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.
Title: An Assessment of U.S. Navy Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s Options at Leyte Gulf
Date Originally Written: October 21, 2018.
Date Originally Published: November 19, 2018.
Summary: On the night of 24/25 October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey addressed competing priorities by attacking the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) while maintaining a significant surface force to protect the landings at Leyte Island. Halsey’s decision was influenced by the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Halsey’s understanding his operational advantage, and his aggressive spirit.
Text: During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet inflicted heavy damage on the most powerful Japanese surface group in the Sibuyan Sea, forcing IJN Admiral Kurita Takeo to retreat to the west. At roughly 5:00pm Halsey received work from search aircraft that Kurita had turned his forces around and they were once again heading east. In response to this, Halsey maneuvered Third fleet as a whole to attack Kurita’s forces. Before assessing Halsey’s decision-making, some background information is needed.
First, prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf many U.S. naval officers criticized Admiral Raymond Spruance’s decision-making during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June, 1944) because several of the Japanese aircraft carriers escaped destruction. These officers felt that Spruance was too cautious and too focused on protecting the amphibious forces. At the time, not knowing the depths of the Japanese difficulty in replacing aircrews, many U.S. naval officers worried that the Japanese would just replenish the carriers with new aircraft and new aircrews. Halsey certainly knew of these criticisms of Spruance, and he wanted to crush the Japanese aircraft carriers once and for all.
In addition to the criticisms of Spruance, Halsey also knew that few Japanese aircraft had reacted to the previous U.S. carrier raids, so he may have suspected that the Japanese husbanded carrier-based and land-based aircraft for the decisive fleet action. Furthermore, Halsey knew the Japanese had used a shuttle-bombing attack against Spruance’s forces during the Marianas Campaign in mid-June 1944. The Japanese had launched planes from aircraft carriers that bombed American naval forces in route to airfields on Saipan, from which they rearmed and then attacked the American forces in route back to the aircraft carriers. Although this tactic failed in the Marianas, their use of shuttle-bombing demonstrated that the Japanese were still a dangerous and creative opponent. This tactic too may have been on his mind when Halsey maneuvered Third fleet as a whole to attack Kurita’s forces.
Historians often neglect the impact of where Halsey positioned himself with respect to his forces and the Japanese forces in their discussion of the Battle of Leyte Gulf: in other words, where was his flagship? As Halsey hailed from New Jersey, he made the new fast battleship USS New Jersey his flagship. This matters. New Jersey as well as the Iowa, two more battleships, six cruisers, and fourteen destroyers made up Task Force 34 (TF 34). These battleships and their anti-aircraft weapons would be important if Japanese aircraft attacked Halsey’s three aircraft carrier groups, which were Halsey’s primary concern. If Halsey had broken out TF 34, including the New Jersey, to protect the landings at the Island of Leyte, he would have undoubtedly wanted to move to another flagship, as the new flagship would have been part of the force attacking IJN Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo’s carriers. Halsey would have wanted to be close to the decisive battle.
The Battle of Surigao Strait is the final aspect in any assessment of Halsey’s decision-making. After Halsey had made his actual decision, which was to take all of Third Fleet to destroy the Japanese carriers, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid sent U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf and his Bombardment and Fire Support group to defend the Surigao Strait. This force compromised the majority of Kinkaid’s surface combat power, which included several of the refurbished battleships from Pearl Harbor. Oldendorf’s enemy counterpart was IJN Vice Admiral Nishimura Shoji who commanded a Japanese surface group. Oldendorf prepared a brilliant defense with a textbook example of “capping the T” that destroyed Nishimura’s force on the night of 24/25 October. Thus, Halsey went north, Kinkaid’s heavy surface ships went south, and together they left the middle open for Kurita who had again turned east.
Sean Connery as Admiral Ramius in the movie Hunt for Red October was the author’s inspiration behind selecting this historical situation for analysis. Connery’s distinctive delivery helped create a classic quote when Ramius evaluated Jack Ryan’s work on Admiral Halsey at Leyte Gulf, “I know this book. Your conclusions were all wrong, Ryan. Halsey acted stupidly.” Did he?
Using historical reenactment as a method one must consider the historical facts and what we can surmise about Halsey. More specifically, what did Halsey know of the strategic, operational, and tactical context, and what was his state of mind when he needed to decide on an option? He chose to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers with all of Third Fleet (Option #1 from the Options Paper), and in his report to Nimitz on 25 October, 1944, the day after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey wrote:
“To statically guard SAN BERNARDINO STRAITS until enemy surface and carrier air attacks could be coordinated would have been childish to three carrier groups were concentrated during the night and started north for a surprise dawn attack on the enemy carrier fleet. I considered that the enemy force in SIBUYAN SEA had been so badly damaged that they constituted no serious threat to Kinkaid and that estimate has been borne out by the events of the 25th off SURIGAO.”
This quote provides insight into what Halsey was thinking and his nature – he believed there was no need for a more cautious option. However, a more careful review shows that Halsey was very lucky that Kurita decided to withdraw. If he had not, many more U.S. lives would certainly have been lost as the Yamato and the other Japanese heavy surface vessels fought to the death in and among Kinkaid’s amphibious forces. This fight may have been like a bull fight in a ring that is too small – although the matador and his assistants are assured of ultimate victory, the bull will exact a horrible price before it expires. Given his knowledge of the situation at the time, Halsey could have left TF 34 (Option #2 from the Options Paper) with minimal risk, as the number of U.S. carriers, aircraft, and air crews handled properly should have been sufficient to destroy the remaining IJN carriers.
Protecting the landing at the Island of Leyte as Halsey’s primary focus (Option #3 from the Options Paper), goes against goes against the grain of aggressive U.S. military and U.S. Navy culture, but, Halsey had a huge advantage and knew it, just like Spruance did months before. Any escaping IJN forces would appear again at the next major operation. There was no way for Halsey to see this far ahead, but Spruance’s decision making in the Battle of the Philippine Sea is in line with Halsey’s option to keep Third Fleet concentrated in supporting distance of the Leyte landings (Option #3 from the Options Paper). Taking page from another the movie, in this case the 1998 poker movie Rounders, if you have the chip lead, all you have to do is lean on them, and that was all Spruance and Halsey had to do in late 1944 and early 1945: lean on the IJN until it collapsed. Historical reenactment demonstrates that Ramius’s opinion is correct in the sense that the Japanese suckered Halsey into going “all in” and only Kurita’s mistake in turning away from the Leyte Gulf landings prevented what would have been at least a severe mauling of U.S. forces.
 This assessment paper uses historical reenactment as its method to reconstruct historical events and senior leader’s thought processes and options, augmenting historical facts by surmising when necessary. More information is available here: Jon Klug, Options at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, November 12, 2018, https://divergentoptions.org/2018/11/12/options-at-the-battle-of-leyte-gulf/
 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), 192-193; Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York, NY: Vintage, 1985), 431-432; and Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 180-181.
 Morison, 58-59; and Spector, 433.
 Spector, 307; Symonds, 168 and 169; and Samuel Eliot Morison, New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944-August 1944, Vol. 8 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953), 233 and 248-249.
 Merrill, 131; Spector, 428.
 Symonds, 180.
 Symonds, 180; Morison, 86-241; Merrill, 160-163.
 The Hunt for Red October, directed by John McTiernan, Paramount Pictures, 1990. Symonds, 180; Morison, 86-241; Merrill, 160-163.
 Chester W. Nimitz, Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Volume 5 (Newport, RI: United States Naval War College, 2013), 564. The quotation is an excerpt from Halsey’s reports to Nimitz.
 Rounders, directed by John Dahl, Miramax Films, 1998.