With one of the three Japanese groups destroyed and they main fleet damaged, things were looking up for the US Navy in the battle for the Philippines. Things would soon take an unexpected turn however…
Battle off Samar
Ironically it was the decoy carrier fleet that was discovered last from the Japanese forces, but in a weird twist of fate, the decoy still worked. Admiral Halsey seeing the opportunity to destroy the last remaining Japanese carriers (little aware of the fact that they were pretty much useless, and that the main Japanese fleet was not nearly as damaged as he thought) ordered his entire fleet to pursue in a much criticized decision. This left the strategically important San Bernardino strait completely open, through which the still very powerful main Japanese force was now approaching the American invasion forces again, after previously retreating due to the US air attacks. Between the Japanese main fleet and the very vulnerable transports of the invasion fleet were only 16 very slow and lightly armored escort carriers, guarded by a few destroyers and destroyers escorts, all of which were caught completely off-guard by the approaching Japanese fleet.
Preparing for certain death, the American forces moved in with a suicidal attack, the small ships launching against the fleet, causing them to break formation while trying to avoid torpedoes before they were eventually sunk. In the meantime the escort carriers ordered all 450 planes to move into attack as well, even if they were often older models, sometimes equipped with machine guns or depth charges only. The fact that the Japanese main fleet had no carriers meant that they could operate largely uninterrupted, and did attack the Japanese warships relentlessly, while the carriers themselves fired as well with their single 5 inch gun on the nearby smaller ships.
Despite the valiant efforts it was a hopeless fight, but the poor communication and lack of reconnaissance on the IJN side came to their aid. The Japanese admirals never knew of their golden opportunity to take out the landing forces, and the ferocity of the counter attacks made them think that they are engaging the main American fleet. After suffering slight to moderate damage they pulled back to re-group, and then a false report on the main American carriers in the area sent them on a fool’s errand trying to catch non-existing capital ships, allowing the US escort carriers to escape with their damaged ships. From the 16 escort carriers only USS Gambier Bay was sunk with a couple of direct hits from the battleship Yamato, and USS St. Lo was hit by a kamikaze aircraft and sunk due to a series of internal explosions.
Battle of Cape Engano
On the 25th of October the pursuing US fleet finally caught up with the decoy Japanese carrier fleet, vastly outnumbering them. The decoy fleet consisted in total of 6 carriers (with just over 100 planes among them), three light cruisers and nine destroyers. Chasing them were 10 US carriers with about 1000 planes, six battleships, eight cruisers and over 40 destroyers. After quickly disposing of the few Japanese planes, the US air-raids began and in 527 sorties they sunk most of the sips. This is when distress calls from the 7th fleet started to run in, asking for urgent assistance to prevent a possible breakthrough by the main Japanese fleet, especially as the battleships nearby that dealt with the smaller Japanese fleet earlier were now critically low on ammunition. The message was received late however and Admiral Halsey further delayed taking action in order to focus on taking out the carriers. By the time task force 34 turned around to help out 7th fleet, it was too late to do anything else than to assist saving the crew of the two sunk escort carriers, and were too late to intercept the retreating main Japanese force as well.
Despite the botched opportunities on both sides, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was a major victory for the US Navy, successfully establishing beachheads on Leyte, though it took months to fully conquer the island. This inevitably led to Japan losing the Philippines, and with it its access to their previously occupied territories, including their resources. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost a good portion of their forces as well, with the remaining ships returning to their bases where they mostly remained dormant for the rest of the Second World War.
- Yamato in action during the Battle off Samar, 25. October 1944: United States National Archives
- Escort Carrier USS Gambier Bay and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen before engaging the main Japanese fleet, 25. October 1944: United States National Archives
- USS St Lo exploding after hit by a kamikaze, 25. October 1944: ww2db.com
- Japanese carrier Zuiho damaged during the Battle off Cape Engano, 25. October 1944: United States Navy