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Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita had intended to fight his main battle for the defense of the Philippines on Luzon. Yet he found his judgment summarily overruled by his superiors. Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi allowed himself to be deceived by the navy, which asserted with shameless irresponsibility that its own Leyte Gulf battles had ended in triumph. Japan’s fliers likewise reported that they were inflicting crippling attrition on American air forces.

Fortified with such illusions, Terauchi and his staff became convinced that an important victory was within their grasp on Leyte Island—if only Japan’s soldiers did their part to match the achievements of its sailors and airmen. The navy’s recklessness in launching the Combined Fleet against Leyte Gulf was now, therefore, to be matched by that of the army, in the name of honor but in the service of folly.

Early in November, Lt. Gen. Akira Muto arrived in Manila to assume the role of Fourteenth Army chief of staff. “Nice to see you,” said Yamashita. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time.” Muto asked: “What’s the plan?” The general responded: “I’ve no idea what we shall do. You’d better have a bath, then we’ll talk.” Muto said ruefully that every stitch of spare clothing he possessed, down to his underwear, had just been incinerated in an American air raid. “Borrow mine,” said his commander generously. Yet even freshly clad, Muto felt no better when he learned of Field Marshal Terauchi’s insistence on a fight to the finish for Leyte. As Yamashita talked, Muto perceived that the general was furious. Transferring units to Leyte by sea meant that many would be ravaged in transit, while those that got through could not be adequately supplied and supported. No reinforcement of Leyte could alter an outcome that was now inevitable. Yet there was nothing to be done. Terauchi was in charge. Yamashita’s orders to Lt. Gen. Sosaku Suzuki, his subordinate commander on Leyte, continued to pay lip service to that familiar Japanese expression of purpose, “annihilation” of the enemy. Yamashita knew full well, however, that the only forces destined for annihilation were his own.

Meanwhile, his orders were to throw every possible man onto Leyte. Between October 20 and December 11, 1944, though substantial numbers died or lost their equipment, forty-five thousand Japanese troops landed in the west and north of the island. Pvt. Eichi Ogita of the 362nd Independent Battalion experienced the sort of nightmare passage familiar to many Japanese soldiers. He was dispatched from Luzon with his unit on a wooden schooner, but on October 25 the vessel was sunk by an American submarine. Ogita and other survivors somehow struggled ashore on the northwest coast of Leyte. When daylight came, they found that their battalion commander was dead, while the adjutant, company commander, and Ogita himself were among the wounded. They salvaged a few weapons, but no food. For a time they squatted on a hilltop, then realized that it was essential to get moving. A lieutenant and ten men went in search of Japanese forces. When they did not return the next day, the remainder of the party set off towards their original destination, the port of Ormoc.

It proved a terrible journey. They wandered uncertainly, lacking maps and compasses. Most of their wounded died. When at last the survivors reached the town, they found it under air attack. “Enemy planes appear, but ours do not,” Ogita wrote. “I wonder why.” On November 13, they had yet to fire a shot: “We have not received orders to start the attack because many of our troops have not yet landed.” He whistled to keep his spirits up: “There are only thirty-four men in our company, but we have confidence enough to take on an enemy battalion.”

This was typical of the manner in which Japanese reinforcements reached the Leyte battlefield, losing many men and much equipment before even encountering American troops. It is astonishing, in such circumstances, that they achieved as much as they did. General MacArthur’s Sixth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, faced an intensity of resistance beyond anything the South West Pacific Area’s supreme commander had anticipated. By November 7 the Japanese 16th Division, the original garrison of Leyte, had lost all its battalion commanders and engineer officers, together with most of its company commanders and half its artillery. But much of 1st Division had arrived from Luzon, and more was coming. General Suzuki, the overall commander of Japanese forces on the island, was hopeful of driving the Americans back across the central plain.

Again and again, Krueger’s units found themselves caught off balance by Japanese entrenched on higher ground. The 382nd Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion was in the midst of a rice paddy when it came under intense fire which killed or wounded every officer of two companies: “Men threw away their packs, machine guns, radios and even rifles. Their sole aim was to get through the muck and get onto solid ground once more. Some of the wounded gave up the struggle and drowned in the grasping swamp.” Capt. George Morrissey, a doctor with the 34th Infantry Regiment, wrote: “We had just begun to dig in when an artillery shell lit in the forward part of the perimeter. I ran up there to find three killed, eight seriously wounded. Just then the rain began to pour furiously and it got dark. The first man I saw was bleeding from a jagged hole in the neck. It was a hell of a thing there in the rain not being able to do anything but having to try anyway. This man died on the way in and another next day. No supper. Foxhole full of water. Our artillery thunders and cracks all night…I have never been so filthy before.”

The campaign yielded its share of heroes. It is often the case that men who are an embarrassment everywhere else distinguish themselves in combat. Before the Leyte landing, infantrymen confined to the stockade for punishment had been returned to their units. The commander of G Company, 2nd Battalion, 34th Infantry, strongly objected to accepting back Pvt. Harold Moon, a persistent troublemaker. He got Moon anyway. On the night of October 21, the regiment faced a series of violent, almost overwhelming enemy attacks. Dawn revealed foxholes surrounded by enemy dead. Several lay near the body of Private Moon, killed after fighting to the last with rifle and grenades. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor, which roused both admiration and bewilderment among his comrades. “I only knew him as a G Company screw-up,” wrote Pvt. Eric Diller wonderingly.

Diller was himself an interesting study, the son of German Catholic immigrants who fled to the United States in 1936 because of his mother’s Jewish blood. In a machine gun squad on Leyte, the twenty-year-old carried papers which still classified him as an alien—indeed, notionally an enemy one. Diller was squeamish about many manifestations of war in the Pacific. When comrades set about extracting gold teeth from dead Japanese, he declined to keep his own share. He felt unhappy about the treatment of the few enemy who became live captives: “I saw an undernourished, sick-looking, pathetic specimen brought into our perimeter, where a newcomer to the platoon proceeded to punch the helpless prisoner in the face. No one said anything but most felt, as I did, that kind of behavior was nothing to be proud of.”

Beyond grief inflicted by the enemy, there was that 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, sleeping soaked to the skin. Roads and tracks collapsed beneath the pounding of heavy vehicles. Phone lines shorted. Tanks and trucks bogged down or were wrecked. Streams swelled and burst. Liver flukes rendered bathing in rivers hazardous. Batteries swiftly deteriorated. It was difficult for gunners to keep cordite dry. Howitzers had to be cleaned three times a day. Blankets became covered with mildew. Folded canvas rotted. Bolts on vehicles and machinery rusted irretrievably into place. Fungus grew in weapon optics. White phosphorus in shells melted in the heat, which also blew out the safety discs of flamethrower tanks.

Airfield construction became a hopeless task. A minor typhoon on October 29 blew away tentage and created havoc at stores dumps. Many men found themselves on short rations, because the overstrained logistics system was obliged to give first priority to ammunition.

Leyte Valley was secured by November 2. After ten days ashore, SWPA headquarters announced that the Japanese had suffered 24,000 casualties for American losses of 3,221, including 976 killed and missing. MacArthur’s staff persistently and grotesquely misjudged the campaign’s progress. As early as November 3, SWPA 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, SWPA announced that Sixth Army had destroyed the entire original Leyte garrison—but lamely added that it had been replaced by reinforcements from Luzon.

Sixth Army now began the second phase of the Leyte battle: the struggle to clear the mountains which dominated northern and western areas of the island. By November 8, the Americans had 120,000 men ashore, contesting possession with perhaps one-third that number of Japanese. On the densely covered hills, the enemy could exploit to the utmost his tenacity, fieldcraft, and small-unit tactical skills. Krueger’s operations were bedeviled by ignorance of the ground, which was poorly mapped. The Americans suffered two months of pain and frustration, which imposed a serious delay upon MacArthur’s planned landing on Luzon.

The phrase which dogged the experience of every American commander on Leyte was “pinned down.”

“The 1st battalion made little progress,” says a typical account, describing the 128th Infantry’s attack on a position named Corkscrew Ridge. “Company A was immediately pinned down by machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire.” A unit could legitimately declare itself to be in this condition if it suffered substantial casualties, then incurred more by every attempt at movement. Yet all too often, the words merely indicated that a force had come under fire, taken cover, and stayed there even before suffering significant loss. Foot-soldiers hoped that support arms— artillery, aircraft, or tanks—would discover a means of silencing resistance without need for those “pinned down” to expose themselves to a further advance under fire.

A battalion commander in the Philippines described a typical combat conversation with a fresh second lieutenant: “The new john radioed back to battalion requesting reinforcement— he was pinned down. I took the radio mike and asked the lieutenant if he had anyone hit. He answered that he had not, and then I asked, ‘How then do you know you are pinned down?’ He replied that they were being shot at and couldn’t move. I told him that I was not convinced, and he would have to get out on his own. When the patrol returned, without a single casualty, I found him an unhappy and resentful 2nd john. I admonished him to face up to the facts of life, for combat was a serious business. He had to do his job, which meant not calling for help unless he truly needed it.”

Much of the story of the Leyte campaign, and indeed of infantry action in World War II, was of commanders struggling to make men move forward, when those at the sharp end feared that to comply would prove fatal to their welfare. The CO of the 307th Infantry sent a brusque circular to his regiment: “I don’t want this business of when someone calls ‘litter-bearers,’ for everyone to stop fighting. You must not attack without your bayonets fixed. The Corsairs will not support us unless we stop firing on them. Right now we are not aggressive enough, although we are getting lots of experience.” Everything hinged on what a few bold men would do. On December 15, 1944, Sgt. Leroy Johnson of the 126th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion led a nine-man patrol to reconnoiter a ridge near Limon. Spotting an enemy machine gun, Johnson crawled to within six yards of it, then returned to report. He was told to destroy the gun, and advanced with three other men. They found themselves in a grenade duel with the Japanese, which continued until Johnson saw two grenades land close to his comrades, and threw himself on them before they exploded. Johnson was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his sacrifice, but it would have been unrealistic to expect many men of Sixth Army to emulate it. Aggressive junior leadership is what makes things happen on battlefields, and there were never enough Sergeant Johnsons.

One of the epic actions of the campaign was fought by the 34th Infantry’s 1st Battalion, under Lt. Col. Tom Clifford. Early on the morning of November 10, his battalion was shipped seven miles along the north coast in landing craft to a beach in the midst of Carigara Bay. There, they offloaded without opposition, and began marching into the hills. Three days later they took up position on Kilay Ridge, a 900-foot elevation which commanded much of the surrounding countryside, and provided vital flanking support for American operations on Breakneck Ridge. The battalion remained on Kilay until December 4, in almost continuous contact with the Japanese. Clifford’s men were isolated, dependent for supply on Filipino porters and spasmodic airdrops. They suffered much, but held their ground. During one firefight, Clifford himself was visiting a company headquarters where he found a man wounded in the thigh, unable to walk. The colonel carried the casualty a mile on his own back over a mountain trail to his command post. On leave in the states shortly before, Clifford was detained by military police without his dog tags, and accused of impersonating an officer. Now he received a Distinguished Service Cross for outstanding leadership.

Conditions on Kilay Ridge were never less than dreadful. “Rained all night and still raining hard,” medical officer George Morrissey wrote on November 20. “The ground is a deep gooey churned mixture of mud, urine, fecal matter, garbage. The floor of our aid station is three inches deep with caked mud.” Morrissey noted bleakly that the yearning to go home, common to every man in the Pacific theater, was replaced in those days by a much more modest ambition—to get off Kilay.

They drank from potholes of milky water, and in the deep darkness of the nights cursed the bats which flew in thousands around their heads. Clifford explained by radio his difficulties with sick and hungry men, the Japanese crowding them. Corps headquarters sent back a verbal shrug: “You are in a tough spot.” The colonel was finally reduced to threatening: “Either you give us artillery or I’m going to pull my men off the ridge and leave the Japs looking down your throat.” The battalion got its gunfire support. Each morning, Morrissey viewed with disgust the heap of soaked, stinking clothing and dirty bandages lying outside the aid station to be burned. A sick call produced a queue of a hundred men, most suffering inflamed feet or fever. The 34th Infantry’s 1st Battalion was relieved on December 4, and made its weary way down to the coast. Clifford had lost 28 killed and 101 wounded, but his battalion could boast one of the most impressive performances of the campaign.

Other units suffered almost as badly in the November actions. “These bearded, mud-caked soldiers came out of the mountains exhausted and hungry,” said a 24th Division report on the experience of the 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry. When they left the line, 241 officers and men were immediately hospitalized with skin disorders, foot ulcers, battle fatigue, and exhaustion. “The men looked ten or fifteen years older than their ages,” wrote Capt. Philip Hostetter, medical officer of the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry. “They spoke little and moved slowly. There was no joking or horseplay.” Hostetter consigned three exhausted company commanders to the hospital.

It became a matter of bitter debate whether blame for American sluggishness lay with Krueger or with those under his command. The general circulated a report detailing his units’ perceived failings: poor junior leadership, an instinct to seek cover in the face of modest resistance, and to call down artillery fire to suppress it. “If more than minor resistance was encountered, the troops frequently fell back and called for fire from supporting weapons,” claimed Sixth Army. “On one occasion a company called for artillery fire upon a roadblock and then withdrew 350 yards while the concentration was delivered.”

The pattern of American activity was grimly monotonous. Each dawn a unit moved out, advancing up some precipitous hill until the enemy was encountered. Companies rotated the dubious privilege of taking point. Capt. Paul Austin, leading F Company of the 2nd Battalion, 34th Infantry, learned to dread his CO’s phrase, “It’s your turn in the morning.” The first intimation of meeting Japanese was a burst of fire, often fatal to the leading Americans. The rest hugged cover until stretcher-bearers were summoned, artillery called in, a set-piece attack organized in company or battalion strength. This required hours, sometimes days. When the assault closed in, Japanese survivors withdrew, to do the same thing again a few hundred yards back.

Important ground left untenanted was swiftly seized by the enemy. There was a black comic moment in early December, when a runner shouted an order for a three-man picket of the 32nd Infantry’s 2nd Battalion to pull back. Willfully or not, the whole of G Company took this as a cue, climbed out of its foxholes, and streamed away downhill. By the time the movement was halted, Japanese had occupied the American positions. Huge exertions were required to win them back next day.

Whatever the causes, the protraction of the campaign bred recrimination.

Most serious of all for MacArthur was the frustration of his justification for taking Leyte: its exploitation as an aircraft and logistics base. The waterlogged plains were wholly unsuitable for intensive aircraft usage or even stores depots. Gen. George Kenney’s Fifth Air Force, charged with supporting and protecting Sixth Army, possessed 2,500 aircraft, yet two months after the invasion hardly any of these could operate from Leyte’s landing grounds.

Long before the landings, Col. William J. Ely, executive officer of Sixth Army’s engineers, had delivered a report in which he highlighted the “soil instability” of Leyte Valley, and the impossibility of accomplishing vital engineering tasks—above all airfield construction—with the troops available, at the height of the rainy season. “Perhaps we can mud and muddle through again on a shoestring,” wrote the colonel gloomily, “but the shoestring must be frayed by this time and if it broke we may lose our shirt as well as our shoe.” Ely’s commanding officer strongly concurred with this report, which was forwarded to SWPA HQ—and dismissed.

Almost twenty-four inches of rain fell on Leyte in November, double the customary monsoon dose. Engineers exercised heroic ingenuity to overcome the airfield problem. The Americans scoured the island for suitable material. At Tacloban, it was found that a naval dredger’s mighty 2,800 hp pumps could move solid substances a mile through hoses. Coral was shifted directly from the seabed offshore to the airfield. Yet still it proved a massive task to create serviceable landing grounds: “A battalion [of engineers] could accomplish no more in a month than a platoon could have carried out in a week under good weather conditions.” Two airfields had to be abandoned, and a third did not become operational until December 16.

The Japanese were unaware that Kenney’s aircraft could scarcely fly out of Leyte. Ironically, therefore, on November 27 and December 6 they lavished scarce resources launching commando and paratroop landings against the American strips. The attacks caused panic in Krueger’s rear areas. Air corps service personnel fled one position, abandoning all their weapons, which the Japanese promptly turned on the Americans. The intruders were soon killed or dispersed, order restored, but Leyte never became a significant USAAF base. The difficulties of stockpiling and shifting stores increased instead of diminished. MacArthur had allowed the geographical convenience of the island to blind him to its unsuitability for every important strategic purpose.

On Christmas Day, 1944, MacArthur announced the formal completion of operations across the entire island: “The Leyte–Samar campaign can now be regarded as closed except for minor mopping-up,” said a SWPA communiqué.

That same day, Yamashita signaled General Suzuki that thenceforward Japanese troops on Leyte must fend for themselves. There could be no further reinforcement or resupply. Suzuki’s remaining elements dispersed into the mountains.

But as many as twenty thousand remained. Even though they now adopted guerrilla tactics rather than fighting as regiments with support weapons, for four more months they sustained the struggle. Krueger’s Sixth Army was withdrawn from combat to prepare for the Luzon landing, but Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger’s Eighth Army endured hard fighting to accomplish the “mopping up” of which their supreme commander spoke so carelessly. “MacArthur’s communiqués are inaccurate to a disgusting degree,” wrote Lt. Gage Rodman of the 17th Infantry. “We who were on the spot knew we were only beginning to fight when he made his ridiculous announcement that our objective was secured.”

The capture of Leyte cost some 15,500 American casualties, including 3,500 dead—almost 700 of the latter, a battalion’s worth, after MacArthur proclaimed his “victory.” Japanese losses were confused by uncertainty about how many troops were drowned in transit to the island when transports were sunk by American aircraft or submarines, but the total approached 50,000. Eighth Army claimed a “body count” of 24,294 Japanese merely for the period from Christmas 1944 to May 1945. From January onwards, the surviving Japanese on Leyte were dependent on local food taken from civilians, and even on growing their own crops. They lacked salt, radio batteries, ammunition. Many of the stragglers had had enough. Whether they were fortunate enough to be able to surrender, however, depended upon escaping the eyes of their own superiors—and then meeting Americans willing to take them alive. One soldier who did so was a Private Saito, who lingered in hiding for weeks after being wounded and kept a diary. “A year ago tomorrow I was inducted,” he wrote:

That was an unhappy day, for I left behind everything worthwhile. Today I experienced the first stage of a new life. I heard the voices and footsteps of American soldiers, and my heart leapt. Instead of fear, I find that I feel a certain warmth towards them. I cannot help but think that those voices have come to save me. Though I wanted to go out to meet them, the wound in my foot prevented it.

For forty-three days now, I have been grateful for this hut because of my gangrene. My hatred for the army hierarchy is stronger than I can express. I must survive and tell this story to the [Japanese] people, or my soul will never rest. The things that we did in China are being done to us. Japan will soon be defeated. We have learned from this war how inferior are our science and industry to those of the enemy. From the outset, I never thought that we could win.

Private Saito was fortunate enough to be taken alive on January 13, by men of the 17th Infantry. It is unknown whether he survived to return to Japan.

Some Japanese senior officers from Leyte reached other islands in a series of night dashes, spending their days hiding in the jungle. General Suzuki was killed in April, when a launch in which he sought to escape was strafed by American aircraft.

Only senior American officers, privy to the airfields fiasco, understood that MacArthur had landed Sixth Army on the wrong island. It was fortunate that this American strategic error was partially redeemed by a matching Japanese one. Terauchi’s folly in compelling Yamashita to reinforce failure enabled Krueger’s formations to destroy units which would otherwise have been awaiting the Americans on Luzon.

If American casualties in this first Philippines campaign seemed painful, they were in truth modest, either by the standards of the Japanese or by those of the European war. It was impossible to beat such a formidable enemy without suffering some attrition. Leyte proved a worse defeat than the Japanese need have suffered, a more substantial victory than MacArthur deserved.

From the book RETRIBUTION by Max Hastings. Copyright © 2008 by Max Hastings. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.