Leyte Island, the Philippines October 20, 1944

On the same day (Japanese time) the forces of Imperial Japan struck Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a sur­prise assault on U.S. mili­tary instal­lations, they struck the Amer­ican terri­tory of the Philip­pines. On May 6, 1942, Japan swept the last Amer­ican garri­son from the archi­pel­ago by cap­turing Correg­i­dor Island, which guarded the Philip­pine capi­tal, Manila, now occupied by the Japa­nese. Con­trolling the Philip­pines was vital for Japan’s goal of becoming the geo­poli­tical power broker in South­east Asia. The Philip­pines com­manded the main sea routes to the resource-rich islands of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies by which impor­tant indus­trial raw mate­rials like rubber, tin, nickel, bauxite ore, coal, and unproc­essed and refined crude oil (the latter mineral embar­goed by the U.S., Great Britain, and the Nether­lands in July and August 1941), as well as foodstuffs like tea, sugar, rice, and cacao, were shipped to the Home Islands. Borneo, divided between British and Dutch juris­dictions, fell to the Japa­nese when Allied troops stationed there surren­dered in April 1942. Resis­tance in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) collapsed a month earlier.

Japan also moved south and east to invade Australian-adminis­tered Eastern New Guinea (the west­ern half of the island was part of Japa­nese-occupied Dutch East Indies). From late 1942 onward Aus­tra­lian and U.S. forces under four-star general Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander of the South­west Pacific Area, cam­paigned to clear the enemy from the entire island. Months before the arduous New Guinea Cam­paign ended—and that only upon Japan’s uncon­di­tional surren­der in August 1945—Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt and his mili­tary Joint Chiefs of Staff debated among them­selves on the best approach from which to strike the Japa­nese home­land: capturing For­mosa (Taiwan), the large island off the Chinese main­land, or retaking the Philip­pines. Mac­Arthur, who had escaped the Philip­pines eight weeks before Correg­i­dor fell, argued in favor of the Philip­pine route; so did most of the SWPA field com­manders. Admiral Ernest J. King, Com­mander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Opera­tions, argued in favor of For­mosa, which was 500 miles closer to Japan. On Septem­ber 9, 1944, it was settled: the less chancy Philip­pine route to the Japa­nese home­land was selected. The Joint Chiefs ordered Mac­Arthur to occupy Leyte, a central Philip­pine island located on the eastern side of the archi­pel­ago, with a target date of Decem­ber 20, a date which MacArthur himself had suggested but which was subsequently shifted forward by the same Joint Chiefs.

On this date, October 20, 1944, on a 25‑mile stretch of Leyte Island in the Philip­pines, an Allied attack fleet of 738 trans­port, escort, and landing ves­sels, supported by 18 air­craft carriers and 105 war­ships, put 160,000 U.S. troops ashore under the watch­ful eye of Mac­Arthur aboard the cruiser USS Nash­ville. In the after­noon, the general, wearing his cus­tom­ary field marshal’s cap, crisply starched khakis, and sun­glasses, waded ashore from a landing craft, approached a port­able radio trans­mitter, and spoke into the microphone: “People of the Philippines: I have returned!”

Invasion of Leyte Island, October 1944, Phase One in Retaking the Philippines

Invasion of Leyte Island, October 1944

Above: Preliminary operations for the Leyte invasion (code­named Opera­tion King-Two) began at dawn on Octo­ber 17, 1944, with mine-sweeping tasks and the move­ment of Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s U.S. Sixth Army toward three small islands in Leyte Gulf (right edge of map). At 10 a.m. on Octo­ber 20, following four hours of ferocious naval bom­bard­ment by battleships and cruisers, Sixth Army forces landed on their assigned beaches, and within an hour they had secured most beach­heads deep enough to receive heavy vehicles and supplies. By early after­noon the invasion beaches were secure enough for Mac­Arthur to make his dramatic entrance through the surf onto Palo Beach (Red Beach) just south of the provincial capital of Tacloban.

Amphibious forces off Leyte Island, October 20, 1944Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing on Leyte, October 20, 1944

Left: The large American transport and escort fleet approaches Leyte Island at dawn on A‑Day, Octo­ber 20, 1944. Within days the fleet and supply dumps ashore became the target of day and night enemy air raids, including those by bomb-laden kami­kaze aircraft. The battle for Leyte (Octo­ber 17 to Decem­ber 26, 1944), one of the larger but cer­tainly not most popu­lous or eco­nom­i­cally impor­tant islands in the Philip­pine archi­pel­ago, cost the U.S. just over 3,500 killed and 12,000 wounded. Japanese dead were roughly 49,000. The air and naval Battle of Leyte Gulf—the largest naval clash of the war in terms of engage­ment area and ton­nage of war­ships sunk—was fought off Leyte Island from Octo­ber 23 to 26, 1944. The Japanese Navy suffered a decisive defeat. A tidal wave of panic swept through the imperial govern­ment as minis­ters were forced to con­tem­plate the Philip­pines becoming a base for operations against the home islands.

Right: Making a dramatic entrance, MacArthur was captured in this iconic photo­graph by Gaetano Faillace, the general’s personal photo­grapher during the war. MacArthur was accom­panied by Philip­pine Presi­dent-in-exile Sergio Osmeña (left in pith hel­met) and Lt. Gen. Richard Suther­land, MacArthur’s chief of staff (to the general’s left) as the party splashed through knee-deep surf onto Red Beach, Octo­ber 20, 1944. Once on shore MacArthur spoke into a micro­phone, reading his short (2 minutes) prepared text with great emo­tion: “People of the Philip­pines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philip­pine soil—soil conse­crated in the blood of our two peoples. . . The hour of your redemption is here.”

MacArthur's Landing, sculpture by Anastacio Caedo

Above: MacArthur’s Landing by Anastacio Caedo (d. 1990) at MacArthur Landing Memo­rial National Park at Palo (Red) Beach over­looking Leyte Gulf. The double-life-sized bronze statues on a shallow man­made pool by one of the Philip­pines’ greatest sculp­tors was inau­gu­rated during the 37th anni­versary of A‑Day in 1981. The statues mark the spot where MacArthur ful­filled his 1942 promise of “I shall return” two years and six months after he was forced to flee the Philip­pines. The park is the site of the annual memo­rial rites and reenact­ment of the his­toric landing attended by local and foreign dignitaries together with war veterans and their families.

Contemporary Newsreel Account of MacArthur’s Landing on Leyte Island, Philippines, October 1944