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17 “We have arrived at battle site.”

Anthony P. Tully Indiana University Press ePub

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

Anthony P. Tully Indiana University Press ePub

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

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

Anthony P. Tully Indiana University Press ePub

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

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

Anthony P. Tully Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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2 “Bah. We will do our best.”

Anthony P. Tully Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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