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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Oct. 23 to Oct. 25, 1944

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The year was 1944. The war in the Pacific had definitely turned against Imperial Japan.

On June 19 of that year, the outcome of the Battle of Philippine Sea cemented the US Navy’s supremacy in the Central Pacific. That naval battle, which was highlighted by what is now known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” effectively rendered the Japanese carrier fleet impotent.

The Japanese lost three of its five remaining fleet carriers and lost more than 600 aircraft. Another six ships were damaged.

The US fleet had only one battleship damaged and lost over a hundred aircraft.

The losses for the Japanese were catastrophic. At that point of the war, the Japanese could no longer replace its losses. And the US was launching more ships and other materiel for war every day.

FATEFUL DECISION

This event was a pivotal point that influenced which route the United States would take in defeating Japan. Would it be to hit the Japanese in Formosa (Taiwan) and bypass the Philippines? Or take the Philippines and use it as a springboard for further operations against Japan?

According to the Presidential Museum and Library website’s article on the matter, ”the goal of the Allied Forces was to cut the oil supply lines sustaining the Japanese fleet, which stretched from the Dutch oil fields in Sumatra, Indonesia, to the Philippines and on toward the north to Japan.”

“By attacking either the Philippines or Taiwan, the oil supply line, as well as communications, would be broken, crippling the Japanese Empire,” the article added.

The Formosa option was supported by Admiral Chester Nimitz while Gen. Douglas Macarthur was the prime advocate of attacking Japanese forces in the Philippines.

It was an intense debate.

Though it was conceded that Nimitz’s plan to head straight for Formosa was practical, Macarthur emphasized the political importance of liberating the Philippines “as early as possible.”.

He explained that liberating the Philippines, which was U.S. territory at that time, was a “national obligation” and a “political necessity” for the United States. Bypassing the Philippines would “destroy American honor and prestige,” Macarthur warned.

Macarthur won.

FALSE HOPE

For the next three months, US naval and land-based aircraft attacked Japanese installations in the Philippines.

A diary entry of Felipe Buencamino III dated Oct. 18, 1944 described one of those American attacks. This took place two days before the U.S. landings in Leyte. This was posted in the Facebook page “Philippine Diary Project.”

“I don’t know how many U.S. planes raided Manila today,” he wrote. “They looked plenty and I didn’t have time to count because AA (anti-aircraft) shrapnel started raining around our garden. By the drone and by the glimpse I had, I judged there were at least a hundred.”

“October 18 to this tramp means nothing but several hours in the air-raid shelter, Mama nervous about Vic who refused to take cover, Neneng praying the rosary, grandpop smoking a cigar, Dad going in and out of the shelter to take a look and then to hurriedly run in when the earth begins to shake, and the dog trying to squeeze into the shelter,” he added.

Buencamino also expressed the general sentiment of most Filipinos at that time.

“They were scared when the shrapnel started to rain but there’s no Filipino who isn’t willing to put up with a little suffering, a little hardship in order to see the Rising Sun torn down from the flagpole,” Buencamino wrote.

Yet he also acknowledged that there were Filipinos who thought the US would head straight for Formosa and defeat Japan, which was basically what Nimitz had pushed for. Buencamino described this course as “the easy way out.”

“The Americans will pulverize Japan so we can just be freed by agreement,” Buencamino wrote.

The poor Japanese response to the US airstrikes gave the Americans the impression that Tokyo’s forces in the Philippines were weak.

In reality, the Japanese had reinforced their strength in the Philippines to nearly half-a-million men. But the US had an ace card, namely overwhelming air and naval superiority and the capability to continuously supply its forces. The Japanese could only supply its forces erratically with the loss of much of its transport ships to US submarines.

Still, the Japanese didn’t give up.

JAPANESE RESPONSE

Since the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese had prepared a plan to deal with a US naval incursion in the Philippines. The Japanese response to the American action was to send in the entire surface strength of its fleet. Because of the heavy losses in naval aircraft in June, the Japanese carrier fleet would be used only as a decoy.

The goal of the Japanese was to win a “decisive battle” against the US and stop the US advance in its tracks. It was an all or nothing throw for the Imperial Japanese fleet because they believed that if the US won back the Philippines, the next target of the Americans would be the Japanese home islands.

So, when US forces landed in Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, the Japanese activated its grand plan to grab victory from impending defeat.

On Oct. 23, 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which historians described as the largest naval battle in history, began. The battle took place over a span of 150,000 square kilometers and involved nearly 400 naval vessels and at least 2,000 aircraft.

The Japanese deployed its naval force of 67 ships into three groups, the Center Force, the Southern Force and the Northern Force. Facing the Japanese were more than 300 ships of the US Navy.

The Northern Force consisted of the remnants of the Japanese carrier fleet. This was intended to lure the main US naval strike force away from the US Navy’s vulnerable transport fleet. This part of the Japanese plan succeeded.

The other two Japanese forces were composed of battleships and heavy cruisers, which also included the two largest battleships in the world, the Yamato and Mushashi. Their giant guns could pulverize any US warship afloat.

“The Battle of Leyte Gulf was composed of four separate engagements and was not just one single battle,” according to an article posted in the Presidential Museum and Library website.

These four were the Battle of Cape Engaño, which resulted in the destruction of the Japanese Northern Force; the Battle of Sibuyan Sea where the Mushasi was sunk by US naval aircraft; the Battle of Samar where the Japanese had the chance of destroying the US transport fleet that Macarthur’s army relied on; and the Battle of Surigao Strait, which featured a classic night engagement between US and Japanese battleships.

Fortunately for the Americans, the commander of one the Japanese surface groups tasked to enter Leyte Gulf hesitated just as the Japanese Northern Force had succeeded in luring away the bulk of the US fleet carriers and their escorting warships.

Historians point to this hesitation as a crucial factor in the overall battle. This, plus the near suicidal action taken by the remaining destroyers guarding the escort carriers and transports off Leyte, gave the Americans a decisive naval victory.

WHAT IF?

74 years after the Battle of Leyte Gulf took place, this question is still asked: “What if the Japanese had won the naval battle off Samar?”

This was a valid question because at that point, the Japanese did have the chance of hitting the US transport ships.

The only force standing in the way of the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers were a small number of small destroyers and escort carriers.

If the Japanese had succeeded in getting through this thin screen of defending US ships, most of the US transport ships would’ve likely sailed away and scattered. Only those transport ships whose skippers were slow to react to the approach of the Japanese ship would’ve been hit.

And that Japanese naval success would be temporary, at best.

The reality was that the Japanese fleet’s response came too late to stop the US landings, which took place on Oct. 20. The Japanese fleet arrived three days later.

That gave the US three days to land four US Army divisions and more than 80,000 troops in Leyte. These 80,000 American troops had more than enough supplies to sustain them for a month.

And the US also had also established several airstrips for hundreds of their land-based aircraft to operate from.

So even if one of the Japanese surface groups had succeeded in hitting the US transports in Leyte Gulf, by daybreak, US land-based airpower would’ve likely sunk those Japanese warships.

The US transport ships that were able to escape the Japanese attack would’ve returned to Leyte Gulf to continue the US operation. And any US naval losses would’ve been replaced while Japanese losses would be permanent.

The matter was so dire for the Japanese that by the time the US had reached the Japanese home islands in 1945, the Japanese navy no longer existed. G

 

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