On the Ropes at Leyte Gulf

October 26, 2016–I’d intended to post yesterday but it proved too busy. Having missed the crucial day of Leyte Gulf I’ll come around anyway. There are interesting things we can still say from the standpoint of October 26, 1944, seventy-two years ago today. Some of the analysis underlying the points I’ll make here resides in my book Storm Over Leyte, in which you’ll find lots more material on a pile of related subjects.

Today would be the moment that Bull Halsey’s vaunted battleship fleet, Task Force 34, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait. A couple of its fastest warships (of the Iowa class) could have made it. But four of the six battlewagons in Task Force 34 were rated at only 28 knots and could not have made it from the position where Halsey’s fleet was located when the battleships were pulled out of their screen positions around his aircraft carriers and instructed to form up. There is an argument in history that Admiral Halsey ought to have ordered the creation of Task Force 34 the previous night, and there was some scout information to support such a decision–see Storm Over Leyte for that– but even then the American vessels could not have arrived before the Japanese fleet had retreated through the straits. As it was some U.S. cruisers and destroyers, making their best speed, arrived in time to fire at Japanese destroyers that had stayed behind to save sailors from heavy cruisers that had sunk in the battle.

Admiral Halsey’s general situation had also become problematical. His entire Third Fleet had been steaming around for days, with high speed burning up fuel. The long chase action just carried out, known to history as the Battle of Cape Engano, used up much of what was left. Halsey had no alternative for October 26, 1944, except to order his carrier fleet to refuel at sea. The high speed deployment to San Bernardino expended his battleships’ fuel in the same way.

Storm Over Leyte relates the stories of a number of Japanese vessels for the day after the great surface action. The most remarkable aspect of their experience is that most American bombers which struck that day came from the self-same jeep aircraft carriers that the Japanese fleet had shelled only twenty-four hours before. Halsey’s ships were under orders to top off their oil tanks and then use their planes to defend U.S. ground positions on the island of Leyte. It’s ironic that the Imperial Navy’s behemoth, battleship Yamato, suffered more casualties on October 26 than on the day of battle.

At 11:34 AM on October 26 the headquarters of the Combined Fleet, the Japanese naval high command, ordered heavily damaged warships to return to the Home Islands, with more moderate repairs to be made at Hong Kong or in Singapore. It marked the effective end of what had been the proudest navy in the Pacific on the day of Pearl Harbor.