Task Force 34's Moment of Glory:
An exploration of what might have happened

By John Pearson

On October 24 1944 at 1713 hours Admiral W. Lee, commander of the designated (but not formed) Task Force 34, received orders relative to the composition of his projected task force from Admiral Halsey. He was directed to concentrate in the area of the San Bernardino strait.

As his units were part Task Forces 38.2 & 38.4 (both fast carrier task groups), which were also directed to concentrate in that area, the order was merely a formality. Heavy Japanese fleet units (the Sho plan's Center Force, or First Striking Force) had been sighted earlier in the day, headed for the San Bernardino strait. This strategic waterway would lead the forces of the Japanese Navy right into the U.S. invasion forces off Leyte Gulf. But the Japanese had turned around, after first submarine and then air strikes had heavily damaged two heavy cruisers (forcing them to retire from the battle) and two battleships (the latter not critically), and sank two heavy cruisers and the super battleship Musashi. In addition, several destroyers had been detached from the force to assist the damaged and sinking cruisers and BB Musashi.

While the Task Force 34 assignment was merely precautionary, it had been announced as a contingency against just such an attempt by the Japanese. Orders took Task Forces 38.2 & 38.4 north at 2010 hours that same night, and the elements of Task Force 34 with it.

Just after dawn the following day the Japanese Center Force (4 BB, 6 CA, 2 CL, 10 DD remaining), which had again reversed course and transited San Bernardino Strait, fell upon elements of the U.S. escort carrier support groups in Leyte Gulf, precipitating the battle off Samar Island. 5 CVEs, 3 DDs and 3 DEs fought the Japanese so desperately that they disengaged and retreated, but not before the IJN sank 1 CVE, 2 DDs and 1 DE.

Since that day historians have continually attacked the reputation of Admiral Halsey for never actually forming Task Force 34 and leaving it to cover the invasion forces. Halsey's mistake at Leyte has been a common counter to anyone asserting Halsey was a great combat tactician. This decision not to leave a powerful surface force to block the San Bernardino Strait has become the most widely debated choice of his entire career.

Curiously, what this author has never seen discussed is what would have happened had Halsey implemented TF 34. Or, more to the point, what would have happened if the Japanese center force had actually collided with American fast battleships when it came out of the strait off Samar?

I suppose that the conventional wisdom would be that the American force would have quickly defeated the Japanese force. Or perhaps more simply, Task Force 34 would have stopped the Center Force. Well, the truth is, that isn't so certain. The battle, if it had occurred, would have been a very close run thing.

So what would have happened? Would the two combatants have actually engaged or would one have turned and fled? Who would have been surprised? It is well known that at the time that the USN had almost complete air supremacy; the Japanese were well aware of this and initiated the huge A-GO operation (of which the center force was a part) in spite of the expected air opposition.

Yet even good intelligence gets ignored. Several times during the late hours of the 24th, Allied intelligence assets spotted the Japanese in the San Bernardino Strait. More than once messages were sent to Halsey in regards to the sightings, but for whatever reason he pressed on in pursuit of the elusive Japanese carriers to the north. But one thing seems certain: if Halsey had detached Task Force 34 to block the strait, they would have met the Center Force.

In the real battle off Samar one could say that Kurita (the Japanese commander of the Center Force) became timid. He allowed those things that he thought were "going to happen" to become primary influences on what he thought was happening. And who could blame him? He had virtually no intelligence and he could only speculate on how the US commander Halsey would react to his presence.

Surely a massive US fleet was near by. It didn't seem possible that the entire offensive strike force of the US fleet had been lured away. Poor communications, no communications, the previous day's air strikes, and his lack of confidence in the plan all daunted him into believing that which was happening wasn't what it actually was. The whole point of the plan was to achieve exactly what it had in fact accomplished, but Kurita did not believe his own success.

The Japanese believed that the Americans would never divide their forces in front of their enemy, which is a military axiom, and intended to us this as the crux of their plan. Ironically, the US took the bait, at least partially. Because even though they both flew the same flag, there were really two US navies at Leyte: the Third Fleet commanded by Admiral Halsey (who reported to Admiral Nimitz), and the Seventh Fleet commanded by Admiral Kinkaid (who reported to General McArthur).

So one could say that the US had divided their forces, which allowed the decisive defeat in Surgio Strait of the Japanese Southern Force, and the pursuit of the Northern (or decoy) force. And yet neither fleet commander (Kinkaid and Halsey) had divided their forces.

But this left the opening for the third Japanese (Center) force to succeed. Which for once vindicated the Japanese penchant for laboriously complex battle plans predicated on decoy tactics. Had Halsey realized that the Northern Force was a decoy, or let the blocking force stay in position, the question becomes whether the two forces would have fought it out or, retreated in the face of powerful enemy units.

An analysis of battleship Vs battleship encounters in World War II suggests that, more often than not, one side "chickened out" early on because they felt they were at some disadvantage. In those engagements that were fought through to a clear-cut decision, it can be argued that one of the fleets was unable to disengage even though they wanted to. In fact, only by the unintentional cooperation by the enemy force were most surface fights ended. The side that was winning usually regrouped, ceased fire to make sure they weren't shooting at their own ships, made to open sea to continue their mission, or got timid.

In the case of the action off Samar, the answer to the question of mutual engagement seems fairly straightforward. The Japanese forces were already committed to a high-risk attack, almost suicidal in the minds of the commanding admirals. They were obliged to take on whatever they encountered. They were, in fact, expecting heavy units of the US fleet and were overjoyed at discovering that the force in front of them was composed of aircraft carriers. (They thought fleet carriers at the time, even though they were actually only escort carriers.)

The only way one could conceive of Kurita turning tail would be if he felt hopelessly out numbered. Since the two task forces were very evenly matched, one has to conclude that Kurita would have at least opened an engagement.

The American position is surprisingly similar in terms of desperation. Lee would have little choice but to engage Kurita and his force. Retreating to wait for air support from the American fast carriers that were out of range would doom the escort carriers and possibly the invasion fleet to destruction. So it appears to this writer that both forces would have engaged, and probably stay engaged until one felt that they could not continue.

So what would happen then? Who would win? Well that is the whole point of this discussion. Listed below are the combatants of both fleets. The forces available for TF 34 are those that were designated in Halsey's dispatch to Lee at 1713 hrs, composed of ships from TF 38.2 & 38.4. I have read other authors who concluded that the force would have included all six of the Third Fleet's fast battleships. But I have not been able to find documentary evidence of that. I have seen a rendition of Lee's after action report, which quotes his orders of 1713hrs. Hence the battle order below.

The Opposing Forces

One has to appreciate the irony that with all the calculated decisions by higher authorities, chance happenings and engagements along the way, that force compositions would come out so closely matched. Both sides had four battleships, the Japanese had eight cruisers to the Americans' five, and the US carried the edge in destroyers by 14 to 11.

Composition of Task Force 34 (4 BB, 2 CA, 3 CL, 14 DD)

    BB 56 - Washington
    BB 60 - Alabama
    BB 62 - New Jersey
    BB 61 - Iowa
    CA 45 - Wichita
    CA 32 - New Orleans
    CL 64 - Vincennes
    CL 89 - Miami
    CL 80 - Biloxi
    DD 539 - Tingey
    DD 536 - Owen
    DD 535 - Miller
    DD 537 - The Sullivans
    DD 673 - Hickox
    DD 674 - Hunt
    DD 675 - Lewis Hancock
    DD 676 - Marshall
    DD 651 - Cogswell
    DD 650 - Caperton
    DD 652 - Ingersoll
    DD 653 - Knapp
    DD 392 - Patterson
    DD 386 - Bagley

Composition of Center Force (4 BB, 6 CA, 2 CL, 11 DD)

    BB Yamato
    BB Nagato (slowed by torpedo damage)
    BB Kongo
    BB Haruna
    CA Haurao
    CA Chokai
    CA Kumano
    CA Suzuya
    CA Tone
    CA Chickuma
    CL Noshiro
    CL Yahagi
    DD Fujinami
    DD Urakaze
    DD Kishinami
    DD Isokaze
    DD Okinami
    DD Yukikaze
    DD Hamanami
    DD Nowaki
    DD Hayashimo
    DD Akishimo
    DD Shimikaze

Let's do the simple math first.

Ship Tonnage: US 317,999; Japanese 320,948.

Broadside Weight per minute (total all ships with rate of fire included): USN 160.68 tons; IJN 114.45 tons.

Torpedoes - Diameter, Number, Range (yards), Warhead (pounds), Total explosive (pounds): US - 21", 152, 6000, 825, 125,000; Japanese - 24", 183, 16400, 1720, 314,760.

So what does the simple math say? U.S. and Japanese forces were very closely matched in tonnage. The US had a 40% advantage in shell weight by volume, mainly because of higher rates of fire, but there is a huge disparity in torpedoes in Japan's favor. Yet in the actual battle only the US employed their torpedoes (of which the escorts off Samar had 45 total) with any degree of success.

What can we tell from the cold statistical analysis? That the US could sit back and hammer the Japanese fleet to pieces long before they got in torpedo range? I think not.

Even if the Japanese waited to launch at shorter range (like 12,000 yards) the normal American practice would have been to close the range, and there by give the enemy their opportunity. Even without this "close with the enemy" proclivity, the battle would have been coming at the U.S. task force, and retreating would have exposed the escort carriers and transports.

So, employed effectively, there is every possibility Japanese torpedoes could have been devastating (as they were early on in the war.) Perhaps more devastating than the imbalance in shell weight.

So has the simple math revealed anything? Perhaps it has shown that there is no easy answer. I don't believe that the simple math works, so one has to look elsewhere to decide whom, if anyone, had the force advantage.

Ship by ship comparisons are one method that could be used to determine who might win such a battle. The American ships in this battle were generally newer, more technologically advanced, and faster. None of them had unprepared battle damage as did several of the Japanese ships (notably the Nagato & Yamato.) While their damage did not in any way affect their armament, it did affect their sea keeping, speed and endurance.

Various sources have generally speculated about the U.S. advantages in armor quality, ammunition fusing, and radar fire control, all of which would have figured greatly in any set piece surface battle. The Japanese had the best optical range finding gear ever made on the Yamato. However, there can be little doubt that escort forces making smoke would have complicated and degraded the Japanese optical advantage shortly after the steel started flying.

Any comparison of ship Vs ship combat in this engagement (and one of the chief reasons for my inviting this discussion) begs the "who would win an Iowa Vs Yamato battle?" argument. Most Western historians give the Iowa an edge in such a battle. (I have to admit to never reading Japanese replies or arguments along these lines.)

The edge, as I understand it, lies mainly with radar fire control, better quality of ammunition, and better construction (armor and quality of building). In my estimation, other than the radar fire control, these intangible "betters" are at best questionable.

The alleged superior quality of Iowa's armor is certainly countered by the Yamato's undoubtedly much thicker armor (12.1" belt and 6" deck Vs 16.1" belt and 9" deck). Iowa's armor provided an immune zone of only 5300 yards against her own 2700 pound AP shell, and very probably no immune zone against Yamato's 3200 pound AP shell.

Who got the first effective hit by far out weighs the theoretical question of which ship had better armor, since both classes were extremely heavily armed and hits were likely to do great damage. And Yamato's 18.1" guns did throw a heavier AP shell than Iowa's 16" guns. Iowa did enjoy a substantial speed advantage (33 knots Vs 27 knots).

Of course the other problem with "who is better, Iowa or Yamato" is that this isn't a one on one battle. There is no guarantee that either ship would fire on the other.

Consequently, after assigning the proper weight to the Yamato's contribution, a U.S. battleship advantage becomes apparent. The Nagato was a dominant ship when she was built in the 1920s, probably ahead of British and American designs of the time. But, although she remained a formidable adversary, she was outclassed by more modern battleship designs by 1944.

Unfortunately for her, four of the ships that outclassed her were in the opposing force. Her 16.1"/45 guns were good, and for the most part a match for the American 16"/45. But her fire control system, and probably her armor, was inferior. Her speed was somewhat less than her adversaries (26 knots compared to 27 knots for Indiana and Washington and 33 knots for Iowa and New Jersey), magnified by carrying torpedo damage into battle. On her very best day, on paper, Nagato might have given Washington a pretty hard time.

The Kongo and Haruana were near the bottom limit of ships that could be considered battleships at all. They were designed and built as WW I battlecruisers (very similar to the British Repulse and Renown) and upgraded to "battleship" status during the 1930's. Many postulate that they were more properly classed as battlecruisers since their armor scheme and thickness was suspect. Their 14" guns and older fire control equipment made them less effective than any of the U.S. battleships of Task Force 34. All of the U.S. battleships had a useful immune zone against the Kongo's 14" guns. They were, however, at 30 knots faster than all of the other capital ships involved except for the Iowas.

This is not to say they were worthless ships, far from it, but they were not a proper choice for a battleship Vs battleship confrontation. Witness the Hiei's bad treatment in the first naval battle of Guadalcanal on 13 August 42 when she was overcome by 8" & 5" shell fire. A properly armored battleship might have suffered casualties and damage from such fire, but would not have been as heavily damaged as she was.

On the other hand, in the close range night battle known as the 2nd Battle of Guadalcanal, Kirishima and accompanying cruisers quickly knocked South Dakota, sister of Alabama, out of the fight. Minutes later Kirishima was herself blindsided by Washington and mortally wounded. Such are the vagaries of real capital ship encounters.

So in the realm of how the battleships would have fared in this fight, it seems likely that had these combatants been left to slug it out amongst themselves the Iowa, New Jersey, Washington and Alabama would probably have prevailed against the Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna.

The cruiser Vs cruiser analysis is a much closer and more abstract argument. The Japanese had advantages in tonnage, torpedoes, and many more heavy gun barrels. Yet the Americans had faster firing, radar guided guns of (for the most part) smaller bore.

I have to comment on this. Japanese heavy cruisers were handsome ships, well designed aesthetically and practically conceived. They presented an image of majesty and power under way. That they mightily fudged the naval treaty tonnage limits was to their credit by this time in the war. Looking out a pair of high-powered binoculars and seeing six of these beauties heading your way in line abreast would have been the source of severe indigestion to an American cruiser skipper.

In the end, although I have no doubt the U.S. cruisers would have acquitted themselves well in any surface engagement. I have to say that in terms of cruisers Vs cruisers the Japanese force was much stronger. Without out aid from their battleship or destroyer cousins, the U.S. cruisers would mostly likely have lost.

As to destroyer Vs destroyer comparisons the US Fletchers (of which 12 of the 14 American destroyers were) had pretty well proven more than a match for the Japanese destroyers, with perhaps the exception of the Shimikaze. In terms of construction and ability to absorb damage, the Fletchers were extraordinary vessels and their fire output and accuracy was an order of magnitude better than any of the Japanese destroyers. Twelve of them should have more than been able to handle the eleven Japanese ships.

Now I realize saying this sounds like I am saying that the Japanese torpedoes would have no effect on the battle. I am not. What I am saying that a Japanese destroyer hit by the lesser power American 21" torpedo was just as likely to be disabled as an American destroyer struck by the powerful 24" Japanese torpedo.

My contention is that superior American damage control and construction was more obvious in the smaller ships built than the larger, and hence would be a more telling factor in the smaller combatants. Simply put, one torpedo would not likely put the Yamato or Iowa out of action, even if Iowa were more affected by the hit than the Yamato. (Likely given the record of the Yamato class for absorbing torpedo damage.) However, one torpedo may be more than enough to put a destroyer out of action and thus the degree to which the damage could be controlled would be much more relevant to keeping the ship afloat.

The tenor of the three arguments here tends to favor the Americans. The Japanese only advantage is in the cruiser Vs cruiser match up. But remember, I postulated one thing in the beginning of the Iowa Vs Yamato argument that I think carries through the entire flow of discussion. It's not so much whether you have a bigger, faster firing, or more accurate gun than the other guy, it's whether in this particular time and place you get the first good hit. If the Yamato scores early on the Iowa, the Yamato becomes the favorite, and vice versa. It is the same for the Kongo firing on the New Jersey. Sure, she has less penetrating power, but if she gets that "lucky" hit, the whole battle could change.

Consider the 2nd battle of Guadalcanal 14 November 1942. The South Dakota takes an early 14" hit from the Kirishima, which knocks out her power distribution, disabling her fire control, and sends the ship into darkness. For several minutes she was a punching bag for much of the Japanese task force as she was silhouetted in front of a burning ship. Had the Washington not been there to blast away at the Kirishima and put her out of the fight, things might have gone very badly for South Dakota, all because of one early critical hit. (Note: I realize that this is an oversimplification and that other factors contributed to this, such as the chief engineer using tape to hold circuit breakers closed. But the initial hit bears directly on the result, regardless of mitigating factors.) Simply said, the side that hits first gains an advantage, and it can reverse an imbalance.

So my belief, using any of these comparison types of arguments whether by math or individual ship value, is that while the American's may have some advantage, the thing is actually too close to call. However, I will weigh in on a factor that I think would have been decisive had the battle been prosecuted to a conclusion. That factor is training.

Now I am not saying that one side had better trained sailors than the other. In fact, I believe that in some ways Japanese sailors were better trained. In this instance the training I am referring to is tactical training. By this time in the war the Imperial Japanese Navy was no longer engaging in training exercises. This was mainly due to fuel shortages and the submarine threat. The US Navy was training at every opportunity, especially if they were expecting battle or were a part of a newly formed unit. This was a luxury afforded by the abundance of supply they enjoyed, freedom of navigation (especially in rear areas), and their much better ship availability situation, which actually allowed extensive times for post repair/refit work-up and pre-engagement practice maneuvers.

Believe it or not, and this is my conjecture (not something I am quoting), the disparity of readiness between the two forces was in my estimation the greatest important difference. In short, the Americans would have been better prepared to fight a surface action than the Japanese. Even though the Japanese were the ones challenging battle!

One of my chief reasons for my above hypothesis is the fact that Kurita never really put forward a battle plan. Even though most battle plans don't survive much after first contact, they do give all of the participants a level of expectation and general indicators of responsibilities and contingencies. Admiral Lee would certainly have laid out such a plan.

Kurita called for a "General" engagement in the actual battle. One disappointing aspect of his approach was his decision to position his destroyers at the rear of the column, cutting his advantage in torpedoes severely, or at least delaying its arrival into the battle. Even more telling was his lack of attempts to control the battle once it commenced. There was no order to concentrate fire, or prepare for torpedo attacks.

This is not to say that the Japanese ship captains were inept. Individually they pursued the Americans like hungry tigers. But there was very little cooperation between them.

The Battle

So, just to go one step farther, this is the way I see the battle taking shape. Since we already know how Kurita proceeded, I will at first speak to Lee's plan and Kurita's reactions.

First, if Lee was left to guard the Strait, then he would have guarded it. It is not reasonable to assume that the first American sight of approaching enemy battleships would have been a warning from an antisubmarine patrolling TBF, as actually occurred. Much more likely would be a screen of eight to ten destroyers in the Strait, which would have had instructions along these lines: "If enemy force is sighted, notify the fleet, illuminate, and engage." These ships however would not have been placed so far down the Strait as to be out of the range of the heavier ships of TF 34.

How Kurita would have reacted to a force of American destroyers engaging him with guns and torpedoes in the early morning is not an easy call. Certainly his cruisers and destroyers would have responded immediately. My guess is he would have pressed on until or unless battle damage compelled him to retire. I think it is a certainty that some US destroyer success would have been achieved. And by this I mean that while the destroyers would have taken losses, perhaps initially heavy, they would have scored some hits on Kurita's battle line. How many and how serious the hits would have guided any decision by Kurita to withdraw.

The heat and confusion of battle being what it is, my conclusion is that he would have most likely continued; at least to the point of sighting and engaging the US heavy units. At that point, the aforementioned theory of who fires first and who hits first becomes the guiding principal of how the engagement would proceed.

To begin with, Lee would likely have enjoyed an huge initial advantage of lazily sailing back and forth in eastern mouth of the Strait with his cruisers and battleships effectively gaining a "Crossing the T" position at the start. Of course, Kurita and his captains would maneuver to bring all their guns into play once the opening salvos were received, but I can't imagine the American radar advantage coupled with the warning the destroyers would provide not giving them the first shots. My thoughts are that US cruisers would have been at about 12,000 yards and BBs 16-18,000 when they opened fire.

At that range in the early dawn, it is unlikely that Kurita would even know who was shooting at him. Their initial return fire would be at the flashes of the American guns, which would probably first mean the American cruisers. For a short time the US cruisers would probably be receiving 14"-18" shell fire from the Japanese BBs.

Once again, the hit equation comes into play. One hit on a Cleveland Class cruiser by a battleship shell would be no small problem. The Clevelands would begin blasting away, their battle plan attempting to pick out the enemy cruisers and destroyers, with some degree of success. The same could be said of the American heavy cruisers, albeit at slower rates, and they might well engage the Japanese BBs, the largest available targets.

In the Surgio Strait battle, radar equipped U.S. BBs actually had their radars masked at times by the cruiser column a few thousand yards ahead of them. So the American BBs would fire, but would occasionally be compelled to cease-fire because their radar picture would become confused. Since this is early dawn, optics would be of lesser value even with star shell illumination. At first, when the Iowa, New Jersey, Alabama and Washington commenced firing, they would have had a huge accuracy advantage.

It is when the hits began, and then started to mount, that Kurita would have most likely made a fateful decision to disengage. Of course, the problem with this is that his battleships were generally slower than their US counterparts. Lee would not likely have disengaged until he began to run low on ammunition or lost ships. I am unaware of how much AP (armor piercing) ammo that typically was loaded out on a US battleship, but their magazine capacity was like 100 rounds per barrel. I am guessing that 60-70% of these would be the AP kind since you can still shoot AP for shore bombardment where you can't really engage an enemy battleship with HE (high explosive) rounds. So it makes sense to carry the majority for a fight you can't afford to lose.

The Opening Rounds

If the U.S. battleships crossed the Japanese "T" the leading Japanese heavy unit would draw the combined fire of all four US Battleships. If that ship were Yamato, even she, assuming that she hadn't taken any additional torpedo hits from US destroyers in the Strait, couldn't have withstood that kind of pounding for long. Washington hit Kirishima with 9 rounds out of 75 (12%) fired in a confused night action off Guadalcanal in 1942. The engagement was at closer ranges, but it was in full darkness with older radar.

Even if you take into consideration greater range, you also have to factor in that the main advantage of crossing the "T" lies in the greater probability of a hit. But just for argument's sake we will put U.S. accuracy down to 5%. One out of every twenty rounds fired hits the Yamato. The U.S. BBs can fire two rounds a minute, but remember we said they'd be masked occasionally, so we will compute for 1.5 rounds per minute. That's 36 barrels at 1.5 rounds per minute, which works out to 54 rounds per minute or slightly less than three hits per minute!

So, three 2700-pound shells per minute would slam into the Yamato. One can only surmise how long the Yamato, as great as she was, could last. Certainly no more than ten minutes.

On the receiving end for the U.S., I can't possible believe that the Japanese would be able to achieve the same level of fire coordination. I say this because there was no real battle plan, they had no real way of identifying targets, and the Japanese had a much less effective way of targeting them in the semi-darkness. One has to assume they would have fired star shells, and maneuvered to unmask their guns. This would have partially removed the crossed "T" effect. Yet still, one could only conclude that the Japanese BBs would end up firing piece meal.

No doubt by coincidence this would involve one or two, possibly even three ending up firing on the same ship, but this might not last as they could lose sight of their target in the smoke and confusion of battle. Yet in order to construct an understandable flow here, I am going to assume some degree of coordination.

The Yamato was said to be able to fire 1.5 rounds per minute per barrel. I think that's a little optimistic, but for the purposes of this discussion, we need to consider the professionalism, and perhaps desperation, of the crews. The Japanese accuracy at moderate to long range was not that great in any engagement of the war. In the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27 1942, at ranges from 16 to 20,000 yards the Japanese heavy cruisers fired collectively 1,819 8" shells for five hits! Of course the two Allied heavy cruisers involved scored only one hit in several hundred rounds fired. So being as optimistic as possible lets assume an accuracy of 2.5% or half that of the radar guided U.S. guns.

This means in ten minutes of firing (135 rounds if all guns remained serviceable) the Yamato would score three hits. We will tally one of them on say the New Orleans as what we said would be a likely first target. The Nagato and the Kongos had slightly higher firing rates, which were around two rounds per minute. If the Nagato and Kongo were both engaging (lets say the Iowa) in ten minutes she might be struck by two 18" rounds, three 16" rounds and four 14" rounds, probably knocking her out of the battle, although not sinking her. We are going to give the Vincennes a hit by a 16" and a hit by a 14" projectile, instead of the Iowa, which accounts for the initial confusion we spoke of earlier, but also knocks Vincennes out of the battle.

Even if Haruna, the other Japanese battleship, managed to target the New Jersey, Washington or Alabama, she could at best hit her with five 14" rounds (leaving out the temporary shooting at a cruiser for one battleship.) Which probably wouldn't have a decisive effect on, say, Alabama, but might well reduce her speed, reduce her secondary and AA battery by 30%, and force her to switch to her aft main battery fire control station due to battle damage. We can safely assume that the Japanese battleship shell hits did some quality damage to one of the US BBs, disabling one (Iowa) and damaging another (Alabama). After ten minutes of engagement Kurita (assuming he is still alive) might perhaps have sized up his situation something like this:

We have engaged major units of the enemy fleet including battleships, cruisers and destroyers while exiting San Bernardino Strait. Aboard the Yamato, much is in disarray. We are slowed to 15 knots, taking on water, and afire amidships. I have learned though that the rest of the battleships are still relatively undamaged save for some hits to the Haruna (errant US 8" targeting.) The Yamato is slowing and turning out of line. If we can make progress on the fires, we will return to the battle. The cruisers are now charging our adversaries, as are the remaining destroyers. We have lost three of our heavy cruisers, one of our light cruisers, and three of our destroyers to the enemy destroyer ambush. In return we have achieved a glorious victory over them as eight of them are burning and drifting in the Strait. I propose to continue on to our heaven sent opportunity against the enemy invasion fleet. I have not had communication with the northern or southern forces and can only assume they have proceeded with their missions successfully. I hope to meet Admiral Nishimura off Leyte.

The Battle Continues

With the Yamato turning out of line, US targeting becomes less certain. Her being afire would guarantee some continued attention. But my guess is that at least two of the U.S. BBs would shift fire to the next large target, yet that's not a simple decision. After the Yamato, the other three Japanese battleships have nearly the same dimensions, and on such an inexact thing as a radar scope, you probably could not tell the difference between a Nagato and a Kongo. Most likely it would instead be the closest ship, which would be the Haruna since before engagement the Japanese battleships had been steaming in twin columns, Yamato and Haruna in the lead of their respective pairings.

As we said before, let's take one of the U.S. BBs out of the fight due to battle damage. After 10 minutes of firing an 18" shell penetrates the Iowa's side armor and rips through one of the engine rooms slicing through a critical section of power cable in the process and putting the brakes on her speed and ability to fire. Heroic damage control parties leap into action, but it will be 20 minutes to restore enough power to operate her radar and guns. Listing, she shears out of line and begins to open the range. The New Jersey continues to fire at Yamato for five more minutes, scoring four more hits, which leaves Washington and Alabama to take Haruna under fire. In those tragic five minutes aboard the Haruna we would see her rocked with ten hits.

We know that nine such hits just about did in her sister in 1942. The Japanese answer back as best they can, but the fire from the Yamato and Haruna has been cut in half during the short 300 seconds. Iowa suffers one more (non-critical) 18" hit, while Alabama comes in for three 14" and two 16" hits. She shears out of formation and out of the battle. Prompt and efficient damage control will save the ship, but she will have to return to Pearl Harbor for temporary repairs and San Francisco for full repair.

Kurita, communications now out, looks out his shattered flag bridge window, to see the once proud and powerful Haruna in flames slowly turning in circles, two of her turrets still firing in local control. His own ship, the Yamato, has suffered more: one of her huge main turrets has been jammed by damage, water is rushing in and the ship is significantly down by the bow, and she has been reduced to a much lower rate of fire by electrical failures. Her survival is in question. Off in the distance he can see three enemy ships on fire, and two battleships turning away from the battle.

His cruisers (two more of which are on fire and slowing) and destroyers have just loosed several dozen torpedoes at the enemy. He has still not heard from either the northern or southern forces. He is in grim awe of the power of the enemy ships, which are rending the cream of the Japanese Navy. There is now little hope that, even if he defeated the force he is now facing, he will have sufficient force left to carry through to the vulnerable invasion areas. All things considered, he decides to save what he can of the fleet. He takes advantage of this chance that the enemy will have to turn away to evade the approaching torpedoes, and hoists the "General Retreat" flag.

The Cruiser and Destroyer Battle

Up until now, the six Japanese heavy cruisers have been engaging the American heavy and light cruisers. Over 30-8" and 1-18" shells as well as a couple dozen 5" shells have struck the New Orleans. She is sinking, a flaming wreck.

The Vincenes has been hit by over 30-8", a couple dozen 5", as well as two major caliber hits from the battleships, and she too is sinking. The Wichita is the victim of somewhere between 15 and 20-8" hits, a dozen or so 5" hits, and while still firing one of her turrets, she is combat ineffective other than as a target to split the rain of Japanese shells. The Miami and Biloxi have absorbed several 5" hits, but are continuing to fire at any Japanese cruisers and destroyers in range.

The Japanese cruisers have suffered as well. The Kumana and Chickuma are early torpedo victims, but are able at the start of the battle to severely mall a couple destroyers and then trade salvos with the US cruisers. The Haurao and Tone become the first targets of the light cruisers, while the Kumana and Chickuma get the 8" fire from Wichita and New Orleans.

The US switched from deploying heavy cruisers to light cruisers in situations likely to produce surface actions because of one thing: rate of fire. A US heavy cruiser could fire 3 to 4 rounds per minute per barrel while a Cleveland class light cruiser could fire 8 to 10, and the Clevelands had 12 barrels instead of 9. So the math here (and there) wasn't that hard 36-260 pound shells a minute versus 120-105 pound shells or 9360 pounds Vs 12600 pounds in shell weight. In point of fact, it is likely that the Cleveland class cruisers in this battle may be the only ships to actually run out of ammunition, since they carried 200 rounds per barrel and could possibly expend that in twenty minutes.

But in that twenty minutes it is very likely that they achieve more than 360-6" hits on their adversaries. So when I mention the Haurao and Tone being the light cruisers first targets, it is very likely that those hits would be spread out over all of the Japanese cruisers involved (including the light cruisers) since the CLs would have shifted fire when the Japanese ships slowed or turned. The Japanese saw their CLs as destroyer leaders, and the Toshiro and Yahagi would have led the charge to torpedo launch points. In presenting themselves so, they would have been begging for a beating by the American CLs, whose task would have been to prevent such an obvious sortie.

After their successful launch of torpedoes the Japanese CLs and DDs would have turned away. Some would engage cripples, such as American DDs that were still trying to salvage themselves after being first in and first bloodied in the Strait, and some would add their fire against the American cruisers.

Last Salvos

It would be several minutes before all the Japanese ships see and obey the command to retire. During those next five minutes, the Washington continues to pound the Haruna, which receives five more hits leaving her a burning wreck. She is the second ship of that class Washington has defeated.

The New Jersey shifts to the Nagato scoring six times and opens up more of her hull to the sea, magnifying her earlier torpedo damage.

The Haruna never scores again. The Yamato continues sporadic fire in local control, but also is unsuccessful. Nagato still has Alabama in her sights and scores twice, while Kongo manages three more 14" hits on "Bama," which by now is in very bad shape.

From his lofty perch on the Flag Bridge of the unscathed Washington, Admiral Lee sees the battering the Alabama is taking. She is wrapped in flames abaft the stack, and slowing. He has a radio message in hand "CAPTAIN DEAD, REMAINING MAIN BATTERY IN LOCAL CONTROL, SPEED FIFTEEN KNOTS, ACTING CO BB ALABAMA" Lee can only shake his head and whisper his amazement of the bravery of the men on the ship a thousand yards away from him.

Two minutes later, as he watches the effect of Washington and New Jersey concentrating fire on the Nagato, he is shocked to see a roaring flash billow up the side of the Miami several thousand yards away, and moments after that the same scene occurs to the Wichita. Lee instantly realizes that the Japanese have launched their dreaded "Long Lance" torpedoes, and there is little doubt that several are headed his way. He quickly alerts the Captain, busy fighting his ship, who orders a 90-degree turn to starboard, which takes them away from the enemy.

But those previous two minutes are enough to seal Nagato's fate, hit by four more 16" shells, she suffers a hit to one of her engine rooms, slowing and setting her afire. Kongo has turned away now and only is firing her rear turrets. She does not score again.

It's ten long minutes before Lee is assured that he has successfully "combed" the torpedoes and can turn to reengage. His only remaining targets are crippled Nagato, the burning Haruna, a suffering Kumano, a limping Suzuya, the smoldering hulk of Yahagi, and 3 lingering destroyers, which they make short work of. But it is now dawn, and the arrival of American escort carriers' air groups ends any hope of escape.

Yamato and Kongo, Noshiro and four DDs make it back through the straight, but the former is sunk by waves of American planes as she has been unable to increase her speed enough to escape.

In the battle, the Americans lose the cruisers New Orleans, Wichita, Miami and Vincennes along with 8 Fletcher class destroyers. The battleships Iowa and Alabama are seriously damaged, eventually return Stateside for repair, but are effectively out of action for the remainder of the war.

The Japanese lose the battleships Nagato, Haruna, all of their cruisers save Noshiro, and all but 4 destroyers. The Yamato, who should properly be considered a victim of the battle, is finished by air attack the next day.

For the U.S. it was a costly surface battle, but the USN successfully defended the invasion fleet and the losses could be made good. For the IJN, on the other hand, the loss of the Battle of Leyte Gulf marks its end as a significant fighting force in the Second World War.

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Copyright 2005 by John Pearson. All rights reserved.