From October 23–26, 1944, the Japanese navy unsuccessfully went up against the American navy off the coast of the Philippines in one of the largest naval battles in history. The Japanese loss at Leyte Gulf effectively finished off their navy and gave the Americans unchallenged dominance in the Pacific for the rest of World War II.
The Philippines were crucial to the Japanese war effort in Southeast Asia. So when Douglas MacArthur‘s troops invaded the Philippine island of Leyte in mid-October 1944, the Japanese sent their dwindling navy—with its now limited air power—to attack the American ships of the Third and Seventh fleets off the east shore of the island, hoping to cut off support to MacArthur’s invasion force. The Japanese planned to send a northern decoy force to draw away Bull Halsey‘s Third Fleet, while a central force (sailing through the San Bernardino Strait) and a southern force (sailing through the Surigao Strait) would cut through the Philippines to attack Thomas Kinkaid‘s Seventh Fleet simultaneously from north and south.
However, very few things went according to plan for the Japanese. The central force was discovered and attacked by American submarines on October 23 and then later pounded by American naval air power on October 24 while still in the Sibuyan Sea, causing the central force to temporarily turn around. However, because the Americans assumed the central force had permanently withdrawn, the Japanese force was eventually able to double back and continue its journey through the San Bernardino Strait unobserved.
Meanwhile, the southern Japanese force met its destruction on the night of the 24th–25th, when it attempted to pass through the Surigao Strait. Alerted to the presence of the Japanese in the strait, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf was able to deploy his ships perpendicular to the oncoming Japanese vessels and “cross the T,” allowing his ships to fire full broadsides, while the Japanese were only able to use their forward guns.
When the central Japanese force exited the San Bernardino Strait on the 25th, it discovered that the plan to draw Halsey’s Third Fleet away had been successful during the night, and it appeared that the Japanese would be able to attack the Seventh Fleet from the north without much trouble. But they soon encountered Taffy 3, the Seventh Fleet’s northernmost escort carrier group. Although it initially seemed that the small American task force stood no chance, the ships and planes of Taffy 3 (eventually aided by Taffy 2) surprised the Japanese with the pugnacity of their attacks, and the Japanese unexpectedly withdrew.
Overall, the casualties for the battle were high, though Japanese casualties far outnumbered the Americans’: 10,000 Japanese casualties versus 3,000 American. The Japanese also lost more ships than the Americans, spelling the end of effective Japanese naval power during the war. The battle was also significant for the use of a new Japanese tactic: kamikaze attacks—which would prove a significant challenge to American naval forces in the Pacific going forward.
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