Battle of Surigao Strait

Anthony P. Tully, Battle of Surigao Strait. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 329 pp, notes, maps, photos, appendices, and index.

Review by John T. Kuehn
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

On opening Anthony Tully’s new book Battle of Surigao Strait one might be forgiven for asking oneself, why should I read yet another book about the series of naval battles around Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in late October 1944? A number of recent works, which Tully brings to the reader’s attention in his prologue and elsewhere, have come out that have greatly updated our understanding of these engagements: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer (Bantam, 2004), H.P. Willmott’s The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Indiana University Press, 2005), and Milan Vego’s The Battle for Leyte, 1944 (Naval Institute Press, 2006). These are excellent books, but one only deals with the Battle off Samar (Hornfischer) while the other two raise questions that remain unanswered and are larger operational or campaign histories. Too, there remain ongoing myths about the southernmost of the extensive air and sea battles that occurred in the Sulu Sea, Mindanao Sea and the Surigao Strait which dumps into Leyte Gulf from the south.

Tully is the perfect historian to provide a revisionist account that updates our understanding of Surigao Strait , the last battle in naval history where dreadnought battleships slugged it out on the surface of the ocean with each other. Tully brings the same skill and dedication to this telling that he and co-author Jon Parshall (who provided his help with the maps and line diagrams in this effort) for the battle of Midway in Shattered Sword ( Potomac , 2005). In that effort Tully and Parshall, using Japanese sources and an unquenchable curiosity, undid almost 40 years of received wisdom that was essentially wrong about the U.S. Navy’s greatest battle. Here the reader gets both the Japanese and American perspectives on the battle to give one a very comprehensive understanding of what happened during this often confusing night surface action in the Surigao Strait . Of particular value, though is the detailed Japanese perspective. Tully puts his readers into the chart rooms and bridges with the Admirals, Captains and their staffs as well as providing a number of “eyewitness” vignettes and stories by the lower ranking sailors. This is all the more incredible given the paucity of Japanese survivors on these ships, especially the two battleships Fuso and Yamashiro.

Accordingly, most of the new “finds” in this book involve Tully’s sensitivity and care with these Japanese sources and perspectives. Often Japan ’s Sho-1, or “Victory 1,” plan is presented as a complete operation that naturally included three mutually supporting efforts—Admiral Ozawa’s carrier deception force in the north, Admiral Kurita’s powerful battleship and cruiser force as the main effort in the center, and then the southern forces under Vice Admirals Nishimura and Shima. Tully shows conclusively that both Nishimura’s and Shima’s forces were ad hoc afterthoughts to the main plan. Of particular value is Tully’s approach to Shoji Nishimura, who has often been cast by historians as an officer much like the Earl of Cardigan of the Light Brigade, advancing mindlessly up the nautical equivalent of the “valley of death” to his and the men under his command’s doom. Tully, to this reviewer’s mind, conclusively demonstrates a completely different explanation that only adds nuance, and even luster, to this long-castigated warrior’s reputation.

Tully goes one step further in retelling this battle by explicitly addressing the three most enigmatic “riddles” of the night battleship action in his first appendix. Often readers will skip these sorts of “extras,” but here the reader is advised to take the extra time to read Tully’s arguments and analyses—he or she will not be disappointed. Speaking of disappointment, the book has very few of them. At the beginning, because Tully is making a complex argument about the operational movements of both Shima’s and Nishimura’s forces, the book is a bit dry and lags. However, once the fighting begins the book achieves that rare thing for such a detailed work, it becomes a page turner.

There are editorial mistakes that occasionally detract from the narrative, for example on page 1 where Iwo Jima is confused for Okinawa . Also, the text uses both the Japanese as well as English format for the names of Japanese participants (e.g. Uehara Kouji versus Kouji Uehara) and this can confuse readers already struggling with the Japanese names. But these are minor and infrequent problems. Although the Americans are here, the bravery of the Japanese involved is well-documented and not necessarily un-thinking. Too, we learn that the Japanese ships, though outmatched, were very “well-fought” by their crews, especially Nishimura’s flagship the battleship Yamashiro. Tully does not dissipate the “fog and friction” of war as they affected this battle, but he makes things about as coherent as the evidence will let him. Battle of Surigao Strait is gripping naval history that is both exciting to read and adds new and valuable scholarship to our understanding of this iconic battle. Bravo Zulu, Mr. Tully.

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