This World War II clash followed the Allied landing at the Philippine island of Leyte in October 1944. The Japanese sought to converge three naval forces on Leyte Gulf, and successfully diverted the U.S. Third Fleet with a decoy. At the Surigao Strait, the U.S. Seventh Fleet destroyed one of the Japanese forces and forced a second one to withdraw. The third successfully traversed the San Bernardino Strait but also withdrew before attacking the Allied forces at Leyte. With much of its surface fleet destroyed in the battle, Japan was hamstrung in its ability to move resources from Southeast Asia to the home islands.
The aerial and naval battle conducted as Allied forces invaded the Philippines began with Leyte Island on October 20. Expecting an invasion, the Japanese fleet command ordered its forces to sea at the very first sign of Allied landings. Due to the effects of previous engagements and to Japan’s precarious fuel situation, however, the Japanese fleet was deployed in a scattered fashion: carrier forces in Japan were training new pilots; battleship units near Singapore (close to the fuel sources) and some cruiser forces, formerly in the northern Pacific, maneuvered in the wake of the Allied carrier strikes on Taiwan (October 10-12). When Japan ordered its fleet into Philippine waters, these forces had to sail separately and for the most part operated independently in the battle that followed.
Headed toward the Philippines, the naval command suggested that Admiral Kurita Takeo of the battleship unit detach an element of his fleet to enter Leyte Gulf through the Surigao Strait. He did send a force that way, which was annihilated in surface naval combat in a classic crossing of the “T” on the night of October 24-25. The cruiser element from the north tried to follow but recoiled before making contact. Japan’s aircraft carriers successfully decoyed north the U.S. Third Fleet of Admiral William F. Halsey, uncovering the San Bernardino Strait, through which Kurita’s main fleet passed after turning away momentarily under the pressure of fierce U.S. submarine and air attacks. Kurita came closest to Leyte Gulf, in the process encountering several forces of small U.S. escort carriers, which the Japanese mistook for regular fleet carriers. Aircraft, however, made more and more powerful attacks on the Japanese as time went on, at length forcing Kurita to withdraw from Philippine waters.
Leyte Gulf was decisive in that it destroyed much of the remaining Japanese surface fleet while virtually ending Japan’s ability to move resources from Southeast Asia to the home islands. Japanese losses included four aircraft carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, along with several hundred aircraft and over 10,500 sailors. Allied losses were one light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and one destroyer-escort. Despite overall failure, however, the Japanese showed that with determination they could still press home attacks against an Allied armada with huge technical and material advantages.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.