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(IJN Yamato – departing Brunei; September, 1944)

(Knight’s gambit – a chess-opening, sacrificing a pawn in order to open a larger area of operation and enable a quick checkmate solution.)

A Change of Command

Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka was lost in thought.

It had been almost a year since Tanaka had been ignominiously sent to Burma – ‘shore duty’ was what the fools in Tokyo called it, but Tanaka’s transfer was a clear message that he’d been ‘scapegoated’ for the failed strategy at Guadalcanal.

His mind drifted, as he re-read the letter from Tokyo – back to the night of last November, off Tassafaronga Point. He’d used the flames in the water from one of his own sinking destroyers to screen his attack, after the Americans had ambushed him and used their radar to launch torpedoes. One by one, with his flagship Naganami in the lead, he launched over twenty torpedoes at the main line of American cruisers.

For the loss of one of his destroyers and damage to a second, he’d put-paid to four heavy cruisers – one, the Northampton, sank from its damage; the others were now just returning to duty, having been so severely damaged that getting them to drydock had been a dicey affair, if Japanese intelligence was right.


“Hai!”, replied Tanaka; almost a reflex; pulled from his reverie, he was ready for the task at hand – even if it might be the analysis of more nearly-useless information.

“I was wondering – if you don’t mind – the personal message from Tokyo…” Captain Yasumi Toyama allowed his question to trail off, allowing Tanaka some space to either respond or dismiss his question entirely. Personal business was personal – but the captain had some right to know if a transfer was impending.

Captain Toyama had been Tanaka’s chief-of-staff since their service on the light-cruiser Jintsu at Midway. Toyama had followed him ever since, even to exile in Burma.

“Ah! Toyama! Thank you for interrupting me. I was reliving the past. Not a healthy thing to do. We’re leaving Burma.” Tanaka lifted the letter, then dropped it on his desk. “Pack. We leave tonight.”

Toyama’s eyes got wider. “Where are we going, sir?”

“Tokyo. Then, to Brunei – – you, however, don’t know any of that.”

“Yes, sir!”, replied Toyama. Mentally, he began making a list.

“May I ask if this is permanent?”

“Yes, Toyama. It is. They’ve decided to close this operation and send me back to duty.”

Toyama thanked his personal gods for this. Action again, at last – and with the most aggressive commander in the navy, now that Yamamoto was gone….


Leaving Combined Fleet headquarters, Tanaka stood in the crisp fall air and collected his thoughts. Toyama was stunned.

Tanaka, as was his place, spoke first.

“Kurita is an old and tired man. He’s not well. They were right to pass him over for command of the center force – but me? Most of my career has been spent in light cruisers and destroyers.”

“Your tactics at Tassafaronga, Admiral – that’s what they said. Time for fresh thinking and aggressive tactics, if we’re to win.”, said Toyama.

Tanaka found it hard to hide his exhilaration. “How am I going to DO this, Toyama? I leave tonight. Brunei is a long way.”

“Then I’d best be getting everything together.”, replied Toyama. He hailed a taxi which was passing. “By the way – congratulations!”, added Toyama. Tanaka had just been promoted two grades to full admiral.


The wardroom of His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Yamato was larger than the conference room at Combined Fleet headquarters. Tanaka felt like he was swimming in it. Yamato’s captain, Rear Admiral Morishita, was a bit rankled. Five days before, Tanaka’s official post was as a glorified messenger boy in Burma with the same rank. Regardless, this operation was important, Morishita decided, and Combined Fleet made the decisions. “I’ll go along,” thought Morishita. “I’ll go along to win.

Tanaka opened the meeting. “Many of you do not know me. A couple served with me in the Guadalcanal campaign. I want to put some things to rest. Combined Fleet picked me for my unorthodox tactics. These won’t change. I intend to win this one, and I expect everyone to work with me to do so.” He let those words sink in for a moment.

Nodding to the two yeomen, he watched as they unrolled the plan-map for Operation Sho-Go 1 – the defense of the Philippines.

“We know the Americans are planning an invasion of the Philippines here,” Tanaka said, placing his pointer on Leyte Island, and the gulf which bore the same name. “The islands will offer natural courses through which an enemy will have to maneuver. Combined Fleet has decided to send three separate fleets to the Philippines in order to destroy the American invasion fleet.”

While the other officers were studying the complex map of the Philippine archipelago, Tanaka continued. “I’ve suggested some strategic and tactical changes to the campaign, which Tokyo and Combined Fleet headquarters have accepted.”

“First, we are going to make aggressive use of our submarine fleet, which has not been done to date. We are going to use submarines both as a screen and as separate attack squadrons.”

Morishita spoke up. “Kaitens?

Tanaka continued. “Good point. We won’t be using them. They hamper maneuverability, and they’re a waste.” Some of the officers appeared shocked. Criticism of Combined Fleet’s strategies regarding the kaiten mini-submarine suicide-corps were known, but not voiced. “Small wonder he wound up in Burma, as blunt as he is.”, thought Morishita. “I see.”, said Morishita, aloud.

Tanaka smiled. He continued. “Ozawa’s force will be stripped of its aircraft. I had to argue this one, but we need the Navy aircraft on the ground at Tacloban. The Zero is aging, and no longer the equal of much – the American Grummans had them for breakfast at the Philippine Sea engagement; we can’t afford to sacrifice them, also.”

“So, Ozawa is a – sacrifice?”, said one officer.

“Yes, said Tanaka. “Here,” he pointed, showing the relative position of Ozawa’s force, comprising the carriers Zuikaku, Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuiho. “Ozawa is bait, pure and simple. Combined Fleet believes, and I agree, that Halsey will be far too aggressive and foolhardy to refuse – he’ll take the main American carrier fleet north and east and destroy Ozawa.”

The size of the sacrifice began to dawn on the officers at the table. Ozawa descended from a long line of samurai. He would earn that title by this action – along with a place at Yasukuni. “Once Halsey’s carriers are attempting a repeat of the Philippine Sea action – what they laughingly call the “Turkey Shoot” – we will be here.”, Tanaka said, his pointer at Samar Island.

“We will round the point,” he explained, “and catch the American landing force from behind.”

Several officers coughed. One said, “Sir – the American aircraft. How do we deal with them?” Uncomfortable silence followed.

“Admiral Nishimura and his battleship fleet will be here,” continued Tanaka, placing his pointer on Surigao Strait as if nothing had been said. “He will occupy any Americans here. Prior to that, we’ll sweep the area with aircraft raids and submarines, making long-distance torpedo attacks. We have the best torpedo in service. We’re going to use it.”

No one needed to remind the men present about the legendary attack of the I-19; six torpedoes fired from a distance of over three miles – one carrier, and a battleship (the North Carolina), plus a destroyer so severely damaged that they were effectively out of the war. The Long-Lance torpedo was wakeless, with no telltale bubble-stream to give it away – and it was the largest and fastest torpedo in any navy. Perhaps Tanaka was right here. Submarines might just be the key…

Tanaka continued. “That’s the plan. Three prongs of attack. One is bait – Ozawa’s carriers will lure Halsey’s fleet north and east. Nishimura will be preceded by three squadrons of submarines into Surigao – and we’ll use our own two squadrons to screen our movements and take out opposition before we reach Samar, round the point, and destroy the American landing.”

Finishing, Tanaka said, “We’ve ordered every available aircraft not defending positions in the homeland to the Philippines. Ozawa’s aircraft are here – the only thing he can do is send up observation aircraft. Tacloban airfield has 400 planes; our other Philippine fields have the balance of nearly 600. Some are Kamikaze. We even have a few of the new Raidens – they’re not tasked with fighter duty, as they’re interceptors – but we’ve fitted them with 500kg bombs to interdict the American fleet. Their new 20MM cannon should prove useful, also, especially against the American destroyers.”

As an afterthought, Tanaka said, “Remember – this force is the backbone of the fleet. We’re to intercept and destroy the American landing force. That is our job. Questions?”

The stunned officers looked at each other for reassurance. This was outside the dictum of the Japanese navy – aggressive tactics like this had never been used since Tsushima in 1905. Was Tanaka another Togo?

That decision would be made in the tropical waters off Samar Island.

(Next – Northward)


One Comment

  1. As avid reader of the war in the Pacific I am interested to know the follow on story of this alternative battle. The setting, with Tanaka leading the battle, will be most interesting.

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