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Leyte - New Jersey

(USS New Jersey — heading north in heavy seas to intercept Ozawa’s fleet – Leyte; September 1944)


Surigao Strait

“Well. Here we are.”

Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, on the bridge of the heavy cruiser USS Louisville had spoken half to himself. His battle-line, first of cruisers, then with the old battleships behind him, and with his remaining destroyers in front, formed a layered defense-in-depth to the southern entrance of Leyte Gulf.

“Sir?”, replied Oldendorf’s aide.

“Nothing.” Oldendorf paused for a moment, then said, “Do you remember the story of Gordon, at Khartoum?”

Oldendorf’s aide paused. “Can’t say that I do, Admiral.”

“British general. He’d been sent to defend the city of Khartoum against an Arab fanatic. He’d put together a defense based on the Nile – literally dug a large moat – but when the Nile dropped, his defenses were open, and he had to defend the city being outnumbered over ten to one. Day of the battle – or so some of the survivors told it – rather than give a great speech, he said, ‘Well – here we are.’”

“Well – here we are.”, replied his aide.

“INCOMING AIRCRAFT!!”, shouted one of the lookouts.

This had become harrowing, and routine. “Battle stations!!” shouted Louisville’s captain. Klaxons hooted, and the thud of antiaircraft fire erupted, unbidden, from the rest of the fleet.


I-58

A hollow boom echoed through I-58, as Captain Hashimoto watched his own boat reach periscope depth. “One of our brothers has found a mark!”, he said. Suzuki grinned. It felt good, hunting rather than performing picket duty or something similar. The submarine force had been wasted for far too long. Tanaka’s replacement of Kurita had changed all that.

“Sonar – where’s the American?”, said Suzuki.

“He did a 90-bender to port. He’s trying to run.”

“We’re better underwater than he is, although he’s more maneuverable.”, Suzuki said to himself. “Do you have a course and speed, Sonar?”

“340 degrees; twelve knots. About 150 feet.”

Hashimoto said, “We’re going to try something here.” Into the squawk, he said, “Torpedo room! Open outer doors on one through six! Prepare to fire!” Switching to fire-control, he said, “Set torpedoes one and two to 150 feet. Bearing 340 relative. Set three and four to 220 feet. Set five and six to fifteen feet. Five degree angle on all.”

“Hai, Captain!” A moment later, “Fire control – torpedoes ready to fire, sir!”

“One through four – fire!”

I-58 lurched as four torpedoes left their tubes. “Five degree down-bubble. Compensate forward trim.”, said Suzuki. The loss of so much weight in the bow meant that action had to be taken immediately to prevent the bow from ‘porpoising’ to the surface.

Suzuki stood by with his stopwatch. “Captain – you know you don’t have a chance of hitting the American with sonar only!”

“Yes, Suzuki – but once again, imagination’s the key here. He’ll do one of two things – he’ll either go deep – in which case we can try it again – or he’ll pop to the surface and try to make a run on top. I’m betting he’ll try to run, rather than let us shoot at him again. That’s what the last two are for.”

“Sonar – what do you have?”

“Our screws in the water – hard to pick him out – HE’S GOING SHALLOW, SIR!”

Hashimoto hit the squawk-switch again “Torpedo room – ready five and six!”

Down the hallway to the sonarman, he shouted, “Course and speed, sonar?”

“355 degrees; twelve knots”

“Helm! Come starboard to 355 degrees!”, said Hashimoto. “Now, Suzuki, we’re going to earn out pay.”

Hitting the squawk again, he said, “Torpedo room! Fire five and six!”

Two more torpedoes left their tubes. “Now – they have to get there before the American can get off his message. If he pulls the plug again, we can try this one more time.”


Darter

Commander Claggett said, “Radio! Stand by to send that message as soon as we surface!”

Darter’s sonarman shouted, “HIGH SPEED SCREWS IN THE WATER! THESE ARE NEW, CAPTAIN!”

Claggett, nearly to the surface, said, “Distance from us, Sonar?”

“Three hundred yards, Captain!”

He thought for a moment. “Let the air out of this thing!”, he shouted to his exec. “Take us to 300 feet!” The message would have to wait.


Yamato

Tanaka received Nishimura’s communication with a broad grin. “Toyama! Nishimura is almost to Surigao. He’ll be engaging the Americans within four hours. Our aircraft have pounded the Americans – I’ve issued strict orders that Fukudome’s aircraft are to attack the destroyers – we’ll leave the cruisers and battleships to Nishimura.”

Motioning Morishita and Toyama to the plot-table, he said, “We are here.”, he placed his pointer just to the south and east of the northern point of Dinagat Island. “The invasion fleet arrived last night. They have every reason to believe that they are protected by the American battleships. Our air-cover will be thin from now on – but we’ve almost achieved our surprise.”

“So, the entire plan was to ‘pincer’, but using Dinagat as a shield?”, said Morishita.

“Yes, Morishita,” said Tanaka. “Islands are useful in many ways, aren’t they? Arriving at night, we prevented locals from informing the Americans. After dawn, there won’t be any need to worry about them. We’ll be there – right behind them, where we want to be.”


I-53

Tomayasu turned to his exec. “I wanted that damn destroyer.”

“But we were ordered to follow and harass the Americans.”, said Tomayasu’s executive officer.

“I know that. Still, I wonder where it went. First, depth charges – then they disappeared. Where is the rest of the American fleet? They couldn’t have just – vanished!”

Tomayasu had received the cryptic message that evening when he surfaced. The American destroyer had, after dropping its last depth-charges, simply turned and left. The rest of the American fleet, save for three small carriers to shepherd the invasion transports, had vanished.

Tomayasu couldn’t believe his luck. Apparently, neither could the others. Low on torpedoes by this time, they wasted no time torpedoing two of the remaining three small carriers. Tomayasu had been maneuvering for a shot at the last one when two torpedoes from I-68 slammed into it.

“We’ll be in sight of shore soon, Captain.”, said Tomayasu’s exec. “We should submerge for the rest of the run.”

“We have five ‘fish’ left. Let’s feed ‘em to the Americans for breakfast!”, said Tomayasu.

The remaining submarine commanders had much the same idea. One by one, armed support and supply ships began exploding and sinking. Two troop-transports were torpedoed as well; the men on board trying to get into the water by any means possible, if that included jumping from the decks.


New Jersey

“Admiral, is this wise?”, said Halsey’s aide.

“Goddammit, yes!”, replied Admiral Halsey. “The Nips are gonna run head-on into Oldendorf’s destroyers. They’ll wish they’d never been born when that happens. Meantime, I’m going to sink every carrier I find!”

Like Ahab on the deck of his whaling-ship, Halsey paced the bridge of New Jersey. The only thing that man lacks,” thought his aide, “is a wooden leg, and a gold-piece for the mainmast.”


Tacloban

Sakai was exhausted.

He’d slept four hours in the past twenty four, and was preparing to go out again. Putting tobacco in the corners of his eyes to make them water and keep him awake with the stinging, he climbed the wing-ladder to his Raiden. “Dawn. Destroyer time,” he thought. We’ve lost so many. He looked down the fuselage of his Raiden, with its bullet-holes and shrapnel hits “And they’ve taken a piece of me, too.”

Sliding his canopy shut, he pressed the starter-switch. As the engine coughed to life, he said, “If I survive this – I’m never going to kill another thing again. Not even a mosquito.”


I-58

Hashimoto had played cat-and-mouse with the American for over two hours. It was time to get the destroyers up to finish this one. He brought I-58 to periscope depth, then radioed for destroyer assistance. Fifteen minutes later, he didn’t need the help of his sonar-crew to hear the propellers of Yukikaze, closing on the American’s position.

“Poor devils,” he thought. “This is no way to die. Hounded for hours, driven, then finally killed almost for sport.” Hashimoto knew, though, that this wasn’t sport.

It was called war.

The sonarman interrupted his reverie.

“Conn! Sonar! Yukikaze has broken off its attack. Multiple screws; destroyers ahead; they’re Americans!”

Hashimoto hit the squawk. “Battle stations, torpedo!”

Less than two minutes later, Suzuki said, “All stations manned and ready, sir. All tubes loaded and ready.”

“Open outer doors and raise the ‘scope. Let’s have a look.”

One look through the scope, and he knew why Yukikaze had broken off the attack. There was a destroyer screen about 1,000 yards ahead – the American submarine had been ‘running home to Mama.’

No help now. Hashimoto began lining up his shot; a six-torpedo pattern, just as he’d discussed the tactic during his briefing with Admiral Tanaka.

After course, speed, and bearings were fed, Hashimoto gave the order to fire.

Almost immediately, there was a torpedo hit on one of the American destroyers. Excellent!”, thought Hashimoto. The rest are attacking as well. Now — ”

His thought was rocked by an earsplitting explosion close-aboard. The concussion shook the teeth in his head – Hashimoto looked around to see if they’d been hit, then hit the squawk “Damage control – report!”

“No damage, sir! It was – one of our submarines.”

“Conn! Sonar! High speed screws in the water!”

The American destroyers had wasted no time in getting their own ‘fish’ in the water. One had already claimed a Japanese submarine.

Giving the order to take I-58 to 100 feet, he pressed the squawk-button and said, “Torpedo room! Half a degree angle – depth twenty feet. Open outer doors. Fire when you’re open!”

The sonarman confirmed that the other submarines in the screen were doing the same. There would be nearly one hundred torpedoes in the water within the next few moments.

American and Japanese torpedoes passed each other. Hatsushimo and Kasumi, two destroyers in the forward-screen, were hit and out of action. The heavy cruiser Mogami exploded, her light armor-belt proving inadequate for the American torpedoes. Nishimura stayed his course.

In the meantime, the invasion-fleet had arrived off Leyte.


Louisville

Admiral Oldendorf’s aide rushed to the Admiral’s side with a dispatch. “Multiple torpedoes in the water, Admiral! The Japanese have launched a massive torpedo attack!”

Oldendorf replied, “We can’t move the battleships! Run the destroyers in a screen. God help me, but we’re going to have to take as many hits as we can to save those battlewagons!”

Over half of the Japanese torpedoes passed harmlessly between ships. Thirty five of them, however, did not. When the attack was over, fifteen American destroyers had taken at least two torpedoes. The rest made a run at the Japanese submarines, taking the battle to them. What their own torpedoes didn’t do, they were going to do with depth-charges.

While the battlewagons fought it out on the surface, the American destroyers in the middle were going to be hunting submarines.


Sakai

Saburo Sakai saw the beginnings of the battle from his cockpit at 15,000 feet. “Keep it tight, men! Don’t tangle with any American aircraft. Destroyers are your targets today!”

He chose a destroyer which had just completed the broad-arc of a torpedo run. He put the Raiden over in a steep dive; thumbed the switch to his 20MM cannon, and opened up at 3,000 feet, at the same time he pulled the lever to release his 500KG bomb.

Two of his flight exploded in midair, the result of the well-trained anti-aircraft crews on the American destroyers. Sakai felt the concussion of the 20MM’s recoiling in the wings; actually slowing his dive. He waited until the last moment, then pushed his throttle to the firewall and pulled his stick up, letting up on the firing-switch at the same time.

The huge radial engine in front of him howled like something from another world, and he was over the destroyer as the secondary concussion of the explosions rocked his plane. He didn’t dare circle back – no doubt the other destroyers had his range.

Looking to the left, he saw the line of battleships. Tempting as they were, shooting 20MM at a battleship was like using a peashooter.

Sakai climbed back to 12,000 feet, and headed back to Tacloban.

Where is the American air cover?”, he thought. There are no aircraft opposing us!”


Yamato

Toyama handed a heavy sheaf of dispatches to Admiral Tanaka. “Toyama! I don’t have time for all this! What do they say?”

Toyama had a hard time concealing his enthusiasm. “Better than we had dreamed. Halsey took the bait. He’s headed north to take on Ozawa’s ‘fleet’. Our submarine force with the tactics you mandated have destroyed the Americans screen, plus the carriers which were guarding the invasion fleet.”

He continued,“Nishimura has taken some losses; four submarines, mainly due to American destroyers. Four of his destroyers and one heavy cruiser are either sunk or out of action.”

“Better than we had dreamed.”, said Tanaka.


Zuikaku

Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, on the bridge of His Imperial Majesty’s carrier Zuikaku, was, if anything, fatalistic. He’d written his will, sent a lock of his hair to his family and to the shrine at Yasukune, and was in every respect a samurai awaiting his fate.

Still, he was determined to take as many Americans with him as he could. If he could do so, and delay the return of the main American fleet to Leyte, this was his job. He would do it as well as he could.

He turned to his aide, and said, “Do you wonder about the afterlife?”

“Yes, Admiral. Much; lately.”

“Let us delay it a little longer!” He offered his hand to his aide; in a society of superiors and inferiors, this was an uncommon gesture. They shook hands. Ozawa continued. “I was just informed that the Americans are about fifty miles out, and running at flank speed. With nothing but observation aircraft, we can’t do much but track their movements. We’re running as fast as we can in the opposite direction of Leyte. I’d like to think the Americans are smarter than this, but Tanaka will not radio me, and we’re under radio-silence ourselves.”

Ozawa’s aide said, “You are right, Admiral. Let us delay it a little longer!”


New Jersey

“Admiral, sir?”

“What is it?”, said Halsey.

“Recon-patrol just back. Enterprise reports the Japanese fleet less than fifty miles away. They don’t even have a combat-air-patrol up.”

“Very well. Order all aircraft readied for launch. Incredible. No CAP! They’re literally sitting ducks. Right where we want them. Launch as soon as they’re ready!”

Halsey’s aide ducked out of the wardroom and down the hall. Right where we want them.”, he thought. It can’t be this easy….”


Yamashiro

Vice-Admiral Nishimura, on the bridge of his flagship, Yamashiro, was taking his battle-line right to the Americans, who were in line ahead, across his ‘T’.

Since before Nelson, this was the worst possible place to be. It would be a matter of minutes before the Americans opened fire – and with their radar-controlled guns, it would be an uneven fight, indeed.

Nelson.

Nishimura ran to his plot-table, and motioned Yamashiro’s captain to his side.

“Kogure, remember the academy, and how we all thought ‘how brilliant!’ at Nelson’s maneuver at Trafalgar?”

Captain Kogure’s eyes widened. Nishimura finished, “We haven’t much to lose at this point. Let’s split the line – here!” Nishimura pointed to the center of the line, where the battleship Fuso was stationed. “Split the line, and bring the two lines abreast of each other. If we make it – we can attempt to crash the American line.”

Kogure said, “Admiral, there isn’t a hope. The Americans –”

“Do you have a better idea, Kogure? If you do, I want to hear it now.”

Kogure thought a moment, and said, “No, Admiral. I don’t.”

Nishimura gave the orders. Yamashiro and her group cut speed and dropped to starboard as Fuso’s group crowded on steam to come abreast. If by some miracle they survived the remaining American destroyers, they could make an effort to break the American line in two places.

Almost on cue, the USS West Virginia opened up with a broadside. Her twelve 16” guns stabbed huge orange flames into the sky; moments later the sound overhead of Yamashiro’s bridge was like the very air itself was being rent apart.

Great gouts of water shot several stories into the air as the West Virginia’s shells landed around Yamashiro and her escort-ships. Nishimura responded by calling for flank speed.

“Give me every pound of steam you’ve got!”, he shouted into Yamashiro’s voicepipe. With that, it may well not be enough.

The American line erupted into flame; all six battleships opened up with broadsides against the Japanese. Two salvos from the American guns at 30,000 yards, and they began to find targets.

Fuso was the first to feel the wrath of Pennsylvania. Her magazine detonated with a huge explosion, sending ragged pieces of her deck and superstructure into the clear air along with an orange fireball.

Mogami and Ashigara, the two heavy cruisers in Nishimura’s fleet, were the next to be hit. Ashigara was the victim of a near-miss, which sprung her plates and flooded her engine room. She lost headway and came to a dead stop, smoke pouring from every open port.

Mogami took two direct hits from the Maryland. When the smoke and flame cleared, Mogami wasn’t there; having been shredded by nearly 4,000 pounds of explosive.


Yamato

Admiral Tanaka heard the explosion of Fuso. “Nishimura is taking a pounding. Helm – when do we round the point?” Tanaka was now champing at the bit. He could see the last of the air raids against the American transport-fleet, which had taken a mauling at their hands; soon, the remnants would attack the American battle-line which was busy with Nishimura.

“Order our submarine screen to torpedo as many of those battleships as they can. Order a destroyer-torpedo run, also. As many of them as we can take out. All of them if it’s possible.”

Toyama said, “Admiral? The transports?”

“We will take care of the transports, Toyama.”

Turning to Morishita, Tanaka said, “Morishita. It’s time.”

Admiral Morishita turned to his executive officer. “Signal the fleet – all guns; load and prepare to fire.”

On Yamato and Musashi – – together, over 140,000 tons of fighting-power – as well as the other ships of Tanaka’s fleet, crews sprang to life. Shells were placed on hoists and lifted from magazines; powder-bags were readied by crews wearing static-resistant clothing; the huge 18” guns of Yamato and Musashi, along with the secondary batteries of rapid-fire 6” guns in twin turrets – were loaded, and readied for battle.

This was the task for which the large surface-ships of Japan’s navy had been built.


This was their destiny.


(Next – Leyte Gulf)


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