The vanguard of the Southern Force - Admiral Nishimura's Force C - was sighted by aircraft from the Third Fleet carriers Enterprise andFranklin of Rear Admiral Davison's task group 38.4 at 0905 on 24 October. Shima's Second Striking Force was located by a US Army Air Force bomber at 1155. The search/strike from Davison's group which first located Nishimura attacked at 0918 and inflicted bomb hits on the flagship Yamashiro and on the destroyer Shigure, but these hits caused little damage and Nishimura continued his advance undeterred.
Force C received no further air attacks during daylight on 24 October. Halsey had transferred Admiral Davison's fast carrier group to the attackon Admiral Kurita's Centre Force, and the Seventh Fleet's escort carriers were too busy with their duties around Leyte Gulf to be able to launch attacks onthe Japanese forces. It was therefore clear that if Nishimura and Shima continued to press onwards they would have to be met by Seventh Fleet's surface forces.
Kinkaid and his staff correctly surmised that the Southern Force would attempt to reach Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait and made dispositions accordingly. Shortly after noon Kinkaid alerted every ship of the Seventh Fleet to prepare for a night action.
Rear Admiral Oldendorf, commanding Kinkaid's Bombardment and Fire Support Group, was ordered to patrol the northern entrance to Surigao Strait with his very powerful force, and to prepare to meet the enemy ships. When Oldendorf had formed his battle plan he called Rear Admirals Weyler, in command of the Battle Line, and Berkey, commander of the Right Flank cruisers and destroyers, aboard his flagship Louisville for a conference.
Moreover, nearly 60% of their HC shells had already been expended in support of the ground operation. So it was decided that in order to conserve ammunition the heavy ships would withhold fire until targets were within 20,000 yards, and that they would shift from AP to HC shells if they were engaging targets lighter than a battleship.
Two "Black Cats" (night-search Catalina flying-boats) were sent out to attack Force C after dark but failed to find it, and one of the Catalinas was shot down mistakenly by American PT-boats. All that now stood between the Japanese Southern Force and Leyte Gulf was Admiral Oldendorf's force, and the motor torpedo-boats disposed between Oldendorf's force and the advancing Japanese ships.
Nishimura, advancing towards Surigao Strait, at about 1830 received Kurita's signal that the latter's powerful Centre Force had been delayed by heavy air attacks in the Sibuyan Sea, which meant the Nishimura could not hope to be supported by Kurita in his attack on Leyte Gulf.
Nonetheless he pressed on and at about 1900 received Admiral Toyoda's order "All forces dash to the attack, counting on divine assistance."
As he approached Leyte Nishimura sent Mogami and 3 destroyers ahead to reconnoitre. Nonetheless, the PT boats' first contact was with the battleships rather than with the Mogami group. At 2236 PT-131 of Section One off the island of Bohol picked up Nishimura's heavy ships on radar,and the section's three boats closed to attack.
At 2250 they made visual contact at a range of three miles, and shortly after were sighted by Shigure. At 2254 Nishimura ordered an emergency turn towards the boats and at 2256 the Japanese ships turned on their searchlights and opened fire. The boats attempted to close in for a torpedo attack but were driven off by the Japanese gunfire, two of them having been hit and damaged. PT-130 of Section One closed the nearby Section Two and got PT-127 of the latter section to relay a contact report. This report reached Oldendorf at 0026 on October 26 and was the first concrete information of the enemy's position received by the Admiral since 1000 the previous morning.
The heavy cruiser Mogami and her 3 accompanying destroyers got past Sections One and Two undetected. At 2230 Nishimura radioed Kurita and Shima that he was "advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats." As he proceeded up Surigao Strait each section of PT boats in succession attacked with torpedoes, each was picked up by the Japanese searchlights and driven off by gunfire, retiring under cover of a smoke screen.
At about 0400 Nishimura's heavy ships joined up again with the Mogami group, and at about 0100 Force C assumed its formation for the approach to Leyte Gulf. In the lead were two destroyers. Four kilometers behind them were the two battleships and the cruiser Mogami in line ahead, with a destroyer on each flank. Two more PT boat sections attacked this formation without making any hits. One of the torpedo-boats, PT-493, was damaged by gunfire and driven ashore on Panaon Island. Later, at high tide, PT-493 drifted off the rocks and sank.
The last action between the motor-torpedo boats and Force C ended at 0213 on 25 October. As the battle between Nishimura and the PT boats was ending the battle between his force and the American destroyers began.
The first destroyer grouping to attack Nishimura was Destroyer Squadron 54 commanded by Captain Jesse Coward. Coward planned an "anvil" attack (an attack from both bows of the target - trapping the enemy as between hammer and anvil). The western group was to consist of destroyers McDermut and Monssen and the eastern group of Remey, McGowan and Melvin. Coward intended to attack using only his torpedoes, since if his destroyers used their guns this would only alert the Japanese and disclose the ships' positions, and their 5-inch guns in any case could not seriously harm the heavy ships.
At 0206 the five destroyers went to General Quarters, and at 0240 McGowan made the first radar contact on Nishimura's ships. By 0245 her radar showed that the enemy contact was a column of ships, distance 15 miles.
At 0245 Nishimura was completing his transition from approach-formation to battle-formation, placing all four of his destroyers in the lead with the larger ships still in column at one-kilometer intervals.
At 0256 Shigure (whose lookouts seem to have been particularly effective) sighted the three destroyers of Coward's eastern division 4.3 miles away. The flagship Yamashiro began probing ahead with her most powerful searchlight but the American ships were still too far distant to be picked up in the beam.
However, Coward's destroyers and Force C were closing each other at a combined speed of 45 knots. Desron 54's western section - McDermutand Monssen - under Commander Richard Phillips, made radar contact with the Japanese ships at 0254. Phillips was steaming close to the shoreline of Leyte in order to avoid radar detection, intending to turn at the right moment and attack on the enemy's port bow. Remey, McGowan and Melvin, however, were steaming in mid-strait and approaching Nishimura almost head-on, but at 0257 Coward ordered this division to turn south-east, placing it on Nishimura's starboard bow. At 0258 lookouts on Melvin sighted the Japanese, range 12,800 yards. Coward ordered his own divisionto start making smoke, carried out his turn as planned, ordered his ships "fire when ready" and started increasing speed to 30 knots.
A few seconds after 0300 Remey, McGowan and Melvin started launching torpedoes and within two minutes had launched 27 in all. Coward swung his ships hard aport and began retiring. As the turn was being made they came under fire from Yamashiro and the Japanese destroyers. By 0305 all three destroyers were being straddled by 5-inch shells but they quickly drew out of gunfire range without being hit.
At between 0308 and 0309 explosions in the direction of the enemy column were seen from Coward's destroyers. Shortly afterwards one of the battleships was seen to slow down and sheer out of formation. This was Fuso, hit by one of Melvin's torpedoes. Nishimura himself, however, remained unaware that Fuso had been crippled, and continued to issue orders to the damaged battleship as if she were still in column.
Fuso later exploded and sank as a result of the torpedo hit.
Meanwhile Phillips' division - McDermut and Monssen - was still steaming south when word was received that the eastern division had launched torpedoes and was retiring. Phillips maintained his course- due south, 3,500 yards from the Leyte shore, parallel to Nishimura's course but in the opposite direction. At 0308 he turned towards his targets, and at that moment the Japanese ships opened fire on Monssen.
At 0310 McDermut began launching and Monssen followed a minute later.
Nishimura had taken no evasive action when attacked by Coward's eastern division but when Phillips' division attacked he ordered two 90-degree turns which however brought his own destroyers into the path of McDermut's torpedoes. Monssen obtained one hit on flagship Yamashiro, while McDermut hit three of the Japanese destroyers, sinking Yamagumo and Michisio, while blowing the bow off Asagumo and forcing her to retire.
In all Destroyer Squadron 54 fired 47 torpedoes, and hit five Japanese ships, sinking three, including one of the Japanese battleships. Coward's attack was therefore one of the most successful of the war, possibly the most successful - in terms of immediate damage inflicted on an enemy.
Desron 24 consisted of five US destroyers of the Fletcher Class and the Australian Tribal Class destroyer Arunta. McManes' squadron flagship Hutchinswas the first of the Fletchers to be equipped with a Combat Information Centre. McManes directed his ship from the CIC rather than in the traditional manner from the bridge. The CIC worked effectively, providing speedy and accurate information to the rest of the squadron and fire-control data to Hutchins' own batteries.
The squadron attacked in sections of three ships each, one section commanded by McManes, the other by Commander Buchanan of the Arunta.
Buchanan's section attacked first.
At 0319 when Buchanan was beginning his attack the destroyer Yamagumo,
hit by one of McDermut's torpedoes, exploded illuminating Nishimura's
force perfectly. Arunta fired torpedoes at Shigure,
but missed. Killen launched five torpedoes at Yamashiro.
One of them hit and slowed the battleship to five knots, but she kept coming. Beale also launched five torpedoes, but all missed.
Mcmanes' own section launched fifteen torpedoes shortly afterwards but it seems that all of these missed their targets. However, at about 0350 Hutchins launched five more torpedoes at Asagumo and although this Japanese destroyer avoided them, another Japanese destroyer, the already damaged Michisio, drifted into the path of the Hutchins spread, was hit, exploded, and immediately sank.
Finally, Smoot's own section -
W. Grant, Richard P. Leary and Newcomb - attacked the
Japanese starboard bow. Smoot pressed home the attack to a shorter range
than any of the previous destroyer attacks in this action, launching from
6,200 yards. It is almost certain that Newcomb hit flagship Yamashiro
one torpedo, and it is probable that she in fact hit the battleship
with two. The closeness of this attack brought Smoot's ships
under intense fire and Albert W. Grant was hit by 18 shells (11
of which, however, came from an American light cruiser) and was brought
a stop. Newcomb came to Grant's aid and hauled the crippled ship to safety.
This completed the preliminary destroyer attacks on Nishimura's force. The destroyers' torpedoes had eliminated roughly three-quarters of the firepower of Force C, as well as damaging the Yamashiro with at least one (and probably three) hits.
As Destroyer Squadrons 24 and 56 pulled clear the major gunfire action between Oldendorf's battleships and cruisers and Nishimura's surviving ships had already begun.
On the left (eastern) flank of the disposition, under Oldendorf's direct command, were the heavy cruisers Louisville, Portland and Minneapolis, and the light cruisers Denver and Columbia.
On the right flank, under Rear Admiral Berkey, were the Australian Navy's heavy cruiser Shropshire and the light cruisers Phoenix and Boise.
In the centre of this disposition was Weyler's Battle Line, consisting of 6 veteran battleships, two of which had been torpedoed and sunk, and three others damaged during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
"The situation was an answer to the prayers of a War College strategist or a gunnery tactician. The enemy column, now reduced to one battleship, one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer, was steaming into a trap. It was a very short vertical to a very broad T, but Oldendorf was about to cap it, as Togo had done to Rozhdestvensky in 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, and as thousands of naval officers had since hoped to accomplish."
"At 0323, readar screens registered the enemy disposition. Ten minutes later - the range then being 33,000 yards - Admiral Weyler made signal to Battle Line to open fire at 26,000 yards, believing that if he waited any longer his ships would lose their initial advantage of having five salvoes of armor-piercing ammunition immediately available. Admiral Oldendorf ordered all cruisers to open fire at 0351 when Louisville's range to the nearest target was 15,600 yards. They promptly complied, and at 0353 Battle Line joined in, range 22,800 yards . . ."
"Yamashiro slowed to 12 knots at 0352 but continued on course . . , firing at visible targets, for she had no fire control radar. Nishimura was steaming boldly into a terrific concentration of gunfire, supported only by heavy cruiser Mogami and destroyer Shigure on his starboard quarter.His last message was to Fuso at 0352 [Admiral Nishimura never learned that Fuso had been mortally torpedoed by the American destroyers and was no longer in column] asking her to make top speed. There was no reply from that sinking battleship, and as 'all hell broke loose' just then, Nishimura never informed Shima what was happening; Commander Second Striking Force had to find that out for himself."
"West Virginia, Tennessee and California, equipped with the latest Mark-8 fire control radar, had a firing solution in main battery plot and were ready to shoot long before the enemy came within range. These three were responsible for most of the Battle Line action."
"West Virginia opened fire at 0353, and got off 93 rounds of 16-inch AP before checking. Tennessee and California - starting at 0355 - shot 69 and 63 rounds of 14-inch respectively, fired in six-gun salvos in order to conserve their limited supply. The other three battleships, equipped with Mark-3 fire control radar, had difficulty finding a target. Maryland picked it up by ranging on West Virginia's shell splashes, and got off 48 rounds of 16-inch in six salvos, starting at one minute before 0400. Mississippi fired a single salvo, and Pennsylvania never managed to locate a target and took no part in theaction . . . "
"[At 0408] Mississippi got on the big target [Yamashiro] and fired a full salvo, range 19,790 yards. Admiral Oldendorf had just ordered Cease Fire, but she had not yet got the word. Thus Misissippi had the honor of firing the last major-caliber salvo of this battle; and, at the same time, sounding the knell of the old battle-line tactics which had been foremost in naval warfare since the Seventeenth Century."
"While Japanese sailors worked frantically to make temporary repairs, every size of projectile - from 6-inch through 16-inch - came pouring into their two ships; for the heavy and light cruisers on both flanks were also shooting. The enemy gamely returned fire, Mogami for a few minutes and Yamashiro longer. The Japanese battleship directed her main battery fire at the enemy cruisers, while her secondary battery - as we have seen - fired at the retiring torpedo squadrons; but neither one nor the other had any effect. She and Mogami scored hits only on Grant, and a near-miss on destroyer Claxton, the only major-caliber splash observed from Battle Line . . . Even Japanese pyrotechnics failed; star shell came down so far short of the United States ships that it failed to illuminate them."
"Battle Line . . . changed course from 120 to 270 [degrees] at 0402 by simultaneous turns, and continued to fire as it steamed west . . . Since this maneuver closed the battleships' range, the volume of fire became even greater. 'The devastating accuracy of this gunfire,' reported Captain Smoot - who was in a good position to observe - 'was the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed. The arched line of tracers in the darkness looked like a continual stream of lighted railroad cars going over a hill. No target could be observed at first; then shortly there would be fires and explosions, and another ship would be accounted for.' This show did not long continue. At 0409 Admiral Oldendorf, on receiving word that Grant and her sisters were being hit by 'friendlies', ordered all ships to cease fire, . . . to give the destroyers time to retire."
"In spite of the punishment [Yamashiro] had been taking, she increased speed to 15 knots, turned 90 degrees left, and began to retire southward. But she had less than ten minutes to live. At 0419 she capsized and sank, taking down Admiral Nishimura and all but a few members of the crew, who when recovered were too dazed or defiant to contribute any details about the end of their gallant ship."
"Heavy cruiser Mogami, whose capacity for absorbing punishment exceeded even that of Yamashiro, turned left at 0353 when the shooting began, launched torpedoes at 0401, and at the same time was taken under gunfire from Captain MacManes's destroyers to the southwestward. She caught fire at 0356, turned south to retire, increased speed and made smoke, but received many more hits."
"At 0402 a salvo, probably from heavy cruiser Portland, exploded on the bridge, killing the C.O., the exec, and all other officers present; other hits were scored in engine and firerooms and she slowed almostto a stop."
"At 0413, during the unearthly silence that followed the check-fire, destroyer Richard P. Leary reported torpedoes overtaking and passing her close aboard. These had been fired by Mogami just before she retired. As Leary was then headed north and only 11,000 yards from Battle Line, whose experience counselled a healthy respect for Japanese 'fish', Weyler ordered Mississippi, Maryland and West Virginia to turn due north, away from the enemy, at 0418. Admiral Chandler conducted the other battleships westward. The northward turn took half of Battle Line out of the fight, for when Admiral Oldendorf ordered all ships to resume fire at 0419, no target was left on their radar screens. Nor were the cruisers able to find targets. The ten minutes' grace accorded by the American check-fire allowed Shigure and Mogami to retire."
"Even so, by twenty minutes after four on 25 October, with only another twenty minutes to go before the first glimmerings of dawn appeared over Dinagat Island, Nishimura's force, which had counted on being off Dulag by that time, was done for. Of the two battleships only the burning stern of Fuso was still afloat, three destroyers were sunk or stopped by torpedoes in mid-strait, a badly-damaged heavy cruiser and a damaged destroyer were retiring. And there was no consolation for the vanquished in having damaged the victors; for of Admiral Oldendorf's force only destroyer Grant had been hit, and that mostly by her own side."
Here we return to Morison's account - "At 0420, Shima still thought he was hastening to the support of Nishimura, who had just gone down with his ship. Heavy cruiser Ashigara was astern of Nachi, the four destroyers were ranging ahead northwesterly on course 330, and all six ships were ready to fire torpedoes as soon as they found a target. Shima observed on his radar screen what he supposed to be two enemy ships bearing North, distant 9,000 yards. At 0424 he ordered both cruisers to attack these targets with torpedoes. They turned right to course 90 and fired 8 torpedoes each. This was 2nd Striking Force's only contribution to the battle. Torpedoes must have run erratically, since at least two of them were recovered from Hibuson Island later. "
"Shima now made a quick estimate of the situation. He did not know what had happened to Nishimura, but guessed the worst, and the heavy smoke made by American destroyers curtained his view northward. He decided to retire 'temporarily' and await development of events. His destroyers, which had now penetrated farther north than the cruisers without seeing anything to shoot at, were recalled about 0425. At the same time he sent a radio despatch to Vice Admiral Mikawa and to all SHO forces - "This force has concluded its attack and is retiring from the battle area to plan subsequent action.' . . . "
"Presently burning Mogami
was encountered. Believing her to be dead in the water, Captain
Kanooka of Nachi turned . . . to clear, but Mogami was
actually moving slowly south and the two heavy cruisers collided at 0430.
stern was badly damaged, there was some flooding and her speed was reduced
to 18 knots, Mogami - miraculously - managed
to turn up enough speed to fall in with Shima's column, now heading
south at Nachi's best speed. And Shima ordered
to join. She had some difficulty in so doing as her steering
engine was out of order. She ran
afoul of Lieutenant Gleason's MTB section at 0455, attacked, and made one slight hit on PT-321."
"Thus, by five in the morning on 25 October, with an hour and a half to go before sunrise, the Japanese Southern Force was broken up and in retreat. "
AT 0432 Oldendorf began pursuit, taking his left flank cruisers southwards in column, screened by Smoot's destroyers. At this time radar screens in the American vessels showed three Japanese ships retiring. These were Nachi, Ashigara and Mogami - at that time about 14 miles distant.
At 0520 Louisville, Portland and Denver opened fire on Mogami. The Japanese cruiser received several more direct hits, but she was able to continue her retirement, since Oldendorf withdrew his ships through concern about suspect contacts further to the north. Mogami escaped, only to be sunk shortly after dawn by aircraft from the Seventh Fleet's escort carriers.
Between 0555 and 0650 the PT-boats harried and attacked the retiring Japanese ships, but made no hits. At 0617 Oldendorf had turned south again, and at 0643 he ordered Rear Admiral Bob Hayler, commanding light cruisers Denver and Columbia and three destroyers, "to polish off enemy cripples." These ships caught up with destroyer Asagumo, whose bow had been blown off two hours earlier when she had been attacked by Captain Coward's destroyers. At 0707 Hayler's ships opened fire on the stricken ships. As Morison relates "This gallant Japanese destroyer returned fire from her after turret when her forward part was awash, and her last salvo was continued as the stern went under. "
"Asagumo sank at 0721 . . . "
As Morison continues "Two minutes later, Admiral Oldendorf recalled Hayler's light forces, and at 0732 he received the electrifying report that battle had been joined off Samar between Kurita's Center Force and Sprague's escort carriers."
The Battle off Samar had begun.