|Battle off Samar|
|Taffy 3 comes under attack|
|Carriers under attack|
|Japanese take hits|
|Seventh Fleet's calls for help|
|Criticism of Halsey|
The escort carrier USS Gambier Bay, burning from earlier gunfire damage, is bracketed by a salvo from a Japanese cruiser (faintly visible in the background, center-right) shortly before sinking during the Battle off Samar.
The overall Japanese strategy at Leyte Gulf, a plan known as Shō-Go 1, called for Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa's fleet, known as Northern Force, to lure the American Third Fleet, under Admiral William Halsey, Jr., away from the Allied landings on Leyte, using an apparently vulnerable force of carriers. The Allied landing forces, stripped of air cover, would then be attacked from the west by Japanese forces, including Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force, which sortied from Brunei. Kurita's force was built around five battleships including Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built, escorted by cruisers and destroyers.
In the lead-up to the battle, on the night of 23 October, two American submarines, USS Dace and USS Darter, detected Center Force entering the Palawan Passage. After alerting Halsey, the submarines torpedoed and sunk two cruisers, while crippling a third and forcing it to withdraw. One of the cruisers lost was the flagship of Admiral Kurita, but he was rescued and transferred his flag to Yamato. Subsequently, the US carriers of the Third Fleet launched a series of airstrikes against Kurita's forces in the Sibuyan Sea, sinking Musashi and initially forcing Kurita to retreat. Third Fleet aircraft also struck Nishimura's Southern Force, causing minor damage.
That same night, Nishimura's Southern Force of two battleships, a heavy cruiser and four destroyers was to approach from the south and coordinate with Kurita's force. But in the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Southern Force encountered a deadly trap, where it was outmatched by the 7th Fleet Support Force. It was decimated after running a gauntlet of torpedoes from 28 PT boats and 28 destroyers before coming under superior gunfire from six battleships and eight cruisers, with only one Japanese destroyer surviving. The second element of the Southern Force which lagged behind Nishimura by 40 miles, commanded by Admiral Kiyohide Shima and consisting of three cruisers and seven destroyers, suffered some damage, but did survive, only to be sunk in further engagements around Leyte.
In the Battle off Cape Engaño, Ozawa's Northern Force consisted of four aircraft carriers fielding just 108 airplanes (the normal complement of a single large fleet carrier), three light cruisers and nine destroyers. Admiral Halsey was convinced that the Northern Force was the main threat, and that the Center Force had been beaten into a retreat in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Halsey took three groups of Task Force 38, overwhelmingly stronger than the Northern Force, with five large fleet carriers and five light fleet carriers with more than six hundred aircraft, six battleships, eight cruisers, and over forty destroyers. Halsey easily dispatched what was later revealed to be a decoy of no serious threat.
As a result of Halsey's decision, the doorway was left open to Kurita's force. When Kurita initially withdrew, the Americans assumed that the Japanese force was retreating from the battle. However, Kurita turned again and made his way through the San Bernardino Strait under cover of darkness. Only light task forces equipped to attack ground troops and submarines stood in the path of battleships and cruisers intent on destroying the American landing forces.
Admiral Takeo Kurita
The brunt of the Japanese attack fell on the northernmost of the escort carrier units, Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's Task Unit 77.4.3 (usually referred to by its radio call-sign "Taffy 3"). Ill-equipped to fight large-gunned warships, Taffy 3's escort carriers attempted to escape from the Japanese force, while its destroyers, destroyer escorts, and aircraft made sustained attacks on Kurita's ships. The ordnance for the escort carriers' aircraft consisted mostly of small high-explosive bombs used in ground support missions, and depth charges used in anti-submarine work, rather than the armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes which would been more effective against heavily armored warships. Nevertheless, even when they were out of ammunition, the American aircraft continued to harass the enemy ships, making repeated mock attacks, which distracted them and disrupted their formations.
In all, two U.S. destroyers, a destroyer escort, and an escort carrier were sunk by Japanese gunfire, and another U.S. escort carrier was hit and sunk by a Kamikaze aircraft during the battle. Kurita's battleships were driven away from the engagement by torpedo attacks by American destroyers; they were unable to regroup in the chaos, while three cruisers were lost due to air attack and several other cruisers were damaged. Due to the ferocity of the defense, Kurita was convinced that he was facing a far superior force and withdrew from the battle, ending the threat to the troop transports and supply ships.
The battle was one of the last major naval engagements between U.S. and Japanese surface forces in World War II. After this, the Philippines was recaptured by the US which cut Japan off from her oil-producing colonies in Southeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Navy never again sailed to battle in such force, but returned to its bases to remain largely inactive for the rest of the war.
This battle is often depicted as one of the major "what-ifs" in World War II. If Kurita had continued the attack instead of withdrawing, it is thought possible that the U.S. could have suffered heavy losses in troops and supplies, which would have delayed their capture of the Philippines. Had Kurita's and Halsey's forces met, that would have set the stage for the long awaited "decisive battle" where both sides would have finally been able to pit their largest battleships against each other.