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THE greatest battle in the history of naval warfare, which destroyed the Japanese fleet and swept clear the sea roads to the Philippines and Tokyo, raged across 500,000 square miles of churned and bloodied Western Pacific Ocean 15 years ago this week. This was the Battle for Leyte Gulf, which pitted the U.S. fleets supporting General Douglas MacArthur's landings on the island of Leyte against all the naval might that the crumbling Japanese Empire could salvage for a desperate last stand.

It was the grand climax to the most massive naval campaign ever, a campaign that led through Coral Sea, where the drive toward Australia was thrown back; through Midway, where the threat to Hawaii was decisively broken; through the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" (the Battle of the Philippine Sea), which broke the back of Japanese naval airpower. The relentless surge had driven the Japanese back to a final line of defense that included the home islands themselves, and hinged on the Philippines.

Against U.S. landings on Leyte, the Japanese had prepared a plan known as SHO-1, aimed at bringing "general decisive battle." SHO1 called for a pincers movement against the U.S. landing forces in Leyte Gulf. The strongest Japanese force, under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, was to steam through the Sibuyan Sea, debouch through San Bernardino Strait (see maps) and head south to Leyte Gulf. Two smaller forces, operating independently under Vice Admirals Shoï Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima, were to come through Surigao Strait, move north and close the pincers with Kurita. Meanwhile, a fleet under canny old Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, with carriers for bait, was charged with decoy duty to "advance into Philippine Sea east of Luzon" and "lure the enemy to the north."

Screening the Leyte landings were two great U S. fleets: the Seventh, attached to MacArthur under Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. and the Third, reporting to Admiral Chester Nimitz 5,000 miles away in Hawaii and carrying the flag of Admiral William F. ("Bull") Halsey.

On Oct. 17, within nine minutes after the U.S. cruiser Denver fired the first shot in the bombardment that prepared the way for MacArthur's amphibious attack, the Japanese naval command radioed: SHO1 OPERATION ALERT. Next morning came the order: EXECUTE. The Japanese fleets began converging on Leyte Gulf and the four mighty engagements that lay ahead.

Battle of the Sibuyan Sea

As Kurita's powerful fleet steamed through Palawan Passage toward the Sibuyan Sea early on the morning of Oct. 23, it was flushed by patrolling U.S. submarines Darter and Dace. The subs attacked. Before they were through, they had crippled heavy cruiser Takao, sunk heavy cruiser Maya and Kurita's flagship, heavy cruiser Atago. Kurita himself had to swim to save his skin. A Japanese destroyer picked him up, and he sailed on, still in command of five battleships, seven heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers.

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