The engagement that would become the Battle of Leyte Gulf began as Japanese forces advanced upon the island of Leyte. American forces began landing on Leyte on October 20, taking advantage of its good beaches and flat terrain to establish a foothold. Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet covered the landings, with William Halsey’s Third Fleet offering distant cover. American air raids had devastated Japanese airfields and aircraft across the country, but had not completely eliminated the aerial threat. But the biggest danger to the invasion would come not from aircraft, but from the cruisers and battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The Imperial Japanese Navy (INJ) had carefully husbanded its surface strength during 1943 and 1944, avoiding engagements against superior U.S. forces. This meant that much of the core strength of the IJN remained available for defeating the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. Yamato and Musashi, the two largest battleships ever constructed, formed the core of Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force. Three older battleships accompanied them, along with numerous heavy cruisers and destroyers. Many of these latter were veterans of the Solomons Campaign and had already exacted a toll in blood from the U.S. Navy.
But Kurita’s force would have to run a gauntlet, in daylight, of hundreds of American carrier-based aircraft. Kurita could expect little fighter cover. In fairness, no battleships had been lost to aircraft in the Pacific since December 1941, when Japanese aircraft caught a pair of British battleships in the open sea and sank them in less than two hours. The Japanese hoped that their battleships would prove sturdier, and their anti-aircraft defenses more lethal to fend off the American onslaught. The Japanese also had a few hundred land-based aircraft at their disposal to use against the American carrier groups.