75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 2
Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings in Leyte. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons
Culture

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative

First things first: General MacArthur barely plays a part. Seventy five years after the fact, we are still unable to truly comprehend what took place, and how it affected our country
Jam Pascual | Oct 20 2019

One can argue that it was The Battle of Leyte Gulf that turned the tides of World War 2.

Granted, every move made in war is decisive and of extreme consequence. But we normally train our sights on Hitler and the Nazis and the main antagonists of the allied forces. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history, doesn’t really involve Germany as a player. Ally and Axis engagement was between the Americans and the Japanese, and our waters served as the stage on which this conflict would take place.

More on Philippine history:

Sab Schnabel, historian and host of the What’s AP podcast, stresses the importance of changing our narrative thinking on World War 2. “When you think WW2, you don't think of the Pacific. But we should learn more about the Pacific War, because the Pacific War is what decided who won, and why the allies won.”

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 3
Map of Battle of Leyte Gulf

 

Setting the stage

The Japanese Empire was a strong presence in the Pacific, but the Americans were closing in, and one way was in the Battle of Midway, which took place in Midway Atoll.

Thorough intelligence gathering and code-breaking by American forces basically allowed them to get a leg-up on the Japanese, resulting in a clear victory for the allied powers. To put it simply, Japan suffered severe losses, losing ships, planes and men, and the capacity to replace losses in material and equipment were severely impeded. Losing Midway meant Japan losing a strategic place in the war. They were up against the ropes.

Because the Philippines was an extremely strategic location—sort of the middle point for many parts of the Pacific—securing the Philippines meant securing the Pacific, and therefore deciding the winner of the war. So on October 17, 1944, when Japan detected a fleet of Allied Forces heading to Leyte, forces were sent to converge, intercept the landing, and clash with American forces for prime Pacific real estate.

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 4
In his memoir “Reminiscences,” General Douglas MacArthur wrote: “I had no illusions about the operation. I knew it was to be the crucial battle of the war in the Pacific. On its outcome would depend the fate of the Philippines and the future of the war against Japan.”

Much was at stake. And General Douglas MacArthur—the man our history textbooks like to package as the main hero of the battle, even though his contributions were more on strategy than the firing of any shell—understood the gravity of what was about to take place. In his memoir “Reminiscences,” he wrote: “I had no illusions about the operation. I knew it was to be the crucial battle of the war in the Pacific. On its outcome would depend the fate of the Philippines and the future of the war against Japan.” On Leyte specifically, he wrote: “Leyte was to be the anvil against which I hoped to hammer the Japanese into submission in the central Philippines—the springboard from which I could proceed to the conquest of Luzon, for the final assault against Japan itself.”

 

The battles

From the beginning, Japanese’s Center Forces, led by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, were beset by communication problems. On October 23, 1944, American submarines close to the surface in Palawan Passage were poised to intercept enemy forces. And while the Yamato battleship detected these submarines, Takeo failed to take precautions. A barrage of submarine torpedoes made a heavy dent on the ships in the Center Force, sinking the heavy cruisers Maya and Atago. Atago was the ship Kurita was riding, and it sank so quickly that he was forced to swim as the vessel relinquished itself to the waves.

On October 24 began the engagement at Sibuyan Sea. Fleet Admiral Halsey of the Third Fleet was working with weakened forces. The group best positioned to attach Kurita were offensively lightweight—two light carriers and one large carrier would have to bear the brunt of Kurita’s attack. And while Rear Admiral Frederick Sherman was providing assistance with his carriers, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi was coming in with wave after wave of aircraft. The biggest hit of this engagement had to be when one Japanese aircraft dropped an armor-piercing bomb on the USS Princeton. 108 men were killed. It was the biggest ship to sink during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. And while aerial bombardment effectively scored hits on the battleship Musashi, Japan’s Center Forces were still properly armed to advance to the coast of Samar and converge on the landing of the Allied Forces. In Sibuyan Sea, the Japanese Empire was taking the lead. But this would all change in the Battle Off Samar.

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 5
Filipino volunteers carry supplies into the mountains to reach 1st Cavalry Division troops in the Battle of Leyte.

Many might not know that this was the first battle in which the Japanese actually carried out kamikaze attacks. Contrary to popular belief, kamikaze was not a battle strategy regularly employed by the Japanese Empire—but a sort of Hail Mary pass, given the consequences of the Battle of Midway, which made fuel acquisition extremely difficult for the Japanese Empire. Because of this, fighter planes that would normally take two-way trips were turned into makeshift bombs, desperate offensive measures for a fighting force backed into a corner. Our waters hold a dark honor—The Battle of the Leyte Gulf witnessed the first sinking of a major warship, the USS St. Lo, via kamikaze attack.

During the Battle Off Samar, the final engagement of this conflict, Japanese forces were met by a small but extremely aggressive concentration of American forces, and this would turn out to be a pivotal moment in the conflict. As Schnabel explains, the situation was a misreading of the enemy’s intentions. The Americans understood that whether they retreated or engaged, the fight would result in death. “But the American gunners were like... you know what? Fuck you. So they just went for it. They attacked the Japanese. And then the Japanese intercepted one of their calls back and were like, mayday mayday, like we need back up. And the Japanese were like, if they're so bold, that means the backup is on their way.” 

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 6
The Japanese’s Center Forces was led by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita.

But back-up wasn’t on its way. There is a possibility that if Kurita was more aggressive, the Japanese could’ve won the engagement, but they cautiously retreated instead, for fear of more American forces coming. “And so the Japanese disengaged, and ran from the smaller American force, just because they were so aggressive.“ Rear Admiral Tomiji Konoyagi stated in interrogation that during the Battle Off Samar, they had “very unsatisfactory information” on the movement and location of American forces.

And while there were moments of difficulty during the entire battle, such as miscommunication issues between Halsey and Admiral Nimitz (who made the joint decision, with General Macarthur and President Roosevelt) to protect the Philippines, The Battle of Leyte Gulf concluded with Halsey sending Rear Admiral Dubose’s forces to finish off the remaining Japanese forces.

 

After the ruins

It is difficult to fully describe the losses of war, but one way is through numbers. The Battle of Leyte Gulf resulted in Japan’s loss of ten cruisers, nine destroyers, four carriers, three battleships, and 300,000 tons of shipping. And because Japan lost the Philippines, it was effectively cut off from its occupied territories and supply routes in Southeast Asia. They needed to get oil from their occupied territories, but because those places couldn’t be accessed, there was nothing to fuel their ships and aircraft. They had nowhere else to go.

75 years after Battle of Leyte Gulf, we need to rethink how we fit in its narrative 7
In his 1945 SONA, Sergio OsmeƱa, the fourth President of the Philippines declared, "The United States has kept her pledge. The Philippines is now liberated.”

The president at the time, Sergio Osmena, clearly subscribed to this narrative of liberalization via the U.S., as evidenced by his 1945 State of the Nation Address. He spoke, “The United States has kept her pledge. The Philippines is now liberated.” In another part of the speech, he says, “Filipinos have done their part in this work by giving lavishly of their men and resources to the United States,” but it is unusual that Philippine soldiers aren’t exalted by history the same way that American forces are.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, though understood as a bloody affair, was generally framed as a battle of freedom, but was it? Yes, the dream of our wartime presidents to gain our country’s sovereignty came to fruition, and we gained independence in 1946. But the end of the war also cemented America’s place as a major global superpower and hegemon, and tightened America’s soft power grip on our political affairs.

In our commemoration of The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 75 years after it’s happening, we find ourselves yet again at a point in history where external forces threaten our sovereignty by invading our waters. God forbid another world war takes place, and we march once again to the beaches. But perhaps we can learn from old strategies, victories and defeats. Perhaps that one thing, at the very least, is if we survived that crossfire, we can survive anything.

 

Photographs from Wikimedia Commons