Leyte 1944:
The Battle, Part Three

Despite the naval disaster of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese had a few successes in their efforts to reinforce the defenders of Leyte. The crack 1st Infantry Division, on its way from Manchuria to Manila, was diverted instead to Ormoc on the west coast of Leyte. To cover the movement, the Japanese 1st Combined Signals Unit fabricated a clear-language sighting report from an American B-24, reporting a Japanese fleet on its way to Leyte from the east. The American fleet dutifully headed out to seek out and destroy the threat - most of which had been destroyed a few days earlier. The 1st Division’s convoy, coming from the opposite direction, arrived at Ormoc during the night of 2-3 November without losses, bringing 13,000 men plus their equipment and supplies in the largest Japanese reinforcement operation at Leyte.

The newly-arrived division headed up Highway 2 from Ormoc toward Carigara to launch and attack on the American 24th Infantry Division there. American planes savaged the march column, inflicting heavy losses and destroying 30 trucks, something the Japanese could ill-afford. The Americans became more diligent in their attacks on Japanese shipping, and eventually some 80 percent of the Japanese vessels that made the run to Leyte would be sunk. But they still managed to deliver elements of the Japanese 26th and 30th Infantry Divisions, plus the 55th, 57th and 68th Independent Mixed Brigades.

An 11th Airborne Division machine-gun team on Leyte.

Once 35th Army’s headquarters arrived on Leyte and began to broadcast orders, the Americans knew the Japanese movements represented reinforcement and not evacuation. Sixth Army correctly predicted that a counter-offensive would follow, and the Americans broke off their own advance in most sectors to dig in and await the Japanese.

The first clash came at the northern end of the front, as the Japanese 1st Infantry Division clashed with the American 24th Infantry Division in a meeting engagement that ended with a Japanese withdrawal. The Japanese had dug in along a feature the Americans named Breakneck Ridge, as well as nearby rises labelled Kilay Ridge and Corkscrew ridge. For ten days the Japanese held out, aided by heavy rains but suffering under continuous artillery bombardment and, whenever the skies cleared, air attacks.

Air attacks also ravaged reinforcement convoys, disrupting the effort to bring in the 26th Infantry Division. The division lost most of its equipment and supplies, along with 3,200 of the 12,000 men transported. In Manila, Yamashita complained to his boss, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, that his men were being killed by planes from American carriers that the Imperial Navy had sunk a month earlier. Since this “victory” was obviously a hallucination, Yamashita, argued, the efforts to reinforce Leyte should instead shift to an evacuation. Terauchi overruled him, instead assigning two more divisions to the island.

The Japanese 1st Infantry Division tried to throw the Americans back off the ridges in a series of counter-attacks, and had some success in pushing back 24th Infantry Division. But Sixth Army had plenty of fresh troops available, and brought in the experienced 32nd Infantry Division to take over at the northern end of the Leyte Valley, and 11th Airborne Division at Buruaen near the center of the mountain chain. That allowed 7th Infantry Division to march around the mountains and up the coastal road on the west side of Leyte toward Ormoc.

An M10 tank destroyer attached to the 77th Infantry Division on Leyte.

Rather than throwing the Americans into the sea, the Japanese were now in danger of encirclement and destruction in the Leyte jungles. They continued to stage local counter-attacks, but the mass counter-offensive never materialized as the Japanese began to run short of food, ammunition and medical supplies.

The veteran 26th “Spring” Infantry Division had seen a great deal of action in China and left for the Philippines in July 1944 at full strength. It lost 7,000 men in the crossing to Manila, thanks to American submarine attacks on its convoy, and then 3,200 more moving from Manila to Ormoc. The remainder went south along the coastal highway to block the American 7th Infantry Division’s advance. On 23 November they ejected the 7th Infantry Division’s lead regiment from a rise known to the Americans as Shoestring Ridge, where they dug in on the reverse slopes and awaited the inevitable American counter-attack. After a week of heavy fighting the Americans took the ridge back, and began a grinding advance up the coast aided by LVT amphibious tractors that moved through the surf to leapfrog Japanese positions and threaten artillery batteries behind their lines.

With his flanks crumbling, Yamashita staked the defense of Leyte - and by extension, all of the Philippines - on a daring counter-attack spearheaded by two regiments of paratroopers, each of which managed to scrape together one company for a landing on the airfields near Burauen. The remnants of the 16th and 26th Infantry Divisions would attack overland in support. Once the airfields had been secured, the American position was expected to fall apart - as if by magic, they would disappear.

Instead, ULTRA intercepts tipped off the Americans to expect a combined airborne-land attack on the airfields. The Japanese effort caught them by surprise anyway, as the American staff did not believe the Japanese capable of executing an airborne operation, nor did they think they would expend their paratroopers on these particular airfields. Ten days before, Sixth Army had ordered the engineers attempting to upgrade them to abandon the effort, and none of them were operational.

About 60 Japanese managed to parachute onto the Burauen airfields on 6 December; the groups meant to attack the operational strips at Tacloban and Dulag were all shot down. The combined attack destroyed a number of liaison planes operating from the airfields, and drove off the service troops stationed there. By 11 December the American paratroopers of 11th Airborne and newly-arrived troops of 38th Infantry Division had secured all of the airfields. Intelligence officers noted that many of the Japanese dead carried American weapons; the Japanese were running out of ammunition for their own.

A battery of 8-inch howitzers on Leyte.

A day after the Japanese attacked, Sixth Army landed the 77th Infantry Division on the west coast of Leyte just south of Ormoc. An Army Reserve outfit from New York, the division had trained intensively for amphibious landings and jungle warfare and seen action on Guam. The “Old Bastards” - the division’s reservist troops were older than most American combat soldiers - took Ormoc on the 10th, leaving the Japanese dependent on the small fishing ports remaining in their hands.

The Americans now began twin drives up and down the Ormoc Valley, linking up on the 21st. MacArthur declared organized resistance over on Christmas Day, 1944, but neglected to inform the Japanese of this and they continued to fight on. The last Japanese supply base, at Palamplon north-west of Ormoc, fell to the Americans on the last day of the year after bitter fighting. Thirty-Fifth Army finally authorized a withdrawal from Leyte on 12 January 1945; less than 750 men escaped. Fighting by organized units continued until March, with isolated pockets of Japanese continuing to resist until well after the war had ended. The U.S. Army suffered just over 15,500 casualties on Leyte. Thirty-Fifth Army commanded about 60,000 men, nearly all of whom were killed or died of disease and starvation.

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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.