The Battle of Surigao Strait, fought on October 25, 1944, was a key component of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf during World War II.

In this naval confrontation, the U.S. Seventh Fleet under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf decisively defeated the Japanese Southern Force, marking the last time battleships would directly engage each other in combat.

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Background

The Pacific Theater of World War II was marked by a series of intense naval, land, and air confrontations between the Allies, chiefly the United States, and the Japanese Empire. By 1944, the tide of the Pacific War was turning. The U.S., having recovered from the initial shock of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, had executed a strategic campaign of “island hopping,” seizing key islands and using them as bases for further operations.

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Each captured island brought the U.S. forces closer to Japan, creating stepping stones that allowed them to cut off Japanese supply lines, secure vital airstrips for their aircraft, and apply consistent pressure on Japanese defenses.

The Philippines, a U.S. commonwealth at the time, had significant strategic and symbolic importance. Its capture by the Japanese in 1942, which included the brutal Bataan Death March, was a stinging blow to the Allies. By 1944, the Philippines had become an essential target for the U.S., not just to avenge earlier defeats, but to establish a base of operations for the potential invasion of Japan and to cut off vital Japanese shipping routes.

The Japanese battleship Fusō under attack from US aircraft during the Battle Of Surigao Strait.

In October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur, who had famously declared “I shall return” upon leaving the Philippines in 1942, initiated the invasion of Leyte Island. This move was anticipated by the Japanese, who perceived it as a threat to their territorial integrity and the stability of their occupied territories. Consequently, they mobilized a significant portion of their remaining naval forces to counter the U.S. invasion.

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which the Battle of Surigao Strait is a part, was Japan’s response. It was a multifaceted naval strategy that aimed to converge on the Allies from multiple directions. The Surigao Strait was one such avenue of approach chosen by the Japanese, but unbeknownst to them, they were sailing into one of history’s most memorable naval traps.

The Titans Of Surigao Strait

In naval warfare, understanding the composition and capabilities of the opposing fleets provides key insights into the strategies and potential outcomes of the battle. The Battle of Surigao Strait, a component of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, was no different, as it saw the culmination of diverse naval assets vying for supremacy in a narrow waterway.

The Japanese Southern Force

Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura helmed the Japanese Southern Force. The decision to advance through the Surigao Strait was not made lightly. The strait is a tight, challenging waterway, and navigating it under the shadow of potential enemy presence was a considerable risk. Nishimura’s force was formidable on paper:

  • Battleships: The Fuso and Yamashiro. Both of these battleships were seasoned warships, having been commissioned in the 1910s. While not the newest ships in the Japanese fleet, they were heavily armed and armored, making them significant threats on the battlefield.
  • Heavy Cruiser: The Mogami, a vessel that had seen multiple engagements during the course of the war. Cruisers, with their combination of speed, armament, and versatility, played a pivotal role in naval task forces.
  • Destroyers: Four in total. These ships, while smaller and less armored than their battleship counterparts, were fast, maneuverable, and capable of launching devastating torpedo attacks.

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The U.S. Seventh Fleet under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf

The American fleet waiting for Nishimura’s force was a powerful assembly of naval might. Oldendorf, an experienced naval commander, had at his disposal:

  • Battleships: Six in total, with five — the California, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania — having historical significance as they were resurrected from the damage sustained during the Pearl Harbor attack. These “revenge” ships were not just symbols of American resilience but were also modernized during their repair, boasting improved weaponry and radar systems.
  • Cruisers: Eight in total, divided between heavy and light classifications. These ships were designed for multiple roles, from anti-aircraft operations to bombarding shore targets and engaging enemy ships.
  • Destroyers: A whopping 28 destroyers. These vessels, known for their speed and agility, were critical in the early stages of naval confrontations, often tasked with scouting and launching torpedo attacks.
US torpedo boats before the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The stark difference in the number of ships between the two forces paints a picture of the challenge that lay ahead for the Japanese. However, numbers alone do not determine the outcome of battles. Leadership, tactics, morale, and the element of surprise all play their parts.

The Battle Of Surigao Strait

In the predawn darkness of October 25, 1944, the waters of the Surigao Strait became the stage for a dramatic naval confrontation. This engagement was not just a clash of ships but also a contest between tactics, technology, and resolve.

Initial Skirmishes

Before the battleships of both fleets ever exchanged fire, the stage was set by lighter, more maneuverable vessels. The Japanese force, making its approach through the strait, was met by a series of torpedo attacks from U.S. destroyers and PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats.

These skirmishes set the tone for the battle. PT boats, the nimblest of naval assets, swarmed around the larger Japanese vessels, harrying them and launching torpedoes. Their primary aim was disruption and infliction of damage, hoping to scatter the Japanese formation and make them more vulnerable to subsequent attacks.

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The Fuso, one of Nishimura’s two battleships, faced the brunt of this initial onslaught. Hit by one or more torpedoes, the mighty battleship was split in two. Such a significant early loss underscored the efficacy of the American tactics and the potency of torpedoes in naval warfare.

Crossing the T

The concept of “crossing the T” is a fundamental naval tactic, where one fleet sails across the top of the ‘T’ formed by the advancing enemy fleet. This allows the “crossing” fleet to bring all its side-mounted guns (broadside) to bear on the enemy, while the fleet being “crossed” can only use their forward guns due to their linear formation. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf executed this tactic to perfection. As the Japanese force advanced, they found themselves in the unfavorable position of the vertical line of the ‘T,’ with the U.S. fleet arrayed perpendicular to them.

US Navy cruisers firing on Japanese ships during the battle.

The advantage of this position cannot be overstated. The American battleships, especially the West Virginia, California, and Tennessee, were equipped with advanced radar. This technological edge allowed them to detect, target, and fire at the Japanese ships with incredible accuracy, even in the darkness. The devastating barrage they unleashed was methodical and relentless. The Japanese battleship Yamashiro, Nishimura’s flagship, found itself under concentrated fire, taking multiple hits from the heavy guns of the U.S. battleships.

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The Final Moments

Despite the withering fire and overwhelming odds, the Yamashiro continued to press forward, a testament to the resolve of its crew and the leadership of Vice Admiral Nishimura. However, the onslaught was too much. After enduring sustained fire, the Yamashiro eventually succumbed, sinking beneath the waves and taking with it a significant portion of its crew, including Nishimura.

Out of Nishimura’s initial force, only the destroyer Shigure managed a retreat, a somber reminder of the intensity of the battle and the might of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

In reflecting on the unfolding of the Battle of Surigao Strait, one sees a blend of time-honored naval tactics, the utility of technological advancements like radar, and the undeniable impact of human courage and leadership. The battle serves as a reminder that in warfare, it’s not just the strength of the ships that matter, but how they are wielded in the theater of combat.