On this day in 1944, more than 100,000 American soldiers land on Leyte Island, in the Philippines, as preparation for the major invasion by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The ensuing battles of Leyte Island proved among the bloodiest of the war in the Pacific and signaled the beginning of the end for the Japanese.
The Japanese had held the Philippines since May 1942, when the awful defeat of American forces led to General MacArthur’s departure and General Wainwright’s capture. MacArthur was back, as he promised, but his invasion of Luzon required a softening up of the enemy. Thus, the amphibious landing of the American forces at Leyte and the concomitant goal of destroying the Japanese fleet in the gulf was undertaken.
The Japanese anticipated the American landing by launching Operation Sho-Go, an attempt to divert the U.S. 3rd Fleet north and away from the fighting on the island. The Japanese fleet assembled was the largest ocean task force assembled during the war, including seven battleships, 11 heavy cruisers, and 19 destroyers. American submarines and aircraft carriers met the Japanese fleet and the Battle of Leyte Gulf began on October 23.
Meanwhile on Leyte Island, the American troops took on the Japanese garrison, which was composed of 80,000 soldiers. It took 67 days to subdue the island, with extraordinary acts of physical bravery and courage demonstrated on both sides. Even after the Americans had taken control of the island, Japanese soldiers who had been hidden away continued to emerge and fight on, preferring to die than surrender. All told, the Japanese lost more than 55,000 soldiers during the two months of battle and approximately another 25,000 in mopping up operations in early 1945. The U.S. forces lost about 3,500-compared with the Japanese loss of 80,000 total.
The sea battle of Leyte Gulf was the same story. The loss of ships and sailors was horrendous for both sides. The sinking of the American carrier Princeton resulted in the drowning deaths of 500 men. When the Japanese battleship Musashi was destroyed by a massive American aerial attack, more than 1,000 sailors died, including the captain who stood on his bridge and literally went down with his ship. Three days of sea battle saw the destruction of 36 Japanese warships-compared with America’s three. It also saw the introduction of the Japanese kamikaze—”divine wind”—suicide bombers. The St. Lo, an American aircraft carrier, was one of the first casualties, when one kamikaze pilot drove his plane straight into its flight deck.
More than 5,000 kamikaze pilots died in this gulf battle-taking down 34 ships. But when all was said and done, the Japanese had not been able to prevent the loss of their biggest and best warships, signaling the virtual end of the Japanese Imperial Fleet. The American victory on land and sea opened the door for General MacArthur’s invasion and the recapture of the Philippines.