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Leyte

Relief map of Leyte

Leyte is a large island in the eastern Philippines, 115 miles (185 km) long and 45 miles (72 km) wide and with a total area of 2,785 square miles (7213 square kilometers). It was discovered by Magellan in March 1521. Legaspi, founder of Manila, visited frequently during the 1560s and most of the inhabitants were converted to Catholicism. The population burgeoned under American rule and was about 915,000 by 1939.

Leyte Valley, in the northeast of the island, was a rice and corn belt. The regional capital, Tacloban, is located here. The beaches off Tacloban were highly suitable for landing operations, with tides of just two or three feet, but the ground inland proved too boggy for rapid airfield development. It did not help the American invasion in October 1944 that the monsoon reached its peak in the autumn months.  Coastal roads and a single road through the mountains south of Leyte Valley connected Tacloban with Ormoc, located on the north of Ormoc Bay on the west side of the island.

Leyte was selected as the initial target for the American reconquest of the Philippines, bypassing Mindanao. The Japanese fleet sortied in response to the invasion, leading to the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Leyte Campaign

MacArthur's original plan for retaking the Philippines was to invade Mindanao at Sarangani Bay on 25 October 1944 to secure airfields from which to cover the invasion of Leyte on 15 November. However, Halsey encountered so little air opposition during his strikes in the area in mid-September 1944 that he proposed Mindanao be bypassed and Leyte seized with naval air cover alone. This suggestion was adopted at the OCTAGON conference on 15 September 1944, and the invasion date for Leyte was set for 20 October 1944. This required that Wilkinson's amphibious force, carrying XXIV Corps, be diverted to Leyte rather than assaulting Yap, and there was not even time to reload the cargo or switch landing craft to types more suitable for Leyte.

Command arrangements for the campaign were muddled, as the Philippines lay close to the theater boundaries for the Southwest Pacific Area, Pacific Ocean Areas, and China-Burma-India. Although MacArthur commanded Krueger's 6 Army and Kinkaid's 7 Fleet, the operation was so large that it required the loan of Wilkinson's force from Pacific Fleet, which was commanded by Nimitz. Distant cover was provided by the fast carriers of 3 Fleet, also under Pacific Fleet, and air support was divided between China-Burma-India, Southwest Pacific, and Pacific Ocean Areas. Thus important elements of the operation were commanded by separate theater commanders directly responsible to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This confused and divided command arrangement would have important consequences during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In particular, Halsey was under orders to make the destruction of the Japanese Fleet, not the protection of the amphibious forces, his highest priority.

Preliminaries. On 9 October 1944, the Allies attempted to deceive the Japanese on their next move by raiding Marcus Island, to suggest a climb up the Bonins ladder. This was followed by a raid by the British on the Nicobar Islands to suggest a move against Malaya or the Netherlands East Indies. Neither deception effort had the least effect on the Japanese, to whom it was obvious that the Philippines were the next target.

From 10 to 14 October 1944, Halsey conducted a series of strikes against Okinawa and Formosa to interdict Japanese air reinforcements to the Philippines. The strikes against Okinawa destroyed perhaps 111 Japanese aircraft at the cost of 21 American aircraft and nine aircrew. In addition, four Japanese cargo ships, twelve torpedo boats, and several other auxiliaries were sunk. The strikes against Formosa begining the next day caught Japanese Combined Fleet commander Toyoda on Formosa, and his chief of staff, Kusaka, immediately ordered preliminary preparations to execute Sho. He also ordered the air groups from the remaining Japanese carriers to deploy to Formosa. As a result, these air groups were savaged and their carriers rendered toothless for the upcoming naval battle.

Halsey's strikes destroyed between 550 and 600 Japanese aircraft and sank about 40 merchant ships at the cost of 78 Allied aircraft. The large aircraft maintenance facility at Okayama was heavily bombed by Superfortresses of 20 Air Force, while medium and heavy bombers from 14 Air Force struck Hong Kong. However, the Japanese managed to slip eight torpedo bombers past the American fleet defenses at sunset on 13 October 1944 and badly damage heavy cruiser Canberra, flooding both engine rooms. Rather than scuttle the ship, Halsey decided to tow the cripple to safety while conducting an additional unscheduled strike against Formosa. That night, another Japanese dusk raid put a torpedo into light cruiser Houston, flooding all engineering spaces. Again, Halsey chose to tow the cripple to safety rather than scuttle. The two ships were joined by escorts and organized into "CripDiv1" for their long tow to Ulithi. The Japanese sent several strikes against the cripples, inflicting very light damage from a bomb hit on carrier Franklin and scoring another torpedo hit on Houston. This nearly finished the cruiser, but excellent damage control saved the ship.

At this point, based on Japanese radio broadcasts claiming a great naval victory off Formosa, Halsey decided to use the cripples as bait to ambush any sortie by the main strength of the Japanese Navy. Thus they became "BaitDiv1", a play on BatDiv1. However, the Japanese sent out only a small force of cruisers and destroyers to "mop up" the "shattered" U.S. Fleet, and its commander, Shima, sensed a trap and withdrew before his force could be ambushed.

Filipino guerrillas were active on the island of Leyte, and had been in touch with MacArthur's headquarters since 1942. Charles Parsons, a Navy reservist who had gotten out of the Philippines under diplomatic cover, had made a number of visits by submarine to the guerrillas and made a final trip by PBY on 10 October to warn the guerrillas of the impending invasion. The guerrillas were able to warn local residents and, as a result, it was later claimed that not a single Filipino civilian was killed in the preinvasion bombardment.

The Landings. The first landings took place on the morning of 17 October 1944 on the Dinagat Islands around the mouth of Leyte Gulf. These were carried out by Army Rangers to destroy radar installations on the islands and prepare the way for the main landings. At the same time, minesweepers began sweeping the approaches to Leyte.

The main landings on Leyte commenced at 10000 on 20 October 1944. A daylight approach was chosen to ensure that the amphibious groups could safely navigate the swept channel. The troops were from 1 Cavalry Division and 24 Division of Sibert's X Corps and 7 and 96 Divisions from Hodge's XXIV Corps, with overall command resting with Krueger's 6 Army. The landing craft suffered some casualties from mortar fire, but otherwise there was little opposition on the beaches, as the defending 16 Division quickly retreated to prepared positions inland. The Americans were able to seize Tacloban airfield that afternoon. However, this turned out to be a miserable, muddy strip of limited military usefulness.

The Japanese Navy activated the Sho operation as soon as the landings on the Dinagat Islands began. The resulting Battle of Leyte Gulf (23-25 October 1944) was the largest naval battle in history and ended in a decisive American victory.

The Japanese plan called for a rearguard action on hills overlooking the beaches, with the main resistance along the mountainous spine of the island. This was originally planned as a delaying action involving only 16 Division, with the decisive battle for the Philippines to be fought on Luzon. However, Yamashita would not be permitted to fight the battle for the Philippines the way he wished.

Securing the Island. The American advance was soon reduced a crawl in the mountainous spine of Leyte, and the battle became protracted as Japanese reinforcements were brought in to Ormoc, on the west coast of the island, in destroyer runs reminiscent of the Guadalcanal campaign. Yamashita would have preferred to abandon Leyte and concentrate his forces on Luzon, but his superior, Field Marshal Terauchi, insisted that Leyte be defended to the last. By 1 November 30 and 102 Divisions had joined 16 Division on Leyte. These three divisions came under the command of 35 Army (Suzuki). Eventually 1, 8, and 28 Divisions would also be committed to the struggle. The Americans in turn brought in 11 Airborne Division (Swing) on 18 November, whose 511 Parachute Regiment was soon spearheading the attack across the mountainous spine of Leyte, fighting as elite infantry.

A force of 300 Japanese paratroops (Katori Shimpei) raided the Allied-controlled airfields in northeast Leyte on the evening of 6 December 1944. The Japanese succeeded in destroying a number of aircraft, but were driven from the airfields the next morning by a scratch force built around 127 Parachute Engineer Battalion and 674 Parachute Artillery Battalion from 11 Airborne Division, whose headquarters was located just east of San Pablo airstrip. The next day, these were joined by 187 Glider Regiment to complete the mopping up of the remaining Japanese. Search of the dead Japanese discovered English phrase books with phrases ranging from "Go to hell, beast" to the memorably clumsy "I am chief commander on Japanese descent paratrooper army. All the airdrome of ___ has been taken tonight by the Japanese Army. It is resistless, so you must surrender. Answer yes or no. All the Japanese Army has done great attack" (Devlin 1979).

The inability of Army engineers to rapidly improve the airfields in the Tacloban area prevented the Americans from being able to effectively interdict the reinforcement convoys to Ormoc. It was some time before enough land-based aircraft could be operated to ensure control of the air, and Navy carriers could not operate continuously off Leyte for weeks on end. However, the Americans continued to slowly tighten the noose around Leyte. On 11 November 1944, carrier strikes sank four destroyers, a minesweeper, and five transports along with 10,000 troops from a Japanese reinforcement convoy. This disaster ended Japanese efforts to convoy major reinforcements to Leyte, but the troops already on the island continued to resist strongly, even mounting a series of counterattacks beginning on 26 November. Smaller groups of reinforcements continued to come ashore until 19 December.

Faced with a stalemate ashore, the Americans tried an amphibious end-run on 7 December, landing 77 Division just south of Ormoc. The Japanese were caught off-balance and Ormoc was taken on 10 December. Elements of the division made a second successful end-run on 25 December. By this time, Yamashita had informed Suzuki that he was on his own and no transports were available to evacuate his forces.

The island was finally secured on 31 December 1944. Japanese casualties were 65,000 dead and about 5,000 taken prisoner. The Americans had 15,000 dead and wounded. The conduct of the battle pointed to serious weaknesses in 6 Army, from its highest commanders to the riflemen at the front. All too often, American units took cover at the first sign of enemy fire and reported themselves pinned down. However, by choosing to fight on Leyte, Terauchi had seriously weakened the defense of Luzon.

Postwar, during the trial of Yamashita for war crimes committed in the Philippines, the prosecution presented evidence that some 300 Filipinos were massacred on Ponson Island, in the mouth of Ormoc Bay, during the Leyte campaign.

References

Devlin (1979)

Hastings (2007)

Marston (2005)

Milwaukee Sentinel (1945-11-12; accessed 2012-12-27)
Morison (1958)

Rottman (2002)

Straus (2003)



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