Sunday, October 23, 2005
The Battle of Leyte Gulf Begins, October 23, 1944
Today in 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf began when two US submarines located and attacked part of the Japanese force that was hoping to disrupt the allied landing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Over the next four days, the battle would become the largest at-sea confrontation in the history of man. It would see the last shots fired between battleships of opposing fleets and would introduce the world to the suicide planes known as kamikazes.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf occurred over thousands of square miles of ocean and many volumes have been written in which the actions of the ships involved are examined in minute detail. To give you an accurate description of the battle would take more time than you likely want to invest here, so we’ll concentrate on the order of battle and the aftermath of the fight.
By October, 1944, Japan was in desperate straits. Her home islands were being bombed almost daily by US B-29s. Her strategic oil reserves were all but depleted with little hope of breaking the stranglehold placed on the island nation by allied submarines. And while she still controlled large parts of mainland China, Formosa and the Philippines, most of the islands that the Japanese military considered essential for a strong homeland defense had been conquered. Her only hope was to draw out most of the US Pacific Fleet and defeat it in a giant battle, a battle that had been long hoped for but that had not materialized. It was hoped that the landings on Luzon would present just such an opportunity.
The Japanese headed for the Philippines with all the naval might they could still muster: 4 aircraft carriers, 9 battleships, 19 cruisers, 34 destroyers and about 200 planes. The allied naval force, comprised of American and Australian vessels, contained 17 aircraft carriers, 18 escort carriers, 12 battleships (including six that had been raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor), 24 cruisers, 141 destroyers, dozens of PT boats and submarines and about 1,700 aircraft.
At first glance, it would seem that an allied victory was all but assured by their overwhelming superiority. However, the US Navy had never undertaken an operation this large and it showed: communication during the far-flung battle was terrible at best. In fact, a misunderstanding concerning the location of a task force nearly allowed the decimation of a group of American escort carriers. Only the brave actions of a few destroyer captains and their crews saved the day. But in order to achieve victory, the Japanese would’ve needed a miracle and they seemed to be in short supply.
When the smoke cleared, the Japanese had lost 10,000 men, all four of their aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 6 cruisers and 12 destroyers. The American and Australian navies lost 3,500 men, 1 carrier, 1 cruiser, 2 escort carriers and 3 destroyers. But the battle was even more decisive than the numbers would suggest. Other than kamikaze attacks, this was the last major Japanese naval offensive of the war. With most of the Imperial Navy destroyed, the US Navy submarine fleet was now able to maintain a complete blockade of the home islands. Even though the war in the Pacific would rage for almost another year, the die had been cast.