Battle Off Samar and the Ascendancy of the Aircraft Carrier

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the objective was to destroy the American battleships, as naval war planners considered the battleship to be the capital ship of the navy. However, the Battle of Midway and Coral Sea demonstrated the aircraft carrier’s ability to project force at much greater distances than surface ships. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the carrier solidified its position as superior to the battleship.

In late October 1944, the U.S. invaded the Philippines to retake them from the Japanese Empire in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. By the time the invasion was underway, the United States achieved air and naval supremacy over Japan, having destroyed most of the Japanese Navy and Air Force. To further solidify this naval supremacy, US Admiral William “Bull” Halsey decided to engage Japanese aircraft carriers rather than defend American Task Units in the area. However, the Japanese carriers, lacking in trained pilots, were sent on a suicide mission to distract a major portion of the American fleet away the Philippines. This strategy would give the remaining Japanese surface fleet the ability to target American landings.

On October 25, 1944, a portion of the Japanese fleet, comprised of four battleships, including the largest battleship ever built, the Yamato, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, began to move towards the island of Samar. The Japanese fleet encountered American Task Unit 77.4.3, Taffy 3, which was comprised of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts.  The escort carriers’ aircraft lacked anti-ship weapons, since they were armed for close air support and anti-submarine missions. Additionally, the destroyers lacked any long-range firepower that could take out larger Japanese ships. The only arsenal that could damage the larger Japanese ships were torpedoes, which had to be launched at a much shorter range compared to Japanese guns.

Although outnumbered and out gunned, the American destroyers engaged the Japanese fleet long enough for the five of the six escort carriers to retreat to safety. The carriers also deployed their fighters to harass the Japanese ships and break their formations. After two hours of combat, the Japanese admiral decided to retreat to Japan, where most of the fleet would remain until the end of the war.

While not considered a major turning point of the war, the United States lost five times more sailors and airmen in the Battle off Samar than at Midway, largely due to Admiral Halsey’s decision to pursue the Japanese carriers rather than defending the American fleet. Halsey’s decision highlights the new view that carriers were the essential ships in the navy, instead of the battleships. To defend himself, Halsey wrote that the only way the Japanese fleet could threaten the landings was “to rendezvous with the [Japanese] carriers.”

This would be the first time an American carrier was sunk by a surface ship, but the Yamato and other three battleships could not break through a weak defensive line made up of destroyers and carriers. In The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, James Hornfischer explains that constant air attacks eventually made the Japanese fleet turn back, writing “in the face of continuous and savage air assault [withdrawing] was perhaps the prudent thing to do.” The American admiral at the Battle off Samar stated that “the main reason they [the Japanese fleet] turned north [retreated from the battle] was that they were receiving too much damage to continue.”

With the success at Leyte Gulf, the United States solidified its naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean for the last year of World War II. The Battle off Samar and many other battles in the Pacific showed how quickly warfare changed from having battleships as the capital ship in 1941 and 1942, to having aircraft carriers as the essential part of the fleet by 1944.

In today’s policy discussions, there are people who believe that the aircraft carriers are now becoming obsolete. New technology and new weaponry could offset the current strengths that carriers have today, similar to how the carrier utilized advancements to quickly replace the battleship. The ability for aircraft carriers to hold off several battleships and cruisers that had much more firepower at the Battle off Samar would have been unbelievable merely two years earlier. The United States should be aware that doctrines that worked for decades may become obsolete in the next conflict quickly.

Tyler Stone is a graduate student studying International Commerce and Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He received a Bachelor’s degree in History at Le Moyne College. His primary area of study is economics and how it relates to foreign policy.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons