Leyte 1944:
The Battle, Part One

American planning to invade the Japanese-held Philippines commenced in the spring of 1944, when Allied troops had begun to make good progress in the New Guinea campaign and in the Central Pacific. The initial plan called for a two-pronged assault, with an initial landing at Sarangani Bay on Mindanao, the southernmost large island of the Philippines, in October 1944 followed by a landing on Leyte in the central part of the archipelago a month later. The first landing could be covered by long-range aircraft based at Biak off the coast of New Guinea, and the second by planes based at newly-captured or -constructed airfields on Mindanao.

Carrier raids against Japanese installations in the Philippines in the spring and summer of 1944 met little opposition, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked the American commanders in the Pacific, Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz, whether the invasion timetable could not be moved forward. The complex logistics made this impossible, MacArthur and Nimitz agreed, and the Joint Chiefs next asked that if the date could not be moved forward, then perhaps the target could be. The Philippines would be bypassed, and the Americans would invade Japanese-ruled Formosa instead.

While MacArthur’s overweening ego demanded a return to the Philippines, there were practical objections as well. Formosa would be a far more difficult target than the Philippines; the Americans held bases within 1,200 miles of Leyte and 900 miles of Sarangani Bay, but would be mounting the attack on Formosa from Hawaii, 5,200 miles away. The Filipinos could be counted on to assist the Americans with intelligence and guerrilla actions; while the Taiwanese were an oppressed colonial people Formosa was home to 400,000 Japanese colonists and their descendants (not including military personnel) and had been made a formal part of the Japanese Empire in 1937. Over 200,000 Taiwanese served in the Empire’s armed forces; American invaders might be facing a hostile population.

A Japanese B6N attempts to torpedo the carrier Essex during the Formosa Air Battle.

As a compromise move, the Joint Chiefs directed that the Sarangani Bay operation be cancelled and the Leyte landings be moved forward into their assigned October date. The invasion of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, would be moved up in turn to the date originally reserved for the Leyte landings.

Leyte is a large island in the center of the Philippine Islands, part of the group known as the Visayas. The invasion would center on its northern two-thirds; the remainder in 1944 was heavily overgrown with jungle and not militarily significant. A long, and heavily forested rugged ridge line runs from the northwest to southeast, splitting the northern part of the island into two broad valleys, the Leyte Valley to the east and the Ormoc Valley to the west.

About 915,000 people lived on Leyte in 1944, most of them Filipinos engaged in subsistence agriculture, growing mostly rice, sugar cane and corn (maize). The island had few roads, and even fewer of them had even a whisper of pavement. The main port, Tacloban, lay at the island’s north-east corner and was also the capital. The other major port, Ormoc, stood at the head of a bay on the west coast.

Leyte’s east coast faced Leyte Gulf, a protected bay embraced by the island of Samar to the north and Dinagat to the south, with several smaller ones in between. The bay offered deep-water anchorages right up against Leyte’s coastline, with broad sandy beaches behind them. It was the perfect place for an amphibious landing, which both sides recognized.

The U.S. Sixth Army led by Gen. Walter Krueger would make the landings. One corps would land at the north-east corner of Leyte with Tacloban and its nearby airfield as its immediately objectives. The U.S. X Corps had two veteran divisions in the first wave, the regular army’s 1st Cavalry Division and the 24th Infantry Division, both of which had seen hard fighting in New Guinea.

To their left, XXIV Corps would also come ashore with two divisions. The regular army’s 7th Infantry Division, trained for cold weather operations, had fought on Attu in the Aleutian Islands and then in the Marshall Islands. The 96th Infantry Division, raised in August 1942, would be seeing its first action. The corps had been slated for the cancelled invasions of Yap and Palau and re-assigned to Sixth Army for the Leyte landings. The corps would assault the beaches near the seaside town of Dulag, with their objective the airfield behind Dulag.

Two more divisions (32nd and 77th Infantry) were available as the Sixth Army’s immediate reserve, with two more (38th Infantry and 11th Airborne) ready as strategic reserves.

All four assault divisions would have substantial additional support in the form of attached tank battalions (just one company in the case of 24th Infantry Division) and corps-level artillery battalions. Each corps would also have the services of three battleships plus cruisers and destroyers to offer gunfire support, and eighteen escort carriers would enter Leyte Gulf to provide air cover.

The initial defense of Leyte would be in the hands of the Japanese 16th Infantry Division, a pre-war unit that had seen considerable action in the early stages of the Sino-Japanese War. The “Wall Division” took part in the 1941 invasion of the Philippines, and had remained in the islands ever since as part of the Japanese garrison. It was close to full strength, with 13,000 men, but like other Japanese divisions it could not field anything close to the firepower of an American division.

Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya,” commanded the 14th Area Army headquartered in Manila with responsibility for the entire Philippines. He had over 430,000 troops in the archipelago, slightly less than twice what the Americans estimated, but only 104 operable aircraft, or somewhat less than half of American estimates. Thirty-Fifth Army, with responsibility for Mindanao (the southernmost large island in the chain) and the Visayas, had four other divisions besides the 16th and three independent mixed brigades, not all of them easily re-deployed and none of them any stronger than the 16th Infantry Division.

Yet many Japanese staff officers awaited the Americans with a great deal of confidence. American carrier task forces had attacked Japanese air bases in the Philippines, Formosa and Okinawa through September and early October. They sank Japanese ships, smashed Japanese bases and infrastructure, and destroyed over 1,000 aircraft. The Japanese committed reserves from Japan including 150 carrier aircraft and crews, representing most of the carrier-trained aircrew, only to see them destroyed as well.

Japanese A6M fighters on Formosa, all in a row. No wonder they lost.

Despite the disastrous outcome of this Formosa Air Battle, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters resorted to the outright lying. The battle had been an enormous victory, with eleven American carriers, two battleships and three cruisers sunk and eight more carriers, two battleships and four cruisers damaged. In reality the toll had been two cruisers damaged.

That brazen lie wasn’t just used in propaganda; it was disseminated through the chain of command as an actual intelligence estimate. Yamashita and his staff believed that American carrier air power had been crippled. And that wasn’t the only intelligence failing on the part of the Japanese. Japanese code-breakers had sussed out Leyte as the target of the next large-scale American invasion. But that information had not been passed down the line to Yamashita or his subordinates.

Wherever the Americans landed, the Japanese intended to follow up their victory in the Formosa Air Battle with a massive counter-attack led by the Imperial Navy’s carefully-husbanded battleships (since the carriers had lost most of their planes off Formosa). The Army and Navy air forces would deploy special suicide squadrons for the first time. Once the enemy fleet had been finished off, the Army’s infantry could mop up the helpless American assault force. Perhaps the Americans would even surrender once Douglas MacArthur, the flamboyant theater commander, had been locked in a Japanese prison.

It was a plan based on sheer insanity.

When American ships entered Leyte Gulf on 18 October 1944, 16th Infantry Division reported to Yamashita that the vessels were seeking shelter from a storm. Instead they had brought the storm with them.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, his dog Leopold and Egbert the pet turkey.