The U-boats of this era were in fact not true submarines at all but submersible
torpedo boats that could dive for brief periods before, during, and after an
attack. They were unable to remain submerged for long, and were not designed
for high-speed running under water. To reach their attack stations, to overtake
prey, or to replenish their air supply, they were obliged to steam on the
surface, where they were especially vulnerable to being sighted and assaulted
from the air. When Roosevelt in March of 1943 compelled King to transfer sixty
very-long-range B-24 "Liberator" aircraft from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the
Allies at last closed the mid-ocean air gap in which Dönitz's submarines
had done their worst damage.
Now it was the German submariners' turn to quail. Aided by aerial
reconnaissance along with improved shipborne radar and sonar, the naval escorts
began to scour the submarines from the sea. Forty-three died in May of 1943
alone—nearly twice the rate at which they could be replaced. When Dönitz radioed to one U-boat commander after another, "Report position and situation," he more and more often waited in vain for a reply. In the Happy Time of 1942 a U-boat had enjoyed an operational life of more than a year. Now the average U-boat survived less than three months. Dönitz's orders to sail had become virtual death sentences. Overall, the German submarine service lost more than 25,000 crew members to death and another 5,000 to capture: a 75 percent casualty rate that exceeded the losses of any other service arm in any nation. Faced with such relentless winnowing of his ranks, Dönitz ordered all but a handful of his U-boats out of the North Atlantic on May 24, 1943. "We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic," he later wrote. In the next four months
sixty-two convoys comprising 3,546 merchant vessels crossed the Atlantic without the loss of a single ship. Leyte Gulf: The Largest Naval Battle in History
BY 1944 the enormous productive apparatus of the U.S. economy was pouring out war munitions in overwhelming volume. The abundance of resources made possible not only the invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, but two distinct offensives against Japan: an assault by MacArthur in the southwestern Pacific, up the northern New Guinea shore toward the Philippines, and a thrust by Nimitz across the Central Pacific, through the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Carolines, and the Marianas.
Underlying the Central Pacific drive was the Navy's old Orange Plan, which had
envisioned a decisive battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the western
Pacific. To that end the Navy assembled a stupendous flotilla whose fighting
heart was composed of fourteen or more "Essex-class" carriers, each of them a
nearly 900-foot-long floating airfield with a 3,000-man crew and embarking up
to a hundred aircraft. Somewhat confusingly designated Task Force 38, or Third
Fleet, when commanded by the impulsive, charismatic Admiral William F. "Bull"
Halsey, and Task Force 58, or Fifth Fleet, when commanded by the methodical,
self-effacing Admiral Spruance, this armada wielded several times the striking
power of Nagumo's force that had attacked Pearl Harbor.
| Thomas C. Kinkaid|
(Photo courtesy of
The National Archives)
On June 19, 1944, Spruance led Task Force 58 to a stunning victory in the
Philippine Sea, southwest of the Mariana Islands, over a Japanese carrier force
led by Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Known to American fliers and sailors as
"The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the battle cost the Japanese three fleet
carriers, nearly 500 aircraft, and hundreds of irreplaceable pilots.
Nevertheless, some senior U.S. Navy commanders criticized Spruance for letting
Ozawa escape with as many ships as he did, denying Spruance the right to claim
that he had indeed fought the legendary decisive battle. The unsated yearning
of both navies to fight that battle would have telling consequences four months
later, as the Southwest Pacific and Central Pacific campaigns converged for the
invasion of the Philippine Islands.
On October 20, 1944, the invasion convoys began unloading on the lightly
defended beach at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines. In a carefully arranged
ritual, MacArthur walked down the ramp of a landing craft and waded ashore
through the shallow surf, a moment captured in one of the war's most famous
photographs. "People of the Philippines," MacArthur intoned into a waiting
microphone, "I have returned.... The hour of your redemption is here....
Rally to me."
U.S. submarines had by now cut Japan's oil supply to a trickle. What little
there was reached Japan from the Dutch East Indies behind a screen of islands
that ran from the Philippines through Formosa and the Ryukyus. Japan had to
defend the Philippines or risk seeing its lifeline to the south completely
To conserve precious fuel, the Japanese navy had been forced to base nearly
half its battle fleet at Lingga Roads, near Singapore and close to the East
Indian oil fields. From there, and from two other fleet anchorages, three
Japanese naval formations steamed toward Leyte to check the American landing.
Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura's force left Brunei and Vice-Admiral Kiyohide
Shima's column came down from the Ryukyus. The plan was to rendezvous in the
Mindanao Sea and proceed together through Surigao Strait into Leyte Gulf.
Vice-Admiral Takeo Kurita headed from Lingga Roads across the Palawan Passage
and the Sibuyan Sea. He was to pass through San Bernardino Strait and descend
on Leyte from the north just as the Nishimura-Shima force emerged out of
Surigao from the west. To this already dauntingly intricate plan the Japanese
added a further complication: Ozawa, his air strength reduced to just a handful
of warplanes after the catastrophe in the Philippine Sea, would steam southward
from Japan with his remaining aircraft carriers, using the largely planeless
ships as sacrificial decoys to lure away at least part of the American force.
| Jisaburo Ozawa|
(Photo courtesy of
The Naval Historical Center)
The Americans meanwhile brought two fleets of their own to Leyte. The Seventh
Fleet, under Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was composed of several big gunships
and eighteen escort carriers. The battleships and cruisers took up station off
the eastern end of Surigao Strait. Kinkaid deployed his escort carriers in
three groups of six, code-named Taffy 1, 2, and 3, off Samar Island on the east
side of Leyte. Halsey's Third Fleet meanwhile held his big carriers off San
Bernardino Strait to the north.
Six naval forces, four Japanese and two American, were converging on Leyte Gulf
to fight the largest naval battle in history, a titanic clash spread over three
days and 100,000 square miles of sea, engaging 282 ships and 200,000 sailors
Nishimura's two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers arrived in the
Mindanao Sea on October 24. Not finding Shima, Nishimura proceeded on his own
into Surigao Strait, through waters that Ferdinand Magellan had sailed in 1521.
As darkness fell, American PT (patrol torpedo) boats harassed the Japanese
column while it ploughed eastward, disrupting Nishimura's formation but
inflicting little damage. Then five U.S. destroyers, withholding gunfire that
would disclose their positions, raced down either side of the strait and loosed
several volleys of torpedoes that knocked out one of the battleships and three
of the destroyers. There followed a maneuver whose classic naval geometry
Magellan himself would have appreciated. Arrayed in a battle line across the
neck of the strait were Kinkaid's six battleships, five of them survivors of
Pearl Harbor, together with four heavy and four light cruisers. Kinkaid had
effortlessly "crossed the T"—the dream of every sea commander since the dawn
of gun-bearing ships. Perpendicular to Kinkaid's six-, eight-, fourteen-, and
sixteen-inch guns, Nishimura's truncated column lay all but naked under
round after round of thundering American broadsides, while the forward-facing
Japanese could bring to bear only a fraction of their ships' firepower. Firing
by radar direction from a range of a dozen miles, the American battle line laid
down a fearsome barrage. The Japanese formation disintegrated. The second
battleship went down, the cruiser was crippled, and the lone surviving
destroyer reversed course and withdrew. When the late-arriving Shima sailed
into this chaotic melee and collided with Nishimura's wallowing cruiser, he,
too, decided to withdraw, but pursuing U.S. warships and planes sank three of
his ships. All told, the Battle of Surigao Strait cost the Imperial Japanese
Navy two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers. The Americans lost
one PT boat, along with thirty-nine sailors killed and 114 wounded, most of
them on the U.S. destroyer Albert W. Grant, which was caught in a
murderous crossfire from both Japanese and American guns during the bedlam of
the night battle.
| Shoji Nishimura|
(Photo courtesy of
The Naval Historical Center)
In the pewter morning light U.S. rescue vessels crept into the strait to pick
up the thousands of Japanese survivors. Most of the swimmers submerged
themselves below the oil-stained surface as the Americans approached, choosing
death by drowning over the shame of capture.
To the north, meanwhile, U.S. submarines had intercepted Kurita's formidable
group of more than two dozen warships as they made their way across Palawan
Passage on October 23. Several well-placed torpedo volleys damaged one cruiser
and sank two others, including Kurita's flagship. Fished from the sea, Kurita
transferred his flag to the Yamato. The Yamato and its sister
ship, the Musashi, the biggest battleships in the world, mounted
eighteen-inch guns that fired one-and-a-half-ton projectiles, far larger than
anything any gun in the U.S. Navy could throw. Halsey's fliers caught Kurita
again in the Sibuyan Sea on the following day and sank the supposedly
impregnable Musashi. Land-based Japanese aircraft meanwhile attacked the
Third Fleet and sent the carrier Princeton to the bottom.
The Americans had mauled Kurita but had not yet stopped him. Halsey was
spoiling for a finish-fight. He drafted a contingency battle plan, signaling to
Nimitz at Pearl Harbor that he intended to detach several ships to form a new
"Task Force 34" that would stop Kurita at the mouth of San Bernardino Strait.
But there was one thing wrong: Kurita's force was composed entirely of surface
gunships. Where were the Japanese carriers, the great prize for which Halsey
The answer was that they were to Halsey's north, doing their best to be
discovered and tempt Halsey away from San Bernardino. When some of the Third
Fleet's fliers reported at midday on October 24 that they had engaged planes
with tailhooks, unmistakably identifying them as carrier-based aircraft, Halsey
was off like a greyhound after a hare. Faced with the choice of protection or
pursuit, and believing erroneously that he may have already inflicted enough
damage on Kurita to stop him, Halsey scarcely hesitated. He scrapped the plan
to create Task Force 34 and steamed away with his entire fleet to chase the
Japanese carriers. He had swallowed Ozawa's bait, leaving the door of San
Bernardino Strait wide open for Kurita.
| Kiyohide Shima|
(Photo courtesy of
The Naval Historical Center)
Kurita steamed through San Bernardino unopposed shortly after midnight on
October 25. His depleted but still powerful force bore down on the most
northerly of Kinkaid's escort-carrier squadrons, Taffy 3. A colossal mismatch
ensued—the Yamato and three other battleships, along with several heavy and light cruisers, against a handful of destroyers and six escort carriers never designed for full-scale battle at sea. Slow, thinly armored, undergunned, and mostly munitioned with ordnance for tactical air support, the baby flat-tops were sitting ducks. Great green, purple, and yellow geysers erupted among them, as Japanese shells, with their telltale dye-marked bursts,
scattered the surprised American ships. Taffy 3's little carriers made smoke
and dove into a rain squall for further concealment, while the U.S. destroyers
brazenly charged the larger and more numerous Japanese ships. The destroyer
Johnston took so many hits from the Japanese gun batteries that one
crewman compared it to "a puppy being smacked by a truck." Eventually, he said,
"we were in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world could not
save us," and the order "Abandon ship" came. A swimming survivor saw a Japanese
officer salute as the Johnston slipped beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, Kinkaid and Nimitz were frantically signaling to Halsey for help. At
10:00 A.M. on October 25 a signalman handed Halsey a message from Nimitz that
was destined to become notorious: "Where Is, Repeat, Where Is Task Force 34,
The World Wonders?" The last phrase, "The World Wonders," was padding, the kind
of verbiage, frequently nonsensical, that was routinely inserted in encrypted
messages to foil enemy cryptographers. But the decoding officer on Halsey's
flagship apparently believed that the end padding in Nimitz's signal was part
of the message. He typed it onto the page that was handed to the admiral. The
presumed insult unnerved Halsey. He threw his hat to the deck and began to sob.
An aide shook him by the shoulders and said, "What the hell's the matter with
you? Pull yourself together!"
The Third Fleet's carriers continued to press the attack on Ozawa, all four of
whose carriers eventually went down, including the Zuikaku, the last
survivor from the force that had lofted the planes that opened the war at Pearl
Harbor. Halsey, however, headed back to Samar with his battleship group. He was
too late to relieve Kinkaid, but it scarcely mattered. Kurita, perhaps rattled
by his unplanned swim in Palawan Passage, had incredibly concluded that the
little scratch force of baby flat-tops desperately trying to evade him off
Samar was Halsey's powerful big-carrier Task Force 38. Ironically, at about the
time that Halsey was reading Nimitz's radiogram, Kurita decided to break off
the attack and head back to Lingga Roads.
| Takeo Kurita|
(Photo courtesy of
The Naval Historical Center)
The epic battle of Leyte Gulf was not quite over. Even as Kurita was
withdrawing, the Japanese launched a fearsome new weapon against the Taffy
groups: suicide attacks by land-based kamikaze warplanes. Kamikaze means
"Divine Wind," in a reference to the typhoon that scattered Kublai Khan's
invasion fleet as it headed for Japan in the thirteenth century. Kamikaze
pilots prepared for their missions with elaborate ceremonials, including ritual
prayer, the composition of farewell poems, and the presentation to each flier
of a "thousand-stitch belt," a strip of cloth into which a thousand women had
each sewn a stitch, symbolically uniting themselves with the pilot's ultimate
sacrifice. Late in the morning of October 25 the first wave of kamikazes lashed
out of the sky over Taffy 3. One headed straight for the escort carrier St.
Lô. Disbelieving anti-aircraft gunners tried desperately to knock it
down, to no avail. The plane crashed into the St. Lô's flight deck
and disgorged a bomb deep in the ship's interior. As sailors on nearby ships
watched in horrified fascination, the St. Lô exploded, heeled over
on its side, and sank with 114 men aboard. It was a grisly demonstration of the
kind of resistance Japan was still prepared to offer.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf ended an era, but it did not end the war. The
encounters at Surigao and Samar were the last of their kind. They closed an
epoch of ship-to-ship gunnery duels, the standard form of naval warfare for
centuries before 1944. No nation would ever again build a battleship; aircraft
carriers had proved themselves the final arbiters of battle at sea. At Leyte
Gulf the Japanese navy had suffered a crushing defeat, losing four carriers,
three battleships, nine cruisers, a dozen destroyers, hundreds of aircraft, and
thousands of sailors and pilots. But as the kamikaze raids spectacularly
illustrated, Japan had not lost its will to fight. The War's End
NOR had the United States. After brutal battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the first half of 1945, battles that consumed the lives of almost 19,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. Eight days later the war was over.
The atomic bomb was of course the war's most revolutionary scientific
invention. As it unlatched from its bomb bay on that fateful August morning, it
was on its way to ending the Second World War even as it was opening a new
chapter in the history of warfare. But the great nuclear blast that obliterated
Hiroshima hardly represented a moral novelty by this date in the conflict. The
moral rules that had long stayed warriors' hands from taking up weapons of mass
destruction against civilian populations had long since been violently
breached—in the Allied aerial attacks on European cities, and even more
wantonly in the systematic firebombing of Japan.
On January 7, 1945, Air Force General Curtis LeMay had arrived on Guam to take
charge of the 21st Bomber Command. He was a gruff, stocky man, one of the
youngest generals in the Army. LeMay had led several "precision" bombing raids
against military targets in Germany, but had by this time abandoned the idea of
precision bombing in favor of terror attacks on civilians. "I'll tell you what
war is about," he once said. "You've got to kill people, and when you've killed
enough, they stop fighting."
LeMay deployed two intimidating new technologies against Japan's highly
flammable cities, where most people lived in wooden houses. The first was a
fiendishly efficient six-pound incendiary bomblet developed by Standard Oil
chemists—the M-69 projectile, which spewed burning gelatinized gasoline that
stuck to its targets and was virtually unextinguishable by conventional means.
The second was the B-29 "Superfortress," an awesome specimen of American
engineering prowess and mass-production techniques. LeMay had some 350 B-29s in
the Marianas in January of 1945, and more were arriving constantly. They were
nearly a hundred feet in length, with a 141-foot wingspan and a
three-story-high tail section. They were powered by four 2,200-horsepower
Wright eighteen-cylinder radial air-cooled magnesium-alloy engines, each fitted
with two General Electric exhaust-driven turbo-superchargers. The B-29 carried
a crew of eleven in its pressurized cabin and a bomb load of up to 20,000
pounds. It had an operational ceiling over 35,000 feet and a combat range of
more than 4,000 miles. An onboard computerized central control system allowed
for remote firing from its five defensive gun turrets.
LeMay set out at once to perfect the 21st Bomber Command's firebombing
techniques. To enlarge bomb loads, he stripped all but the tail-turret guns
from his B-29s. To avoid the recently discovered jet stream, which foiled some
of his earliest raids on Japan, he trained his pilots in low-altitude attacks.
He experimented with bombing patterns and with mixes of explosive and
incendiary bomb loads. His goal was to create firestorms like the ones that had
consumed Hamburg and Dresden, conflagrations so vast and intense that nothing
could survive them—not mere fires but thermal hurricanes that killed by
suffocation as well as by heat, as the flames sucked all available oxygen out
of the atmosphere.
After practice runs on Kobe and on a section of Tokyo in February, LeMay
launched 334 Superfortresses from the Marianas on the night of March 9. A few
minutes after midnight they began to lay their clusters of M-69s over Tokyo,
methodically crisscrossing the target zone to create concentric rings of fire
that soon merged into a sea of flame. Rising thermal currents buffeted the
mile-high B-29s and knocked them about like paper airplanes. When the raiders
flew away, shortly before 4:00 A.M., they left behind them a million homeless
Japanese and nearly 90,000 dead. The victims died from fire, asphyxiation, and
falling buildings. Some boiled to death in superheated canals and ponds where
they had sought refuge from the flames. In the next five months LeMay's bombers
attacked sixty-six of Japan's largest cities, destroying 43 percent of their
built-up areas. They demolished the homes of more than eight million people,
killed as many as 700,000, and injured perhaps one million more. Hiroshima and
Nagasaki survived to be atomic-bombed only because LeMay's superiors removed
them from his target list.