Japan's TA-Operation: A Blueprint for Disaster
by Irwin J. Kappes
One of the key decisions leading up to the end of World War II in the Pacific
was the plan to invade the Philippines. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had endorsed
Formosa as the main base for the final assault on the Japanese mainland.
Strategically, it was the logical choice. But General Douglas MacArthur had
served in the Philippines in peacetime and had a special fondness for the
Filipino people. In a conference in Hawaii with Admiral Nimitz, Admiral Leahy
and the president, he slyly pointed out that bypassing the Philippines would be
"politically unwise". He had thereby pressed Roosevelt's most sensitive button.
There had been much publicity about Japanese atrocities in the islands,
Roosevelt was in the final stage of his campaign for a fourth term, and his
re-election was by no means certain. Suddenly, the Commander-in-Chief was on
board MacArthur's plan and the Joint Chiefs were overridden.
Upon return to Washington, F.D.R. reported on his Pacific trip to the American
people in a radio broadcast that he and the general had reached "a complete
accord." War Minister Hideki Tojo knew of MacArthur's affinity for the
Philippines so he correctly interpreted this to mean that an invasion of the
Philippines was imminent. Initial Allied planning had called for a landing on
Luzon. But the main island was well defended and besides, MacArthur had an
aversion for doing the expected.
The island of Leyte in the middle of the Philippine archipelago suited
MacArthur's predilection for island-hopping. There was the large deep San Pedro
bay at the northern end of the Leyte Gulf, capable of accommodating a large
fleet, and initial intelligence reports had it that the island was undefended.
But reports began trickling in from friendly guerilla groups that there were
more than 50,000 Japanese troops present. MacArthur's forces totaled 200,000
men but even so he knew Leyte would be no cakewalk. The 100-mile long island
had a mountainous chain running down the middle with muddy roads not
traversable by tanks and heavy equipment, and the few mountain passes were
well-defended. On the bright side, the landing was planned for the island's
northeast quadrant—the location of the island's three airstrips.
Just ten days before MacArthur's invasion of Leyte, War Minister Tojo put one
of his most able generals in command of the 14th Army. He was General Tomiyuchi
Yamashita. The general was not the bloodthirsty devil so often depicted in
Allied wartime propaganda. In fact, as a peacetime member of the War Ministry
he unsuccessfully advocated a reduction of the military. And despite his
outstanding ability he was sidelined by the army's top generals and often
clashed with the infamous Tojo. He became unpopular also for insisting that
Japan should maintain peaceful relations with the U.S. and the U.K.
As World War II unfolded Yamashita had been placed in command of the 25th Army
and finally redeemed himself by sweeping 1,100 miles down the Malay peninsula
to Singapore in only two months—thus earning the sobriquet "Tiger of Malaya".
As the war became critical for Japan in 1944 he was placed in command of the
14th Army just ten days before MacArthur's invasion of Leyte. This canny
tactician was the general that MacArthur would have to face in one of the
pivotal battles of the Pacific War.
General MacArthur saw Leyte merely as his first step toward the conquest of the
main island prize, Luzon and the capital Manila—"The Pearl of the Orient",
whereas Yamashita saw it much differently. To give ground even on an obscure
island in the middle of the archipelago would inevitably lead to further
concessions and ultimately to the loss of the entire island chain. And because
the Philippines sat midway between Japan and the empire's main source of oil in
Borneo, they must all be defended as vigorously as if they were the home
islands of Japan.
A lot has been written about the Battle for Leyte Gulf and the Battle of Ormoc
Bay that followed. But only recently have many Japanese war records been
translated and they offer new perspectives on these historic struggles. We know
now that as Yamashita began to suffer continuing losses on Leyte he urgently
worked with the Admiralty in Tokyo to establish a series of re-supply missions.
Between 23 October and 11 December 1944 there would ultimately be nine in all
and they were collectively code-named "Operation TA". In charge was Vice
Admiral Mikawa Gunichi. It was the same Admiral Mikawa who had scored a
one-sided victory when he led a surface fleet in the Battle of Savo Island in
August 1942. This time Mikawa would not be as lucky.
TA-1 took place during the Battle for Leyte Gulf and had the advantage that
American attentions were too pre-occupied with the epic battle on Leyte's east
coast to notice the redeployment of Japanese resources on the west. The plan
was to transport troops and equipment from Luzon, Mindanao and the Visayas to
the western port city of Ormoc on Leyte.
TA-1 consisted of five transports, screened by the light cruiser Kinu and
two destroyers. It stood out of Manila on 24 October but was doomed from the
start. Though it ended up safely landing two regiments of soldiers, carrier
planes from the U.S. Third and Seventh fleets doubled up on it and the Kinu
, both destroyers and two of the transports were sunk in the Sibuyan Sea about
150 miles short of their destination. It was not an auspicious beginning for
Admiral Kimura was in charge of TA-2 on 28 October and he upped the ante on
protection for his fleet of four large, modern transports, providing six
destroyers made up of three echelons. The first landed one anti-tank battalion
at Ormoc and returned safely to Manila. The second also landed troops
successfully because of poor visibility from the air but later in the day
Kimura lost one of his four transports to a U.S. Army B-24 when it was caught
in a clear patch. Nevertheless, the operation was considered a success
resulting from increased destroyer protection. (Incidentally, it was the very
same Rear Admiral Kimura who, just one month before the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor paid a "goodwill" call at Pearl Harbor aboard his flagship Siritoko
. Several of his crewmembers went ashore and were seen snapping photos of sites
of interest from all angles).
TA-3 and TA-4 (8 and 9 November) were two separate convoys. Admiral Hayakawa
was in command and being short on destroyers he devised a clever strategy. The
convoys were spaced one day apart so that the four destroyers escorting TA-3
could double back and escort the second into what had become the cauldron of
Ormoc Bay. The dual mission, though brilliantly conceived was star-crossed from
the beginning. Five large transports bearing 3,000 men and 9,500 tons of
supplies and screened by five destroyers sailed from Cavite Naval Base on 8
November. One of the transports ran aground before leaving the waters of
southern Luzon. It was a bad omen.
Then, cruising just off the coast of the island of Samar, Task Force 38 spotted
the remaining nine ships. Calling it a "battle" would be a euphemism. It was
more like an execution. Admiral Sherman launched 350 fighters and five of
Japan's finest fleet destroyers and all four transports were caught in the
channel between Ponson island and Leyte. With no escape all but one of the
ships were dispatched to the floor of Ormoc Bay in a classic turkey shoot. And
the highly-regarded Rear Admiral Hayakawa ended up in a watery grave aboard his
flagship Shimakaze. It became one of the most calamitous routs of the
Pacific War. The destroyer Asashimo was the only survivor of the
bloodbath, emerging with hardly a dent. The devastation was too much for the
Japanese. Admiral Okochi had by now succeeded the ailing Mikawa and he ordered
TA suspended while remaining resources were regrouped. It was two weeks before
Okochi could develop a new plan. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's 77th Division and
the 7th Division were putting the finishing touches to a pincer movement on the
port city of Ormoc.
TA-5 and TA-6 both ended disastrously as well. Of eight transports involved,
six were sunk along with three of the four escorting patrol craft resulting in
the loss of ten of the eleven transports involved.
These were shipping losses that eclipsed anything that the Japanese empire had
experienced since the Battle of the Philippine Sea and they were resources that
Yamashita could ill afford to lose at this critical stage of the war. The
Allies learned only after the war ended that Yamashita had at this point
concluded that Leyte would soon have to be written off in order to conserve men
and materiel for a last stand defense of the main island of Luzon. But Hideki
Tojo and the other diehards on the High Command in Tokyo decided on a
continuation of their all-out attempts to reverse their bad luck. Besides, bad
weather in late November had grounded fighter aircraft of the Third and Seventh
Fleets. Tojo reasoned that he had no choice but to take the gamble.
Meanwhile, one of the many coincidences that make up military history delivered
three newly commissioned destroyers of a new class with untested crews to
Admiral Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet in Leyte Gulf on 29 November 1944. Their
deployment to the Pacific had been long delayed. Like most new warship classes
they were plagued by design flaws, each of which required correction, testing,
re-correction, and then further testing—all leading to nine months of delay.
Featuring twin 5" guns forward and one aft they could provide double the firing
power of previous destroyer classes going into a tight situation like Ormoc
Bay. Then too, the Navy brass in Washington was eager to learn how these sleek
new SUMNER-class "super destroyers" would perform because the Navy Department
had committed itself to build hundreds more. The destroyers were the Allen M.
Sumner (DD-692), U.S.S. Cooper (DD-695) and U.S.S. Moale
On 1 December the three ships were anchored in Leyte's San Pedro Bay, which had
become home port for hundreds of ships of all description. In the early evening
aboard the Moale , the crew heard a familiar voice with an Alabama
twang piped over the intercom. Everyone knew instantly that something important
was imminent because it was the captain. Lower-ranking officers and CPOs always
delivered routine instructions. Of course, a "tin can" is a small, tight
community and rumors spread quickly so there already were clues that something
big was up. The most ominous was the fact that all of the ship's top-secret
documents and the coding machine had just been ordered transferred to a
destroyer-tender anchored nearby. To destroyermen this was always a sign that
the ship was about to participate in extremely hazardous action. Captain Walter
M. Foster spoke with confidence, defining the mission but clearly outlining
what he believed to be in store for his inexperienced crew. And he pointed out
frankly that there would be no air cover because heavy rains had made the
improvised air fields into muddy bogs. At the same time, the Japanese were
under no such limitation because their fields were of the so-called "improved"
At 2200, all hands were invited to participate in an inter-denominational
service in the mess hall. Destroyers weren't large enough to warrant having a
Chaplain, but there was always a devout, self-appointed steward of the faith
who could be counted upon to come forward and conduct ad hoc services.
Normally, religious services were attended by about a half dozen regulars. Now,
the largest indoor space on the ship was filled to overflowing. All knew the
next few hours would be their testing, or their redemption. The island's best
deepwater port of Ormoc would be the battleground and TA-7 would provide, for
many, the challenge of their lifetimes.
A Japanese flotilla had left Manila's Cavite Naval Base on 1 December featuring
a beefed-up convoy of one group of submarines and one group consisting of three
transports escorted by two Matsu-class destroyers, Take and Kuwa
. Under command of Commander Masamichi Yamashita (not related to General
Tomiyuchi Yamashita) a U.S. Army reconnaissance plane spotted them as they
threaded their way through the islands of the Sibuyan Sea. However, they
arrived without a hitch in the early evening of the following day probably
unaware of having been detected.
The weather cleared as the three American destroyers rounded the southern tip
of Leyte at about 2200 and headed north cautiously through the narrow Matalom
channel. It had been swept for mines sealing the bay's southern entrance four
days before by the two spunky little minesweepers PURSUIT and REVENGE, but
there were dozens of coral reefs in the area, some of them uncharted. And there
was always the possibility of stray mines undiscovered by the minesweepers. As
they increased speed, their wakes churned up phosphorescent algae making them
sitting ducks to Japanese fighters based on nearby Cebu.
Suddenly all three ships were beset by continuous strafing. Aboard the MOALE,
one of its own main battery 5-inch shells struck and destroyed the barrel of a
20-millimeter A.A. gun. Though the barrel was red hot, Gunner's Mate Robert W.
Johnson wrenched it loose with bare hands, replaced it and simply resumed
firing. This calls to mind the old saying, "Anyone who first considers the
consequences cannot be brave".
In the Moale's Combat Information Center, Lt. Irving Wiggs, radar
officer, watched events unfold amid all the hectic action outside. He had taped
white tissue paper over a USCGS chart of the Bay and mounted both on the D.R.
(dead reckoning) table in the Combat Information Center. This enabled him to
trace the exact tracks of the three ships as they sped north at flank speed.
Careful notations were entered as to time and the nature of events, providing a
graphic account of the action. It was a step forward in the recording of naval
warfare as it happens. The document is today in the collection of the Naval War
College in Newport, RI.
On the Sumner, Ashby Jones, Motor Machinist's Mate 2/c was taking a
reading on the aft engine machinery and noticed that the thermometer was red
all the way to the top. Under these battle conditions it was considered
unthinkable to reduce speed, so wet rags were applied in furious succession. In
a panic, Ashby's Chief ordered him to go to the forward engine room and bring
back a large 60 lb. blower. This required hurrying up a steep ladder,
proceeding through a crowded ammunition handling room where shells were being
frantically loaded, crawling over huge piles of spent shells and then
re-tracing his way with the heavy blower back down to the engine room. When he
arrived, out of breath and completely exhausted, his shipmates barely
acknowledged his arrival. In the interim they had discovered that the bearing
was not hot at all. In all the confusion no one had thought about putting his
hands on it. The thermometer had simply broken.
These three tales of heroism, calm logic, and absentmindedness are told here to
make the point that the feverish anguish of combat at sea can produce responses
worthy of the best naval fiction. From beginning to end, the 2-3 December phase
of what came to be known as "The Battle of Ormoc Bay" lasted less than an hour.
In that infinitesimally thin slice of World War II, the Jap destroyer Kuwa was
taken under fire by the three U.S. ships and sunk, taking along approximately
150 men. Minutes later, the Japanese destroyer Take launched a spread of four
long-lance torpedoes, one of which caught the U.S.S. Cooper in a turn.
The ship broke in two and sank in less than a minute with the loss of 141
crewmen. (Of Cooper's crew, 168 were rescued the following morning by
two very heroic Navy PBY-Catalina seaplane crews). In addition, several small
enemy surface craft and approximately nine aircraft were dispatched from the
earth's surface. The other two U.S. ships miraculously suffered only three dead
and 35 wounded. It is an episode that is recalled today only by the diminishing
number of participants but is still memorialized at annual reunions.
Ormoc/2-3 Dec. was a momentous and historic struggle—the only naval battle of
World War II in which the enemy brought to bear every weapon in the naval
arsenal—torpedoes and gunfire from ships, PT boats, shore batteries, aircraft,
submarines, and yes, even the possibility of mines. Every living participant
has his own story. Captain Foster's recollections were summarized bluntly in
his combat report: "Operations of this sort should not be entered into unless
air coverage is assured. Enemy planes continually tracked and attacked our
group for one hour prior to the surface engagement until one hour after our
retirement. The enemy was thoroughly alerted and had only to wait until our
arrival to fire torpedoes at us. This strike was designed as an offensive;
however, there was a strong feeling of being on the defensive throughout." Even
so, it was a near-miracle that the two surviving ships escaped with only a few
fatalities and relatively minor damage. All in all it was the closest thing to
a victory that the Japanese were able to achieve in the entire series of TA
In fact, Operation TA-8 gave new heart to the Japanese Admiralty because five
large transports escorted by three destroyers and two patrol craft left Manila
for Ormoc only three days later. But their "success" of 3 December provided a
false hope. While enroute, the Japs learned of the landing of Allied troops at
Albuera, a few miles south of Ormoc, so the convoy was quickly diverted to a
small port on the northwestern tip of Leyte, about 25 miles north of Ormoc
City. While disembarking, the transports were spotted by a swarm of U.S.
fighters. All five transports were sunk and two destroyers were damaged.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's 77th Division landed about 10 miles south of Ormoc
City on the infamous day of December 7th. Covering the landings were the
destroyers Mahan (DD-364), Lamson (DD-367), Walke
(DD-723) and O'Brien (DD-725), and they took a severe pounding
from kamikazes. The suiciders also damaged the high-speed transports Ward
(APD-16), Liddle (APD-60), LST-737 and sunk the LSM-318. It was a
fierce engagement that demonstrated the utter desperation of the Japanese
exactly three years after their attack on Pearl Harbor.
Undeterred, the 7th Division was moving up the west coast of Leyte toward Ormoc
and met the 11th Airborne Division coming south. The pincer now closed.
Unbelievably, shellfire on the retreating Japanese had been directed from
unarmed Piper Cubs. General A. D. Bruce, commander of the 77th, later made the
following point: "The secret weapons of the South Pacific war were the Piper
Cub and the bulldozer". The Cubs could go up and spot artillery fire with
impunity because the enemy knew the muzzle blast would give away their position
and artillery shells would then come in like rain. The bulldozers could clear
an area for an airfield in a matter of days and could make a roadway in mere
With U.S. troops closing in on Ormoc, the High Command had now exhausted even
the most extreme measures to avoid defeat. In their eyes, the loss of Leyte
would signal the loss of the main island of Luzon. This would in turn spell the
end of the Japanese presence in the Philippines with all the ugly consequences.
Tojo and his admirals had no choice: One last "near suicide" mission was
ordered to leave Cavite Naval Base on 9 December. All the transports that could
be mustered--three large ships and two small ones were escorted by three
destroyers and two PCs. The end result: All ships of the convoy were either
sunk or heavily damaged except for the two patrol craft. What the Japs didn't
know was that Ormoc had already been occupied by the 307th Combat Team.
John C. Kriegsman, who was a liaison air officer for the 77th, put it this way.
"In stone silence [we waited] for the Jap version of an LST loaded with
replacement soldiers to disembark. When the unloading ramp was lowered and men
began to pour out, all hell broke loose. In less than one hour only one soldier
out of about 750 soldiers remained alive. He was found a week later curled up
in the 'crow's nest.' [What happened to the hapless Jap is unknown but is best
left to the imagination]. For the next week, the fighting became a slaughter of
the enemy. It took six days for two bulldozers to bury the dead." Tojo, General
Yamashita and the Admirals had played their hand and lost. Operation TA was
over and the Japanese garrison in Ormoc City vanished into the surrounding
mountains on 12 December to fend for themselves.
Despite their calamitous losses the Japanese had managed to land an estimated
45,000 troops and 10,000 tons of supplies in the combined TA-Operations. But
the cost was about 45 vessels of all types, versus 4 for the U.S. The mopping
up would consume another six months on Leyte and much fighting was still ahead
elsewhere in the Pacific. While rational leaders without the military mindset
would have chosen to seek the best possible deal and surrender, the Japanese
fought on, even as the losses at Mindoro, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa grew ever
greater—and as the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki loomed distantly
over Hirohito's misbegotten empire.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the permission of Allyn D. Nevitt to quote
from his authoritative "Long Lancers" website, a resource that interested
readers may wish to refer to for more comprehensive information on the
Show Footnotes and
Griggs, William L., "Preludes to Victory: The Battle of Ormoc Bay in WWII",
Atlantic Press, 1997.
Vego, Milan N., "The Battle for Leyte, 1944", U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Irwin J. Kappes
Written by Irwin Kappes. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Irwin Kappes at:
About the author:
Mr. Kappes served in U.S. Navy on destroyers in the Atlantic and
Pacific during WWII. He holds an MBA from Boston University and retired after a 32 year advertising career with the Du
Pont Company. He was also a retired Vice President with United States Hosiery. He is married and his hobbies include painting,
writing, and travel. His hometown is New Castle, PA. and presently living in Tinton Falls, NJ.
Published online: 12/17/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.