The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Conclusion

St. Lo exploded after a kamikaze attacks.
Photo Credit: US Navy – http://www.navsource.org/archives/03/063.htm

A significant epilogue to the Battle of Leyte Gulf came on Oct. 25, the day when the Japanese assaulted the Seventh Fleet with a new weapon – Kamikaze suicide pilots made up entirely of volunteers led by Lieutenant Yukio Seki. Kamikaze which means “divine wind” was the name chosen by Captain Inoguchi for the new suicide unit.

While sea fighting had been raging all around the Philippines since the early morning of Oct. 25, a message from First Air Fleet headquarters urged the kamikaze units organized by Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi to attack without waiting, until contact with the enemy had been established: there were so many American naval groups at sea that it should be possible to discover at least one of them.

Six planes from the Yamato unit took off from Cebu at sunrise and headed eastward. Their search for the enemy was not long. At 7:35 they reported contact with an American naval force that included several carriers. It was Taffy 1 under the command of Rear Adm. Thomas L. Sprague. At 7:40 when the Japanese planes were sighted, they were already very close, having taken advantage of heavy cloud cover to make their approach.

One of the Zeros dived at the carrier Santee (CVE-29) with its gun blazing. There was a blinding flash when it struck the forward end of the flight deck. Fire broke out immediately and spread to the hangar deck. While the crew of the Santee were struggling against the fire on board, another kamikaze plane emerged from the clouds and dived. By now the gunners on the American ships had been firing. It seemed to have chosen the Sangamon (CVE-26) as his target, but the nearby Suwanee (CVE-27) scored a hit and the plane went into a spin. After another hit, it fell into the sea. When the third kamikaze swooped down toward its prey, the gunners of the Petrof Bay (CVE-80) made a direct hit on it and it fell into the water.

The fire aboard the Santee was quickly brought under control but 16 men had been killed and 27 wounded. Although flight operations were temporarily impossible, the Santee was able to remain in formation. As for the Suwanee, its damage was less serious.

At 7:25 on the morning of Oct. 25, another kamikaze group from the Shikishima Unit led by Lt. Yukio Seki, left Mabalacat to attack some American ships that had been reported east of the airfield. At 10:40 Seki radioed that he had spotted four carriers and six destroyers 90 miles east of Tacloban. The formation he had found was Taffy 3, commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague.

The first Zero headed for Kitkun Bay (CVE-71) approaching from starboard. It was about to crash into the ship when it was deflected by a shellburst. The plane plunged into the sea but the wing struck the island. The impact made its bomb fall out creating explosion that caused great damage. Two Zeros diving at Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) were shot down almost simultaneously. Two others dived at the White Plains (CVE-66) but the intense antiaircraft fire discouraged one of them and trailing black smoke, it changed course and headed for the escort carrier St. Lo (CVE-63) which had been named the Midway while serving off Saipan.

The sky was filled with smoke from bursting shells, burning ships and planes, and the stacks of all the ships in the formation, whose engines were racing at full speed. Under these conditions, the gunners were able to fire only a few rounds at the attacking Zero. It dived so fast and with an enormous explosion, the kamikaze crashed through the flight deck and spewed burning gasoline over the hangar deck below. Other internal explosions followed and since everything on board had ceased to function, Captain MacKenna gave the order to abandon ship. At 11:25, not long after the evacuation of the crew had been completed, the St. Lo sank.

All of these attacks happened simultaneously or nearly so. The companion of the plane that struck the St. Lo continued diving at the White Plains but was hit several times by antiaircraft fire. At 11:10 a group of planes approached the Kitkun Bay from astern. Two of them dived: one at the Kitkun Bay, the other at the Kalinin Bay (CVE-68). The crew of the Kalinin Bay were stunned by the nature and suddenness of the attack. Some of them were staring at the gaping hole in the deck when a spotter reported three more attackers. The first one was deflected by a direct hit. The other two planes narrowly missed their target and crashed into the sea. The fire aboard the Kalinin Bay was put out and the ship was saved.

By 11:30 the sky was clear of planes. American sailors had undergone occasional suicide attacks since the beginning of the war but on Oct. 25, they realized something had changed. It was the war’s first successful kamikaze attack. The crashing tactics of this group of suicidal aviators became the United States Navy’s greatest fear for the remainder of the war. Admiral Onishi had transformed the First Air Fleet, lately of Tinian, into a fearsome new weapon.

In conclusion, in spite of the controversy surrounding Halsey’s actions, this naval battle assured the ultimate defeat for Japan. Admiral King and MacArthur was not among Halsey’s critics. MacArthur later commented that “the near disaster can be placed squarely at the door of Washington. In the naval action, two key American commanders were independent of each other, one under me, and the other under Admiral Nimitz 5,000 miles away, both operating in the same waters and in the same battle.”

Captain Ernest Evans who charged his tiny destroyer (which weighed less than a single gun turret of the Japanese Super-Battleship Yamoto) into the teeth of the onrushing Japanese Battle Fleet, made up of over 20 Battleships, Heavy Cruisers, Light Cruisers and Destroyers, in a brave attempt to buy time for the American aircraft carriers which he was charged with defending. The three-hour daylight surface battle on the morning of Oct. 25 was one of the most remarkable battles in naval warfare. Evans was awarded Medal of Honor posthumously for his valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle beyond the call of duty.

With Kurita’s departure, the battle ended. During the next few days, ships from the 7th Fleet scoured the seas off the coast of Samar looking for lost sailors and downed pilots. With the sinking of the Johnston alone, an estimated 270 officers and men had to cling to life rafts and bits of wreckage to prevent drowning. For more than two days and nights, they swam in shark-infested waters before being saved. By then only 141 from the Johnston managed to survive.

A decisive World War II air and sea battle of Oct. 23-26, 1944, which crippled the Japanese Combined Fleet, permitted U.S. invasion of the Philippines, and fave the Allies control of the Pacific. The Sho Plan had failed to destroy the American fleet but even failed to attain the essential goal of the Sho Plan: to stall the American invasion of the Philippines. In their efforts to hide the extent of the disaster from the Japanese people, the high command seized on the news of the kamikaze victories as a diversion.

There has never been, and may never again be, a war at sea on the scale of the one that climaxed at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. It should be remembered for its individual acts of heroism and defiance, but more so for the blunders and misunderstandings that are inherent in war.

The US now controlled the seas around the Philippines, and the Sixth Army was safely ashore on Leyte. It was a tremendous victory for the U.S. Navy. The Japanese Navy was shattered – knocked out of the War for good. October 25 was one of the most important turning points of the Pacific war.

Sources:

The Fleet at Flood Tide by James D. Hornfischer

The Pacific War by William B. Hopkins

Sea of Thunder by Evan Thomas

The Divine Thunder by Bernard Millot

To read the whole series, click on the links below:

The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Part 1

The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Part 2

The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Part 3

The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Part 4

The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Part 5


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