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As the shells from Rear Adm. Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships fell upon Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura’s dreadnoughts attempting to force a passage of Surigao Strait, an era of naval warfare came to a thunderous end.

For much of the Pacific War, the battleships of both the United States and Japan served in relative obscurity as carriers fought some of the most decisive encounters of the war in the Pacific. By fall 1944 the Americans were in a position to launch their long anticipated invasion to retake the Philippines, which had been lost almost three years earlier. The Japanese—having seen their carrier air power practically annihilated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19-20—had almost nothing left but their beloved battleships. The American invasion of Leyte, which began on October 20, was supported by two massive fleets, each among the most powerful that had ever sailed into battle.

Responsibility for the amphibious assault and its direct support fell to Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet. It had borne the burden of support for General Douglas MacArthur’s offensives in New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific and was made up of assault and supply ships, the fire support unit of six old battleships along with their escort cruisers and destroyers, and 16 escort carriers tasked with direct air support of the assault troops. Kinkaid’s armada totaled nearly 700 vessels of all types.

Assigned the role of cover and support was the Third Fleet under Admiral William F. Halsey. Consisting of eight fleet carriers, eight light carriers, six fast new battleships, 15 heavy and light cruisers and 58 destroyers, it was the world’s most powerful naval force. Halsey was ordered to “cover and support forces of the Southwest Pacific in order to assist in the seizure and occupation of objectives in the Central Philippines.” In other words, Halsey’s force was the main offensive punch of the American assault. Should the enemy fleet try to interfere with the amphibious operations of Kinkaid’s forces, Halsey was to engage and destroy it.

Almost as soon as the first wave of assault troops was ashore on the small islands that guarded the approaches to the main objective of Leyte, word of the attack was flashed to Tokyo, and the Japanese naval commander in chief, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, ordered his forces into battle. Virtually all that remained of the Japanese navy would be committed to battle—a total of four carriers, two hermaphrodite battleship-carriers whose after-gun turrets had been removed and replaced with short flight decks, seven battleships, 19 cruisers and 33 destroyers. On paper it was an impressive enough force, but the carriers had fewer than 100 aircraft between them, and the fleet would be completely at the mercy of Halsey’s powerful air forces almost from the start.

The Japanese battle plan was typically intricate, calling for multiple forces steaming from different locations and directions to converge on Leyte Gulf at a precise time so they could fall on Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet and the beachhead it covered. The main enemy force under the command of Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita sailed from ports near Singapore. As it approached Leyte from the west, it was to split, with Kurita leading five battleships, 10 heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 15 destroyers through the San Bernardino Strait. After passing through the strait, Kurita was to steam south along the eastern shore of Samar and approach Leyte Gulf from the northeast. He would then be in a position to either trap the Americans’ amphibious shipping inside Leyte Gulf or drive southward toward Surigao Strait.

The other force—two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers under the command of Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura— was to transit Surigao Strait south of Leyte and enter the gulf from that direction. En route, Nishimura’s force would be augmented by two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and four destroyers under Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, who was sailing from the Pescadores. This combined southern force would form the anvil against which the hammer of Kurita’s northern force would crush Kinkaid.

A key factor in the Japanese battle plan was the carrier force under Vice Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa. Steaming from Japan’s Inland Sea, this detachment of four aircraft carriers, the two battleship-carriers and assorted cruisers and destroyers was embarked on what amounted to a suicide mission. With few aircraft left aboard, this impotent decoy force was to lure Halsey’s powerful fleet northward into the waters east of Luzon and away from the pending action in Leyte Gulf. With the main American striking force out of range of Kinkaid’s fleet, the northern and southern forces could deal with the massed amphibious fleet and its supporting warships without fear of reprisal from Halsey until it was too late.

Almost as quickly as Kurita’s ships cleared port and entered the open sea, they were sighted by the ever-present American submarines, which immediately sent contact reports. American aircraft then detected Nishimura’s detachment, and other aircraft soon sighted Shima’s ships. Noting the absence of any carriers in the three formations under observation, other aircraft were dispatched to search for the elusive prizes.

Responsibility for Kurita’s destruction fell to Halsey. The combined forces of Nishimura and Shima were considered the lesser threat, so the responsibility for stopping them was assigned to Kinkaid. He, in turn, ordered the commander of his fire-support forces, Rear Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf, to see to the destruction of the southern force.

Oldendorf ordered his command, designated Task Group 77.2, to prepare for battle, and as darkness fell on the night of October 24-25, the Americans were in position and prepared for the battle that lay ahead. Oldendorf knew he possessed overwhelming strength, and planned to use it to his best advantage. In the lower, or southern, reaches of the strait were 39 PT-boats positioned to serve as lookouts, after which they were to attack with torpedoes.

Slightly above the middle of the strait and near its northern end were positioned the 28 ships of Destroyer Squadrons 24, 54 and 56. Lying against the darkened backdrops of Leyte to the west and Dinagat Island to the east, the tin cans would be all but invisible to the human eye and their radar returns lost amid the clutter created by the islands. As soon as they received Oldendorf’s signal, the destroyers would strike from the shadows—first with torpedoes, then with gunfire.

Next would come the heavy guns of Task Group 77.2. Across the mouth of the strait above Hibuson Island lay two cruiser divisions of four ships each and the battle line. Oldendorf’s skill and the geography of the strait combined to afford him the often dreamed of but seldom achieved tactical advantage of having crossed the oncoming enemy’s T before the battle even commenced. Near its northern end, Surigao Strait narrows to 12 miles, which would limit Nishimura’s ability to maneuver once the trap was sprung. The Japanese would be steaming a course at right angles to that of the waiting battle line, whereas the Americans would be able to bring all their batteries to bear on the enemy, who would be able to reply with only his forward guns.

Shortly after the turn of the midwatch on October 25, 1944, pinpoints of light began to flicker on the radar scopes of the PT-boats as Nishimura’s force began to transit the strait. The Japanese were steaming in a column with 1,000-yard intervals between ships. In the lead were the destroyers Michishio, Asagumo, Shigure and Yamagumo. The battleships Yamashiro, Nishimura’s flagship, and Fuso followed the destroyers. Last in line was the heavy cruiser Mogami. Shima’s force followed Nishimura into the strait at a distance of some 20 miles.

As soon as they had confirmed the sighting, Oldendorf’s torpedo boats flashed their contact report, then moved forward against Nishimura, hoping their approach would go unnoticed until they reached their attack positions. The veteran Japanese destroyermen, however, sighted them, snapped on searchlights and opened fire. With surprise lost, the boats responded with open throttles as the Battle of Surigao Strait commenced. Japanese gunnery was good, and PT- 152 took a hit that started a fire that was, fortunately for its crew, extinguished by the splash of a near miss. PT-130 and PT-132 were also hit and damaged. Racing through the incoming fire, the little boats let fly with a swarm of torpedoes. None found their mark.

Disappointing as the torpedo attacks had been, the PT- boats had fulfilled their primary mission of providing early warning of the enemy’s approach. Next it was the turn of the destroyers. Aboard Remey, the flag destroyer of DesRon 54, Commander R.P. Fiala addressed his crew: “This is the captain speaking. Tonight our ship has been designated to make the first torpedo run on the Jap task force that is on its way to stop our landings in Leyte Gulf. It is our job to stop the Japs. May God be with us tonight.”

His speech completed, Fiala ordered his ship forward. Remey was followed by Melvin, McGowan, McDermut and Monssen. From the other side of the strait came the six ships of DesRon 24: USS Hutchins, Bache, Beale, Daly, Killen and the Australian destroyer Arunta. As the attackers neared their firing positions, a final check of their firing solutions was made, and the ships of DesRon 54 began to launch their torpedoes. A total of 27 were quickly on their way, and DesRon 54 made smoke to cover the tin cans’ withdrawal. To the west, the ships of DesRon 24 also launched their weapons and retired.

Suddenly, Shigure, the third destroyer in the Japanese column, reported three ships four miles ahead. Seconds later its captain, Commander Shigeru Nishino, reported sighting the phosphorescent wakes of the incoming torpedoes “as bright as day,” and the surprised destroyers heeled over sharply as they increased speed and attempted to turn aside. It was to no avail. Within seconds a series of thunderous detonations rippled through the Japanese column as the torpedoes began to find their marks. Yamagumo was hit and sank quickly. The fourth ship in the column, Asagumo, also received mortal wounds and soon joined its companion on the bottom of the strait. As the steel hulk slipped beneath the waves, Nishino recalled that it sounded “like a huge red-hot iron plunged into the water,” while Michishio was left dead in the water.

It is difficult to tell which American destroyer hit which Japanese ship, but it is likely from the timing of the attacks that DesRon 54 was primarily responsible for the mayhem. It also appears that though DesRon 24 hit fewer enemy ships, it bagged bigger game by damaging Yamashiro and eventually finished Michishio. Fuso also fell victim to the sharp-shooting Americans.

As the ships of DesRon 24 attacked, Killen Commander H.G. Corey recognized the battleships among the Japanese and quickly ordered his torpedoes reset to run at a depth of 22 feet. His was the only ship to do so, meaning it is likely Killen was responsible for the direct hits that broke Yamashiro’s keel and forced it out of line.

Minutes later, the sea was rocked by a thunderous blast that momentarily drew the attention of combatants on both sides. Those watching saw what appeared to be two ships burning brightly where Fuso had been wallowing only moments earlier. Apparently the torpedo hits had started a fire that quickly reached Fuso’s magazines, and the resulting eruption had torn the ship in half. The two burning pieces floated for about half an hour and then slipped beneath the surface. Twenty minutes later, the drifting Michishio disappeared in another rumbling explosion, torpedoed by Hutchins as it tried to sink Asagumo.

The American destroyers had cost Nishimura more than half his force, but he was in no mood to turn back yet. Yamashiro, damaged but still afloat, and Mogami and Shigure continued northward toward the mouth of the strait, Yamashiro plodding along at 15 knots.

As the battle unfolded to the south, Oldendorf’s ships steamed back and forth across the mouth of Surigao Strait. At first, all that had been visible were the flashes of guns and of detonating torpedo warheads, but as the range continued to shorten, the first radar returns began to register on the search and fire-control radars of the waiting ships. When the gunnery radars began to find their targets, the ships’ gun directors high in the fighting tops began to track the approaching Japanese. In the plotting rooms deep below the armored decks and belts, the range keepers began to generate firing orders to the guns. Topside, all was silent but for the wash of the seas alongside. The attacks of the PT-boats and the destroyers had been the preliminary bouts— the main event was about to begin.

Somehow, it was fitting that history’s last battleship engagement was about to be contested not between the newest of their kind, but between those dating from the heyday of the dreadnought a generation earlier. These ships, both American and Japanese, had been designed and constructed in the decade spanning World War I, when the dreadnought proudly wore the mantle as the undisputed centerpiece of the world’s navies.

Commissioned in 1915 and 1917 respectively, Fuso and its sister Yamashiro were among Japan’s oldest active battleships. Through their several reconstructions and modernizations, their superstructures had grown to fantastic pagoda-like proportions with each successive stay in the yards. But, despite their grotesque appearance, they were tough and heavily armed against their own kind with 12 14-inch guns in six twin turrets and 14 inches of armor.

Oldendorf’s battle line, consisting of Pennsylvania, California, Tennessee, Mississippi, Maryland and West Virginia, also harkened back to a bygone era. All but Mississippi had been present at Pearl Harbor. Raised, rebuilt and modernized, they were now the near-equals of more modern battleships in all but speed. The first four each mounted 12 14-inch guns in four triple turrets, while the latter pair carried eight 16-inch guns in four twin turrets. Each was clad in armor up to 18 inches thick. The Americans could bring 48 14-inch guns and 16 16-inch guns, plus the 6-inch and 5-inch batteries of their accompanying cruisers and destroyers, to bear against an enemy that carried a total of 12 14- inch guns, 10 8-inch guns and five 5-inch guns in its main batteries. The final phase of the battle would not be so much a battle as it would be an execution.

At 0355 hours, with an exhortation to “Get the big boys,” Oldendorf ordered his heavy ships to commence firing, and at the same time ordered DesRon 56 forward in another torpedo attack. The black horizon north of the Japanese suddenly rippled with fire. The sea alongside the battleships foamed white under the tremendous concussion of the muzzle blasts, and the ships were bodily shoved sideways by the massive recoil of their guns. Never again would the world witness the awesome, terrible spectacle of these floating steel citadels hurling 1-ton thunderbolts at one another.

The commander of DesRon 56 described the battleships’ barrage as “the most beautiful sight” he had ever witnessed. The massive tracers that arced above his ships resembled “a continuous stream of lighted railroad cars going over a hill.” As the heavy projectiles reached the apogee of their parabolic flight, they tilted downward to plunge toward the enemy. The first salvos raised splashes more than 100 feet into the air. After only a few rounds, the American shells began to fall with deadly accuracy. In the words of one Japanese witness, Yamashiro and Mogami were deluged with a rain of shells as they struggled to return fire.

As the American projectiles continued to splash around the enemy, some bored through a foot of hardened steel armor before bursting, gutting the Japanese ships. The interior of a warship’s hull is divided into a seemingly incomprehensible maze of watertight compartments that are as small as practicable and still allow the ship to function. Clouds of splinters likely tore crewmen into bloody fragments as the shells burst. Others were crushed into shapeless heaps by the massive pressure waves created by the blasts, while those unfortunates closest to the point of detonation were vaporized in the incandescent white flashes whose temperature, for the briefest fraction of a second, approached that of the surface of the sun.

Firing slowly and carefully, the American battle line quickly completed its deadly work. Tennessee fired in only half-salvos of six guns each to preserve ammunition, and the oldest battlewagon, Pennsylvania, did not fire a single round from its main battery because its antiquated fire-control system could not obtain a satisfactory firing solution. It did not matter. The already crippled Yamashiro was reduced to a blazing, drifting wreck. Fifteen minutes after the opening American salvo, its glowing hull slipped beneath the surface, taking Nishimura and most of the crew with it. Savaged by the same weight of fire that claimed Yamashiro, Mogami reeled out of the fight, mangled by numerous hits and a fire that raged from stem to stern.

Of Nishimura’s force, only the badly battered Shigure managed to escape down the strait. Oldendorf ordered his ships to cease firing after only 23 minutes. Just as the admiral’s sailors were securing their guns, Mississippi loosed a full broadside from all 12 of its 14- inch/45-caliber guns. As the thunder of that final salvo echoed across the dark waters, a centuries-long era of naval history came to an end.

In the aftermath of the battle, Shigure made a painful, solitary escape down the strait, where it encountered Admiral Shima in search of both Nishimura and the enemy. Leaving the limping destroyer behind, Shima continued to fumble his way blindly up the strait as his ships fired at ghosts and thrashed about in considerable confusion. Sensing that something had gone terribly wrong, he finally ordered his ships to reverse course and retire. As he did so, he encountered the burning apparition that had been Mogami, and his maneuvers managed to bring about a collision between his flagship, Nachi, and what remained of this once proud heavy cruiser. To add insult to injury, Shima’s light cruiser Abukuma ran afoul of prowling PT-boats and was crippled by a torpedo hit. The unlucky Mogami and Asagumo were later sunk by a force of light cruisers and destroyers dispatched by Oldendorf to sweep the strait clear of any Japanese cripples.

Oldendorf’s forces did not have long to savor their victory as they were ordered to return to Leyte Gulf at their best speed to counter the forces of Admiral Kurita, which had passed through San Bernardino Strait and pounced upon Kinkaid’s force of thin-skinned escort carriers and their accompanying destroyers. For a time, it seemed Kurita’s sudden appearance would rob the Americans of the fruits of their victory at Surigao Strait. But to the amazement of the Americans, and with victory within his grasp, Kurita aborted the action off Samar and retired.

Never again would the once mighty Imperial Japanese Fleet pose a threat to U.S. naval forces, nor would battleships form up in stately array as they had done since the age of sail. Once the lifeblood of naval captains around the world, the battle line and crossing the T would now be only the stuff of legend.


Michael Crowder writes frequently about naval history for World War II. For further reading, see The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War, by Samuel Eliot Morison.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.