United States Army General Douglas MacArthur had fought a hard campaign up the back of New Guinea, only to see his greatest successes eclipsed in the press by the invasions in the central Pacific and Europe. Privately, he was considering a run for United States President against Roosevelt, and he did not get along with United States Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz. The reconquest of the Philippines would shore up his wounded prestige.
He had waited for three years to make good on his promise to return to the Philippines. He now commanded a force that could do the job and that was growing in strength every day. After the defeat of the Marianas, the Japanese were concentrating their strength on the Philippines. The battle would be one of the most intense of the war, and would begin with the main fleet engagement both sides had looked for since the start of the war.
When it was over, a cloud would hang over one of America’s naval heroes, the Japanese would come within yards of winning the strategic objective, and the United States Navy would destroy the backbone of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Never again would surface units deploy in great numbers. After Leyte Gulf the largest fleet units would be reserved as suicide attacks for the coming invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.
But a determined Japanese force, using the “Go” Plan, would send three different fleets to attack the transports supporting the landing and destroy the United States Navy. The plan called for the remnants of the once great carrier forces under Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, depleted of aircraft, to act as decoys for two battleship forces, which would come from Singapore and sink the American transports while the American screening force would go after the Japanese carriers. Included in the Fleet from Singapore were the eighteen-inch (457 mm) guns of the Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built. Admiral Ozawa’s force included the veteran Zuikaku; he had only ninety planes for his four carriers. A second battleship group would come through the Surigao Straight to attack the Americans, while the main force -including Musashi and Yamato — would attack Leyte Gulf.
What the Japanese did not know was that their codes were still being read by United States Navy intelligence. The entire plan was made available to the American commanders, who knew that Ozawa’s decoy force was just that and the other forces would concentrate on the transports. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey knew that Ozawa was the carrier force, but may not have known that battleships would try to attack the landing ships in Leyte Gulf while he was chasing the carriers.
Which makes Halsey’s actions that much more glaring. On October 20, 1944, MacArthur landed in the Philippines. On October 23 two United States Submarines spotted the Japanese Decoy Fleet and sank a carrier. The few aircraft from Ozawa’s force announced themselves with an air attack, sinking the USS Princeton, a light carrier. On October 25, the second unit entered the Sibuyan Sea and was met by Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid commanding the veterans of Pearl Harbor raised from the mud as Seventh Fleet. In a classic example of night fighting, scores of torpedoes from PT boats and destroyers and shells from the battleships slammed into the Japanese force, sinking everything but a destroyer. The Americans’ slow old battleships, with new radar, had outfought the slow old battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. But the Americans were now low on ammunition and remained in place, not falling back to protect the transports.
Halsey withdrew the next day to the north after Ozawa, thinking that Kinkaid’s battleships were covering the transports. Halsey knew that Ozawa was the decoy force, and he knew that another more powerful surface fleet was coming from Japan. Nevertheless, without consulting Kinkaid, who was were he was supposed to be, Halsey tore after the Decoy Force, anxious to sink the Japanese carriers with 16″ shells from his flagship, USS New Jersey.
That afternoon, the transports were at anchor on Leyte, with just escort carriers, light carriers built on transport hulls, to screen them. The shock of seeing the tall “pagoda” masts of four battleships, eight cruisers, and thirteen destroyers led the Americans into a desperate tactic. Making smoke, the escort carriers and their destroyers attacked the much larger ships, firing torpedoes. Kamikazes, suicide planes, made their debut, crashing into and sinking the USS St. Lo. Other escort carriers were hit, and three destroyers were sunk. Nimitz, in Hawaii, sent Halsey the question, “Where is the Third Fleet?” to which Halsey’s radioman accidentally added part of the dummy code used to confuse Japanese radio listening posts — “the world wonders.” This embarrassed and infuriated Halsey, who turned around at raced for Leyte Gulf.
Confused by the smoke and under severe air attack, the Japanese Fleet withdrew. With just six capital ships left, the Imperial Japanese Navy would never again take to sea in significant numbers. Halsey was embarrassed, but soon recovered and went on to higher glory as the naval equivalent of United States Army General George S. Patton.