For those of you who think you know me, you at least recognize from a few blog postings that I like history, and have a reverent appreciation for the men and women who comprise the ever-shrinking "Greatest Generation". Well, advance of Veteran's Day, I'm going to go back once again, and recall for you readers an event from almost 63 years ago. For in this event, an era came to a thunderous, flaming, and official end.
One might say that this era was proclaimed to have opened when the first cannon was mounted upon the first ship at sea. The era was well underway when the second Lord Howard of Effingham's much inferior (in size) British fleet repelled the much larger Spanish Armada in the English Channel in 1588, or with the defeat of a combined French-Spanish fleet by Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. A change in the era came with the first two ships of iron, the USS Monitor and the Confederate CSS Merrimac/Virginia, meeting off Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1862, fighting each other to a day-long standstill. The era certainly came to a climax when Japanese Admiral Togo met and destroyed the bulk of the Russian Pacific Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905, and when the British Grand Fleet met the German High Seas Fleet in the sprawling Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which the German High Seas Fleet never again ventured forth to meet the British Fleet, head to head.
But by the beginning of 1940, the bell had begun to toll for the battleship and the Battle Line: for in that year, at Taranto, Italy, that bell was first rung in by a mangy gaggle of bi-winged British torpedo bombers -- launched from an aircraft carrier -- that surprised and sank three Italian battleships at anchor. Even after the German battleship Bismarck had met and destroyed the famous British battlecruiser HMS Hood in May of 1941, once again it was these 90 mile-an-hour torpedo bi-planes, launched from the British carrier Ark Royal, that damaged the Bismarck sufficiently to deny her escape, so that the British battleships King George V and Rodney could catch up and extract vengeance upon the Bismarck for the 1400 lost aboard the Hood a week earlier.
Lest we forget, there was the infamy of Pearl Harbor. A few days later, a half-world away, came a crushing British defeat in the waters northeast of Singapore, as the British lost the new battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse, to swarms of Japanese carrier and land-based aircraft.
There was a new queen of the seas: the aircraft carrier, and her angel of death, the airplane.
Still, the doctrine and legend of battleships lived on amongst the major combatants of the Second World War. Japan had built two "unsinkable" battleships, the Yamato and the Musashi, each displacing over 60,000 tons, and mounting 18" guns, larger than those of any other navy. The British used their old and newer battleships to support their fleet, and keep the one remaining German battleship -- the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck -- in check. And the United States Navy not only resurrected all the Pearl Harbor battleships from the mud, save for two; they built three new classes of "fast" battleships, culminating with the powerful Iowa class, displacing over 45,000 tons and mounting nine 16.45" guns.
Besides the duties of supporting and protecting the new queen of the seas and providing bombardment service for naval assault landings by the Marines and US Army, it was still envisioned by many a naval traditionalist that the battleship would have one last great Battle Line vs Battle Line, to determine mastery of the Seven Seas. The old traditions died hard.
Yet only twice until 1944, did American battleships oppose enemy battleships: once, during the 1942 TORCH landings in North Africa, when the USS Massachusetts engaged an immobile Vichy French battleship in a nearby port -- the Jean Bart -- silencing her fire on the invasion fleet; and in the early morning of November 15, 1942, the USS Washington took on the Japanese battleship Kirishima, in a close-quarters brawl won decisively by the Washington (pictured above, an actual photo during her battle with the Kirishima).
In October of 1944, the US Navy set their sights on fulfilling a promise made by General Douglas MacArthur, two years prior: an invasion of the Philippines. Specifically, the island of Leyte.
The Japanese, ready to go to any lengths to stop the coming invasion, came up with a desperate plan of their own. That plan was to use their remaining aircraft carriers -- largely denuded of combat aircraft in the wake of the Great Marianas "Turkey Shoot" -- as bait, to pull away from the Philippines the mighty US Third Fleet under Admiral William Halsey, which included the newer "fast" battleships known as Task Force 34. The Japanese were sure that with the bait dangled, Halsey would go after the Japanese carriers with everything he had, leaving the Leyte invasion force scantly protected by auxiliary naval forces and the older, slower battleships of Admiral Thomas Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet.
And thus, as sheep for the wolves: the Japanese would commit their battleships and cruisers in force, from three directions, to attack the Leyte beachhead and landing forces, and annihilate it.
The first force would consist of the cream of the Japanese Battle Line: six battleships, including the "unsinkable" Yamato and Musashi, with the majority of remaining heavy cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers (a portion of which are pictured above). They would sail through San Bernadino Strait (expected to have been vacated by Halsey's Task Force 34), and come around upon the Leyte invasion force from the north; while from the south would come two additional task forces: that of Admiral Nishimura, consisting of two battleships, one heavy cruiser, and four destroyers; the other commanded by Admiral Shima, consisting of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers. They would separately penetrate Surigao Strait from the south, and then join forces with Admiral Kurita's Center Force to attack and wipe out the Leyte invasion fleet.
If it worked, it would be a tremendous lift to the Japanese forces in the Philippines and elsewhere; and it might check the Americans sufficiently to turn back their anticipated thrusts closer to Japan.
As the Japanese fleet movements began, American submarines detected, reported and attacked them. Kurita's Center Force lost three heavy cruisers to submarine attack; and following the reports, Halsey's carrier planes struck hard at Kurita's and Nishimura's forces, with special attention to Kurita's Center Force. The "unsinkable" Musashi -- staggered by 17 bomb and 19 torpedo hits -- rolled over and sank; many more of Kurita's ships were damaged. He temporarily turned back.
Halsey was fooled: both by Kurita's apparent retreat, and by the discovery of the Japanese carrier force, commanded by Admiral Ozawa, to the north. With the understanding that Kurita was withdrawing, Halsey took out after the Ozawa force, taking with him about everything he had, including Task Force 34. In so doing, Halsey left San Bernadino Strait uncovered.
Halsey's aircraft would ultimately and utterly destroy the core of the remaining Japanese carriers. But this was part of the Japanese plan, and a sacrifice they were willing to make, to achieve the greater prize they sought at such cost.
Shortly after Halsey turned north, Kurita -- not sure that Halsey had taken the bait, but determined to fulfill his mission -- turned around and again advanced on San Bernadino Strait, prepared for a fight upon arrival. Meantime, Admiral Nishimura's force was lightly damaged by the air attacks, but received no further aerial interference, and he pushed relentlessly on toward Surigao Strait.
Unknown to Nishimura and Shima, awaiting them was Admiral Thomas Kincaid's Seventh Fleet of older, slower battleships, many of them resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor: USS Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, California and Pennsylvania had been at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Only the Pennsylvania had not been badly damaged or sunk (she was in dry dock at the time). Along with the "old lady" USS Mississippi, this force had been providing fire support for the infantry forces now storming the beaches of Leyte. With word of the approach of the Japanese from the south , as well as believing that Kurita's fleet was in retreat -- as well as under the mistaken belief that Task Force 34 had his northern "back" covered -- Admiral Kinkaid made preparations to receive the southern attack force.
His defenses was arrayed in depth: as the Japanese proceeded into Surigao Strait in the darkness of October 25, they would first encounter torpedo-firing PT boats; then the torpedo-firing destroyers of Squadron 54. Finally, as they emerged into the main body of the Strait, they would be flanked by more destroyers, with heavy and light cruisers arrayed on each side of the Strait.
And directly ahead -- whatever of the Japanese force survived and came through -- they would encounter Kinkaid's main force of six battleships, commanded by Admiral Jesse Oldendorf.
In the early hours of October 25, Admiral Nishimura's force proceeded into the Strait: the attack of the PT boats was a warning Nishimura brushed aside with no damage, determined as he was to meet with Kurita's powerful force and destroy the American invasion forces between them. Shortly thereafter, Nishimura's force was met by the torpedoes from Destroyer Squadron 54: the battleship Fuso was mortally hit, slowing and turning out of formation before it exploded in two. Three Japanese destroyers were also hit and sunk or rendered sinking.
Nishimura resolutely pushed on, his force now reduced to the battleship Yamashiro; the heavy cruiser Mogami; and the destroyer Shigure. Destiny awaited him.
At 0351, Nishimura's remnants came under fire from the flanking US cruisers: from the heavy cruisers Louisville, Minneapolis and Portland; and from the light cruisers Denver, Boise, Phoenix and Columbia. He was, as yet, unaware of the danger directly ahead.
At 0353, the Oldendorf's Battle Line -- prepared by generations of training and doctrine for this moment -- brought Admiral Nishimura to stark reality, as the USS West Virginia opened fire with her 16" guns. Quickly thereafter the Maryland, California, and Tennessee added their 14" and 16" guns to what quickly became a fiery maelstrom.
Nishimura steamed aggressively on into an avalanche of fire: from the 6" and 8" guns of the flanking cruisers, up to the 16" armor-piercing rounds from the West Virginia and Maryland. Nishimura's force was only able to return minimal fire against this storm of shells, fighting back with only the forward 14" turrets of the Yamashiro and forward 8" turrets of the Mogami. Admiral Oldendorf's Battle Line had fulfilled the fundamental doctrine in battleship combat: he had capped Nishimura's "T", allowing his ships to bring all guns to bear, while allowing Nishimura only return fire from his forward turrets.
And so it went until 0409, when after a final, thundering salvo from the guns of the battleship USS Mississippi, the American Battle Line fell silent. The savaged, blazing Yamashiro and Mogami, along with the lucky and lightly-damaged Shigure, turned back south; seeking to be hungry tigers among the American transports, they had instead met the tiger, well short of their objective.
And in that moment, the ghosts from Pearl Harbor -- the fallen sailors of the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and those who died aboard the other revived battleships, resurrected from the mud and blood of December 7, 1941 -- perhaps watching from the sidelines of the Strait in approving silence, saw their brethren exacted a measure of revenge in their memories. For one last time, they stood to their eternal posts, saluting the closing of an age they had long trained and prepared for, as that age concluded with a last emphatic salvo, passing on to join them in history. Never again on the world stage would battleship oppose battleship. An era was over.
The battered Yamashiro struggled southward, only to capsize and sink at 0419, taking down Admiral Nishimura and most of the crew. The equally battered Mogami -- after colliding with the on-rushing heavy cruiser Nachi of Admiral Shima's force -- was unable to escape, and succumbed later that day. Of Nishimura's force of two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers, only the destroyer Shigure survived to see another day. Admiral Shima, confronted with the shattered remnants of Nishimura's force, and alerted now as to what lay ahead of him, withdrew.
Meanwhile, well to the north, Admiral Kurita's Goliath, proceeding through San Bernardino Strait, met not Halsey, as Kurita feared, but David: a small force of American escort carriers (about half the size of a regular fleet carrier, carrying about 20 combat aircraft apiece), escorted by a pitiful few destroyers and destroyer escorts, there to provide close air support to the troops ashore, as well as anti-submarine air patrols.
To say that both forces were surprised would be an understatement: Kurita believed he had blundered into a portion of Halsey's Third Fleet; and Admiral Clifton Sprague, commanding the "Taffy 3" force of six escort carriers and four escorts, was appreciably nonplussed to be confronted by, and within gun range of, the cream of the Japanese Battle Line. A force he had believed, until this moment, to be of no threat to him whatsoever.
But while Sprague called for help and his carriers turned to run, his planes, along with those from nearby Taffys 1 and 2, swarmed over the Japanese ships like enraged hornets, many continuing to make attack runs without bombs and ammunition, desperate to protect their ships. As for the commanding officers of the destroyers Johnston, Hoel, Heermann and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, they didn't bother to consider the overwhelming odds and almost certain death they faced; they reacted to the situation and performed their duty as the American Navy had throughout its' illustrious history: they recklessly closed with and engaged the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers.
Kurita's force of five battleships and more cruisers with ample destroyer escort, could simply have bulled right through Taffy 3, and onto the wanton destruction of the American invasion force. Admiral Kinkaid's Battle Line was low on ammunition, and not in position to intercept Kurita, though Kinkaid -- in response to frantic calls from Taffy 3 and stunned by the absence of Task Force 34 -- began to move toward him.
But Kurita's Goliath was being tied up and confounded by the Taffy 3 David.
Despite the overwhelming fire being directed against them, the hopelessly-outgunned American destroyers charged, fighting back furiously and spreading confusion amongst the Japanese capital ships. They did so at a cruel price: the Johnston, Hoel and Samuel B. Roberts succumbed to concentrated fire after heroic efforts to defend their carriers, with few survivors between them. Only the Heermann managed to survive the day, despite heavy damage and having, at one point, engaged four battleships at the equivalent of point-blank range. As for the carriers, two sustained hits from battleships, but only the Gambier Bay was lost (pictured above, sinking and still under Japanese fire).
All the while, Kurita's harried force lost three cruisers to furious and repeated air attack, and the mighty Yamato was forced to backtrack to avoid torpedoes fired by either the Johnston or Hoel, taking her 18" guns out of the fight.
At the moment Kurita stood poised to accomplish his mission -- for which so much had been risked and lost -- Kurita lost heart. He ordered his bewildered, depleted Center Force to withdraw, retreating through San Bernadino Strait 3 hours before the return of Task Force 34, belatedly responding to the calls for help from Taffy 3.
Thus was one last match-up of leviathans -- the 18" guns of the Yamato, versus the 16.45" guns of the Iowa Class, an encounter long anticipated -- denied to history. The USS Mississippi and her sisters had already called down that curtain, for the last time.
Today, the only battleships remaining are museum displays or decommissioned. But 63 years ago, in a thundering crescendo to the end of an era in naval warfare and world history, they stood toe-to-toe with the foe, and performed as Mahan and other battleship strategists had long proclaimed.
As Veterans' Day 2007 approaches, take a moment to remember them, and the courageous men who served aboard them.