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Revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships

October 25, 1944, 0200 hours. It is the final major day of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Six America battleships slowly steam back and forth across the mouth of the Surigao Strait. Five are survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Tennessee, and Maryland. Two forces of Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers are steaming north in the strait. The American battleships will “cross their T,” pouring full broadsides into each arriving Japanese ship. The Pearl Harbor battleships are about to have their revenge.

At Pearl Harbor, the “newest” battleship was the West Virginia (BB-48). Built in 1921, she had the advantages of lessons learned in World War II. In addition, she was heavily updated before World War II. After she was built, a moratorium was placed on battleship construction a result of the Washington Naval conference. The U.S. would not begin to build more battleships until the eve of World War II.

West Virginia, 1926. National Archives, Photo # NH 46415

During the attack, the West Virginia took more hits than any other ship, including the Arizona and Oklahoma. She was hit by six or seven torpedoes (there was too much damage to be certain) and two heavy high-level bombs. Although alert counter-flooding kept her from capsizing like the Oklahoma moored in front of her, she sunk 40 feet into the harbor mud, continuing to burn for another day.

West Virginia sunk in 40 feet of water. Note the two funnels. Also note the “birdcage” masts, which were characteristics of U.S. battleships built after World War I. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

Fortunately, Pearl Harbor’s shipyard was still operational. The yard put patches over her torpedo holes and floated her to dry dock. In May, 1942, fixed up enough to sail, the West Virginia left for a major overhaul on the West Coast.

West Virginia leaving Pearl Harbor for reconstruction. Robert F. Walden Collection - Hawaii War Records Depository - University of Hawaii Archives

It was not until July 1944 that she finally rejoined the fleet, just in time for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. When the West Virginia returned, she was a much better ship. She had no visible funnels, a sleeker superstructure, and bristled with heavy antiaircraft guns. Most importantly for the coming battle, the long delay in upgrading her meant that she had the Navy’s newest Mark 8 fire control radar system plus additional radar to spot aircraft. She would be able to fire on the advancing Japanese forces long before they could see her. Her only real limitation was that she was still slow, limited to about 20 knots. She would not be able to keep up with carrier task forces, but for bombarding beach heads or sitting in ambush, this was no hindrance at all.

West Virginia after Reconstruction, 1944. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # 19-N-68376 Note the radar installations at the top.

The first Japanese force to enter the strait was Adm. Nishimura Shoji’s two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers. Even in a traditional battle, the Americans would have had a strong advantage with their six battleships and several cruisers. By this time in the war, the U.S. fleet was far larger than the Japanese fleet. Crossing the Japanese T would merely add to the slaughter.

Long before the Japanese came into range of the battleships, 39 Patrol Torpedo boats harassed them with torpedo runs. They did no damage, but they gave Adm. Jessie Oldendorf a constant picture of the Japanese advance. As Nishimura got closer to the mouth of the strait, Oldendorf unleashed 28 destroyers to attack with torpedoes. The destroyers launched up to ten torpedoes apiece into the approaching Japanese force. In contrast to the PT boat attacks, the destroyer attacks were deadly. Torpedoes from the little tin cans blew the battleship Fusō in half, sunk two destroyers, and left the destroyer Asagumo behind with damage. Almost half of Nishimura’s force was gone before he neared the mouth of the strait and the Pearl Harbor greeters waiting to welcome them.

Although the U.S. welcoming committee was extremely potent, it had one limitation. The navy had provisioned the battleships for shore bombardment to support MacArthur’s landings at Leyte. Consequently, 75 percent of their shells were high capacity shells useless against battleships. The big battle wagons would only fire a limited number of broadsides to conserve their armor piercing (AP) shells.

Finally, the surviving Japanese ships neared the mouth of the straight. The battleships held their fire, waiting for the Japanese ships to steam closer. The West Virginia recorded the fatal minutes of the bombardment in her log.

  • At 0208, the West Virginia could see shell fire from the approaching Japanese fleet.
  • At 0304, the enemy appeared on the ship’s long-range SG-1 radar systems designed to track aircraft.
  • At 0332, admiral Oldendorf cleared the battleships to fire.
  • At 0333, the West Virginia got a firing solution with her Mark 8 fire control radar at 30,000 yards. (She had actually seen the approaching fleet at 44,000 yards.) Her target throughout the bombardment would be the Japanese battleship Yamashiro.
  • Her radar could pick out individual ships of both the first Japanese force and the second force steaming far behind it. She could also see individual U.S. destroyers attacking the Japanese forces.
  • She waited until 0352, with the Japanese 22,800 yards away. The delay had been necessary to ensure that she would not be firing on U.S. ships. Finally, the “Wee Vee” fired her first eight-gun broadside of 16 inch armor piercing shells. She scored immediate hits with this first salvo of 2,400 pound shells.
  • At 0354, she saw the battleship illuminated by fire during the sixth salvo.
  • Overall, she sent 16 broadsides. The first 13 took place at an average of every 41 seconds. In all, she fired 89 AP shells and 4 high capacity shells. The HC rounds were used because of an inability to get AP shells to guns a few times.
  • During the second or third broadside, California and Tennessee, which also had the Mark 8 radar, begin to add their 14 inch guns to the carnage, firing a total of 139 shells.
  • The Maryland, with an older Mark 4 radar fire control system, fired at the water spouts kicked up by the shells of other ships. California and Mississippi decided to conserve their shells. Pennsylvania did not fire at all, and Mississippi only fired a single salvo.
  • Cruisers with 6 inch and 8 inch guns positioned to the south of the battleships added their fire.
  • At 0402, the West Virginia and other heavies ceased fire to conserve their AP shells. At this point, the West Virginia only had 110 AP shells left.
  • At 4:11, the radar blip that had been the Yamashiro bloomed and then faded.
  • At 4:12, the radar blip vanished.

The visual effect was astounding, Captain Smoot, commanding the destroyer Newcomb, said that the arcs of fire looked like the tail lights of cars crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Their barrages quickly sunk the remaining Japanese battleship, Yamashiro, and devastated the heavy cruiser Mogami. The only Japanese ship to avoid serious damage was the destroyer Shigure, which had immediately reversed course and steamed away while the big guns focused on the battleship and cruiser. The Mogami, although massively damaged, was able to limp slowly to the south. When the second Japanese force began to approach the mouth of the strait with two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, its admiral witnessed the burning destruction in the water and immediately turned around to avoid the guns of the American fleet. The threat from Japan through the Surigao Strait was ended. The next day, aircraft sunk the Mogami, and destroyers and cruisers finished off the destroyer Asagumo. Only the Shigure survived the passage through the strait.

Although the Pearl Harbor battleships had taken their revenge, they did relatively little of the total damage. The destroyers had heavily reduced the first Japanese force before the battleships ever fired a shot. When the behemoths finally ended their barrages, they only sunk one Japanese battleship and fatally wounded one Japanese cruiser. However, the goal of the battleships had been to keep the Japanese from advancing through the strait to attack MacArthur’s landing force, and even if the destroyers had not reduce the Japanese force, the battleships would still have stopped it. The battleships had decisively done their job.

Although no one knew it at the time, this was the last time in history that battleships would face one another in combat. Even by this time, battleships were mostly used for land bombardment if they were too slow to keep up with the carrier fleet. More modern and faster battleships were mostly used to provide antiaircraft fire to protect the flat tops. Still, the massive wall of cannon shells shot at the enemy during this final battle was a dramatic way to mark the passing of the battleship as the fleet’s capital ship.

One other battleship survived the Pearl Harbor attack. During the Japanese attack, the Nevada made a run for the open sea but was ordered to beach herself when she was attacked by a hornet’s nest of dive bombers and began to sink. She was also repaired and returned to combat. However, she was sent to the Atlantic. In June 1944, her long 14 inch guns supported the Normandy invasion by savaging German troop formations as much as 17 miles behind the invasion force.

Sources

Wiley, H. V., Commanding Officer, West Virginia, Action in Battle of Surigao Straits 25 October 1944 U.S. West Virginia—Report of, 1 November 1944. Available at http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/logs/BB/bb48-Surigao.html. (Last visited February 2, 2011). Transcribed and formatted in HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation.

Cutler, Thomas J., The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland, 1994.

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