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Sibuyan Sea

Relief map of Sibuyan Sea

The Sibuyan Sea (125.488E 9.781N) is a small sea located south of Luzon, east of Mindoro and north of Panay. It was the location of a major naval engagement on 24 October 1944, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.


Photograph of Musashi under aerial attack
Naval Historical Center #NH 63432

Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. The Allied liberation of the Philippines began on 20 October 1944 with the invasion of Leyte. Two days later, the Japanese activated their contingency plan for the defense of the Philippines, Sho Ichi Go ("Victory Operation One"). Because the Japanese had virtually no aircraft or pilots left for their carriers, their operational plan relied on their still-powerful surface forces (under Kurita) built around the Yamato and Musashi. These were based at Singapore in order to be close to their fuel supplies, while the carrier forces remained in the Inland Sea. In order to give Kurita a chance to reach and destroy the American amphibious force, Ozawa was ordered to deliberately allow his carriers to be spotted and pursued by Halsey. While Halsey was thus diverted to the north, Kurita was to split his force, taking the main body across the Sibuyan Sea and through San Bernardino Strait north of Leyte Gulf while a detachment under Nishimura would enter Leyte Gulf through Surigao Strait to the south in order to trap the Allied transports between them. 

There were several hundred Japanese land-based aircraft scattered throughout the Philippines, but serviceability rates were low and not more than about 200 aircraft participated in the battle. These would be employed primarily in strikes against the American carriers, rather than as air cover for the Japanese naval surface forces, because it was believed that the inexperienced Japanese pilots would have a better chance of protecting Kurita's force by disabling the American flight decks than by attempting to intercept American air strikes. Postwar, staff officers from 2 Air Fleet claimed that they always kept ten fighters above Kurita's force, but Kurita claimed that he never saw any air cover.

Kurita's force was discovered off Palawan on 23 October 1944 by submarines Darter and Dace, which sank the heavy cruisers Atago and Maya and severely damaged Takao. Kurita also detailed two destroyers to escort Takao to safety, which took them out of the battle. The contact report from the American submarines was the first indication to Allied intelligence that the main strength of the Japanese Navy was coming out to contest the Leyte landings. On receiving Darter and Dace's contact report, Halsey immediately alerted the fleet and recalled McCain's Task Group 38.1, which was on its way to Ulithi for rest and replenishment. However, McCain's group would not arrive in time for the battle.

Shortly after dawn on 24 October 1944, Kurita brought his force through Mindoro Strait. His ships were sighted on radar by a Helldiver from Intrepid at 0812, which reported "13DD, 4BB, 8CA". Halsey had the report by 0822 and immediately ordered his three available task groups to concentrate. At 0837 he ordered his carriers to strike the Japanese force.

Japanese Air Strikes and the Loss of Princeton. The Japanese struck first, however. Three separate raids, of 50 to 60 land-based aircraft, concentrated on Sherman's Task Group 38.3, which was the northernmost of the task groups and thus the nearest to the Japanese bases on Luzon. At 0833 a raid of at least 60 land-based Japanese aircraft was intercepted by seven Hellcats, which ignored the odds and plunged into the Japanese formation. The Japanese bombers scattered while the fighters formed a defensive Lufberry circle. The Essex air group commander, Commander David McCampbell, patiently waited for the Japanese formation to break up, then shot down at least nine Japanese aircraft — a wartime record for a single engagement. McCampbell's wingman accounted for another six aircraft and the rest of the American fighters shot down atleast ten more. McCampbell was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.


Photograph of firefighting efforts on CVL Princeton
National Archives #80-G-270357

At 0938, while the American combat air patrol was returning from driving off the Japanese strikes, a single Judy dive bomber broke through the cloud cover and put its 250 kg (550 lb) bomb through the flight deck of light carrier Princeton. The bomb penetrated four decks to explode in the ship's bakery, and its blast ignited gasoline in the hangar deck.  Flames began detonating torpedoes loaded onto six Avengers, dropping one elevator into its well and throwing the other onto the flight deck. Captain Buracker ordered Salvage Control Phase I at 1010 and Salvage Control Phase II shortly thereafter. The crew fought the fire for almost six hours but were unable to reach a blaze near the torpedo magazine, and at 1523 a massive explosion blew up the stern of the ship. There were heavy casualties on cruiser Birmingham, which had come alongside at 1004 to assist with the firefighting.

Though Princeton was still afloat, the fires were now burning towards the gasoline storage and main magazine, and shortly after 1640 Sherman ordered her scuttled. Destroyer Irwin attempted to deliver the coup de grace, but her torpedo director had been damaged while she assisted with firefighting. Only one torpedo connected, and two circular running torpedo nearly hit Irwin. Light cruiser Reno then fired two torpedoes, one of which hit Princeton's gasoline storage and finally sank the ship.

Meanwhile a second raid in two groups arrived at 1212. This was Ozawa's entire striking force, which was intercepted and broken up some 45 miles (70 km) northeast of Sherman's task group. Some 6 to 8 Judys broke through to the American carriers but scored no hits. Halsey now had a good idea that the Japanese carriers, whose appearance he had anticipated since the first contact report from Darter and Dace, were somewhere off to the northwest. However, by then his strikes were already on the way to Kurita's force.

American Air Strikes. Kurita knew he had been sighted at 0812 and brought his fleet to 25 knots. While Sherman was fighting off the Japanese air raids, Bogan launched the first of five  American strikes. The strikes are described in the following table, as best as they can be reconstructed from conflicting sources:

Launch Time
Origin
Composition
Attack Time
Damage Inflicted
0910
TG 38.2 (Bogan):
CV Intrepid
CVL Cabot
21 F6F Hellcats
12 SB2C Helldivers
12 TBF Avengers
1026
BB Musashi: 1 bomb hit, 1 torpedo hit
BB Yamato: 1 bomb hit
CA Myoko: 1 torpedo hit
1045
TG 38.2 (Bogan): ? F6F Hellcats
8+ SB2C Helldivers
9+ TBF Avengers
1203
BB Musashi: 2 bomb hits, 3 torpedo hits
1050
TG 38.3 (Sherman)
CV Lexington
CV Essex
16+ F6F Hellcats
17+ SB2C Helldivers
11+ TBF Avengers
5 other aircraft of unknown type
1330
BB Musashi: 4 bomb hits, 4 torpedo hits
BB Yamato: 1 bomb hit
BB Nagato: 2 bomb hits
1313
TG 38.4 (Davison)
26 F6F Hellcats
21 SB2C Helldivers
18 TBF Avengers
4 other aircraft of unknown type
1455
BB Musashi: 4 bomb hits, 3 torpedo hits
1350
TG 38.2 (Bogan): 16 F6F Hellcats
12 SB2C Hellidivers
3 TBF Avengers
1515
BB Musashi: 7 bomb hits, 8 torpedo hits

Morison (1958) gives a total of 259 sorties against Kurita on 24 October. The 48 sorties not accounted for in the table presumably were split between the 1045 strike and the Essex component of the 1050 strike, for which Morison does not give exact numbers. However, some sources (e.g. Cox 2012) report only two strikes from Bogan's group, arriving at 1026 and 1245. Japanese sources report six raids, apparently because the 1050 raid attacked in two waves.

The American pilots reported just four Japanese fighters over Kurita's fleet, which were quickly shot down by the Hellcats. Antiaircraft fire was intense and included the first operational use of the San Shiki Model 3 antiaircraft round fired from the 18" guns of Musashi. However, the San Shiki shells proved almost completely ineffective (perhaps because the Musashi's gun director had been damaged) and the American lost just 18 aircraft to antiaircraft fire during the battle.

The giant battleship Musashi took the brunt of the attack, sinking after taking 17 bomb hits and 19 torpedo hits. Her commander attempted to beach her, but she capsized at 1935 with the loss of 1,096 of her crew. Battleships Yamato and Nagato each took two bomb hits that inflicted significant damage to their upper works, hindering fire control and communications, and heavy cruiser Myoko took a torpedo hit that damaged two shafts and forced her to withdraw. Other ships were damaged by very near misses.  At 1600, Kurita finally reverse course while broadcasting pleas for air cover.

Kurita was not the sole target of American strikes on 24 October. Nishimura was sighted at 0820 by a search group from Enterprise, which immediately attacked and scored one bomb hit each on Fuso and Shigure. However, contact was subsequently lost and Halsey chose to concentrate his strikes on the more dangerous Center Force.

Meanwhile, Ozawa was trying to be detected by the Americans, unaware that his radio transmitter was malfunctioning and preventing his radio traffic from being heard by either friend or foe.  The Americans finally spotted him at 1540, and Halsey, overestimating the damage to Kurita's force and believing it was retiring for good, took off in hot pursuit of Ozawa with all his forces. Now it was the Americans whose plans were thrown into confusion. Halsey had transmitted a contingency plan for detaching his battle line as Task Force 34 to guard San Bernardino Strait. However, with Kurita seemingly in retreat, Halsey decided this was unnecessary. But the original message was the only one seen by other senior commanders (such as  Kinkaid with 7 Fleet in Leyte Gulf), and they were left with the mistaken impression that San Bernardino Strait was being watched.

At 1935 a night reconnaissance flight from Independence found that Kurita's force had returned to a course for San Bernardino Strait. It is unclear why Halsey did not then detach Task Force 34 to cover the strait. Mitscher, possibly smarting from having been bypassed all day by Halsey (who issued orders directly to Mitscher's task group commanders), declined to radio such a recommendation to Halsey. Three of Halsey's task force commanders also wondered at the order, and Bogan went so far as to contact Halsey's staff with the information that the navigation lights in San Bernardino Strait were lit. He was brushed off, and made no further protest. Lee, the battle line commander, correctly deduced that Ozawa's force was a decoy with little striking power, but his signal to Halsey warning that Kurita was likely to come out of San Bernardino Strait was also brushed off. Halsey's failure to guard the strait must be judged one of the great blunders of the Pacific War.

Japanese order of battle, 18 October 1944

Combined Fleet (Toyoda)

 
Mobile Force (Ozawa)



Main Body (Northern Force) (Ozawa)      




Carrier Division 3 (Ozawa) Combined air strength: 80 A6M Zero, 25 B6N Jill, 4 B5N Kate, 7 D4Y Judy




CV Zuikaku
CVL Zuiho
CVL Chitose
CVL Chiyoda
80 A6M Zero
25 B6N "Jill"
4 B5N "Kate"
7 D4Y "Judy"




Carrier Division 4 (Matsuda)





CVBB Hyuga
CVBB Ise




Destroyer Division 61





DD Hatsuzuki
DD Akitsuki
DD Wakatsuki
DD Shimotsuki



On loan from Destroyer Division 41



Escort Squadron 31 (Edo)





CL Isuzu





Destroyer Division 43






DE Maki
DE Kiri
DE Kuwa
DE Sugi




CL Oyodo
CL Tama



First Striking Force (Kurita)



Force "A" (Center Force) (Kurita)

 

First Section (Kurita)


 
 
Battleship Division 1 (Ugaki)






BB Yamato
BB Musashi
BB Nagato
Lightly damaged
Sunk
Lightly damaged




Cruiser Division 4 (Kurita)





CA Chokai





Cruiser Division 5 (Hashimoto)






CA Myoko
CA Haguro
Severely damaged




Destroyer Squadron 2 (Hayakawa)     






CL Noshiro
DD Shimakaze






Destroyer Division 2







DD Hayashimo
DD Akishimo






Destroyer Division 31







DD Kishinami
DD Okinami
DD Naganami
DD Asashimo






Destroyer Division 32







DD Hamanami
DD Fujinami





Second Section (Suzuki)





Battleship Division 3 (Suzuki)





BB Kongo
BB Haruna

Slightly damaged by very near misses




Cruiser Division 7 (Shiraishi)






CA Kumano
CA Suzuya
CA Chikuma
CA Tone



Lightly damaged




Destroyer Squadron 10 (Kimura)






CL Yahagi
DD Nowaki
DD Kiyoshimo






Destroyer Division 17







DD Urakaze
DD Yukikaze
DD Hamakaze
DD Isokaze



Force "C" (Van of Southern Force) (Nishimura)     




Battleship Division 2 (Nishimura)  





BB Yamashiro
BB Fuso
CA Mogami

Lightly damaged



Destroyer Division 4





DD Michishio
DD Asagumo
DD Yamagumo
DD Shigure



Moderately damaged. On loan from Destroyer Squadron 2


Fifth Base Air Force and First Air Fleet (Onishi; at Clark)     
Adequate records were never found from which to reconstruct the order of battle for Japanese land-based air forces. Most sources simply speak of several hundred land-based aircraft in the Philippines. During the air battles of 24 October, the American carrier groups were raided by a total of perhaps 200-300 aircraft, but these include Ozawa's carrier aircraft. There were additional kamikaze raids during the Battle of Samar.

Allied order of battle, 24 October 1944

Pacific Fleet (Nimitz)

 
3 Fleet (Halsey; on BB New Jersey)     


 
Task Force 38 Fast Carrier Force (Mitscher; on CV Lexington)



 
Task Group 38.2 (Bogan)




 
CV Intrepid




 
VF-18: 5 F6F-3N Hellcat, 36 F6F-5 Hellcat, 3 F6F-5P Hellcat
VB-18: 28 SB2C-3 Helldiver
VT-18: 18 TBM-1C Avenger





CV Hancock





VF-7: 37 F6F-5 Hellcat, 4 F6F-5N Hellcat
VB-7: 30 SB2C-3 Helldiver, 12 SB2C-3E Helldiver
VT-7: 18 TBM-1C Avenger





CV Bunker Hill






VF-8: 27 F6F-3 Hellcat, 14 F6F-5 Hellcat, 4 F6F-3N Hellcat, 4 F6F-5N Hellcat
VB-8: 17 SB2C-1C Helldiver, 3 SBF-1 Helldiver, 4 SBW-1 Helldiver
VT-8: 17 TBM-1C Avenger, 2 TBM-1D Avenger





CVL Cabot





VF-29: 3 F6F-3 Hellcat, 18 F6F-5 Hellcat
VT-29: 1 TBF-1C Avenger, 8 TBM-1C Avenger





CVL Independence Night air group carrier





VF-41: 3 F6F-3 Hellcat, 2 F6F-5 Hellcat, 14 F6F-5N Hellcat
VT-41: 8 TBM-1D Avenger





Battleship Division 7 (Badger)






BB Iowa
BB New Jersey





Cruiser Division 14 (Whiting)






CL Vincennes
CL Miami
CLAA San Diego
CLAA Oakland





Screen





Destroyer Squadron 52







DD Miller
DD The Sullivans
DD Stephen Potter
DD Tingey






Destroyer Division 104







DD Hickox
DD Hunt
DD Lewis Hancock
DD Marshall






Destroyer Squadron 50







DD Halsey Powell
DD Cushing
DD Colahan
DD Uhlmann
DD Benham






Destroyer Division 106







DD Stockham
DD Wedderburn
DD Twining
DD Yarnall




Task Group 38.3 (Sherman)





CV Essex





VF-15: 22 F6F-3 Hellcat, 3 F6F-3N Hellcat, 2 F6F-3P Hellcat, 23 F6F-5 Hellcat, 1 F6F-5N Hellcat
VB-15: 25 SB2C-3 Helldiver
VT-15: 15 TBF-1C Avenger, 5 TBM-1C Avenger





CV Lexington





VF-19: 14 F6F-3 Hellcat, 2 F6F-3N Hellcat, 1 F6F-3P Hellcat, 22 F6F-5 Hellcat, 1 F6F-5N Hellcat, 1 F6F-5P Hellcat      
VB-19: 30 SB2C-3 Helldiver
VT-19: 18 TBM-1C Avenger





CVL Princeton Sunk





VF-27: 18 F6F-3 Hellcat, 7 F6F-5 Hellcat
VT-27: 9 TBM-1C Avenger





CVL Langley





VF-44: 19 F6F-3 Hellcat, 6 F6F-5 Hellcat
VT-44: 9 TBM-1C Avenger





Battleships, Pacific Fleet (Lee)






BB Washington






Battleship Division 8 (Davis)







BB Massachusetts






Battleship Division 9 (Hanson)







BB South Dakota
BB Alabama






Cruiser Division 13 (DuBose)







CL Santa Fe
CL Mobile
CL Birmingham
CLAA Reno


Damaged





Screen







Destroyer Squadron 50








DD Clarence K. Bronson
DD Cotten
DD Dortch
DD Healy







Destroyer Squadron 55








DD Porterfield
DD Callaghan
DD Cassin Young
DD Irwin
DD Preston







Destroyer Division 110








DD Laws
DD Longshaw
DD Morrison
DD Pritchett




Task Group 38.4 (Davison)





CV Franklin





VF-13: 1 F6F-3 Hellcat, 3 F6F-3N Hellcat, 30 F6F-5 Hellcat, 1 F6F-5N Hellcat, 4 F6F-5P Hellcat      
VB-13: 31 SB2C-3 Helldiver
VT-13: 18 TBM-1C Avenger





CV Enterprise






VF-20: 4 F6F-3N Hellcat, 36 F6F-5 Hellcat
VB-20: 34 SB2C-3 Helldiver
VT-20: 19 TBM-1C Avenger





CVL San Jacinto






VF-51: 24 F6F-3 Hellcat, 5 F6F-5 Hellcat
VT-51: 5 TBM-1C Avenger





CVL Belleau Wood






VF-21: 24 F6F-5 Hellcat, 1 F6F-5P Hellcat
VT-21: 9 TBM-1C Avenger





CA New Orleans
CL Biloxi





Screen






Destroyer Squadron 6







DD Gridley
DD Helm
DD McCall






Destroyer Division 12







DD Mugford
DD Bagley
DD Patterson
DD Ralph Talbot






Destroyer Division 24







DD Wilkes
DD Nicholson
DD Swanson

References

Cox (2012; accessed 2012-11-3)

Cutler (1994)
Hackett and Kingsepp (2012; accessed 2012-11-3)

Morison (1958)



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