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The Philippines (Leyte Gulf)
National Archives 111-SC-349595
General MacArthur and soldiers walk from LSTs through the water onto Leyte Island, Philippines, October 1944.
The Philippines (Leyte Gulf)
(20 October 1944-15 August 1945)
In July 1944, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at Pearl Harbor with his two Pacific Theater commanders, General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. MacArthur insisted that the next U.S. move in the Pacific be the liberation of the Philippine Islands. The islands were, he argued, U.S. territory, and he had vowed, "I shall return." Nimitz, supported by chief of naval operations Admiral Ernest P. King, argued in favor of an assault farther north, on Formosa. The former made political sense, the latter military sense. Either move would, however, have the same advantage of cutting off the Japanese home islands from the oil of the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Roosevelt decided to approve two operations: the first would be against the Philippines; it would shift the second - Nimitz's invasion - farther north, to Okinawa.

Recapture of the Philippines would allow the United States to cut Japanese access to oil from the Netherlands East Indies. It also would provide vital strategic bases for further Allied operations against Japanese forces to the north. The plan as approved called for MacArthur's forces to attack Mindanao, and those under Nimitz struck Yap. The two would then combine for an assault on Leyte. MacArthur's forces would next invade the big Philippine island of Luzon, after which Nimitz's forces would move against Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Unfortunately, there was no unity of command for the U.S. invasion of Leyte. Japanese commanders recognized the vital importance of the Philippines, and they were prepared to commit the bulk of their remaining naval assets to thwart a U.S. effort to recapture the islands. The U.S. invasion of Leyte in fact prompted the Battle of Leyte Gulf (23-26 October 1944), the largest naval battle in history.

The landings on Leyte began on 20 October; 132,000 men of Lieutenant General Walter Krueger's Sixth Army put ashore the first day. MacArthur landed with the third wave, accompanied by members of the Philippine government and press. Capable Japanese General Yamashita Tomoyuki, the conqueror of Malaya, had overall command of the defenders. Although some 350,000 Japanese army troops garrisoned the Philippine islands, only the 16th Division of16,000 men was on Leyte. The invaders had an accurate picture of Japanese strength and dispositions, thanks to Filipino guerrillas. Filipino support was a morale-booster for U.S. forces.

The Japanese did not fight for the beaches. They chose instead to contest the advance inland and away from naval gunfire. The U.S. drive was slowed by heavy rains, skillful Japanese delaying actions, and rugged terrain. Yamashita also reinforced Leyte with some 45,000 additional troops sent from Luzon and the Visayas. U.S. aircraft and ships gradually severed this supply line, and the U.S. 77th Infantry Division also went ashore on the west coast of Leyte. Organized Japanese resistance ended on 25 December. The United States had suffered 15,584 casualties; Japan's losses were more than 70,000. There were no survivors from the Japanese 16th Division, which had conducted the infamous Bataan Death March. On 15 December, the Americans seized the island of Mindoro in the northern Visayas, just south of Luzon, for use as an advance air base for the strike against Luzon.

Yamashita had 250,000 troops on Luzon, but an Allied deception caused him to withdraw most of them south toward Manila. Meanwhile, kamikaze pilots took a heavy toll on Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's gunfire-support group in Lingayen Gulf, sinking an escort carrier and damaging a battleship, an escort carrier, one heavy and four light cruisers, and other vessels. Nonetheless, on January 9, 1945, Krueger landed 68,000 men of his Sixth Army almost unopposed at Lingayen Gulf in northern Luzon. Then, when Yamashita had committed his forces to the northern threat, Lieutenant General Robert E. Eichelberger's Eighth Army landed in southern Luzon and struck north. Handicapped by shortages of equipment, transport, and air support, Yamashita organized his forces on Luzon into three main groups and settled in for a static defense.

Japanese Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji received Yamashita's order too late to withdraw from Manila and ordered his 17,000-man Manila Naval Defense Force to hold the capital to the last. The Battle for Manila lasted from 3 February to 4 March 1945 and saw the destruction of much of the city and an estimated 100,000 civilian casualties. Afterward, the United States held Yamashita responsible for Japanese atrocities committed in Manila and executed him as a war criminal. At least 16,655 Japanese were killed in the battle. Most of Luzon was secured by July.

With no hope of victory or rescue, most Japanese stoically fought on. With his force down to 50,000 men, Yamashita surrendered on 15 August. The U.S. campaign for the Philippines was skillfully fought with proportionally few U.S. casualties, an exception to the general rule in warfare that attackers generally suffer higher losses than defenders. The Battle for Luzon cost Japan some 205,535 killed and 9,050 captured. U.S. losses were 8,310 killed and 29,560 wounded.

Meanwhile, from February to August, Eichelberger's Eighth Army liberated the Visayas and southern Philippine Islands. Simultaneously, Australian troops took the remaining Japanese strongholds on New Guinea and in the Bismarcks and Solomon Islands.

James T. Carroll and Spencer C. Tucker

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Citations:

MacArthur, Douglas. Reminiscences. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War Two. Vol. 13, Liberation of the Philippines: Luzon, Mindanao, the Visayas, 1944-1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Smith, Robert Ross. The United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific: Triumph in the Philippines. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1963.

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Tucker, Dr. Spencer C.; Roberts, Dr. Priscilla Mary. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 2005).