Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders & the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941–1945
by Evan Thomas, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006, $27.
The largest naval battle ever fought, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, should never have happened. It didn’t change the course of the war in the Pacific and wouldn’t have even had the Japanese won, what with the Bomb well underway in Alamogordo and Oak Ridge. The Japanese mounted their substantial battleship assault in the constricted waters off the Philippine Islands to beat back the invasion—MacArthur’s famous return—but by the time they sailed, U.S. troops were already safely ashore. The worst the Japanese could have done was savage a bunch of empty troop transports.
The Japanese were so delusional, they actually packed formal instruments of surrender for General Douglas MacArthur to sign when he’d been clubbed to his knees by the comparatively pitiful Japanese fleet—66 ships and about 200 airplanes pitted against Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s “Big Blue Fleet” of 212 ships and some 1,500 aircraft. The Imperial Fleet had just four aircraft carriers to Halsey’s 35. Japanese pilots were so green, few were able to trap—to return to their carriers once they’d taken off.
Yes, two of the Japanese ships were the largest battleships ever built—the 73,000- ton Yamato and Musashi. The Japanese assumed that with those ships’ 18.1-inch main batteries they’d be able to stand off and fire at will. War at sea, however, is never so neat.
In fact, as Evan Thomas’ fascinating and exhaustively researched Sea of Thunder shows, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October 1944 was messy, confused, by turns heroic and horrific, and ineptly led on both sides. It would essentially mark the end of Halsey’s career, turning the “damn-the-torpedoes Bull” of the early Pacific War into a goat who got suckered into a baited Japanese trap.
Fortunately, one of his Japanese counterparts made an equally questionable move, incomprehensibly turning away from a major battle he could have won. Postwar evidence suggests, however, that he turned back because—utterly uncharacteristic of a Japanese commander—he simply saw no point in sacrificing thousands of his sailors to a lost cause.
Thomas’ book follows the wakes of four Leyte warriors. There’s Halsey, of course, and his opponent, Admiral Matome Ugaki, chief of staff of the combined Japanese fleet. Thomas also profiles Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita, commander of one of Ugaki’s fleets but no fan of his boss, and a then-unknown U.S. destroyer captain, Commander Ernest Evans, a part-Cherokee Oklahoman who somehow won appointment to Annapolis and managed to survive the then-racist academy. Evans’ role at Leyte Gulf would earn him the Medal of Honor.
“The battle” actually comprised four separate engagements. The first occurred when American carrier aircraft attacked the main Japanese force in the constricted waters of the Sibuyan Sea as it was sailing to engage the U.S. invasion fleet. The mighty Musashi was sunk when a pair of torpedoes struck its bow—the one place it wasn’t armored.
Next a Japanese fleet attempting a pincer movement from the south against the U.S. invaders ran into the classic T-crossing of a huge American armada in the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last big gunship naval confrontation in history. The Japanese would also lose that round.
Then Bull Halsey charged off in pursuit of a Japanese decoy fleet that included the four aircraft carriers, leaving the huge Leyte Gulf invasion flotilla protected by nothing more than escort carriers and destroyers. Not surprisingly, Halsey decimated the Japanese bait ships, including Japan’s last four effective carriers.
Finally came the battle off Samar, where Evans and his crew made history. You’ll need to read Thomas’ book to learn how. Here’s a hint: One of Evans’ ships, a 3,000-ton destroyer, faces off against the 73,000-ton Yamato with surprising results.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.