The Pacific War, which began in 1941, was one that the Japanese Empire was losing by 1944. Despite their initial victories the Japanese could not hold the territories they had won as U.S. Marines flooded ashore. Naval defeats, such as at the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Philippine Sea, had also decimated their aircraft carrier fleets.
Once the Marianas had fallen, the IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) had few carrier planes for its remaining aircraft carriers, without which the carriers could no longer match the Allies in the Pacific. However, they still possessed huge battleships that were more than a match for Allied surface fleet warships. Among them were the Yamato-class battleships, Yamato and Musashi, each of which eclipsed 72,000 tons. With their 18.1 inch guns, and 25-mile range, few Allied warships would last long in any direct naval battle with them.
Consequently, when U.S. Marines invaded Leyte, in the Philippines, the IJN had to throw their battleships into the battle. Not merely as support ships, but to wipeout the U.S. invasion fleet. To defeat the Allied landings at Leyte, the IJN planned an operation that required four separate fleets to sail to the Philippines. The primary fleet was the Center Force that included Japan’s largest battleships and surface fleet ships. The IJN sent the Center Force to intercept, and wipe out,the primary U.S. invasion fleet off Samar; with two southern fleets also sent to approach from the south.
A fourth fleet, which included aircraft carriers, was also a part of the plan. However, with only a few planes at their disposal they were decoy carriers sent to lure away the U.S. Third Fleet, which would otherwise likely intercept the Center Force. The IJN expected that the Third Fleet aircraft carriers would move away from the primary U.S. invasion fleet in pursuit of Japan’s carrier fleet.
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Third Fleet did indeed head northwards. The plan was effective, and Kurita’s fleet proceeded through the San Bernardino Strait to Samar. U.S. aircraft had previously intercepted them, and wiped out the Musashi, but aside from that the fleet remained largely intact.
The battle began when the Center Force located Taffy 3. This was an assortment of U.S. warships that consisted of destroyers and escort carriers. They had only a few aircraft, that were short of effective anti-ship arsenal, with which to bomb the approaching Japanese Armada. Their surface fleet ships were outgunned, and little match for the Japanese battleships.
U.S. destroyers set up a smoke screen as they charged towards the Japanese fleet.They fired a spread of torpedoes at the Japanese warships. They lost destroyers during the charge, but their torpedoes still had some impact.
The Japanese warships shelled the U.S. escort carriers, although the shower of shells largely missed their targets. The USS Gambier Bay escort carrier took some direct hits, which sparked off fires across its decks. As the fires raged aboard the aircraft carrier, it gradually capsized and slipped beneath the sea. Other U.S. escort carriers, such as the Kalinin Bay, were also set ablaze, but they still remained afloat during the battle.
The only question that both sides asked was where exactly was the Third Fleet? The Center Force was not clear that it had sailed northwards towards the Japanese decoy aircraft carriers. Nor were Taffy 3 any clearer, and they called for further support from the Third Fleet.
Even though the Third Fleet did not arrive at the Battle off Samar, the orders were still given for the Center Force to withdraw. False reports of a U.S. task group 30 nautical miles from the Center Force were given. As they located no further U.S. warships, the Center Force later withdrew from the battle.
A moment of luck might have limited U.S. losses at the Battle off Samar. They had lost two escort carriers and a few destroyers. However, their transport ships remained firmly intact, and proceeded to land further Marines at Leyte. The Battle off Samar ensured that they won the wider Battle of Leyte Gulf because the Philippines Campaign went ahead as planned.