The Philippines campaign, or the Battle of the Philippines, was a conflict fought between the American-Filipino forces and the Japanese Empire during the Second World War. The campaign started when American and Filipino forces fought to liberate the country from Japanese occupation. The battle began with the Allied invasion of the island of Leyte and ended after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender on all fronts.
The invasion plan as finally approved by the Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur called for the major landing at the southern end of Lingayen Gulf with later subsidiary landings just north of Bataan and southwest of Manila. The obvious place to attack and defend, the Lingayen Gulf also afforded a sheltered bay for the huge conglomeration of ships, a set of very good beaches for the landing, and an open plain toward Manila, 130 miles to the south, for the employment of armor on the main axis of the advance.
MacArthur was bent upon personally achieving the liberation of the seventeen million people of the Philippines, where he had spent much of his service life. He remained an immensely formidable figure, hard for the Chiefs of Staff to resist, while his prestige had been raised so high by domestic propaganda that he was effectively unsackable. Although he never gained the formal endorsement of the Chiefs of Staff for his purposes, no one in Washington was powerful or clear-sighted enough to stop him.
Japanese planners harbored no doubts that the Americans would next attack the Philippines. The Imperial Navy’s general staff concluded that the ample surface forces of its Combined Fleet and land-based aircraft might still deliver a staggering blow to the US Navy and thus repulse or slow any Philippine invasion. The navy and army staffs drafted a national contingency plan called Sho-Go or Operation Victory. The Japanese Navy formed two large task forces: the carriers and their escorts of the First Mobile Fleet of Admiral Ozawa and the Second Fleet of battleships and cruisers commanded by Admiral Kurita Takeo.
In Manila, General Yamashita was unimpressed by the staff which he inherited, and even more dismayed by the quality of the troops he inspected, most of them rendered slothful by long occupation duty. Yamashita ordered a supply officer to transfer service troops to combat duty, and to draft Filipino labor to shift stores in their stead. To his chagrin, he was told that local people could not be trusted in such a role. The commander of 14th Army now had only days in which to prepare for the coming of the Americans. He knew that months would not have sufficed.
Japan’s thirty-month-old occupation had been patchy in its impact: oppressive and brutal in some places — the most strategically important naturally including the capital, Manila — while scarcely felt in remote areas. In 1943 the Japanese granted the Philippines, along with most of their other occupied territories, notional self-government under a local puppet regime. Yet such was the mindless cruelty of Tokyo’s soldiers that this gesture inspired little gratitude among Filipinos. The Japanese fully controlled only twelve of the country’s eighteen provinces. Elsewhere, guerrilla bands roamed widely, American-armed and sometimes American-led.
Admiral Chester Nimitz and MacArthur agreed that the island base of Peleliu should be seized before the army attacked the Philippines. Men of 1st Marine Division made an assault landing with massive air and naval support: 10,000 Japanese defenders, supported by deeply emplaced artillery, resisted fiercely. The ensuing campaign, which also engaged a US Army division, proved a nightmare. Vast quantities of ammunition and effort had to be expended to overcome the enemy’s positions bunker by bunker.
The Japanese, as usual, fought almost to the last man. Peleliu was the Marines’ worst nightmare, costing the 1st Division 6,400 casualties. Unlike the Marianas campaign in which Japanese soldiers had counterattacked and fought in other conventional ways, the Peleliu defenders fought to the last from their holes, thus minimizing American fire superiority. It was an early lesson that perhaps the Japanese had changed their way of battle, but the Americans failed to notice.
In the weeks preceding the landing at Leyte, American carrier aircraft struck again and again at Japanese airfields and shipping. Over five hundred Japanese aircraft were destroyed, an intensity of attrition dwarfing the 1940 Battle of Britain, and indeed all air combat in the European theater. Even Japanese aircrew being trained on Kyushu for carrier operations were thrown recklessly into the battles. Most were lost, and with them Japan’s last chance of sustaining a seaborne air capability.
The 700 ships of MacArthur’s central Philippines attack force began offloading seven miles off the shore of Leyte Gulf. Almost 200,000 men of Sixth Army were mustered in the transports, commanded by Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger. The campaign to retake the Philippines commenced when four army divisions began to land on Leyte island, in the middle of the Philippines. They met light opposition.
All morning, from the cruiser Nashville, MacArthur watched his men move ashore. Then, after an early lunch, the great man set forth to join them. This was his first visit to Leyte for over forty years, since he was a young army engineer, and he devoted intensive attention to its stage management. ‘Regard publicity set-up as excellent,’ he signalled to his public-relations staff shortly before the landings. ‘I desire to broadcast from beach as soon as apparatus can be set up. After I have done so you can use records made to broadcast to the US and to the Philippines at such times and in such ways as you deem best.’ He stepped down the ramp of a landing craft a few yards off the beach, and waded serenely through knee-deep water and passed a cluster of photographers who immortalised this great symbolic moment of the Pacific War. He said to Richard Sutherland, his Chief of Staff: ‘Well, believe it or not, we’re here.’
The campaign to retake the Philippines commenced when four army divisions began to land on Leyte island, in the middle of the Philippines. Thereafter, however, increasingly vigorous Japanese resistance turned the campaign into an ordeal by rain, mud and blood for tens of thousands of US soldiers. Week after week and then month after month, weather and mountains, insects and enemy fire, exhaustion and swamps imposed their toll of misery upon every infantryman on the island.
For ten days following the landings, most invaders found themselves advancing across swamp-ridden flatlands, meeting limited resistance. They gazed apprehensively at the steep, densely covered mountains in the distance. Much more often the enemy exploited local conditions to inflict surprise as the invaders struggled through cover. Even in allegedly secure areas, infiltration by small groups of enemy, assisted by the dense vegetation, remained a hazard. Advancing infantry suffered long waits, sometimes under mortar or artillery fire, while engineers repaired bridges for tanks and checked for mines. The Japanese too were scarcely enjoying their own experience.
Each day the invaders were killing substantial numbers of enemy, and gaining ground. Yet the Americans were dismayed to discover that on the northern and western coasts beyond the mountains, the Japanese were reinforcing strongly. Units from Luzon were being ferried to Ormoc and several lesser ports. Few ground-based US aircraft could operate from Leyte, and it was weeks before carrier planes effectively interdicted supply routes. Meanwhile, thousands of enemy troops got through.
Again and again, Krueger’s units found themselves caught off-balance by Japanese entrenched on higher ground. Beyond the grief inflicted by the enemy, there were the problems created by the weather. Within days of the landings, it began to rain. Deluges of tropical intensity persisted through the weeks that followed. Men grew accustomed to marching, fighting, eating and sleeping soaked to the skin. Roads and tracks collapsed beneath the pounding of heavy vehicles.
Leyte Valley was secured at the beginning of November 1944. MacArthur’s staff persistently and grotesquely misjudged the campaign’s progress. As early as 3 November, SWPAC reports referred repeatedly to enemy ‘remnants’ or ‘final remnants’ in full retreat. ‘The end of the Leyte-Samar campaign is in sight,’ asserted a press communiqué. Yet five days later, a bulletin grudgingly acknowledged ‘sharp fighting… The enemy has rushed reinforcements into this sector.’ Two days later still, SWPAC announced that Sixth Army had destroyed the entire original Leyte garrison — but added lamely that this had been replaced by reinforcements from Luzon.
The US forces now began the second phase of the Leyte battle: the struggle to clear the mountains which dominated northern and western areas of the island. On the densely covered hills, the enemy could exploit to the utmost his tenacity, fieldcraft and small-unit tactical skills. Krueger’s operations were bedevilled by ignorance of the ground, which was poorly mapped. The Americans suffered two months of pain and frustration. Names such as Bloody Ridge, Kilay Ridge and Breakneck Ridge became etched into the consciousness of thousands of his soldiers as they strove to dislodge the Japanese from their positions, then to hold these against counterattacks.
It was a common delusion among MacArthur’s riflemen that they were the principal victims of the Leyte experience. Yet for the Japanese, matters were infinitely worse. Lt. Suteo Inoue wrote in his diary for 3 December: ‘Soldiers have become very weak, and only half the platoon are physically fit… the majority are suffering from fever.’
An amphibious landing south of Ormoc enabled the Americans to seize the port, and cut the Japanese off from further resupply or reinforcement. Afterwards, western Leyte’s Ormoc Valley was secured. MacArthur announced the formal completion of operations across the entire island on Christmas Day, 1944. But as many as 20,000 Japanese remained. Even though they now adopted guerrilla tactics rather than fighting as regiments with support weapons, they sustained the struggle for four more months.
Even as the Americans hacked a painful path across Leyte island, at sea their foes launched an ambitious and desperate attempt to wreck the campaign. The Imperial Japanese Navy dispatched four carriers scantily provided with aircraft to make a feint from the north, designed to lure away Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet. Meanwhile, Japanese heavy units set forth to converge on Leyte Gulf, where they planned to attack the American amphibious armada and its relatively weak naval support force – Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet. The IJN failed to achieve its objective and suffered heavy losses. Thereafter it never sailed into battle in comparable numbers.
Leyte Gulf vividly demonstrated the collapse of Japanese naval skills: gunnery, seamanship, ship identification – and nerve. Japan’s admirals conducted the operation as if they expected to lose. They seemed more ready to die than to fight, a strange transition for men who, in 1941-42, showed themselves ardent and effective warriors. The destruction of Japan’s naval air arm enabled Halsey’s and Kinkaid’s pilots to fly almost unchallenged. But the essential message of the battle was that the Imperial Navy had suffered a moral as well as a material collapse.
Ironically, American victory at Leyte Gulf exercised far less influence upon the last phase of the struggle than another, at first apparently marginal, series of events. Rear-Admiral Masafumi Arima removed his badges of rank and clambered into the cockpit of a plane at Clark Field on Luzon. He then took off at the head of his fliers to attack Halsey’s fleet off Formosa. He sought to make a personal contribution to the art of war by crashing his plane into an American aircraft carrier. In the end, he plunged into the sea alongside a carrier, without damaging it. But he was one among many desperate men who concluded in those days that new methods were required to offer the Japanese any possibility of overcoming their enemy’s overwhelming might.
Admiral Onishi addressed men of the first designated ‘special attack’ unit: ‘Japan is in grave danger. The salvation of our country is now beyond the power of the ministers of state, the general staff and humble commanders like myself. It can come only from spirited young men like you. Thus, on behalf of your hundred million countrymen, I ask this sacrifice of you, and pray for your success.’ A few months and several hundred suicide attacks later, genuine kamikaze volunteers became hard to find. But in those first weeks, a substantial number of Japanese aircrew eagerly embraced the concept.
Next came the American landing on the island of Mindoro to convert it into an advanced base for the American fighter squadrons, which could then provide combat air patrols over the Luzon invasion fleet. The Mindoro operation would require a postponement of the Luzon expedition until mid-January 1945, but MacArthur now thought the delay reasonable. He approved the Mindoro operation. The island was lightly defended by the Japanese, so the US forces had little difficulty in securing it.
After Leyte island was declared secure, US forces landed on the main Philippine island of Luzon, to begin a campaign which lasted for the rest of the war, against Japanese forces directed with stubborn skill by Gen. Tomoyoki Yamashita. Yamashita retreated to the mountainous, densely forested center of the island, where he sustained a shrinking perimeter until August 1945.
MacArthur’s Sixth Army landed at Lingayen Gulf, halfway up the western coast of Luzon. Kamikazes provided fierce opposition. Fortunately for the Americans, the Japanese as usual focused attacks on warships rather than transports crowded with troops. American troops met only spasmodic artillery and mortar fire as they advanced inland, and there were soon 175,000 Americans ashore.
In the first three days ashore, the Americans lost just 55 dead and 185 wounded, while claiming 500 enemy killed. When the Americans reached the hills, however, Yamashita’s plan became apparent. Knowing that he could not prevent the Americans from achieving a lodgement, he had instead concentrated most of his forces in the island’s mountain areas. Experience on Leyte had shown how effectively steep uplands could be defended. The Japanese held positions prepared with their usual skill, and were soon killing Americans. In the south, however, at first there was less resistance. XIV Corps advanced towards Manila.
American forces reached the forward defenses of Clark Field. Around the air base they fought a sluggish series of battles to secure the commanding heights. These provoked bad-tempered recriminations between elements of Sixth Army. The 129th Infantry, for instance, protested at the flight of its supporting tanks, which refused to return to the line even when the regiment found itself facing a Japanese armored attack at Tacondo. MacArthur accused the 37th Division of ‘a notable lack of drive and aggressive initiative.’
XI Corps made a new beach landing at San Antonio, to the northwest of Manila, and two regiments of 11th Airborne Division came ashore at Nasugbu, some forty-five miles southwest of the capital, and began their own advance on the city, soon joined by a third regiment which parachuted in.
Manila, the capital, was razed to the ground during weeks of fighting, in which forces of Japanese sailors fought almost to the last man. These men also committed massacres of civilians. Many Filipinos who escaped Japanese savagery perished under American artillery fire. Up to 100,000 of its citizens died in the ruins of their capital. The Japanese massacres and the battle left Manila the most damaged Allied capital after Warsaw.
While American divisions were fighting for Manila through February, others recaptured the great symbolic place-names of Bataan and Corregidor. Zig-Zag Pass, on the approaches to the Bataan Peninsula, became the scene of some of the most painful fighting of the campaign. An American parachute assault on the fortress island of Corregidor surprised the Japanese defenders in advance of an amphibious landing, but cost heavy jump casualties, and days of bloody mopping-up. Through the months that followed, Yamashita conducted a highly effective defense of the mountain areas in which he had fortified himself. Japanese units fought; inflicted American casualties; caused days of delay, fear and pain; then withdrew to their next line.
The struggle to cut and hold Yamashita’s principal supply route, the Villa Verde Trail, became one of the most bitter of the campaign. Yamashita held out until the end of the war in his mountain fastnesses on Luzon, although the Americans had destroyed most of his forces. By August 1945 his Shobu group had been driven back into a forty-two-square-mile redoubt near Bontoc, and its supplies were almost exhausted. In the last six weeks of the war, these remnants killed some 440 American soldiers and Filipino guerrillas — but themselves lost 13,000 men.
It is a striking feature of the Second World War that the populist media of the democracies made stars of some undeserving commanders, who thereafter became hard to sack. MacArthur’s Philippines campaign did little more to advance the surrender of Japan than Slim’s campaign in Burma, and was conducted with vastly less competence. Its principal victims were the Philippine people, and MacArthur’s own military reputation.