Battle for LEYTE GULF, a series of
engagements fought (Oct. 23-26, 1944) between Japanese and mostly U. S.
forces in the air, on the surface, and from beneath the surface of waters
surrounding the Japanese-occupied Philippine Islands, which were being
invaded by the U. S. Army. The Japanese were hampered by divided and poorly
coordinated naval forces, the Americans by lack of unified command. Vice
Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid, commander U. S. Seventh Fleet, which staged the
invasion, was responsible to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander
Southwest Pacific Area. The U. S. Third Fleet, supporting the invasion,
was commanded by Adm. William F. Halsey, who was subordinate to the Commander
in Chief Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, at Pearl Harbor. The only
command senior to both U. S. fleets was the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
When the Seventh Fleet invaded the Philippine
Island of Leyte, the Japanese set in motion a complex defense plan. Down
from Japan came the Northern Force, including four carriers. These, for
lack of trained aviators, all lost in previous actions, were mere bait.
Their function was to lure Halsey's Third Fleet away from the beachhead
and thus clear the way for the Japanese Southern and Center forces. These
were to converge on Leyte Gulf via Surigao and San Bernardino straits
and attack the Seventh Fleet.
The Center Force--5 battleships, 12 cruisers,
and 15 destroyers--while heading toward San Bernardino Strait, was attacked
on October 23 by submarines and the next day by aircraft from Halsey's
carriers. These attacks sank a battleship and two cruisers, disabled two
cruisers, and so delayed the Center Force that it failed to coordinate
with the Southern Force. The latter, intercepted in Surigao Strait before
dawn on the 25th by Seventh Fleet surface ships, was utterly routed and
Halsey, having taken the bait, was now speeding
north with all his available ships in pursuit of the Northern Force. Through
San Bernardino Strait, thus left unguarded, came the battered but still
powerful Center Force. Off Samar it attacked a small Seventh Fleet escort
carrier unit and sank one of the carriers. While the rest fled, their
accompanying destroyers and destroyer escorts turned and boldly counterattacked.
Three of the American ships went down but, together with carrier- and
land-based planes, they sank three Japanese cruisers and induced the rest
of the Center Force to break off action.
Halsey, in response to a radioed nudge from
Nimitz, toward noon divided his Third Fleet. While part continued north
after the enemy carriers, Halsey led a force including six battleships
and three carriers back south. When he arrived off San Bernardino Strait
at midnight, the Center Force had already passed back through. The next
day his aircraft sank another cruiser.
Meanwhile, the northern segment of the Third
Fleet had finished off all four bait carriers, and planes of the newly
formed Japanese Kamikaze Corps had crash-dived into five Seventh Fleet
escort carriers, sinking one. Total American losses were 1 light and 2
escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and 1 destroyer escort. The once formidable
Japanese had lost 3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, and 9 destroyers.
E. B. Potter Author of The Naval Academy Illustrated History
of the United States Navy