Battle of Surigao Strait

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Surigao Strait in the Philippine Islands was the scene of a major battleship duel during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Because the battle was fought at night and had few survivors on the Japanese side, the events of that naval engagement have been passed down in garbled accounts. Anthony P. Tully pulls together all of the existing documentary material, including newly discovered accounts and a careful analysis of U.S. Navy action reports, to create a new and more detailed description of the action. In several respects, Tully's narrative differs radically from the received versions and represents an important historical corrective. Also included in the book are a number of previously unpublished photographs and charts that bring a fresh perspective to the battle.

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Prologue “Retiring towards the enemy.”

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The battle of Surigao Strait had its genesis primarily from two key strategic considerations and adjustments necessary for the Japanese in the fall of 1944. First were the consequences of the disastrous outcome for Japan of the battle of the Marianas and the fall of Saipan in July. The second consideration derived from the first: the necessity to construct a response to the next major Allied offensive wherever it struck. That offensive arrived in the third week of October in the form of the Allied liberation of the Philippines, as forces led by General Douglas MacArthur made landings on Leyte island to fulfill a long-standing pledge to return.

Only the exact date of landing, not the event, could surprise the Japanese. Tokyo had been fully expecting a massive attack on either the Philippines, Formosa, or the Ryukyu Islands (which include Iwo Jima) once the Allies had regrouped from their summer operations. After the fall of Saipan the Japanese had been forced back to their final defense line, which included the Philippines and the islands off Asia—including Japan. For some time both the Japanese army and navy had been feverishly rushing to reinforce the Philippines, and especially the islands of Leyte and Luzon, where the first landings were projected. Even the general timing had been accurately forecast, for Combined Fleet had warned commands that the Americans would likely attempt a landing during or after the last ten days of October.1

 

1 “I have returned.”

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Sunrise, Friday, October 20, 1944, over Leyte Gulf revealed to the Japanese an awesome armada, one of the largest and most powerful assemblies ever concentrated in the Pacific. Emerging from its obscurity and the shroud of conflicting and confusing reports since October 9, the invasion forces of General Douglas MacArthur now stood plainly on the stage. Well over seven hundred vessels—including six battleships—were gathered east of Leyte and the gulf entrance alone, while beyond Suluan island over the horizon to the northeast stood the four fast-carrier task groups and screen of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s Task Force 38.

Swarms of aircraft patrolled overhead, while others lined up in formation to support the invasion as the landing craft surged toward the beaches from 420 transports. Four American divisions would be landing, and their arrival announced in no uncertain terms the fulfillment of MacArthur’s dramatic pledge “I shall return” made in 1942. Then it had been the Americans that had been fighting in vain to somehow marshal enough strength to withstand invasion by overwhelmingly powerful forces. Now the proverbial shoe was on the other foot.1

 

2 “Bah. We will do our best.”

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October 22, sailing day for Leyte, dawned with cloudy skies and fleeting squalls. Final refueling had been completed only two hours before, and all obvious combustible materials—other than the volatile unrefined oil itself—were offloaded. Visibility was good with a three-kilometer wind out of the southwest as the great ships of the Kurita fleet began hoisting their anchors at 0745 hours. Since they were anchored in widely separated positions in Brunei Bay, each ship would operate independently as they started to move out, until they were out to sea beyond the reefs.

The large fleet putting to sea was an extended and grand sight. The heavy cruisers went first, including Kurita’s flagship, Atago. Then the great dual leviathans Yamato and Musashi and stalwart Nagato moved from the northern zone of the vast anchorage. Vice Admiral Toshio Suzuki’s Second Section, with battleships Kongo and Haruna, sortied last.1

Behind them, Brunei Bay was not yet empty: Vice Admiral Nishimura’s Third Section, with Yamashiro and Fuso, remained at anchor. At this point, the destinies of Third Section and its parent 1YB effectively diverge; they will rejoin only on October 26. Until then Kurita’s force will appear only in passing as it relates to the subject fleets of this study, the Third Section of Vice Admiral Nishimura and Second Striking Force (2YB) of Vice Admiral Shima, with its two detached elements, The Guard Force and Desdiv 21, operating in or near Leyte.

 

3 “We are going to participate in a surface special attack.”

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After the Kurita fleet had left the huge bay, Nishimura’s staff summoned the skippers to a conference on Yamashiro. There chief of staff Rear Admiral Norihide Ando and two others passed out Nishimura’s written orders.1 Since Admiral Nishimura and the Batdiv 2 staff all perished, these orders are the best guide to reconstruct Nishimura’s intentions and strategy. Basically the orders followed the directive Kurita had handed down the previous night, with the Third Section departing Brunei at 1500 that afternoon, but they went on to state: “In general, it will penetrate from Surigao Strait into Tacloban Anchorage two hours before sunrise on X-Day [i.e., at 0427] and, in coordination with the Main Body, will attack and destroy the enemy transport group and landing forces before and after sunrise.”2

The 1500 sortie was changed at 1155 when Nishimura transmitted to his ships a slightly modified itinerary. It now specified departure from Brunei as 1530 and a schedule that would reach a point south of Point Binit, Panaon island, at 0100 on October 25 to drive into Leyte Gulf on course 350. According to this schedule Nishimura would reach the south entrance of Surigao Strait at 0100 and thus arrive at Leyte Gulf about three hours later. From there, another half hour would bring him to Tacloban and the target transports. At that same time, Kurita would be arriving east of Leyte Gulf, and would thereafter enter to attack.

 

4 “It is deemed advisable for 2YB to storm into Leyte Gulf.”

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That same October 22, by lunchtime and Nishimura’s finalizing of his plans, Ozawa’s Main Force was moving toward its assigned position northeast of Luzon. If the decoy worked, they could be expected to be attacked in force any time within the next seventy-two hours. Attacks could be sudden and heavy, the more the better. It was a strange battle indeed, for this was precisely the greatest desire of the Main Force commander.

At that time, a former component of Ozawa’s force, Shima’s 2YB, was also moving south in the waters off Luzon, but to the island’s west, not east.1 2YB was scheduled to shift course to Manila Bay, but that did not happen. Shortly before noon on October 22, Shima had at long last received the final confirmation for his role. He would not have to go to Manila. It had been decided around midnight, but quirks in relays of the order from Tokyo via Manila had delayed its arrival. It said: “It is deemed advisable for 2YB to storm into Leyte Gulf from the south through Surigao Strait and cooperate with the 1YB.”2

 

5 “He gallantly came to a stop and started rescue work.”

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Nishimura and Shima would have no cause to fear submarines on October 24, the day before X-Day. None were in their paths. The danger was in the skies. At the first hint of dawn the massed U.S. carrier forces began sending out search missions of fighter bombers to seek out the approaching Japanese forces reported by intelligence and submarines. The U.S. carriers closest to Nishimura and Shima’s line of approach were those of TG 38.4 under command of Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison.

At 0600 Enterprise and Franklin launched a reinforced search mission consisting of thirty-two VF and twenty-four VB to search the Sulu Sea. A reinforced search meant a dual search-strike mission with expanded numbers to improve coverage. The sweep would cover the sector from southwest to due west, with “Big E” planes assigned the southern sub-sectors while “Big Ben’s” aircraft would tackle the two northern sub-sectors.

The planes from Franklin were just off Pucio Point, Panay, when they sighted what appeared to be “2 old type DDs and a larger vessel, possibly a Katori-class CL.” The identification was a bit off—there was no cruiser present, and even stranger, all three ships were sister ships. Franklin’s planes had chanced on Desdiv 21 en route from Manila to rejoin Shima.1

 

6 “Everybody aboard thought a BB could force a narrow strait.”

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That same morning at 0930 there had been a scare for Shima’s Second Striking Force as well, when enemy planes were detected by radar. Lookouts anxiously scanned the sky for the first hint of the specks in the air. After ten tense minutes, radar reported the formation was moving away. No aircraft ever came into view. Relieved, Shima ordered his small fleet to switch to Alert disposition.

Whoever they were, they did not reappear. What Shima did not know was that yes, he had been sighted, but not by the group of planes attacking Nishimura. A land-based bomber of the V Army Air Force caught Shima at 1155 south of the Cagayan Islands, and Fifth Bomber command passed on the report. Though the report “demoted” Ashigara to a CL, it was otherwise accurate.1 When Kinkaid received it at 1435, he may have assumed it was an erroneous report of Nishimura’s force being sighted again, as a follow-up message reported the heavies as battleships. Actually, the B-24 had apparently gone on to sight Nishimura’s force, and mistakenly thought it the same as the first contact.

 

7 “Make all ready for night battle.”

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That afternoon at the northern end of Nishimura and Shima’s mutual destination, Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, commanding TF 77.2 of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet, received at 1513 an important message from his superior, Kinkaid himself. Sent at 1443, it announced: “Jap force estimated at two battleships, four CAs, four CLs, and ten DDs reported under attack in eastern Sulu Sea by our carrier planes. Japs able to arrive Leyte Gulf tonight. Make all ready for night battle. Your force to be reinforced by Admiral Berkey’s TG. Motor torpedo boats in maximum number to be stationed in lower Surigao Strait and to stay south of 10 dg 10 north latitude during darkness.”1

The estimate was quite erroneous. After midnight on October 23, Kinkaid received an intelligence report that indicated two Japanese surface forces were operating in Palawan Passage. Of these, the second appeared to be a convoy. Evaluations of these put into the heads of Kinkaid and his subordinate, Admiral Oldendorf, the idea that Third Section was some manner of guard for a “Tokyo Express” trooping run.

 

8 “A most tragic dispatch.”

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At 1830 Nishimura’s small fleet was in position 08-56′N, 123-37′E in the Mindanao Sea. The sun was sinking toward the western horizon and seeming to gain speed when Mogami, accompanied by the destroyers of Desdiv 4, swung away from Nishimura and increased speed for their planned reconnaissance-in-force. Having concluded their exercises earlier, they headed resolutely toward the west coast of Panaon Island. Ten minutes prior, Mogami’s Jake piloted by Gizo Kasuya had arrived and by message drop informed the fleet of the latest intelligence. He then remained overhead.1

Behind them, flagship Yamashiro, followed by Fuso, turned northeast to skirt the coast of Bohol Island. Nishimura was avoiding the mid-channel area in part to avoid the falsely reported enemy submarines but also to create an advantage of making position fixes from land easier. Like iron mountains the battlewagons plowed steadily on into the gathering dusk at a steady 18 knots with only a single DD left to guard them. This brought no worries. Except against submarines and air attack, battleships usually could protect themselves. Their lone guardian Shigure had a sterling fighting record; but more likely it stayed behind because Desdiv 4 was a veteran force accustomed to working together, and someone had to stay with the heavies.

 

9 “Take out the searchlight!”

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Tensely awaiting Third Section were thirteen triads of PT boat sections drifting silently in the dark. Their crews peered out for the first sign of the enemy—a fleeting blip on radar, or a bow wave or darker silhouette against the night darkness. The night of October 24–25 was at first clear but would considerably worsen after the moon went down in the first few minutes past midnight. Though the water was calm with few swells, occasional rain squalls could quickly turn it into a rippling soup of mist and dark. The gently idling engines could just be heard over the rocking and slapping of the water against their hulls. After the moon was gone, the sky was pitch-dark and the horizon sometimes hard to discern. Sharp strobings of intermittent sheet lightning and thunder over the Leyte mountains added a macabre touch to the air of expectancy. The first pair of three idled as far out in the Mindanao Sea southeast of Bohol island. The third group hovered off Limasawa island, where Mogami was currently headed. Five more sections waited to pounce at the southern entrance of Surigao Strait, and the last five stood by within Surigao proper.

 

10 “He wished them to know he was penetrating alone.”

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Astern, Shima was indeed closing. 2YB was driving forward at 22 knots on course 60 degrees in No. 4 approach formation as they headed for the southern entrance of Surigao Strait. Watching through the darkness outside Nachi’s bridge, Shima paced thoughtfully. At sixty-one minutes past midnight he dictated a detailed radio dispatch to be transmitted to all commands.

In it, Shima announced that 2YB would penetrate the southern entrance of Surigao Strait at 0300, then (after advancing up the strait) would pass Dulag and make his attack on Tacloban anchorage by means of a wide clockwise sweep. During this loop, 2YB’s guns and torpedoes would be fired to “annihilate the enemy” shipping there. Assuming he survived, Shima’s force would head back the way they had come, exiting south through Surigao Strait in such a way as to reach its southern exit by 0900 October 25. By that time, 2YB should have fuel remaining for two days at 18 knots.1

The importance of this signal is easy to overlook, but it provides a critical window into Vice Admiral Shima’s otherwise vague intentions. The dispatch indicates Shima had no plan to seek to closely cooperate with either Nishimura or Kurita. Recall that Nishimura’s plans called for Third Section to arrive and engage the enemy off Dulag beachhead at 0400; at this time Shima would only be two-thirds up Surigao Strait. Recall that Nishimura had been ordered that—if he survived—he was to meet Kurita off Suluan island at 0900. Yet Shima’s plan called for his fleet to withdraw back through Surigao Strait after attacking the anchorages. In fact 2YB would be exiting at the exact moment Nishimura supposedly would be rejoining Kurita for 1YB’s attack on the anchorage—this despite the fact Shima knew Kurita’s schedule and conceivably could follow Nishimura to the Suluan rendezvous point.

 

11 “Just scored a big flare on 1 of them!”

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While Sections 6, 9, and 8 of the PTs were attacking, Oldendorf had been tracking Force C and plotting its advance as best he could from the jumbled reports of the PT skippers. Now his first echelon of DDs was moving down-strait on both sides to launch the first attack. This was Captain Jesse G. Coward’s Desron 54. Its five ships were divided in two flanking groups: on the west were McDermut and Monssen, with Coward’s flagship, Remey, leading McGowan and Melvin on the east.

Captain Coward increased speed to 25 knots as the opposing forces closed rapidly almost head-on. The pips on radar gradually separated until at least seven were visible on the screens. At 0258—the same moment the Japanese were visually sighted—the Eastern group was suddenly illuminated by an enemy searchlight. It stayed on for about ten seconds; Coward immediately assigned targets and increased speed to 30 knots.

At nearly exactly 0300 the three DDs commenced firing twenty-seven torpedoes, range about 11,500 yards, barely inside the intermediate setting used. The moment the fish were away Coward swung hard left and made smoke to retire northeast along the Dinagat coast. None too soon. One of Remey’s tubes made a powder flash, and Japanese searchlights snaked out. Starshells burst abruptly overhead. Heavy gunfire began falling. Splashes were drenching the decks, and Eastern Group stepped up to 33 knots. At 0309, when the torpedoes should have reached their targets, two explosions were seen and three to five heard. Coward’s DDs had suffered no hits, and never used their own guns.1

 

12 “You are to proceed independently and attack all ships!”

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While Fuso was reaching a crisis and Nishimura was attempting to re-form his force after the second torpedo attack, to the south Shima’s 2YB had entered the strait. He was closing the gap between the two Japanese forces rapidly. However, the 2YB had suffered its own set of problems, and was also contending with torpedo attacks.

The first misfortune had come at 0235 when the fleet had “entered a severe squall. Visibility extremely limited.” Even so, Nachi increased speed to 26 knots for the transit of Surigao Strait as planned. Combat alert was ordered and preparations made for maximum battle speed on-notice. Meanwhile the voice-radio was alive with Japanese voices, bursting out with warnings of enemy ships sighted and torpedo tracks approaching. It was all very unnerving, and at 0308 Shima grabbed the phone and anxiously called Nishimura to “Notify situation!” Ominous silence was the only answer. Shima looked outside the windows, trying to pierce the darkness and rain with his mind.1

 

13 “At 0345 observed battleship burning.”

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While Buchanan’s Attack Group 2.2 had been throwing torpedoes at Shigure and Yamashiro, McManes’s Attack Group 1.2 had been closing also but at slightly slower rate, resulting in a delay of nearly five minutes. Though this negated a coordinated attack, McManes had decided to overshoot Nishimura’s advance, and to actually reverse course astern of the Japanese to come up from behind. He had even given orders to prepare for launching to starboard, for by that time Hutchins, Daly, and Bache would be headed back north with Nishimura on their right hand.

Japanese starshells were bursting in the night ahead but so far had fallen considerably wide of the mark. Then at 0326 a bright greenish flare, obviously dropped by a plane, burst broad on his starboard bow, adding its light to Nishimura’s starshells, and clearly illuminated the speeding Daly just behind McManes’s ship. A quick glance at the radar showed he was abeam of the main group of enemy ships. His intention had been to head a bit further south to cut off any Japanese retirement, but at the most, only one ship seemed to be possibly doing so, and this precaution became unnecessary. At 0327 he changed course sharply to due east, steaming straight at Nishimura’s broadside.

 

14 “This has to be quick. Standby your torpedoes.”

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Aboard the battleships and cruisers Oldendorf’s officers had spent the last twenty minutes keyed up in almost unbearable tension as the Japanese fleet came steadily closer and the moment their leveled big guns would fire drew near. Though the range was still extremely far, eyes were already straining for hint of the approaching enemy to the south. Suddenly at 0312 a distant searchlight beam stabbed out and wavered around, as Yamashiro probed the darkness with its main lights. To Oldendorf, it reminded him of a “walking stick of a blind man being waved through the night, though what it touched we could not see.”1

Oldendorf was watching from Louisville’s flag bridge, standing in tense anticipation in the hot night with little breeze. The probing searchlight on the southern horizon winked out, and almost at the same moment Oldendorf began to get the first rush of reports from his DDs of their torpedo attack. At 0319 there came a sudden bright flash that even at this distance was clearly visible, as some ship exploded. There could be little doubting that a vessel had suffered catastrophe. Oldendorf and the others could only hope it wasn’t American.

 

15 “An awfully gruesome sound, which passed from left to right.”

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At 0351, when the Allied cruisers opened fire, with Battle Line joining in two minutes later, Nishimura’s column was attempting to re-form with renewed hope. Yamashiro was heading north at 12 knots awaiting word from Nachi and Fuso about their respective situations. Some 10 miles astern, Shima’s 2YB was rushing north at 28 knots.

From Mogami the opening appeared as distant flashes like light rows of a switchboard “turning on one after another in a dark room,” then the whistling of incoming shells—“an awfully gruesome sound, which passed from left to right . . . a towering wall of white water suddenly appeared in the darkness” two hundred to three hundred meters to starboard.1 On Shigure Nishino and his officers saw the sky ahead begin to light up, correctly noticing “the first gunfire flashing in from the direction of Hibuson Island on the right.” Shigure was immediately buffeted by near-misses, and tall columns of water began to sprout around the great bulk of Yamashiro. Shigure continued to steam ahead, and began making smoke to confuse the enemy. Nishino realized this was going to be difficult, as it was obvious the Americans were firing by radar. Adding to the macabre menace of it all, no enemy vessels, or even their muzzle flashes themselves, could be seen in the darkness—only the deadly tracers of their incoming shellfire.2

 

16 “We proceed till totally annihilated.”

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Just as Yamashiro completed its right-angle turn, Battle Line also made a major alteration of course for the same reason—to improve fire arcs. At 0401 Oldendorf had opted to radio Weyler and suggest he reverse course, turn the battleships about, and head back due west. Battle Line’s fire was starting to overlap the left flank cruisers to their south, and with the heavies on course 120 still, they were also converging on Oldendorf’s eastward track.

Weyler concurred, ordering his battlewagons to “Turn One Five” to starboard. In other words, to make a further turn right of 150 degrees, which, from course 120, would bring them to due west as ordered. The choice of wording on how to come round to due west was potentially confusing and singularly unfortunate. In hindsight, it might have been better to have given an unambiguous order like “come to 270” and require acknowledgment from all six ships. Weyler further miscalculated by failing to request confirmation from each of his six battleships. Disaster was in the making.1

 

17 “We have arrived at battle site.”

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Since turning up-strait at 0338—leaving crippled Abukuma behind—the Second Striking Force had been engaged in an approach that was equal parts bold and macabre, driving through the dark at the breakneck speed of 28 knots. The moon had gone down, and the ships encountered both squalls and odd banks of smoke. Since 0343 gunfire and ships on fire ahead had been visible; particularly macabre was the fact that for some minutes lookouts on Nachi had seen a large fire engulfing one of the ships involved. That fire spread and for a short time illuminated the whole strait. It looked like “a bright red burning object, just like a piece of glowing metal, taken from the furnace.” Some reported that they had “sighted a collapsing pagoda” within that ball of fire. (It is very likely they were observing Fuso’s final moment and the fire that broke out as it sank.)1

Intermittent smoke screens drifted like thick gray patches of low clouds over dark smooth waters, reducing visibility. The scene was eerie; flashes of friendly (green) and red (enemy) gunfire tracers could be seen far ahead. Nearer, what looked like a huge bonfire burned in the middle of the strait. Perhaps doubting he would have means to communicate much longer, at 0405 Shima sent radio dispatch to all commands, announcing, “We have arrived at battle site.”2

 

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