MacArthur at Leyte Island

MacArthur at Leyte Island
AP Photo/Aaron Favila
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The island of Leyte in the Philippines is roughly 115 miles long and ranges in width from 15-45 miles. It is mostly mountainous with two plains in the north — the Leyte Valley in the northeast and the Ormac Valley in the northwest. In 1944, the island’s population was a little more than 900,000. In October 1944, Leyte was the target of a huge armada — at the time the most powerful, though not the largest, naval force ever assembled — carrying invasion forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.

After Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, and threatened to overwhelm retreating American and Filipino forces, MacArthur had been ordered in late February 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt to leave the Philippines and travel to Australia, where he could marshal forces to retake his beloved islands. MacArthur reluctantly left the island of Corregidor on March 11, 1942, on a PT boat commanded by Lt. John Bulkeley. He arrived at Cagayan on the island of Mindanao on March 13, and from there flew to Australia aboard a B-17. His plane landed at Batchelor Field south of Darwin on March 17.

After another flight that took him to central Australia, MacArthur boarded a train to Adelaide on the south coast. When he arrived at the Adelaide train station, MacArthur told reporters that the President had ordered him to organize an offensive against Japan, “a primary object of which is the relief of the Philippines.” “I came through,” MacArthur proclaimed, “and I shall return.”

MacArthur sets stage for taking Philippines

Two and a half years later, MacArthur was on the brink of keeping that promise. He had overcome the opposition of U.S. Navy leaders who wanted to bypass the Philippines and invade Formosa (Taiwan) in preparation for the invasion of Japan. He had persuaded  Roosevelt that retaking the Philippines was sound strategically, morally, and politically. He had overseen a brilliant air-sea-land campaign in New Guinea leading up to this moment.

On Sept. 15, 1944, MacArthur’s forces landed on the island of Morotai, which is located hundreds of miles south of the southernmost Philippine island, Mindanao. Once ashore, MacArthur told his officers, “We shall shortly have an air and light naval base here within 300 miles of the Philippines.” Then — dramatically — he gestured and looked north in the direction of the Philippines and said: “They are waiting for me there. It has been a long time.”

A month later, on Oct. 16, 1944, MacArthur boarded the USS Nashville and joined the armada heading to Leyte Gulf. In his memoirs, he recalled the evening of Oct. 19, when “on every ship nervous men lined the rails or paced the decks, peering into the darkness and wondering what stood out there beyond the night waiting for the dawn to come.” Late that same evening, MacArthur recalled, he retired to his cabin “and read again those passages from the Bible from which I have always gained inspiration and hope.” He prayed, he recalled, “that a merciful God would preserve each one of those men on the morrow.” MacArthur explained that the Leyte operation “was to be the anvil against which I hoped to hammer the Japanese into submission in the central Philippines — the springboard from which I could proceed to the conquest of Luzon, for the final assault against Japan itself.”

U.S. creates confusion to gain element of surprise

For 10 days, carrier aircraft had conducted raids against Formosa, Luzon, Cebu and Leyte in an effort to confuse the Japanese defenders as to the target of the American invasion. That combined with Tokyo’s intelligence failures enabled MacArthur to achieve “strategic surprise.”

After several hours of naval and air bombardment on the morning of Oct. 20, the assault forces of General Walter Krueger’s 6th Army began to land on the invasion beaches. The 6th Ranger Battalion and the 21st Regimental Combat Team assaulted the islands in and near Leyte Gulf. The assault on Leyte’s beaches involved X Corps’ 1st Cavalry and 24th Divisions, XXIV Corps’ 7th and 96th Divisions and the 20th Armored Group, and the 381st Regimental Combat Team. Reinforcements followed-up the initial assaults and established beachheads by early afternoon.

A little after 1 p.m., MacArthur, accompanied by key staff, Philippine President Sergio Osmena, and reporters boarded a landing craft and headed for “Red Beach,” located north of Palo. After a 90-minute trip, the landing craft came to rest on a sandbar short of the beach. It was about 2:30 p.m. U.S. forces had only penetrated inland less than a mile. Mortar fire and sniper fire could be heard nearby. MacArthur ignored the surrounding danger as he had so many times before in his illustrious military career, and waded ashore in knee-deep water with a stern, defiant look on his face. Photographers captured the scene in what became one of the most iconic images of the Second World War.

It began to rain on the beach. MacArthur used a radio transmitter to broadcast to the Philippine people. His words — combining emotion, steadfastness, determination, and inspiration — are unforgettable:

People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil . . . Rally to me! Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. . . . Rise and strike! For your homes and hearths, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory!

Later, MacArthur wrote a brief note to Roosevelt: “This note is written from the beach, near Tacloban, where we have just landed. It will be the first letter from the freed Philippines and I thought you might like to add it to your collection.” When MacArthur returned to the Nashville, he received a message from Roosevelt: “I know well what this means to you. I know what it cost you to obey my order to leave Corregidor.”

'God has indeed blessed our arms'

There would be plenty of fighting ahead, especially on Luzon in Manila, where 100,000 civilians were massacred by the retreating Japanese army. American and Filipino POWS — many of whom had the appearance of skeletons from mistreatment, disease, and lack of food — would be rescued, including General Jonathan Wainwright who had surrendered U.S. forces on Corregidor.

On Feb. 27, 1945, MacArthur spoke at a ceremony in the Malacanan Palace, where the Philippine government was re-established. “God has indeed blessed our arms,” he said. “The girded and unleashed power of America, supported by our Allies, turned the tide of battle in the Pacific and resulted in an unbroken series of crushing defeats upon the enemy, culminating in the redemption of your soil and the liberation of your people.” “My country,” he proudly proclaimed, “has kept the faith!” He finished with a rhetorical flourish and a tribute to God:

Your country thus is again at liberty to pursue its destiny to an honored position in the family of free nations. Your capital city, cruelly punished though it be, has regained its rightful place — citadel of Democracy in the East. . . In humble and devout manifestation of gratitude to Almighty God for bringing this decisive victory to our arms, I ask that all present  rise and join me in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The fighting on Corregidor lasted until March 1, 1945. The following day, MacArthur traveled from Manila to Corregidor — where he had spent his final days in the Malinta Tunnel before leaving for his journey to Australia three years earlier. At a ceremony among the ruins near the Topside barracks, MacArthur looked skyward and remarked: “I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak, and let no enemy ever haul them down.”

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