A few hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers and Zero fighters began a devastating offensive against the U.S. Far East Air Force based in the Philippines. Japanese soldiers landed ashore the same day.
For several months, American and Philippine troops battled the Japanese onslaught. Despite a fierce defense of the Bataan Peninsula and heavy enemy casualties, 32 ordered the commanding general, Douglas MacArthur, to retreat to Australia before the Philippines was cut off completely.
Before leaving and then again upon arrival in Australia, MacArthur bitterly vowed, “I shall return.” Seventy years ago on Monday, MacArthur fulfilled his promise.
It would take over two and a half years for the Allies to return. In that time, the Japanese front expanded in the Pacific from the Aleutian Islands in the north to the Solomon Islands in the south. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died at the barbaric hands of their captors during the Bataan Death March. The Axis advance was finally stemmed in 1942 as the United States won a decisive naval victory at Midway and American and Australian forces repelled Japanese land troops in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. A bloody campaign at Guadalcanal that claimed tens of thousands of lives then ended Japan’s offensive capabilities. By 1943, Allied forces were ready to begin “island hopping” or “leapfrogging” toward the Japanese home islands.
With American forces gaining greater control of the Pacific by the summer of 1944, a decision needed to be made over the Allies’ push into the western Pacific. MacArthur believed Luzon, the largest Philippine island, needed to be taken before moving closer to the Japanese main islands. Overruling Admiral Chester Nimitz, who favored bypassing the Philippines and invading Formosa (Taiwan), Roosevelt sided with MacArthur. Some speculate that MacArthur pushed for the Philippines primarily because of an obsessive notion of redemption. MacArthur also did not want the Australians to play a prominent role in the recapture of American territory.
The Allies were ready for the amphibious retaking of the Philippines in October. A guerrilla resistance movement comprised of former Philippine soldiers, American soldiers who had never surrendered, local militias, and civilians had been harassing the occupying force and providing intelligence to MacArthur, but the operation would not be easy as the Japanese had amassed hundreds of thousands on the archipelago to defend Japan’s critical oil and supply lines from Southeast Asia.
On Oct. 17, U.S. Army Rangers orchestrated raids on the small islands off Leyte to make way for the main invasion force on Oct. 20. After hours of naval bombardment, American forces landed and quickly secured on the eastern shores of Leyte. With a grand, photographed entrance, MacArthur and his staff waded ashore near the town of Palo that day. The larger-than-life commander proclaimed, “People of the Philippines: I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”
As American and Philippine forces pressed inland, a massive naval battle, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, unfolded. Having lost hundreds of aircraft and three carriers at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the crippled, desperate Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to cut off the invasion at Leyte, but it encountered a much larger American force of two fleets.
From Oct. 23 to 26, American and Japanese ships and aircraft fought in a sea battlefield of over 100,000 square miles in what is arguably the largest naval battle in history (More ships were involved at Leyte Gulf than in any other battle, but greater tonnage of shipping was present at the Battle of Jutland in World War I). During Leyte Gulf, the Japanese introduced a new tactic: the terrifying Kamikaze attack. Despite the attacks from sea and air, the Allied naval force repelled the Japanese Navy, which would longer have the strength to conduct to large-scale offensive operations for the remainder of the war.
Although Japan had been cut off from the Philippines, the fight for the islands was far from over. General Tomoyuki Yamashita decided Leyte should be the main line of defense. The fighting at Leyte lasted until the end of 1944, and individual Japanese soldiers would fight until the end of the war. The Allies would take the remaining major islands of the Philippines by April the following year, but, like Leyte, remnants of the Japanese Army would fight on the islands for months longer. The Allies suffered 62,000 casualties in the campaign, while the Japanese casualties reached a staggering 348,000.
Yamashita would pay for his ferocious defense of the Philippines with his life. After the war, he was tried for war crimes and was hanged after being found guilty. Many considered the trial a gross miscarriage of justice and Yamashita a victim of MacArthur's vengeance.
Pic - "I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil -- soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed, to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible, strength, the liberties of your people."