The Battle Off Samar

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Sho Plan No. 1 was to be a three-pronged maneuver supported by land-based aircraft. A Northern Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa would steam southward from Japan and attempt to decoy away the protecting American Third Fleet. This Japanese force was made up of four regular carriers, two converted battleship-carriers, and smaller screening vessels. The battleship-carriers—the Ise and the Hyuga —were merely old battleships with their two main aft turrets replaced by small flight decks. Designed to compensate for Japan’s shortage of aircraft carriers, the hybrid ships would never have a chance to prove themselves. There were not enough airplanes available in the fall of 1944 to give the Ise and the Hyuga even one of the twenty-four each was supposed to carry; and Ozawa’s other carriers were decidedly short of planes, too.

The second prong of Sho No. 1 was to swing in against the Americans in Ley te Gulf from the southwest, through Surigao Strait. The melange of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers in this Southern Force—seventeen ships in all—were commanded by Vice Admirals Kiyohide Shima and Shoji Nishimura.

The third prong, the Center Force, was the most potent of the Nipponese units, and was to deliver the knockout blow. Sailing from Lingga Roads during the early morning hours of October 18, it would stop at North Borneo for refueling and final preparations. Then, following a devious patli through the Sibuyan Sea and San Bernardino Strait north of Leyte, it would swing around and enter Leyte Gulf through “the back door"—from the east. In this key Center Force, under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, were the world’s two largest warships, the Yamato and the Musashi . Each displaced 68,000 tons and carried i8.i-inch guns, as compared to 45,000 tons and 16-inch guns for the largest U.S. warship. Also in this formidable fleet were the battleships Haruna , Kongo , and Nagato , twelve cruisers, and fifteen destroyers.

Once inside Leyte Gulf, Shima’s and Nishimura’s Southern Force and Kurita’s Center Force were to pool their firepower to disrupt the American invasion. Whatever lay in the gulf or blocked its approaches, warships and cargo vessels alike, was to be wiped out. The importance of Ozawa’s Northern Force as a decoy to draw oft the powerful U.S. Third Fleet was emphasized by the marked Japanese inferiority in aircraft and by the totaf number of Meet units involved—64 Nipponese vessels against a 16 American and 2 Australian warships.

In undertaking Sho Plan No. 1, the Japanese were placed in the unenviable position of the frantic poker player who, reduced to a lew chips after a losing streak, plays his hand all or nothing. Admiral Kurita said to his officers before the battle: “I know many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be a shame to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? … You must all remember there are such things as miracles. What man can say there is no chance for our fleet to turn the title of war in a decisive battle?”

First blow in the Battle for Leyte Gulf was struck by the U.S. submarine Darter against the Center Force as Kurita’s ships steamed northeast along Palawan, the daggerlike island jutting southwest from the middle of the Philippine archipelago. The sub’s torpedoes slammed into two of the enemy cruisers just as the first light of October 23 was streaking the eastern sky. The force flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago , shuddered and sank in less than twenty minutes, sending Admiral Kurita and his staff for an unscheduled swim before they were rescued by a destroyer. The cruiser Takao , also hit, belched fire and smoke. The task force swung to starboard into the path of a second U.S. submarine. Torpedoes from the Dace scrubbed the cruiser Maya from the scene in four minutes. Kurita, shifting his command post to the huge Yamato , was badly shaken up. The enemy hadn’t even been sighted, and already five valuable warships (counting two destroyers detached to escort the damaged Takao to Borneo) were eliminated from the battle to come.

The sun shone down from clear skies on whitecapped water and mountainous islands as the Center-Force moved into the Sibuyan Sea northwest of Leyte on Tuesday, October 24. Within twenty-four hours, if all went well, Kurita’s ships would be steaming into Leyte Gulf from the east. But their bad luck had not left them yet. Their antiaircraft batteries, nervously anticipating American air strikes, cut loose at a flight of fighter planes soon after dawn. It was a mistake, and a costly one for the Center Force. The planes were landbased Japanese Zeros ordered to provide air cover for Kurita. Faced with heavy antiaircraft fire from the very warships they were to protect, the fighters understandably returned to their island base.