The Battle of Leyte Gulf needs no serious introduction to regular readers of Today’s History Lesson, as we spent several days looking at it a year ago. If you’d like a refresher, here are the three articles from last year, which should give you an above-and-below-water overview of what is considered to be the largest fleet action in naval history:
Into the middle of Leyte Gulf comes the discussion about the kamikaze squadrons that we started the other day. So let’s link them up.
As Admiral Kurita’s Center Force came down the San Bernardino Strait on October 25, 1944, it ran into Admiral Clifton Sprague’s Taffy 3. Comprised of small escort carriers and destroyers, Taffy 3 was outfitted to support MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines, not fight against heavy cruisers and battleships.
At the same time (7:25am), Lt. Yukio Seki was lifting off from East Airfield with 22 other pilots. Their mission was to not return to base, but instead to find a large American ship (preferably a carrier) and simply fly into it.
For two and a half hours, they flew south and east, arriving in the area of the Straits just about the time Taffy 3 had miraculously chased off the Japanese Center Force. They were likely surprised (and a little disappointed) to find no American capital ships in the area, but they pressed their attacks anyways.
The escort carrier St. Lo was in the process of refueling and rearming aircraft when the kamikazes arrived, and Lt. Yukio Seki singled her out and bored in. Keep in mind that American gunners were accustomed to Japanese pilots flying in, dropping bombs, and making their escapes. Flying in and…flying into a ship…well sure, it happened on very rare occasions, but a pre-planned suicide attack was completely new.
At 10:50am, Seki’s plane with its bomb planted itself in the St. Lo’s flight deck. The plane disintegrated, but the bomb penetrated and exploded in the hangar deck, igniting the fuel and bombs there. A gasoline explosion was followed by a half dozen more, tearing the light carrier apart. Thirty minutes later, the St. Lo became the war’s first kamikaze victim as she slipped below the waves of the Strait.
Every other carrier in Taffy 3 (except Fanshaw Bay) was damaged (or further damaged) by Seki’s charges. All in all, the “proof of concept” mission flown by the squadron from Mabalacat was largely successful…and would become painfully unfortunate for the U.S. Navy over the next 10 months.