Was this the real end of World War II for Tokyo?
The crux of the Japanese plan for victory at Leyte Gulf was a sacrifice. The battleships and aircraft carriers of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet were too much for even Takeo Kurita’s Center Force to contend with. But if the American ships could be drawn away from Leyte, then perhaps the Japanese could punch through on one side or the other to deliver a devastating blow to the American invasion fleet. To give its battleships a chance the Imperial Japanese Navy would offer up its last aircraft carriers as a sacrifice to Halsey. The plan was far too complex to have any right to succeed, but through mischance and accident almost spelled disaster for the Americans.
The Battle of Philippine Sea tore the guts out of the once formidable Japanese carrier force. In addition to the loss of three fleet carriers, the Japanese lost a huge number of aircraft and pilots in what became known as the “Marinas Turkey Shoot.” Ozawa’s Northern Force represented most of what the Japanese had left. Ozawa commanded from HIJMS Zuikaku, the last surviving aircraft carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack and a veteran of most of the carrier battles of the Pacific War. HIJMS Zuiho, a veteran light carrier, accompanied the force along with Chitose and Chiyoda, both converted from seaplane tenders. The battleships Hyuga and Ise, both of which had been relieved of their aft turrets in an effort to create more deck space for seaplanes, escorted the carriers along with three cruisers and nine destroyers. Although the four flight decks could support some 160 aircraft, only 108 were committed to the force.
Ozawa fully appreciated his situation and understood the destruction that the Third Fleet could rain down upon him and his ships. He also understood that Halsey would want the Japanese carriers, especially Zuikaku. The day of the battleship was done, and the time of the aircraft carrier had begun. But carriers are only useful with good aircraft and good pilots, and Ozawa didn’t have enough of either to inflict any damage on the Third Fleet. What he could do was attract Halsey’s attention.
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