The Battle of Leyte Gulf is the largest naval battle in the Pacific, and the largest naval battle in recorded history. The battle spanned 100,000 square miles of sea; and was fought for three days, from October 23 to October 25, 1944, during the invasion of Leyte by the Allied forces. The Japanese had been losing ground from the Allied forces beginning at the Battle of Midway (June 1942) up until the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944.
In Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito of Japan had been pushing for a “decisive battle” that would determine the outcome of the war. The then-new Japanese Premier, Kunaki Koiso, followed suit when he declared the Philippines the scene of the decisive battle. The Japanese firmly believed that if the Philippines fell to the Americans, the next obvious target would be an invasion of Japan itself, using the newly conquered territory as a springboard of operations against their homeland.
On October 17, 1944 the Japanese had detected a large fleet of Allied forces headed straight towards Leyte. In response, the Japanese Center Force, Northern Force and Southern Force converged in the Philippines to stop the landing to thereby expel the Americans from the Philippines. The Allied forces successfully landed on Leyte on October 20 with the help of 3,500 Filipino guerillas on the ground. Three days later, at sea, the Imperial Japanese and Allied navy met in battle. These engagements between the Japanese and the Allied forces became known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
It was in the Battle of Leyte Gulf that the Japanese took desperate measures. The first organized kamikaze suicide unit was deployed on this battle, in Mabalacat, Pampanga, under the command of Admiral Takejiro Ohnishi. Their mission was to launch suicide operations against American ships. They also deployed their remaining capital ships in a last ditch effort to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, in the face of the American juggernaut.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was composed of four separate engagements and was not just one single battle. These four are: (1) Battle of Cape Engaño, which witnessed the annihilation of the Japanese aircraft carriers of Admiral Ozawa’s decoy Northern Force by the U.S. 3rd Fleet; (2) Battle of Sibuyan Sea, which witnessed the massive U.S. 3rd Fleet air assault that saw the sinking of the Japanese super battleship Musashi which resulted in the initial withdrawal of Admiral Kurita’s Center Force; (3) Battle off Samar, wherein Admiral Kurita’s Center Force attempted to destroy the amphibious ships of the Americans at Leyte Gulf but had to withdraw in the face of valiant American resistance; and (4) Battle of Surigao Strait, which saw the repaired and modernized veteran battleships of the Americans that had been damaged and sunk during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack exact revenge on the Japanese Southern Force.
This Vintage Map Shows the ‘Greatest Battle in the History of Naval Warfare’ (TIME) - The map above is from that issue
In 1959, reflecting on the Battle of Leyte Gulf from a distance of 15 years, TIME declared that the World War II engagement — between the Japanese navy and U.S. troops on and around the island of Leyte, which the U.S. had taken a few days before — was “the greatest battle in the history of naval warfare.”