Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita


Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita
Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita

Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita was another destroyer specialist (later a destroyer squadron commander) and an expert on torpedoes for much of his career (although he did command a battleship for two years in the late '30s).

On the eve of Pearl Harbor he was commanding the 7th (Heavy) Cruiser Division.

Kurita participated in the Indian Ocean raid, and was also part of the Midway operation, as commander of the force slated to provide direct support for the landings there (which of course never took place). He was still commanding 7th Cruiser Division in July 1942, but that month was appointed to command 3rd Battleship Division. This was Kurita's command during the Guadalcanal Campaign. He carried out the successful shelling of Henderson Field with his battleships Kongo and Haruna on the night of October 13th, part of the events surrounding "Dugout Sunday," as the harried Marines on the receiving end tagged it as a result of having to dive into their shelters so often that day (Kurita's ships dropped 918 shells-- of 5-, 6-, and 14-inch calibre-- on Henderson airfield and its environs in their nocturnal shoot, killing 41 Marines and leaving only 42 of the 90 aircraft there serviceable on the following morning. This was the single most successful such attempt to incapacitate Henderson by naval bombardment.

In 1943 he replaced Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo as commander of 2nd Fleet. In the Battle of the Phillipine Sea-- the Japanese attempt to force a "decisive battle" in response to the American invasion of Saipan-- Kurita was given command of the "Vanguard Force," with three light carriers, four battleships (Yamato, Musashi, Kongo, Haruna), and nine destroyers. But his moment of decision came in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where he commanded the main battle force sent to wipe out MacArthur's Leyte invasion fleet. Composed of five battleships (including the three most powerful, Yamato, Musashi, and the 16-inch gun Nagato), ten heavy and two light cruisers, plus a dozen destroyers, this force would make its way into Leyte Gulf from the northwest, via San Bernardino Strait, after Ozawa's depleted carrier fleet, acting as decoys, had drawn the US covering force off northward. But Kuritas group met with difficulty early. First US submarines sank his flagship, heavy cruiser Atago (Kurita transfered his flag to the Yamato), also sank heavy cruiser Maya, and badly damaged heavy cruiser Takao. Then repeated air attacks sank the battleship Musashi (hit by 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs), damaged cruiser Nagato (which lost a turret) and Yamato (hit by two bombs), and several other ships (including heavy cruiser Myoko, which had to turn back for repairs). Kurita eventually turned back, but that night, under cover of darkness, reversed course again and headed into San Bernardino Strait. This time, due to American errors in communication (which left both US force commanders unaware the other had left the strait essentially unguarded), he was able to slip through, and break into Leyte Gulf virtually unopposed. Here Kurita's powerful concentration encountered only light covering forces-- the two "Taffy" groups totalling six small "escort carriers" plus three destroyers and three even smaller destroyer escorts-- between him and the transports supporting the Leyte invasion, whose destruction would have been a major catastrophe both materially and psychologically for the Americans. But the situation was confused. The tremendously outmatched US force put up a magnificent fight (novelist and Navy veteran Herman Wouk aptly cautioned that those who feel Americans are "soft" in war should consider the example of the three destroyers which essentially charged this massive battle fleet, and fought on, decks covered with dead and wounded, until sunk or incapacitated). Meanwhile the little "jeep carriers" maneuvered into the wind to launch their planes, engaging the Japanese ships with the single 5-inch guns each one mounted. Kurita's force, which had been sailing in a "ring" formation for optimal efficiency in anti-aircraft defence (understandable given his experience of the previous days), was not well-disposed for surface battle or pursuit. Rather than waste time trying to re-form, Kurita gave controversial and in some cases misconstrued orders for the ships to attack at once individually. But as the American units made smoke, further obscuring the situation, and his big ships dodged torpedoes from the US destroyers, Kurita started to come under air attack again as well. Unsure if these planes were from the main US carrier forces, and no doubt somewhat exhausted and mentally battered from his experiences on the approach to San Bernardino Strait, Kurita called back his forces at what some have concluded was the potential moment of victory. Just like Mikawa at the Savo Island battle, he did not press his attack to its conclusion, and instead sailed back through the strait and headed home (suffering further heavy air attacks on his way out, which cost him heavy cruisers Chokai, Chikuma, and Suzuya, plus destroyer Nowake, before he got out of range). He had badly beaten up the "Taffy" components, but this was a pittance in comparison to the losses his force suffered in return, and especially compared with what he might have accomplished (even at the expense of greater losses) had he persisted.

After this fiasco, Kurita was removed from sea-going command, but he was not totally disgraced, as in 1945 he became commander of the Japanese naval academy.

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