Musashi departing Brunei in Oct. 1944 for the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Around 08:00 on 24 October, the Center Force was spotted and attacked entering the Sibuyan Sea by VF-20 squadron Hellcat fighters, VB-20 Helldiver bombers, and VT-20 Avenger torpedo bombers from USS Enterprise of Halsey's Third Fleet. Despite its great strength, Third Fleet was not well-placed to deal with the threat. On October 22, Halsey had detached two of his carrier groups to the fleet base at Ulithi to provision and rearm. When Darter's contact report came in Halsey recalled Davison's group but allowed Vice Admiral McCain, with the strongest of Task Force 38's carrier groups, to continue towards Ulithi. Halsey finally recalled McCain on 24 October—but the delay meant that the most powerful American carrier group played little part in the coming battle, and that Third Fleet was therefore effectively deprived of nearly 40% of its air strength for most of the battle. On the morning of 24 October only three groups were available to strike Kurita's force, and the one best positioned to do so — Bogan's Task Group 38.2 — was by mischance the weakest of the groups, containing only one large carrier — the Intrepid — and two light carriers (the failure to promptly recall McCain on 23 October was also effectively to deprive Third Fleet, throughout the battle, of four of its six heavy cruisers).
Yamato hit by a bomb near her forward gun turret in the Sibuyan Sea.
Planes from carriers Intrepid and Cabot of Bogan's group attacked at about 10:30, making hits on the battleships Nagato, Yamato, Musashi and severely damaging the heavy cruiser Myōkō. A second wave from Intrepid, Essex and Lexington later attacked, with VB-15 Helldivers and VF-15 Hellcats from Essex, scoring another 10 hits on Musashi. As she withdrew, listing to port, a third wave from Enterprise and Franklin hit her with eleven bombs and eight torpedoes.
Kurita turned his fleet around to get out of range of the aircraft, passing the crippled Musashi as his force retreated. He waited until 17:15 before turning around again to head for the San Bernardino Strait—Musashi capsized and sank at about 19:30.
Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi had directed three waves of aircraft from his First Air Fleet based on Luzon against the carriers of Rear Admiral Sherman's Task Group 38.3 (whose aircraft were also being used to strike airfields in Luzon to prevent Japanese land-based air attacks on Allied shipping in Leyte Gulf). Each of Ōnishi's strike waves consisted of some fifty to sixty aircraft
USS Princeton afire, east of Luzon
USS Princeton explodes at 15:23
Most of the attacking Japanese planes were intercepted and shot down or driven off by Hellcats of Sherman's combat air patrol, most notably by two fighter sections from Essex led by Commander David McCampbell (who is credited with shooting down nine of the attacking planes in this one action). However, one Japanese aircraft (a Yokosuka D4Y Judy) slipped through the defences, and at 09:38 hit the light carrier USS Princeton with a 250 kg (550 lb) armor-piercing bomb which caused a severe fire in Princeton's hangar. Her emergency sprinkler system failed to operate, and fires spread rapidly. A series of explosions followed. The fires were gradually brought under control, but at 15:23 there was an enormous explosion (probably in the carrier's bomb stowage aft), causing more casualties aboard Princeton, and even heavier casualties — more than 300 — aboard the cruiser USS Birmingham which was coming back alongside to assist with the firefighting. Birmingham was so badly damaged that she was forced to retire. Other nearby vessels were also damaged. All efforts to save Princeton failed, and she was finally scuttled — torpedoed by the light cruiser Reno — at 17:50.
Japanese battleship Yamato in action in the Sibuyan Sea. 24 Oct. 1944.
In all US Third Fleet flew 259 sorties against Center Force, mostly by Hellcats, on 24 October. This weight of attack was not nearly sufficient to neutralize the threat from Kurita. It contrasts with the 527 sorties flown by Third Fleet against Ozawa's much weaker Northern Force on the following day. Moreover, a large proportion of the Sibuyan Sea attack was directed against just one ship, Musashi. This great battleship was sunk, and cruiser Myōkō crippled, but every other ship in Kurita's force remained battleworthy and able to advance.
As a result of the momentous decision now taken by Admiral Halsey, Kurita was able to proceed through San Bernardino Strait during the night, to make an unexpected and dramatic appearance off the coast of Samar on the following morning.