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Battle of Surigao Strait

Battle of Surigao Strait

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by Anthony P. Tully

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Surigao Strait in the Philippine Islands was the scene of a major battleship duel during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Because the battle was fought at night and had few survivors on the Japanese side, the events of that naval engagement have been passed down in garbled accounts. Anthony P. Tully pulls together all of the existing documentary material, including newly


Surigao Strait in the Philippine Islands was the scene of a major battleship duel during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Because the battle was fought at night and had few survivors on the Japanese side, the events of that naval engagement have been passed down in garbled accounts. Anthony P. Tully pulls together all of the existing documentary material, including newly discovered accounts and a careful analysis of U.S. Navy action reports, to create a new and more detailed description of the action. In several respects, Tully's narrative differs radically from the received versions and represents an important historical corrective. Also included in the book are a number of previously unpublished photographs and charts that bring a fresh perspective to the battle.

Indiana University Press

Editorial Reviews

Naval History

"Anthony Tully has managed to trace the complicated flow of and reason for events... with a skill and aplomb that forces one to reconsider previously held views." —Naval History

Military Review

"Tully's narrative is clear and clarifies a confused night battle in restricted waters. He disputes several perceived truths about the battle by giving the reader a complete record of what each ship was doing at each stage of the battle." —Military Review

The Journal of Naval History

"With copious endnotes, an extensive and interesting bibliography and thorough index, this book is worth buying by serious students of the Pacific War and for institutional libraries with a strong military history focus." —The Journal of Naval History


"The skilful incorporation of personal testimony from those involved is what really elevates this work above run-of-the-mill naval history and turns it into something special." —Warship

War in History

"By giving a fuller view of the Japanese side, Tully's work forces a substantial revision of the traditional picture of the battle. Battle of Surigao Strait is not only military history based on scrupulous use of a plethora of new source materials, but is a spanking good read. Highly recommended." —War in History

Malcolm Muir

"Aims to sort out the discrepancies that have crept in over time to standard accounts of the battle... a confused and complex night action. Of special interest is Tully's exploitation of fresh source materials." —Malcolm Muir, Jr., author of Black Shoes and Blue Water: Surface Warfare in the United States Navy, 1945–1975

James D. Hornfischer

"If the vibrant international community of experts who study the Pacific War and discuss and debate it online can be seen as a mafia, then Anthony Tully is its consigliore. Whenever a question arises about the battle history of World War II in the Pacific--what really happened after the fleets collided, dive-bombers entered their dives, and shot met plate--he is the indispensable man. In this book he paints Admiral Nishimura's high-speed run into history with an entirely fresh palette of detail, from the command decisions to the after-action reports. It offers naval history buffs something fresh and easy to relish on almost every page" —James D. Hornfischer, author of Ship of Ghosts and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors

From the Publisher
"The skillful incorporation of personal testimony from those involved is what really elevates this work above run-of-the-mill naval history and turns it into something special." —Warship

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Twentieth-Century Battles Series
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Battle of Surigao Strait

By Anthony P. Tully

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Anthony P. Tully
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35242-2


"I have returned."

Sunrise, Friday, October 20, 1944, over Leyte Gulf revealed to the Japanese an awesome armada, one of the largest and most powerful assemblies ever concentrated in the Pacific. Emerging from its obscurity and the shroud of conflicting and confusing reports since October 9, the invasion forces of General Douglas MacArthur now stood plainly on the stage. Well over seven hundred vessels—including six battleships—were gathered east of Leyte and the gulf entrance alone, while beyond Suluan island over the horizon to the northeast stood the four fast-carrier task groups and screen of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's Task Force 38.

Swarms of aircraft patrolled overhead, while others lined up in formation to support the invasion as the landing craft surged toward the beaches from 420 transports. Four American divisions would be landing, and their arrival announced in no uncertain terms the fulfillment of MacArthur's dramatic pledge "I shall return" made in 1942. Then it had been the Americans that had been fighting in vain to somehow marshal enough strength to withstand invasion by overwhelmingly powerful forces. Now the proverbial shoe was on the other foot.

At 1000 hours, precisely on schedule, the first landing ramps dropped and the soldiers dashed through the waves onto the beach. Four hours later MacArthur emerged from his cabin on the light cruiser Nashville, to descend into a waiting landing craft, where he was joined by the president of the Philippines, Sergio Osmena. The beach was already so crowded there was no room to land at the pier, and the harried beach master directing the landings indicated that if MacArthur was going to come ashore, he was going to have to walk.

With little ado, General MacArthur had the ramp dropped, waved for Osmena and his staff to follow, and took the momentous step into the knee-deep water. While all around watched, with grim resolve he waded through the Leyte surf and swaggered onto the beach. An inspiring scene, so inspiring that it was repeated for the benefit of more film crews at a later hour. Yet the first arrival itself was recorded and remains a decisive moment in history. His pants were still damp when MacArthur was handed a temporary microphone and announced: "People of the Philippines. I have returned. Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on."

In hindsight, and conditioned as we are by the drama of the scene and what followed, though it seems hard to imagine otherwise, there had been no guarantee that MacArthur would be allowed to fulfill his famous 1942 vow. After the capture of Saipan conceivably the Philippines could have been bypassed entirely as had been done to the great Japanese bases at Truk and Rabaul—both cut off from supplies and air support and their garrisons left to wither on the vine. After all, the primary goal of both the Central Pacific campaign of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and the Southwest Pacific campaign of MacArthur was to converge on Japan's inner defense sphere, to cut the supply chain of bases between Japan and its southern oil territories, to build air bases for heavy bombers in range to pound Japan, and ultimately, if necessary, to invade the home islands to compel complete surrender.

From Pearl Harbor Admiral Nimitz's forces, primarily the marines and the navy, had been working eastward since the battle of Midway in what was termed the Central Pacific drive. They started at Guadalcanal and then sprang to the Gilbert Islands, with operations following through the Marshalls, the Marianas, and the Western Carolines, with such bloody clashes as Tarawa in the mix. At the same time, in the drive up from the Southwest Pacific MacArthur was waging the bloody fight to secure New Guinea, and then up through New Georgia and thence to the Philippines.

The capture of Saipan had marked the converging of these two campaigns; the next big one would involve both heretofore distinct supreme commands. Saipan's fall had gone far toward meeting the main criteria for the next phase. The airfields in Saipan were both in range and large enough to accommodate the heavy B-29 "Superfortress" bombers that would begin the pounding of Japan and the Asian coast. The U.S. Navy's fast carriers were capable of supporting an invasion force wherever it might be sent, and between them the army and marines could pretty much take anything selected.

The upshot was that the Joint Chiefs were presented with three main choices to invade next, just as the Japanese had foreseen and attempted to counter with a "Sho" plan number for each. Concerned with fulfilling his pledge to return to the Philippines and the impact of liberation, MacArthur pressed for the Philippines. Admiral Nimitz and his superior Admiral King preferred a direct advance from the Marianas to Formosa and the Chinese coast, and then to Japan. Strong strategic reasons existed to consider invading Formosa, which was closer to the Japanese homeland; if successful, such an invasion could shorten the war. A dramatic conference at Pearl Harbor held by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in late July between Nimitz and MacArthur failed to resolve the impasse conclusively.

The Joint Chiefs worked out a compromise on September 1. After the Western Carolines wrapped up, a "partial" invasion of the Philippines would follow. The Allies would first invade Mindanao in November to set up air bases, and then go ahead with invading Leyte the next month. Then, if practical, Luzon with its massed defenses and Yamashita's army would be skipped. MacArthur, who was eager to liberate the whole archipelago, especially the capital, Manila, found even this hard to stomach, but he accepted it as tolerable and submitted plans. He rightly felt that once they captured Leyte and the central Philippines there would be momentum to liberate Luzon. The invasion date for Leyte was tentatively set for December 20, 1944.

Whether Formosa or Leyte would be the next target remained in question until the debate was resolved by an important report and recommendation from Admiral Halsey in September. Preliminary and punishing strikes against the Philippines and Formosa areas designed with both possibilities in mind had met with such astonishingly weak resistance that Halsey was convinced the Philippines lay wide open. The Allies had a golden opportunity to speed up the war schedule. On September 13 Halsey advocated forgetting about Mindanao and going right for Leyte in the heart of the Philippines, and what was more, doing it in October, two months earlier than planned. Halsey said his carriers could handle the initial air-cover needs. The combined weight of MacArthur's influence and Halsey's bold memo coalesced with the international political considerations to tip the balance. On October 3 the Joint Chiefs issued the directive to forgo Mindanao completely and to seize Leyte, ahead of schedule on October 20, 1944.

In the end, MacArthur's pledge had become self-fulfilling prophecy; many felt American prestige would suffer too much if the islands were by-passed and the Philippine people left to languish for months, maybe a year longer under Japanese occupation. Therefore the combined strength of the United States Army and Navy from both Pacific theaters of operation was committed to the single goal of taking Leyte. It was indeed a massive affair, and for once the Japanese intelligence reports proved to be only slightly exaggerating the strength the Allies had brought to liberate the Philippines.

For the invasion of Leyte General MacArthur, commander in chief Southwest Pacific Forces, had under his command 200,000 men of General Walter Kreuger's Sixth Army. MacArthur also had at his disposal Lieutenant General George C. Kenney's Fifth Air Force, with over 2,500 planes in its inventory. In fact, one of the purposes of the Leyte invasion was to obtain possession of the airfields for Kenney to move his bombers and fighters there to take over the job of providing air cover for the Philippine campaign. Kreuger's army was divided into two main amphibious groups, which would make two separate but closely adjacent landings, both on the eastern shore at Leyte Gulf. TF 79 carrying Major General Sibert's X Corps would go ashore near Tacloban, the ancient Philippine capital. TF 78 would land Major General Hodge's XXIV Corps at Dulag, some 10 miles south of Tacloban. Each of the landings would be covered by its own fire support force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Their bombardments would try to "soften" the beach defenses and cover the landings once in progress against attacks from air and sea.

Three battleships, heavy and light cruisers, and about ten destroyers made up each fire support group, and all were under the command of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, commanding the Bombardment and Fire Support Group. There was also the Close Covering Group of Rear Admiral Russell S. Berkey with cruisers and destroyers. Thirty-nine PT boats under Commander Selman S. Bowling rounded out the ensemble. All three forces should be borne in mind as they would play the chief Allied role in the battle of Surigao Strait.

Between them these amphibious forces alone boasted 738 ships, nearly 100 of them combat vessels, the rest transports and auxiliaries. Almost 500 aircraft were available from the amphibious forces' small escort carriers. This armada was the so-called MacArthur's Navy, the famous Seventh Fleet of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. Kinkaid's fleet had been there from the start of MacArthur's steady and inexorable "island hopping" campaign as his forces based in Australia, together with Australian and New Zealand forces, slowly but surely rolled up the Japanese line in the Southwest Pacific.

Kinkaid's force was so substantial that he even carried his own air cover, so vital to the success of any amphibious operation of this scale. No less than eighteen escort carriers under Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague in three groups stood just outside Leyte Gulf off Samar to provide the close air support required. Effective in this role, Sprague's ships were nonetheless too slow, its aircraft too few, its screen too weak to be asked to defend itself or the beachhead against a major Japanese fleet or carrier attack. Nor was it expected to do so.

That task fell to Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet and its crack Task Force 38, whose carrier groups under Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher had just finished savaging the Japanese land-based air in the battle of Formosa. Now they were hovering like a menacing monsoon in the open waters of the Philippine Sea. Three mighty task forces, a single one far superior to Ozawa's Main Force even if that force's embarked aircraft had been at full strength, stood ready to crush any Japanese fleet that came into range of its swarms of aircraft. Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman's TF 38.3, with two fleet carriers and two light carriers, held the northern position off Luzon. Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan's 38.2's three fleet and one light carrier hovered east of San Bernardino Strait. Also with Bogan was Halsey himself, flying his flag in the mighty modern battleship New Jersey with its sister Iowa. The third task group on station, Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison's 38.4, stood off east of Leyte. It boasted only two fleet carriers with two light carriers, but one of these was the famous veteran carrier Enterprise.

At one time Enterprise with a few other hard-pressed ships had carried almost the entire burden of the Guadalcanal campaign, and carried it well. Now it had been somewhat outpaced by its younger rivals of the Essex-class, but its air group still had plenty of fight, and most important, experience, to contribute. Appropriately perhaps, Enterprise would strike the only blow against the Nishimura force before the battle of Surigao Strait. Finally TF 38's screen, in addition to the battleships, comprised seventeen cruisers and fifty-eight destroyers. Such was this assemblage of strength that Halsey had felt content to release a fourth such task group of two fleet and three light carriers and their screen from the front lines to return to Ulithi to replenish. This was Rear Admiral John S. McCain's TF 38.1, which will be encountered in the closing phases of the battle as it rushes back to participate.

Striking at the Japanese fleet was a priority and preference for both Halsey and his superior Nimitz. However, this priority competed with, and was perhaps even superseded by, another vital task. To invade Leyte in October, MacArthur and Kinkaid had been forced to risk doing so beyond the range of MacArthur's landbased air cover. This was a major difference from MacArthur's previous operations, and was agreed to only because he had been assured by Nimitz and Washington that the U.S. Navy's fast carriers were capable of providing such protection to an acceptable degree on a temporary basis. However, this did not trump (though it arguably should have) TF 38's standing instruction that if "the opportunity arose" to destroy the Japanese Mobile Fleet it should do so. MacArthur and Kinkaid felt the opposite; the entire invasion could be put in jeopardy if air cover failed or was withdrawn too soon. This conflict of interest and preferences would weigh heavily in the coming battle of Leyte Gulf and influence deployments for the battle of Surigao Strait.

The Allied troops had been splashing ashore for two hours when the large Japanese battle fleet sent to destroy them began dropping anchors in Borneo's wide Brunei Bay. Kurita's First Striking Force (1YB) had taken up their assigned positions when a message sent at 1006 arrived from Toyoda's chief of staff, Kusaka. When Kurita received the message that afternoon it caused a flurry in his staff. Kusaka said Combined Fleet "had concluded that it would be preferable to proceed to, and break into, the enemy anchorage in two groups—one from the north through San Bernardino Strait and the other from the south through Surigao Strait [in other words a double penetration]—rather than to approach with the whole force as a unit." That is, Kusaka recommended a revision to change the thrust into Leyte Gulf into a pincer movement. Vice Admiral Ugaki's way of referring to it was offhand: "[Kusaka] sent detailed studies of the penetrating operation just for 'information'. It was quite significant to notice that the commander, Battleship Division 1 [i.e., Ugaki himself] was included in the list of those to whom a copy of the telegram was sent." It would be interesting to know if commander, Battleship Division 2 (Batdiv 2), was on that list. Though couched as a "preference" and "suggestion for consideration" it would determine the destiny of Battleship Division 2's commander, Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, and those who served him. This fateful suggestion by Toyoda's chief of staff at 1006 October 20 led directly to the surface battle of Surigao Strait.

During this time, far north, Shima's 2YB was busily engaged in refueling, having arrived at Mako at 0830 that morning from Amami-Oshima. Now Shima was waiting while Combined Fleet and Manila's staffs argued about Toyoda's latest order to Mikawa. Shortly after midnight of October 19, after mulling Mikawa's suggestion to attach Shima to Ozawa or Kurita (see last chapter), Toyoda had peremptorily made dispatch No. 362, insisting that Mikawa, "after consultation" with Yamashita, have Shima go ahead with counter-landing operations "as speedily as possible." This amounted to telling Mikawa how he should deploy his forces.

Important to notice is at this time Kusaka's "suggestion" to Kurita to consider a double penetration by 1YB via Surigao Strait had not yet been made. These discussions about 2YB were independent of the former, which goes a long way to explaining the confused planning that ensued. Tempting to wonder is if Kusaka's "suggestion" to 1YB grew out of staff work from Manila's offer to make Shima available to support Kurita. The timing may be significant.


Excerpted from Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony P. Tully. Copyright © 2009 Anthony P. Tully. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anthony P. Tully is an independent scholar and historian of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He is author (with Jon Parshall) of Shattered Sword, a study of the Battle of Midway. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Indiana University Press

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Battle of Surigao Strait 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
wharfee More than 1 year ago
As author stated Surigao Strait is a little know story in print. for tohse who were there, it is not. Now, this book brings all who are/were unaware of battle by reading this, brings a new sourse of knowledge about WW2 in South Pacific. history
mjfoxfl More than 1 year ago
As the author correctly points out the Battle of Surigao Strait has been somewhat ignored by historians because it was overshadowed by nore drama- tic events. This book is a good start for the serious historian at correcting that oversight. It addresses many of the myths that everyone knew were correct and debunks them in what appears to me a logical and reasoned manner. It is a good read and becomes increasingly dramatic and absorbing as you approach the culmination of the battle. For military history buffs who have encountered well planned and executed ambushes in their reading I doubt you will find a better example of such.
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