The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Act I, The Battles of the Palawan Strait and the Sibuyan Sea

On the morning of 24 October 1944, the Japanese Operation Sho-Go I was already falling apart. The one Japanese Task Force that needed to be spotted by the Americans, Adm Ozawa’s decoy Northern Force, was the only task force that was not spotted by the Americans. Ozawa needed to lure Halsey away from the Philippines, but despite his best efforts to be detected, the Americans had no idea his four carriers were closing in from the north. (Ozawa commented later that if he had planes and trained pilots, he would have destroyed the entirety of TF 38, so ignorant the Americans were of his location.)

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the Americans knew the precise locations of both the Center and Southern Forces. On 23 October, Adm Nishimura’s Southern Force was spotted by a PBY flying boat and the Americans planned to ambush the Southern Force in the Surgiao Strait. There they would be met by Vice Adm Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships. Oldendorf’s Task Force consisted of the venerable battlewagons that were sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, and then resurrected and repaired. They were thought to be worthless for anything except pre-invasion bombardments and fire support for MacArthur’s troops. His six pre-World War Two Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Colorado class battleships sailed south to the Surigao Strait. There they would get their revenge.

Also on 23 October, two American submarines, the USS Darter and USS Dace, ambushed Adm Kurita’s Center Force that night in the Palawan Strait. They sank two heavy cruisers, including Kurita’s flagship, and damaged a third which was escorted back to Borneo by two destroyers. Kurita was pulled out of the water and transferred his flag. He was under no illusions about what was going to happen to him in the morning.

Once Kurita was spotted by the submarines and had not received any reports that the Northern Force was detected, he knew Halsey’s carriers were going to destroy him. On the morning of 24 October, when Kurita was in the Sibuyan Sea short of the San Bernardino Strait, Halsey’s fighters and dive bombers attacked. All day, wave after wave of TF 38’s planes bombed and strafed the massive Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers. In the late afternoon, the Musashi, one of the two largest battleships on the planet, was sunk after she was hit by 47 torpedoes and 500 lbs bombs. With many of his other ships damaged, Kurita turned around, accepting defeat. The Americans had “won” the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea.

Then a miracle happened for the Japanese: one of Halsey’s reconnaissance planes finally spotted Ozawa’s Northern Force. The air attacks immediately stopped. To Halsey, the Center Force was defeated and now he got to do what God placed him on this earth to do: sink Jap carriers. He made a plan to create TF 34 with TF 38’s accompanying fast North Carolina and Iowa class battleships to cover the San Bernardino Strait, but once the matador Ozawa waved his red cape, Bull Halsey charged north with everything he had, including the battleships.

Kurita, with eleven remaining destroyers, eight cruisers, and four battleships, including Musashi’s sister ship — the mighty Yamato, turned his Center Force back around and resumed his course toward the now undefended San Bernardino strait off the Philippine Island of Samar.

They would be able to engage the troop transports, supply ships, and the escorting destroyers, and small “jeep” carriers of MacArthur’s invasion fleet at dawn the next morning.

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