The seizure of Peleliu and Morotai provided Allied forces in the Pacific with important air bases and airfield sites. Above all, control of these islands protected General MacArthur's flanks during the impending invasion of the Philippines. The accelerated timetable for operations in the Pacific called for landings on Leyte on 20 October 1944, Under the overall command of General MacArthur, the Seventh Fleet, under Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was to transport and establish the ground assault force ashore. Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, Commanding General of the Sixth Army, was to command the ground forces. The Third Fleet, in conjunction with the Seventh Fleet, was to provide air support until Army Air Forces units could begin to initiate operations from airfields on Leyte.2
The Leyte Landings1
By far the most important mission assigned to Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet was the preinvasion neutralization of Japanese air power on Okinawa, Formosa, Northern Leyte, and the Visayan Islands in the Central Philippines. Admiral Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet was directly responsible for providing air cover for the invasion ships and for furnishing direct air support for the landings until land-based aircraft could assume those functions. The Fifth Air Force, based on New Guinea, was to destroy the enemy air forces in the Celebes Sea, neutralize Japanese air power in Mindanao, and give such protection to ships as it was able to provide. The Thirteenth Air Force, also stationed on New Guinea, and elements of the Royal Australian Air Force were slated to play a supporting role in neutralizing Japanese air along the east coast of Borneo and in assisting upon request the Fifth Air Force in the southern Philippines. Additional Army Air Forces units in China and the Central Pacific would furnish long-range support.
The island of Leyte, lying in the Visayas Group of the Central Philippines, is 115 miles in length and varies in width from 15 to 40 miles. The main mountain range runs the entire length of the island from north to south, leaving
a wide coastal plain along the east coast. At the outbreak of World War II, the population of 916,000 lived chiefly in the coastal areas, where cultivation of available ground was intense. Crops consisted mainly of coconut, corn, hemp, and rice. The area in which the invasion force was to operate initially did not contain any heavy jungle and was reasonably clear of thick undergrowth. Some difficulty was expected from swamps and marshy ground, which bordered the intricate network of rivers flowing eastward from the mountains to the coast. All beaches in the invasion area were hard sand, with no reefs or obstacles offshore.
The Sixth Army troops for Operation KING II, code name for the invasion of Leyte, were composed of the X and XXIV Corps and the 6th Ranger Battalion. The X Corps included the 1st Cavalry Division and the 24th Infantry Division; ;the XXIV Corps consisted of the 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions. In reserve were the 32d and 77th Infantry Divisions at Hollandia and on Morotai and Guam Islands. The two divisions were prepared to embark for the objective area three days after the invasion date.
The Sixth Army had the mission of seizing and occupying Leyte, establishing control of western and southern Samar until the conquest of that island could be completed, and of destroying other hostile garrisons in the Visayas. The operation was to be carried out in three phases, beginning with capture of the entrance to Leyte Gulf. Large scale amphibious landings along the coast of eastern Leyte between Tacloban and Dulag were to usher in the second phase. Initial objective of the invasion force was the seizure of airfields and potential airfield sites in this area. The third and final phase of the operation envisioned the destruction of Japanese forces on Leyte and southern Samar. Within the scope of this overall plan, X Corps was to seize the area between Tacloban and Palo and launch a drive to the northern tip of the island. The XXIV Corps was to land near Dulag to the south of X Corps and advance westward across Leyte. A regimental combat team was to invade southern Leyte and secure Panaon Straits.
The first phase of the plan was readily accomplished on 17 and 18 October, when the islands barring access to Leyte Gulf were seized. There was no enemy resistance. Following a two-day naval bombardment, the main landings got under way on the east coast of Leyte between Dulag and Tacloban on 20 October. (See Map 17). The combined American beachhead was about 18 miles long. Except for Japanese mortar and artillery fire, enemy resistance at the beaches was light. X Corps seized the Tacloban airfield on A-Day and captured the town of Tacloban on the following day. From Tacloban, the corps advanced in a northerly and northwesterly direction. Elements of the XXIV Corps secured Dulag airfield on 21 October, then swerved westward and seized three airfields near Burauen. Troops of the XXIV Corps pivoted south along Leyte Gulf, seized Abuyog on 29 October, then swerved westward, and, cutting across the island, secured Baybay on the west coast of Leyte.
Map 17: Sixth Army Area of Operations, 20 October 1944-2 November 1944
Japanese reaction to the American landings on Leyte consisted of a hurried activation of SHO NO. 1. On 23 October, a Japanese fleet headed for Leyte to seek battle in a last-ditch attempt to halt the Americans. A decoy carrier force was to divert the Americans, while the two other surface forces, protected by Japanese aircraft on Luzon and Samar, were approaching Leyte Gulf through Surigao and San Bernardino Straits. The Japanese aimed at nothing less than the complete destruction of American shipping near the landing beaches.
The resulting major naval engagement, which lasted from 23-26 October, has become known as the Battle for Leyte Gulf.3 The Japanese came close to achieving their objective, but not quite close enough. By evening of 26 October, the Japanese had lost four carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, nine destroyers, and a submarine. "For all practical purposes, the Japanese Navy, as a navy, had ceased to exist."4 American naval losses in this battle, consisting of three small escort carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort5 were heavy but not crippling. Responsible Japanese commanders subsequently blamed in large part the loss of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the defeat in the Philippines on Japanese weakness in land-based air, "October saw the end of the Japanese air forces in the conventional sense; what had once been a formidable weapon was transformed perforce into a sacrificial army of guided missiles."6
The Battle for Leyte Gulf was to have an interesting aftermath for at least a few Marine aviators. During the summer of 1944 General Mitchell, commander of the 1st MAW, had been unsuccessful in getting a combat assignment for his wing for the planned invasion of the Philippines. Even though Marine aviation was not assigned any part in the Leyte landings, a few aviators were assigned as observers during the invasion of Leyte. As a result, General Mitchell and three members of his staff took part in the landings and went ashore on A-Day with elements of the Fifth Air Force. On 25 October, while the Battle of Leyte Gulf was still in progress, more than a hundred U.S. naval aircraft, whose carriers had been sunk or severely damaged, were forced to land at Tacloban and Dulag airfields. The field at Tacloban was in deplorable shape; amphibious vehicles had churned up the ground, converting it into a veritable sea of mud and even though repairs had been started, the field was in no condition for the emergency landings by Navy aircraft.
Fortunately, General Mitchell and his staff were at Tacloban airfield at this crucial time. As an experienced aviator General Mitchell realized that the only place for safe landings was to the right of the field, where the original sod was still firm. The wing commander promptly seized a pair of signal flags, ran to the end of the strip, and, acting as a landing signal officer, assisted the Navy planes in making a safe landing. At
NAVY PLANES from carriers sunk or damaged during the Battle for Leyte Gulf find refuge at Dulag airfield, Leyte, 25 October 1944. (USMC A700601)
RADAR-EQUIPPED NIGHT FIGHTERS of VMF(N)-541 over Leyte. (USMC A700605)
the Dulag airstrip, about 20 miles south of Tacloban, the Navy pilots were not quite so lucky, and 8 out of the 40 aircraft attempting to land cracked up. There were no bombs, ammunition, or gasoline at Dulag, and barges had to transport those items there to enable the aircraft to become operational again by the following day.7
Difficulties with soft and muddy airstrips apparently were not limited to the Americans; a Japanese account of the Leyte operation mentions "a marked increase in the number of crippled planes because of poor maintenance of the air fields. . . . It became impossible for the supply to catch up with the losses."8
Marine aviation, aside from General Mitchell's providential presence at Tacloban, did not play a direct part in the Leyte landings or the early phase of the Leyte campaign. Nevertheless, about 1,500 Marines were deeply involved in the operation from its outset and were to contribute materially to the liberation of the island.
SUPPORTING ARTILLERY9The Marines that took part in the Leyte landings were elements of the VAC Artillery, which had been attached to the XXIV Corps earlier in 1944, while still at Hawaii. The Marine complement consisted of the 5th 155mm Howitzer Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James E. Mills; the 11th 155mm Gun Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas S. Ivey, and Headquarters Battery, led by Captain George K. Acker. Army field artillery battalions in the XXIV Corps were the 198th Field Artillery Battalion ( 155mm Howitzer), the 226th Field Artillery Battalion (155mm Gun), and the 287th Field Artillery Battalion (Observation).
The Marine artillery elements assigned to the XXIV Corps, as well as the 226th Field Artillery Battalion, had been formed from former seacoast artillery units; though familiar with heavy artillery, the men had received only rudimentary field artillery training. Prior to the departure of these units from Hawaii, the Marine artillery had undergone intensive field artillery training. Embarkation of personnel from Hawaii was accomplished between 6 and 14 September 1944.
The two Marine artillery battalions and the headquarters battery were embarked in the LSV USS Monitor and the LSV USS Catskill. General Bourke, on board the amphibious command ship USS Mount Olympus, served as XXIV Corps Artillery Officer as well as its coordinator for naval gunfire, air strikes, and artillery support. Equipment for the artillery battalions was carried by the cargo ship USS Auriga. The ships arrived at Eniwetok in the
Marshalls on 25 September and three days later sailed for the final staging area at Manus Island in the Admiralties, where they arrived on 3 October. A Marine observer attached to the 5th 155mm Howitzer Battalion shed an interesting sidelight on the manner in which the troops learned of their objective:
Two days out of Pearl Harbor (17Sep44), a PBY bomber dropped dispatches containing information changing the target from STALEMATE II to KING II. This information was not disseminated to the troops when we arrived at Eniwetok on 25 September 1944, but upon arrival at Manus Island (Admiralty Group) on 3 October 1944, said information was passed on to the lower command echelon. As a result, the name and date of the landing on Leyte Island was known even to the enlisted personnel while the ships of the convoys were still in the last staging area. Unfortunately this information was common talk among all hands and no great attempt, in general, was made to preserve the secrecy necessary in an operation of this kind.10
On 14 October the invasion fleet departed Manus Island for Leyte. The ships in which the corps artillery was embarked arrived in the transport area off Leyte during the morning of 20 October. Naval bombardment of the objective began at approximately 0745 and continued for two hours. Shortly before 1000, Sixth Army units began the invasion of Leyte. X Corps, on the right of the Sixth Army front, landed on the northern part of the invasion beaches; XXIV Corps, consisting of the 7th Infantry Division on the left (south) and the 96th Infantry Division on the right (north) established a southern beachhead. The landings did not take place earlier in the day because the ships could not risk a passage through minefield at night. In the words of a Marine observer with the 96th Infantry Division:
. . . .the landing was perfect. LCI rocket boats and gun boats preceded the first waves of (amtracs) to the beach and laid down heaviest concentration of rocket, 40mm and 20mm fire used to date on a beach in the Pacific. All troops landed on schedule and proceeded inland without opposition. Not many more than 15 mortar shells landed in the water or on the beaches, and in the entire division only 2 dead and 14 wounded were suffered in getting ashore.11
As units of the X and XXIV Corps were going ashore and setting up beachheads, the artillerymen remained on board their ships. Reports from the beachheads indicated that the Japanese tactics differed completely from those encountered in the Central Pacific. The Japanese no longer concentrated their resistance on the beaches but defended the interior of the island. Owing to the large land area, the Japanese had the problem of properly utilizing their limited manpower. The Japanese 16th Infantry Division. with attached service troops was charged with the defense of Leyte. The division was disposed with the 33d Infantry to the north, in the zone of the X Corps, the 9th Infantry to the south opposite the XXIV Corps, and the 20th Infantry in reserve between Dulag and Tanauan. It was estimated that there were 20,000 Japanese on Leyte, including between 5,000 and 10,000 labor and service troops mostly employed in airfield construction
and maintenance in the area around Tacloban, San Jose, Burauen, and Dagami.12
As the Sixth Army beachheads were established and expanded, it became evident that the Leyte landings had come as a complete surprise for the enemy. The beaches on which the 96th Infantry Division landed were undefended, though two Japanese antitank guns in the landing area of the 7th Infantry Division succeeded in knocking out five medium tanks. Aside from this action, the assault troops did not encounter any enemy interference until they had advanced several hundred yards inland. Few defensive installations were found on the beaches and those that were encountered were makeshift and indicative of hasty construction. Though some 75mm artillery and sporadic mortar fire hit the beaches, the enemy made no attempt to mass his fire. No Japanese tanks were in evidence near the invasion area. The biggest obstacle for the first 3,000 yards inland from the beaches was the terrain, which was so swampy and muddy that the advance had to be held up for a day in order to get supplies to the front lines.
On the morning of 21 October, General Bourke ordered all corps artillery units to dispatch advance parties to meet him at Blue One Beach, which was situated just north of Dulag. Owing to communications problems, word of this order reached only the 5th 155mm Howitzer Battalion and the Army 287th Field Artillery Battalion in time. As a result, representatives of these two battalions were the only ones to meet General Bourke before nightfall on 21 October. The remaining hours of daylight were utilized in reconnoitering and selecting initial positions. Advance parties from the 11th 155mm Gun Battalion, the Headquarters Battery of the VAC Artillery, and the Army 226th Artillery Battalion went ashore after nightfall but did not select their positions until the morning of 22 October. At this time General Bourke requested XXIV Corps to land the entire corps artillery.
The Army 198th and 226th Field Artillery Battalions and the 287th Field Artillery Observation Battalion went ashore without undue difficulty. The two Marine artillery battalions and the headquarters battery, on the other hand, ran into a major problem almost at once. The USS Auriga (AK-98) which carried the equipment of the Marine units, had been ordered to begin unloading on A-Day by the Commander, Transport Division 28, who had failed to coordinate his operation with either the Commanding General of the XXIV Corps or General Bourke. As a result, when advance parties of the artillery units reached the beach on A plus 1, half of the vehicles and weapons, as well as some ammunition, had already been landed, even though no artillerymen were present on the beach to dispose of this materiel. Equipment was scattered over several beaches and some of the heavy guns had been landed in areas in which no suitable firing positions could be obtained. As a result, positions further inland had to be reconnoitered.
By A plus 3 all of the Marine artillery was ashore, in position, and supporting the XXIV Corps. The first positions
occupied by the artillery were on a narrow rise about a quarter of a mile inland from the seashore. From here, the artillery was able to support the infantry which advanced northward from the invasion beaches towards an enemy-held hill that was nearly 400 feet high. By this time, the artillery units were well organized, and earlier problems associated with the landing had been overcome. Following in the wake of the infantry advance, the 5th 155mm Howitzer Battalion moved first to positions halfway between Dulag and Burauen and subsequently into the area between Burauen and Dagami. The 11th 155mm Gun Battalion followed within a few days, together with the advance echelon of Headquarters Battery. By evening of 22 October, the 226th Field Artillery Battalion occupied positions on the western outskirts of Dulag and was assigned the mission of reinforcing the fires of the 7th Infantry Division artillery, as the division advanced toward Dulag, Burauen, and Dagami. On the following day the 198th Field Artillery Battalion was assigned the mission of supporting the fires of the 96th Infantry Division Artillery to the north and northwest of San Jose. The 287th Observation Battalion established positions along the highway north of Dulag. By 24 October all units under the command of General Bourke were in position and firing in support of the XXIV Corps.
Since the Japanese were holding terrain to the west that was considerably higher than that held by the invasion force, the enemy had the advantage of superior observation. For the Americans, ground visibility was so poor that aerial observation assumed an unusual importance. Artillery spotter aircraft soon became the backbone of artillery observation. At the time of the landings some planes were brought in over the beach in a partially disassembled condition, put together, and flown to an airstrip from a narrow, sandy road paralleling the beach. Others took off from their carriers and completed the flight without undue difficulty, except for one plane, whose pilot got lost in a rainstorm and landed in enemy territory on the southern tip of Samar. The pilot, a field artillery officer, kept a cool head, which was badly needed since he carried with him parts of the operation plan. He carefully buried the important document, hid his aircraft as best he could, and, with the assistance of natives, found his way back to the American lines. Subsequently, accompanied by a rescue party, the pilot returned to the scene of the mishap, dug up the papers, repaired the plane, and flew it back to Dulag Field on Leyte.13
The observation planes available to the XXIV Corps Artillery consisted of 12 Type L-4 artillery spotter aircraft; a total of 13 pilots comprised the flying personnel; a dozen observers were available to carry out visual observation. The XXIV Corps furnished the pilots and planes; the observers were Marines from the artillery battalions or the Air Section of VAC Artillery Headquarters as well as Army personnel from their artillery battalions. The spotter aircraft also handled such special assignments
as reconnaissance, search, and photographic missions for the XXIV Corps.
During the first few days of the Leyte operation, Japanese air action consisted of several raids each day, The enemy did not focus his attention on the troops but concentrated his air attacks against American shipping, beach supply dumps, and airfields. In the 96th Infantry Division area, these raids were executed by only two or three planes at a time. Since the beaches were jammed with ammunition, gasoline dumps, and other supplies for nearly 200 yards inland, the Japanese were bound to hit something. "In one raid, over 50 percent of the 7th Division ammunition and gasoline stores were burned up by the one bomb dropped, not to mention other supplies."14 Beginning on 24 October the tempo of enemy air attacks picked up.
Aside from the destruction of materiel, the enemy air raids had an effect that could hardly have been anticipated by even the most optimistic Japanese. This unexpected byproduct was the confusion they had caused. A Marine observer attached to the Army described the result in the following words:
Air raid warning systems had not been installed. The confusion caused by green troops having first enemy planes and then friendly planes fly over caused them to fire at all planes even when the markings were easily distinguishable. All that was necessary was for one gun to open fire, then all guns would fire even down to troops armed with M-Is and carbines. I personally saw one TBF shot down by our own fire and several others fired on.15
The indiscriminate firing against aircraft did not end there. According to another Marine observer, the gun crews of liberty ships and small boats were the worst offenders, probably because of poor recognition training. In any event, before the confusion died down, "they even shot down one cub artillery-spotting plane."16
By nightfall of 22 October, the 5th Howitzer Battalion and the 226th Field Artillery Battalion were in position ready to fire although the 5th Battalion had only 10 of its 12 pieces emplaced. The Headquarters Battery was also in position with communications to all units at this time. The 287th Observation Battalion had surveyed sufficient terrain to permit the division and the corps artillery to tie in to a common control. The initial area assigned to the 5th and 11th Battalions required the construction of a corduroy road across a small swamp. Both battalions worked on the construction of this road, but the 5th Battalion, which moved into position first, found access so difficult that the corps artillery commander ordered the 11th Battalion to occupy a different area. The battalion moved into its new position during the late afternoon and night of 23 October.
Marine artillerymen on Leyte came close to being actively involved in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. While that battle was reaching a climax, it appeared for a time that the Japanese Central Force would penetrate the screen of warships protecting the American transports. In the words of General Bourke:
I was ordered by General Hodge, the XXIV Corps Commander, to turn the two 155mm Gun Battalions toward Leyte Gulf and prepare for the defense of the Beachhead
in that direction, against elements of the Japanese Fleet then believed to be approaching. As these battalions were originally trained in Coast Defense Methods this was readily accomplished.17
As the battle developed, the Japanese did not succeed in breaking through to the beachhead, and the corps artillerymen on Leyte never got a crack at the Japanese Navy. Instead, until 1 November, the XXIV Corps artillery continued to fire reinforcing missions for the division artillery in the beachhead. The marshy ground had a more adverse effect on the siting of positions and efficiency of artillery support than did the tactical situation. More often than not, cross country movement of medium and heavy artillery became impossible and positions had to be selected along roads or in the vicinity of airfields. On numerous occasions, positions to cover target areas could not be selected without frequently shifting the weapons. The 198th Field Artillery Battalion, as late as 1 November, was forced to occupy positions about 1,200 yards behind the front line because of unfavorable terrain. As a result, for several days the artillerymen drew intermittent small arms fire and attracted infiltrators.
On 1 November, the Marine howitzer battalion followed the infantry advance and displaced inland into the area between Burauen and Dagami. On the same day, the 198th Field Artillery Battalion was assigned the mission of reinforcing the fires of the 96th Infantry Division Artillery in support of operations west and northwest of Dagami. A few days later, the Marine gun battalion and the forward echelon of Headquarters Battery moved into the same general area as the Marine howitzer battalion. The immediate establishment of a fire direction center situated along the road between Burauen and Dagami enabled the artillery to fire massed concentrations along the entire XXIV Corps front. On 4 November, the 226th Field Artillery Battalion was detached to operational control of the X Corps and displaced to that sector.
Heavy rains in November immobilized almost all vehicular traffic in the Burauen-Dagami area. A static period developed along the entire corps front. At this time the artillery battalions often found themselves very close to the front, so that local perimeter defense assumed major importance. Heavy infantry weapons were sited with emphasis on air defense during the day and ground defense at night. At various times all artillery battalions came under enemy air attack, particularly the Marine battalions stationed near newly captured airfields. The 5th Howitzer Battalion claimed two enemy aircraft shot down and the 11th Battalion claimed one; the Army 226th Battalion also took credit for two aircraft downed.18
Local defense of artillery units consisted of manned positions around each
battery and barbed wire when possible.19 Each artillery battalion was bothered from time to time by infiltrating snipers, who attempted to neutralize the batteries by small arms fire which was normally delivered as the artillery pieces fired. In this way the enemy hoped to escape detection by local security details. In some instances at night it became necessary to load the pieces and have the cannoneers take cover before firing. During the night of 24 October, the 226th Artillery Battalion was attacked by about 35 Japanese equipped with automatic weapons, explosive charges, magnetic mines, and grenades. Part of Battery A was temporarily neutralized, and one piece was disabled by an explosive charge. After a heavy exchange of fire the enemy force was scattered. The Japanese left 26 dead around the battalion sector. Remnants of this patrol evidently remained in the swamps around the battalion for some time, and for the next few nights sniping on the artillery position continued.
Since much enemy activity along the front occurred at night, the corps artillery had to maintain intermittent harassing and interdiction fires during the hours of darkness. It soon became evident that after personnel had been provided for all firing installations, the number of men available for local security was scanty. Nevertheless, the artillerymen performed their missions and despite poor roads, bad weather, and enemy harassment, lent effective support to the advancing infantry units.
In general, the corps artillery missions were the usual interdiction, harassing, and deep supporting fires. Each time a counterbattery mission was fired, air observation was utilized to locate and adjust upon the target. During daylight hours, fires consisted usually of registrations and adjustment on sensitive areas as a basis for night fires. Targets of opportunity were fired on as they appeared. Upon occasion, close supporting fires at night were requested by division artillery during periods of enemy activity.
The Japanese employment of artillery on Leyte was such that it was seldom used to maximum effect. In the words of the U.S. Army history of the Leyte campaign:
The gunnery techniques were "remarkably undeveloped" and inefficient, the pieces being used singly or in pairs and only rarely as batteries. Their fire was never massed. The gun positions generally were well constructed but they were frequently selected with such high regard for concealment that the fields of fire were limited.20
By 2 November the Sixth Army ground offensive on Leyte had attained initial objectives. Advancing up the Leyte Valley, U.S. Army troops had advanced to Dulag, Burauen, Dagami, and Tanauan, reaching the west coast of Leyte on 1 November. Though initially slow to react, the Japanese did not by any means consider their situation on the island hopeless. While the
Battle of Leyte Gulf was still in progress and American attention was focused on the naval operation, several Japanese infantry battalions from the western Visayas landed at Ormoc on the west coast of Leyte. On 26 October, an additional 2,000 men comprising the 41st Infantry Regiment from Mindanao went ashore.
These reinforcements were only driblets of what was shortly to turn into a torrent of men and supplies. On 1 November, the Japanese 1st Division, coming from Shanghai on troop transports escorted by destroyers and coast defense vessels, reached Ormoc and went ashore with about 12,000 men and equipment. Unloading was virtually completed before the convoy was discovered. Within two weeks after A-Day, the Japanese had landed some 22,000 reinforcements.21
To deprive the Japanese of their main port of debarkation on Leyte, General Krueger decided to launch two converging drives against Ormoc. X Corps was to move south through the Ormoc Valley; XXIV Corps was to advance northwards from Baybay. At the conclusion of this drive the Japanese remaining on Leyte would be forced to move into the mountains west of the Ormoc Valley, where effective organized resistance was all but impossible. In the XXIV Corps area, the 96th Infantry Division was to eliminate about 6,000 Japanese in the hills west of Dagami during the time that the 7th Infantry Division was consolidating its gains between Abuyog and Baybay.
Meanwhile, the Japanese continued to pour reinforcements into Leyte. In fact, "the idea of a mobile countermanding force to reinforce the invaded area, had been an integral part of the Japanese SHO plan."22 Between 23 October and 11 December 1944, the Japanese landed substantial reinforcements in nine echelons, until a total of some 30,000 men had gone ashore.'3 At the same time, strong enemy aircraft reinforcements arrived from Formosa. As November came to a close, the Japanese resistance on Leyte stiffened, aided by heavy rainfall, which impeded the progress of the Sixth Army's mechanized equipment. By mid-November it had become clear to both opponents that the struggle for Leyte would be long and costly; the idea of an easy victory for either opponent had vanished once and for all.
In an attempt to gain the initiative, the Japanese resorted to some unorthodox tactics. During the early hours of 27 November, three enemy transport aircraft came in low over Leyte Gulf. The aircraft made no attempt to black out and had all their lights on. When one of the planes crash-landed just 25 yards offshore near the bivouac of an amphibian tractor battalion, one of the guards jumped on the wing to offer assistance. Hand-grenade throwing Japanese emerging from the plane quickly convinced the guard that his help was not wanted. Two of the enemy were subsequently killed by small arms fire. Three others vanished into a swamp, where about a dozen others soon joined them.
The second air transport crashed while attempting to land on Buri airstrip and all of the occupants were killed. The third airplane crash-landed north of Abuyog across a small river from a bivouac area occupied by troops of the 11th Airborne Division. According to a history of that division:
An antiaircraft machine gun crew, which outfit is forgotten now, was in position on the alert for enemy aircraft. When the plane landed and came to a halt, they called across the small river: "Need any help?" "No, everything OK," someone yelled back, and the machine gun crew went back to watching the skies for enemy aircraft.24
The presence of stronger Japanese reinforcements on Leyte soon had an effect on the tactical situation of the XXIV Corps Artillery, particularly those units stationed in the Burauen area, where three out of the four airfields on Leyte were situated. During the early morning of 6 December, an estimated 100 Japanese infiltrated the area adjacent to Headquarters Battery, 287th Observation Battalion, in an apparent attempt to advance towards Buri airfield. Two days were to pass before the enemy infiltrators were eliminated.
At dusk on 6 December, enemy planes bombed Buri airfield, which harbored the corps artillery air sections totalling 30 officers and men, and laid a heavy smoke screen over the surrounding area. Shortly after the bombing, a force of about 150 Japanese parachuted into the vicinity of the field. The Marines of the air sections were armed with individual weapons and two machine guns, one of which had been salvaged from a wrecked plane. In the course of the morning, enemy attacks gradually drove friendly troops from their positions. As these men fell back on the position held by the Corps Artillery air sections, an additional 175 antiaircraft gun crews and service troops were hastily organized for defense by Marine Captain Eugene S. Roane, Jr., Assistant Corps Artillery S-2 and Air Observer, who was the senior officer present at the time of the Japanese attack.
Fighting for Buri airfield continued until 8 December. During the afternoon of that day, the antiaircraft personnel comprising part of the defensive force were ordered off the field. Having lost a large segment of their strength by this reshuffling of troops, the Marines were forced to pull back to the infantry perimeter. While fighting for the airfield was in progress, liaison pilots and observers from corps artillery repeatedly took off from and landed on the field under fire to evacuate wounded and bring in supplies and ammunition. All planes were hit by enemy small arms fire, which wounded one pilot and a mechanic. On 9 December the remaining personnel of the Corps Artillery Air Section were evacuated from Buri airfield.25
Some of the enemy paratroops dropped on 6 December landed near the position of the 5th 155mm Howitzer Battalion. For the next four days and nights, Marines of the battalion found themselves dodging enemy bullets and hand grenades. The tactics employed
by the Japanese consisted of remaining inactive during the day and emerging at night to 10b grenades into the battery positions. For the most part such attacks were sporadic, lasting no more than one hour at a time and repeated four to five times each night, At this particular time, most of the equipment and men were at the beach preparing to load on board ship to depart Leyte, and those Marines who remained to encounter the enemy paratroops were members of cleanup details consisting of about 50-75 men whose nights were made even more unpleasant by the hard rain which filled the foxholes with cold water. Fortunately for the Marines, it was possible to trace the grenade trajectory by the glow of the fuze, enabling them to fire at the source. Before the action ended, the artillerymen had killed 23 of the Japanese and accounted for one more who preferred to commit suicide.26 The remaining Japanese were driven from Buri airfield on 10 December.
At 0800 on 11 December, following the arrival of the XXIV Corps Artillery from Saipan, the V Amphibious Corps Artillery was relieved of all missions in support of the XXIV Corps. The 5th and 11th Battalions and Headquarters Battery sailed from Leyte on 13 December for Guam. General Bourke departed from the island by air for Guam on the same day.27 During their attachment to XXIV Corps, the Marine artillerymen lost 2 officers and 7 enlisted men killed, 3 officers and 31 enlisted men wounded in action, and 1 Marine missing.28
Though the battle for Leyte was still far from over, the Marine artillerymen had contributed their share to ultimate victory.
ENTER MARINE AIR29During the early days of the Leyte operation, the Navy furnished all air support for the U.S. ground troops. The Battle for Leyte Gulf made it necessary for the escort carriers to use all available aircraft for offensive and defensive missions. Incessant rains and mud on Leyte impeded the development of airfields. The advent of Japanese suicide attacks30 against American ships in Leyte Gulf caused losses that badly hurt the Navy escort groups.
Alien as the spirit of self-destruction may appear to Occidental eyes, the idea of sacrificing an airplane and pilot to destroy an Allied ship was effective and entirely practical from the Japanese point of view. Overwhelming American superiority in both personnel and materiel forced the Japanese to adopt this step. The effectiveness of kamikaze attacks in Leyte Gulf was further increased by American difficulties with shore-based radar, which left supporting units in the Gulf exposed to increasing threat of suicide attack.31 Among the many statements made during and after World War II on the subject of the kamikaze, perhaps the most poignant one came from a Navy commander, who philosophized as follows:
Every time one country gets something, another soon has it. One country gets radar, but soon all have it. One gets a new type of engine or plane, then another gets it. But the Japs have got the kamikaze boys, and nobody else is going to get that, because nobody else is built that way.32
Despite the initial success of the Japanese ramming attacks and the losses they were able to inflict on American shipping at Leyte, such bizarre tactics could not offset American superiority, nor could they accomplish a turning of the tide in the strategical situation. No other tactic could have illuminated more clearly the weakness of the Japanese Air Force. A dispassionate and objective analysis of the overall impact of the kamikaze tactic came to the conclusion that with the first kamikaze attack:
. . . the Japanese may be said to have abandoned the air war; from this time on they made little attempt at reviving their air force. Macabre, effective, supremely practical under the circumstances, supported and stimulated by a powerful propaganda campaign, the special attack became virtually the sole method used in opposing the United States striking and amphibious forces, and these ships the sole objectives.33
The exploits of Japanese kamikaze pilots could not change the fact that Japanese air operations in the Philippines were beset by severe difficulties. Foremost among these was the speed employed by the American invasion forces in seizing the Japanese airfields on Leyte. Even though the numerical weakness of American land-based aircraft initially permitted the Japanese to land substantial reinforcements, the arrival of additional aircraft and the completion of airfields on the island were bound to shift the balance in favor of the Americans. For the Japanese, there was a marked increase in the number of crippled aircraft because of the poor state of Japanese airfields in the Philippines. Only about 10 Japanese aircraft reached the battle zone towards the end of October. At that time the daily attrition rate was 20-25 aircraft.34 It became impossible for Japanese aircraft production to catch up with the losses.
Throughout November, the fast carriers hit Luzon in order to reduce the heavy flow of Japanese aircraft reinforcements that were being sent to the Philippines from Formosa. No fewer than 700 enemy aircraft and 134,000 tons of Japanese shipping were destroyed in this manner.35 The Japanese Air Force was unable to compensate for such heavy losses. In the words of the former Military Secretary to the Japanese Minister of War:
Aerial operations in the Philippines were conducted in the form of an aircraft-replacement race, instead of combat between hostile aircraft carriers. At the time, moreover, there existed such a tremendous difference in the air-replacement capabilities of the Japanese and the Americans that there was scant opportunity for the former to win the decisive battle for Leyte‹even if various other conditions were temporarily favorable.36
During the initial phase of the Leyte campaign, the Japanese Air Force had the upper hand. FEAF aircraft were too few in numbers to do more than
provide a defense against enemy air attacks. Tacloban was the only operational strip on Leyte, though the Dulag airfield was used on occasion for emergency landings. Before the first Army Air Force planes could land at Tacloban on 27 October, 2,500 feet of steel matting had to be laid in two days. The advent of the rainy season and the arrival of three typhoons, accompanied by heavy rains, further complicated airfield construction. As a result, the arrival of sorely needed light and medium bombers had to be postponed repeatedly. On several occasions engineers engaged in airfield construction had to be diverted to road maintenance.
By the end of November, all of Leyte except the Ormoc Bay area and the northwest coast of the island was in American hands. The continuous flow of Japanese reinforcements threatened to cause a military stalemate, even though Sixth Army had seven divisions ashore and the Navy had driven the Japanese fleet from the waters surrounding Leyte. The Tacloban airstrip received unwelcome attention by the Japanese, who made several determined attempts to render the strip useless for the Americans. On 4 November, 35 enemy aircraft raided the airfield, killing 4 men, wounding 30, and destroying 2 P-38s and damaging 39 others.37 Two kamikazes crashed into two air transports bringing in the ground echelon of a bombardment group, killing 92 men and wounding 156 others. Additional American aircraft at the Tacloban field fell victim to Japanese air attacks later in the month.
Even though Allied air power had begun to count by mid-November and an increasing number of Japanese ships engaged in shuttling reinforcements to Leyte were sent to the bottom, air operations on Leyte continued to be hamstrung by the lack of base facilities. "FEAF could meet the demand for planes and combat crews, but they could not operate without surfaced strips. By 30 November, only 182 fighters were on Leyte, and an average of only 111 had been operational daily during the preceding week."39
No immediate relief for the shortage of airfields on Leyte was in sight. Facilities completed at Bayug and Buri were closed down by bad weather shortly after they had become operational; poor drainage, faulty soil bases, and poor access roads finally forced Fifth Air Force to abandon Buri and San Pablo airstrips. Construction of an all-weather airfield at Tanauan between Tacloban and Dulag began during the latter part of November, but until completion of this strip the lack of air facilities on Leyte was bound to reduce the effectiveness of American air power. Fifth Air Force expended its strength in a struggle to gain air superiority; the insufficient number of aircraft available on Leyte precluded the employment of aircraft for close support missions until late in the campaign.
By 27 November, Admiral Kinkaid had become increasingly restive under the continued kamikaze attacks, which continued to exact a heavy toll among American ships. Admiral Halsey's carriers had already stayed in the Philippines almost a month longer than had
been planned and the Admiral itched for action against the Japanese mainland. General MacArthur was dissatisfied with the air defense of Leyte and suggested to Admiral Nimitz an exchange of night fighter squadrons. The Marine night fighters were better able to cope with the Japanese night bombers, which were too fast for the P-61 Black Widow fighter plane, built by Northrop, used by the Army night fighter squadron on Leyte. VMF(N)-541 was to be shifted from Peleliu to Leyte, relieving a Fifth Air Force squadron that in turn was to move to the Palaus.
For General Mitchell's Marine aviators, the old adage that "all good things come in bunches" was about to prove true. Hardly had the word of VMF(N)-541's transfer to Leyte been passed when Admiral Halsey intervened in order to get the Marine aviators more fully committed in the Philippines. The Admiral described this development in the following words:
I had under my command in the South Pacific a Marine Air Group which had proved its versatility in everything from fighting to blasting enemy vessels. I knew that this group was now under Mac-Arthur's command, and I knew, too, without understanding why, that when Kenney was not keeping it idle, he was assigning it to missions far below its capacity. Kinkaid's complaint of insufficient air cover prompted me to take a step which was more than a liberty; to a man of meaner spirit than MacArthur's, it would have seemed an impertinence. I called these Marines to his attention. He ordered them forward, and within twenty-four hours of their arrival, they had justified my recommendation.39
Admiral Halsey's recommendation to General MacArthur bore immediate fruit. As November drew to a close, VMF(N)-541 on Peleliu and four Marine fighter squadrons of MAG-12 in the Solomons stood ready to move to Leyte when the word was received.
Marine Night Fighter Squadron 541 was placed on standby alert for departure to Leyte on 28 November. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Peter D. Lambrecht, the squadron had spent over two months on Peleliu. Equipped with Grumman "Hellcats," more formally known as F6Fs, the squadron specialized in night intercept operations. To this end, the "Hellcats" were equipped with special radar devices, and all of the pilots had received thorough training in the squadron specialty.
Three days later, General Mitchell ordered Marine Aircraft Group 12 (MAG-12) , commanded by Colonel William A. Willis, to move four of its fighter squadrons, VMF-115, -211, -218, and -313 to Tacloban by 3 December for duty with the Fifth Air Force.40 To expedite the movement, General Mitchell requested Fifth Air Force to make C-47 transports available to airlift men and materiel of the ground echelons to Tacloban. This request was granted; similarly, the Seventh Fleet promised logistic support for the ground echelon at its destination.
Early on 2 December, 85 Corsairs from MAG-12, escorted by PBJs from
MAG-61, left the Solomons for Leyte. After refueling at Hollandia and other islands, 82 fighters reached Peleliu on 3 December, only a few hours after VMF(N)-541 had left for Tacloban. The remainder, having developed mechanical trouble, required repairs before they could catch up with the main flight. The night fighters of VMF(N)-541 flew the 600 miles from Peleliu to Leyte without incident and landed at Tacloban during the morning of 3 December; in the course of the afternoon, 66 Corsairs and 9 escorting patrol bombers touched down on the same airstrip; 16 Corsairs had remained at Peleliu with mechanical troubles, none of them serious.41
Marine aviators had come to the Philippines in strength to fly cover for convoys, execute fighter-bomber strikes against enemy shipping in Visayan waters and ground installations on southern Luzon, and fly ground support missions on Leyte. Above all, they helped to deny the ports of western Leyte to the enemy during his desperate attempts to reinforce his troops and made him pay dearly for attempting to run the aerial blockade.
CORSAIRS AND HELLCATS ON LEYTE42Marine aviators arriving at Tacloban were quick to discover that facilities at the airfield left something to be desired. One author gave the following graphic description:
Tacloban strip was now the none-too happy base of 87 Marine planes. Although the invasion had taken place six weeks before the first Marine flyers got there, work on the airfield had progressed but little. Severe storms lashed the east coast of Leyte during the October-January northeast monsoon, and stories about the mud at Tacloban are still legendary.43
One of the aviators of MAG-12 has described the arrival of the Air Group as being attended "by some of the worst conditions of overcrowding, lack of space, and inadequate operational facilities, not even excluding Guadalcanal in August of 1942."44
On the day of their arrival at Tacloban, six Hellcats of VMF(N)-541 flew their first mission in the Philippines by covering PT boats in Surigao Strait and providing air cover over Ormoc Bay. Bad weather on 4 December precluded flight operations; instead, Marine aviation personnel set up and improved the camp site located about 300 yards west of the southern end of the Tacloban strip.
Marine pilots in the Philippines drew their first blood on 5 December, when a Hellcat on predawn patrol between Bohol Island and southern Leyte shot down an enemy fighter. Not to be outdone by the nightfighters, the Corsair pilots also claimed a Japanese fighter on the same day.
This was only the beginning of what was to prove an exciting, demanding, and fruitful operation for the Marine aviators. For the remainder of the month, the biggest assignment for the nightfighters, alternately known as the "Bateye Squadron," was to intercept Japanese aircraft that preferred to execute raids at dusk, dawn, and during the night. Some difficulty was experienced initially because the ground controllers guiding the night fighters were Army personnel using procedures that differed from those followed by Marine controllers, though in time coordination improved. Crowded conditions at Tacloban and deficiencies in radar coverage and performance did not make the task of the Hellcat pilots easier.
The day-fighter squadrons of MAG-12 soon discovered that the mission they had so thoroughly trained for‹that of close support for ground troops‹did not materialize at once. There were daily missions of raiding enemy airfields, providing air cover for friendly convoys, rescues, and attacks against Japanese troops and communications. The most important contribution of Marine fighters in the Leyte operation resulted from the tactical situation, which made it necessary for Marine pilots to play an active part in stemming the steady enemy flow of reinforcements to Leyte by attacking Japanese ships.
Marine fighters of VMF-211 struck their first blow against Japanese shipping on the morning of 7 December, when a dozen Corsairs went out in search of seven Japanese vessels reportedly en route to Ormoc Bay. By the time the Corsairs spotted the ships at anchor at San Isidro Harbor, Japanese fighters were flying cover for the convoys. Eight Marine fighters engaged the Japanese aircraft; four Corsairs went after the enemy ships and damaged one destroyer, which caught fire and subsequently ran aground. In the course of this action, three Corsairs were shot down.
The action continued during the afternoon, when Corsairs of VMF-211, -218, and -313 with Army fighters as escorts, returned to San Isidro and sank three cargo ships, a troop transport, and a destroyer. While this action was in progress, Ormoc Bay became a hotbed of activity for both belligerents, for a convoy carrying the Army 77th Infantry Division was approaching to land the division several miles south of Ormoc.
That plenty of air action resulted from the attempts of both Americans and Japanese to put troops ashore near Ormoc on the same day is not surprising. Nor could it be expected that the Japanese would stand by idly as the American convoy approached the shores of Leyte. Beginning at 0820, and practically without interruption, Japanese air attacks hit the American ships in Ormoc Bay. Fifth Air Force aircraft did all they could to protect the friendly vessels, but more than once enemy aircraft broke through this cover and a curtain of antiaircraft fire put up by the ships. The enemy air attacks continued for more than nine hours and included numerous kamikaze runs that found their mark. A destroyer and high-speed transport were so badly damaged that they subsequently had to be sunk by gunfire.45 In addition, a
landing ship was hit near the beach and had to be abandoned, and a destroyer, an LST, and a high-speed transport were damaged.
On 11 December, the Japanese made a final attempt to reinforce their garrison on Leyte. In the course of the morning, a Japanese convoy of six cargo ships and transports and four destroyers and escorts was observed heading for Leyte. The four Marine day fighter squadrons put 27 Corsairs into the air, which intercepted the Japanese ships about 40 miles west of Panay Island. Each plane carried a 1,000 pound bomb armed with a 4-5 second delay fuze. Pilots of VMF-313, commanded by Major Joe H. McGlothlin, dive-bombed a troop transport, scoring a hit amidships with two bombs. VMF-115, led by Major John H. King, scored a hit on a cargo ship, setting it on fire. The eight Corsairs from VMF-211 in the group did not score any direct hits on the convoy but instead became embroiled in a dogfight with more than a dozen enemy fighters and downed four of them. During the bombing run, the Corsairs drew heavy antiaircraft fire, which was intense but inaccurate. Pilots of VMF-218 did not have a chance to observe the results of their bombing because they suddenly found themselves under attack by seven enemy fighters. In a running fight, two of the Japanese fighters were downed; another one disappeared in a cloudbank, trailing black smoke. When the action ended, the score was two enemy ships severely damaged and six aircraft downed, with one more probable.
During the afternoon of 11 December, 30 additional Marine aircraft, accompanied by Army P-40s, attacked the same convoy. Pilots of VMF-313 sank one large troop transport, a cargo vessel, and a destroyer and set two freighters on fire, at a cost of four Corsairs hit by antiaircraft fire, two of which were badly damaged. VMF-211 sank two destroyers and a troop transport at a cost of two aircraft. Aviators of VMF-115 scored a direct hit on a large cargo ship and left another listing and burning, at the cost of two aircraft. VMF-218 set the remaining destroyer on fire and scored hits on a large troop transport with unobserved results; one Corsair was lost in that operation.
Throughout the action, Japanese antiaircraft fire was unusually intense. Equally noteworthy were the tactics employed by the Marine pilots to counter it. While the Army aircraft released their bombs at altitudes between 2,000 and 10,000 feet, the Corsairs attacked at masthead level. One of the Marine pilots, speaking of the P-40s, somewhat caustically remarked:
They accomplished nothing except to make interesting splashes in the water and wake up the Japs. AA immediately became very intense. As the last Army bombs were falling our Corsairs were in position and coming in fast and low. The Japs never saw us coming until we started to shoot (we received no fire until past the screening destroyers).46
Elsewhere off Leyte, the situation was reversed, and Corsairs of MAG-12 found themselves protecting American
ships in Leyte Gulf from enemy air attacks, During the afternoon of 11 December, 4 Corsairs of VMF-313 spotted 16 Japanese fighters, carrying 500-pound bombs under each wing, headed for an American convoy passing through Surigao Straits. The Marine aviators, diving through friendly antiaircraft fire, engaged the enemy fighters, shot down five, and drove the remainder from the area, but not before two Japanese suicide planes had sunk a destroyer. Even though the timely intervention of the Corsairs prevented far greater damage to the convoy, the Marine aircraft received considerable damage from friendly antiaircraft fire.47
While the Corsairs of the Marine dayfighter squadrons were busy attacking Japanese ships, protecting American shipping, and patrolling, the Hellcats of VMF(N)-541 also did their share of fighting. Early on 12 December, the nightfighters intercepted a number of unidentified aircraft on their radar screens while flying cover for a convoy near Ormoc Bay. Just as a Japanese flight of 33 torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters approached the American convoy, the Hellcats intercepted them and broke up the formation. Even though some of the enemy bombers inevitably got through to the target, the outnumbered Marine aviators kept the enemy off balance. As a result, all of the enemy bombs missed the convoy. During the battle it became evident that the Japanese evaded air combat whenever possible, though the Marines were greatly outnumbered. When the battle ended, the night fighters of VMF (N) -541 had destroyed 11 enemy aircraft and damaged 1, with no losses to themselves.48
War is not only the realm of suffering, as Clausewitz has put it, but is equally the sphere of the unexpected. Frequently, the perversity of weather or terrain can do greater harm than enemy action. For MAG-12, the predawn hours of 13 December spelled tragedy. At 0530, under conditions of extremely poor visibility, six Corsairs of VMF-313, accompanied by two Hellcats, set out on a mission to escort a friendly convoy. Because of bad weather and poor runway conditions at the Tacloban airfield, one of the Corsairs crashed during takeoff. In a tragic sequence of events, the plane smashed into a jeep, injuring its two occupants, one of whom was the group intelligence officer, who lost his left arm and suffered numerous other injuries. With scarcely diminished force, the plane hit an ambulance and a crash truck in front of the operations building, killing four men. The flaming inferno spread by the wrecked aircraft and vehicles prevented the remainder of the flight from taking off.49
Shortly afterwards, another Corsair, which had previously taken off crashed between Leyte and Samar for undetermined reasons. The pilot, in attempting to bail out, was struck in the face by the vertical stabilizer and killed. Far luckier was the pilot of one of the Corsairs who, following another strike against enemy shipping, was last reported
attempting a water landing. When no further word from him was received, he was initially presumed missing in action. Days later, after an odyssey that included ditching in the water, rescue by natives who thought he might be a German, and a feast on candy bars, whose wrappers bore the legend "I shall return," the pilot made it back to Tacloban, not much the worse for wear.50
Before the day was over, the 13th lived up to its reputation in yet another way. Even though 35 Corsairs of MAG- 12 covered a friendly invasion convoy bound for Mindoro Island, a Japanese suicide plane arrived over the convoy at a time when the Corsairs were not on duty. The kamikaze selected none other than the flagship Nashville as his victim. The plane crashed into the ship, killing 129, including the chiefs of staff of both the naval force and the ground force commander, as well as the commanding officer of the 310th Bombardment Wing. In addition, four men were missing in action. Twenty-eight of the 41 Marines in the ship's detachment perished in the disaster.
Better days were to follow. The invasion of Mindoro Island, located just south of Luzon and 200 miles northwest of Leyte, promised to secure better airfields without the mud, which had so greatly plagued ground troops and aviators alike. At the same time, construction of a new airfield at Tanauan, about 45 miles west of Tacloban, promised to provide some relief for the overcrowding that had characterized MAG-12 operations at Tacloban. Though Japanese air power over Luzon remained strong, enemy air strength over Leyte was rapidly diminishing by mid-December. During the latter half of that month, ground operations on Leyte went into their final phase. Corsairs and Hellcats met fewer and fewer of their opponents in aerial combat until enemy resistance in the air all but ceased. For the Marine aviators on Leyte, the demise of the Japanese air strength did not mean the end of a mission but merely a change in emphasis. The type of operation for which they had been trained so zealously before coming to the Philippines, the support of ground troops, still had to be put into practice.
GROUND SUPPORT MISSIONS AND CLOSING PHASE51Marine pilots on Leyte flew their first ground support missions on 10 December, when they struck at enemy bivouac areas at Ormoc and San Isidro on the west coast of the island. The results of both raids were generally unobserved, though fires subsequently swept the target areas. On 17 and 19 December, Corsairs again hit Japanese ground targets. On these occasions, 12 aircraft of MAG-12 bombed and strafed Japanese supply installations at Palompon, on the northwest coast of Leyte.52 For the remainder of the month, Japanese airfields on Negros and Panay Islands
as well as on Mindanao and Luzon became primary targets of the Marine aviators.
Even though such attacks ultimately contributed to Japanese demoralization and defeat in the Philippines, this type of air support was a far cry from the close support tactics for which the Marines had trained. At no time during the Leyte operation did MAG-12 ever receive an assignment commensurate with its capabilities of giving close air support to ground troops. The Joint Assault Signal Companies, equipped with air-ground signal communication facilities, were not used for direct air-ground control. Pilots were briefed on their missions prior to takeoff and targets assigned on the day preceding an air strike. Once the flight became airborne, no further control was exercised from the ground.
It must be recalled that Marine aviation on Leyte came under the overall command of the Fifth Air Force and for this reason operated under the procedures and guidelines set forth by the AAF. Even though Marine and Army Air Forces pilots flew numerous missions over Leyte together, important differences in doctrine and training continually cropped up. Army aircraft on bombing missions, when subjected to enemy attack, tended to jettison their bombs and engage the enemy fighters. In so doing, they tended to abandon their primary mission; the Corsair pilots, on the other hand, kept their bombs and continued on despite enemy interference. As one of the Marine aviators on Leyte put it:
The reason the Marine air strikes against enemy shipping were markedly more successful than the Army strikes was due simply to more thorough briefing and planning and vastly better air discipline.
The thought was instilled in the minds of all Marine pilots that the assigned mission came first. Time after time Marine flights on combat air patrol would give up chasing bogeys who escaped from their assigned patrol area, rather than leave their assigned area, even though they could hear Army patrols on the same type of mission, merrily chasing Japs all over the Visayan Sea.53
For the remainder of December 1944 the Corsairs of MAG-12, in close teamwork with two Army fighter groups, bombed a series of villages on Luzon and attacked railway bridges, trains, and other railroad facilities. On Leyte, the fate of the Japanese was sealed when, on 25 December, elements of the Army's 77th Infantry Division went ashore at Palompon and seized the last port on Leyte under Japanese control. The enemy units remaining on Leyte were now completely cut off without any further hope of receiving reinforcements or evacuating the island. In their customary style, the Japanese fought on for another five months in a battle to the bitter end, but the die was cast. On 26 December, operations on Leyte passed into the hands of the Eighth Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger. The Sixth Army now prepared for the next vital step in the liberation of the Philippines, the invasion of Luzon, scheduled for 9 January 1945.
For the fighter squadrons of MAG-12, the latter part of December brought at least some relief from the squalid conditions under which they had operated
at crowded Tacloban airfield. Beginning on 21 December, and continuing through the 27th, the four dayfighter squadrons moved from Tacloban to the newly completed airstrip at Tanauan. This move once and for all brought to an end the congestion and mud that had been the trademark of Tacloban. The runway at Tanauan consisted of Marston matting, which had been placed over sand; despite the noisy vibration of the metal, landings were considerably safer than they had been at Tacloban.
As 1944 drew to a close, the role that Marine aviation was destined to play in support of ground operations on Leyte, had been partly fulfilled. In less than four weeks of operations, the fighter pilots of MAG-12 had flown a total of 264 missions. They destroyed 22 enemy ships and accounted for a total of 40 enemy aircraft. The price paid by the Marines for their exploits during the Leyte operation was 9 pilots killed and 34 aircraft lost.54
The night fighters of VMF(N)-541, during their stay on Leyte, also established a record worthy of mention. During the month of December, the squadron carried out 312 individual combat flights, totalling 924 combat hours. When, on 11 January, the Hellcats returned to Peleliu, they had accounted for 22 aircraft destroyed in the air, 5 destroyed on the ground, plus several probables. The night fighters had also destroyed four small surface craft loaded with enemy personnel.55
For their performance on Leyte, the nightfighters received a Letter of Commendation from Fifth Air Force and V Fighter Command, praising the squadron for making "an important contribution to the control of the air that is now assured our forces."56
As planning for General MacArthur's accelerated drive through the Philippines gained momentum, additional Marine aviation units stood poised to play their part in the liberation of the islands. For the enemy, the damage inflicted by Marine squadrons during the Leyte campaign was only a forerunner of what was to follow. The full impetus of the Marine doctrine of close support for the ground forces was yet to be tested in battle. The day for this test was fast approaching.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (IV-1) * Next Chapter (IV-3)
1. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from: Seventh Flt Rpt of Op for the Capture of Leyte Island Incl AR of Engagements in Surigao Strait and off Samar Island on 250ct44, hereafter Com, Seventh Flt AR, Leyte; 4th Marine Air Wing Operations Report, Leyte, dtd 11Nov44, hereafter 4th MAW OpRpt; M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines--The War in the Pacific--U.S. Army in World War II (Washington: OCMH, DA, 1953), hereafter Cannon, Leyte; Saburo Hayashi and Alvin D. Coox, Kaigun‹The Japanese Army in the Pacific War (Quantico, Va.: Marine Corps Association, 1959), hereafter Hayashi and Coox, Kaigun.
2. For a detailed account of command relations during this period, see Morison, Leyte, pp. 55-60.
3. For a detailed description of this battle, see Morison, Leyte, pp. 168-343.
4. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 286.
5. Cannon, Leyte, p. 92.
6. Ibid., p. 283.
7. Kenney, Reports, p. 459.
8. Hayashi and Coox, Kaigun, p. 127.
9. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from: A History of the X Corps in the Leyte-Samar Philippine Islands Operation, dtd 6Jan45, hereafter CG X Corps Hist; VAC Arty SAR, Leyte, dtd 6Jan45, hereafter VAC Arty SAR; VAC Arty OpRpt, Leyte, dtd 28Dec44, hereafter VAC Arty OpRpt; 5th 155mm HowBn SAR, dtd 28May45, hereafter 5th 155mm HowBn SAR; Woodbury Rpt; Maj Edwin J. St. Peter Rpt, Leyte, dtd 7Dec44, hereafter St. Peter Rpt; Maj Justin G. Duryea Rpt, Leyte, dtd 13Nov44, hereafter Duryea Rpt.
10. St. Peter Rpt, p. 2.
11. Duryea Rpt, p. 1.
12. CG, X Corps Hist, p. 5.
13. BGen Bert A. Bone ltr to CMC, dtd 5Apr51, hereafter Bone ltr in Philippines Comment File.
14. Duryea Rpt., p. 3.
15. Woodbury Rpt., p. 5.
16. Duryea Rpt., p. 4.
17. LtGen Thomas E. Bourke ltr to CMC, n.d., hereafter Bourke ltr, in Philippines Comment File. "The 11th Gun Battalion, near the beach, found itself swinging its guns around to fire on dug-in Japanese positions on Catmon Hill from which the beach and rear area installations were receiving fire. They also had to swing around 180 degrees, prepared to fire at sea." Col James E. Mills ltr to Head, HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC dtd 7Nov66, in Philippines Comment File, hereafter Mills ltr.
18. VAC Arty SAR, p. 7.
19. "The 5th Battalion was in such a forward position that it had to maintain extensive patrol activity to the front and flanks of its position. There were a few patrol encounters with small scattered groups of the enemy. This battalion did not encounter enemy harassment or sniping which is attributable to the patrol activity." Mills ltr.
20. Cannon, Leyte, p. 252.
21. Sixth Army Report of Leyte Operation, pp. 34-40, as cited in Craven and Cate, The Pacific, p. 377.
22. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 287.
24. Maj Edward Jf. Flanagan, Jr., The Angels, A History of the 11th Airborne Division, 1943-1946 (Washington, D.C., 1948), p. 34.
25. VAC Arty SAR, p. 9.
26. 5th 155mm HowBn SAR, 6-10Dec44.
27. BGen Thomas E. Bourke ltr to CMC, dtd 28Dec44, Encl to VAC Arty SAR.
28. VAC Arty OpRpt, p. 16.
29. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from MAG-12 WarDs, Nov-Dec44.
30. Designated as Kamikaze in Japanese naval terminology and called Tokko by the Japanese Army.
31. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 286.
32. Cdr John Thach, quoted in Sherrod, Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, p. 273.
33. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 286.
34. Hayashi and Coox, Kaigun, p. 127.
35. USSBS, Pacific Campaigns, p. 287.
36. Hayashi and Coox, Kaigun, p. 127.
37. Craven and Cate, The Pacific, pp. 374-375.
38. Ibid., p. 383.
39. Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey's Story, p, 231.
40. MAG-12 WarDs, Nov-Dec44. At this time VMF-115 was commanded by Maj John H. King, Jr; VMF-211 by Maj Stanislaus J. Witomski; VMF-218 by Maj Robert T. Kingsbury III; and VMIF-313 by Maj Philip R. White.
41. MAG-12 WarD, Dec44.
42. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from: Dec44 WarDs of MAG-12, VMF-115, VMF-211, VMF-218, VMF-313; Boggs, Marines in the Philippines; Philippines Comment File; Smith, The Approach to the Philippines; Morison, Leyte; Craven and Cate, The Pacific; Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey's Story; Cannon, Leyte.
43. Sherrod, Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, p. 276.
44. Maj Roy T. Spurlock ltr to CMC, dtd 7Feb51, in Philippines Comment File, hereafter Spurlock ltr.
45. Cannon, Leyte, p. 283.
46. Capt Rolfe T. Blanchard ltr to CMC, n.d., in Philippines Comment File, hereafter Blanchard ltr.
47. MAG-12 WarD, Dec44.
48. VMF(N)-541 WarD, Dec44.
49. MAG-12 WarD, Dec44.
50. Sherrod, Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, pp. 281-282.
51. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from: MAG-12 WarD, Dec44; VMF(N)-541 WarDs, Dec44-Jan45; Boggs, Marines in the Philippines; Philippines Comment File.
52. MAG-12 WarD, Dec44.
54. MAG-12 WarD, Dec44.
55. VMF(N)-541 WarD, Dec44-Jan45.
56. Ltr of Commendation, BGen Paul D. Wurtsmith, CG, V Fighter Cmd., n.d., as shown in VMIF(N)-541 WarD, Dec44-Jan45, pp. 16-17.