20. Last Minute Timidity Causes Japanese Admiral to Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Victory
Japanese Admiral Takeo Kurita had a stunning victory in his grasp during WWII, until a last minute bout of timidity made him let it go. It happened in 1944 at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement. The battle was the result of a complex Japanese plan with numerous moving parts and attacks from various directions. Their collective goal was to draw off the main US fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. Then, a powerful Japanese naval contingent under Kurita would fall upon Leyte Gulf, and devastate the unprotected Americans there. The deception part of the plan worked well. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. Halsey, and he steamed off with his powerful Third Fleet to sink them, without telling anybody.
Halsey left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts, repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and lacking anti-ship weapons. While Halsey was chasing the Japanese decoys, Kurita showed up north of Leyte, steaming towards the landing sites with a powerful fleet of 23 battleships and heavy cruisers. They included the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato. The Americans were caught by surprise, having 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. Their northernmost contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection. Known as “Taffy 3”, they were commanded by rear admiral Clifton Sprague.