While the aircraft carriers of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey wreaked terror on the Center Force of Takeo Kurita, two other Japanese task forces approached the invasion beaches of Leyte. The Japanese dug deep into their reserve of warships, and sought to break through with enough force to disrupt the invasion. What they found was one of the most one-sided massacres in naval history.
Two separate Japanese task forces took a southern route to Leyte that would bring them through Surigao Strait, a narrow passage of water between the islands of Dinagat and Panaon. The Japanese had hoped that the two task forces would arrive at the same time, simultaneous to Kurita’s penetration of the other side of Leyte Gulf. However, because the fleets maintained radio silence, they were unable to carefully coordinate their action. Kurita’s force suffered badly from air attacks, slowing its approach to the rendezvous. Consequently, Vice Admiral Shoji Nishmura’s force would approach Surigao Strait alone, with Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima’s force some twenty-five miles behind and Kurita nowhere in evidence.
Nishimura’s force was built around the battleships HIJMS Fuso and HIJMS Yamashiro. They were not the oldest battleships in Japanese service (the Kongo class battlecruisers were somewhat older), but they were nevertheless significantly outclassed by modern vessels. Each carried 12 14” guns in six twin turrets, with two amidships turrets that could not be directed fore or aft. Neither ship had seen any real action in the war thus far. A heavy cruiser and four destroyers would escort the two battleships. Shima’s force consisted of three cruisers and seven destroyers.