The battle of Samar (25 October 1944) was the nearest the Japanese came to success during the battle of Leyte Gulf and saw a powerful Japanese battleship force come close to destroying a force of American escort carriers.
The Japanese realised that an American invasion of the Philippines or of Formosa would cut their Empire in half and prevent vital supplies reaching the Home Islands from the south part of the empire. They decided to try and fight the 'decisive battle' of the war wherever the Americans attacked next. If the Americans attacked the Philippines then the Japanese hoped to use the scattered elements of their fleet in a coordinated attack that might allow them to get at the vulnerable invasion fleet. In the final version of the plan Admiral Ozawa's carriers, coming from Japan, were to drag the US 3rd Fleet away from the invasion beaches in Leyte Gulf, allowing three other Japanese fleets to advance through the central Philippines to attack the invasion fleets.
The most important of these three fleets was Admiral Kurita's I Striking Force. Admiral Kurita began the battle of Leyte Gulf with a powerful fleet, containing five battleships, twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Amongst the battleships were the Musashi and the Yamato, the biggest and most powerful battleships in the world. He also had the older battleships Kongo, Haruna and Nagato, twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers. This force suffered grievous losses before reaching Samar. In the two day battle of the Sibuyan Sea (23-24 October 1944) the Musashi was sunk by American aircraft, two cruisers were sunk by two American subs and a third crippled. Kurita started the battle of Samar with four battleships, six cruisers and ten destroyers.
On the American side the bulk of the battle was fought by Admiral Sprague's Taffy Three, with six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. The escort carriers carried modern aircraft, but these were armed for ground attack and so didn't have many of the armour piercing bombs needed against battleships. Twelve more escort carriers in two groups were in the area, but the 7th Fleet's six old battleships were away to the south defending the Surigao Strait. The powerful modern carriers and fast battleships of the 3rd Fleet had been lured away to the north to try and intercept Ozawa's carriers (Battle of Cape Engano). Admiral Kinkaid, commander of the 7th Fleet, believed that Halsey had left a powerful task force (Task Force 34, Admiral Lee) to watch Kurita, but in fact this force had accompanied the 3rd Fleet north.
On the night of 24-25 October Kurita passed through the San Bernardino Straits, turned south and headed for Leyte Gulf. Soon after this, at about 5.30, he learnt that Admiral Nishimura's force had been destroyed and Admiral Shima was retreating (battle of the Surigao Strait). He probably never received the messages Ozawa sent out announcing that the 3rd Fleet was chasing him. Kurita could justifiably believe that the main parts of both the US 3rd and 7th Fleets were somewhere in or close to Leyte Gulf.
At about dawn (6.30) Kurita found Admiral Sprague's Taffy 3, a task force made up of six escort carriers and seven escorts. Kurita believed that he had found a 'gigantic enemy task force' containing large carriers, cruisers, destroyers and possibly battleships. He decided to abandon the charge into Leyte Gulf and turned to attack Sprague's force. At 6.58 the Yamato's main guns opened fire on a surface target for the first time.
Sprague realised that he was in trouble. At 7.01 he issued a call for help in the clear, ordered his aircraft into the air and headed for a nearby rain squall. Under cover of the rain he decided to try and reach the support of Taffy 2, thirty miles to the south. His destroyers were ordered to attack the Japanese fleet while the carriers made their best speed south.
Sprague's aircraft had a limited potential to do serious damage to the Japanese battleships. The escort carriers didn't have enough storage space to carry both fragmentation bombs for ground support and a significant number of armour piercing bombs. The Japanese had no way to know that, and the American aircraft were able to force the Japanese heavy ships into frantic manoeuvres, slowing their pursuit of the carriers. The torpedo firing destroyers were equally effective.
Just after 7.20am the cruiser Kumano was hit by a torpedo from the US destroyer Johnston DD-557. Her speed was reduced, and at 9.45 she was detached from the main fleet and ordered back through the San Bernardino Strait. This brought her into range of aircraft from the US 3rd Fleet and at around 9.45 she was attacked by SB2C dive-bombers and TBM torpedo bombers from TF 38. They only managed to score one near miss. A second attack early on 26 October managed three bomb hits, but the cruiser could still make 10kts. The Kumano managed to reach safety at Manila where she underwent repairs before leaving for Japan on 5 November. Her luck now turned - her convoy was attacked by four American submarines and the cruiser was hit twice. She remained afloat and reached Dasol Bay on the Luzon coast, but on 25 November she was sunk by American aircraft.
This first destroyer attack cost the Americans dearly. The Johnston was hit by three 14in and three 6in shells and the Hoel by shells that disabled her main engine. The Hoel remained in the fight until she was unable to move and at about 8.30 her crew abandoned ship.
A little further south the escort carriers came under fire from the Japanese battleships. Kalinin Bay and Gambier Bay were both hit but managed to main their position until the Gambier Bay was hit in the forward engine room. The destroyer Johnston attempted to distract attention from the stricken carrier but without success and the Gambier Bay sank at around 8.45am. The Johnston then managed to break up a light cruiser attack on the carriers, but in the process she became their main target and was sunk. Only 141 of her 327 crewmen survived.
The cruiser Chikuma was hit by a torpedo at around 8.54. It was a sign that Sprague's men were getting closer to help that this torpedo was probably launched by an aircraft from Admiral Felix B. Stump's Task Group 77.4.2. The engine rooms flooded, and the ship came to a halt. She was unable to respond when Kurita decided to withdraw from battle, and was left alone. She sank during the day with the loss of most of her crew. Another 100 were rescued by the destroyer Nowaki, but that ship was lost on the night of 25-26 October with the loss of all hands.
The cruiser Chokai was hit by 500lb bombs at around 9.05am. The bombs caused heavy fires and damaged the forward engine room. The cruiser came to a halt, and couldn't be rescued. At around 10.30 the crippled cruiser was sunk by a spread of torpedoes from the destroyer Fujinami.
By this time Kurita was rather losing his grip on the battle. The Yamato was some way behind his cruisers and visibility was poor. He wasn't aware of the damage to three of his cruisers, and had lost sight of the carriers. At 9.11, believing that he had won a major victory over a squadron of fleet carriers, Kurita ordered his surviving ships to withdraw from the battle.
At about 10.50 the cruiser Suzuya suffered a near miss that detonated the torpedoes in the starboard forward torpedo tubes. This set off a fire made worse when more of her torpedoes exploded at around 11.00. Damage control measures failed and at about 12 noon a series of ammunition explosions began. The ship was abandoned at 1pm and sank twenty minutes later.
Taffy 3's ordeal wasn't yet over. At 10.50, just as the Suzuya was being attacked, nine kamikaze aircraft attacked the task group, in one of the first organised suicide attacks of the war. Most were destroyed or missed, but one hit the escort carrier St Lô, triggering explosions that sank her. A second kamikaze attack twenty minutes later did more damage but failed to sink anything.
It took Kurita about two hours to regroup. He then turned south with his remaining fifteen ships in an attempt to reach Leyte Gulf, the original target of his operation. At 11.40 one of his lookouts reported sighting a battleship and destroyers. The fleet turned aside to chase this phantom before turning south again. At around 12.30, when only forty five miles from Leyte Gulf, Kurita decided that it wasn't worth risking the destruction of his fleet just to sink empty transport ships. He had also received reports that an American carrier task force had been sighted 113 miles north of the gulf, and he now decided to turn north to deal with this
In fact Halsey's carriers were still far to the north. All morning he had been receiving urgent calls for help, but had refused to turn back. In the resulting battle of Cape Engano Halsey sank all four of Ozawa's carriers. At around 11 he ordered one of his carrier groups to turn south, and his fourth carrier group, which was some way to the east, was also directed towards Kurita. This fourth task group was first to come into range and during the afternoon it launched two attacks on Kurita's fleet. After spending all afternoon looking for the American carriers Kurita retired to the eastern end of the San Bernardino Strait at 6pm. He was under orders to wait for dark and try and fight a night battle, but at 9.25, with fuel short, he decided to retreat west through the straits. He would suffer further air attack on 26 October, but the main fighting in Leyte Gulf was over.
Kurita has since been blamed for his decisions to withdraw from combat at 9.11 and to turn back from Leyte Gulf at 12.30. Both can be defended using the information available to Kurita at the time, but he later believed the second decision to have been a mistake. If Kurita had advanced into Leyte Gulf then his fleet would almost certainly have been destroyed - if not by Kinkaid's escort carriers and old battleships then by the 3rd Fleet. All he could have achieved was the destruction of empty transport ships, and perhaps a damaging bombardment of the US troops on Leyte, but neither would have altered the eventual course of the fighting in the Philippines.