Battle of Leyte and Battle of Leyte Gulf 75th Anniversary Commemoration

October 23, 2019 @ 11:30AM — 12:00PM

A brief ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the the campaign to liberate the Philippines with the largest amphibious operation in the Pacific to date onto the shores of Leyte, while the American Navy waged the largest and last naval battle of the war in Leyte Gulf to defend the landing troops from Japanese sea attacks.

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On Wednesday, October 23rd at 11:30 am., the Friends of the National World War II Memorial will hold a brief ceremony and wreath presentation at the National World War II Memorial to mark the 75th anniversaries of the Battle of Leyte, the largest amphibious operation in the Pacific to date, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest and last naval battle of the war.

In late October 1944, the campaign to liberate the Philippines officially began. General Douglas MacArthur led the largest amphibious operation in the Pacific to date onto the shores of Leyte, while the American Navy waged the largest and last naval battle of the war in Leyte Gulf to defend the landing troops from Japanese sea attacks. This invasion finally initiated the liberation of the Philippines and severely crippled Japan’s military strength in the Pacific.

Mere hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked the Philippines. As Japanese forces gained ground, President Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the American and Filipino forces there, to withdraw to Australia by submarine instead of fighting to the end with his men. MacArthur followed his orders, although he famously issued a statement vowing that “I shall return” to his men and to the people of the Philippines. MacArthur’s men were forced to surrender by May. For those he left behind on the Philippines, who were subjected to Japanese occupation, imprisonment, and the Bataan Death March, the realization of his promise could not come soon enough.

In 1942, American forces began to fight their way across the Pacific with the intention of returning to the Philippines. While the symbolism behind Philippine liberation was certainly important to Allied planners, its recapture would also strategically cut Japanese access to oil from the East Indies and provide a steppingstone for the eventual invasion of Japanese home islands. By mid-1944, American forces were finally close enough to the Philippine Islands to begin planning the invasion. In selecting their invasion site, American planners chose Leyte, a central Philippine island they believed could serve as a base for later actions on Luzon. On October 17, 1944, the 6th Rangers Battalion landed on several small islands east of Leyte to set up navigation lights for the Leyte-bound transports to follow, while other units searched for a suitable landing beach for the assault. On September 20, codenamed A-Day, elements of the Sixth Army landed on Leyte’s east coast. By that afternoon, enough of the beachhead was secured for General MacArthur to make his own dramatic, press-covered return. By the end of the first day, several coastal towns and airfields were in American hands. Yet as American forces pushed north through the Leyte Valley towards Leyte’s other coasts, the Japanese prepared to throw all available resources towards defending the island, believing that if it fell, then surely the rest of the Philippines would fall close behind. Despite this fervor of disjointed Japanese resistance, by early November, American forces reached the northern coastline and secured some swampy stretches to use as airfields. The continued push westward through the Ormoc Valley encountered skilled Japanese counterattacks aided by droves of reinforcements from nearby islands. To keep their momentum and to offset growing casualty rates, several waves of American reinforcements, including the 11th Airborne Division, were sent to support the American advance west. By December 10, Ormoc City was in American hands, and American troops would reach the west coast by the end of the year. While organized Japanese resistance largely ceased by Christmas, mop-op operations continued through early May 1945.

While the landing forces made progress inland on Leyte, the U.S. Seventh Fleet provided support for the operation from Leyte Gulf, while Admiral Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet secured nearby seas. To try to disrupt this campaign, the Japanese Navy, already weakened by past American victories, launched a three-pronged attack against American naval forces in Leyte Gulf with most of its remaining vessels. On October 23, Japanese vessels approached Leyte Gulf, but were spotted by American submarines, which sank two cruisers. The following day, American vessels took defensive positions around Leyte Gulf as Japanese ships closed in. After the Third Fleet inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese land- and carrier-based aircraft north of Leyte, a small Japanese decoy carrier force succeeded in luring Halsey’s Third Fleet away from its defensive positions in the San Bernardino Strait, leaving the Seventh Fleet open to attack. Halsey’s fleet decimated the much smaller decoy force, but the two remaining Japanese task forces were free to move in on the Seventh Fleet in Leyte Gulf. While Seventh Fleet battleships sank or repelled the majority of the attackers coming from the southeast, the remaining Japanese vessels, which included the massive and heavily armed battleship the Yamato, moved into Leyte Gulf to attack the light vessels providing support to the troops fighting on Leyte. Through the morning of October 25, these Navy escort carriers and support ships desperately resisted the much larger Japanese attackers. Despite their superior position and the huge opportunity posed by the Third Fleet’s departure, remaining Japanese mysteriously withdrew later that day in the face of fierce resistance from the smaller American support craft. By October 26, the last of the Japanese naval forces were repelled and what came to be known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf came to an end. The Japanese initially thought they had fragmented U.S. naval presence in the area, which strengthened their resolve to fight a decisive battle on the island against a force they believed to be stranded. In reality, the American naval forces avoided such disaster by delivering a critical blow to the Japanese Navy, which enabled the campaign on Leyte to continue.

The invasion of Leyte and the defense of Leyte Gulf provided a decisive introduction to the American liberation of the Philippines. While Allied land forces slowly pushed across this first Philippine island against many waves of Japanese defenders, American naval forces delivered a huge blow to Japanese naval capabilities. Japanese forces invested significant resources, both on land and at sea, to try to halt this campaign, yet they failed to do so at great consequence. Since Japanese land forces had staked everything on defending Leyte, astounding casualty figures hindered their ability to resist American progress across nearby islands. Meanwhile, American naval forces in Leyte Gulf effectively destroyed Japanese naval combat power while ensuring that the Leyte land operations could continue unimpeded. While it would prove a long campaign to liberate the rest of the Philippines, MacArthur had kept his promise to return to the islands.

During the October 23rd ceremony at the World War II Memorial, WWII veterans and representatives of Allied Nations will present wreaths at the Pacific Arch of the Memorial in remembrance of the more than 15,000 Allies killed, wounded, or missing during the Battle of Leyte and the more than 3,000 Allied killed, wounded, or missing during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

If you are a World War II veteran, or know of one, who would like to participate in the Battle of Leyte and Battle of Leyte Gulf 75th Anniversary Commemorations at the Memorial, please email me at hrotondi@wwiimemorialfriends.org!

We hope you'll join us on October 23rd at the WWII Memorial!


The Friends of the National World War II Memorial's WWII 75th Anniversary Commemoration is generously sponsored by AT&T.

Generous support has also been provided by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation and Worthington Industries.