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 Battle of Leyte: First and Most Decisive Step in Recapturing and Liberating the Philippines

Battle of Leyte, October–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 of 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 (Philip­pine Archi­pel­ago, Indo­ne­sian Archi­pel­ago, Borneo, and New Guinea) and from which the final, bitter assault on Japan could be launched.

Battle of Leyte: Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing on Leyte Island, October 20, 1944Battle of Leyte: 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.

Battle of Leyte: Japanese transport attacked, Ormoc Bay, LeyteBattle of 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

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