A New Look at the Battle for Leyte Gulf
Did historians overlook its final and definitive phase?
by Irwin J. Kappes

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before reading this article, carefully study the article on the Battle elsewhere on this site. It is thorough and carefully-researched. It is based on eyewitness accounts and official reports made at the time. However, the perspective afforded by nearly 60 years of elapsed history suggests that this subject deserves re-examination.)

Nothing is neat and tidy about naval battles. Not only are they apt to be chaotic but in the aftermath confusion sometimes reigns concerning exactly what happened, where they took place, when, and even what to call them. For example, an otherwise authoritative book refers to the battle we now know as The Battle Off Samar as “The Battle of San Bernardino Strait—Part II,” whereas the strait and the battle’s actual site are 175 miles apart. Even the redoubtable National Geographic Society is apparently confused. Its 1986 historical map of the Philippines lists only three battles comprising the Battle for Leyte Gulf, omitting the Battle of Sibuyon Sea in which the largest warship ever built met its demise. The “Pacific War Encyclopedia” got it half right on page 366: “The Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually a series of interrelated engagements fought over tens of thousands of square miles of ocean in October 1944.”

Variously known as “The Battle of Leyte Gulf” and “The Battle for Leyte Gulf, it was inarguably the greatest episode of naval combat in world history. However, words do mean something, and of and for should definitely not be used interchangeably. But it gets even worse.

As presently defined the Great Battle was really four separate naval engagements, but only two were fought anywhere near Leyte Gulf. The Battle of Sibuyan Sea (24 October 1944) occurred approximately 330 miles distant and the Battle off Cape Engaño (25 October 1944) was fought about 700 sea miles to the north. So much for “The Battle of Leyte Gulf” (though it must be admitted that if one interprets events broadly enough all four battles had some bearing on securing the pivotal Gulf in the campaign for the Philippines in World War II).

Now let’s take a closer look at the words “The Battle for Leyte Gulf.” While the four battles presently comprising it sounded the death knell of the Japanese fleet, the immediate objective (as the name clearly indicates) was to bring the Leyte Gulf area securely under Allied control. But this did not happen. When the fourth--and ostensibly--the last battle ended, the famed “Tokyo Express” went right back into business by continuing to land reinforcements at Ormoc, the enemy’s largest port on the western half of Leyte. The Japanese continued to strengthen their hold on Leyte and one month later the enemy garrison there had actually more than doubled. This does not qualify as a tremendous Allied victory by any measurement if the Battle’s goal was to secure Leyte Gulf.

Sure, the Japanese fleet, which by now was outnumbered more than three to one, had been decimated. But at this point in the war large gunships counted for relatively little. What now mattered most was air power and for the Allies, amphibious and resupply capability. One must remember that, for the Japanese, Leyte was every bit as important as one of the home islands. The High Command knew that the loss of Leyte would quickly spell the loss of the Philippines. And because this would mean Allied control of the sea lanes from Japan to their main oil sources in Borneo, it would inexorably lead to defeat. But defeat was not in the Japanese lexicon, so a number of desperate measures were undertaken in the futile effort to roll back MacArthur’s invasion attempt, including the sacrifice of the Empire’s two proudest battleships—the world’s largest--and scores of kamikazes.

In the end, it was the rather amorphous Battle of Ormoc Bay that finally brought Leyte and the entire Gulf area under firm Allied control. From 11 November 1944 until 21 December, the combined efforts of Third Fleet carrier planes, Marine fighter-bomber groups, a pincer movement by the Army’s 77th Division and the First Division plus a motley assortment of destroyers, amphibious ships and PT boats trounced the now semi-isolated Japanese in a series of skirmishes and night raids. And air support for most of these surface actions was almost non-existent.

But this is apparently not what those who wrote the histories of the Battle of/for Leyte Gulf like to think of as a “battle.” One can only speculate about their reasoning, but two possibilities present themselves. First, the Battle of Ormoc Bay was drawn out over 42 days. But what about the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal which lasted from 7 August to 30 November 1942?. Perhaps the thinking was that the word “battles” implies participation by capital ships. No ship larger than a destroyer entered Ormoc Bay during the period. So what about the Battle of Vella Gulf?—destroyers only, on both sides.

On the other hand, the four battles of 24 and 25 October 1944 were great theater. A historian’s dream, their cast of characters was charismatic admirals and fleets of carriers, cruisers and battleships—some of which had been resurrected from the silt of Pearl Harbor. The action was in every case relatively brief, but momentous and dramatic. And though there were serious shortcomings in the U.S. Navy’s command structure, there was counter-balancing incompetence on the enemy side, and the overwhelming superiority of Allied forces carried the day.

All that aside, the Battle for Leyte Gulf cannot really be said to have been won unless the Battle of Ormoc Bay is included as part of it. The conclusion of this largely unheralded fifth battle for Leyte Gulf paved the way for the occupation of the key islands of Mindoro and Luzon, bringing the entire archipelago swiftly under Allied control. Operating from bases on Luzon, the Allies were then in a position to cut off Japan’s critical oil supply, spelling the doom of the Japanese empire. Of course, the ultimate fate of the Empire had already been pretty much decided by the Battles of Midway, the Philippine Sea, and the other four battles for Leyte Gulf. But, as we shall see, it is inaccurate to minimize the Battle of Ormoc Bay by regarding it simply as an extended mopping-up operation.

It was General MacArthur himself who signaled the end of the Battle for Leyte Gulf. Tellingly, a few days after the end of combat activity in Ormoc Bay, he declared, “This closes a campaign that has had few counterparts in the utter destruction of the enemy’s forces with the maximum conservation of our own…”. The alert reader will note the word “campaign” in this quotation. MacArthur was one who chose his words carefully. Ergo, the so-called Battle for Leyte Gulf would actually be more accurately titled “The Campaign for Leyte Gulf”—just as the nine battles of the Central Solomons are referred to as “The Solomons Campaign” and not “The Battle of the Solomon Islands”. But the word “campaign” is not frequently encountered in naval histories inasmuch as it implies joint participation of land and sea forces. And seemingly this is one battle that the naval community quite understandably wanted for itself. The words “inter-service rivalry” unavoidably spring to one’s attention.

Also, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Admiral Samuel Morison, perhaps the most-respected naval historian of World War II, was hasty in writing “finis” to the Battle for Leyte Gulf after the Japanese retreat after the Battle Off Samar and thus failed to see the big picture. If so it is an eminently forgivable oversight. The capital ship naval battle had indeed been won. But as we will see, Leyte Gulf was still embroiled in desperate fighting—on land and on the sea.

With the perspective afforded by 57 years, the history of World War II is still being written—and re-written, as is even that of the Civil War. It is easily conceivable that a new generation of historians will conclude that the Great Battle indeed consisted of five battles and not four. And, like MacArthur, they may be induced to look upon it as “The Leyte Gulf Campaign”—and not confusingly as several “battles” within an overarching battle.

Countless books and articles have been written about the four battles. Since the writer can add nothing new to those well-documented events, the following condensed narrative will describe only what followed the Great Battle as presently defined. The reader may then decide for himself whether the Battle of Ormoc Bay doesn’t indeed deserve to be included as the fifth battle in the epic struggle for the Gulf.

The Final Battle for Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Ormoc Bay began auspiciously for the U.S. on 11 November 1944. Being short on escort vessels, the Japanese had sent two re-supply convoys to Ormoc one day apart. The plan called for the destroyer transports from the first convoy to double back to the second convoy and then escort it in as well, thus doubling the anti-aircraft shield. Unfortunately for the Japanese the Third Fleet had just returned to Leyte Gulf from re-supplying in Ulithi, and routine reconnaissance spotted them. In a classic turkey shoot, four of Japan’s finest fleet destroyers plus five transports and one minesweeper were sunk.

During most of early November, Task Force 38 had managed to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing their forces on Leyte. But heavy rain was a nearly daily event, airfield construction was behind schedule, and the carrier planes and the Army Air Force had more than they could handle in giving air support to Infantry units fighting in central Leyte. MacArthur and Admiral Kinkaid decided that a constant drumbeat of destroyer sweeps was the best way to cut off the supply of materiel and fresh troops. But there was only one approach to Ormoc from Leyte Gulf where the American fleet was anchored and that was the narrow Canigao channel--and it was mined.

Early in the day of 27 November, two lightly-armed minesweepers, Pursuit and Revenge, swept the channel without incident and that evening COMDESRON 22’s Captain Robert H. Smith steamed through the channel and north into Ormoc Bay at flank speed. Apparently catching the Japanese flatfooted, the destroyers Waller (DD-466), Pringle (DD-477), Renshaw (DD-499) and Saufley (DD-465) raked the dock area with five-inch fire for almost an hour. Suddenly Waller’s radar picked up a surfaced enemy sub approaching the bay, and Captain Smith gave the command to open fire. The sub tried the “fishtailing” maneuver and returned fire, but Waller’s 40-mm guns scored several direct hits. It was all over in seven minutes. The sub suddenly shivered, stood on its stern and went down, almost vertically. It was the end of Phase Two of the Battle of Ormoc Bay.

The following night four PT-boats (PTs 127, 128, 191 and 331) were dispatched to Ormoc. In bright moonlight they sank a freighter and a patrol craft, encountering surprisingly light resistance. When Captain Smith took the destroyers Waller, Cony (DD-508), Conner (DD-582) and Renshaw into Ormoc Bay on the dismally dark night of 29 November, he was surprised to find no shipping or port activity. Attracting no interest from shore batteries, he withdrew.

Another destroyer sweep on the night of 1-2 December again found no enemy response. Were the Japanese playing possum, hoping to lure a larger force into the bay to score a devastating victory—or were their resources simply running on empty? Nobody knew, but enemy reinforcements had to be stopped and air power was unavailable because monsoon-like rain had made airfields into bogs and radar aboard American vessels operating close to land was ineffective.

On 1 December the Seventh Fleet’s Vice Admiral James L. Kauffman received reports that five unidentified ships were approaching Ormoc Bay. Coincidentally, several of the new Sumner-class super-destroyers of Squadron 60 had just arrived in Leyte Gulf. To Kauffman they seemed ideal to the task. They could enter the bay three abreast, and with two twin 5-inch guns forward could present double the main battery firing power of the average U.S. destroyer. Besides, Kauffman knew that BUSHIPS and Admirals King and Nimitz were eager to see how this new generation DD would perform in combat. The ships chosen for a sweep on the night of 2 December were the U.S.S. Allen M. Sumner (DD-692), the U.S.S. Cooper (DD-695) and the U.S.S. Moale (DD-693). The mission had three major disadvantages: About 80% of their officers and crews had no prior sea duty and the night was pitch-black. Most devastatingly, no air cover was available because heavy rains had completely halted work on air strips in U.S.- held portions of Leyte, although the Japanese were not similarly hampered because they had air bases on surrounding islands still under their control.

At 1830 the small task group left the relative safety of Leyte Gulf and proceeded around the southern tip of Leyte, passing into the Camotes Sea. Enemy planes suddenly appeared from all directions and the confusion and fury of battle erupted. One plane being fired upon was later identified by an observer as a PBY-Catalina. A Frances bomber scored a hit on the Sumner but a resulting fire was soon brought under control. The real battle was just about to begin.

Around midnight the ships caught the enemy unloading troops and materiel. There were so many targets that gunners didn’t know where to concentrate their fire. Several participants later described the scene as being like something out of a Hollywood war movie. Torpedo wakes criss-crossed the bay. Tracers from the 20-millimeter guns filled the sky. Some of the destroyers’ main batteries homed in on a Matsu-class destroyer that was unloading troops while others were attempting to answer fire from another enemy destroyer, a sub and several pesky PT-type craft—not to mention the unrelenting air attacks. The destroyer suddenly burst into flame as hundreds of Japanese infantrymen tumbled into the bay now made ablaze with light. But despite the constant course-changes and high speed of the attacking U.S. destroyers, the other enemy destroyer (which turned out to be the IJN Take) got off a lucky long-lance torpedo shot and struck the U.S.S. Cooper amidships. Still with most guns firing, she heeled over to starboard, broke in half and sank within a half-minute. One hundred ninety-one lives were lost—more than half the crew. The survivors were rescued the next afternoon by courageous PBY Catalina pilots who spotted flares sent up by the American sailors.

The weather during December was so bad that military operations of any sort were impossible for days at a time. On 5 December the rain abated and Admiral Kinkaid seized the opportunity for the first amphibious landing on Leyte’s west coast 27 miles south of Ormoc. But there was a price. Under intense kamikaze attack, LSM-20 was sunk and LSM-23 heavily damaged. The two escorting destroyers, Mugford (DD-389) and Drayton (DD-366) were both heavily damaged and suffered over fifty casualties. In all, 15 American vessels were sunk or damaged by kamikaze attacks. It was the first sustained attack of Japanese suicide planes and it was devastating.

On the late afternoon of 6 December 7,000 troops of the 77th Division loaded onto a small fleet of fast attack transports at Dulag, a port on the east coast of Leyte. Shortly after sunset they sailed under cover of darkness around the southern tip of Leyte. Undetected, the spunky convoy sailed into the hornets’ nest of Ormoc Bay and after giving the beach a withering bombardment, unloaded troops and materiel at 0715. What had started out as a routine amphib landing operation suddenly became a battle for survival. Swarms of nearly a hundred kamikazes appeared from nowhere. First, the U.S.S. Ward (APD-16) was hit by one of three attackers causing a huge explosion with large sheets of flame. A second strafed the Ward and crashed off her starboard bow. The third crashed about 600 yards astern. At 2149 Ward became engulfed in flame. Then the estimable U.S.S. Mahan (DD-364) was struck by three suiciders. After their crews’ valiant efforts to save them, both ships were lost—with a total loss of 256 men.

Despite everything the small task force had completed its mission and successfully landed the Army contingent. But the enemy would exact still another price. The U.S.S. Liddle (APD-60) and three other ships put up a maelstrom of fire against several Zekes, but one got through taking dead aim at Liddle’s bridge. Withering fire from 16 guns seemed to have no effect as the determined suicider crashed the bridge. The awesome explosion scattered debris and body parts over the entire length of the ship. Killed were the ship’s captain, executive officer, four other officers and 31 of the enlisted crew.

For the surviving men who participated in this action it will always be thought of as their “Battle of Ormoc Bay,” just as for the men of the Cooper, Sumner and Moale it was the night of December 2 that defines the battle. But the troops that Admiral Struble’s Task Group 78.3 had put ashore just south of Ormoc would need re-supply, making the next “Battle of Ormoc Bay” inevitable.

On 11 December a doughty little fleet of 13 landing craft escorted by six destroyers left its anchorage in Leyte Gulf. They would travel 175 miles to reach a destination only 25 miles distant by land. The enemy reaction was not as fierce as just five days earlier because in the interim General Yamashita concluded that Leyte was lost and that the remaining resources should be devoted to defending the main island of Luzon.

Nevertheless, midway on the convoy’s push toward Ormoc about a dozen Jills attacked. Two struck the U.S.S. Reid (DD-369) almost simultaneously and set off her magazines. It was the end for the proud ship that had sunk a submarine, bagged 12 Japanese planes and had taken part in 18 shore bombardments. And the Japanese very nearly claimed another one of the escorting “tin cans”—the Caldwell (DD-605)—except for the bravery of one of the Corsair air cover pilots. Seeing her under furious attack by three planes, he risked being hit by the CALDWELL’s AA fire and zoomed within a few feet of Caldwell’s SC air radar antenna to make a kill. But Caldwell’s agony didn’t end there. She and the Conyngham (DD-371) literally had to fight their way back to the San Pedro Bay anchorage in Leyte Gulf. But for all intents and purposes the Battle of Ormoc Bay was over. Later Ormoc re-supply missions met with almost no resistance. The 77th Division was now able to march north of Ormoc city and on December 21 they met the 1st Cavalry Division near the village of Konanga. Leyte was now secure, and by whatever definition the Battle for Leyte Gulf was finally over.

In Fred Majdalany’s important book, “The Battle of Cassino” he states: “The word ‘battle’ is itself misleading. It suggests a coherent clash between orderly formations of men and machines. It is a word that belongs to the past. Operations, though formal and abstract, is a more appropriate term. “A modern battle is not an isolated event existing in a vacuum. It is a phase in a continuous integrated process. It develops logically from what has gone before and relates to what follows. The beginning is often hard to pinpoint, and the end is seldom final—unless when it is the last battle in a campaign [Emphasis added]. It is convenient to speak of this or that battle, but what is really meant is operations between this date or that…”

History’s greatest naval struggle was catalogued and defined in October 1944—before historians would have the advantage of historical perspective they enjoy today. This crucial battle deserves revisitation by a historian unfettered by accepted truths. What appears called for is not revision but inclusion. On his—or her—side will be the clear logic of Fred Majdalany and General Douglas MacArthur.

Copyright 2003, Irwin J. Kappes