Leyte Gulf, The Largest Sea Battle Ever Fought.

by Daniel Russ on January 31, 2010

Post image for Leyte Gulf, The Largest Sea Battle Ever Fought.                                                    Imperial Japanese Navy Super Battleship Musashi


Leyte Gulf has a huge a beachhead on the Eastern shore of the Philippines. To the North lies Japan, and to the South lies Indonesia. By the middle of 1944, the Imperial Japanese Fleet was still running rampant and desperately trying to stop the United States Navy’s inexorable march northward. By this time most of the experienced Japanese pilots from the Imperial Japanese Navy were dead. They were replaced by newer recruits, some rushed to their assignments because the remaining carriers were almost empty. It is said that there were perhaps little more than 100 Japanese pilots spread over a half dozen remaining carriers. That said, the Japanese still possessed a robust surface fleet and included in it were to of the largest battleships ever built: the Musashi and the Yamato. These ships were 863 feet long, 172 feet wide, displaced 72,000 tons and carried the largest naval guns ever floated: each bore nine 18.1 inch guns.

The IJN had lost some battles and many assets that it did not have the industrial capacity to replace. The Battle of the Philippines Sea and the Battle of Midway in particular hurt the Japanese. While they were struggling to keep up, the US was building out new ships and refurbishing the Pacific fleet that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had also doubled their use of petrol in the war and had done little to secure the sources that they had. Most of their oil was coming from Indonesia and so the United States Navy decided to invade the Philippines not just to get closer to the Japanese mainland, but also to interdict the oil supply for the Japanese Navy.

The Japanese got wind of the fact that the US was planning a massive ground invasion of the Philippines in the Leyte Gulf and planned to crush the convoys with what was left of their surface fleet, the fact is there was plenty of it left. The Japanese were facing elements of 7th fleet under Rear Admiral Tom Kincaid, which would protect the landings, and Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s 3rd fleet, which would intercept the IJN.

The Navy was preparing to land several divisions of US Army infantry and armor. The IJN was parked outside of Singapore refueling when the US invasion convoys were spotted in early October 1944. The Japanese commander, Admiral Takio Kurita, decided to attack Leyte from two directions. He put a smaller force into the Sulu Sea and the larger force with both super battleships Yamato and Musashi through the Sibuyan Sea to the north. This force consisted of five battleships, seven heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and thirteen destroyers. The Southern force consisted of a carrier, and a dozen destroyers, a light cruiser and a battleship. 7th Fleet found the Southern force and struck it, but didn’t halt the attack.

Kurita moved the IJN flagship Takao and the Atamo passed the Island of Palawan days earlier and the USS Darter and the USS Dace, both USN submarines struck both battleships. Admiral Kurita was on the Takao and had to literally swim for safety. It wasn’t the last of his troubles.

A third Japanese force consisted of several heavy carriers, again lightly populated with aircraft. One was the Zuikaku, which had hit Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were trying to draw off 3rd Fleet so it could attack Leyte Gulf through the straits of San Bernadino in the Sirigao Sea. The trick worked. On October the 20th, the US Army began disembarking from the supply convoys after 7th fleet softened up the beach with a day and half of strikes by their 16-inch guns followed by aerial bombing. But Halsey wasn’t there to protect them. Halsey had turned 3rd Fleet 200 miles North to attack the decoy Japanese flotilla. Halsey had under his command the venerable USS Enterprize, and used its experienced crews well. After striking the decoy force hard, 3rd Fleet pulled him away from protecting the landings, but they did sink the Zuikaku and thus found the revenge they so wanted for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The decoy force, consisting of the largest Japanese battleships was located by Kincaid’s 3rd Fleet, which struck it immediately. The USS Intrepid and the USS Cabot sent wave after wave of Wildcat dive bombers and within 3 hours, the Musashi had been hit so many times, this massive battleship was listing to port and reduced to 15 knots maximum speed. By nightfall, it had slipped beneath the waves.

Meanwhile the attack on the IJN southern force by 7th Fleet took out a battleship and a cruiser and a carrier in the Sulu Sea and for all intents and purposes this flotilla was out of the battle.

The larger Northern force finally came within striking distance of the unprotected landings. The only elements the US had available were four escort carriers and light destroyers with nothing bigger than torpedoes and 5-inch guns. Halsey heard and began gathering all his flight elements and steamed South to protect his troops. This could have been a disaster. In a bold maneuver, the totally outgunned Navy task force protectors head out to hit the larger Japanese force. Their aggression and bravery took down two Japanese heavy cruisers, and scared the Japanese into thinking they were facing a much larger force. The Japanese Northern element, unexplainably then turned tail and headed towards Japan in the Pacific. This IJN flotilla would never fight again.

There ended the largest naval battle in history.

The Japanese lost four carriers, three battleships, ten cruisers, eleven destroyers and 14,000 men. The US Navy lost a carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and 1500 men.

Admiral Bull Halsey

Source: Cutler, Thomas (1994). The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944. Annapolis, Maryland, U.S.: Naval Institute Press



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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Corsair8x January 31, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Wildcats were fighters, although I do wonder if they would have been replaced at that point by Hellcats. I believe they were. Maybe there were some stragglers. The dive bomber I believe (at least in the case of the Intrepid) were known as Helldivers. During that fight VB-18 were on the decks of Intrepid and they flew Helldivers at the time. Helldivers from that squadron were also credited with the sinking of Musashi.

Now Cabot on the other hand was a light carrier – one of those very small carriers that could be rapidly assembled and cheaply built. I do know that Dauntless dive bombers flew from her decks. Avenger torpedo bombers as well.

Daniel Russ January 31, 2010 at 10:55 pm

The bombers I mentioned were indeed Wildcats, both fighters and also they played the role as dive bombers and sometimes torpedo bombers.

Perry Doty November 26, 2010 at 2:53 pm

North Korea sees Obama as a weak leader. That is why they (and other nations) are playing this cat and mouse game.

milty February 24, 2011 at 4:38 am

The IJN Musashi was in fact the same size as theYamato, with one important differebce.

The Musashi’s main armament was only 15″ guns as opposed to the Yamato’s 18″.

milty February 24, 2011 at 4:40 am

The Musashi was in fact the same size as the Yamato, with one important difference.

the musashi’s main armament was only 15′ as opposed to the Yamato’s 18″

Louis August 28, 2017 at 4:06 am

As I read this part of your piece: “Kurita moved the IJN flagship Takao and the Atamo passed the Island of Palawan days earlier and the USS Darter and the USS Dace, both USN submarines struck both battleships.” it looks as if the Takao and Atamo are battleships. They were not however. They had only 8-inch main guns, and were therefor known as heavy cruisers or “treaty cruisers” (to confirm to the Washington Naval Treaties). See wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_cruiser_Takao_(1930). Also it looks like you made a tyo, as the other cruiser is probably Atago, and not Atamo.
And the remark here about Musashi having 15-inch guns instead of the 18.1 inch of her sistership Yamato is, I think, not true, or at least I have not found any evidence of this.

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