The paths of four different seaborne warriors—two Japanese, two Americans—collide at the now-overlooked Battle of Leyte Gulf, the “gory apex,” mother of all sea battles.
The October 1944 battle remains the largest in history; as Newsweek assistant managing editor Thomas observes, it involved 300 ships and nearly 200,000 sailors over an area of 100,000 square miles. Most Americans know little about it, perhaps because many sailors at the time wanted to forget it; for one thing, Thomas writes, the battle involved serious missteps on the part of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey—no one but reporters ever called him “Bull,” and then not to his face—who through miscommunication and “poor staff work” failed to control a critically important approach, endangering the American invasion of the Philippines. He blamed near-disaster on a subordinate, Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, who, shut out from Halsey’s master plan, made assumptions that he should not have. Halsey elliptically acknowledged later that “he had been bold where caution was called for,” but Thomas does more to relieve Kinkaid of blame. The battle cost the lives of many American sailors, including one of Thomas’s four chief subjects, Commander Ernest Evans, a mixed-blood Cherokee who set his destroyer against the Japanese as if he were leading a cavalry charge. Among the fighters on the Japanese side were two admirals, Matome Ugaki and Takeo Kurita, who took different approaches to military matters; Ugaki, whose superiors regarded him as a drunk, had worried from the outset that Japan would lose a war with America but nevertheless followed and exceeded orders, while Kurita decided on his own to steam away from battle, thereby saving the lives of perhaps 30,000 Japanese sailors and untold Americans as well; whereas Ugaki launched kamikaze assaults, Kurita “had not been willing to sacrifice his men in a futile gesture of nobility.”
A competent inquiry into a naval battle that, Thomas ably shows, deserves more study.