To liberate, or to bypass
Many Filipinos remember Oct. 20, 1944, as the day US forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte, signaling the start of the campaign to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation. MacArthur called it “A-Day” to avoid confusion with “D-Day” the earlier landings in Normandy, France.
What followed just a few days later was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the greatest naval engagement in history. The three-day action (Oct. 23-25) practically wiped out the Imperial Japanese navy. Japanese losses totaled 29 combatant ships: three battleships, four aircraft carriers, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as hundreds of planes. The Americans lost one light carrier, two escort carriers, three destroyers, along with less than 200 aircraft.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the last duel between battleships and the final combat encounter of these once-dreaded warships. Carrier-based aircraft would become the new, decisive weapon of naval warfare.
But let us examine the issues that had to be resolved prior to the Leyte landing. In July 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was facing reelection with Sen. Harry Truman as his new running mate. In a move to expedite the Pacific Campaign he called for a Pearl Harbor meeting with MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Fleet. The story goes that when FDR arrived in Hawaii on board the cruiser Baltimore, he was met by Nimitz in dress whites. MacArthur was not around and when he showed up, he wore an old, battered cap and a leather flying jacket. He arrived earlier and had already taken a shower.
After dinner that day, FDR looked at a map of the Pacific and asked MacArthur, “Where do we go from here?” MacArthur replied, “Leyte, Mr. President, and then Luzon.” On the other hand, Nimitz echoing the views held by the joint chiefs of staff, favored an invasion of Formosa, bypassing the Philippines. Clearly, the issue boiled down to Formosa versus the Philippines as the next major target. Earlier, Gen. George Marshall cautioned MacArthur not “to allow personal feelings and Philippine political considerations to override our great objective: the early conclusion of war with Japan.” He reminded MacArthur that “bypassing” was not “synonymous with abandonment.” MacArthur forcefully argued that the proposal to bypass the Philippines and launch an attack against Formosa was unsound. The operation would have to be launched without appreciable support from land-based aviation. Nimitz expressed his view that Formosa was a more suitable strategic base for launching the final assault on Japan than the Philippines.
In the end, FDR chose the Philippines. MacArthur, a popular hero with a large constituency among Americans, had said that “bypassing the Philippines would be militarily and politically disastrous.” FDR’s decision was a mix of military strategy and election year politics. Incidentally, FDR would win his fourth term as president.
The Battle to liberate the Philippines that began with the Leyte landing would result in US army casualties of about 47,000, almost the same as those suffered in Okinawa. The cost in terms of Filipino lives and property was even greater. In recapturing Manila, an estimated 100,000 civilians died as Japanese naval forces under Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi, decided to fight to the death instead of making Manila an open city. MacArthur had forbidden the use of aerial bombardment, and so artillery had to be brought up to blast Japanese forces building by building. It was artillery fire that leveled much of Manila to the ground. The devastation of Manila would be one of the great tragedies of World War II. Of all the allied cities in the war, only Warsaw would suffer more.
In reviewing historical events in the past, particularly those that have been associated with much destruction and suffering among our people, we tend to sometimes dwell on what might have been if decisions made were different. Had President Roosevelt chosen Formosa over the Philippines, it is likely that many parts of our country would not have suffered so much ruin and ravaging. Manila would probably have remained relatively unscathed as the city was not of military strategic importance. And as one senior US official put it, MacArthur could still have returned to the Philippines after the surrender of Japan and be received like a conquering hero whose pledge had been redeemed.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.