As the World War II generation slips away from us, part of the reason I write these great battles series (and am grateful to Ben Shapiro, et. al. for giving them a public platform) is to remind us of our past and the incredible sacrifices and bravery of those on whose shoulders we stand. In mortal combat the essence of the human condition is at its most acute and focused, allowing us to see in clear terms both the best and worst in us.
And so it was at The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, 1944. This action fought on the high seas during the height of World War II in the Pacific Theater was by many measures the largest naval battle in history. What better way to honor the over 200,000 seamen and fliers who participated in this fight, then to re-tell the tale? As with all my historical pieces, I find myself wading through mountains of data, anecdotes, timelines, etc., many of which are contradictory as is the fog of history. So if any readers wish to offer commentary or correct my assertions with supporting evidence I not only welcome it but encourage it. I am the writer in these series, but you, the readers, are as much a part of this collective exercise as I am.
“It’s Like The Fourth Of July!”
At 12:16 am (0016) on October 23, 1944, a blip appeared on the radar screen of the U.S. submarine Darter,which was cruising on the surface in the eastern extreme of the South China Sea. It echoed back a large signature and was located nearing the southern approach to the Palawan Passage off the Philippines. At first it appeared to be one of those tropical squalls that could suddenly erupt over these warm, shark-infested waters of the Pacific. But very soon it became clear to the American submariners that this was no storm. It was a fleet of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) warships. Darter’s captain, Commander David McClintock, flashed the contact report that would soon reach Admiral William “Bull” Halsey on board the far-away battleship USS New Jersey. He also radioed her nearby companion submarine, Dace, that he had a track on “fast ships” (meaning enemy warships, rather than “maru” which meant enemy merchant vessels). Both McClintock and Dace’s skipper, Cmdr. Bladen Claggett, plotted a course to intercept the enemy flotilla at maximum speed. Dace’s Lt. Cmdr. Rafael Benitez would remember the radar scope offering “a beautiful picture of many ships…we knew this was no ordinary convoy.”
Benitez was right. What the two submarines closed in on was one of the most menacing surface fleets assembled during the war. And it was headed straight for the jumble of landing craft, transports and disembarking soldiers, tanks, jeeps, artillery, and all manner of war materiel gathered in Leyte Gulf to support General Douglas MacArthur’s long-anticipated landings on the Philippines. On October 20, 1944 over 400 transports escorted by some 150 warships began landing the U.S. Sixth Army onto the beaches of Leyte Island in the center of the archipelago. Bearing down on them were two Japanese armadas whose mission was to break through to the beaches and inflict unimaginable destruction upon the unsuspecting Americans…possibly even throwing the enemy back into the sea.
Intelligence knew that an enemy surface fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo had slipped out of Lingga Roads on East Sumatra, but had no news of it since, despite stepped-up air patrols. That was until the two intrepid submarines flashed updates on its location in what naval historian Samuel Elliot called “the most significant reports of the Pacific War.” Kurita’s task force consisted of five battleships, 10 heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 13 destroyers. That such a powerful enemy was moving toward the beaches of Leyte meant that the Imperial Japanese Navy was throwing down the gauntlet and aiming to have a showdown battle with its old nemesis, the U.S. Pacific Fleet…one that could decide, once and for all, the outcome of the Pacific War.
Not content to merely shadow the enemy, by 0500 on October 23, the two U.S. submarines had positioned themselves each to one side of Kurita’s two columns some 20,000 yards away and submerged. A half hour later, a series of violent explosions rocked the Japanese admiral’s flagship, the cruiser Atago, as four torpedoes fired by Darter slammed into her side. Atago went down by the bow in just thirteen minutes, taking 360 officers and sailors with her. Kurita, jumping into the water, would be fished out of the oily sea and eventually establish his flag on the gigantic battleship Yamato. McClintock’s sub then fired another spread of torpedoes that blasted the heavy cruiser Takao, blowing off her rudders and two propellers. She stayed afloat and limped back to Brunei at five knots, out of whatever coming engagement she’d been slated to join.
On board Dace, Cdr. Clagget peered through his periscope and declared, “It looks like the Fourth of July out there!” Soon enough he had the heavy cruiser Maya in his own sights and fired a spread of six fish at the unsuspecting vessel. The Japanese warship was hit by four of her torpedoes, each with a 600-pound warhead. She lurched out of the water, came apart, and sank in minutes. Japanese Rear Adm. Ugaki Matome on board Yamato would remember grimly: “After the smoke and spray disappeared nothing of her remained to be seen.”
For the American submariners, the attack had been extraordinarily successful. For the Imperial Japanese Navy, it was an inauspicious beginning to Operation Sho-Go—the final all-in battle to turn the tide of the war and halt the relentless Allied march toward the home islands. The Philippines provided the ideal theater to make their play. And the naval battle that it would unleash would be, by many measures, the largest naval battle in history.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf would in many ways mark the pinnacle of the long progression of naval warfare, from the days when Greek triremes dispatched the Persian fleet at Salamis, through Lepanto, Trafalgar, and Jutland just 28 years before. But unlike those famed battles, Leyte Gulf not only was fought over a vast area of ocean inconceivable to Themistocles or Nelson, but encompassed every manner of weapon at the combatants’ disposal, making this the most complete three-dimensional fight in history. Speedy PT boats and escort destroyers charged to attack at point-blank range with torpedoes and small-bore guns while from miles away some of the largest battleships ever put to sea fired devastating broadsides from massive batteries in an old-fashioned naval line action that will never be seen again. Aircraft carriers and land-based aerodromes hurled clouds of warplanes at the opposing fleets. Submarines lurked below the surface like sharks stealthily hunting unsuspecting prey. The fight would also see the first coordinated deployment of the most serious threat to the U.S. Navy in the war—the Kamikaze suicide plane. All the while, Japanese and U.S. Infantrymen grimly slugged it out in the thick jungles and forbidding ridges of the island as their fates were decided by two naval behemoths in a fight to the death just over the horizon. Land, sea, air, underwater. Leyte was, in many ways, the ultimate battle.
Like so many of history’s greatest and most consequential military engagements, the outcome would be decided by strange twists of fate, unexpected displays of incredible bravery, critical decisions at critical moments made by the high command of both sides, and the fighting skill and tenacity of the sailors and airmen who flung themselves into the melee as if the final verdict of the Pacific War was balancing on a knife’s edge…which it was. And like so much of the history of this country, and the enemies she has met on the field of battle, it’s a great story, complete with episodes so unbelievable as to seem fanciful. Yet they really happened. This is the story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest and most complex seaborn action in history. And the battle that secured the Allied victory in the Pacific.
Brad Schaeffer is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place.