The story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf is not just a tale of hundreds of ships and hundreds of thousands of men. It is a story of a group of extraordinary individuals who held important American command positions. Here is the brief story of some of these people.
Important historic events involved some of these men during and after the ravaging defeat by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One of these men was Commander Clifton A. F. Sprague. He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and became the hero of the Battle of Leyte Gulf when he lead his outgunned and outnumbered force to fight back against the best surface ships the Imperial Japanese Navy had. The heroism of Sprague and the other men of his command stopped the Japanese in their tracks and saved the American invasion of the Philippines.
The second person who played a decisive role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf was Admiral William F. Halsey. As his carrier force entered Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, he and the men under his command looked at the carnage in the smoke and flames billowing over Pearl Harbor and could barely control their rage. Determined not to get caught in what Halsey called "this land-locked duck pond," the volatile admiral wanted to refuel and resupply his fleet and get out after the Japanese. Halsey later led the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific and save the Guadalcanal landings as well as inflicting major defeats on the Japanese Navy in the several naval battles in and around the Solomon Islands. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey led the largest carrier task force ever created into the Philippine Islands and made some controversial decisions that would invoke many debates long after his death.
The third man was Admiral Chester Nimitz who took command of the devastated American Pacific Fleet at the end of 1941. He commanded the rebuilding that force which became the most powerful fleet ever to sail the world's oceans. Recognized as the most influential naval commander during World War II, Nimitz shaped the strategy that lead to Japan's ultimate defeat in 1945.
The fourth commander was General Douglas MacArthur, the dominant and sometimes imperious leader of Allied forces in the South Pacific. Escaping with his family and staff from the immediate capture by the Japanese just before the fall of the Philippines, he experienced a perilous journey to Australia. In a train station in Adelaide, Australia, he made a short speech that captured the world's imagination which ended with the words, "I shall return," that committed the United States to the recapture of the Philippines. However, after inspecting what Allied forces that were there in early 1942, MacArthur realized that an immediate relief mission to the Philippines was out of the question. The road back to setting the Filipino people free from Japanese domination became a long, bloody struggle.
The Road to Victory
The time was July, 1944. The Allies had wrung up a string of impressive victories over the Axis powers. American, British, and Canadian troops had stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944. They were now well entrenched in the fields and hedgerows of the Normandy countryside, trying to slug through the rugged German defenses so they could start their breakout over the rolling hills of France, liberate Paris, and invade the German heartland. The Red Army of the Soviet Union was now driving the German Army westward toward a heart-stopping battle for the Nazi capital of Berlin.
In the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur had advanced up New Guinea's northern coastline, bypassing Japanese strongholds, and was poised for what he hoped would be his next assignment - his emotionally held goal of liberating the Philippine Islands. The American Pacific Fleet had taken the strategically vital Marianas Islands. From there, B-29 bombers could bomb the Japanese Home Islands. Just as important, the American Navy had inflicted a devastating defeat on the Imperial Japanese Navy when they shot down hundreds of Japanese naval aircraft in the Battle of the Philippine Sea or what became known as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot." The Japanese had lost so many carrier planes that they only had 35 left to face any moves the Americans made.
Where to go next
While the Allied objectives seemed clear in Europe, the same could not be said for the Americans in the Pacific. The debate centered on two strongly held, yet conflicting, strategies advocated respectively by MacArthur and the American Navy. The Navy insisted the next move against the Japanese Empire should be to capture the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) and cut the vital Japanese supply lines between the resource-rich East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Japanese Home Islands.
General MacArthur argued that he must keep his promise of "I Shall Return" he made when he had escaped capture while fleeing from the Philippines in those dark days of 1942, and take the Philippines back from the Japanese. The debate had continued unabated until President Roosevelt intervened. After receiving the nomination of the Democratic party to run for an unprecedented fourth term as President, Roosevelt boarded the heavy cruiser Baltimore in San Diego and headed for a historic summit with his two commanders in the Pacific theater, General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz.
At this meeting, MacArthur was at his best when he persuaded Roosevelt that to bypass the Philippines would support claims by Japanese propaganda that the Americans would never risk the Caucasian lives to liberate people of color. MacArthur was able to convince the President that if he decided to bypass the Philippines, the American people might rise up against him and defeat him in the November, 1944 elections for not keeping a promise made in his name. Although he never admitted it, the threat of defeat at the polls was probably the key motivating factor that resulted in Roosevelt's support of MacArthur's proposal.
After more debate among the Americans, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that the Americans would invade the Philippines in December, 1944. However, when Halsey's Third Fleet attacked Japanese air fields in early September, 1944, no serious Japanese opposition rose to defend against the American air attacks. Halsey concluded the Philippines were not as heavily defended as the American planners originally thought and suggested to Admiral Nimitz the Philippine invasion date should be advanced to October, 1944.
Nimitz forwarded Halsey's message to Admiral Ernest King, the American Chief of Naval Operations, who was attending the OCTAGON Conference being held in Quebec, Canada. King met with the rest of the Joint Chiefs and concluded that Halsey was right. Thus the invasion date to capture the Philippines was moved to October 20, 1944. General Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur's Chief of Staff, approved the new invasion date in MacArthur's name. Thus the die was cast as Sprague, MacArthur, and Halsey would be pulled together by the currents of history into those treacherous waters around the Philippine Islands for the greatest naval battle ever fought.