Japanese Admiral Kurita Chickened Out of Destroying a Defenseless American Fleet
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 – 26, 1944, was history’s biggest naval battle. It was the culmination of a complex Japanese plan, featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. Collectively, they were intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. At that point, a powerful Japanese naval force would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there.
The deception plan actually worked. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as decoys for Admiral William F. Halsey, whose powerful 3rd Fleet was guarding the amphibious landings at Leyte. Halsey took the bait and steamed off with his powerful fleet to sink them, without telling anybody. He left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties. That fleet had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.
While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoys, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1-inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the American landing sites, under the command of Admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.
The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost American contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, was known as “Taffy 3”. It consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, under the command of rear admiral Clifton Sprague.
Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5-inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flying from the escort carriers. Those planes made strafing attacks or dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they continued to brave Japanese antiaircraft fire by making dry strafing and bombing runs, just to discomfit the enemy.
So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Kurita convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp if he simply steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a miraculous reprieve.