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The Royal New Zealand Navy

CHAPTER 22 — The Tide of Victory

page 336

The Tide of Victory

BARELY three weeks after the landing at Empress Augusta Bay in the northern Solomons, United States forces carried out in the Gilbert Islands the first of the great amphibious operations that were to mark their victorious progress across the Central Pacific to the shores of Japan.

The Gilbert Islands are a group of coral atolls spread for nearly 300 miles from north to south across the Equator between 170 degrees east longitude and the 180th meridian. Ocean Island, lying some 250 miles west of the group, and Nauru Island, about 170 miles farther west, are the principal sources of supply of phosphates for New Zealand and Australia. The Gilberts derived considerable strategical importance from their position between Allied island bases in the South Pacific and those of Japan in the Marshalls and Carolines. Coastwatching stations controlled by the New Zealand Naval Board were maintained on most of the islands in the group. Makin and Abaiang were occupied by the Japanese in December 1941 and most of the other atolls in September 1942, when the coastwatchers on them were captured and executed. Nauru Island was occupied on 25 August 1942 and Ocean Island the following day.

During the next twelve months garrisons of special naval troops converted Butaritari (Makin atoll) and Betio (Tarawa atoll) into strong fortresses, and an airfield was constructed on the latter island. In the Ellice Group, some 200 miles south-east of the Gilberts, Funafuti was occupied by the Americans in October 1942, Nanumea and Nukufetau in August 1943, and Baker Island, just above the Equator and east of the Gilberts, in September 1943. Airfields were constructed on all these islands.

The recapture of the Gilbert Islands was an essential preliminary to the great drive westward across the Pacific projected at the Quebec Conference in August 1943. Because of the great distances from bases and the size and complexity of the attacking forces, the operation posed difficult logistic problems.1

In October 1943 a Central Pacific Force was formed under the command of Vice-Admiral R. A. Spruance. It comprised, (a) a carrier

1 Tarawa and Makin are approximately 2200 miles from Pearl Harbour and 1300 miles from Efate (New Hebrides), the two assembly bases of the expedition.

page 337 force (Task Force 50) totalling eleven aircraft-carriers, six battleships, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and twenty-two destroyers; (b) an assault force (Task Force 54); (c) defence forces and shore-based aircraft (Task Force 57) operating from the Ellice Group, Phoenix Island, and Samoa. The assault force, also known as Fifth Amphibious Force, was divided into Task Force 52 (Northern Attack Force) for the capture of Makin, and Task Force 53 (Southern Attack Force) for the capture of Tarawa and Apamama. The Fifth Amphibious Force included eight escort aircraft-carriers, seven battleships, eight cruisers, about forty destroyers, two minesweepers, two groups of troop transports and supply ships, and thirty-eight landing craft. The Fifth Amphibious Corps, commanded by Major-General Holland M. Smith, USMC, comprised all troops for operations in the Central Pacific. The 2nd Marine Division, commanded by Major-General Julian C. Smith, USMC, furnished the assault troops for the capture of Tarawa and Apamama, and the 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General Ralph C. Smith, US Army, was to take Makin.

The 2nd Marine Division, which had sustained heavy casualties in the Guadalcanal campaign, was recuperating and training in coastal camps near Wellington. Many men were still suffering from malaria, and as late as 10 October the division had nearly 1400 ineffectives; but the arrival of reinforcements from Pearl Harbour brought it up to strength. Early in August 1943 Vice-Admiral Spruance arrived at Wellington to confer with Major-General Julian Smith, and two months later the latter flew with his staff to Pearl Harbour to discuss with the Fifth Amphibious Corps' commander the plans for the assault on Tarawa.

In the meantime the 2nd Marine Division continued its intensive training in the coastal area about Porirua harbour. During September the troops embarked in transports at Wellington and carried out a series of realistic landing operations on the beaches north of the harbour. All available facilities were put at the disposal of the Marines, and the staffs of the Navy, Army, and Air Force and the Wellington Harbour Board were fully co-operative.

In the morning of 1 November 1943 the 2nd Marine Division sailed from Wellington for Efate, in the New Hebrides, the convoy of sixteen transports and supply ships being escorted by six destroyers. The utmost secrecy was observed regarding the destination of the ships, whose departure was ‘ostensibly for the purpose of effecting practice landings in the vicinity of Hawkes Bay’. The convoy duly joined its covering force from Pearl Harbour at Efate, where a further series of landing exercises was carried out. On 13 November the whole force, numbering fifty-five ships, sailed for page 338 Tarawa where the landing was to coincide with that on Makin by Task Force 52, which was on its way south from Pearl Harbour.

The assault began in the early morning of 20 November and by the afternoon of the 22nd all resistance on Makin had ceased. Of the Japanese garrison of 800, a total of 696 were killed and 104 taken prisoners. The American losses were 56 killed and 131 wounded out of 6500 assault troops.

In the vanguard of the assault on Tarawa were three merchant service officers of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve who, because of their intimate knowledge of the Gilbert Islands and their navigational experience in those waters, had been assigned as pilots for the amphibious force. Lieutenant James Forbes1 was serving in the United States minesweeper Pursuit which, in company with the Requisite, swept the channel into Tarawa lagoon ahead of the destroyers Ringgold and Dashiell which gave gunfire support to the landing craft. Lieutenant Gordon Webster2 was serving as pilot in the Ringgold and Lieutenant Stanley Page3 in the Dashiell. As they entered the lagoon all four ships came under heavy fire from the shore batteries, several of which were silenced by the destroyers. The Ringgold was hit twice by dud shells which caused minor damage. Throughout the period of the Tarawa operations the three New Zealand officers continued to pilot destroyers and other vessels to their assigned positions.

The Marines landed under heavy fire and in the face of fierce and fanatical opposition from the Japanese. Savage fighting lasted for seventy-six hours and it was not until the afternoon of 24 November that enemy resistance ended. At noon that day a carrier-based aircraft landed on the airfield, which had been repaired under fire. The capture of Tarawa cost the Marines 3301 casualties, of whom 990 were killed in action or died of wounds. The enemy killed totalled 4690, only 17 Japanese and 129 Korean labourers being taken as prisoners. Apamama, 76 miles south of Tarawa, was captured on 21 November by a small force landed from the United States submarine Nautilus, the twenty-three Japanese found there being killed. No Japanese were found on Abaiang, Marakai, and Maiana.

The American operations in the Gilbert Islands were supported by approximately 900 aircraft flown from the carriers of Task Force 50. During the assault phase six Japanese submarines from

1 Lieutenant J. Forbes, RNZNR, US Bronze Star; born Scotland, 31 Jan 1903; master mariner; pilot, Auckland; later manager, Devonport Steam Ferry Co. Ltd.

2 Lieutenant G. J. Webster, RNZNR, US Bronze Star; born Edgbaston, Birmingham, 16 Sep 1910; master mariner; subsequently commanded HMFS Viti.

3 Lieutenant S. S. Page, RNZNR, US Bronze Star; born Somerset, England, 17 Oct 1903; master mariner; chief officer, subsequently master, London Missionary Society's ship John Williams V.

page 339 Truk moved into the area. On 23 November the I-25 was sunk with depth-charges by the destroyers Frazier and Meade. On the following day the escort aircraft-carrier Liscome Bay1 was torpedoed by a submarine and sank with the loss of 54 officers, including Rear-Admiral Mullinix and Captain I. B. Wiltsie, and 648 ratings. The only damage from enemy air attack was a torpedo hit on the light aircraft-carrier Independence2 which necessitated her with-drawal for repairs.

By the end of December American aircraft were operating from four airfields in the Gilberts in conjunction with frequent carrier air strikes on Japanese bases in the Marshalls, Wake Island, and Nauru and Ocean Islands.

The recapture of the Gilberts prepared the way for breaching the enemy's defence perimeter in the Central Pacific by the seizure of selected atolls in the Marshall Islands, which had been held by the Japanese since 1914. Widely scattered over an ocean area of 400,000 square miles, the Marshalls comprise thirty-four atolls in two roughly parallel chains about 130 miles apart, extending from north-west to south-east. Kwajalein, the Americans' main objective, centrally situated in the western chain, is 75 miles in length and 30 miles across at its widest point, the 700 square miles enclosed by its reefs and eighty-odd islands providing safe anchorage for hundreds of ships. Its main defences were on Kwajalein Island, at the southern end, and Roi-Namur, 44 miles distant at the north-east corner of the atoll, the latter having the best airfield in the Marshalls. Their capture involved two separate but simultaneous landings, each by a division of troops. It was also planned to occupy Majuro, about 270 miles to the south-east, which commanded Wotje, Maloelap, Mille, and Jaluit and the sea route to Kwajalein, and was a first-class anchorage with two islands on which airfields could be constructed.

The forces for the invasion of the Marshalls were the greatest ever provided for an amphibious operation in the Pacific up to that time. The various task forces included 20 aircraft-carriers, 15 battleships, 18 cruisers, and 84 destroyers, as well as minesweepers, transports, supply ships, landing ships, and auxiliary vessels, in all nearly 300 ships. The assault and occupation troops numbered nearly 85,000. After heavy bombardments by the supporting ships and aircraft, the troops made successful landings at small cost in casualties. The Japanese dead totalled 8000-odd as against 318 Americans, and 437 prisoners were taken.

The Japanese main fleet, whose heavy cruisers had been badly mauled at Rabaul at the beginning of November 1943, made no

1 Liscome Bay, 9000 tons displacement; speed 18 knots; 30 aircraft.

2 Independence, 13,000 tons; speed 33 knots; 45–50 aircraft.

page 340 attempt to intervene and withdrew from Truk to the Western Pacific after the capture of Kwajalein and Majuro. The American occupation had gone so rapidly that it was decided to proceed at once with the capture of Eniwetok, three months in advance of the date originally planned. Aircraft-carrier strikes to neutralise Truk were carried out on 16–17 February 1944 and wrought havoc. Two cruisers, four destroyers, two anti-submarine vessels, and thirty merchant ships totalling 191,700 tons were sunk and others damaged,1 more than 300 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, and great damage was done to the shore installations of the naval base.

Landings were made at Eniwetok on 18 February and the Japanese garrison was wiped out in five days, 3334 being killed and 60-odd taken as prisoners at a cost of 716 Americans killed and wounded. The airfields on the islands of Eniwetok were rapidly expanded and in the great lagoon, 21 miles long and 17 miles wide, anchor berths were laid out for 1500 ships. The Marshall Islands operations had eliminated Truk and the eastern Carolines as an effective part of the enemy's defence system.

On 4 September 1943, while severe fighting was in progress about Salamaua in New Guinea, the Allied Seventh Amphibious Force of General MacArthur's South-West Pacific Command had landed the 9th Australian Division on the south shore of Huon Peninsula, east of Lae. The capture of Lae and Salamaua during September and of Finschafen on 22 October ended the first phase of the New Guinea campaign. Complete control of Vitiaz and Dampier Straits between the mainland of New Guinea and the western end of New Britain was secured when Allied troops, including the 1st US Marine Division of Guadalcanal fame, landed at Arawe and Cape Gloucester in December 1943. By the end of February 1944 the two forces had cleared the western end of New Britain, more than 7000 Japanese being killed and a few prisoners taken. Rabaul was under daily air attack, and on 18 February it and Kavieng in New Ireland were bombarded, but the extensive underground stores, barracks, and workshops were impervious to bombing. Admiral Kusaka and General Imamura with their garrison of 100,000 men took no further part in the war. Marooned on a tropical island by the long arm of Allied sea power, they were completely shut off from the outside world until their surrender in September 1945.

A fortnight after the occupation of the Green Islands by the New Zealanders in mid-February 1944, amphibious forces of MacArthur's South-West Pacific Command seized the Admiralty

1 Among the ships sunk was the Hoki Maru, 7112 tons, formerly the Union Steam Ship Company's Hauraki, which had been captured by Japanese raiders in the Indian Ocean in July 1942, while on passage from New Zealand to Colombo with a valuable cargo of war supplies.

page 341 Islands which lie athwart the northern approaches to the Bismarck Sea. The Americans rapidly extended their holding and on 15 March occupied Manus Island, where the Lorengau airfield was captured. Five days later a force from Admiral Halsey's South Pacific Command bypassed Kavieng and seized Emirau Island, thus completing the ring round Rabaul.

The occupation of the Admiralty Islands not only gave the Allied forces complete control of the Bismarck Sea and the approaches to Rabaul and Kavieng, but it brought the Caroline Islands and western New Guinea within range of heavy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. It also put the Allies in possession of a great fleet anchorage in Seeadler harbour at Manus Island, which was rapidly developed as a major naval base equipped with floating docks and repair and servicing facilities. By November 1944 the establishment on Manus Island totalled 48,000 officers and men.

Rabaul, for long the main bastion of the enemy's defence perimeter in the South Pacific, had been reduced to impotence. For months on end it was pounded daily by Allied bombers, this being the main task of the Royal New Zealand Air Force based in the Solomons. The township was largely destroyed and the enormous supply dumps, one of which was more than a mile square, were systematically reduced. On 28 February Tokyo Radio commented that the situation at Rabaul had ‘reached a serious stage for which we cannot hold even the slightest optimism’.

The complete isolation of the Japanese forces in the northern Solomons was effected during February 1944 when the Green Islands were occupied by New Zealand troops. This group of atolls, lying about 25 miles north-west from Buka and barely 120 miles east from Rabaul, had long been used by the Japanese as a staging base for barges carrying supplies to Buka and Bougainville. Troops of 14 Brigade of the 3rd New Zealand Division landed unopposed on Nissan Island in the early morning of 15 February. By the end of March more than 17,000 troops and 43,000 tons of supplies had been landed and heavy bombers were operating from an airfield with two 6000-foot runways constructed by the Americans. During March and April the New Zealanders were relieved by US Army troops.

The Solomon Islands campaign, which had lasted eighteen months, cost the Imperial Japanese Navy the loss of nearly eighty ships, including two aircraft-carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, forty-three destroyers, and twenty-three submarines. Many others were damaged and out of service for months. Great numbers of transports and supply ships were sunk with the loss of thousands of troops and many thousands of tons of stores and equipment. More than 2900 aircraft had been destroyed with an almost equal loss of page 342 trained air crews. The latter loss was felt severely for, owing to shortages of fuel and training facilities, it was not possible to replace all these first-line airmen. Japanese naval air strength was reduced to a level from which it was never able to recover. The Japanese Army sustained heavy casualties in battle and sickness. The 17th Army, numbering about 40,000 under Lieutenant-General Hyakutake, and some 20,000 naval men under Vice-Admiral Sanajima, were shut up in Bougainville to suffer sickness and privation until their surrender on 8 September 1945.

The American occupation of Kwajalein, Majuro, and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands and the carrier task force blow at Truk profoundly changed the strategic situation in the Pacific. The seizure of the Marshall Islands atolls, the first major break in the Japanese defence perimeter, had established powerful Allied forces 2200 miles to the westward of Pearl Harbour in bases well placed for further advances. Both as a base for the Japanese Fleet and advanced supply, Truk was now useless. Thus Rabaul and Solomon Islands garrisons were cut off from outside support and supply. By the end of February 1944 the westward drive of the Allies across the Central Pacific had reached a stage at which it was necessary to clear New Guinea of the enemy in order to secure the flank of their advance to the Marianas and the Philippines.

The nearest large concentration of Japanese forces west of the newly reoccupied Huon Peninsula was at Wewak, some hundreds of miles to the north-west. It was decided to make a giant stride to bypass and neutralise this stronghold by a landing 200 miles beyond Wewak, near Hollandia, on the coast of Dutch New Guinea. To prevent interference from Japanese bases in the western Carolines, a powerful task force which included eleven aircraft-carriers, under Admiral Spruance, Commander United States Fifth Fleet, carried out a great air strike on Palau Island on 30 March. Japanese shipping totalling 110,000 tons was sunk, 150 aircraft were destroyed, and the airfields badly damaged at small cost. The islands of Yap, Ulithi, and Woleai were attacked on the two following days. The attacks also resulted in the death of Admiral Mineichi Koga, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. He had decided to transfer his headquarters from Palau to Davao in the Philippines, and was killed with members of his staff when the flying boat in which they were travelling crashed in an attempted night landing near Cebu. Koga was succeeded by Admiral Soyamu Toyoda, Commander of the Yokosuka naval base.

The assault on Hollandia was the greatest amphibious operation undertaken in the South-West Pacific up to that time, more than 200 ships, including Australian and Dutch, being employed. On 22 April 1944 troops landed virtually unopposed at Tanamerah Bay, page 343 30 miles west of Hollandia, and at Humboldt Bay, immediately to the east, which trapped the Hollandia airfields, while a diversionary landing at Aitape, 90 miles farther east, secured yet another airfield. About 50,000 Japanese were cut off in this operation, many to die of sickness or starvation in the jungle, the survivors to give themselves up after the war. The New Guinea campaign was finished at the end of July 1944 by a series of amphibious operations along the north coast carried out by American and Australian forces.

The preparations for the conquest of the Marianas Islands indicated the colossal scale on which amphibious warfare was now being waged in the Pacific. More than 600 ships, 2000 aircraft, and some 300,000 men were assembled at various bases under the overall command of Admiral Spruance. The main base in Hawaii was so far away from Saipan in the Marianas that the convoy of transports carrying most of the assault battalions had to sail from Pearl Harbour twenty-three days before the landing was to take place. Carrier task forces ranged far and wide on their preliminary air strikes on the Marianas and Marcus and Wake Islands, while long-range bombers from the vast semicircle of airfields on Green, Emirau, and Manus Islands and at Hollandia neutralised the enemy's bases at Truk, Palau, and Yap.

The Marianas form a section 450 miles in length of an almost continuous chain of islands extending some 1350 miles southward from Japan. Their strategic importance is readily apparent. Saipan, the initial objective, was the key to the Japanese defences. There, during twenty-five years of occupation, formidable fortifications had been added to the natural obstacles to assault. The American landing was made on 15 June 1944, but the stubborn and bitter defence of the Japanese garrison lasted for more than three weeks.

It was at this juncture that Admiral Spruance learned of the sortie of a powerful Japanese fleet which included nine aircraft-carriers, five battleships, eleven cruisers, numerous destroyers, and six oil-tankers. To meet the threat of this force, Spruance disposed his fast carriers and battleships to the westward of Saipan.

The expected Japanese air attack on 19 June developed into the most powerful yet experienced by an American naval force. The enemy strikes, however, were poorly co-ordinated and the air fighting ended in a signal success for the Americans. More than 400 Japanese aircraft were destroyed in action and others were doubtless lost when the carriers Shokaku (veteran of the Coral Sea) and Taiho1 were torpedoed and sunk by two American submarines.

It was well on in the afternoon of 20 June when a strike of 216 aircraft from the American carriers found and attacked the

1 Shokaku, 30,000 tons; Taiho, 31,000 tons; speed 30 knots. Each carried 80 aircraft and mounted sixteen 5-inch and many small anti-aircraft guns.

page 344 Japanese force about 260 miles west of Saipan. The carrier Hiyo1 and two 10,000-ton tankers were sunk and damage was done to four other carriers, a battleship, a heavy cruiser, and a tanker. Many aircraft were lost with the ships and twenty-two enemy fighters were shot down in combat. Darkness and shortage of fuel caused the loss of many returning American aircraft, but most of their crews were rescued by the ships.

The recapture of Guam, southernmost and largest island in the Marianas, which had been seized by the Japanese on 12 December 1941, was effected in three weeks of heavy fighting in which the enemy lost more than 17,000 killed. Tinian Island, close to Saipan, was also occupied. Guam subsequently became the headquarters of Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific. Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo regarded the loss of the Marianas as a decisive victory for the Allies. On 18 July 1944 the Tojo cabinet, which had misguided the affairs of Japan since pre-Pearl Harbour days, was forced from office to give place to a government charged with giving ‘fundamental reconsideration to the problem of continuing the war’.

To ‘gain and maintain control of the eastern approaches to the Philippines-Formosa-China coast area’, the Americans had decided to occupy the Palau Islands, Yap, and Ulithi, which form a link between the Marianas and the southern Philippines. Admiral Halsey, then commanding the United States Third Fleet, was in charge of the operations with the designation of Commander, Western Pacific Task Forces. He had at his disposal nearly 800 ships, 1600 aircraft, and some 250,000 officers and men, of whom 202,000 were Navy, 28,400 US Marines, and 19,600 US Army. Prior to the landings, carrier-based air attacks were made over a vast area to eliminate Japanese air forces within striking distance of the amphibious operations.

The 1st Marine Division landed on Peleliu Island in the Palaus on 15 September 1944, and although the Japanese were not exterminated till November, American aircraft were using the captured airfield on 24 September and a completely new heavy-bomber runway was in operation by 16 October. Five days sufficed to secure Angaur Island, where a heavy-bomber field was ready soon afterwards. The extensive atoll of Ulithi, which was occupied without opposition, provided the United States Fleet with an advanced anchorage for subsequent operations. It was decided that the seizure of Yap was unnecessary. Simultaneously with the assault on Peleliu, General MacArthur's South-West Pacific Force occupied Morotai, northernmost island in the Moluccas, on the southern flank of the route from the Palaus to the Philippines. This operation

1 Hiyo, 28,000 tons; speed 28 knots; 60 aircraft; sixteen 5-inch guns.

page 345 completely isolated the Japanese base on the large island of Halmahera, just south of Morotai, and permitted the construction of air-fields and a motor torpedo-boat base to support the coming invasion of the Philippines.

That campaign was heralded by carrier-based air strikes on the 100 Japanese airfields within flying range of Leyte Island, 1000 aircraft and forty ships being destroyed and many damaged. The American amphibious force sailed in 650 ships from Manus Island and New Guinea harbours during the nine days preceding the assault on Leyte, where the landings were made on 20 October against little resistance.

The Japanese Navy reacted promptly and vigorously and threw its full strength into the struggle to stay the Allied onslaught. It was a forlorn hope in a situation far removed from that of December 1941. The First Diversion Attack Force, commanded by Admiral Kurita, consisted of five battleships, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. The battleships included the giants Musashi and Yamato.1 Force ‘C’, commanded by Vice-Admiral Nishimura, numbered two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and four destroyers. After fuelling at Brunei, North Borneo, both groups moved to the Sulu Sea, whither they were closely followed by the Second Diversion Attack Force of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers, under Vice-Admiral Shima, which had come down from Okinawa. Co-ordinated with these movements was the sortie southward from Japan of the so-called ‘Main Body’ – six carriers with a hundred-odd aircraft, two ‘battleship-carriers’ with no aircraft,2 three light cruisers and ten destroyers, commanded by Admiral Ozawa.

The essence of the Japanese ‘Sho Plan’ was that the two attack forces were to approach Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait from the south and San Bernardino Strait from the north, with the object of destroying the allied landing force, while the ‘Main Body’ lured Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet away to the northward. All available submarines were ordered to patrol the eastern approaches to the Philippines and the Navy's Second Air Fleet (about 450 aircraft) moved from Formosa to the airfields in Luzon.

Admiral Nishimura's section of the southern force was attacked in the Sulu Sea on 24 October by carrier aircraft of the United States Third Fleet, but suffered little damage. Pressing on, the enemy entered Surigao Strait, between Leyte and Mindanao, where terrible punishment awaited them. Nishimura's ships were thrice attacked

1 The Musashi and Yamato were by far the largest warships ever built. Length 863 feet; breadth 127 feet; displacement 72,810 tons; speed 27 knots; nine 18·1-inch guns (projectile 3000 lb); numerous anti-aircraft batteries included 6-inch guns in triple turrets; complement, 2400 officers and ratings.

2 Ise and Hyuga, 30,000 tons; speed 22 knots; formerly twelve 14-inch guns, reduced to eight when the two after turrets were replaced by a flight deck and a hangar for 20 aircraft.

page 346 in the darkness by motor torpedo-boats and destroyers which torpedoed the battleship Yamashiro and three destroyers; and finally they were blasted by the concentrated fire of the battleships and cruisers of the United States Seventh Fleet. The Yamashiro and Fuso1 and three destroyers were sunk. The cruiser Mogami2 and one destroyer retired damaged. The second group, that commanded by Admiral Shima, which followed in support, fared little better. The cruiser Abukuma3 was torpedoed by a motor-boat, and when his flagship Nachi4 collided with the Mogami, Shima retired to the westward. The Abukuma and Mogami were sunk next morning by carrier aircraft. No American ship was lost and a destroyer and two motor-boats were damaged in this fierce action.
Battle for Leyte Gulf, Philippine Islands, October 1944

Battle for Leyte Gulf, Philippine Islands, October 1944

Actually, Admiral Kurita's force was the first of the Japanese groups to be attacked. In the early hours of 23 October the United

1 Yamashiro and Fuso, 33,000 tons; 22 knots; twelve 14-inch, sixteen 6-inch, eight 5-inch guns.

2 Mogami, 13,000 tons; 33 knots; eight 8-inch, eight 5-inch guns; twelve torpedo-tubes.

3 Abukuma, light cruiser, 5700 tons; 33 knots; seven 5·5-inch, two 3-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.

4 Nachi, 12,700 tons; 33 knots; ten 8-inch, six 4·7-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.

page 347 States submarines Darter and Dace sank the cruisers Atago (flagship) and Maya and put four torpedoes into the Takao,1 causing her to withdraw under escort to Brunei Bay. Kurita shifted his flag to the Yamato and carried on into the Sibuyan Sea, where for eight hours next day his ships were attacked by swarms of American carrier-based aircraft. The battleship Musashi was hit by ten torpedoes and sixteen heavy bombs and capsized and sank with the loss of more than half of her crew. The Yamato and Nagato2 and several other ships were damaged by bombs and the cruiser Myoko3 withdrew after being torpedoed. Kurita turned his force to the westward, but after dark he reversed his course and carried on for San Bernardino Strait, between the islands of Luzon and Samar. ‘With confidence in heavenly guidance, the entire force will attack’, he signalled to his ships.

During the day the northernmost of Halsey's three carrier forces had been attacked by Japanese naval aircraft, mostly shore-based, but some of them from Admiral Ozawa's force then well to the north-east of Luzon. More than one hundred were shot down, but the carrier Princeton4 was hit and set on fire and had to be sunk. Late in the afternoon Halsey's aircraft sighted Ozawa's ships steering southward. Having heard that Kurita had turned back, Halsey ordered the whole of his Third Fleet to steam northward and destroy the enemy next day. He did not know that Ozawa's carriers had barely thirty aircraft left and that the force had come down from Japan mainly as a decoy. The Japanese lure was working well.

Kurita's fleet cleared San Bernardino Strait soon after midnight of the 24th and headed southward for Leyte Gulf with intent to destroy the American invasion force. Instead of Halsey's Third Fleet, the Japanese encountered only six escort carriers screened by destroyers. They were one of three similar groups which, because of the near exhaustion of gun ammunition and torpedoes in the United States Seventh Fleet in the night action in Surigao Strait, were all that stood between the enemy and the mass of shipping off the Leyte beaches. Pursued by four battleships, six cruisers, and eleven destroyers, the small, slow carriers and their escorts fought back with their aircraft, guns, and torpedoes as they retired under cover of smoke, supported only by aircraft from the other carrier groups to the southward.

In the course of this unequal action the Japanese heavy cruisers

1 Atago, Maya, and Takao, 12,200 tons; 33 knots; ten 8-inch, four 4·7-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.

2 Nagato, battleship, 35,000 tons; 25 knots; eight 16-inch, twenty 5-inch guns; three aircraft.

3 Myoko, 12,700 tons; 33 knots; ten 8-inch, six 4·7-inch guns; eight torpedo-tubes.

4 Princeton, light fleet aircraft-carrier; 13,000 tons; 33 knots; 45–50 aircraft.

page 348 Suzuya, Chokai, and Chikuma were sunk and the Kumano badly damaged by torpedoes.1 The escort carrier Gambier Bay2 and three American destroyers were sunk and others damaged by gunfire. At the height of the engagement, when the American force seemed doomed to complete destruction, the Japanese suddenly broke off the action and retired northward and through San Bernardino Strait. The light cruiser Noshiro3 and two destroyers were sunk by carrier aircraft next day. Shortly before midday of the 25th Japanese suicide bombers sank the escort carrier St. Lo and damaged two others in the first organised Kamikaze attack. More than one hundred aircraft were lost by the escort carriers during the action with Kurita's force.

At daybreak that morning Halsey's Third Fleet found Ozawa's force in two groups well to the north-east of Luzon. From shortly after 8 a.m. till late in the afternoon the slaughter went on, cruisers and destroyers finishing off ships crippled by the air strikes. The carriers Zuikaku, Zuiho, Chitose, and Chiyoda, the light cruiser Tama,4 and a destroyer were sunk and other ships more or less badly damaged at a total cost of forty American aircraft shot down. Next day a small Japanese naval force which had landed some 2000 troops on the west side of Leyte Gulf was attacked by carrier aircraft. The cruiser Kinu, a destroyer, and two transports were sunk.

Thus ended the greatest naval battle of the Second World War. It was a disastrous and bitter defeat for the proud Imperial Japanese Navy with its traditions of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. No longer could Japan's fleet count as an effective fighting force. Its surviving ships were fated to be destroyed in detail during the coming months. Suicide attacks by Kamikaze aircraft were now the last vain hope at sea of Japan's rapidly shrinking empire.

The next turn of the campaign in the Philippine Islands took the Japanese by surprise when landings in great force were made in Lingayen Gulf, on the west coast of Luzon, on 9 January 1945. More than 850 ships took part in the operation, the assault being made by 2500 landing craft and 900 amphibious tanks and the troops of two United States Army corps. While the troops rapidly advanced inland, the carrier task forces of Halsey's Third Fleet swept the South China Sea for ten days, their aircraft causing widespread destruction. Manila and its great harbour were captured

1 Suzuya and Kumano, 13,000 tons; ten 8-inch, eight 5-inch guns; twelve 24-inch torpedo-tubes. Chokai, 12,000 tons; ten 8-inch, four 4·7-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes. Chikuma, 12,000 tons; eight 8-inch, eight 5-inch guns; twelve 24-inch torpedo-tubes. All, speed 33 knots. Kumano was sunk on 25 November 1944.

2 Gambier Bay and St. Lo, escort carriers, 12,000 tons; 18 knots; 25 aircraft.

3 Noshiro, 7000 tons; 32 knots; six 6·1-inch guns; four 24-inch torpedo-tubes.

4 Zuikaku, 30,000 tons; 30 knots; 80 aircraft. Zuiho, 12,000 tons; 25 knots; 36 aircraft. Chitose and Chiyoda, 11,000 tons; 20 knots; 36 aircraft. Tama and Kinu, 5700 tons; 33 knots; seven 5·5-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes.

page 349 on 24 February. The Japanese Army continued its bitter resistance in the Philippines for some weeks longer, but the severance of the enemy's sea communications with the oil and other resources of the ‘South-East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ was complete and final.

All was now ready for the Allied assault on the inner defences of Japan. The Commander-in-Chief Pacific had been directed to seize one or more positions in the Nanpo Shoto (Volcano Islands) and the Nansei Shoto (Ryukyu Islands) to secure additional airfield sites ‘in order to increase the weight of shore-based air attacks against Japan, to complete the blockade and to facilitate preparations for the invasion of Japan.’ Iwo Jima was selected as the most suitable objective in the Nanpo Shoto.

This little island which had three airfields had been converted into a strong fortress with an intricate system of underground defences and artillery and machine guns sited to cover all possible landing places. The operations for the capture of Iwo Jima were under the command of Admiral Spruance, whose Fifth Fleet consisted of 17 carriers with 1170 aircraft embarked, 8 fast battleships, 16 cruisers, and 77 destroyers. The amphibious force numbered 495 ships, including 11 escort carriers with 352 aircraft, 7 battleships, 4 cruisers, and 15 destroyers. The assault troops, which included two US Marines divisions, numbered 75,000. The landing was made on 19 February 1945, but twenty-five days elapsed before the Japanese resistance ended with a loss of more than 21,000 killed and 212 prisoners. In the meantime, carrier aircraft of the Fifth Fleet had begun a series of devastating attacks on the mainland of Japan.