Digital relief map of Samar

Samar is an island on the northeast end of the central Philippines. It is the third largest island in the archipelago, 200 miles (320 km) long and 110 miles (180 km) across with an area of 5124 square miles (13,271 km2). The island is separated from Leyte, to the southwest, by a shallow strait impassable to oceangoing vessels. It is separated from the Legaspi Peninsula of Luzon by San Bernardino Strait, one of two navigable passages to the central Philippines from the Pacific Ocean. The terrain is low mountains reaching to 2654' (809 meters) in the north-central part of the island. 

Samar was almost completely undeveloped in 1941. However, there was a good road from San Pedro Bay in the south around the west side of the island, with a spur through the central mountains to the northeast coast. The southeast corner of the island had almost no road network or other infrastructure.

Battle off Samar

Photograph of Gambier Bay under attack
U.S. Navy. Via Morison (1958)

The most desperate battle of the Leyte Gulf campaign took place east of Samar on 25 October 1944. Kurita's Northern Force planned to pass through San Bernardino Strait to form the northern pincer of an envelopment of Allied invasion forces in Leyte Gulf, the southern pincer being provided by Nishimura's Southern Force coming though Surigao Strait.

The Japanese had almost no air cover and were plagued by communications problems, which were further aggravated by battle damage inflicted by Allied air attacks. Ozawa's Mobile Force was supposed to draw off the American carriers so that the surface groups could successfully penetrate Leyte Gulf, but he was unable to attract American attention until 1540 on 24 October. Meanwhile, the Americans had spotted Kurita's force and pounded it from the air, sinking battleship Musashi with a rain of bombs and torpedoes. Nishimura's force was also spotted and attacked, and during the night of 24-25 October 1944, it was virtually annihilated by Kinkaid's 7 Fleet at Surigao Strait.

But Kinkaid's ambush had drawn almost all the heavy surface units of 7 Fleet south, and Halsey meanwhile had finally spotted Ozawa. Halsey, overestimating the damage to Kurita's force and believing it was retiring for good, took off in hot pursuit of Ozawa with all his forces. Now it was the Americans whose plans were thrown into confusion. Halsey had transmitted a contingency plan for detaching his battle line as Task Force 34 to guard San Bernardino Strait. However, with Kurita seemingly in retreat, Halsey decided this was unnecessary. But the original message was the only one seen by other commanders, and they were left with the mistaken impression that San Bernardino Strait was being watched.

At 1935 a night reconnaissance flight from Independence found that Kurita's force had returned to a course for San Bernardino Strait. It is unclear why Halsey did not then detach Task Force 34 to cover the strait. Mitscher, possibly smarting from having been bypassed all day by Halsey (who issued orders directly to Mitscher's task group commanders), declined to radio such a recommendation to Halsey. Three of Halsey's task force commanders also wondered at the order, and Bogan went so far as to contact Halsey's staff with the information that the navigation lights in San Bernardino Strait were lit. He was brushed off, and made no further protest. Lee, the battle line commander, correctly deduced that Ozawa's force was a decoy with little striking power, but his signal to Halsey warning that Kurita was likely to come out of San Bernardino Strait was also brushed off. Halsey's failure to guard the strait must be judged one of the great blunders of the Pacific War.

The upshot is that when Kurita turned around after nightfall and raced through San Bernardino Strait, he found to his astonishment that the strait was completely unguarded. Kurita's force turned south and, by first light, it was east of Samar racing south.

At 0549, Kurita spotted masts 28,000 yards (26,000 meters) to the southwest. These were the escort carriers and accompanying destroyers and destroyer escorts of Sprague's Task Group 77.4.3. These light forces were conducting antisubmarine patrol while providing air cover and ground support for the invading forces. An Avenger on antisubmarine patrol reported the approaching Japanese at about the same time, and the Japanese opened fire at 0658. Japanese ship identification was miserable, and Kurita believed that he was up against Halsey's fleet carriers and their cruiser escorts. His force was just beginning to redeploy from night column formation to circular antiaircraft formation, and Kurita ordered "General Attack", which meant that each ship should charge ahead independently. This threw the Japanese force into utter confusion. Kurita had lost control of the battle before it had fairly begun.

The Americans launched all available aircraft, then turned southeast to race away while making smoke and screaming over the radio for help. But Kurita's cruisers had at least a 10-knot speed advantage. The American aircraft attacked Kurita in desperation, at times making passes with empty guns to distract the Japanese, or dropping their antisubmarine depth charges in the path of the ships in hopes of somehow inflicting damage.

Meanwhile, the American destroyer screen performed a suicidal torpedo attack against Kurita while making smoke to cover the escort carriers. The American attack should have been brushed off by Kurita's own screen, but according to Ugaki, Kurita had ordered his his light cruisers and destroyers to stay to the rear of his heavier units, in accordance with Japanese battle doctrine. As a result, the American torpedo attack was far more effective than it had any right to be, putting torpedoes into at least two cruisers and causing Yamato to turn north to comb the wakes of the American torpedoes. This took Kurita clear out of the battle.

The Americans were within an ace of destruction when Kurita abruptly turned his force around and headed north, at 0811. The reasons for this order remain obscure. Kurita's force had suffered significant damage from the air and torpedo attacks, losing three cruisers, but his force had been sent out on the belief it would likely be annihilated. Kurita claimed long after the war that he knew in his heart that the war was lost, and he could not bear to see his men killed uselessly.

Halsey was severely, and probably justly, criticized for leaving San Bernardino Strait uncovered. His aggressive pursuit of the enemy carriers, which left the invasion force relatively unprotected, is in sharp contrast with Spruance's actions at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, when he was criticized for failing to pursue and remaining close to his invasion force.

Japanese order of battle

5 Fleet First Strike Force, Main Body (Kurita)     

Force "A" (Northern Force)

BB Yamato

BB Nagato

CA Atago

CA Takao

CA Chokai Sunk

CA Maya

CA Myoko

CA Haguro Severely damaged

CL Noshiro

DD Kishinami

DD Hayanami

DD Asashimo

DD Akishimo

DD Hamanami

DD Fujinami

DD Shimakaze

DD Hayashimo

Force "B" (Northern Force)

BB Kongo

BB Haruna

CA Kumano

CA Suzuya Sunk

CA Chikuma

CA Tone

CL Yahagi

DD Nowaki

DD Kiyoshimo

DD Urakaze

DD Yukikaze

DD Hamakaze

DD Isokaze

U.S. order of battle

7 Fleet, Task Group 77.4 (Thomas L. Sprague)     

Task Unit 77.4.3 (Clifton Sprague)

CVE Fanshaw Bay Damaged

CVE Kalinin Bay Damaged

CVE Gambier Bay

CVE St. Lo

CVE White Plains

CVE Kitkun Bay Damaged

DD Hoel

DD Heerman

DD Johnston Sunk

DE Samuel B. Roberts

DE John C. Butler

DE Dennis

DE Raymond

Task Unit 77.4.2 (Felix Stump)

CVE Natoma Bay

CVE Manila Bay

CVE Marcus Island

CVE Kadashan Bay

CVE Savo Island

CVE Ommaney Bay

DD Haggard

DD Franks

DD Hailey

DE Richard W. Suesens

DE Abercrombie

DE Leray Wilson

DE Walter C. Wann

Task Unit 77.4.1 (Thomas L. Sprague)

CVE Sangamon

CVE Suwannee

CVE Santee

CVE Petrof Bay

DD McCord

DD Trathen

DD Hazelwood

DE Richard S. Bull

DE Richard M. Rowell

DE Eversole

DE Coolbaugh


Dull (1978)
Hornfischer (2004)
Morison (1958)

Rottman (2002)

Thomas (2006)

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