Tacloban, Leyte Island, Philippines December 30, 1944

The island of Leyte, the first island in the Philip­pine archi­pel­ago captured by returning GIs, was securely in U.S. hands by this date in 1944. It only remained for Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­mander of the South­west Pacific Area, to announce the end of organized Japanese unit resistance, which he did the next day.

Leyte was neither the Philippines’ most popu­lous island (at 900,000 people) nor its most econo­mically impor­tant—that distinc­tion belonged to Luzon, the site of the Philip­pine capital, Manila, over 600 miles to the north. What attracted the army com­mander to Leyte was its deep-water approaches on the east side and its sandy beaches, which offered oppor­tu­ni­ties for amphib­i­ous assaults and close-in resupply opera­tions. On Octo­ber 20, 1944, following four hours of ferocious U.S. naval bom­bard­ment, Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army forces stormed their assigned beaches. Early that after­noon Gen. Mac­Arthur waded through the surf just south of Taclo­ban, Leyte’s capital and largest city (see map), to speak into the micro­phone of a port­a­ble radio trans­mitter and say, “People of the Philippines: I have returned!”

At the time of the Leyte invasion the Japa­nese occu­pa­tion army numbered 20,000. As Krueger’s soldiers (even­tu­ally 200,000), assisted by 3,000 Fili­pino guer­ril­las, pushed inland from the east, beating back the foe, the Japa­nese responded by landing around 34,000 troops and over 10,000 tons of materiel on the west side of the island between Novem­ber 8 and Decem­ber 3 in the absence of domi­nant U.S. air and naval power in that area. Ormoc City at the head of Ormoc Bay was the island’s main port and the main desti­na­tion of Japa­nese rein­force­ment and resupply con­voys. (Ormoc lies in the center of the map below.) A series of fierce air and naval battles between U.S. and Japa­nese forces off Leyte’s east coast (Battle of Leyte Gulf, Octo­ber 23–26, 1944) and later west coast (Battle of Ormoc Bay, Novem­ber 11 to Decem­ber 21) combined to inflict the greatest loss of ships and crew ever on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

But Krueger’s men still had to take physical posses­sion of Leyte’s west coast, which the Japa­nese had lightly fortified. On Decem­ber 7 Krueger landed 8,500 men and equip­ment of his reserve 77th Infan­try Divi­sion near Ormoc City to inter­dict Japa­nese rein­force­ments, envelop the now cut-off forces, and exter­minate the enemy. The U.S. amphib­ious landing, the second on Leyte, was unopposed but sub­jected to kami­kaze air attacks. Three days later the port of Ormoc was in U.S. hands. On Decem­ber 14, artil­lery barrages, flame­throwers, armored bull­dozers, and hand-to-hand com­bat wore down enemy resis­tance, resulting in the 77th Division killing just over 1,500 enemy soldiers. In the second half of Decem­ber organ­i­zed Japa­nese com­bat units crumbled almost every­where on Leyte Island, though enemy pockets and stragglers con­tinued to be mopped up until early May 1945, long past the U.S. invasion of the main island of Luzon and the capture of Manila.

Two and One-Half Month Leyte Campaign: First and Most Decisive Step in Recapturing and Liberating the Philippines

Leyte operations, November-December 1944

Above: Map of Leyte Island from the waist up. The Leyte Campaign cost the Japa­nese an esti­mated 49,000 mostly com­bat forces. U.S. losses included 13,399 battle and 13,410 non-battle casual­ties. Of these, the 77th Infan­try Divi­sion suffered 431 killed, 1,553, wounded, and 2,999 non-battle casual­ties. The rela­tively large num­ber of non-battle casual­ties indi­cates just how awful the com­bat arena was. An esti­mated 25,000 mal­nourished, diseased, and dispirited enemy troops survived on Leyte into 1945, for the most part bottled up in several pock­ets. Once the deci­sive battle for Leyte ended on Decem­ber 31, 1944, many leading Japa­nese gave up all hope of retaining the Philip­pines, in so doing con­ceding to the Allies a critical bas­tion from which their home islands could be easily cut off from stra­te­gic mineral and agri­cul­tural resources in South­east Asia and the East Indies and from which the final, bitter assault on Japan could be launched.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing on Leyte, October 20, 1944 U.S. infantrymen cautiously advance on a machine-gun nest on Leyte

Left: Making a dramatic entrance, MacArthur was captured in this iconic photo­graph by Gaetano Faillace, the general’s personal photo­grapher during the war. MacArthur, wearing his cus­tom­ary field marshal’s cap, crisply starched khakis, and sun­glasses, 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 men splashed through knee-deep surf onto Red Beach, just south of Leyte’s provincial capital, Tacloban, October 20, 1944.

Right: A squad of U.S. infantrymen cautiously advances on a Japa­nese machine-gun nest through dense, over­grown foliage. Some­times when artil­lery from tank destroyers and mortars, auto­matic and small-arms fire, hand grenades, and flame­throwers failed to destroy or evict enemy resisters from their well-prepared and camou­flaged pill­boxes and fox­holes, some of which were 7 ft below the sur­face, com­bat engi­neers resorted to using armored bull­dozers to bury them alive before their unit renewed its advance. On other occa­sions GIs set up machine-gun kill zones and forced the enemy into them, which had the same deadly effect.

Japanese transport attacked, Ormoc Bay, Leyte USS Lamson on fire, Ormoc Bay, Leyte, December 7, 1944

Left: Ormoc Bay was the principal Japanese funnel on Leyte Island for rein­forcing and resupplying the small but deter­mined enemy garri­son at Ormoc City. The amphib­i­ous landings of three regi­ments from the 77th Infan­try “Statue of Liberty” Divi­sion were unopposed, although U.S. naval vessels were sub­jected to kami­kaze attacks. Overall, the Leyte Cam­paign cost the Japa­nese Navy 26 major war­ships and 46 mer­chant­men and trans­ports like the one pictured here being pummeled in Ormoc Bay. Japa­nese land-based air capa­bil­ity in the Philip­pines was cut by more than half, forcing the enemy to rely more and more on one-way suicide pilots. The 41–day air-sea Battle of Ormoc Bay, mostly neglected by his­to­rians, was icing on the cake, bringing Leyte and the entire Gulf area under Allied control.

Right: Hit by a kamikaze, the U.S. destroyer Lamson is on fire in Ormoc Bay, Leyte, Decem­ber 7, 1944, the day Krueger’s infantry­men debarked onto beaches just south of Ormoc City. A nearby tug assists with fire­fighting. The Lamson served as picket, patrol, and screening ship for Mac­Arthur’s mas­sive Leyte assault. The destroyer downed two twin-engine Mitsu­bishi Ki-46s (“Dinahs”) before a third crashed into her super­structure, killing 25 crew­members and injuring 54 others. The Lamson returned to war patrol and air-sea rescue work during the Battle of Iwo Jima (Febru­ary 19 to March 26, 1945) and per­formed occu­pa­tion duty following Japan’s unconditional surrender on September 3, 1945.

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