Today, October 20, marks the 70th anniversary of MacArthur’s landing in Leyte. The Battle of Leyte was the start of a US land offensive to recapture the Philippines and to end the 3-year Japanese occupation.
US Forces landed at three points in Leyte.The most publicized of these landings took place in Red Beach, in Palo. After hours of continuous bombardment of Japanese positions, MacArthur waded ashore. Among the landing party were President Sergio Osmeña and General Carlos P. Romulo.
It was on Red Beach where MacArther announced: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”
On A-Day, Japanese resistance was relatively light and elements of the US 6th Army were able to advance 6 miles. But as US soldiers moved farther inland, they met with heavy resistance from reinforced Japanese troops.
US troops had to overcome “fanatical but futile resistance from Japanese, fighting out of spider holes, who placed stachel charges on the hulls of American tanks.”
“Using flame throwers, hand grenades, rifles, and bayonets, US troops scratched out daily advances measured in yards…. and in five days of fighting US troops advanced less than a mile.”
It took the US troops until around New Year’s Eve of 1944 – or more than two months – to completely retake Leyte.
As this happened, another very important battle (or battles) took place at sea between October 23 and October 26, 1944. The Battle of Leyte Gulf actually consisted of several naval and aerial engagements over a wide area. Heavy fighting took place in Palawan Passage, the Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, off Cape Engano, and off Samar.
The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) threw in everything it got in a desperate attempt to prevent or at least slow down MacArthur by attempting to destroy the US ships that had participated in the Leyte landing.
The Japanese realized that if they lost Leyte, they would inevitably lose the Philippines. Japan would then lose control of the vital sea lanes that connected the Japanese mainland to its sources of war materials.
The IJN sent into battle 3 naval groups consisting of a Central Force, a Southern Force, and a Northern Force. Aside from their carrier-based planes, the IJN also had the support of land-based aircraft from Luzon.
The Central Force was to attack Leyte via Sibuyan thence through San Bernardino Strait. The Southern Force was to come in via Surigao Strait. The Northern Force was to serve as decoy to draw the US 7th Fleet up north away from the battle area, leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded.
Facing the IJN were the US Third Fleet (which, a few days earlier, offloaded MacArthur’s forces in the beaches of Leyte) and the US Seventh Fleet.
I sought the insights of Congressman Roy Golez, who, as a young naval cadet in Annapolis, closely studied and analyzed the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Golez graduated with the USNA Class of 1970. He left the Navy early but reached the rank of Navy Captain in record time of less than 14 years from graduation. A younger brother Ferdinand, PMA Class of 1976, served as Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy during the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Golez described the Battle of Leyte Gulf “as the greatest battle in naval history in terms of number of admirals engaged in battle, number, types, and firepower of the warships and aircraft involved, naval strategy and tactics employed, number of personnel in harms way, and the vastness of the geography traversed by the men of war that did battle.
“The biggest aircraft carriers of that era were there. Hundreds of aircraft attacked again and again. One fleet ‘crossed the T’ of another fleet with deadly results.
“One of the two largest battleships in human history was sunk.
“One admiral (Japanese) sortied unflinchingly to his sure death while another admiral (Japanese) executed a brilliant maneuver and was just minutes away from reaching and destroying MacArthur’s landing force but flinched and retreated at the last moment. (Parentheses supplied.)
“And another admiral (US) , hailed as one of the greatest admirals of the war at that point, took the bait of another brilliant admiral (Japanese), resulting in loss of ships and men. (Parentheses supplied.)
“And finally it was here where several battleships sunk in Pearl Harbor, later re-floated, took their revenge.”
Golez also noted that “it was an epic battle that has been written in numerous books, some very recent in spite of the decades that passed. The Battle consisted of several sub-battles each of which can be and has been the subject of a good naval history book: Palawan Passage; the Sibuyan Sea; Surigao Strait; Sea off Samar; Cape Engaño.”
Golez summed up: “Naval historians and analysts are unanimous in saying that this kind of battle, using similar doctrines, strategy, and tactics will never happen again since the machines and ways of war have radically changed. But it will remain engraved in the annals of history for naval strategists to study and replay with awe.”
If I may must add this little footnote to Golez’s assessment, it was also in the Battle of Leyte Gulf that the Japanese forces first used Kamikaze tactics with devastating results.
On October 25,1944, the Kamikaze Special Attack Force carried out its first mission. One of the US casualties was the carrier USS St. Lo. A Kamikaze pilot plowed into its flight deck, causing fires that resulted in the bomb magazine exploding, sinking the carrier. In two days, the Kamikazes inflicted varying degrees of damage on seven US carriers and 40 other ships.
Despite the Japanese heroics, however, the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended disastrously for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Japanese lost 26 front-line warships (against the US Navy’s loss of 6 front-line warships). Japanese losses included the Mushashi, one of the two biggest battleships built in WWII.
In the air, the results were just as lopsided. Carrier-based US planes outgunned the Japanese almost 10 to 1.
What was left of the Japanese fleet limped home to Japan or nearby bases for repairs. After the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased to function as an effective fighting force.
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