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USS Tennessee (BB-43) Part 4

Due to the length of this article, it has been split up.
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While Tennessee had been working Leyte, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had noted the scale of the operation being mounted and had decided to make that island the focus of a decisive naval counterstroke -- the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The principal surface strength of the Combined Fleet had gone to Lingga Roads[?], an anchorage in the Lingga Archipelago[?] off Sumatra at the southwest end of the South China Sea[?], to be near their fuel supply since American submarines had made it increasingly difficult to get oil through to Japan. The surviving carriers had returned to the Inland Sea[?] to train aircrews. Under the Japanese plan, dictated by a combination of geography, logistics, and the lack of adequate carrier aviation, four widely separated forces were to converge on the area of Leyte Gulf in an effort to destroy, at whatever cost, the American invasion force.

The Japanese forces set in motion some days earlier were now approaching their objective. A force of four carriers and two converted hermaphrodite "battleship-carriers" was steaming south from Japan toward the Philippine Sea, while a small surface force under Vice-Admiral Kiyohide Shima[?] had sailed from Japanese waters heading for the Sulu Sea. Two striking forces of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers had sailed from Lingga Roads; north of Borneo they separated. The larger force, under Admiral Takeo Kurita[?], passed north of Palawan (losing three cruisers to submarine attack) to transit the Sibuyan Sea[?] and emerge to the north of Samar. A smaller force, commanded by Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura[?], turned to the south of Palawan and crossed the Sulu Sea to pass between Mindanao and Leyte. Shima's orders directed him to support Nishimura, and his force followed some miles behind Nishimura's.

If the Sho Plan, as it was called, worked properly, Kurita would approach Leyte Gulf from the north while Nishimura and Shima came up from the south, catching the massed amphibious shipping in the jaws of a vise and destroying it. Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa[?]'s force was toothless since prolonged heavy casualties and an inadequate pilot training program had left the Imperial Navy with few experienced carrier pilots. The carrier force advancing southward from Japan carried only enough planes to make a convincing decoy; its job was to lure Admiral "Bull" Halsey's Third Fleet to the north while the converging surface forces did their job.

During the morning of 24 October, carrier planes sighted the three Japanese groups in the Sulu and Sibuyan seas. Recognizing Kurita's as the most powerful, Halsey directed the fast carriers' air groups against him as the Japanese ships steamed across the Sibuyan Sea[?]. With no air cover, Kurita had to endure repeated bomb and torpedo attacks which forced one of his cruisers to turn back with serious damage and, as the day ended, sank the giant battleship Musashi. Complaining of the lack of air support, Kurita turned back in midafternoon; and this movement was reported to Halsey by his pilots.

Early on the 24th, a Japanese scout plane from Luzon had spotted Task Force 38 east of that island. All available landbased planes were sent against it, mortally wounding the light carrier Princeton (CVL-23). Halsey concluded that the attackers were carrier-based. During the morning, Ozawa's reconnaissance planes sighted Halsey's carriers; and an unproductive air strike was launched against Task Force 38 at 1145. In the afternoon, the Japanese carriers were sighted and, in the evening of 24 October, Halsey ordered the fast carrier force to go after them. Shortly before sunset, Kurita had again reversed course and was heading back in the direction of Leyte Gulf; Halsey had been informed of this, but exaggerated reports of damage inflicted by his planes led him to believe that the Japanese force had been more grievously hurt than was the case. Judging that Kurita was too badly crippled to do an harm to the ships in Leyte Gulf, Halsey continued north through the night. By midnight the Japanese Center Force, as the American commanders referred to it, was pushing, unobserved, toward San Bernardino Strait[?] before turning south toward Leyte Gulf.

Halsey had not sent his planes against the surface forces of Nishimura and Shima, believing that Kinkaid's warships would be able to deal with them. This was to be Oldendorf's job; and, in the evening of the 24th, he deployed his six battleships across the northern end of Surigao Strait. Besides his capital ships, Oldendorf had available eight cruisers and 28 destroyers. These were arranged toward the flanks, the destroyers placed in suitable position to launch torpedo attacks. A great deal of shooting in support of the landing operation had already occurred, and most of the shells remaining in the battleship's magazines were thin-walled, high-capacity bombardment ammunition rather than armor-piercing projectiles. Their handling-room crews carefully arranged the projectile supply so that high-capacity shells would be ready for use against anything smaller than a battleship. The big ships were directed to hold their fire until the enemy was within 20,000 yards to insure as many hits as possible.

The sea was smooth and the moonless night intensely dark as the ships steamed slowly to and fro along their assigned lines of position. Tennessee quietly awaited her first action against her own kind.

All available Seventh Fleet patrol torpedo boats[?] had been stationed in Surigao Strait and along its approaches. At 2286, the first PTs made radar contact with Nishimura. Successive torpedo attacks were launched as Nishimura entered Surigao Strait and steamed north, with Shima trailing well behind; Nishimura was annoyed but not injured, though one of Shima's cruisers took a torpedo and had to drop out of the running. Shortly before 0800, Nishimura was well into the strait and taking up battle formation when he was hit by a well-planned torpedo attack by five American destroyers. The battleship Fuso[?] was hit and dropped out of formation; other torpedo spreads sank two Japanese destroyers and crippled a third. Another torpedo struck, but did not stop, Fuso's sistership Yamashiro[?]. Ten minutes later, another destroyer attack scored a second hit on Yamashiro. The disabled Fuso had apparently been set afire by the torpedo that had hit her; her magazines exploded at 0888 as Arizona's had on the morning of 7 December; and the two shattered halves of the battleship slowly drifted back down the strait before sinking.

On board Tennessee, observers had seen distant flashes of gunfire, star shells, and searchlights as the torpedo boats and destroyers engaged the Japanese. Soon explosions could be heard. At 0302, the battleship's radar picked up Nishimura'a approach at nearly 44,000 yards and began to track the lead ship. This was the flagship, Yamashiro. With the cruiser Mogami[?] and destroyer Shigure[?], she was all that remained of the first Japanese force. At 0351 Oldendorf ordered the flanking cruisers to open fire; and, at 0356, the battleships let fly from 20,600 yards.

Tennessee's forward turret fired a three-gun salvo, and the rest of her 14-inch battery joined in. In this duel, Tennessee, California, and the recently arrived West Virginia had a considerable advantage over the other battleships. During their wartime modernization, all three had received new Mark 34 main-battery directors provided with Mark 8 fire-control radars and associated modern gunfire computing equipment. The main batteries of the other ships were still controlled by systems developed 20 years or more before and were using earlier Mark 3 radars. This handicap showed in their shooting. Firing in six-gun salvos to make careful use of her limited supply of armor-piercing projectiles, Tennessee got off 69 of her big 14-inch bullets before checking fire at 0408. The battle line had increased speed to 16 knots before opening fire, and, as it drew near the eastern end of its line of position, simultaneous turns brought the ships around to a westward heading. California miscalculated her turn and came sharply across Tennessee's bow, narrowly avoiding a collision and fouling Tennessee's line of fire for about five minutes.

The effect of this intense bombardment was awesome. As one of Tennessee's crew described it, "when a ship fired there would be a terrific whirling sheet of golden flame bolting across the sea, followed by a massive thunder, and then three red balls would go into the sky; up, arch over, and then down. When the salvoes found the target there would be a huge shower of sparks, and after a moment a dull orange glow would appear. This low would increase, brighten, and then slowly dull." Little of the enemy could be seen from Tennessee. Occasionally, the vague outline of a ship could be seen against the glare of an explosion; and, at one point, the single stack and high "pagoda" foremast of Yamashiro could be seen. Nishimura's three ships found themselves at the focus of a massive crossfire of battleship and cruiser fire. By 0400, both of the larger Japanese ships had been hit repeatedly as they gallantly attempted to return fire; Mogami, sorely damaged and her engineering plant crippled, had turned back, and Yamashiro, burning intensely, came about to follow. Oldendorf ordered gunfire to cease at 0409, after hearing that flanking destroyers were being endangered by American gunfire. Yamashiro, still able to make 16 knots after her frightful beating, was fatally hurt and, at 0419, rolled over and sank with all but a few of her crew. Mogami was able to draw out of radar range but had been slowed to a crawl. Shigure, more or less over-looked and relatively undamaged, escaped southward.

Shima's force, following along in Nishimura's wake, was unaware of what had befallen. When they were about halfway up Surigao Strait, they sighted what seemed to be two flaming ships; these were the broken halves of Fuso. Shima's two cruisers made a radar torpedo attack on what they believed to be American ships but was, in fact, Hibuson Island[?]. "The island," as historian Samuel Morison[?] later remarked, "was not damaged."

The Japanese admiral decided that Nishimura's force had met with disaster and decided on a retreat. As his ships turned to steam back, cruiser Nachi[?] collided with limping, burning Mogami, but both vessels were able to continue southward. Collecting Shigure, the only other survivor of Nishimura's attack, Shima retired back through the strait. Oldendorf sent some of his cruisers and destroyers after him, and the patrolling PTs joined in. Fire was engaged with the stubborn Mogami, but she continued on her way only to be sunk by carrier planes shortly afterward. Destroyer Asagumo[?], her bow blown off by destroyer torpedoes during Nishimura's approach, was sighted and sent to the bottom with her guns still firing. Oldendorf now received reports that Kurita's "crippled" force had emerged from San Bernardino Strait and joined action east of Samar with some of the supporting escort carrier force stationed there. Plans were hurriedly drawn for another surface battle, and Oldendorf's ships turned toward the northern entrance to Leyte Gulf to defend the landing area.

Their services were, however, not needed. In an epic action off Samar, the escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts of Rear Admiral C.A.F. Sprague's "Taffy Three" put up so desperate a fight that Kurita judged the odds against him hopeless and turned back. Halsey's carrier planes and surface ships sank all four of Ozawa's decoy carriers, and a submarine finished off a damaged cruiser.

The Battle for Leyte Gulf was over. The last major Japanese naval counterstroke had been defeated, and Tennessee had had a share in the last naval action fought by a battle line.

The next several days were quiet ones for Tennessee, though the Japanese sent numerous land-based air strikes against Leyte Gulf. On 29 October, the battlewagon's crew was told that their next destination was to be the Puget Sound Navy Yard. Late that day, she got underway for Ulithi with West Virginia, Maryland, and four cruisers. From there, she proceeded to Pearl Harbor and thence to Bremerton, Washington, where she entered the shipyard on 26 November.

Unlike her last Yard overhaul, this refit made no remarkable changes in Tennessee's appearance. She retained her battery of ten 40-millimeter quadruple anti-aircraft mounts and 43 20-millimeter guns, but her main battery directors received improved models of the Mark 8 radar, and the Mark 4 radars used with the five-inch gun directors were replaced by the newer combination of paired Mark 12 and Mark 22 dual-purpose equipment. Tennessee's usefulness as an anti-aircraft ship was enhanced by the addition of a model SP height-finding radar. Her pattern camouflage scheme was replaced by a dark gray finish which was calculated to provide a less conspicuous aiming point for kamikaze suicide planes, introduced during the recapture of the Philippines and becoming more and more of a fact of naval life during the winter of 1944 and 1945.

On 2 February 1945, Tennessee headed back toward the western Pacific.

Due to the length of this article, it has been split up.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5



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