Off the Coast of Leyte Island, the Philippines Octo­ber 23, 1944

Allied campaigns from August 1942 to early 1944 had driven Japa­nese forces from many of their South and Central Pacific island bases, while iso­lating many of their other bases in the same area. The Allies by­passed a few Japa­nese bases like Rota in the Marianas as they muscled their way past Japan’s so-called “abso­lute defense peri­meter,” that coun­try’s chain of front­line land, air, and naval bases in the Pacific. They chose instead to capture neigh­boring Saipan, Guam, and Tinian islands. How­ever, the consid­er­able air power Japan had amassed in the Philip­pines, a U.S. terri­tory that had fallen to the enemy when the last Amer­i­can garri­son was over­powered in May 1942, was thought to be too dan­ger­ous to bypass en route to attacking the Japa­nese home­land. In a series of exchanges between Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Allied Supreme Com­mander, South­west Pacific Area, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washing­ton, D.C., in August and Septem­ber 1944, the Philip­pines was identified as the next stra­tegic target. It was decided that Mac­Arthur’s triad force, con­sisting of the U.S. Sixth Army, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and the U.S. Fifth Air Force, would invade the island of Leyte (see map below) and ful­fill the general’s 1942 promise to return to Philippine soil.

On October 20, 1944, an Allied fleet of more than 730 trans­port, supply, and escort ves­sels, supported by air­craft carriers and 100 war­ships, disgorged 160,000 U.S. troops onto Leyte Island. Three days later on this date, Octo­ber 23, 1944, and over the next several days, air and naval forces of the Imperial Japa­nese Navy counter­attacked in the do-or-die-trying Battle of Leyte Gulf, which actually con­sisted of four separate engage­ments by four Japa­nese fleets: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea (Octo­ber 23–24), the Battle of Surigao Strait and the Battle off Samar (Octo­ber 25), and the Battle of Cape Engaño (Octo­ber 25–26). Separated by great distances, these indi­vid­ual battles are counted together by virtue of their all being caused by the IJN’s Oper­a­tion Sho-Go (Victory). The Battle of Leyte Gulf is notable on multi­ple counts: it was the largest naval battle of World War II in terms of engage­ment area and ton­nage (342,310) sunk; it was the last naval battle between battle­ships in history (Battle of Surigao Strait); and it was the first naval battle in which Japanese air­craft success­fully carried out organized kamikaze attacks (Battle off Samar).

In three days the Japanese Navy suffered its greatest loss of ships and crew ever—26 out of 60 front­line war­ships. The Amer­i­cans had 8 fleet carriers, the same number of light carriers, 18 escort carriers, and 1,500 carrier planes. These were arrayed against three Japa­nese light carriers and a single fleet carrier, the veteran Zuikaku, the only sur­viving carrier from the six that had attacked Pearl Harbor on Decem­ber 7, 1941. The U.S. lost escort carriers Gambier Bay and St. Lo and the light carrier Princeton. Amer­i­can casual­ties were about 3,000 dead and wounded to about 12,500 dead Japa­nese sailors and aviators. Of nine Japa­nese battle­ships, three were sunk, with a loss of no American battleship.

The IJN’s failure to dislodge the Allied invaders from their Leyte beach­heads pre­saged the inev­i­table loss of the Philip­pines. The loss of the Philip­pines in turn meant that resource-poor Japan would be all but cut off from the Pacific and South­east Asian terri­tories still in Japa­nese hands. Those over­seas terri­tories had been using a wide variety of mari­time vessels, dimin­ished month by month by Allied sub­marine attacks, to deliver resources (oil, rubber, tin, bauxite ore, and food­stuffs) vital to Japan’s war­time eco­nomy and its over­seas garri­sons. Losing the Philip­pines spelled finis for the Empire of Japan.

The Philippines and the Chief Players in the Battle of Leyte Gulf

Map of the Philippines

Above: Map of the Philippines showing the loca­tion of Leyte Island and Leyte Gulf, which are on the eastern side of the Philip­pine archi­pel­ago and close to its middle. Sharing Leyte Gulf is Samar Island, off which one of four naval engage­ments in the three-day Battle of Leyte Gulf took place (on Octo­ber 25, 1944). The Sibuyan Sea is to the east of Min­doro Island, where a U.S. air attack occurred (Octo­ber 24). The Surigao Strait is in the very south of Leyte Gulf (Octo­ber 25) and Cape Engaño is the thumb­like penin­sula at the northern end of the large island of Luzon (Octo­ber 25–26). Note the location of the San Bernardino Strait north of Samar Island.

Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, 1882–1959Vice Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa, 1886–1966

Left: Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey (1882–1959) commanded the U.S. Third Fleet in June 1944 for the advance on the Japa­nese-held Philip­pines. While pro­viding more distant cover and support for the inva­sion of Leyte Island than Adm. Thomas Kin­kaid’s close-in Seventh Fleet, Halsey fell for Japa­nese Vice Adm. Jisa­burō Ozawa’s ruse and led his 64‑ship fleet north­ward after 17 decoy ships. This left both the eastern end of the San Ber­nar­dino Strait unguarded to in-and-out pas­sage (which in fact occurred) and Mac­Arthur’s inva­sion forces on Leyte’s beaches vul­ner­able to an attack by other Japa­nese naval forces approaching from the west. In spite of the clear danger his absence posed to the suc­cess of Mac­Arthur’s enter­prise, Halsey succeeded in destroying the rem­nants of Japan’s naval air power by sinking all four of Ozawa’s car­riers (con­taining a paltry 100 or so air­craft) in the Philip­pine Sea before disengaging from battle (Battle of Cape Engaño) and reversing course.

Right: Vice Adm. Jisaburō Ozawa (1886–1966) was respon­sible for Japa­nese naval oper­a­tions in the South China Sea and was the last com­mander of what little remained of the Com­bined Fleet, which Halsey’s Third Fleet had ear­lier deci­mated in the Battle of the Philip­pine Sea (aka Great Marianas Turkey Shoot) in June 1944. At the Battle of Cape Engaño (Octo­ber 25–26, 1944), Ozawa, who commanded the IJN’s Main Force (Northern Force) came the closest of any Japanese commander to inflicting a reverse on the U.S. Pacific Fleet by his diversionary ruse.

History Channel: The Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23–26, 1944)