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October 1944: Remembering One of the Largest Battles in Naval History

The United States brought over 300 ships to the invasion of the island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Robert Farley
October 1944: Remembering One of the Largest Battles in Naval History
Credit: Flickr via J. Tewell

For four days in late October 1944, the United States and Japan fought one of the largest battles in naval history. The United States brought over 300 ships to the invasion of the island of Leyte in the Philippines, which the Japanese attempted to prevent with nearly 70 warships of its own. The battle resulted in the decisive defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the beginning of the U.S. reconquest of the Philippines. This is the first in a series of posts examining how the battle is remembered by the nations it affected, primarily the United States, Japan, and the Philippines.

The people of the Philippines are often consigned a minor role in treatments of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese armed forces conquered the Philippines in the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The campaign began on December 8, 1941 and ended with the surrender of U.S. troops on Corregidor in May 1942. Filipinos mounted a bitter insurgency in response to the Japanese invasion, encouraged both by Japanese depredations and the promise of independence from the United States.

With respect to Leyte itself, the local population participated in the insurgency, and also acted as coast-watchers, supplying intelligence to U.S. forces before and during the battle. Reputedly, shipwrecked Japanese sailors feared going ashore because of worries over reprisals. The Americans chose the island because of good invasion beaches and relatively accessible geography. Landings began on October 17, with the main invasion coming on October 20. Japanese resistance was tough, and fighting continued on the island until December 31.

In the Philippines, the history of the battle and of the accompanying invasions over the following weeks continues to loom large. According the Mark Condeno, military and naval historian, yearly commemorations celebrate the landings of U.S. troops at Leyte, Mindoro, Palawan, Cebu, and other islands. The Leyte landing itself forms part of the history curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. Four years ago, the governor of Romblon province highlighted the discovery of the wreck of HIJMS Musashi, found by the late Paul Allen’s maritime exploration team.

On October 24, a new memorial and museum will open in Surigao City commemorating the battle. The museum will in particular highlight the engagement at Surigao Strait, where six American battleships and a host of other vessels destroyed a Japanese task force in the last ever fight between battleships. Military and diplomatic officials from the United States and Australia are expected to participate in the inauguration. Paul Allen’s ship, MV Petrel, found most of the wrecks of the Japanese task force in Surigao Strait in 2017. Celebrations are also expected in Palo, Leyte, an expansion of the annual celebrations of the landings.

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf remains a point of pride in the Philippines, marking both an important milestone in the independence of the country, and also reflecting the importance of the nation in international affairs. The battle did not mark the end of the war for the Philippines, as hard fighting continued across the archipelago until the Japanese surrender. Nevertheless, the successful landings made clear that Japan would not remain in control of the country for long.