The position in which the escort carriers found themselves was entirely unique in the Pacific War. Never before, even in the early days of unequal struggle, had American naval forces been surprised and brought to action by a major enemy fleet capable of greatly superior speed and fire power. Unwarned, the CVE’s were caught within range of enemy guns, steaming on an almost head-on course toward a fleet that was apparently capable of destroying them in a few minutes. No comfort was derived from the assumption that units of the Japanese force were able to make a speed of thirty knots, while the jeep carriers were not able at that time to push much beyond seventeen knots.
Of all the types of fighting ships in the huge Pacific fleet the CVE’s or “jeep carriers” would doubtless have been the last deliberately chosen to fight the heaviest surface battle of the war. They were thin-skinned merchantmen with flight decks, those of the Kaiser class, produced in great numbers in an emergency and never intended to stand off battleships. They were limited in fire power, lacking in the protective features of larger ships, and they did not even have the speed that is the last defense of the weak. Their complement of planes, the only effective defense they had, was definitely limited, and they could not launch and recover them with the ease of the big CVs.
Ground support work was the specialty of the air squadrons of the CVE’s, and many of their pilots had never before engaged a surface fighting ship or an enemy plane. The bomb and torpedo allowances of the escort carriers were tailored to fit the special requirements of ground support missions in which they were engaged. Attack upon major Japanese warships was definitely not among the missions contemplated. The carriers were limited to an allowance of nine to twelve torpedoes to the ship and a bomb supply that had been greatly reduced by intensive operations.
Seven days of close support flying had brought on symptoms of nervous fatigue among the pilots that were familiar to flight surgeons — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and bungled landings. Personnel in the ships’ air departments, who had been putting in an average of seventeen hours a day for the past week, were also feeling the strain. Two of the jeep carriers, one of them damaged by a bomb, were detached on the 24th. The remaining sixteen were organized in a Southern Group, a Middle Group, and a Northern Group, all three under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague, whose flag was in the Sangamon and who also commanded Carrier Division 22 and the Southern Group of which it was a part.
30 June 2019
From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 157-159:
29 June 2019
From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 141-143:
Comdr. T. H. Winters, target co-ordinator for the strike, led the group northward, passed over the crippled ships without pausing, then pushed ahead with his wingman to locate the main body of undamaged ships. Winters found the Zuikaku, the light carrier Zuiho, one of the battleships, a cruiser, and three destroyers, all apparently undamaged, steaming northward at twenty knots. He reported his discovery to Mitscher, who ordered him to “sink the carriers,” the undamaged ones.
After checking the speed and course of the targets, Winters ordered the Lexington and Langley groups to combine on the two carriers. This time there was a light film of cumulus clouds over the targets, of which the bombers took advantage in making their approach. Gaudily colored antiaircraft fire rose from the ships, together with white bursts of phosphorus with long tentacles, and a new shell that sent whirling spring-like brass wires into the air. One of the Essex planes flamed and went down under the barrage, while several others took hits.
Twelve Lexington bombers armed with half-ton armor-piercing bombs dived on the Zuikaku and planted several hits along her flight deck. These were followed shortly by nine Essex Helldivers similarly armed, which claimed additional hits on the large carrier. The results of the torpedo plane attack on the same ship were variously reported, though it seems probable that a few hits were scored. Large fires were started on the light carrier Zuiho by bombing attacks.
Winters directed the planes from Davison’s carriers to delay their dives until he went down to investigate the results of the first attacks. Once under the cloud cover he found the Zuikaku burning, smoking heavily, almost dead in the water, and listing twenty degrees to port. While she seemed about done for, the light carrier Zuiho had extinguished her fires and was floating normally. Winters climbed back “upstairs,” with shrapnel damage to his plane, and directed the Franklin, Enterprise, and San Jacinto planes, which had been awaiting their turn aloft, to attack the light carrier. The attack of these groups started up the fires on the Zuiho again, but as the planes left for their base she was still headed north under her own steam.
Waiting for a new strike group to arrive over the targets, Winters made a ten mile circle around the new cripples, during which he sighted a battleship and two cruisers between ten and twenty miles south of the main body headed north. He informed Mitscher of the contact and returned to the scene of the last air strike.
Winters arrived over the main enemy group just in time to witness the death throes of the Zuikaku. Mitscher’s pilots had settled some long-standing scores with their strikes of the 25th, for the Zuikaku had earned an impressive name in the Pacific. She was the last survivor of the six Japanese carriers which attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. During the three years that followed she drew blood from our airmen at Coral Sea, in two Solomons actions, Stewart Island and Santa Cruz, and again in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. She had a hand in the sinking of two of our finest carriers. The last of Japan’s prewar first-line carriers and the last ship of CarDiv One, pride of the Imperial Fleet, the Zuikaku had run through her luck. At about 1430 Winters watched her roll over slowly to starboard and sink without any explosion. She was flying “a battle flag of tremendous size, perhaps fifty feet square,” he said.
Thirty minutes later the first elements of the fourth strike of the day, a small one this time consisting of a series of minor attacks, arrived under the co-ordinating direction of Comdr. Malcolm T. Wordell. At about 1500 several half-ton bombs and two torpedoes finished off the crippled Zuiho, thus evening the score for the old Hornet, which the Zuiho had assisted in sinking in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Japanese destroyers maneuvered to recover survivors of the two carriers. There were now three carriers down and one to go — the cripple left far to the south and deserted by her screening vessels.
23 June 2019
From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 18-20:
The Japanese propaganda between October 12 and 18  has been called “a campaign of mendacity unprecedented since Napoleon proclaimed the destruction of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.” It would, in fact, provide the basis for a fascinating study of national psychology, for it seems to have involved a whole people in the toils of self-deception. The fears with which they had long lived — the penetration of our Pacific Fleet into what the Japanese themselves described as the “Essential Sea Area” — had now materialized, and their reaction can only be described as the pathology of fear. Japanese authorities announced that in the course of an action lasting six days the Imperial Navy had destroyed “60 per cent of America’s effective naval strength,” sunk “over 500,000 tons,” and sent “an estimated 26,000 American seamen to their deaths.” Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet was claimed to be so badly shot up that it had “ceased to be an organized striking force,” while Vice Admiral Mitscher’s task force had been “completely wiped out.” The Emperor himself was directly involved in these fabrications. A special session of the Japanese cabinet met to draw up a report to the Emperor “advising him on the glorious victory,” and the Emperor received the cabinet delegation with an imperial rescript of commendation, assuring the world that “the army and naval forces acting in close co-operation have intercepted the enemy fleet and after valiant fighting have greatly damaged it.” On October 15 imperial headquarters announced a total of fifty-three American vessels sunk or damaged, sixteen of which were said to be carriers.
Any exploration of the causes of the enemy’s conduct in this regard is beyond the limits of this narrative. The extent to which the Japanese naval command was infected by the epidemic of self-deception, however, has an important bearing on the momentous strategic decisions of the next few days. Certainly the Imperial Navy’s two chief official spokesmen, Captains Kurihara and Matsushima, were implicated. It is not improbable, as Admiral Halsey and others have suggested, that the enemy was misled by the extravagant claims of his own pilots returning from their strikes against the Third Fleet. Captured documents reveal a general tendency toward consistency of exaggerations not so much by the Japanese propaganda machine as by local commanders on the spot. It is possible that Admiral Toyoda, while not taken in by extreme claims, might have concluded that the often-predicted thing had occurred — that land-based planes had so impaired the strength of our carrier force that the Imperial Fleet now had an opportunity for an all-out surface action in which it might enjoy some greater degree of parity.
Whatever the reasoning of the high command, there occurred on the 15th an abortive sortie of Japanese naval forces, which indicates something of the navy’s reaction. At midnight of October 14-15, Vice Admiral Shima’s Fifth Fleet, consisting of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers, sortied from the Inland Sea. According to the testimony of Comdr. Kokichi Mori, a member of Shima’s staff, taken after the war, the admiral left the Inland Sea “to find a remnant of American force and center attack on weak points. We expected that there must be quite a number of damaged vessels.” Enemy search planes located two of the four task groups composing our forces, and the reports of what they saw were evidently sufficient to sober the headiest expectations. At any rate, the enemy ships hastily withdrew on the afternoon of the 16th before they were brought under attack.
The inflation of Japanese propaganda claims continued, however, and reached new heights after this episode. By the 19th, the day before the target date for Leyte, imperial headquarters had raised the score of ships sunk or damaged to fifty-seven, of which nineteen were said to be carriers. The Formosa “victory” was said to be “as great as the blow dealt the Czarist Russian fleet in the battle of the Japan Sea forty years ago.” On the 21st the naval spokesman Kurihara told the press that it was a victory which “far surpasses Pearl Harbor or the action off the coast of Malaya.” It is not improbable that two days later, when the entire Imperial Fleet made its last historic sortie, visions of Japanese naval triumphs of the past were still obscuring the realities of the present.
22 June 2019
From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 1-3:
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle of the Second World War and the largest engagement ever fought on the high seas. It was composed of four separate yet closely interrelated actions, each of which involved forces comparable in size with those engaged in any previous battle of the Pacific War. The four battles, two of them fought simultaneously, were joined in three different bodies of water separated by as much as 500 miles. Yet all four were fought between dawn of one day and dusk of the next, and all were waged in the repulse of a single, huge Japanese operation.
For the Japanese the battle represented the supreme naval effort of the war. They committed to action virtually every operational fighting ship on the lists of the Imperial Navy, which at that time still commanded a formidable surface force. Among the nine enemy battleships present were the two new leviathans of the Yamato class, which were designed as the most powerful warships in the world and far outweighed our heaviest ships. These forces, organized in three fleets, were hurled at our newly established beachhead in the Philippines from three directions.
They were guided by a master plan drawn up in Tokyo two months before our landing and known by the code name Sho Plan. It was a bold and complicated plan calling for reckless sacrifice and the use of cleverly conceived diversion. As an afterthought the suicidal Kamikaze campaign was inaugurated in connection with the plan. Altogether the operation was the most desperate attempted by any naval power during the war — and there were moments, several of them in fact, when it seemed to be approaching dangerously near to success.
Unlike the majority of Pacific naval battles that preceded it, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was not limited to an exchange of air strikes between widely separated carrier forces, although it involved action of that kind. It also included surface and subsurface action between virtually all types of fighting craft from motor torpedo boats to battleships, at ranges varying from point-blank to fifteen miles, with weapons ranging from machine guns to great rifles of 18-inch bore, fired “in anger” by the Japanese for the first time in this battle. Whether or not the Battle of Leyte Gulf will be the last of its kind fought upon the high seas, it may be said to have brought to its maximum development the tendency of an era toward heavy ordnance and armor.
The major phase of the battle opened in the Sibuyan Sea with strikes by our carrier-based aircraft against the largest Japanese surface force. The enemy replied with land-based and carrier-based air strikes against our carriers. The next phase was a night surface battle between two other forces in Surigao Strait, entirely devoid of air action but including the largest torpedo attack of the war and one of the heaviest gunnery actions. On the following day at dawn two new battles opened. The one off Cape Engaño to the north was a one-sided carrier aircraft action against a Japanese carrier-battleship force. That to the south off Samar Island was fought between two of the most oddly matched forces which ever joined action — the heaviest enemy surface ships in existence against our light escort carriers. The engagement had not been contemplated by either side, and came as a complete surprise to both.
In order to understand the scale upon which the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought, it might be well to draw a few comparisons with forces involved in an earlier Pacific engagement. In the Battle of Midway, one of the most important actions of the war, our forces entered the engagement with three aircraft carriers. At Leyte Gulf we used eight carriers, eight light carriers, and sixteen escort carriers — thirty-two in all. This is not to say that the latter action was ten times the size or importance of the earlier, but that the scale of air action had increased in something like that proportion. At Midway, of course, there was no surface action and our force contained no battleships. In our two fleets participating in the Philippines battle we had twelve battleships to the enemy’s nine.