Almost miraculously, IJN Admiral Kurita had achieved total surprise - on Carrier Task Forces, no less - albeit these composed of "Baby Flattops", of the USN 7th Fleet. His cruisers, knifing ahead of the main Strike Force, had also pounded into wreckage if not already sunk several American DDs and DEs, which had gallantly turned into the onslaught, launching torpedoes, laying protective smoke and hammering back with their 5-inch batteries, as best they could.
Likewise, the tiny "Jeep Carriers" were desperately flinging all serviceable aircraft from their decks - straight in to attack, with whatever ordnance happened already to have been loaded: mostly a depth-bomb or two per aircraft, from the dawn ASW sweeps:
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Kincaid famously said "In another 10 minutes I expected to be swimming". However those 10 minutes would not unfurl as expected - as Kurita's cruisers abruptly and inexplicably - miraculously - proceded to turn away, cease firing and rejoin the IJN Main Body moving off to the north, never to return.
Kurita's decision to breaking off the attack - indeed, to completely abandon the plan already achieving success far beyond anything he could realistically have expected - has in hindsight remained quite inexplicable - certainly tactically unjustifiable, under the circumstances.
Personally I think that, by the time of this engagement at Leyte Gulf, in their hearts the Japanese - and Kurita in particular - were simply sick of the war. It is clear that, at its core the Japanese Soul loves Beauty - obvious from the first glance at almost any aspect of traditional Japanese culture - and therefore Life and therefore Peace. Even all the Bushido/Samurai and other Militaristic/Fatalistic stuff, clearly just an attempt to make the ugly face of Death more bearable, in a cruel (and, indeed in the 20th Century, a truly insane) international world. Perhaps at that moment off Samar, Kurita had come to the conclusion that they had, on the whole, been too successful at it.
In any event, the historical explanations for Kurita's abrupt reversal - including his own, afterwards - have pointed to command confusion attributed to many factors, including misidentifying the adversary before him as being a far stronger one, comprising Fleet Carriers - with far more and higher-performing aircraft - accompanied by cruisers and battleships. Certainly, Kurita's forces were coming under increasing air attack, and beginning to sustain losses. He had also lost tactical control, as his warships alternately charged ahead or reversed their individual courses, busily and chaotically dodging the above torpedoes of the American DDs and DEs.
However one USN weapon, no doubt more than any other to have spooked Kurita that morning, was one which he could see everywhere - attacking all his heavy units at the same time - with engines snarling in a roar as the wind screamed over their wings, and machine guns hamnering: the above WildCats, most of them General Motors-built FM-2s. With somewhat fatter/stubbier/more rounded cowlings, the FM-2s were otherwise pretty much clones of the historic Grumman F4F WildCat.
To be continued...