In October 1944 the U.S. Navy had won such overwhelming victories that, had it faced a different enemy, the war would have been over. However, as told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book Tidal Wave, at the conclusion of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the moment of apparent victory, the US Navy confronted a horrifying new enemy tactic.
By 1000 hours on the morning of Oct. 25, 1944, the U.S. Navy had accomplished the task for which it had been created over the previous 20 years: the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which at this moment no longer posed a credible threat. Zuikaku, last survivor of the six aircraft carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor 34 months earlier, lay on the bottom 100 miles north of Cape Engano along with the carriers Chitose and Zuiho. Musashi, one of the two largest battleships in the world, was sunk in the Sibuyan Sea. The battleships Fuso and Yamashiro had been destroyed in Surigao Strait. Admiral Kurita’s Center Force had been stopped in a desperate battle off the island of Samar and was in retreat through San Bernardino Strait. Other than the one-way mission that would be undertaken by the battleship Yamato in the Okinawa campaign six months later, no other Japanese capital ship would seek combat with the US fleet for the remainder the war. The victory that had been planned over the preceding two decades had been achieved. British historian J. F. C. Fuller writing in The Decisive Battles of the Western World, described the outcome of Leyte Gulf: “The Japanese fleet had [effectively] ceased to exist, and, except by land-based aircraft, their opponents had won undisputed command of the sea.”
For Japan, the defeat in the Philippines was catastrophic. The Imperial Japanese Navy had suffered its greatest ever loss of ships and men in combat. The defeat meant the inevitable loss of the Philippines. This meant in turn that Japan would be all but completely cut off from the territories in Southeast Asia that had been occupied in 1942, which provided resources vital to Japan, most particularly the oil needed for her ships and gasoline for her aircraft, not to mention foodstuffs for the Japanese population. Admiral Yonai, the Navy Minister, said when interviewed after the war that he realized the defeat at Leyte “was tantamount to the loss of the Philippines.” As for the larger significance of the battle, he said, “I felt that it was the end.”
Forty-seven minutes after Admiral Kurita turned his fleet back to San Bernardino Strait, the naval war in the Pacific changed irrevocably when the Shikishima Unit of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force’s 201st Air Group found the carriers of Task Unit 77.4.3, known as “Taffy-3,” north of Samar Island at 1047 hours. At 1053 hours, an A6M5 Zeke deliberately hit USS St. Lo (CVE-63), survivor of the Battle off Samar. The kamikaze had arrived.
The 201st moved from Mabalacat to Cebu in the central Philippines to put themselves closer to their targets, and the his Shikishima unit flew its first mission on Oct. 24, 1944, with Lieutenant Yukio Seki leading four attackers and Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force leading ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa leading four escorts. The weather was bad that day with heavy clouds, and they were unable to for find any targets, returning to base with only a little fuel left.
On the morning of Oct. 25, Nishizawa led four A6M5 Zeke escorts while Seki led four old A6M2s, each carrying a 250kg bomb. The Zekes were intercepted by Hellcat defenders, and in on the fight that developed, Nishizawa claimed two of the Hellcats as victories 86 and 87. The escorts became separated from the attackers. One attacker dived on Kitkun Bay (CVE-71) and attempted to hit her bridge, but instead exploded when it hit the port catwalk and cartwheeled into the sea. Two others attacked Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) but were destroyed by antiaircraft fire. The last two ran at White Plains (CVE-66). One was hit and shot down by antiaircraft fire, while the other, under heavy fire and trailing smoke, aborted the attempt and instead banked toward St. Lo.
Lieutenant Seki had found his target.
The Zeke pulled up at the last moment to correct the dive and the airplane hit the center of the flight deck. The 250kg bomb penetrated the port side of the hangar deck and exploded in the midst of several aircraft being refueled and rearmed. A gasoline fire quickly erupted, followed by six secondary explosions that ended with the detonation of the torpedo and bomb magazine. Engulfed in flames, St. Lo sank 30 minutes later. Of a crew of 889, 113 were killed or missing; 30 survivors later died of their wounds. The 434 survivors were rescued from the water by the destroyer Heermann and the destroyer escorts John C. Butler, Raymond, and Dennis.
It was a portent of the storm to come that would be seen as a battle against the kamikaze, named for the typhoon winds that sank the invasion fleet of Kublai Khan in 1274. Over the remaining ten months of the Pacific War, 3,860 Japanese pilots would attack Navy ships; some 733 of them would hit their targets. By June 1945, Admiral Nimitz would write a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which he stated for the record that the Navy could not support an invasion of Japan in the face of this threat.
Had it not been for the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the use of two atomic bombs that led to the Japanese decision to surrender, the human wind of the 20th-century “divine wind” might have prevented the planned American invasion of Japan, or at least seriously delayed it while the Soviets invaded the country from the north.
Tidal Wave is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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