Surigao Strait, Philippines October 25, 1944

In the lightless hours on this date, October 25, 1945, two elderly Japa­nese battle­ships—Fuso and Yama­shiro—escorted by heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, steamed into what would become one of the most lop-sided battles in naval history. The war­ships made up half the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy’s southern strike force under veteran Vice Adm. Shōji Nishi­mura. Their mis­sion: pene­trate Leyte Gulf via the Suri­gao Strait and assist Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita’s First Diver­sion Attack Force (“Center Force”) in destroying the U.S. surface fleet and Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s recently estab­lished beach­head on the Central Philip­pine island of Leyte. Flanking the narrow Suri­gao Strait were Leyte and Dina­gat islands to the west and east (see map below). The U.S. Navy would lump the ensuring Battle of Suri­gao Strait under the titanic Battle of Leyte Gulf (Octo­ber 23–26, 1944) by virtue of three Japa­nese strike forces, all of them sepa­rated by great dis­tances, being part of the IJN’s Shō-Go Plan. Devised in late July 1944, the Shō-Go Plan (shō means “to conquer”) was the last attempt by the Imperial fleet to defend its empire during the Pacific War.

Nishimura’s flotilla left Borneo on Octo­ber 22, 1944, and entered the south end of Suri­gao Strait in the early hours of Octo­ber 25. In a night­time engage­ment with war­ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the Royal Austra­lian Navy, Nishi­mura’s “Southern Force” (aka “C” Force) was anni­hi­lated. Amer­i­can destroyers torpe­doed both battle­ships, the Fuso sinking 40 minutes after being hit, although one source claims it was the Yama­shiro that sank first. In any case, the lost battle­ship repre­sented 50 per­cent of Nishi­mura’s battle­ship strength. Also lost were three de­stroyers, Asa­gumo, Michishio, and Yama­gumo. Despite this, Nishi­mura pressed on with one battle­ship, one heavy cruiser, and his remaining destroyer Shigure—hardly an awe-inspiring force. Because at the northern end of the strait, arrayed bow to stern hori­zontally, were six U.S. battle­ships carrying between them 48 14‑in (356mm) and 16 16‑in (406mm) guns—the USS Cali­for­nia, Mary­land, Missis­sippi, Penn­syl­vania, Tenne­ssee, and West Virginia. Excepting the USS Missis­sippi, each of veter­an Rear Adm. Jesse Olden­dorf’s battle­wagons had been damaged during Japan’s Decem­ber 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and returned to service.

Oldendorf planned his defense of the Suri­gao Strait with skill and over­whelming fire­power. Besides 6 battle­ships (3 with advanced gun­nery radar), ­Olden­dorf com­manded 8 cruisers, 28 destroyers, and 39 tor­pe­do (PT) boats. Just before the strait met the mouth of Leyte Gulf, Olden­dorf’s battle­wagons and cruisers stood ready to deliver full broad­sides by “crossing the T” on Nishi­mura’s tattered for­ma­tion. Already U.S. and Austra­lian destroyers and PT boats on the flanks of the U.S. battle lines had drawn blood by sinking three of Nishi­mura’s destroyers. As all hell lit up the pitch-black sky the results were catas­trophic for the Japa­nese intru­ders. Nishi­mura went down with Yama­shiro (Fuso?). Mogami and Shiranui beat a wounded retreat. Vice Adm. Kiyo­hide Shima’s Second Striking Force of 2 heavy cruisers and 4 de­stroyers, the weaker half of Nishi­mura’s armada, entered the strait 35 nautical miles astern of Nishi­mura. Shima’s flag­ship Nachi and Mogami collided in the chaos. Having no desire to share the fate inflicted on Nishi­mura’s fleet, Shima fled the scene only to lose his war­ships in later engage­ments around Leyte. The action in the Suri­gao Strait was the last battle­ship-versus-battle­ship action in World War II and one of the few naval battles of the Pacific War in which aircraft played an insignificant role.

Japanese Navy’s Debacle: Battle of Surigao Strait, October 25, 1944

Map of Battle of Surigao Strait, October 25, 1944

Above: During the one-day Battle of Surigao Strait (Octo­ber 25, 1944), U.S. Rear Admiral Jesse Olden­dorf exe­cuted the classic naval maneu­ver of crossing his enemy’s “T.” The Amer­i­can battle line was able to fire full broad­sides at two Japa­nese strike forces that attempted to pass through the straits and merge into Leyte Gulf. They were Vice Adm. Shōji Nishi­mura’s Southern Force and Vice Adm. Kiyo­hide Shima’s Second Striking Force, the latter attached to Nishi­mura’s. Because the strait was narrow, the Japa­nese naval pha­lanxes could only reply to the Allies’ salvos ini­tially with forward guns. Nishi­mura’s war­ships, first on the scene, were anni­hi­lated with the excep­tion of one destroyer; Shima’s war­ships wisely turned tail and fled the battle­field, though not unscathed. The Battle of Suri­gao Strait was the last battle­ship-versus-battle­ship action of World War II. It one of four naval actions col­lect­ively known as Battle of Leyte Gulf (Octo­ber 23–26, 1944) by virtue of their all being caused by the IJN’s ShōGo Plan. Besides the Battle of Surigao Strait, the others were the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea (Octo­ber 24), the Battle off Samar (Octo­ber 25), and the Battle of Cape Engano (Octo­ber 25–26). The Battle of Leyte Gulf spanned more than 100,000 square miles, involved hun­dreds of ships, included nearly 200,000 par­ti­ci­pants, resulted in the deaths of thou­sands of sea­men from both sides, and was the largest and, to date, last major naval engage­ment ever fought. Map source: Warfare History Network, October 2016.

Battle of Surigao Strait, October 25, 1944: USS "West Virginia"Battle of Surigao Strait, October 25, 1944: "Asagumo" sinking

Left: At 03:16, USS West Virginia‘s radar picked up ships of Nishi­mura’s force at a range of 42,000 yd (24 mi). West Virginia tracked them as they approached in the pitch-black night. At 03:53, she fired the eight 16‑in (406mm) guns of her main bat­tery at a range of 22,800 yd (13.0 mi), striking the battle­ship Yama­shiro with her first salvo. She went on to fire a total of 93 shells. At 03:55, USS Cali­fornia and Ten­nes­see joined in, firing 63 and 69 shells, respec­tively, from their 14‑in (356mm) guns. Radar fire con­trol allowed these Amer­i­can battle­ships to hit tar­gets from a dis­tance at which the Japa­nese battle­ships with their inferior fire control systems could not return fire.

Right: This photo shows the light cruiser USS Denver (foreground) pur­portedly assisting in shelling the Japa­nese destroyer Asa­gumo, burning the back­ground, Octo­ber 25, 1944. She was one of four destroyers in Nishi­mura’s “Southern Force.” The others were Michishio, Yama­gumo, and Shi­gure. (Damaged by a direct shell hit and near misses, Shi­gure was the only one of Nishi­mura’s war­ships to sur­vive the Battle of Suri­gao Strait.) Forced to retire during the sea battle, Asa­gumo was tor­pe­doed by the destroyer USS McDermut and sub­se­quently finished off by gun­fire from U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers with a loss of 191 crewmembers.

Recollection of Naval Lieutenant at Battle of Surigao Strait, October 25, 1944

Continue Reading