Battle of Surigao Strait
The Latest book from naval historian Anthony P. Tully
The Battle of Surigao Strait was one of four major actions that comprise the larger grand naval battle known collectively as the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October 1944. Although we are now sixty years removed from events, there has not yet appeared a full study of the Battle of Surigao Strait. This despite the fact that it was the last battleship-vs-battleship action in World War II, and in fact, to date. (Given the dominance of air power, and now even potentially from space, Surigao Strait may ultimately prove to be the last capital ship surface action at all.) Further, it was at Surigao that a remarkable and highly symbolic historical coincidence came about --- where some of the very battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor at the opening of the Pacific War returned from the muddy bottom to deliver reprisal. Arriving at the Philippines as part of General Douglas MacArthur's triumphant return, the venerable battleships of Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet would be given an opportunity denied to their younger and more powerful cousins of the New Jersey-class: battleship-vs-battleship action. Further adding to the irony and symbolism was the fact that the allied forces at Surigao were under command of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf -- next to last commander of the fabled USS Houston of the doomed U.S. Asiatic Fleet, and in position to avenge his former command's fate at Bantam Bay.
Oldendorf's Japanese opponents -- Vice Admirals Nishimura Shoji and Shima Kiyohide -- were also veterans and among the arrayed forces that destroyed the allied fleet in the waters of the Philippines and Indonesia in spring 1942. However, for them, those days had not been particularly lucky either -- Nishimura had suffered the death of his only son, and his command continually dogged with misfortune. Shima had his flagship Okinosima torpedoed out from under him in the preliminaries of the Battle of Coral Sea. Now in October 1944 by a tangled set of converging circumstances Nishimura and Shima would lead separate but converging fleets to confront Oldendorf at Surigao Strait. Forming the strongest core of the Japanese force were the two Fuso-class battleships, Fuso and Yamashiro. Fuso is an old Chinese name for Japan itself, and it is perhaps fitting that she was laid down in the year the Titanic sank, for though when built she was the largest battleship in the world, by the time she got the chance to fight in her designed role, she and her sister Yamashiro - like their American near- contemporaries from Pearl Harbor - had been left behind by the pace of military development and the rise of carrier warfare.
Their confrontation arose from the Allied liberation of the Philippines, and beginning of that operation with the landing of MacArthur's forces on the beaches of Leyte Gulf on 20 October 1944. Ever since the fall of Saipan, the Japanese had been preparing for this event, and responded with an intricately organized if basically ingenious and simple plan. While a special decoy carrier force under Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo sought to lure the main carrier strength of William F. Halsey north and away from their covering positions for the Leyte beachhead, a vast armada of Japanese surface forces would move on the Philippines to destroy the transports and beachhead from multiple directions. Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo's First Striking Force (1YB) advanced to descend on Leyte Gulf from the north via San Bernardino Strait; simultaneously a detached section of the Kurita fleet under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura followed by a detached section of Ozawa's fleet under Vice Admiral Shima Kiyohide would advance and seek to penetrate Leyte Gulf from the south, through Surigao Strait. Finally, an independent segment of Shima's fleet under Vice Admiral Sakonjo Naomasa would attempt a last-minute reinforcement of the troops holding Leyte. All would converge on the Leyte area the night of 24/25 October 1944 in an attempt to destroy and repel the Allied invasion forces. The Battle of Surigao Strait would decide the outcome of the southern spearhead. In this clash, nearly every facet of naval warfare would be engaged -- from the great guns of battleships, hurtling bombs from the air, to the bravely launched torpedoes of flimsy and dashing PT boats.
As can be seen, there is no lack of drama or vivid imagery in the Battle of Surigao Strait, that in places rivals those off Savo at Guadalcanal, yet there has been no work dedicated specifically to the action, or its preliminaries and aftermath. Partly this is because it was a night battle, mostly because few Japanese records and crews survived, and finally, apparently because -- erroneously - it was assumed there was little to add or investigate. There are of course a handful of excellent, comprehensive studies of the wider Battle of Leyte Gulf itself, but none contain an in-depth comprehensive treatment of Surigao Strait. Instead, all english accounts have been derived from three key sources, and on closer examination, only two. The first source was the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), based on interrogations of Japanese officials conducted in the fall and spring of 1945/1946. James Field utilized this material and other post-war reports to write his The Japanese at Leyte Gulf in 1947. Almost simultaneously C. Van Woodward published The Battle for Leyte Gulf. Both works are excellent and contain important narrative and witness accounts. Their chief weakness lies in the fact that they relied almost entirely for the Japanese side on the USSBS interrogation of the commander of the Shigure. However, the Shigure's captain apparently transposed the action/fates of the two Japanese battleships, the Yamashiro and Fuso. Subsequent books sometimes repeat and perpetuate this error.  At this juncture, came the second key source.
The U.S. Naval War College at Newport, R. I. was conducting at this same time a truly forensic study of several battles, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Though incomplete, the analysis did cover the campaign beyond the battle of Surigao Strait, and assembled a rich collection of primary sources, including action reports. Each had been scrutinized and interpeted with exacting detail under the oversight of Oldendorf's former Chief-of-Staff, R.W. Bates. Bates had then placed the manuscript of the Surigao report at the disposal of Samuel E. Morison in time for its findings to form part of Volume 12 of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Leyte, June 1944-January 1945. Published in 1949, Morison's volume conveyed the War College's demonstration regarding the Japanese battleships that the supposed order of events had been reversed. Since the exhaustive War College analysis itself is rarely consulted, Morison's volume distilling its findings has become the third key source for Surigao Strait accounts. Afterward, most works have accepted the Morison version. This was reinforced when the Japanese Self Defense Agency published its extensive histories and contributed additional survivor reports that strengthened Morison's case. It is important to note that except for isolated use here and there of Field and Woodward's books, every account of the Battle of Surigao Strait since Morison has taken his account in toto. In short, the Naval War College Study as distilled in Morison's volume became the defining work on the battle.
At first glance the Naval War College analysis appears exhaustive, and indeed, its use and examination of primary sources and data are prodigous, and often without peer. Nonetheless, it left a number of unanswered questions and mysteries, some unavoidable, and others truly perplexing. Chief among the latter being the - albeit reluctantly accepted - baffling scenario of 45,000 ton battleship Fuso blowing in half, and both halves remaining afloat and burning. Even with no survivors to contradict it, this scenario defied both reason and logic. [ 2 ] Questions also persisted about Nishimura's and Shima's decisions, attended by a too-often present tendency to simply charge both Japanese admirals with ineptness, mutual hostility and even stupidity. Lesser mysteries and inconsistencies that will remind some of those attending the Solomons night battles also existed pertaining to the fates of some of the Japanese destroyers. In other words, certainly enough to warrant a second look.
However, because it was a night action and with so few survivors from the Japanese side, at first it seemed unlikely that much could be added or discovered. It transpired, however, that there was some key Japanese survivor reports filed that had been overlooked. Further, U.S. Navy action reports when consulted directly contained important clues of time and chronology. By careful integration and collating of these sources and photographs, a new and more detailed story of the action can be discerned. In several places, this differs radically from the received versions and will represent a major revision, and one backed by hard evidence.
Among the items of note found in the book are:
- Integrated accounts by Japanese and American participants and action reports.
- The bizarre precursor and origin of the Battle of Surigao Strait contained in the Battle of the Marianas
- Fresh revelations on the true purposes and goals of the Nishimura and Shima sorties from Japanese sources.
- New maps prepared for this study to give more accurate perspective on the respective movements of the Nishimura and Shima fleets.
- Carefully selected photographs and images from microfilm sources.
- The answer to the mysterious fate of battleship Fuso.
- Important suggested revisions to the assignment of hits claimed by Allied vessels.
- Appendix dealing with long-standing mysteries and unanswered questions of the battle.
Interesting as the Fuso mystery was, the last hours and stories of the other combatants sunk in the battle - Yamashiro, Mogami, Michishio, Asagumo, Yamagumo, PT 493 --- are not neglected and are found herein as well. In addition to the above, of particular interest for those familiar with the witnesses of the battle will be some clarification and new light on the sometimes puzzling actions of Shigure's commanding officer, Nishino Shigeru, skipper of the only one of Nishimura's ships to return home.
Also chronicled are the travails of the "Shima fleet" , the rather misleadingly named Second Striking Force (2YB). Too often overlooked is the fact that by the time the Battle of Leyte Gulf was over and Kurita's fleet back at Brunei, is the fact that Shima's forces had suffered loss nearly as severe as Nishimura's. That aspect of the story is told here as well. Finally, though for reasons of space the obscure operations of Rear Admiral Sakonjo Naomasa's detached Southwest Area Guard Force (the cruiser Aoba segment) were dropped from the narrative, their outline of operation is found in a detailed appendix.
Since much supporting material, maps, and photographs of interest to historians and enthusiasts was accumulated in the course of the author's research, this webpage will serve as a place for their posting and discussion in the future. For questions related to the text and conclusions presented therein, and the operations of Nishimura, Shima, Sakonjo, and Oldendorf's fleets, a dedicated thread will serve this function as well.
PT 321 attempting to rescue reluctant Japanese survivors the morning of 25 October, 1944. PT 321 had a close-call only hours before when her torpedoes malfunctioned during an attack on SHIGURE and she was grazed by a 5-inch Japanese shell.
 Two major testimonies in the USSBS Interorgations bear on Surigao Strait. For Nishmura, there is the afore-mentioned statement of Nishino Shigeru of Shigure. The second is from Shima's torpedo officer, Mori Kikkuchi. See next note.
 It was in part to draw attention to the baffling mysterious case of battleship Fuso supposedly blowing in half and both sections remaing afloat (!?) and partly because of the continuing "transposition" and confusion of the relative fates of the Yamashiro and Fuso that I authored an online article in spring of 1999 (http:/www.combinedfleet.com/atully06.htm) showing why the Morison/Naval War College version of which battleship engaged Battle Line (Yamashiro) should be accepted. It was this work that in turn actually spurred interest in diving Surigao Straits to survey the battle site. Using information provided by the article, divers successfully located the battleship Yamashiro in April 2001. Encouraged by this and the growing interest, I researched the action further. In the process, I encountered a growing number of discrepancies that strongly pointed to the need for a fully revised and updated account. Among these, the actual answer to the mystery of battleship Fuso left unresolved in the article.