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The Most Famous Communique in US Naval History? The World Wonders November 3, 2016

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, Flightline Friday, foolishness, fun, history, non squitur, silliness, Society, Victory.
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TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS

Converting to a bit more plain English:

TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM COMMANDER IN CHIEF PACIFIC FLEET ACTION COMMANDER THIRD FLEET INFORM COMMANDER COMBINED TASK FORCE 77 WHERE IS REPEAT WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34 RR THE WORLD WONDERS

Halsey took it as the biggest sleight of his already controversial career.  The multi-part Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle in history, by any measure.  It was fought over hundreds of thousands of square miles.  It leyte_map_annotatedinvolved thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of sailors from the US and Imperial Japanese Navies.  Kido Butai, the awesomely capable, experienced, and technically innovative Japanese carrier strike force had been broken.  The carriers Halsey went chasing after hundreds of miles to the north of Leyte Gulf off Cape Engano  had virtually no aircraft and even fewer pilots.  He had left the hundreds of assault ships and landing craft in the Leyte Gulf anchorage dangerously exposed.  When Kurita’s Center Force came steaming down the San Bernadino Strait into the very thin covering force of Task Group 77.43 under command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, it looked as if the dream of every frustrated big gun enthusiast in every navy in the world was about to be realized – finally, absent fleet carriers and their steel harpies armed with armor piercing anti-ship bombs and torpedoes, would the big guns of battleships and cruisers be turned against the painfully thin steel hulls of escort carriers and, even more, assault landing ships.

By this point in the war, Halsey’s Third Fleet, and especially Task Force 38 (VADM Marc A. “Pete” Mitscher), the

Just a TINY part of 7th Fleet at anchorage, Ulithi Atoll, late 1944

Just a TINY part of 7th Fleet at anchorage, Ulithi Atoll, late 1944

Fast Carrier Strike Force, was the most powerful naval unit the world had ever seen.  Comprised of 9 fleet carriers and 8 light fleet carriers, the task force embarked over 1100 (!!) combat aircraft and the best trained, most experienced naval aviators in the world.  In addition, the task force was screened by 6 fast battleships and nearly two dozen light and heavy cruisers and literally scores of destroyers.  The “northern force” of the Japanese, intended to serve as a decoy to Halsey’s massive task force, was pathetic by comparison.  While it did lure Halsey north to try to accomplish the final extinction of Japanese naval aviation power in the Pacific (an objective already achieved the previous June in the Battle of the Philippine Sea), it comprised only one fleet carrier and three light carriers.  Nevertheless, Halsey chose to steam north at high speed with his entire massive force, leaving the landing beaches

"Murderer's Row," Ulithi Atoll, SEVEN fleet carriers of TF38 at anchor

“Murderer’s Row,” Ulithi Atoll, SEVEN fleet carriers of TF38 at anchor

and assault ships off Leyte and Samar protected by a screen of pre-WWII slow battleships to the south (who got revenge for their sufferings at Pearl Harbor by sinking two battleships on the night of Oct 24/5 in the Battle of the Surigao Strait) and the escort carriers and small destroyers of Task Group 77.4 to the north.  It was from the north that the main Japanese threat would come.

By this day, October 25, 1944, the Japanese Center Force under Admiral Takeo Kurita had already had a long battle.  Starting two days before, his powerful force consisting of 5 battleships (including the two largest battleships ever built, Yamato and Musashi) had been under constant attack. His command ship had been sunk out from under him with the torpedoing and sinking of the heavy cruiser Maya by the submarine Dace. The next day, the super-battleship Musashi was sunk under the weight of at least TWENTY torpedo hits, SEVENTEEN bomb hits, and eighteen near misses.  Kurita’s force turned around and looked to be headed for home, but not for long.

Takeo Kurita

Takeo Kurita

Early in the morning of October 25, Kurita’s force, which had resumed its original heading hours before, was spotted by terrified lookouts aboard the ships of “Taffy 3,” the part of Task Group 77.43 on the northern end of US forces covering the Samar and Leyte beachheads. As they saw the instantly identifiable “pagoda” masts of the Japanese battlewagons, they realized that not only was their goose just about cooked, but the entire Pacific War could take a radically different direction.

None of the American vessels carried anything larger than a 5″ gun, whereas the Japanese had everything up to 18.1″ weapons. Furthermore, the top speed of the American CVEs was appreciably lower than that of even the Japanese battlewagons. All in all, things did not look promising for Old Glory.

Texan Nimitz straightening Yankee Halsey out

Texan Nimitz straightening Yankee Halsey out

Fortunately, the Americans were aided by two factors. First, they did have airplanes on those jeep carriers, albeit airplanes without much in the way of anti-ship ordnance other than torpedos. By 0615, the Americans had launched several hundred aircraft, who proceeded to do everything short of throwing stones to harass the Japanese attackers. Second, the screening DDs and DEs for Taffy 3 were maniacally brave. In one of the great feats of sheer guts in naval history, seven American DDs and DEs charged the entire Japanese squadron, which outgunned them so utterly it beggars the imagination.

Throughout this battle, which raged for most of the day, first the commander of Taffy 3, Clifton Sprague, then his boss over Task Group 77.4, and finally 7th Fleet Commander Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, had been screaming for help.  The messages eventually devolved into plain voice, uncoded HF broadcasts that were picked up by Pearl Harbor.  Admiral Nimitz, quite rightly a bit perplexed, wanted to know where in the heck the battleships of Third Fleet – the fast battleships, the modern ones, the ones commanded by that great old sea dog Willis Augustus Lee, commander Task Force 34, the ones that could easily stand with the Japanese and fight – were at.  So, Nimitz sent a message to Halsey asking:

WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE 34

And that it all.  The “turkey trots to water” and, especially, “the world wonders” were just filler, things added to

WA "Ching" Lee

WA “Ching” Lee

throw off potential Japanese code breakers.  This should have been made abundantly clear by the two consonants joined together, “GG” and “RR,” but the decoder on Halsey’s flagship – Battleship New Jersey – was the only one in the entire fleet to decode it fallaciously, leaving “the world wonders” attached to the message.  Halsey thought Nimitz was deliberately insulting him, and basically went ballistic and then sulked in his stateroom for about an hour, before finally detaching TF34 under Lee to try to intercept the Japanese dreadnoughts, which by that time were already retiring with a severely bloody nose.

The Battle off Samar, as the fight between Kurita’s Center Force and Taffy 3 was called, ended, miraculously, in American victory.  As noted above, the 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts (primarily designed for ASW work, and even more lightly armed that regular destroyers) fought maniacally, actually severely damaging at least one cruiser among several other ships. The cost to the Americans was actually slight, considering the scale of forces ranged against them:  one CVE sunk, and three damaged, two DDs sunk, and 1 DE sunk, with several of the escorts also damaged.  When the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts was sunk, the Japanese saluted her.  That’s how well she fought.  That, combined with incessant air attacks and harassment from about 450 escort-carrier based planes helped convince the already rattled Kurita that he was facing not a small covering force but the main American carrier strike group.  He expected battlewagons like the Iowa and New Jersey to fall on his already

USS Samuel B. Roberts

USS Samuel B. Roberts

severely scattered and disrupted force any moment. So even though he was sacked after returning to Japan somewhat in disgrace for his failure to disrupt the landing forces, many historians have found his lack of vigor somewhat understandable.  In the end, however, what Kurita feared did happen, as Halsey also directed airstrikes from TF38 to pummel the Japanese stragglers, resulting in the sinking of 3 heavy cruisers and with three more being badly damaged.

As for Halsey, the judgment of history has often been harsh, not only for his conduct at Leyte Gulf, when he rather needlessly failed to split off TF34 to cover the northern approaches to the landing beaches as Nimitz had expected, but also for his later actions such as losing multiple ships while driving his fleet through a typhoon.  But Halsey had

BB-57 South Dakota with either Iowa or New Jersey behind, Ulithi Atoll

BB-57 South Dakota with either Iowa or New Jersey behind, Ulithi Atoll

always believed in concentration of forces, and didn’t know quite what to expect from the Japanese carrier force to the north.  Lee’s battleship screen had been instrumental in preventing Japanese carrier-based aircraft from even reaching the US carriers during the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.  He probably felt he would have need of the awesome firepower of the massed 5″ and 40 mm guns of the battlewagons.  That it turned out he did not is something only those with hindsight can really scold him with.

Later on the 25th, the error the decoder had made was revealed to Halsey, indicating that Nimitz was just plainly asking where the battleships were, and not giving him a verbal smackdown in front of the entire fleet.  Still, relations were apparently a bit awkward between Nimitz and Halsey

through the end of the war.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf makes for awesome study.  Submarine attacks, massive air battles, the introduction of the kamikaze, nighttime battleship vs. battleship battles, one of the most lopsided surface battles in history (where the underdog won!) among much, much more.

The great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison probably summed up the Battle Off Samar the best:

In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.

Third Fleet returns to Ulithi; CVL-27 Langley leads CV-14 Ticonderoga, BB-56 USS Washington and BB-55 USS North Carolina with several cruisers

Third Fleet returns to Ulithi; CVL-27 Langley leads CV-14 Ticonderoga, BB-56 USS Washington and BB-55 USS North Carolina with several cruisers

Fifth Fleet at anchor, Majuro Atoll, Dec. 1944.  Pictured are 5 CVs, 3 CVLs, and at least 3 BBs -  less than half the fleet's strength at the time.  Note, 3rd and 5th fleets contained the same ships but changed name when command transitioned from Halsey to Spruance.

Fifth Fleet at anchor, Majuro Atoll, Dec. 1944. Pictured are 5 CVs, 3 CVLs, and at least 3 BBs – less than half the fleet’s strength at the time. Note, 3rd and 5th fleets contained the same ships but changed name when command transitioned from Halsey to Spruance.

Comments

1. Brian E. Breslin - November 4, 2016

Tantum, You are the best! Thanks for this cruise through history.

2. Mike Aiello - November 4, 2016

You may have not mentioned it but sacrificing the Jaoanese carriers was part of the plan. They hoped Galsey would redirect his carriers and battleships away from the landing zone so Zkurita could then attack it. It worked but as you said, Zkurita lost his nerve. I remember the heroic effort of the destroyer USS Johnson, commanded by lt Commander Ernest Evans. Extremely heroic

Mike Aiello - November 4, 2016

Halsey


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