulf when he picked up a radio handset and ordered the aircraft squadrons of his powerful Third Fleet: "Strike! Repeat: Strike!" Earlier that morning his reconnaissance aircraft had spotted Kurita's force on the western side of the Sibuyan Sea and had discovered Nishimura's force starting to cross the Sulu Sea. Hundreds of U.S. aircraft took to the skies to intercept these oncoming Japanese forces.
Aircraft from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) reached Nishimura's force in the Sulu Sea and launched a coordinated but largely ineffective attack that caused minor damage to the battleship Fuso and the destroyer Shigure. Undaunted, Nishimura's force continued to Surigao Strait.
In the Sibuyan Sea, lookouts in Kurita's force had spotted the earlier reconnaissance planes from Halsey's force. Kurita had increased speed immediately to 24 knots and prepared for battle. Tense minutes ticked by as the Japanese waited for the attack. The night before, Kurita's ships had been attacked by two U.S. submarines in the Palawan Passage west of the Philippines. Two cruisers had been sunk, one of them Kurita's flagship, and the admiral had been rescued from the sea by one of his destroyers and later transferred to the superbattleship Yamato.
Two hours passed before radar finally detected the anticipated U.S. aircraft, and at 1025 they roared in off the starboard beam. This first engagement lasted only 24 minutes, but it was intense and not without consequence to both sides. Extra antiaircraft guns had been added to Kurita's ships when it had become clear that Japanese air power would lend little support, making these ships very prickly prey. Battleships, cruisers, and even the destroyers bristled with hundreds more 25-mm guns than they had ever had before, and the effect was noticeable. Several of the torpedo bombers were splashed in the early moments of the attack and a Hellcat fighter soon joined them. But a number of the U.S. aircraft penetrated the wall of heavy fire, and great geysers leaped skyward from the water close aboard Kurita's flagship, Yamato. The heavy cruiser Myoko was damaged severely and began to limp, soon falling behind Kurita's formation.
Kurita's lookouts spotted the second wave of U.S. aircraft at a little past noon. The planes went for the Japanese force like angry bees out of the hive. In just minutes, three of the torpedo planes had left their stingers in the superbattleship Musashi, which set a pattern as subsequent attack waves began concentrating on the same ship.
All day the attacks continued. Wave after wave of U.S. aircraft descended upon Kurita's hapless force. With no air cover, Kurita's ships had no hope of victory and little for survival. Although U.S. aircraft were falling from the sky and airmen were dying, the virtually endless supply of planes and pilots pouring forth from Halsey's great fleet ensured the outcome. As the day wore on, the incoming strikes grew larger in number, and proportionately fewer aircraft succumbed as more and more Japanese antiaircraft batteries fell silent.
As the day wore on, the Musashi—a vessel once proclaimed unsinkable by her Japanese designers—began to list. The great battleship had absorbed 19 torpedo hits and nearly as many bombs. Most of her bow was under water.
Her crew had tried to run her aground rather than sink—at least that way her great guns could remain in service as a gigantic shore-battery—but damage to her steering equipment relegated her to slow circles in the Sibuyan Sea, and it seemed only a matter of time before she would succumb. As evening approached, the Musashi began to roll slowly to port, gaining momentum as she went. Sailors ran along the rotating hull in the opposite direction like lumberjacks at a log-rolling contest, trying to stay on the upward side of the ship. Many of them were barefooted in preparation for the anticipated swim, and the barnacles encrusted along what had been her underwater hull lacerated their feet as they ran. Some dived into the sea only to be sucked back into the ship through gaping torpedo holes. Within minutes, the battleship was standing on end, her gigantic propellers high in the evening sky, her bow already deep in the dark sea. She paused there for a moment; then there was a convulsive underwater explosion, and the Musashi plunged into the deep, taking half of her 2,200-man crew with her.
Despite his serious losses and a temporary turn back to the west, Admiral Kurita's force had shown incredible stamina in the face of the aerial onslaught. The remainder of his force, still potent by any standard, continued on across the Sibuyan Sea toward San Bernardino Strait, the passage that would take him to Leyte Gulf.
Midwatch in Surigao Strait
As darkness descended over the Philippines and Kurita's force pressed on toward San Bernardino Strait, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, Kinkaid's subordinate in command of Seventh Fleet's Bombardment and Fire Support Group, prepared to meet Nishimura's force approaching Leyte Gulf from the south through Surigao Strait. Partly because of a geographical accident and partly because of sensible planning, Oldendorf had prepared quite a reception for Nishimura.
Approaching through the confined strait would force the Japanese to maintain a n arrow formation. Oldendorf's disposition of forces would put the oncoming Japanese force into the jaws of several succeeding pincers, as PT boats and destroyers gnawed at his flanks along the way. This alone would have been a difficult gauntlet to run. But the array of battleships and cruisers across the northern end of the strait was something out of the oldest textbooks on naval tactics, known as "capping the 'T'" and giving the U.S. ships a tremendous advantage in firepower by placing Oldendorf at the advantageous cap and the unfortunate Nishimura forming the vulnerable base of the T.
With the moon and stars blanketed by clouds, ensuring total darkness in the strait, Nishimura headed for the southern end of the strait that Ferdinand Magellan had once sailed in his famed circumnavigation of the earth. The U.S. PT boats attacked valiantly but were driven off, suffering more damage than they were able to inflict. Although these diminutive craft had little effect on the oncoming Japanese, their radio reports provided Oldendorf with valuable information on the enemy's progress up the strait.
The next phase of the battle began when U.S. destroyers charged down the strait, sowing the blackened waters with torpedoes while withholding gunfire so as not to reveal their positions. This time the damage to Nishimura's ships was severe.
Toward the end of the midwatch in one of the U.S. destroyers retiring from the fray, a young torpedoman peered into the darkness and said, "Would you look at that ?" His voice was full of wonder. "Over there. Off the starboard side. In the sky." Several crimson streaks of light flashed across the sky from north to south like meteors. Several more followed almost immediately. A throaty rumble like distant thunder, felt more than heard, rolled in from the north. "The heavies are shooting," someone said.
Oldendorf’s cruisers and battleships had indeed begun their barrage. On board one of the destroyers still pressing the attack down in the strait, a squadron commodore heard a strange sound overhead and looked up. In the black sky above he saw the tracer shells of the cruisers and battleships arcing their way south ward, adding to the damage inflicted by the destroyers. "It was quite a sight," he later said. "It honestly looked like the Brooklyn Bridge at night—the tail lights of automobiles going across Brooklyn Bridge."
The Battle of Surigao Strait proved to be an epoch of history. In those brief and terrible minutes, surface ships fought surface ships without the intrusion of those interlopers from the sky that had stolen the show from the gunships in this war. Battleships at last unleashed the havoc they were designed for. Yet it was not the grand show long dreamed about. Despite their frightful destructive power, in this showdown in Surigao Strait their little brothers, the destroyers, outdid these leviathans. The torpedo that—for all of its early-war development problems and in spite of its inability to measure up to the pyrotechnic glamor of gunfire—had done the most damage in that last night surface action. The great guns spoke in anger that night, not merely at an enemy with whom they had a score to settle, but also in frustration at their own untimely impotence, in one final gasp of pent-up fury that would serve as a ceremonial salute to their own passing.
As the sun rose next morning, several columns of thick black smoke towered into the brightening sky like remnants of the black shroud that had engulfed Surigao Strait the nigh t before. The morning light revealed clusters of men clinging to debris littering the waters of the strait, and large smears of oil stretched for miles. As U.S. destroyers moved in to pick up the Japanese survivors, most of them swam away or disappeared beneath the oily water, shunning rescue in one last great act of noble defiance.
Far to the north, in Leyte Gulf, U.S. sailors in the amphibious transports had spent the night watching with fascination and some dread as the flashes of gunfire had reflected off the clouds to the south. They need not have worried. The scorecard for this battle was an impressive one, and notably one-sided. All told, the Japanese had lost two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers as a result of this last of the great gun and torpedo battles. By comparison, one U.S. destroyer and several PT boats had been damaged in the action. One of the PTs was sunk, but no other U.S. ships had been lost. Exact personnel casualty figures for the Japanese are unknown, but they were in the thousands. The United States had lost but 39 men, with another 114 wounded.
As 25 October 1944 got under way, the U.S. Navy had dealt another devastating blow to its Imperial Japanese counterpart. But the Battle of Leyte Gulf was not yet over. What naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later dubbed "the main action" had not yet occurred. Only a few more hours were left to this greatest of all sea battles, but before they were over, many more ships and men would perish.
"Charge of the Light Brigade"
Despite the one-sided victory in Surigao Strait, the potential for disaster loomed rather large on the morning of the 25th. The day before, Third Fleet reconnaissance aircraft had detected Ozawa's decoy force coming down from the north, and Halsey had taken the bait. Mistakenly believing that his earlier strikes in the Sibuyan Sea had eliminated Kurita's fleet, the aggressive Admiral Halsey took his entire fleet northward in pursuit of Ozawa's carrier forces, leaving the entrance to San Bernardino Strait unguarded. With Halsey's massive striking power lured northward and Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet punch drawn southward to cover Surigao Strait, the landing forces in the gulf were left virtually unprotected and would be easy pickings for a marauding force of gunships such as the one on its way through San Bernardino Strait. Confused communications caused by an awkward command structure and by some unwarranted assumptions on the part of both Halsey and Kinkaid had exacerbated the situation.
Thus, the only element left between Kurita and the vulnerable transports in the gulf were the Seventh Fleet escort carriers (CVEs) and their accompanying destroyers. Any tactician worth his salt could see that this was no great obstacle. The CVEs were, after all, merely cheap imitations of the larger and more potent CVs and CVLs, brought to Leyte Gulf to provide air support to the troops on shore and to hunt for submarines. They were ill prepared for a surface battle of any description, much less one with a force of Kurita's size and power.
So, by a combination of clever tactical deception and dogged determination on the part of the Japanese, and poor communications and some misjudgment on the part of the U.S. Navy, the greatly outclassed Japanese fleet had managed to set itself up for what just days before had seemed impossible. Despite the costly setbacks in Palawan Passage, the Sibuyan Sea, and Surigao Strait, the Japanese had achieved the main objective of their elaborate plan. The door was open to Leyte Gulf.
Admiral Kurita steamed through that open door during the night of 24-25 October, emerging from San Bernardino Strait into the Philippine Sea with the expectation of running headlong into waiting U.S. forces. All he found was an empty sea.
Expecting to be pounced on at any moment, Kurita headed south. For the next six-and-a half hours anxious Japanese eyes scanned the surface for ominous shadows, while weary ears listened to the strange chorus echoing in the ocean's depths, trying to discern manmade sounds from the natural ones residing there. As the sky brightened in the east, the tension level increased. Soon the skies, too, would be potentially hostile as U.S. war-birds left their nocturnal roosts to begin their diurnal search for prey.
Finally, just before 0630, lookouts spotted several masts piercing the horizon to the southeast. They were the telltale thin masts of U.S. ships, and as Kurita turned his formation toward them, more masts appeared on the horizon. It soon became clear that a sizable U.S. force lay ahead. Probably because the Japanese were expecting to encounter Halsey's powerful Third Fleet, the lookouts began mistakenly reporting the U.S. ships as full-size carriers, cruisers, and even battleships, instead of the Seventh Fleet CVEs and escorts that they actually were. By this error the Japanese forfeited a great psychological advantage, entering the battle with a fatalistic feeling of sacrifice and little hope of victory rather than with the confidence that should have accompanied this tremendous tactical advantage.
Nevertheless, Kurita did not hesitate to attack, and he ordered his fleet to engage the enemy. Within minutes, the Yamato's mighty 18.1-inch guns were firing for the first time at enemy shipping. The Battle of Samar was under way.
Ironically, this was the anniversary of the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava, in which a much inferior British cavalry unit charged against the heavy artillery of the Russians, inspiring Alfred Lord Tennyson to write his immortal poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade." In a similar act of suicidal courage, the U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts of the vulnerable escort carriers came about and charged headlong at the giant Japanese attackers. Furthermore, although they were not equipped to fight heavily armored ships, the escort carriers' aircraft also attacked the oncoming Japanese battleships and cruisers.
What followed was one of the wildest melees in naval history, marked by errors of judgment, innovative tactics, terrible carnage, and selfless valor. The U.S. escort ships and aircraft had no hope of defeating, nor even inflicting serious damage upon their Japanese adversaries. Yet they attacked with a tenacity that rivals the awe-inspiring feats of John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, and David Farragut. By their sacrificial actions and the confusion that resulted among the Japanese forces, the day was saved. Kurita, still believing he was fighting far more powerful forces, broke off the engagement at the critical moment and retired. In his wake were the sunken remains of four U.S. ships and their noble crews: two destroyers, one destroyer escort, and one aircraft carrier—a terrible loss in human terms; an incredible achievement in terms of the cold calculus of war. By all rights, many more U.S. ships should have been at the bottom of the Philippine Sea.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Far to the north, Halsey's powerful Third Fleet was engaging Ozawa's force at about the same time the wild melee was proceeding off Samar. The magnitude of the battle of Leyte Gulf comes better into perspective when one considers that this northernmost engagement—in which four aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers were sunk—can be reasonably described as anticlimactic. With no insult intended toward those who fought there, this Halsey-Ozawa showdown remembered as the Battle of Cape Engano was almost mundane in comparison to the other actions associated with Leyte Gulf. It was unquestionably one-sided, yet it was indecisive. It was fought by unquestionably brave men, yet there were no unusual feats of bravery recorded. It was the result of a successful diversion on the part of Ozawa, yet Kurita's failure to press his advantage at Samar robbed the diversion of its real impact.
Particularly frustrating was the missed chance for Halsey's battleships to get into the fray. In response to desperate calls for help in the south once Kurita had begun his attack, Halsey had broken off his battleships from the carrier force and headed south in a hopeless chase that served only to place those powerful gunships in a frustrating limbo between battles. Although Halsey would never admit his mistake in going north after Ozawa's decoy force, he would later lament his decision to take his battleships south, saying "I consider this the gravest error I committed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf."
In the final analysis, the battle was not decisive in the same sense that the Battle of Midway had been. What occurred there in Philippine waters did not alter the course of the war. But, perhaps just as significant, the result of the Leyte Gulf battle permitted the course of the war to continue. This has less dramatic appeal than a reversal, but from the U.S. point of view it was no less important. Had the Japanese prevailed in their fairly modest goal of disrupting the landings, the impact on the U.S. conduct of the war could have had some far-reaching consequences.
In trying to convince President Roosevelt of the importance of recapturing the Philippines, MacArthur had warned the president earlier about the postwar ramifications of by-passing this important archipelago, pointing out that U.S. prestige in the Far East would suffer a serious blow if the Philippines were not liberated. A similar loss of credibility could well have resulted from defeat.
This gargantuan sea battle, ensuring the recapture of the Philippines, cut Japan's oil supply lines once and for all. Without oil, it would only be a matter of time before the once-powerful Japanese war machine would grind to a halt.
At battle's end, Japan had lost four aircraft carriers, three battleships (including one of her super-dreadnoughts), nine cruisers, a dozen destroyers, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of airmen and sailors. It was a tremendous defeat by any standard, and it ensured that the Imperial Japanese Navy had finally been eliminated as a meaningful threat in the Pacific.