A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group.
Admiral Halsey, commanding US 3rd Fleet, had decided that the time had come to give Kurita’s Centre Force a searching examination and had sent scout planes out at dawn on 24 October to try to find its whereabouts. It was not certain at this stage that Kurita was intent on reaching the invasion site and doing battle with the US 3rd Fleet. It was just as conceivable that he might be intent on making for Manila Bay to bring reinforcements for the IJA troops on the ground in southern Luzon. Despite the advantages of signals intelligence, the Americans didn’t know for certain where Kurita was headed but the mystery was soon solved when a lone scout plane from the carrier Intrepid made radar contact with these enemy ships at 0746 hours on 24 October. It located them a few minutes later and reported the find at 0810 hours as they were passing south of Mindoro and moving eastwards in the direction of the Sibuyan Sea. Such a route meant only one thing to Halsey. Manila was out of the reckoning and Leyte Gulf was the obvious intended destination. This would be reached by going through the San Bernardino Strait. He ordered all his three task groups to close up and signalled McCain to abandon his trip to Ulithi and rejoin the rest of the task groups in the Philippines. It would take a couple of days to do just that since by this stage McCain and his ships were already roughly 600nm (1111km) east of the Philippines. In their absence, Halsey ordered an all-out attack on the Centre Force. In all a total of 251 planes flew off from his carriers to the Sibuyan Sea in four waves to attack Kurita’s ships. A mix of forty-five Avengers, Hellcats and Helldivers were the first ones to leave the Cabot and the Intrepid at about 0910 hours and they were followed by another forty-two from the same carriers at 1045 hours. A third wave of sixty-eight planes left the Essex and the Lexington within minutes of the second wave getting airborne, while a final group of ninety-six planes from the Cabot, Enterprise, Franklin and Intrepid began their sortie at 1313 hours.
Locating Kurita’s fleet at 1026 hours, the first wave of American planes found the enemy ships sailing in a battle formation notable for the fact that they were divided into two quite separate groups some distance apart. Each of these groups operated on the basis of an inner and outer set of concentric circles. Kurita’s new flagship, the Yamato, lay at the heart of the leading group. She was surrounded by a circle of heavy ships consisting of the super-battleship Musashi, the battleship Nagato, along with the heavy cruisers Chokai, Haguro and Myoko – all of which were spearheaded by the light cruiser Noshiro. Each of these ships maintained a distance of 2km from the Yamato at all times. Beyond this ‘inner’ 2km diameter circle was an outer ring of seven destroyers which maintained their positions a further 1.5km away from the inner core. A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group. Kurita had devised this battle formation because he felt he needed better cover against the possibility of any heavy air attack launched by the Americans and trusted that the Japanese A.A. potential was as good in practice as it might be judged on paper. It wasn’t.
Although confusion reigns to this day about just what happened in these air strikes and who did what to whom, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the first strike succeeded initially in both torpedoing Myoko and knocking her out of the line and even more significantly obtaining both a bomb hit and torpedo strike against Musashi, one of the two behemoths in the Centre Force. Each wave thereafter targeted the super-battleship and more bombs and torpedoes struck home with devastating effect over the next few hours. At least thirty-two hits were recorded against her and she received eighteen near-misses before she finally sank at 1935 hours later that same day with the loss of 1,023 officers and crew. All the other battleships, including the Yamato, were bombed as well, but none of them received the treatment accorded to the Musashi, or were disabled even if they were hit. Four hours before Musashi sank, seeing his fleet worn away first by enemy submarines and then by Mitscher’s aircraft, Kurita had decided not to tempt fate any longer and to reverse course temporarily so as not to sail in daylight into the narrow confines of the San Bernardino Strait where his remaining warships could be subject to yet another deadly series of attacks. About an hour after Kurita turned round again and resumed his original course, he received an emphatic signal from Toyoda at 1815 hours that made it very clear where the Vice-Admiral’s duty lay. Attack was the only option and he was instructed to put his faith in divine assistance. Kurita knew what that meant. His presence in Leyte Gulf was essential regardless of what losses his Centre Force sustained in getting there. Abandoning his concentric circle formation, Kurita gathered his remaining ships into what Ugaki would later describe as a ‘compound column’ and pressed on towards his original destination.