Battle of Surigao Strait

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The Battle of Surigao Strait

The Battle of Surigao Strait is significant as the last battleship-to-battleship action in history. The Battle of Surigao Strait was one of only two battleship-versus-battleship naval battles in the entire Pacific campaign of World War II (the other being the naval battle during the Guadalcanal Campaign, where the USS South Dakota and USS Washington sank the Japanese battleship Kirishima). It was also the last battle in which one force (in this case, the U.S. Navy) was able to "cross the T" of its opponent. However, by the time that the battleship action was joined, the Japanese line was very ragged and consisted of only one battleship (Yamashiro), one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer, so that the "crossing of the T" was notional and had little effect on the outcome of the battle.

Japanese Forces

Nishimura's "Southern Force" consisted of the old battleships Yamashiro and Fusō, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers, Shigure, Michishio, Asagumo and Yamagumo. This task force left Brunei after Kurita at 15:00 on 22 October, turning eastward into the Sulu Sea and then northeasterly past the southern tip of Negros Island into the Mindanao Sea. Nishimura then proceeded northeastward with Mindanao Island to starboard and into the south entrance to the Surigao Strait, intending to exit the north entrance of the Strait into Leyte Gulf, where he would add his firepower to that of Kurita's force.

The Japanese Second Striking Force was commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and comprised heavy cruisers Nachi (flag) and Ashigara, the light cruiser Abukuma, and the destroyers Akebono, Ushio, Kasumi, and Shiranui.

The Japanese Southern Force was attacked by U.S. Navy bombers on 24 October but sustained only minor damage.

Nishimura was unable to synchronize his movements with Shima and Kurita because of the strict radio silence imposed on the Center and Southern Forces. When he entered the Surigao Strait at 02:00, Shima was 25 nmi (29 mi; 46 km) behind him, and Kurita was still in the Sibuyan Sea, several hours from the beaches at Leyte.

Engagement

As the Japanese Southern Force approached the Surigao Strait, it ran into a deadly trap set by the U.S. 7th Fleet Support Force. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf had a substantial force comprising

  • six battleships: West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania, which carried 48 14-inch (356 mm) and 16 16-inch (406 mm) guns;
  • four heavy cruisers: USS Louisville (flagship), Portland, Minneapolis, and HMAS Shropshire, which carried 35 8-inch (203 mm) guns;
  • four light cruisers: Denver, Columbia, Phoenix, and Boise, which carried 54 6-inch (152 mm) guns; and
  • 28 destroyers and 39 motor torpedo boats (Patrol/Torpedo (PT) boats) with smaller guns and torpedoes.

Five of the six battleships had been sunk or damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently repaired or, in the cases of Tennessee, California, and West Virginia, rebuilt. The sole exception was Mississippi, which had been in Iceland on convoy-escort duty at that time. To pass through the narrows and reach the invasion shipping, Nishimura would have to run the gauntlet of torpedoes from the PT boats and destroyers before advancing into the concentrated fire of 14 battleships and cruisers deployed across the far south of the strait.

At 22:36, PT-131 (Ensign Peter Gadd) was operating off Bohol when it made contact with the approaching Japanese ships. The PT boats made repeated attacks for more than three and a half hours as Nishimura's force streamed northward. No torpedo hits were scored, but the PT boats did send contact reports which were of use to Oldendorf and his force.

Nishimura's ships passed unscathed through the gauntlet of PT boats. However, their luck ran out a short time later, as they were subjected to devastating torpedo attacks from the American destroyers deployed on both sides of their axis of advance. At about 03:00, both Japanese battleships were hit by torpedoes. Yamashiro was able to steam on, but Fusō was torpedoed by USS Melvin and fell out of formation, sinking forty minutes later. Two of Nishimura's four destroyers were sunk; the destroyer Asagumo was hit and forced to retire, but later sank.

Sinking of the Fusō

The traditional account of the sinking of the Fusō was that she exploded into two halves that remained floating for some time. However, Fusō survivor Hideo Ogawa, interrogated in 1945, in an article on the battleship's last voyage, stated: "Shortly after 0400 the ship capsized slowly to starboard and Ogawa and others were washed away," without specifically mentioning the bisection. Fusō was hit on the starboard side by two or possibly three torpedoes. One of these started an oil fire, and as the fuel used by IJN ships was poorly refined and easily ignited, burning patches of fuel could have led to the description from Allied observers of Fusō "blowing up". However, battleships were known to sometimes be cut into two or even three sections that could remain afloat independently, and Samuel Morison states that the bow half of Fusō was sunk by gunfire from Louisville, and the stern half sank off Kanihaan Island.

Template:USS firing on the Japanese fleet

Battle continues

At 03:16, West Virginias radar picked up the surviving ships of Nishimura's force at a range of 42,000 yd (24 mi; 21 nmi; 38 km). West Virginia tracked them as they approached in the pitch black night. At 03:53, she fired the eight 16 in (406 mm) guns of her main battery at a range of 22,800 yd (13.0 mi; 11.3 nmi; 20.8 km) or 12.9 miles, striking Yamashiro with her first salvo. She went on to fire a total of 93 shells. At 03:55, California and Tennessee joined in, firing 63 and 69 shells, respectively, from their 14 in (356 mm) guns. Radar fire control allowed these American battleships to hit targets from a distance at which the Japanese battleships, with their inferior fire control systems, could not return fire.

The other three U.S. battleships also had difficulty as they were equipped with less advanced gunnery radar. Maryland eventually succeeded in visually ranging on the splashes of the other battleships' shells, and then fired a total of forty-eight 16 in (406 mm) projectiles. Pennsylvania was unable to find a target and her guns remained silent.

Mississippi only fired once in the battle-line action, a full salvo of twelve 14-inch shells. This was the last salvo ever fired by a battleship against another battleship in history, closing a significant chapter in naval warfare.

Yamashiro and Mogami were crippled by a combination of 16-inch and 14-inch armor-piercing shells, as well as the fire of Oldendorf's flanking cruisers. The cruisers that had the latest radar equipment fired well over 2,000 rounds of armor-piercing 6-inch and 8-inch shells. Louisville (Oldendorf's flagship) fired 37 salvos—333 rounds of 8-inch shells. The Japanese command had apparently lost grasp of the tactical picture, with all ships firing all batteries in several directions, "frantically showering steel through 360°." Shigure turned and fled but lost steering and stopped dead. At 04:05 Yamashiro was struck by a torpedo fired by the destroyer Bennion, and suddenly sank at about 04:20, with Nishimura on board. Mogami and Shigure retreated southwards down the Strait. The destroyer Albert W. Grant was hit by friendly fire during the night battle, but did not sink.

The rear of the Japanese Southern Force—the "Second Striking Force" commanded by Vice Admiral Shima—had departed from Mako and approached Surigao Strait about 40 mi (35 nmi; 64 km) astern of Nishimura. Shima's run was initially thrown into confusion by his force nearly running aground on Panaon Island after failing to factor the outgoing tide into their approach. Japanese radar was almost useless due to excessive reflections from the many islands. The American radar was equally unable to detect ships in these conditions, especially PT boats, but PT-137 hit the light cruiser Abukuma with a torpedo that crippled her and caused her to fall out of formation. Shima's two heavy cruisers, Nachi and Ashigara, and four destroyers next encountered remnants of Nishimura's force. Shima saw what he thought were the wrecks of both Nishimura's battleships and ordered a retreat. His flagship Nachi collided with Mogami, flooding Mogamis steering room and causing her to fall behind in the retreat; she was further damaged by American carrier aircraft the next morning, abandoned, and scuttled by a torpedo from Akebono.

Results

Of Nishimura's seven ships, only Shigure survived long enough to escape the debacle, but eventually succumbed to the American submarine Blackfin on 24 January 1945, which sank her off Kota Bharu, Malaya, with 37 dead. Shima's ships did survive the Battle of Surigao Strait, but they were sunk in further engagements around Leyte. The Southern Force provided no further threat to the Leyte landings.