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Halsey's Decision

The following is quoted from the US Navy official history - "History of US Naval Operations in World War II" by Samuel Eliot Morison - Volume XII "Leyte," pages 193-7.  The emphasis indicated by showing text in red and bold (or by underlining) is my own,  not Morison's.
Dave James

Admiral Halsey's Decision

Admiral Halsey's reaction to these sightings and to the information already received about the Central and Southern Forces can best be stated in his own dispatch to Admiral Nimitz and General Macarthur at about 2200 October 25, after the battle was over: -
Searches by my carrier planes revealed the presence of the Northern carrier force on the afternoon of 24 October, which completed the picture of all enemy naval forces.  As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernadino StraitI concentrated TF 38 during the night and steamed north to attack the Northern Force at dawn.

I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.

Accordingly, at 2022 October 24, Admiral Halsey ordered Bogan's Group 2 and Davison's Group 4 to steam north at 25 knots, join Sherman's Group 3 and attack Ozawa. McCain's Group 1, now returning northwesterly from the direction of Ulithi, was ordered to complete fueling and join the others.

By midnight 24-25 October fast carrier groups 2, 3 and 4, including Admiral Lee in Washington and Admiral Halsey in New Jersey and all their battleships and cruisers, were tearing north, just as the Japanese wanted them to do.

In the meantime, Kurita's Center Force, which Halsey had assumed to be no serious menace to Kinkaid, was debouching from San Bernadino Strait unopposed and even undetected.

Admiral Kinkaid assumed in his operation plan, "Any major enemy naval force approaching from the north will be intercepted and attacked by Third Fleet covering force." This was a natural interpretation of Halsey's orders from Nimitz to engage the enemy fleet if and when an opportunity occurred. But now that two major enemy forces were approaching from the north of Leyte Gulf, Halsey ignored the stronger and let it get between him and Seventh Fleet, Becuase he mistakenly assumed that it was the weaker, and "no serious menace." In other words, he made the same mistake that the Japanese higher command did about the air battle over Formosa, accepting aviators' reports of damage as actual damage.

It was not a case of either-or.  Halsey had enough gun and air power to handle both Japanese forces. The alternative to rushing everything up north was not, as he said, "to guard statically San Bernadino Strait." Three groups of Task Force 34 (Battle Line, of which we shall hear more anon), had more than enough power to take care of Ozawa's 17 ships. Battle Line might have been detached to guard San Bernadino Strait, not statically but actively.

But Halsey wished to deal the Northern Force a really crushing blow. In every previous carrier action of the war - Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz and Philippine Sea - the Japanese, although badly mauled, had saved most of their ships. He was determined that this would not happen again. He expected that the Northern Force was planning to shuttle-bomb him by ferrying planes back and forth between carriers and airfields, as they had attempted to do in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

He felt it unwise to leave any considerable surface force to watch San Bernadino Strait without detaching one carrier group for air protection, which would weaken his striking power.

[Morison here has the following footnote - "Admiral Lee, however, said after the battle that he would have been only too glad to have been ordered to cover San Bernadino Strait without air cover."]

After all, the Northern Force was out in the Philippine Sea, "asking for it." The Center Force might never come out; and Halsey was no man to watch a rathole from which the rat might never emerge. He had just lost [the light carrier] Princeton to an air attack which he believed, erroneously, to have come from Ozawa. The quickened tempo of enemy air activity on the 24th seemed a presage of worse to come, and it was natural for Halsey to aim at annihilating the one sure source of Japanese air power, the carriers of the Northern Force. He did know, before ordering Task Force 38 north, that the Japanese Center Force had resumed course toward San Bernadino Strait; but still assumed that it was too "heavily damaged" to be a "serious menace" to Kinkaid.

At least three task force commanders were amazed and disturbed by Halsey's decision.  Admiral Bogan even contemplated a protest. 

After seeing aircraft reports to the effect that the Center Force had resumed an easterly course, he [Bogan] discussed the situation over TBS [voice radio] with Captain Ewen of Independence.Ewen not only confirmed the reports but mentioned the ominous fact that all navigation lights in San Bernadino Strait were brightly lit, after a long black-out. Bogan immediately drafted a message to Halsey incorporating this intelligence, then called him personally over TBS and read it. "A rather impatient voice" - of a staff officer, presumably - replied "Yes, yes, we have that information." Bogan was prepared to follow up with another message, recommending that Admiral Lee's Battle Line be formed with his TG38.2 [Bogan's own carrier group] as cover, letting Sherman's and Davison's groups handle Ozawa. But after that brush-off, he said no more.

Lee himself was an officer of alert mind and keen analytical sense, whose advice was often sought on strategy; but not now. Working on the mass of intelligence that reached [Washington's] flag plot, he had figured out that the Northern Force must be a decoy with little or no striking power, and that the earlier turn-around of the Center Force was temporary. Before sunset ended the opportunity of sending visual signals, Admiral Lee in Washington sent Admiral Halsey in New Jersey a message stating his views. No reply was made other than a perfunctory "Roger." After darkness descended and the Independence reports came in, Lee sent Halsey a message by TBS to the effect that he was certain Kurita was coming out. After that he kept silence.

CTF 39 [Commanding Officer Task Force 38 - the fast carrier force], Vice Admiral Mitscher in Lexington, by-passed for days by Admiral Halsey in issuing orders, had become little better than a passenger in his beloved Fast Carrier Forces Pacific Fleet. When, at 2029, he received Commander Third Fleet's [Halsey's] order to turn north, he inferred that Halsey intended to assume the tactical command in the following day's battle, and decided to turn in. As he left flag plot his chief of staff, Commodore Arleigh Burke, remarked "We'd better see where that [Japanese] fleet is." Mitscher assented.

A few minutes later, Burke received the Independence aircraft contact on Center Force "still very much afloat and still moving towards San Bernadino"; and at about 2305 a clarifying report came through. No doubt about it! Burke and Commander James Flatley, operations officer, thought it was imperative to detach Battle Line. The woke Mitscher up and urged him to "tell Halsey" to do so. "Does Admiral Halsey have that report?" said the task force commander. "Yes," said Flatley. "If he wants my advice he'll ask for it," said Mitscher. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

Thus three task groups of Third Fleet - 65 ships strong - went steaming north at 16 knots to engage the 17 ships of Ozawa's Northern Force, leaving nothing but empty air and ocean between the Seventh Fleet [the invasion fleet], in and around Leyte Gulf, and Kurita. His still powerful Center Force completed the transit of San Bernadino Strait at 0035 October 25, amazed to find nobody there to fight, and shaped a course for the rendezvous off Suluan with Nishimura [commanding the Japanese Southern Force].

The following is taken from Morison's summary of the outcome of the battle on pages 336-7 of the same volume -

The mighty gunfire of the Third Fleet's Battle Line, greater than that of the whole Japanese Navy, was never brought into action except to finish off one or two crippled light ships. That of the Seventh Fleet, although more fully utilised, engaged for only half an hour a minor part of the Japanese Fleet, of about one fifth its strength, and after that force had been crippled by two well-delivered torpedo attacks.

Despite this vast preponderance of power on the American side, the Japanese Center Force, comprising more than half the enemy's naval gunfire strength, and therefore a prize of the first importance, steamed undetected into gun range, caught Seventh Fleet by surprise and inflicted losses which fell short of a major catastrophe only by the resolute application of air power, aided by the self-sacrificing courage of a few destroyers and destroyer escorts.

The following is from Morison pages 289-294, under the heading "Responsibility and Reaction' -

Admiral Halsey's erroneous estimate that the Japanese Center Force had been too badly damaged to be a serious menace was the primary event in a chain of wrong assumptions . . .

At 0412 October 25, when sending Halsey news of the victory in Surigao Strait, Kinkaid added a query as to whether Task Force 34 was guarding San Bernadino Strait. Halsey did not receive this message until 0648, and at 0705 he sent the discouraging reply that TF 34  [Task Force 34] was with the fast carriers going north.

Six minutes earlier, the escort carriers had received a much more emphatic answer in the same sense from the muzzles of Kurita's guns.

That startling news was received  by Captain Whitehead at 0700, and was referred imediately to Admiral Kinkaid, who says in his report -

"The first news of this enemy force was received on board the [Seventh Fleet] flagship about 0724 [sic] when CTU 77.4.3. [Clifton Sprague] reported he was under gunfire attack by four battleships, eight heavy cruisers and many destroyers, at a range of 30,000 yards. This was the first indication that the enemy's Central Force had succeeded in passing through San Bernadino Strait."

"Up to this time, from information available to Commander Seventh Fleet, it was assumed that Third Fleet forces were guarding the San Bernadino Strait position to intercept and destroy any enemy forces attempting to come through."

. . . Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague [afterwards] wrote with deep feeling on the failure of Admiral Halsey to guard the Strait;  and his statement represents the reaction of most sailors in and around Leyte Gulf on 25 October: 

"In the absence of any information that this exit was no longer blocked, it was logical to assume that our northern flank could not be exposed without ample warning ."

Too much confidence was placed by Seventh Fleet flag officers in what Halsey would do, and Halsey placed too much confidence in the preliminary assessments of his carrier pilots' flash reports of the Sibuyan Sea action on the 24th.  Even the stationing of one destroyer off San Bernadino Strait to give warning would have helped the escort carrers;for if the Spragues [ T.L. Sprague and C.A.F. Sprague - the escort carrier group and unit commanders respectively ] had expected Kurita they would have tracked his force and stationed their units beyond his gunfire range.

And the following is from Morison, pages 329-331  -

If TF 34 (Task Force 34) had been detached a few hours earlier, after Kinkaid's first urgent request for help, and had left the destroyers behind, since their fueling caused a delay of over two hours and a half, a powerful battle line of six modern battleships under the command of Admiral Lee, the most experienced battle squadron commander in the Navy, would have arrived off San Bernadino Strait in time to have clashed with Kurita's Center Force . . .

. . .  Apart from the accidents common in naval warfare, there is every reason to suppose that Lee would have crossed Kurita's T and completed the destruction of Center Force.  As it was,  Badger's TG34.5, consisting of only two battleships, three light cruisers and eight destroyers, was both too late and too weak for the work in hand. Supported by Bogan's carrier group it would doubtless have put up a good fight,but it would have been seriously outgunned by Kurita's four battleships. Halsey should have sent all Task Force 34 or nothing, and done it earlier. It is clear that his heart was with the carriers up north,although he himself gallantly sought action down south in New Jersey.

Admiral William F. Halsey

Leyte Gulf Index Page

The Battle of the Philippine Sea,  19-20 June 1944

D James' Naval & Maritime Pages

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