** war and social upheaval: World War II Pacific Theater -- the Philippines liberation Leyte

Liberation of the Philippines: Leyte (October-December 1944)

World War II battle for Leyte
Figure 1.--This heart-wrenching photograph was taken a few days after Japanese resistance on Leyte was broken (January 10). The press caption read, "Filipino lads dig grave: Two Filipino lads, each 12 years old, dig a grave for a member of their family amid wooden crosses in a burial ground on Leyte Island in the Philippines. Source: U.S. Coiast Guard photographer.

The largest and most important island in the Philippines is Luzon. Leyte was, however, the most vulnerable to naval forces coming from the east. And with the Imperial Navy able to deploy powerful forces, Leyte was the logical first step. And it offered numerous sites for needed land based airfields, some which the Japanese had already built. U.S. Army rangers began the invasion of Leyte (October 17). As the U.S. Army invasion proceeded inland the soldiers were supported by the planes from Taffy 1, 2, and 3. A 2- day naval bombardment was followed by landings of the 6th Army under General Walter Krueger (October 20). MacArthur President Sergio Osme�a waded ashore with the main invasion force at Leyte Gulf only a few hours after the landings began. The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Japanese resisted, but could not match American fire power. The destriction of the Japaese fleet in the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf opened the way for the land campaign. The Armericans pushed the Japanese 35th Army out of Luzon's central valley and into Leyte's mountain backbone. Bitter fighting ensued as the Americans pushed the Japanese north. Further landings occurred at Ormoc, an important port (December 7, 1944). The kamikazes appeared in substantial numbers at Ormoc. The Japanese had prepared fortified positions supported with heavy artillery. Ormoc fell (December 10). The primary objective of assaulting Leyte from the beginning was was to provide a staging area and airfields for the much larger effort needed to liberate Luzon. It was on Luzon where most of the Japanese combat forces were positioned before the American invasion. Yamasjita had massed his forces there. The completion of major combat operations on Leyte gave the Americans their first foothold in the Philippines. Yamashita's decesion to heavily reinforce Leyte as the battle unfolded, delayed the American victory, but cost him half of his combat force. This left him unable to resist the American landings on Luzon in force.

American Strategy

American commanders after moving up the coast of New Guinea and seizing the Marianas pondered the next move in the long march to the Japanese Home Islands. South Pacofic commander MacArthur wanted to return to the Philippines. Central Pacific comnander Nimitz wanted to skip the Philippines and isolate the large garison there by attacking Formosa (Taiewan). They met in Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Baltimore to put the choice before President Roosevelt (July 1944). Isolating the Japanese on the Philippines made a great deal military sence, but the Philippines were American territory. And seizing the Philippines would deny the Japanese war economy the raw materials from the Southern Resource Zone. American submarines were destroying the Japanse merchanht marine. but wsith the Philippines in American hands the Home Islands woylkd be virtually cut off from the territories it had launched the War to conquer, leaving with virtually no sources of oil. MacArthur insisted thst returning to the Philippines not only made military sence, but was a moral obligation for the United States. The President decided with MacArthur to return to the Philippines. The largest and most important island in the Philippines is Luzon. Leyte was, however, the most vulnerable to naval forces coming from the east. And with the Imperial Navy able to deploy powerful forces from the west, Leyte was thus the logical first step.

Japanese Strategy

The Imperial Navy after the ferocios battles in the Solomoms had withdrawn from the South and Central Pacific to rebuild its carrier arm. Japanese commanders had hoped that strongly defended island garisons could hold off anphibious assaults. The U.S. Narines at Kwajaleen and Tarawa proved they could not. When the Imperal Fleet first engaged the Pacific Fleet in the Marianas, they found it was a very different naval force than they had first encountered in the early phase of the War. American carrier aircraft devestated the new Japanese carrier force in the Battle of the Philippinres Sea. Japanese surface units retired rather than face the Americans without ait cover. Japanese naval planners prepared a final battle plan to defend the Philippines. Here the Fleet would have the advantage of air cover from land bases. Before the warm naval commanders had gamed a massive, decisive fleet action. This wsould come in the waters off Leyte. General Yamashita position his ground forces primarily to defend Luzon, but preducted the Americans would strike first at Leyte. The Navy had tried to keep the extent of their defeats from both the Army and Japanese people. Yamashita by the time was increasingly aware of the geowing Amerivcan naval power and the inavility of the Naby to prevent American landings.

Carrier Strikes

Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet began carrier strikes on airfields and other positiins in the Philippines (September 1944). During the Palau and Morotai campaigns, American pilots destroyed an estimated 500 Japanese aircradt and 180 merchant ships of various sizes. Unlike the Americans, the Japanse did not convoy their merchant shipping (marus). The carrier strikes were wide ranging, hitting Japanese bases in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Formosa. The Imperial Fleet recovering from the disaster in the Philippines Sea did not oppose the 3rd Fleet. As a result of these strikes, the americans learned that the Japanese were not prepared to fefend Mindanao in force. As a result, thecdecesion was made to land in Leyte, which was closer to Luzon, rather than Mindanao.

Landings (October 20)

U.S. Army rangers began the invasion of Leyte (October 17). The US 6th Army under General Walter Krueger after three hours of naval bombardment began landings on beaches of the northern coast of Leyte Gulf--situated along the central coast of Leyte (October 20). The Japanese did not resist at the shoreline. Landing units quickly secured beachheads and began receive heavy vehicles massive supply deliveries. There would be no repeat of The Gudalcanal mistakes. X Corps in the north advanced on a 4-mile wide front between Tacloban airfield and the Palo River (October 20-23). XXIV Corps units further south landed across a 3-mile wide strand between San Jos� and the Daguitan River. Afvancing units there were hindered by swampy terrain. The 1st Cavalry Division took Tacloban, the provincial capital (October 21). General MacArthur with President Sergio Osme�a landed only a few hour afyrr the nain landings and announced that he had returned and the beginning of their liberation to the Filipino people. Until air fields were secured, the advancing infantry had to depend on olanes from esort carrier grouos (Taffy 1, 2, and 3. ). At this point Japanese naval forces reached the Philippines and the climatic naval engagement of the Pacific War--the Battle of Leyte Gulf commenced.

Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944)

Japanese naval commanders realized that without carriers and well-trained pilots, the Imperal Fleet could no longer win a fleet engagement with the U.S. Pacific Fleet. But it could not decline to oppose the American invasion. With Japanese soldiers fighting to the death in New Guinea and Pacific Islands, the Imperial Fleet with major assetts still existing could hardly refuse to oppose the Americans, no matter what the power inbalance. Thus the Japanese battle plan was not to engage and destroy the Pacigic fleet, it was to break through the American naval screen and into Leyte Gulf where American troop transports and cargo vessels could be destroyed. The idea was to spill as much Amedrican blood as possible. Japanese nval commanders realized tht Japan could no longer win the War. The only hope of saving Japan was to make the war so costly that the Americans would not pursue it to the conclusion of invading the Home Islands. The Battle of Leyte Gulf proved to be the greatest battle in the history of naval warfare. The subsequent destriction of the Japanese fleet in the Battle not only opened the way for the land campaign, but meant that the Pacific Fleet would not favce serious naval opposition in the last phase of the Pacific War.

Battle for Leyte

Thanks to the dogged resistance of outgunned American destroyers and escort carriers, the Japanese battleships and cruisers did not break through to disrupt the Leyte landings. What followed was the decisive ground battle of the Pacific War. Unlike most Pacific island battles, it was not just the Japanese digging in and waiting for the American advance. The Japanese fought a three-dimensonal battle. They launched a major counter offenive aimed at redicing the American bridgehead and capturing General MacArthur. The Japanese even committed paratroopers. And unlike Guadalcanal, the Japanese had not only substantial and well-armed forces in play, but the full might of the Imperial Fleet would be committed. It would also be the last air battles before the Japanese turned to full scale Kamakazee tactics. Despite the importance of the battle for Leyte, it is surely the least covered of the important Pacific island battles. One author writes, "The land campaign for Leyte involved more than two hundred thousand American soldiers, far more than the number of sailors and Marines who fought the thee-day Battle of Leyte Gulf. These soldiers, many of whom spent the entire four months deep in hevy jungles, fighting in spite of typhoons and the rainy season, basically destroyed the fabric of the planned Japanese defense of the entire Philippines. For the Japanese High Commnd had decided, albeit late, that rather than fight the decisive battle for the Philippines on Luzon, it woud be fought on Leyte." [Prefer] The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Battle of Leyte was fought for more than 2 months. The fighting over rugged terraine was vicious and the Japanese resisted the American advance. The terraine precented the Army from bringing its firepower fully to bear. American air power could, however, hammer the most remote Japanese position. Navy F6F Hellcats and P-51 fighters from land air fields played a major role in the fighting. The Japanese soldiers refused to surrender and were well dug into hillside positions defended by pill boxes and casemates as well as natural caves. The climax of the battle occurred with the ferrocious fighting at Break Neck Ridge and nearby Kilay Ridges (early November). The battle was initiated by by the U.S. Army 21st Infantry Division. Japanese resistance from carefully prepared defensive positions was determined if not fanatical. The Japanese in the end could not match American fire power. The battle was joined by the 1st Cavalry Division and the 32nd Infantry Division. Japanese units in the area was destroyed (December 14). The Americans thus pushed the Japanese 35th Army out of Leyte's central valley and into the islands mountain backbone. Bitter fighting ensued as the Americans pushed the Japanese north. Further landings occurred at Ormoc, an important port (December 7). After breaking through at Break Neck Ridge and Kilay Ridges the advancing American units met less organized Japanese resistance as they moved north. The 1st Cavalry Division reached the coast (December 28). The 24th Division reduced thd the last Japanese positions from the northwest corner of Leyte on (December 28). They then met 32nd Division patrols (December 30). Scattered resistance continued another day (December 31). It is at this time that the fighting shifted to Luzon, but because of the Japanese effort on Leyte, the defense of Luzon would be essentilly proforma. The Japanese would never again attempt to slug it out with the Americans. From now on thy would continue the war from fortified bunkers in an effort to bleed the Americans as much as possible.


It was in the Philippines campaign that the Kamakazes first appeared, although still in relatively small numbers. General Kimpai Teraoki commanded Japanese air forces in the Philippines. He rejcted Onishi's plan and refused permission to form Kamaikaze units to oppose the American invasion. He was apauled of the idea of using youth so recklessly. When the Imperal Fleet and conventional air attacks failed to halt the American landings on the Philippines, younger Japanese air commanders demanded more unconventional tactics including Kamakaze suiside attacks. HMAS Australia, the flag ship of the Royal Australian Navy, was the first Allied warship to be struck by a kamikaze pilot (October 21). A Kamikaze hit Australia again and the ship was forced to retire to the New Hebrides for repairs (October 25). On the same day a squafin of five Zeros from the 26th Air Flotila staged an unauthorize Kamikaze attack on the U.S. escort carrier St. Lo. One of the Zeros penrtrayted the fighter cover anf hit the carrier. Fires spread to the ship's bomb magazine which exploded and sank the ship. The results elecrtified the Japanese Navy. Japanese Kamakaze pilots also hit everal other Allied ships, casuing extensive damage. Kamikaze pilots in the Philippines sank 16 American ships. After the defeat of the Imperal Fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the advance of American forces on Leyte, the Japanese intensified the Kamakaze attacks, but were limited by the dwinling Japanese air craft strength. The kamikazes appeared in substantial numbers at Ormoc (December 1944). After that, the American infantry overran the air bases on on Leyte and Luzon from which Kamikaze attacks could be launched in the Philippines. The Japanese had prepared fortified positions supported with heavy artillery. Ormoc fell (December 10). The initial Japanese successes in the Philippines resulted in an immediate expansion of the program. The increasingly desperate High Command changes its opinion. Teraoki was dismissed and replaced by Onishi.


The Americans began the libertion of the Philippines by invading Leyte. The primary pirpose was to obtain air fields needed to support the Luzon landings at Lingayen Gulf. Fom the beginning, Luzon and Manila were the primary American tagets. It soon becme apparent, however, that the airfields planned on Leyte coild not be built as quickly as anticipated. And the existing Japanese airfields neded to be improved to meet Air Force needs. Most of the areas on Leyte targetted areas thought to be ideal for airfield and road development, especially those in the southern Leyte Valley, proved too wet to for the use of heavy equipment and rapid construction. Thus Mindoro became a part of the drive on Luzon.


The primary objective of assaulting Leyte from the beginning was was to provide a staging area for the much larger effort needed to liberate Luzon. Luzon was the most important island of the Philippines. It was on Luzon where most of the Japanese combat forces were positioned. The completion of major combat operations on Leyte gave the Americans their first foothold in the Philippines. American air field established on Leyte could carry out attacks on Japanrse enemy bases throughout the archipelago. This the American landing on Luzon could be supported by not only Navy carriers, but Air Force aircraft as well. The Luzon landings began at Gulf (January 9, 1945). The belted Japanese decision to fight the major battle for the Philippines on Leyte weakened their ability to defend Luzon. As a result, the Americans landing at Lingayen were not resisted. The Japanese defense, except for Manila would be proforma. Yamashita would fight delaying action and withdraw hisforces into the mounaneous north of centrl Luzon where he would last out the War.

Japanese Resistance

General Yamashita, commanding the 14th Area Army, notified General Suzuki, the 35th Army commander, that he had concluded that the Leyte Campaign had been lost (December 25). Yamashita expecting an American invasion of Luzon saw he would have to husband his limited respources for the more important defense of Luzon. He informed Suzuki that he could no longer support further operations. Suzuki was told that his 35th Army would have to be self sustaining and self-supporting. Mobil Units on Leyte would be transferred to Luzon and other areas. Suzuki was ordered to assemble his forces in remote areas from which raiding parties could harass the American advance. Suzuki wanted clarification, but found it difficult to communicate with Yamashita's hreadquaters. He disparched his chief of staff by way of Cebu to Manila for obtain clarification (late January). By that time, Yamashita had evcuated Manila and the Americans were closing in on the city, so he was unable to contact Yamashita for more detailed instructions.


Prefer, Nathan N. Leyte 1944: The Soldier's Battle (2012), 336p.


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Created: 3:54 AM 6/11/2010
Last updated: 11:22 AM 10/18/2015