The Japanese plan at Leyte Gulf was, in essence, to attack along multiple axes of advance in an effort to so confuse the Americans that the latter would leave some part of the perimeter around the invasion beaches undefended. The plan was overly complex in conception, and was clumsily executed in action. However, because of a critical U.S. mistake on October 24, it almost worked. The Center Force of Admiral Takeo Kurita, after turning back in the face of devastating air attacks on the afternoon of that day, had turned around again and now had an open path to the transports and escort carriers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. And so, the largest battleship ever built, accompanied by lethal force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers, would come face to face with a fleet of unarmored escort aircraft carriers. What happened next would shock the world.
Kurita’s force had taken a serious beating from the submarines Dace and Darter, and then from the aircraft of Halsey’s Third Fleet. But after turning around for the second time on the afternoon of October 24, Kurita still possessed a formidable surface force. This included HIJMS Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, HIJMS Nagato, one of the most powerful pre-war battleships, the battlecruisers Kongo and Haruna, eight heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers. Many of the ships had been lightly damaged during the air attacks of October 24, but all remained battleworthy. Around 5:15 pm, Kurita made the turn and headed north towards San Bernardino Strait. The ships would transit the strait under cover of darkness at around 3 am.
Halsey had intended to leave a covering force on the San Bernardino Strait that would have consisted of four battleships, five cruisers and fourteen destroyers. However, believing that Kurita had turned back and that Ozawa’s carriers were ripe for the plucking, Halsey took the entirety of the Third Fleet north. Because of an unfortunate miscommunication, Admiral Thomas Kinkaid believed that Halsey was still covering the strait. This meant that the most formidable battleships in the U.S. arsenal would not be in position to fight Kurita.
On the other side of San Bernardino Strait, Kurita’s squadron would encounter “Taffy 3,” one of three groups of escort aircraft carriers tasked with supporting the invasion. Taffy 3 consisted of six small, slow escort carriers, each carrying around twenty-eight aircraft. Three destroyers and four destroyer escorts (very small warships designed for anti-submarine warfare) protected the escort carriers.
It was, in short, an extraordinary mismatch.
Now ensued perhaps the most desperate naval battle of the entire war. In addition to having a massive material advantage, the Japanese achieved complete tactical surprise. Upon sighting the Japanese, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague turned his carriers into the wind, and began launching aircraft. The destroyers and destroyer escorts made smoke, then closed for a gun and torpedo action against the vastly superior Japanese force.
Leading the charge was the USS Johnston, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans. Johnston closed with the Japanese force at high speed, maneuvering between shell splashes. She got off a salvo of torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Kumano, inflicting damage that would eventually prove fatal. After briefly hiding behind a smokescreen, Johnston re-engaged before taking multiple hits from the Japanese battleship Kongo. Crippled, Evans nevertheless directed his ship to support a torpedo attack by the remaining destroyers and destroyer escorts. The battered Johnston then attempted to draw attention away from the fleeing carriers by firing upon a destroyer column.
Word of the attack soon reached the other Taffy groups, all of which launched their own air attacks against Kurita’s force. Although the aircraft were not specialized for anti-shipping duties (and often included older models), they nevertheless harassed Kurita’s ships mightily. The escort carriers of Taffy 3 even resorted to firing their 5” guns against the approaching Japanese vessels.
Japanese fire proved overwhelming for many of the American ships. Johnston eventually succumbed to Japanese fire, having taken many hits and expended all of her torpedoes. Commander Evans reportedly waved to survivors from the stern as the ship went down, but his body was never found. Reputedly, nearby Japanese destroyer captains saluted as the Johnston went down, a testament to the heroism of the crew. USS Hoel also sank, as did the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. Miraculously, only one of the aircraft carriers (USS Gambier Bay, taking fire directly from Yamato) was sunk during the engagement.
But Kurita lost his nerve. The attack quickly lost cohesion, in large part because of the harassing air attacks. Kurita ordered his ships to the north in order to reorganize, and purportedly received a report of American fleet carriers and battleships in that direction. He directed his reconstituted squadron away from the Taffy groups, eventually deciding to withdraw and fight another day. The battle was costly to the Japanese, with three heavy cruisers lost and numerous ships badly damaged.
Kurita fumbled away an opportunity to strike a devastating blow against the American invasion force. But his mistakes cannot detract from the extraordinary heroism of the sailors and aviators of Taffy 3, which prevented the utter destruction of the force and likely a great deal more mischief besides. The best thing that can be said of Kurita was that he managed to escape with most of his force intact, and that if he had not fled when he did the battleships of the Third Fleet might have destroyed the entire squadron.
Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.