Battle of Surigao Strait

The Japanese battleship Fusō, was a part of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the pilot ship of the Fusō-class. She was laid down by the Kure Kaigun Koshō on 11 March 1912, launched on 28 March 1914 and finished on 18 November 1915. Her 356 mm (14 in) main gun turrets were placed in an unorthodox 2-1-1-2 style (with her sister ship Yamashiro having her third turret reversed when compared to Fusō) and with a funnel separating the middle turret placement. This display was not entirely successful as the armoured section was needlessly lengthened and the middle guns had trouble targeting. Nevertheless, Fusō’s relatively fine hull form allowed her to reach a speed of 22 kn (41 km/h; 25 mph).

At 2:11 AM, October 25, 1944 Nishimura ordered his ships into battle formation for the dash up the strait. As they did so, another group of PT boats sprinted in from the southeast, hurling six torpedoes at the Japanese. The torpedoes all missed. Nishimura’s ships steamed on at 20 knots.

The Battle of Surigao Strait was one of the four separate actions known collectively as the Battle of Leyte Gulf As part of their ‘Sho-I’ plan the Japanese had sent two detachments under Vice Admiral Nishimura (designated Force ‘C’ of the 1st Striking Force and the 2nd Striking Force) towards Surigao Strait. Force ‘C’ included the battleships IJN Fusō and IJN Yamashiro, and the heavy cruiser IJN Mogami, while the 2nd Striking Force under Vice Admiral Shima had only three heavy cruisers. Their objective was the American amphibious forces of Samar, which were to be attacked in conjunction with Tice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 1st Striking Force, comprising the battleships IJN Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna (Forces ‘A’and ‘B’).

At 2:11 AM, October 25, 1944 Nishimura ordered his ships into battle formation for the dash up the strait. As they did so, another group of PT boats sprinted in from the southeast, hurling six torpedoes at the Japanese. The torpedoes all missed. Nishimura’s ships steamed on at 20 knots.

Now came Captain Coward’s Desron 54. The sea was glassy and the temperature about 80 degrees Farenheit, and only the wind made by the tin cans’ speed brought relief to the men topside. All hands were served coffee and sandwiches after midnight.

Moving in two flanking groups south through the strait, Coward’s five destroyers plotted the Japanese approach with their radar. At 2:58 AM, Shigure illuminated Coward’s eastern group with a searchlight, and Coward assigned targets as his tin cans cranked up to 30 knots for an attack. His plan was to use torpedoes only, so as not to give away his ships’ positions with gun flashes. At 3 AM, the American destroyers loosed 27 torpedoes at a range of 11,500 yards at the Japanese.

As the torpedoes powered through the water, Fusō opened up with her 14-inch guns at a surface target for the first time in her life. Petty Officer Hideo Ogawa removed cordite charges from flash-proof storage canisters and loaded them onto the powder-cage elevator, and at 3:07 Fusō let loose at her targets. Japanese shells flew at the American destroyers. A minute later, two American torpedoes from Melvin slammed into Fusō’s starboard side with towering explosions and cascades of water. The dreadnought slowed down and began listing to starboard.

The starboard boiler rooms flooded rapidly. The dreadnought sheered out of line, her starboard side blazing. Incredibly, her skipper, Rear Admiral Masami Ban, did not radio a damage report-he may have been unable to do so or coping with too many crises at once- and her companions continued steaming north. Mogami slipped into the position Fusō vacated. Nishimura was unaware that he had just lost 50 percent of his dreadnought strength and pressed on, radioing orders to an unresponsive Fusō.

Coward’s destroyers charged in, illuminated by a Japanese parachute flare from one of Yamashiro’s floatplanes. As their torpedoes streaked off, Chief Petty Officer Virgil Rollins, manning McDermut’s No. 2 torpedo mount, calmly remarked, “It is about time for something to happen.”

At that instant, 3:20 AM, explosions and fireballs lit up the night. Two torpedoes crashed into Yamagumo’s port side, and the destroyer exploded immediately, the blast seen as far away as Oldendorf’s battleships. The hits apparently cooked off Yamagumo’s torpedoes, and the destroyer sank rapidly.

The destruction was only beginning. At 3:22, a torpedo slammed into Yamashiro’s port side. At 3:25, Asagumo took a torpedo hit forward. A startling vibration shook up Chief Engineer Tokichi Ishii. He phoned the bridge to find out what was going on but got no answer. Seconds later, a runner from the bridge appeared bearing word from the skipper, Commander Kazuo Shibayama, to check on a torpedo hit to the port bow. At the same time, torpedoes smacked into Asagumo. She rapidly took on water, her bows shredded.

The Japanese now had only one battleship, one cruiser, and one destroyer ready to hit back, and as Michishio prepared to launch torpedoes, she suddenly heaved and shuddered violently, slowing to a dead halt, the recipient of more American torpedoes from McDermut and Monssen. All power on the Japanese destroyer went out, and the machinery spaces began flooding rapidly.

For the American destroyers, it was a grand slam unmatched in nautical history: three Japanese destroyers and a battleship crippled by a single onslaught of torpedoes. Oldendorf’s report on the attack was blunt and accurate: “Brilliantly conceived and well executed.”

In the strait, Japanese warships blazed and began to founder. On Yamashiro’s flag bridge, Nishimura tried to make sense of the rapidly unfolding disaster. He reported by radio to his superiors: “Enemy DDs and torpedo boats are stationed at the northern entrance to Surigao Strait. Two of our DDs have received torpedo damage and are drifting. Yamashiro has been hit by one torpedo, but her battle integrity is not impaired.”

Tokyo got the word. So did USS Denver, which picked up the message at 3 AM. It clearly indicated that Nishimura was losing control of the situation. He seemed to assume that Fusō was still following him. The surviving Japanese pressed on.

On Fusō’s bridge, Rear Admiral Ban took stock of disastrous damage control reports: “No. 1 powder and shell magazines filling with water … the ship making only 10 knots … her bow drooping into the water … communications out.” At 3:20, Fusō wobbled onto a westerly course.

Nishimura’s force continued north. The next set of picadors was Captain Kenmore McManes’s Destroyer Squadron 24 (Desron 24), which included HMAS Arunta, her white ensigns snapping in the wind. Unlike seadogs of old, McManes fought this battle not from his flag bridge but in his combat information center hunched over a radar screen. McManes cranked his ships up to 25 knots, and at 3:23 AM, Arunta opened up with five torpedoes.

USS Killen launched her fish a minute later, all aimed at Shigure and Yamashiro. At 3:31, one of Killen’s torpedoes smacked into Yamashiro’s port side amidships. The battleship began to list to port and cut speed to a perilously slow five knots. Determined damage control on the dreadnought patched the holes, and soon Yamashiro was back at a decent 18 knots.

South of the flagship, Fusō was in agony, still moving on a wobbly course, probably trying to beach on Kanihaan Island. But the ship was so far down at the bow, Chief Engineer Captain Eiichi Nakaya could not maintain navigability. In No. 1 turret, Yasuo Kato saw water flooding in from the hatch above him. Kato sent a messenger to the bridge to report his predicament. The messenger saluted, scrambled out of the listing turret, and was back moments later. He could not walk the deck. It was spouting steam, oil, and seawater.

Below Kato, Hideo Ogawa and his pals watched seawater trickle into their space. The turret captain ordered Ogawa and 10 of his buddies to evacuate upward. They climbed into the projectile room above, closing the steel hatch behind them to preserve watertight integrity. Once there, Ogawa and his shipmates kept climbing, joining 15 more men to evacuate through another steel door of the hoist. Then came orders from the bridge: all hands of No. 1 and No. 2 turrets were to assemble at the center starboard upper deck as reserves for damage control.

McManes and his tin cans of Desron 24 were still harrying Nishimura’s battered ships. Radar screens were full of pips, from both friend and foe. While the Americans held the initiative, the Japanese fought back. Asagumo fired torpedoes at USS Daly, which sizzled just under the American’s bow.

The sound and fury in this portion of the engagement signified nothing as both sides missed each other, but Fusō’s nightmare was coming to an end. Hideo Ogawa watched his ship’s forecastle slide underwater. Crewmen struggled out of No. 1 turret onto the slanting foredeck, her gunhouse parting the seas with its shield. Yasuo Kato wiggled out of the turret and was struck by the fact that “complete silence prevailed on our ship.”

Then the thin sound of gurgling water and the distant rumble of explosions were broken by the strident notes of a bugle blaring “Abandon Ship!” Kato and his buddies started jumping into the water. As they hit the Surigao Strait, they heard a grinding clatter. Everyone looked up and saw Fusō’s bridge tilt “at an angle of 45 degrees to the left and [make] a terrible noise … it hit the water with a huge splash.”

With her bow submerged, Fusō was listing heavily to starboard. Suddenly she corkscrewed to port and upended. Kato, who had scrambled over the starboard rail, had found himself standing on the hull’s side and sliding along the blister. When Fusō spun to port he was flung into the sea on his back. He swam away.

Finally the old battleship rolled over and sank, spewing out unstable Borneo oil from her tanks, turning the sea into a gooey and deadly slime, trapping sailors. As the oil spread, it connected with flaming wreckage and started new fires. The hissing sound created by the fires reminded Ogawa of “roasting beans.” Sailors caught in the goo were killed in the inferno.

Fusō had sunk within 15 minutes of being torpedoed, between 3:40 and 3:50 AM. She went to the bottom of Surigao Strait, taking most of her crew of 1,630 officers and men with her. Only a mere 10 members of the old battleship’s crew would survive. As Fusō departed the scene, so did Michishio, at about 3:38 AM, sinking into the strait. Only four members of her crew survived.

The final line of defence was Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf’s Battle Line of six old batteships, USS Tennessee, West Virginia, Mississippi, Maryland, California and Pennsylvania. Five of them were veterans of Pearl Harbor, but all had been refitted with the latest fire-control and radar. Fire was opened by the Tennessee and West Virginia at 20850 m (22,800 yards), followed shortly afterwards by the flagship Mississippi and the Maryland.

For a while the Yamashiro seemed impervious to the hurricane of fire which lashed her as the controlled broadsides rumbled on. She had already been hit by a torpedo but had signalled, ‘Yamashiro has one torpedo hit, not handicapped in ability to fight.’ Then another destroyer torpedo hit her and slowed her down to 5 kts, and three of her six twin 356-mm (14-in) turrets had already been knocked out.

Oldendorf now turned his Battle Line to enable him to cross Nishimura’s ‘T’, the classic battleship maneuver, No ship could withstand such a pounding, and eyewitnesses described the Yamashiro as burning like a furnace. She finally rolled over and sank with all hands. There was nothing left for the battleships to do, for the destroyers and aircraft finished off Shima’s 2nd Striking Force, sinking all surviving cruisers and destroyers.

At 04:25, Shima’s two cruisers (Nachi and Ashigara) and eight destroyers reached the battle. Seeing what they thought were the wrecks of both Nishimura’s battleships (actually the two halves of Fusō), he ordered a retreat. His flagship, Nachi, collided with Mogami, flooding the latter’s steering-room. Mogami fell behind in the retreat and was sunk by aircraft the next morning. The bow half of Fusō was destroyed by Louisville and the stern half sank off Kanihaan Island. Of Nishimura’s seven ships, only Shigure survived.