Jon Klug is a U.S. Army Colonel and PhD Candidate in Military and Naval History at the University of New Brunswick. He taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he holds degrees from the U.S. Military Academy, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. In his next assignment, Jon will serve as a U.S. Army War College Professor. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s options during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on the night of 24/25 October 1944.
Date Originally Written: October 21, 2018.
Date Originally Published: November 12, 2018.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Robin Collingwood pioneered the concept of historical reenactment. Historian Jon Sumida discussed Collingwood’s concept in Decoding Clausewitz, in which he argued that Carl von Clausewitz anticipated Collingwood by incorporating self-education through “theory-based surmise about decision-making dynamics.” This paper uses a method of historically reconstructing events and reenacting a senior leader’s thought processes and options, augmenting historical facts by surmising when necessary, to examine Halsey’s options during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Background: In 1944 U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur commanded the Southwest Pacific Area, and U.S. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded the Pacific Ocean Areas. In October, U.S. forces remained firmly on the strategic offensive in the Pacific and the Island of Leyte was their next target.
KING II was the U.S. codename for the seizure of Leyte via amphibious assault, and there were command issues due to the long-standing division of the Pacific into two theaters of operation. After almost three years of war, these two forces were converging and neither the Army nor the Navy was willing to allow one joint commander. The Army would not accept Nimitz because MacArthur was senior to him, and the Navy did not believe MacArthur sufficiently understood sea power to command its fleet carriers. This led to the unwieldy compromise of U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet working directly for MacArthur and U.S. Navy Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet reporting to Nimitz. In KING II, Halsey was to “cover and support the Leyte Operation.” The desire to destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carriers was why Nimitz included the following in the plan: “In case opportunity for destruction of major portion of the enemy fleet is offered or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.” Thus, the plan was a confusing compromise between services with inherent divided command and control and tasks.
SHO-I was the Japanese codename for their attack to foil the American attempt to seize the island of Leyte. The plan had four major fleet elements converging at Leyte Gulf. The first two were surface groups from Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia, of which IJN Admiral Kurita Takeo commanded the powerful surface group, including the mighty Yamato and Musashi. The third group was a cruiser force and the fourth group was a carrier group, both from the north. The carrier group, commanded by IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo, was bait. They hoped Halsey would attack the carriers and inadvertently allow the three surface groups to slip behind the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet and destroy the landings. The Japanese did not expect anyone to return if SHO-I worked.
Significance: U.S. carrier raids against Japanese bases in September met with unexpectedly light opposition, and Halsey interpreted the weak response as overall Japanese weakness, which was incorrect as they were husbanding their aircraft. Based off of Halsey’s view, the U.S. cancelled some operations and moved up the invasion of Leyte. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet began landing MacArthur’s forces on Leyte Island on 21 October. Consequently, the Japanese put SHO-I in motion.
Alerted by submarines and air patrols on 24 October, Halsey’s carrier aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the most powerful Japanese surface group in the Sibuyan Sea, forcing Kurita to retreat to the west. At roughly 5:00 PM word reached Halsey that search aircraft had spotted the Japanese carriers. Unbeknownst to Halsey, IJN Admiral Kurita had turned his forces around and again headed east.
Option #1: Halsey maneuvers Third Fleet as a whole to attack IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa’s aircraft carriers.
Risk: This assumes the greatest levels of tactical, operational, and strategic risk for the chance of achieving a great victory. Halsey moving his forces without breaking out Rear Admiral Willis Lee’s Task Force 34 (TF 34) would leave no fleet carriers or fast battleships to protect the landings on Leyte. If an unexpected threat arises, there are scant uncommitted forces within supporting range of the landings, which is a great tactical risk to landings. The operational risk is the catastrophic failure of the landings and destruction of the forces ashore, which would result in a multi-month setback to retaking the Philippines. Assuming no knowledge of the atomic bomb, the strategic risk was a setback in the overall timeline and a likely change to the post-war situation.
Gain: Aggressive and bold tactical maneuver often allows the best chance to achieve decisive victory, and U.S. Navy leaders wanted the remaining Japanese carriers sunk. In fact, many criticized U.S. Navy Admiral Raymond Spruance for letting the same IJN carriers escape at the earlier Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Option #2: Halsey leaves TF 34 to protect the landings at the Island of Leyte while Third Fleet attacks IJN Admiral Kurita’s forces.
Risk: Halsey leaving TF 34 to protect the Leyte Gulf landings accepts less tactical, operational, and strategic risk than Option #1. Tactically, Halsey’s forces still had an overwhelming advantage over the IJN carriers. Although Halsey knew this, he would also have wanted to be strong at the decisive point and win the decisive last naval battle in the Pacific, and TF 34’s six battleships would not be able to help protect his carriers from aerial attack. Operationally, Halsey felt that there was no real threat to the landings, as his aircraft had previously forced the Japanese center force retreat. Halsey also believed Kinkaid could handle any remaining threat. Strategically, Halsey wanted to ensure that the IJN carriers did not get away and prolonged the war.
Gain: This option afforded Halsey the opportunity to destroy the IJN carriers while still maintaining a significant surface force to protect the landings. This provides insurance that Halsey had uncommitted and powerful surface forces to react to threats and, more importantly, protect the landings.
Option #3: Halsey’s Third Fleet protects the landings at the Island of Leyte.
Risk: This option accepts minimal tactical risk but some operational and strategic risk. If an unexpected threat arose, Halsey would have the entire Third Fleet in range to support the landings, thus avoiding any danger. Operationally, U.S. forces would have had to face any IJN forces that escaped again later. Strategically, the escaped IJN forces may have set back the overall timeline of the operation.
Gain: Conservative decision-making tends to simultaneously minimize risk as well as opportunity. This option would ensure that Halsey protected the landing force. However, this also provides the smallest probability of sinking the elusive IJN carriers.
Other Comments: None.
 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Revised ed. (1946, repr., London: Oxford University Press, 2005), 302-315.
 Jon T. Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 150.
 Collingwood, 110-114; and Sumida, 65 and 177.
 Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York, NY: Vintage, 1985), 214-217, 259-273, 285-294, 308-312, 418-420.
 Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (1980, repr., Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 190-191.
 Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte, June 1944-January 1945, Vol. 12 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 55-60.
 Ibid., 58, 70.
 James M. Merrill, A Sailor’s Admiral: A Biography of William F. Halsey (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976), 149.
 Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 176-178; Ernest J. King and Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), 367-368.
 Morison, Leyte, 167.
 Symonds, 176; Morison, 13-16.
 Symonds, 180.
 Chester W. Nimitz, Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Volume 5 (Newport, RI: United States Naval War College, 2013), 282.