For four days in October 1944, American and Japanese naval forces slugged it out in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

U.S. landing ships, tanks (LSTs), on the beach at Leyte Island in the Philippines, October 1944.

The battle was part of the Allied forces retaking of the Philippine Islands, which the Japanese had captured early in 1942. It represented the largest sea battle in all of World War II, and perhaps in all of world history. It began on October 23, and by the time it ended on October 26, some 216 U.S. warships had destroyed the combined Japan fleet, which lost 26 warships including four carriers and the massive Musashi, among the largest battleships ever built.

In fact, the Musashi took 19 torpedoes and 17 bomb hits, attacked by 259 aircraft launched from the carriers USS Intrepid, USS Essex, USS Franklin and USS Enterprise, sinking the behemoth on October 24, 1944.

The U.S. lost seven ships throughout the entire battle, three of them being aircraft carriers. The human toll was staggering: The U.S. lost 16,042 troops and 7,270 sailors while the Japanese suffered 420,000 killed or wounded.

Painting of Kamakazi planes.
This painting depicts a kamikaze attack on U.S. warships at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, by Miyamoto Saburo, 1944.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf also was when the Japanese unleashed for the first-time organized kamikaze attacks on American ships.

Perhaps Japan’s greatest opportunity came when it sent three carriers north as a decoy to draw Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 38 away from San Bernardino Strait, leaving a light American force to contend with 23 enemy battleships and destroyers. Halsey took the bait and went north, drawing criticism that haunted him the rest of his life. And it would have been far worse had Real Admiral Clifton Sprague, who commanded the small fleet of escort ships left behind, not ordered a frenzied aerial attack to fool Japanese Admiral Kurita into believing a more formidable U.S. force lay ahead at the Strait. Kurita backed off instead of attacking.

Though Allied forces controlled the air and seas the remainder of the war, bloody battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa followed, before the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs that forced Japan’s surrender September 2, 1945.

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