The Battle of Leyte Gulf (also called The Battles of Leyte Gulf) is remembered by many historians as the largest naval battle ever fought in our modern history. It was an epic battle between the Japanese Imperial Navy and the US Navy (with some help from the Australian Royal Navy) that was fought in 4 separate engagements near the islands of Leyte, Samar and Luzon from October 23 to 26 in 1944.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf started a few days after the Allied Forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, landed in Palo Beach in Leyte on October 20, 1944. Although only a local holiday in Leyte, the Leyte Landing is commemorated every year on the same date by Filipinos and World War II veterans.
The Leyte Landing Anniversary reminds us the landing of General Douglas MacArthur and his troops in Leyte as well as his famous words, “I have returned”. However, many of us are not aware of the great support and gallantry the US Navy’s 3rd and 7th fleets showed to make the Leyte Landing successful. The US Navy’s 3rd and 7th fleets were ordered to support MacArthur’s invasion of Leyte. The 7th fleet gave the amphibious and close naval support while the 3rd fleet provided a more distant naval support.
As one of the greatest naval battles of all time, and in some criteria, the largest naval battle ever fought, every citizen of the world, especially Filipinos should not forget this incredible battle. To refresh our minds of what happened in the Philippine seas in October 1944, here are 8 facts about the battle of Leyte Gulf that will blow your mind.
1. The battle spanned over more than 100,000 square miles of sea.
As a comparison, Luzon (the largest island of the Philippines) is just 42,458 square miles and the total land area of the Philippines is 115,831 square miles (300,000 square kilometers). The battle of Leyte Gulf was an important battle in World War II, as it was the determining point of naval power and control in the Pacific.
The great naval battle between the Empire of Japan and US (with the help of Australia) was actually composed of four separate engagements, namely the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All of these battles were fought by US Navy’s 3rd and 7th fleets against the Japanese Imperial Navy to support General Douglas MacArthur and the Allied forces in the invasion of Leyte.
2. The largest battleships ever built were in action during the battle.
The Yamato class battleship is the largest class of warships ever constructed in history, and only two of its kind were ever completed: Yamato and Musashi. These two behemoth warships were the heaviest and most powerfully armed warships ever built, with a displacement of 71,659 tonnes (70,527 long tons) at full load and armed with nine 46 cm (18.1 inch) main guns.
The two super battleships were engaged in the battles of Leyte Gulf, where Mushashi was sunk and Yamato was damaged by aircraft deployed from the American carriers. It was also during this war that aircraft carriers were proven more effective than the larger battleships. With the result, most naval forces of the world are now focusing on building aircraft carriers rather than the super massive battleships.
3. The battle involved more than 800 ships and 1,800 aircraft.
The clashes involved the United States 3rd and 7th Fleets (which was also participated by the Royal Australian Navy) against the Japanese Imperial Navy composed of the Center Force (the most powerful of the Japanese forces), Southern Force, Northern Force and some land-based aircraft of the Japanese empire.
The Allied forces consisted of 8 large aircraft carriers (including the large fleet carriers USS Intrepid, USS Enterprise, USS Franklin, USS Lexington and USS Essex of the US Navy’s 3rd fleet), 8 light carriers, 18 escort carriers, 12 battleships, 24 cruisers, 141 destroyers and escorts, and around 1,500 aircraft. On the other hand, the Japanese Imperial Navy comprised of 4 aircraft carriers, 9 battleships (including the giant battleship Yamato and Mushashi), 19 cruisers, 34 destroyers and 700 aircraft.
4. A total of 337,000 tonnage of ships sunk.
The Battle of Leyte gulf is also considered as the largest naval battle in history in terms of tonnage of ships sunk. The Allied forces lost 1 light carrier (USS Princeton, the largest American ship sunk during the battle), 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers and 1 destroyer escort – a total of 37,000 tons of shipping. The Allied forces also lost more than 200 planes during the battle. On the Japanese side, the Japanese Imperial Navy lost 1 fleet carrier (Zuikaku), 3 light carriers, 3 battleships (including the giant Musashi), 10 cruisers, and 11 destroyers – a total of 300,000 tons of shipping.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a massive defeat for the Japanese Empire. It crippled the Imperial Japanese Navy capabilities that it never again engage in a naval battle with a comparable force during World War 2.
5. The opposing armadas carried a total of 200,000 soldiers.
The combined fleets of the opposing forces carried around 200,000 soldiers. Sadly, several thousands of them died on the battle. The Japanese lost 12,500 naval soldiers while the Allied forces suffered around 2,800 casualties in a battle where the latter claimed victory. The Battle of Leyte Gulf is known as the largest naval battle in modern history in terms of the number of soldiers involved in the battle. It’s the 3rd largest in the same category in the known human history, next to the Battle of the Red Cliffs (China 208 A.D.) which involved 850,000 soldiers and the Battle of the Salamis (Greeks vs. Persians, 480 B.C.E.) which involved 250,000 soldiers.
6. First organized kamikaze attack by the Japanese
It was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf that the Japanese forces launched the first organized Kamikaze attacks (suicide attacks by Japanese aircraft pilots against Allied naval vessels). The Japanese “Special Attack Force” was put into operation as a desperate move by Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi during the closing stages of the Battle off Samar on October 25, 1944. The Kamikaze attacks (also called Tokkō attacks) by the Japanese aircraft hit 7 carriers and 40 other ships. Five of them sunk, including the escort carrier St. Lo.
The Japanese continued the Kamikaze operations after the Battle of Leyte Gulf. According to reports, there were approximately 3,800 Japanese aircraft aviators who made such attacks against the Allied forces during World War 2, and 19% of these attacks managed to hit a ship.
7. Japan could have continued the war regardless of the atomic bombings
Many people believed that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) prompted the Empire of Japan to surrender and end their plan to continue the war. However, the atomic bombings only affected 2 cities of the empire. In fact, there were even cities that were destroyed more severely and suffered more casualties due to the traditional firebombing attacks carried out by the US Air Force. With the Japanese culture, belief and tradition, Japan could still be willing to continue the war if their entire naval forces were not paralyzed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The Allied Forces invasion of Leyte and the entire Philippine archipelago deprived the Japanese Empire of all of its oil reserves, causing its surviving warships unable to mobilize again. The US occupation of the Philippines also gave the Americans a great strategic location to control South East Asia and reach the islands of Japan.
8. It happened because of MacArthur’s personal goal.
Before the plan on the Philippine invasion was finalized, General Douglas MacArthur (Commander in Chief of Southwest Pacific Area) and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Commander in Chief of Pacific Ocean Areas) initially had opposing plans. Nimitz’s plan was centered on the invasion of Formosa (Taiwan) while MacArthur, who in 1942 had famously promised to the Filipinos “I shall return”, planned for the invasion of the Philippines. According to Nimitz’s plan, an invasion of Formosa could give the Allied forces control of the sea routes between Japan and Southern Asia. Invading Formosa could also cut the supply lines of Japan to South East Asia.
However, MacArthur stressed out the moral obligation of US to liberate the Philippines, and leaving the country in the hands of the Japanese would be a blow to the American prestige. The Philippines was also a vital source of oil for Japan and the air force the Japanese accumulated in the country could give the Allied Forces a serious threat. The plan to invade the Philippines was confirmed during the meeting between MacArthur, Nimitz and US President Roosevelt in July 1944.
Let’s not forget
I hope that the Philippine government will make the Leyte Landing Anniversary a national holiday so that, not only the people of Leyte, but all the Filipinos will always remember the momentous events in October 1944 that led to the liberation of the entire Philippine archipelago and contributed to the end of World War II.
References and for further reading:
Battles of Leyte Gulf – HistoryofWar.org
Seven Deadliest Sea Battles (Infographic) – HistoryNow.com
10 Battles that Turned the Tide of War – Listverse.com
The Bomb didn’t beat Japan during World War II – ForeignPolicy.com
Battle of Leyte Gulf – Wikipedia.org
Largest naval battle in history – Wikipedia.org
Douglas MacArthur – Wikipedia.org
Kamikaze – Wikipedia.org