This gunnery trophy plaque off USS West Virginia (BB-48) hangs in our World War II gallery. As can be seen on the plaque, West Virginia won it five times in the first ten years after it was commissioned in December 1923. Although the plaque dates from the interwar period, the sailors of West Virginia lived up to their ship’s tradition during WWII. Built at Newport News right after WWI, it was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Rebuilt and brought back into service, the ship was part of the invasion fleet at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Sailing alongside it were several other survivors of Pearl Harbor, including other Newport News-built battleships USS Maryland (BB-46) and USS Pennsylvania (BB-38).
In October 1944, the Japanese launched an all-out naval assault on the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf. Their plan had multiple moving parts which led to problems. The Japanese divided their fleet into three sections. First a diversion force in the north would draw the main American force (under Halsey) away from the invasion fleet. Then two fleets would deploy in a pincer formation to attack the vulnerable landing and supply ships. The southern force (divided into two parts) was to head through the Surigao Strait.
Navy planes spotted and attacked the first part of the southern force under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura on the morning of October 24 as it cruised south of the Philippine island of Negros. The detection of this force allowed Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, in charge of bombardment/fire support for the invasion fleet, to set a trap for when the enemy force entered Surigao Strait that night. First the Japanese fleet had to make it through PT (patrol torpedo) boat attacks, then a crossfire of more torpedoes launched from destroyers, before having to deal with both a line of cruisers and a line of battleships, which would be maneuvering in the classic naval tactic of “crossing the T.” This tactic would allow for the greatest number of guns to bear on the Japanese while their return fire was largely limited to the lead ship. Besides West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the American battleship force included two other Pearl Harbor survivors: USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS California (BB-44). The sixth battleship included in the force was the Newport News-built battleship USS Mississippi (BB-41), which was doing escort duty near Iceland when the war started.
As the Japanese fleet headed into Surigao Strait, the torpedoes from the PT boats missed, but the destroyers had much better success. The U.S. destroyers were deadly with their torpedo attack, as they sank the battleship Fuso (one of two in the first striking force) and a destroyer, crippled another destroyer, and damaged another destroyer enough that it limped back the way it came. The flagship Yamashiro was also damaged but continued on toward the strait, along with the cruiser Mogami and a remaining destroyer. The second half of the Japanese force (under Adm. Shima) was nearly 30 miles behind, as strict radio silence had prevented close coordination.
As opposed to their predecessors who earned the gunnery plaque, the sailors onboard West Virginia were aided by a new fire control radar system (Mk 8) which enabled them to detect the enemy at a great distance. In the early morning hours of October 25, the ship’s radar picked up the Japanese force at 42,000 yards (nearly 24 miles, or the length of 140 football fields). By the time they had approached to 30,000 yards, the gunnery crews had a firing solution, and when the Japanese ships approached to about 26,000 yards (nearly 15 miles) away, the 16-inch guns opened fire shortly before 0400 on October 25.
|Mogami was badly damaged at the Battle of Midway, so the two aft turrets were removed and it was converted to an “aircraft cruiser.”|
Yamashiro was the focus of most of the fire emanating from the American battleships and cruisers. It was hit numerous times and quickly caught on fire. In addition to the gunfire pouring in, the Japanese battleship was struck by more torpedoes, and it sank less than 30 minutes after West Virginia opened fire. Mogami was also badly damaged and on fire. In roughly 15 minutes of engagement, the U.S. battleships alone fired 285 (16 or 14-inch) armor piercing shells. West Virginia expended near half of the armor piercing ammunition, firing 93 rounds from its eight 16-inch guns. The old battle wagons resurrected from Pearl Harbor had exacted their revenge on the Japanese navy.
Shima’s force arrived too late to assist Nishimura’s ships and quickly fled the scene. Some U.S. cruisers and destroyers pursued them, sinking another destroyer and causing fatal damage to Mogami. The Japanese thrust from the south had utterly failed, but the northern part of the pincer was still a major threat, although Adm. Halsey inexplicably ignored it. The consequences of this decision would be readily apparent when the sun came up east of Samar on October 25, 1944.