On 24 October 1944, Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s Task Force 77.2, the 7th Fleet Support Force, i.e “MacArthur’s Navy”, fired its last few high explosive shells at Japanese positions on Leyte and then steamed south. A sharp eyed observer on a PBY flying boat spotted Japanese battleships in the Sulu Sea off the Philippine island of Negros. The only place Admiral Nishimura could enter the Leyte Gulf was the Surigao Strait, and Oldendorf planned on meeting him there.
Oldendorf’s battleships were, no pun intended, old. They were all commissioned during the First World War and they were the backbone of the US Navy prior to World War Two. They were the centerpiece of War Plan Orange, America’s interwar contingency plan in case of hostilities with Japan. War Plan Orange was scrapped after Pearl Harbor because the Japanese targeted these battleships to deadly effect: The West Virginia and California were sunk, and the Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania were badly damaged. Only the Wisconsin escaped damage that day. For the next six months, maintenance, recovery, and salvage crews worked frantically to get them battle ready as the carriers held the line at Coral Sea and Midway. Once America counterattacked, the carriers were now the premier platform of sea power, but the big, slow, resurrected battleships of Battleship Row found their place again: this time as mobile fire support platforms.
Oldendorf’s battleships shelled every island the marines or soldiers landed on for the last two years, from Guadalcanal to Leyte. But they had never fired their armored piercing shells in anger. In the early morning of 25 October 1944, they would.
At 0200, Nishimura’s Southern Force of two battleships, six cruisers and ten destroyers slipped into the confined waters of the Surigao Strait. For the next two hours, 32 American PT boats harassed the formation causing much confusion. Then, in a prelude to what would happen the next day, Oldendorf’s destroyers made torpedo runs that disoriented the Japanese formation and destroyed the battleship Fuso. The Fuso didn’t sink… but she broke in half and the two pieces floated around the strait for two days, burning. When Nishimura exited the Surigao Strait into the Leyte Gulf, Oldendorf and his old battlewagons were waiting. Nishimura’s “T” was crossed in a fashion that would have made Lord Nelson proud. Oldendorf’s six battleships and four cruisers pummeled Nishimura’s remaining ships. None escaped. It was the last time in history battleships would fire their guns at another ship. It was the end of an era.
Just west of the San Bernardino Strait off the island of Samar, Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague’s Task Force 77.4 Escort Carrier Group prepared for another day in support of the soldiers and guerrillas fighting the Japanese on Leyte. On the USS Gambier Bay, the USS St Lo and the four other small escort carriers of Rear Admiral Ziggy Sprague’s (No relation) Task Force 77.4.3, “Taffy 3”, the crews readied their aircraft for close air support of MacArthur: attaching rockets, napalm canisters, fragmentation bombs, and even some canisters filled with leaflets that a PSYOP officer needed dropped. The crews of the USS Hoel, USS Johnston, USS Samuel B Roberts, and Sprague’s other destroyers and destroyer escorts huddled around their radios listening to “The Big Game” going on between the battleships.
It seemed the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf was over. It was time to get on with MacArthur’s land Battle of Leyte. Taffy 3’s escort carriers launched their first close air support missions at dawn.
Thirty miles to the west, Adm Kurita’s massive Center Force of four battleships, eight cruisers and eleven destroyers slipped unimpeded through the San Bernardino Strait separating the big island of Luzon and the island of Samar. As Adm Kurita looked east into the rising sun, he thought he saw Halsey’s six fleet carriers, three battleships and four cruisers of TF 38. He actually saw the six jeep carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts of Ziggy Sprague’s Taffy 3.
Kurita immediately ordered the mighty Yamato, and the rest of the Center Force, to attack.