Everyday History
The Battles off Samar and Surigao
Daily History World War II in the Philippines

The battles off Samar and Surigao began: Oct. 25, 1944

On this day in 1944, several naval battles around Leyte Gulf ensued between Japanese and Allied Forces, particularly the battles off Samar and Surigao.

The battles off the coasts of Samar and Surigao were the climax of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which began with the naval battles in Palawan Passage on Oct. 22 to 23 and the Sibuyan Sea on Oct. 24.

Both battles involved the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Central Force fleet, led by VAdm. Takeo Kurita. The fleet was sent on a mission to reach the eastern coast of Samar via the San Bernardino Strait to attack the American landing forces in Leyte.

To support the Central Force, the Imperial Japanese Navy dispatch another fleet, the Southern Force, under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima.

Maintaining radio silence the whole time, the fleet traveled from Brunei on Oct. 22, crossed the Sulu Sea and entered the waters south of the Visayas region. It’s intended destination is Surigao Strait, from where it will approach Leyte Gulf and oppose the American landing forces.

The battle off Samar

After surviving the Battle of Sibuyan Sea despite the loss of one of its most powership ships, the Musashi, Kurita’s Central Force managed to reach and cross the San Bernardino Strait on the early morning of Oct. 25.

This was made possible without the opposition from Adm. William Halsey, who decided to take his entire fleet to chase the Japanese decoy fleet Northern Force, led by VAdm. Jisaburo Ozawa, off Cape Engaño in northern Luzon.

By 8:00 a.m. of Oct. 25, Kurita’s Central Force had already reached near the southern tip of Samar Island, which surprised the US Seventh Fleet under VAdm. Thomas Kincaid and its escort carrier group under RAdm. Thomas Sprague. The fleet had the task of delivering the American forces that landed at Red Beach in Palo, Leyte on Oct. 20, with Halsey’s Third Fleet supposedly providing protection to the fleet.

With Halsey’s fleet absent, the task of fending off the Central Force fell into the escort carrier groups and its two task forces, Taffy 3 under RAdm. Clifton Sprague (no relation to the latter), and Taffy 2 under RAdm. Felix Stump.

Believing that he had spotted Halsey’s Third Fleet, Kurita ordered his ships to go on a “general attack.” Supported by land-based special attack units that flew from bases in Luzon, the fleet managed to sink several American naval vessels. These include the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay and the destroyers USS Johnson, USS Hoel, and the USS Samuel Roberts.

The attack prompted Sprague to order the carrier escort group and its planes to engage the enemy with everything they had, while the destroyers and other support ships provided a smokescreen.

Meeting ferocious defense from the American ships, Kurita assumed he was still facing capital ships from Halsey’s fleet instead of just escort carriers and support ships. He finally withdrew his forces from engaging the American force after receiving a message that an American main carrier group was sailing north of his position and decided to pursue it.

With Kurita’s withdrawal, he lost the opportunity to decimate the main American landing force at Leyte Gulf. Unable to locate Halsey’s fleet and having lost two heavy cruisers, Kurita decided to retreat back to the San Bernardino Strait.

As they retreated, the Japanese special attack units made a last-ditch effort to launch the first kamikaze plane attack in naval history. The suicide plane crashed on the escort carrier USS St. Lo, resulting in its sinking.

The battle of Surigao Strait

While the battle off Samar was happening, the Southern Force had entered the vicinity of Surigao Strait near Leyte Gulf.

At the other end of the strait, the force faced the entire strength of the American Task Force 79 under VAdm. Theodore Wilkinson. His forces were divided into three flanks, each commanded by RAdm. Jess Oldendorf, RAdm. George Weyler, and Australian RAdm. Russell Berkey.

The task force was composed of six battleships that were either sunk and damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 that were repaired and returned to active service. These ships were the West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California and Pennsylvania. The ships decided to cross in front of the Southern Force as it approached the end of the strait and decimate them.

The Southern Force immediately fell into Task Force 79’s trap. Most of the ships in the fleet were either sunk or damaged, including the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, the heavy cruiser Mogami, as well as three destroyers. Nishimura died as his flagship Yamashiro sank.

Shima and his ships were able to survive the onslaught but where eventually decimated in different skirmishes around Leyte in the coming months.

With the US Seventh Fleet repulsing both the Central Force and the Southern Force off Samar and Surigao without the assistance of Adm. William Halsey’s Third Fleet, the American landing forces in Leyte remained safe from further Japanese naval attacks. It enabled the Americans to dominate Philippine waters, which led to their successful liberation of the country from Japanese occupation.

References:

Morison, Samuel E. “Leyte, June 1944 – January 1945”. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, XII. Boston: Little & Brown, 1956.

Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the last Great Naval Campaign, 1941–1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Battle for Leyte Gulf. New York: Macmillan, 1947

Turner, Stansfield. “Victory at Sea: Bull Halsey at Leyte Gulf.” The Washington Post, December 15, 1985

Cutler, Thomas J. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23–26 October 1944. New York: Harper Collins, 1994

Trivia Question:

Amid observing radio silence, the Southern Force was annihilated thanks to intelligence from which type of US naval ships operating off Bohol?

Yesterday’s answer: USS Princeton (This corrects the mistyped answer in our print edition which states USS Independence)

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