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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action

by H.P. Willmott; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2005, $35.

The great struggle in and around the Philippines in the summer and fall of 1944 is currently burning bright in the American historical consciousness. First, there was James D. Hornfischer’s bestseller The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, a splendidly written popular account of the improbable American victory off the coast of Samar, published in 2004. After that came two recent entries: Barrett Tillman’s Clash of the Carriers, an account of the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” that may well equal Hornfischer’s book in readership, and H.P. Willmott’s work of high scholarship on the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

A new book by Willmott is always something to take note of. He is perhaps the world’s preeminent naval historian. A highly learned man, prone to quoting Shakespeare, he is a world-class researcher who leaves few archival stones unturned. He also has an acid pen. Broadsides fly in this book, with targets as diverse as Alfred Thayer Mahan, Samuel Eliot Morrison and the ignorance of naval officers in general. Nor does he spare the historical actors themselves. American readers may not mind what he has to say about Admiral Takeo Kurita, commander of the crucial Japanese “Center Force.” His handling of the entire battle—from his clumsy choice of formation in the Palawan Passage to the turnaway off Samar—is simply inexplicable, if not downright inept. But they may be disturbed by Willmott’s assessment of Admiral William F. Halsey. “Bull” Halsey is still a hero to many who view him as the embodiment of American defiance in the Pacific War. It will be a tough opinion to maintain after reading Willmott’s dissection of his performance in this book.

If Willmott simply dealt in personalities, however, what he says would not be as important as it is. Where he really shines is the way he goes beyond individuals and personalities. So much military history today is still of the “great man” variety, with victory and defeat emanating solely from the brilliance or incompetence of the commander. War and battle become a series of magic moments— “turning points,” they are usually called— in which this general zigged when he should have zagged, or that admiral turned to starboard when the situation clearly called for turning to port. The ultimate reduction to absurdity is the number of battles that military historians claim were decided by illness on the part of the commanding officer—Napoleon’s stomach troubles at Waterloo being the classic example.

Willmott will have none of that. He sees modern war as far too complex to be decided by any single item on a military historian’s shopping list. Rather, the factors that determine the fate of battles in the modern age are “systemic.” They either emerge from the nature of war itself (heavily laden as it is with chance, uncertainty and fog) or they are bound up with the military systems of the combatant forces. This was never truer than at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where the area of deployment was some 450,000 square miles (an area greater than Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico together) and the battle itself covered 115,000 square miles (an area slightly smaller than the British Isles). All the radar in the world was not going to dispel the fog of war. In such a situation, Willmott argues, “it is not individual commanders that are important…but staffs, standard operating procedures, and coordination of efforts of different services and commands.”

The balance of forces is another crucial issue that transcends how good or bad the commanders may be. At Leyte, the U.S. Navy had more destroyers in its order of battle than the Imperial Japanese Navy had carrier aircraft, and there were more destroyers in the two American task forces than there were in the entire Japanese navy. Moreover, by this point in the war, U.S. carriers had become all but invulnerable to conventional attack from air or sea, a crucial factor in the Japanese turn toward kamikaze tactics in the Philippines. In fact, Willmott argues, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was unusual in that it was a great engagement fought after the issue of the war had been decided, after the United States had achieved both sea and air supremacy in the summer of 1944.

It is reasonable to ask, therefore, just what the Japanese expected to win at Leyte. It is clear there was no logical reason for them to have offered battle at all by that time, and to Willmott that is precisely the point. The Japanese were no longer operating on the “rational actor” model. The commanders of the Imperial Japanese Navy were not seeking victory at Leyte so much as they were looking for “a fitting place to die” and “the chance to bloom as flowers of death.” In that sense—and in that sense alone—the Battle of Leyte Gulf went entirely according to the Japanese plan.

Analyzing Leyte in these terms allows Willmott to avoid the common pitfall of focusing on just one moment of this sprawling battle to the exclusion of all others: the ordeal of the “tin can soldiers” off Samar. With Admiral Halsey abandoning his post at the San Bernardino Strait to chase down a force of Japanese carriers deliberately dangled as a decoy, the escort carriers and destroyers of Task Unit 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) were all that stood between Kurita’s heavy guns and the transports and beaches of the Leyte invasion force. Halsey was in the process of chewing up the Japanese carriers off Cape Engaño (an encounter almost always ignored in accounts of the battle, but dealt with here in loving detail), when he received Admiral Chester Nimitz’s famous message: “Where is repeat where is Task Force 34. The world wonders.” The last sentence was “padding,” not admonition, but that’s not how Halsey chose to read it. He now sent much of his force back to Samar, knowing full well it would arrive too late to change things there—turning away from a battle he knew he was winning. Meanwhile, Kurita himself was turning away from the Americans at Samar, likewise abandoning a battle that he too was in the process of winning.

It is a well-known tale whose details most naval buffs can recite by heart. But Willmott is the first historian to go beyond the high drama of the encounter and bring some perspective to the discussion. Just what could Kurita have achieved at Samar? “There is no victory the Japanese could have won,” Willmott argues, “which would have materially affected the course, still less the outcome, of the war in the Pacific.” The loss of all U.S. single-engine aircraft during the entire Battle of Leyte, for example, amounted to roughly 50 minutes’ output from America’s bustling factories and assembly lines. The destruction of Taffy 3 off Samar might have moved back the timetable for American conquest of the Philippines, but staving off ultimate Japanese defeat? Hardly.

There is also a concern here for systemic factors that is quite rare among military historians. Willmott is interested not in Halsey’s gruff personality, a staple of naval literature, but in his relationship to his staff, as well as the belated acceptance of the staff system in navies generally. He writes with some heat of the military culture of the U.S. Navy. After all, what sort of institution would, first of all, allow an admiral to disobey orders (which were to support and protect the forces landing at Leyte) and take a huge fleet on a personal quest for glory, and second, not court-martial him afterward?

In fact, Willmott finds Halsey’s entire career, and the Navy’s tolerance of him, to be problematic. This was, he notes, a commander whose very seaworthiness may be called into question. Halsey, for example, lost more ships to typhoon than to enemy action in the course of the war. As to the Japanese, they apparently had little idea of the nature of the war they began with the United States and its Allies, very little ability to adapt to the changing nature of war at sea, and an increasingly shaky grasp of reality as the fortunes of war turned against them. Kurita, therefore, was as much the result of systemic factors, the institutional culture of his service, as he was the cause of defeat at Leyte.

One necessary caveat for the casual reader or buff here is that Willmott has not written a standard history of Leyte Gulf here—that’s been done many times over. Rather, he has produced what a biblical scholar would call a midrash: a sustained meditation or commentary on what is already a well-known story. That fact poses certain problems. If you don’t already know the battle well, especially its extremely complex, quadripartite structure (the Japanese passage of the Sibuyan Sea, the last great battle-line action in history in the Surigao Strait, the uneven fight off Samar, and Halsey’s foolhardy rush to glory at Cape Engaño), then this is definitely not the book to fill in the gaps.

The writing can be extremely opaque in places, as the author may refer to Nimitz’s message to Halsey in one place, drop it, discuss it a second or even a third time, and then only provide the actual text of the message many pages later. Likewise, numerous facts are introduced en passant (in passing); overuse of that phrase seems to be Willmott’s personal writing tic. Some of these points are taken up later; many others aren’t. And finally, on more than a few occasions, Willmott drops a sprawling three-to-four-page paragraph on the reader—rarely a good idea in any writing universe.

This is not a book for beginners, in other words. Readers in search of stirring tales of heroism at sea or homely anecdotes of shipboard life are advised to look elsewhere. Those who have done their preliminary reading and are ready for the advanced course on Leyte, however, will turn to Willmott. There they will have the opportunity to savor the work of a master military historian at the top of his game.


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