Admiral Halsey’s pilot reported that four of Kurita’s battleships had been severely damaged, that nine cruisers and destroyers had been sunk or heavily damaged, and that the remains of the armada were retreating westward. Halsey assumed that the Center Force was no longer a threat. On the contrary, air attacks by Halsey’s carriers, though damaging to the Japanese fleet, were not the knockout blows reported by the pilots.
Meanwhile, Admiral Ozawa artfully coaxed Halsey to chase him. Desperate to lure the Americans, Ozawa directed his pair of ships that were half-battleship and half-carrier, the Ise and the Hyuga, to run south and find the hostile fleet. U.S. planes scouring the area finally spotted the pair around 4:00 pm on Oct. 24.
At about 5:30 pm, one spotted the carriers of Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern Force 300 miles to the north of San Bernardino Strait. Now, Halsey regarded the Northern Force as the major threat. He did not know, of course, that Ozawa’s four carriers had only a few planes left on board. Lacking that intelligence, he decided for an all-out attack with his entire armada to destroy the Japanese carriers. Leaving not even a destroyer patrol to give warning if Kurita emerged from San Bernardino Strait, Halsey ordered the Third Fleet north but failed to inform Kinkaid that the vital strait above Samar was being left unguarded. He had swallowed Ozawa’s bait.
Halsey realized that Kurita’s Center force, battered thought it was, might yet attempt to enter the gulf. Even before sighting Ozawa’s carriers, he had transmitted to his Third Fleet commanders a stand-by battle plan that set up a separate detachment of fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers to confront Kurita. This group of warships formed Task Force 34 under Vice Admiral Willis Lee. The plan was simply an alert, not an operational order for immediate action. To make sure that none of his subordinates misunderstood, Halsey called them on the short-range radio and said, “If the enemy sorties, Task Force 34 will be formed when directed by me.”
Admiral Kinkaid received a copy of the original message but not the clarifying amendment. Kinkaid assumed that Lee and Task Force 34 were being sent to guard San Bernardino Strait immediately. On the other hand, Halsey assumed that planes from Kinkaid’s escort carriers would keep an eye on the strait. Halsey also assumed that the Seventh Fleet was strong enough to defeat both the weakened Center Force and the two sections of the Southern Force. Such was the danger of divided command. MacArthur and his Seventh Fleet commander, Kinkaid, believed that Halsey’s first duty was to protect the invasion convoy and the troops ashore. But Halsey and his Third Fleet was responsible only to Nimitz, who has clearly instructed him that his “primary task” was the destruction of the enemy whenever he had the chance. San Bernardino Strait was not guarded and no one knew it.
As Halsey and his ships raced north through the night in pursuit of Ozawa’s decoy carriers, Kurita who had turned his battered but still-potent Center Force around again, was once more threading his way through the interior waterways toward San Bernardino heading for the open sea and Leyte Gulf.
Crisis in the Pacific by Gerald Astor
The Pacific War by William B. Hopkins
Return to the Philippines, WWII by Rafael Steinberg