Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita
April 28, 1889|
Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan
|Died||December 19, 1977(aged 88)|
|Allegiance||Empire of Japan|
|Service/branch||Imperial Japanese Navy|
|Years of service||1910–1945|
|Rank||Vice Admiral (Kaigun Chujo)|
|Commands held||Shigure, Oite, Wakatake, Hagi, Hamakaze, Urakaze,
25th Destroyer Group and 10th Destroyer Group, 12th Destroyer Group,
1st Destroyer Flotilla,
4th Destroyer Flotilla,
7th Cruiser Division,
3rd Battleship Division,
IJN 2nd Fleet
|Battles/wars||World War II
Battle of Sunda Strait
Indian Ocean Raid
Battle of Midway
Battle of the Philippine Sea
Battle of Leyte Gulf
Battle of the Sibuyan Sea
Battle off Samar
|Awards||Order of the Sacred Treasure (2nd class)|
Takeo Kurita was born in Mito city, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1889. He was sent off to Etajima in 1905 and graduated from the 38th class of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1910, ranked 28th out of a class of 149 cadets. As a midshipman, he served on the cruisers Kasagi and Niitaka. On being commissioned as ensign in 1911, he was assigned to Tatsuta.
After his promotion to sub-lieutenant in 1913, Kurita served on the battleship Satsuma, destroyer Sakaki and cruiser Iwate. Kurita became a lieutenant on 1 December 1916, and served on a number of ships: protected cruiser Tone, destroyers Kaba and Minekaze. He also served as either the chief torpedo officer or executive officer on Minekaze, Yakaze, and Hakaze. In 1920, he was given his first command: the destroyer Shigure. In 1921, he assumed command of Oite.
Promoted to lieutenant commander in 1922, Kurita captained the destroyers Wakatake, Hagi, and Hamakaze. As commander from 1927, he commanded the destroyer Urakaze, 25th Destroyer Group and 10th Destroyer Group.
Kurita became a rear admiral on November 15, 1938, commanding the 1st Destroyer Flotilla then the 4th Destroyer Flotilla. He was in command of the 7th Cruiser Division at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
World War II
Kurita's 7th Cruiser Division participated in the invasion of Java in the Dutch East Indies in December 1941, and in the Indian Ocean Raid where he led a fleet of six heavy cruisers and the light carrier Ryūjō that sank 135,000 tons of shipping in the Bay of Bengal. During the Battle of Midway (serving under Nobutake Kondō), he lost the cruiser Mikuma. Kurita was promoted to vice admiral on 1 May 1942, and was reassigned to the 3rd Battleship Division in July.
In the Guadalcanal Campaign, Kurita led his battleships in an intense bombardment of Henderson Field on the night of 13 October, firing 918 heavy high explosive shells at the American airfield. This was the single most successful Japanese attempt to incapacitate Henderson Field by naval bombardment. Kurita later commanded major naval forces during the Central Solomon Islands campaign and during the Battle of Philippine Sea. In 1943, Kurita replaced Admiral Kondō as the commander of IJN 2nd Fleet.
Battle of Leyte Gulf
It was as Commander-in-Chief of the IJN 2nd Fleet dubbed "Central Force" during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea and the Battle off Samar (Both part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf) for which Kurita is best known. The IJN 2nd Fleet included the largest battleships in the world, Yamato and Musashi. Additionally, the IJN 2nd Fleet included the battleships Nagato, Kongō, and Haruna, 10 cruisers and 13 destroyers. Critically, however, the IJN Second Fleet did not include any aircraft carriers.
Kurita was a dedicated officer, willing to die if necessary, but not wishing to die in vain. Like Yamamoto, Kurita believed that for a captain to "go down with his ship" was a wasteful loss of valuable naval experience and leadership. When ordered by Admiral Soemu Toyoda to take his fleet through the San Bernardino Strait in the central Philippines and attack the American landings at Leyte, Kurita thought the effort a waste of ships and lives, especially since he could not get his fleet to Leyte Gulf until five days after the landings, leaving little more than empty transports for his huge battleships to attack. He bitterly resented his superiors, who, while safe in bunkers in Tokyo, ordered Kurita to fight to the death against hopeless odds and without air cover.
Ambush in the Palawan Passage
While his fleet was en route from Brunei to attack the American Invasion fleet, Kurita's ships were attacked in Palawan Passage by US submarines. USS Darter damaged heavy cruiser Takao and sank Kurita's flagship heavy cruiser Atago, forcing him to swim for his life while USS Dace sank heavy cruiser Maya. Kurita was plucked from the water by a destroyer and transferred his flag to the Yamato, but Kurita's dunking did him little good, especially since he had only recently recovered from a severe case of dengue fever, and no doubt contributed to the fatigue which may have influenced his subsequent actions.
Battle of the Sibuyan Sea
While in the confines of the Sibuyan Sea and approaching the San Bernardino Strait, Kurita's force was attacked by U.S. carrier planes which damaged several of his ships, including Yamato. Constant air attacks from Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's 3rd Fleet scored two bomb hits on Yamato, reducing her speed, and numerous torpedo and bomb hits on Musashi, mortally wounding her. They also scored a number of damaging near misses on other vessels.
These attacks caused Kurita to call off his attack and turn his fleet west away from Leyte Gulf. Thus began a chain of events that continues to engage historians and biographers to this day. Halsey, believing that he had mauled Kurita's fleet and that the Japanese "Central Forces" were retreating, and believing that he had the orders and authorization to do so, abandoned his station guarding General MacArthur's landing at Leyte Gulf and the San Bernardino Strait, in order to pursue Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa's Northern Fleet of Japanese carriers that were sent as a decoy to lure the Americans away from Leyte. But before doing so, in fact before Ozawa's force had been sighted, Halsey had sent a message announcing a "battle plan" to detach his battleships to cover the exit of the strait. With the decision to attack Ozawa, this battle plan was never executed and the heavy ships went north with the carriers.
Battle off Samar
Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, Commander 7th Fleet and responsible for protecting the landing forces, assumed that Halsey's "Battle Plan" was a deployment order and that Task Force 34 (TF 34) was actually guarding San Bernardino Strait. Kinkaid thus concentrated his battleships to the south in order to face the Japanese "Southern Force". During the night of 24–25 October 1944, Kurita changed his mind again, and turned his ships around and headed east again, toward Leyte Gulf. On the morning of 25 October, Kurita's fleet, led by Yamato, exited San Bernardino Strait and sailed south along the coast of Samar. 30 minutes after dawn, the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy sighted "Taffy 3" — a task unit of Kinkaid's covering forces that consisted of six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague. Taffy 3 was intended to provide shore support and anti-submarine patrols; not to engage in fleet action against battleships.
Believing he had chanced upon the carriers of the American 3rd Fleet Kurita immediately ordered his battleships to open fire. Recognizing that his best chance depended upon destroying the aircraft carriers before they could launch their aircraft Kurita gave the order for "General Attack" rather than take the time to reform his ships for action with the enemy. Kurita then compounded his error by ordering his destroyers to the rear to prevent them from obstructing his battleships' line of fire, preventing them from racing ahead to cut off the slower American carriers. However, at the moment Taffy 3 was sighted Center Force was in the midst of changing from nighttime to daytime air defense steaming formation. Kurita's ships thus charged uncoordinated into action and Kurita quickly lost tactical control of the battle, a situation not helped by poor visibility, intermittent rain squalls and a wind direction favorable to the Americans, who immediately began to make smoke for additional concealment.
Kurita's forces mauled Taffy 3, sinking USS Gambier Bay, Hoel, Johnston, and Samuel B. Roberts and inflicting significant damage on most of the other ships. But continual air attacks by aircraft from Taffy 3 and Taffy 2 stationed farther south and a determined counterattack by the U.S. escorts served to further confuse and separate Kurita's forces. Kurita, whose flagship Yamato fell far behind early in the battle while avoiding a torpedo salvo from USS Hoel, lost sight of the enemy and many of his own ships. Meanwhile, the courageous efforts of the Taffies had cost him three heavy cruisers: Chikuma, Suzuya, and Chōkai. Many of his other ships had also been hit and most had suffered casualties from the relentless strafing. After about two and a half hours in action with Taffy 3, Kurita ordered his force to regroup on a northerly course, away from Leyte.
By this time, Kurita had received news that the Japanese Southern Force, which was to attack Leyte Gulf from the south, had already been destroyed by Kinkaid's battleships. With Musashi gone, Kurita still had four battleships but only three cruisers remaining, all of his ships were low on fuel and most of them were damaged. Kurita was intercepting messages that indicated Admiral Halsey had sunk all four carriers of the "Northern Force" and was racing back to Leyte with his battleships to confront the Japanese fleet and that powerful elements of 7th Fleet were approaching from Leyte Gulf. After steaming back and forth off Samar for two more hours, Kurita, who'd been on Yamato's bridge for nearly 48 hours by this point, and his chief of staff Tomiji Koyanagi decided to retire and retreated back through the San Bernardino Strait.
Kurita's ships were subjected to further air attack the rest of the day and Halsey's battleships just missed catching him that night, sinking the destroyer Nowaki which had remained behind to save the survivors from Chikuma. Kurita's retreat saved Yamato and the remainder of the IJN 2nd Fleet from certain destruction, but he had failed to complete his mission, attacking the amphibious forces in Leyte Gulf. The path had been laid open to him by the sacrifices of the Northern and Southern Forces, but closed again by the determination and courage of the Taffies.
After Leyte and postwar
Kurita was criticized by some elements in the Japanese military for not fighting to the death. In December, Kurita was removed from command. In order to protect him against assassination, he was reassigned as commandant of the Imperial Japanese Navy Academy.
Following the Japanese surrender, Kurita found work as a scrivener and masseur, living quietly with his daughter and her family. He never discussed politics or the war with his family or with anyone, except to conduct a brief interview with a journalist, Ito Masanori, in 1954 when he stated that he had made a mistake at Leyte by turning away and not continuing with the battle, a statement he later retracted. He was found by an American naval officer after the war where he was interviewed for the Analysis Division of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.
With Kurita's address in hand, a young American naval officer got out of a jeep and spotted the unimposing figure tending to his garden chores. Years later, he still vividly recalled the moment: "It really made an impression of me. The war was just over. Less than a year before Kurita had been in command of the largest fleet that was ever put together, and there he was out there chopping potatoes." 
Afterward, Kurita returned to his retirement, making a twice-yearly pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine to pray for his dead comrades-in-arms. In 1966, he was present at the deathbed of his old colleague, Jisaburō Ozawa, at which he silently wept.
It was not until he was in his 80s that Kurita began to again speak of his actions at Leyte. He claimed privately to a former Naval Academy student (and biographer), Ooka Jiro, that he withdrew the fleet from the battle because he did not believe in wasting the lives of his men in a futile effort, having long since believed that the war was lost.
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- The Battle Off Samar – Taffy III at Leyte Gulf by Robert Jon Cox
- US Strategic Bombing Survey Pacific – Interrogations of Japanese officials A list of the U.S. Naval Interrogations of Japanese Officials, conducted after the war, with full texts of the interviews. A number of these interviews are available on line and provide interesting insight from the Japanese commanders, who, many for first time, are openly critical of the war and their superiors. Admiral Kurita and his role in the war is discussed in a number of different interrogations.