The battle for Leyte Gulf could very easily have turned out differently. The Japanese had designed a strategy that succeeded in pulling the bulk of U.S. naval forces away from the critical San Bernadino Strait that gave Japanese Central Force under Admiral Kurita the opportunity to thwart our landings in the Philippines.
C. Vann Woodward gives us a moment-by-moment and battle-by-battle account of what was in fact our largest naval engagement in World War II, one which finished off the Japanese Navy as an effective force. The strategy itself was a desperation move that consisted of a three-pronged approach designed to draw off the bulk of the 3rd and 7th Fleets covering the landings at Leyte Gulf. The northern and southern prongs basically sacrificed a significant portion of Japan’s naval power to buy time for Kurita to strike at Leyte Gulf.
It nearly succeeded. First, aerial attacks on Kurita’s Central Force while it was steaming through the Sibuyan sea over-estimated the damage wrought against Kurita’s force, deceiving Admiral Halsey of the Third Fleet into thinking he could take his forces north to wipe out Ozawa’s decoy force of carriers coming from the north. Ozawa’s decoy was successful at the cost of his carriers and other shipping in the Battle of Engano. Halsey compounded his error of judgment by vague communication that suggested he was leaving “Task Group 34” to cover the San Bernadino Strait when he in fact took this force with him.
This vague communication led Admiral Kinkaid to conclude that he could take his Seventh Fleet to confront the southern prong of the attack in the Surigao Strait. Because of communication and other problems Admirals Nishimura and Shima failed to coordinate and American forces were for the last time able to “cross the T” with devastating effect on Nishimura’s force. While victorious, Kinkaid has used up most of his firepower and was not in position or adequately prepared to respond to the threat that emerged from the San Bernadino Strait as Kurita’s force emerged. The only force there were poorly armed escort carriers and a screening destroyer force, seemingly no match for Kurita.
Only heroic action by the American destroyers and covering aircraft prevented the rapid destruction of the fleet. Yet all appeared lost when suddenly Kurita stopped and turned around and went back to the Sibuyan Sea. It was clear that had he pressed on, he could have won the engagement, having removed the destroyer screen and begun attacks on the carriers. From post-war interviews which Woodward includes, it appears that Kurita rationalized his decision based on the delay he had with the attacks in the Sibuyan sea, thinking he was encountering a greater force, losses to his own shipping, and the opportunity for engagement with Halsey’s returning force. In actuality, after a brief reconnaissance of the area, he turned back, having sacrificed the Japanese Navy without achieving his aim of repelling the American landings in the Philippines.
Woodward explores this mix of strategy, communications and miscommunications, and the relative strengths of each force. In the end, the outcome came down to the perception and resolution of a key leader, Admiral Kurita and the heroism of the escort carrier forces. A different outcome would still have meant catastrophic losses to the Japanese Navy and only delayed the inevitable.
Perhaps that was what was on Kurita’s mind…