THE TIDE OF WAR that had turned against Japan in 1942 mounted inexorably during the next eighteen months. The long costly battles in the Solomons and along the coast of New Guinea had steadily sapped the imperial vitality. Carrier losses had been heavy, the losses in trained pilots even worse. American submarines took a deadly toll of the shipping that flowed along the arteries of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was increasingly obvious that every basic assumption of the Japanese war plan was incorrect: the Allies had not quit, they had not suffered significant defeats on the perimeter, they had not been too busy elsewhere to bother with Japan, they were not—worst misassessment of all—effete and decadent. Now the Aleutians were gone, and the north was quiet, but in a great irregular arc from southern China all the way around to the central Pacific the battles raged; the skies filled with smoke, the jungle with the rattle and blast of explosions, and the seas with sudden death.
The Allied situation in China did not significantly improve during 1944. The Chinese were still all but exhausted, riven by internal dissensions, and prey to conflicting advice and advisors. The American Generals Stilwell and Chennault completely disagreed on how to conduct the war. Stilwell’s basic idea was that with proper training, organization, and equipment the Chinese could win their own war, and he constantly pressed that they be encouraged to do so. Chennault’s view was that air power was the answer, and he had progressively moved into the limelight. By late 1943 Chennault’s 14th Air Force was dominating the sky over southern and central China and striking Japanese targets on Formosa. It was also eating up the major portion of the supplies reaching China.
The Japanese responded to Chennault’s pressure by proving that Stilwell was right, or at least that Chennault was wrong, and that air power alone could not win the war. Through the middle months of 1944 they launched a series of limited offensives in south and east-central China that eventually overran more than half of Chennault’s air bases, and quite literally knocked the pins out from under him. Stilwell was still fully occupied trying to keep open some kind of cooperative link with the British in Burma, and for a few weeks it looked as if China might collapse at last and simply bow out of the war. Stilwell’s recommendations were met with the same irascibility with which they were offered, and when Roosevelt suggested that he be put in supreme command of the entire Chinese war effort, Chiang Kai-shek responded by demanding he be recalled home. Reluctantly, Roosevelt gave in, having little real option; Stilwell left the theater and was replaced by General Albert C. Wedemeyer. Wedemeyer’s tact achieved what Stilwell’s brilliance and acerbity could not. Cooperation with the Burmese front was preserved, Chiang was mollified, and the Japanese were brought to a halt by the end of the year. China remained in the war, though Chennault, who had steadfastly maintained he could win the whole war with 147(!) bombers and fighters, did not do so. As the year ended, both sides were licking their wounds, and the Japanese, temporarily halted, were catching their breath before resuming the attack on the airfields.
The Chinese theater and events in Burma were closely intertwined. Indeed, much of the rationale of the Burmese campaign, aside from the natural desire of the British to regain imperial territory, was provided by the necessity of keeping supply routes open through to China. Burma, of course, was a relatively isolated country in its own right, and before the war its links with India had been almost exclusively by sea. Therefore, to reach China, or even to keep the Allied armies fighting in northern Burma, it had been necessary to construct huge and costly facilities from India to Burma. In addition to a great number of airfields, there was built the once-famous Ledo Road, from the northeastern extremity of India up at the top of the Brahmaputra Valley, across the Naga Hills and into Burma. It took several hundred thousand support troops and laborers in India to keep the soldiers fighting in Burma.
For late 1943 and 1944 the Allies decided on a four-phase operation. Wavell was relieved by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, who became Supreme Allied Commander Southeast Asia Command. Under him General William Slim and his British 14th Army planned two drives along the Burma-India frontier. To the northeast Stilwell’s Northern Combat Area Command—this was Stilwell wearing one of his several different hats, before he was recalled home—also planned two offensives straddling the Burma-China frontier. If all went well, the British and the Chinese-American forces would link up somewhere in north-central Burma, the land routes to China would be reopened, and a general advance south, clearing Burma, could then take place.
To these four offensives had to be added a fifth, the Japanese. They were expecting increased Allied activity and they responded by planning a drive of their own, in the center of the front, near Imphal, designed to take the British base areas before they could get fully set for their own offensives.
Stilwell was the first to move. His initial offensive operation began in October of 1943, a conventional drive by two Chinese divisions south along the Hukawng Valley. Like most Chinese formations, these were weaker in numbers and equipment than similar formations in other armies, and they met stiff resistance from the Japanese, who were about equal in strength, though officially only one division strong. The second of Stilwell’s operations was of a different sort. The earlier activity of Orde Wingate’s Chindits had sufficiently impressed the Combined Chiefs of Staff that, in addition to the Chindits, they had authorized the formation of a similar American force. Officially, this was entitled the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), but it became better known as Merrill’s Marauders, after its commanding officer. In February this unit came into action, and Stilwell used it to keep his drive going, with a series of end-run penetrations, while the Chindits were dropped deep behind Japanese lines to do their stuff again. Wingate himself was killed in an air crash in March, but the Chindits continued to perform valuable, if costly, service.
The goal of Stilwell’s entire campaign was the major communications town of Myitkyina, where the Hukawng Valley met the Irrawaddy River. The Marauders took Myitkyina airfield in May, but the Japanese garrison of the town itself held on grimly. To the south the Chindits cut off enemy resupply routes but could not hang on to their isolated positions until Myitkyina was taken, and they were eventually levered out by fierce Japanese attacks. It was not until August that the town finally fell to the attacks of Stilwell’s troops, and then they once again took up their drive south, down the Irrawaddy this time. By the end of the year they had reached part of the Burma Road at last, and linked up with Chinese forces attacking west along it. The land link to China was finally reopened, at immense cost in men and materials.
The first of the two British offensives was launched along the seacoast, from the frontier south to the Burmese port of Akyab. This entailed a ninety-mile drive by one corps of Slim’s army, and this Second Arakan campaign, as it was known, started in November of 1943. The main Japanese defense position was along a mountain spur that ran right into the ocean near the town of Maungdaw. The mountain blocked the overland route to Akyab, and there the British stuck. For two long months they tried to take the height from the Japanese and were unable to do it. In February of 1944 the Japanese counterattacked, encircling and cutting off the forward British and Indians. It was the same old approach they had been using for two years and it had always worked before. The British were more dependent upon supplies and support than the Japanese were: cut them off and they either fell back or fell apart.
This time it was different; Slim was determined not to give in to tried and true Japanese methods. He began an emergency air lift that kept his embattled troops going, sent up reserves who took to the jungle in their turn, and by late February it was the Japanese encirclers who were encircled. For once the biter was bit, and most of the enemy troops were wiped out, mercilessly hunted down through the jungle.
With the diversion out of the way, the British then took the Maungdaw ridge in a series of heavy, hard-fought battles. They finally broke through in April, and were about to finish the drive to Akyab when they were diverted to Imphal and Kohima by the major Japanese offensive there. Before they regained their momentum the monsoon rains came in, and it was not until the beginning of the winter dry season that they finally reached Akyab.
The second British drive, a projected advance to the Chindwin River by the other flank of 14th Army, was forestalled by the Japanese drives in the Chin Hills. General Renya Mutaguchi’s 15th Army, consisting of 100,000 hard veteran troops, drove across the frontier into the Manipur plain to deprive the British of bases for their own offensive. The keys to the plain were the towns of Imphal at the southern end and Kohima at the northern. The Japanese attack was expected by the British, but both its strength and its speed were a surprise. They rolled up out of the Chindwin Valley, across the Chin Hills, and moved rapidly through mountains thought all but impassable. They scooped up British outposts and arrived in front of the two towns nearly as fast as the news of their coming. By the end of the first week of April, both towns were surrounded, and the British IVth Corps, 50,000 strong, was cut off, most of it in Imphal and a small garrison in Kohima.
Once again, as he had on the seacoast, Slim ordered the garrisons to hold on. The air forces flew round-the-clock resupply missions, and fighters and medium bombers mounted tactical air-support operations, serving in effect as the artillery the troops on the ground lacked. For a few days it looked as if Kohima would go under, and it probably would have, had it not been for the strafing and bombing by the planes that broke up or weakened the heavy Japanese attacks. But after two weeks relieving forces broke through, and the siege of Kohima was lifted.
Imphal took much longer; the Japanese kept the town under constant pressure, and at the same time dug in and resisted fiercely the attempts of relieving forces to advance to the south. The British numbers mounted to 100,000 men as reinforcements were flown into the beleaguered city, but still the Japanese lines around it held fast. They were encountering increasing difficulties; they had expected to capture large amounts of supplies—indeed, they had based their whole logistical schedule for the operation on the risky presumption that they could live off British goods, and now the fallacy was shown to be disastrous. The monsoon rains began; sickness growing to epidemic and hunger growing to starvation took their toll, and at last, in mid-June, they began to fall apart. After eighty-eight days the British finally broke through, and their units in Imphal linked up with the relieving forces fighting their way into the town. Wearily, Mataguchi’s army, what was left of it, took up its retreat.
The result of the Kohima-Imphal battles was that the Japanese mobile resources in Burma were all but used up. Late in the year, after the monsoon had ended, Slim was able to take up his advance, not only to the Chindwin but well beyond it. Early in December his troops linked up with the Chinese, now commanded by the American General Daniel Sultan, who had taken over Stilwell’s Burmese responsibilities. The year ended on a rising note, with the Japanese falling back all along the line in central Burma, and the united Allies approaching Mandalay and Lashio, the Burmese terminus of the Burma Road.
On the American side of the Japanese Empire, progress was no less hard won, and even more dramatic in its results. The 1943 decisions on relative priorities of Germany and Japan had resulted in increased allocations of resources to the Pacific war, and by 1944 their weight was definitely beginning to tell. Under MacArthur’s leadership in the Southwest Pacific Area, the Allies undertook a 2,000-mile drive that carried them back to the Philippines. In the central Pacific the navy and Marines under Admiral Nimitz continued due west, so that they ended up meeting MacArthur’s forces as the latter swung north. The vast distances covered and the territory taken made it look easy; in fact it was anything but that.
For General Douglas MacArthur, in spite of the brilliance of the campaign he waged in New Guinea and the East Indies, late 1943 and much of 1944 was a period of frustration. His ideas on the retaking of the western Pacific had been rejected by the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and subsequently by the Allied Combined Chiefs. MacArthur wanted to utilize land-based air power and leap-frog along the coast of New Guinea, through the Philippines, to the China coast, where a lodgment could be secured as a base for air attack and eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. The China coast was accepted as the penultimate objective, but the Joint Chiefs also accepted the navy’s contention that it was cheaper, and a better return for resources, to go straight west through the islands to the Philippines. The prospect that someone else might fulfill his pledge, “I shall return,” was anathema to MacArthur, and so, through 1944, there was a race for the Philippines.
In that race were two major hurdles. The great port of Rabaul at the eastern tip of New Britain Island blocked MacArthur’s advance; the huge naval base in Truk Lagoon, in the eastern Carolines, blocked Nimitz’. Both of these sites were major bastions of the Japanese defense perimeter, and no one, especially after the experience of prying Japanese troops out of prepared positions on Tarawa, looked forward to taking them. But as the year turned, and as the Americans slowly began to attain command of the sea and the air, they decided not to do so. The great bases could be isolated by air strikes, submarines could deny them the supplies needed for viability, and they could be bypassed. Lesser islands all around and beyond them could be taken, and as the tide of war rolled westward, both Truk and Rabaul were left withering in isolation.
The Japanese too had revised their plans and estimates. Hurt by their losses, recognizing their inability to recoup as rapidly as the enemy, they decided on a contraction of their defense lines. They had to hold on to the Indies, the major point of the whole exercise, but they could pull back in the central Pacific. The new line ran Kuriles-Bonins-Marianas-Carolines—western New Guinea. Troops still to the east of that were left to trade their lives for time while the new defenses were prepared. The Japanese told themselves that eventually the Americans would overreach themselves; with their charts and dividers and parallel rulers they plotted courses and distances. They were going to fight Tsushima all over again; they were going to trap and destroy the United States fleet.
MacArthur and Admiral Halsey, commanding the naval forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, spent the first third of 1944 isolating Rabaul. After very hard fighting around Madang and Saidor, the Americans and Australians pushed up along the coast of New Guinea. In April they leaped beyond their land-based air cover and landed major forces at Hollandia, cutting off the Japanese 18th Army. Meanwhile, attacks on New Britain, the upper Solomons, and another long jump to the Admiralty Islands completed Rabaul’s encirclement. The whole campaign was a masterful illustration of the possibilities of combined operations, with naval, air, and ground forces successfully and amicably cooperating and supporting each other. The Hollandia operation especially achieved that unusual but most desirable of military aims, the destruction of a major enemy force with relatively little fighting.
The American forces swept on to the westward, leaving the rear areas to be mopped up by Australian ground forces, which had some heavy fighting for the rest of the year before the Japanese ultimately disintegrated. In May, MacArthur’s troops landed in western—Netherlands—New Guinea. One of their problems was to find and take islands or localities where the terrain was suitable for heavy-bomber bases. Late in May they landed on the island of Biak, in the Schouten Islands, a group north of western New Guinea. The Japanese had an airfield here, as well as a garrison of 10,000 troops, which they managed to reinforce by another thousand during the fighting. The U. S. 41st Infantry Division made its landing against determined opposition, and while American fleet units isolated the island, the infantrymen fought it out. A second American division was landed, and slowly the Japanese were worn down. It took four weeks to make Biak secure, and isolated resistance lasted yet another month. The Americans suffered 2,800 casualties, including nearly 500 killed, while the Japanese lost more than 6,000 killed, and only about 500 captured.
From Biak the Americans went on to Sansapor on the western end of New Guinea. The Japanese had also garrisoned and fortified the large island of Halmahera as a communications link to the west of New Guinea. This too the Americans bypassed, landing on Morotai to the north of it in September. With the taking of Morotai, New Guinea was isolated and left over to mopping up. The two-year battle along the coast was essentially over, and the Japanese had everywhere met defeat. Superior American techniques, equipment, and strategy had won the day, and the lengthy campaign, an exhausting ordeal in which climate, terrain, and disease were almost as vicious as the enemy, reached a triumphant conclusion. Even without his great coup at Inchon in the Korean War the New Guinea campaign marked MacArthur as one of the great captains of military history, and it is regrettable that it is not better known. MacArthur’s forces were now ready for the northern swing.
In the central Pacific theater Nimitz’ sailors and Marines had digested the painful lessons of Tarawa. Communications, fire-control, and air support techniques were all refined and perfected, and the navy moved on with its task of isolating Truk. The first jump after Tarawa was into the central Marshall Islands, to the beautiful Kwajalein Lagoon.
The navy had now developed a new weapons combination, the fast carrier task force. Gone were the days when a patched-up battleship rescued from the mud of Pearl Harbor, one weak aircraft carrier, and a couple of battered cruisers represented the U. S. Navy’s striking force. Now as a preliminary to the assault on Kwajalein, Admiral Mark Mitscher swept through the island group with Task Force 58: twelve carriers, six new fast battleships, a dozen cruisers, and even more destroyers. Divided into four groups around the carriers, the Americans struck at will, looking for trouble, pounding the islands and their airstrips, daring the Japanese fleet to come out. A thousand miles west, Admiral Koga’s Combined Fleet, for the moment without any operating aircraft carriers, sat and waited for its opportunity.
After three days of heavy bombardment the soldiers and Marines went ashore, the former on Kwajalein itself, the latter on smaller islands around the lagoon. The Japanese fought as fiercely as they had on Tarawa, but the improved techniques employed by the Americans made a significant difference to the casualty ratios. Out of 8,000 Japanese, 130 survived; the Americans landed 41,000 troops, of whom fewer than 400 were killed and about a thousand wounded. The atoll was secured in a week.
Two weeks later the Americans leaped 400 miles to the western Marshalls and landed on Eniwetok, another tropic lagoon. Again the Japanese fought to the death, losing their entire 2,200-man garrison for American losses of about four hundred. While the amphibious forces fought their way across Eniwetok, Mitscher staged a raid on Truk. Warned of the approach of the American carriers, the Combined Fleet scooted out to the west and safety, but the Americans found fifty merchant ships and more than 350 planes at Truk. With little loss to themselves they sank thousands of tons of shipping and wiped out 275 aircraft. Truk Lagoon became a vast underwater repository of the refuse of war, where sunken ships and their cargoes of tanks, shells, and guns, and their drowned crews, are now sights for underwater tourists. The Japanese, recognizing the growing isolation and vulnerability of Truk, pulled the fleet back behind the Marianas, still biding their time, waiting for the chance to strike back.
The long-awaited opportunity came in June, when the Americans leaped another thousand miles, from Eniwetok to the Marianas. Admiral Spruance’s 5th Fleet concentrated against the two islands of Saipan and Tinian; while they did so, Task Force 58 ranged ahead of them, pounding bases as far as the Palaus to the southwest, and Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima to the north, in the Bonin group. Cut off on all sides from air and sea reinforcement, the Japanese garrison of Saipan prepared to die for the Emperor as their predecessors had done.
Two U. S. Marine divisions landed on Saipan on June 15. In spite of a heavy bombardment they met staunch resistance from the Japanese, who included both soldiers of the regular garrison, plus about 6,000 sailors from the Imperial Fleet, commanded by Admiral Nagumo, who had led the Pearl Harbor striking force. The Marines made heavy going; they were reinforced by an army infantry division which made even slower going. The army and Marine commanders fell to squabbling over essentially doctrinal differences—the army believed in a cautious, methodical-approach; the Marines, imbued with the vulnerability of the offshore fleet behind them, had been taught to take ground in a hurry and never mind the casualties—and Marine General Holland Smith ended up relieving the army divisional commander. It was not until July 9 that resistance finally ended, with the standard suicide charge by the surviving Japanese. More than 3,000 Americans were killed and more than 13,000 wounded. The Japanese losses were as usual much heavier. Of perhaps 30,000 people on the island—soldiers, sailors, and Japanese civilians—about 27,000 died, including thousands of civilians who committed suicide along with the last soldiers; the commanding general and Admiral Nagumo both committed ritual suicide as well. Napoleon once remarked that a victory was no victory without prisoners—but he never fought the Japanese.
So fierce was the fight for Saipan that Spruance delayed his assault on nearby Tinian, and also on Guam. Meanwhile, the enormous fleet off Saipan, more than 500 vessels, provided the ideal target for the Japanese. Admiral Koga had been killed in an air crash, and to his successor as commander of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, it appeared as if the time had come at last to give battle. His fleet was now based at Tawitawi in the Sulu Islands, just north of Borneo. He had expected to hit the American ships supporting MacArthur, but Mitscher’s attacks on the Palaus led him into the central Pacific instead.
Toyoda skimmed the cream off the Combined Fleet to make a Mobile Fleet, the best Japan had, under Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Ozawa mustered nine aircraft carriers, five battleships, thirteen cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers, and a total of 473 aircraft. His planes had longer range than the Americans’, though they achieved it by lacking such refinements as armor plating for the cockpits or self-sealing gasoline tanks. He also expected to be supported by the remaining land-based aircraft from the Marianas. Dividing their fleet into five groups built around the carriers, the Imperial Japanese Navy sallied forth to annihilate the enemy.
The Americans were split into several groups, busily pounding Saipan and the assorted islands which might otherwise have provided support. Task Force 58 itself was split in two, with Mitscher and Spruance together west of Saipan, and the other half of it off bombarding Iwo Jima, several hundred miles away. Yet the Americans knew precisely what they were doing. Submarines had watched the Japanese in Tawitawi—indeed, had made such a nuisance of themselves that the Japanese had not dared put to sea for training of their new carrier pilots. Coastwatchers and submarines reported the progress of the Mobile Fleet and its dispositions as it threaded its way through the Philippines. By the time the Japanese entered the open waters of the Philippine Sea, Spruance knew almost as much about them as they did themselves. Calmly he pulled in his scattered task groups, so that when the Japanese came within extreme range on the early morning of June 19, Task Force 58 was ready for them: fifteen carriers, seven new fast battleships, twenty-one cruisers, sixty-nine destroyers, 956 planes. The Japanese were headed for a battle of annihilation all right, but it was not what they expected: in American folklore the great Battle of the Philippine Sea is known as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot.”
The Japanese first strike was supposed to be a massive attack by land-based planes from Guam. Unfortunately for them, there were only about fifty planes left on Guam, and even more unfortunate, the Americans showed up over the island just as they were taking off. The Japanese lost thirty planes and never got out of sight of Guam.
Back in Task Force 58, the air group commanders were champing at the bit, but Mitscher, uncertain exactly where the enemy was, held them in check. About mid-morning, radar picked up a wave of incoming enemy planes, sixty-nine of them, 150 miles out. American dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers took off and orbited to the eastward, out of the way of trouble, and able to attack Guam and deny it to the enemy as a landing strip for planes in difficulty. And there were soon plenty of them. Four hundred fifty Hellcat fighters met the Japanese; the Americans had the advantage of height; the heavy Hellcats could blast the lighter Zeros out of the sky with one good burst, and by this stage of the war, American pilots were far more experienced than their opponents. The Americans lost one plane, the Japanese lost forty-two; they scored one hit on the battleship South Dakota.
Ozawa’s second wave of carrier planes was 128 strong. The Hellcats met them sixty miles out and killed half before they reached the fleet. They scored a hit on the small carrier Bunker Hill. Ninety-eight Japanese were shot down. A third wave failed to find Task Force 58 and therefore lost only seven planes. The last raid, eighty-two strong, got scattered. Those who reached the fleet were all but wiped out. Some fled for Guam, where Hellcats caught them as they tried to land. Only eleven of the whole raid survived. By the time the sun set on the 19th, Japanese carrier air strength was a thing of the past.
It was not only the American fliers who had a field day. The submarine Albacore sneaked past the Japanese screen and put a single torpedo into the brand-new carrier Taiho, Ozawa’s flagship. Down she went, and Ozawa had to move to another carrier. Three hours later the submarine Cavalla hit Shokaku with a three-torpedo spread, and she blew up and sank a couple of hours later, after valiant but unsuccessful efforts by her crew to fight the spreading gas and oil fires.
In the darkness Ozawa headed off to the northwest. He had but a hundred planes left; he believed, mistakenly, that he had inflicted heavy damage on the enemy and he planned to reopen his attack as soon as he could refuel and rearm. The American reconnaissance planes did not spot the still-retiring Mobile Fleet until late the next afternoon, at the extreme end of their search patterns. Mitscher consulted with his air group commanders and asked if they could reach the enemy. It would be chancy, and the pilots would have to fly back in the dark, almost out of fuel; it would be a very close affair, but they decided it was worth it.
Just as the sun set, the American dive-bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters appeared over the Mobile Fleet. They set two carriers on fire and sank a third, the Hiyo. Between the sinking, the damage, and dogfights in the air, they destroyed another sixty-five aircraft. Then they headed for home.
Home was a long way off, and one by one the planes went down. The fuel gauges flickered toward empty, then settled firmly on the red line, and the planes gently dipped toward the sea. It was full dark now. The Americans sent destroyers racing ahead to pick up aircrew; risking submarine retaliation, the carriers turned on their lights as beacons for the returning planes. With no margin for maneuver, the fortunate planes crash-landed on flight decks; the slightly less lucky went into the water near the carriers and were picked up by the escorts. Destroyers rescued 150 of the somewhat less lucky who ditched en route back. About fifty had no luck at all.
Yet the deed was done; the great battle fought and won—or lost. In Tokyo the Tojo cabinet resigned. At sea, the empty Japanese carriers fleeing northward would never be a threat again. From now on, they came out to sea at their own risk, to serve as decoys and targets. The Imperial Fleet would definitely try again, for the Japanese preferred death to ignominious surrender. But after the Marianas Turkey Shoot it would never again be a major threat.
The Pacific is the greatest ocean in the world, and the flow of ships, men, and matériel was ever westward: 2,500 miles from San Francisco to Pearl, 2,000 miles from Pearl to Tarawa, 500 from there to Kwajalein, 1,200 more to Saipan. From there, 1,200 to the Philippines, or 1,200 to Tokyo. The endless Pacific rollers washed the beaches clean of the debris of death and battle. As the Marines and infantry flowed on to another island and yet another, the great supply depots built up behind them. For every man who was shot at in this war dozens toiled behind the front, hauling crates, shuffling papers, drinking beer, fighting boredom. Foolish mistakes cost millions of dollars. The earliest shipments of sugar to the southwest Pacific went out in paper bags. They rotted and disintegrated in the first tropic rainstorm; bulldozers created islands in the swamps made of huge mounds of sugar, and on top of those islands later, better-packaged stores were piled. Still the goods and the men spewed out of the American West Coast ports; it was a war in which technical expertise counted for much, and where the Japanese labored for months with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows, the Americans made airstrips in hours and days with bulldozers, steam shovels, and huge earth-movers. The material flood reached out to the islands, to New Zealand, to Australia. And at the business end of the machine, old men of eighteen and nineteen turned their faces to the north, to the Philippines, to Japan, to the only way home again.
From Saipan the Marines went to Tinian, within artillery range. Every gun on Saipan was lined up hub to hub, and together with the fleet, pounded away at the Japanese garrison. Yet still they fought. The Americans declared the island secured on August 1; it took three more months of deadly hide and seek to ferret out and kill the last of the defenders from the caves on the southern end of the island.
Guam was next—American before the war, now held and fortified by 19,000 Japanese. It took three weeks of heavy fighting by army and Marines to secure the island, but some of the garrison got into the hills and did not surrender until long after the war officially ended. With the capture of Guam the Marianas were secure, and the Carolines and Truk, well bypassed. The American high command was definitely looking forward to the Philippines now, and Admiral Nimitz decided the next move was to be to the western Carolines and to the Palau Islands. Spruance and the rest of the central Pacific leaders went off to new commands, and Halsey took over 5th Fleet, which became 3rd Fleet in the transformation. Task Force 58 therefore became Task Force 38, with Mitscher still running it. The next target was Peleliu.
Peleliu is a small island two miles wide and six long. Its highest point is a hill officially named Urumbrogol Mountain, later changed by the troops to Bloody Nose Ridge. It was garrisoned by 10,000 Japanese dug into a honeycomb web of connecting caves and bunkers. The conquest of the island followed the same pattern as all the others, with one notable exception. Marines followed by army infantry landed on the southwest corner, fought their way onto and across the local airstrip, and then had to dig the Japanese out of the caves squad by squad, or one by one. It took seven weeks to secure Peleliu and the surrounding islands of the group. The Japanese, who managed to reinforce with another 4,000 during the fighting, had 13,600 killed, and 400 were taken prisoners. The Americans had 7,900 casualties, including 1,750 dead. Those figures provided the notable factor about Peleliu: it cost the highest casualty rate—nearly 40 percent—of any amphibious assault in American history.
While the assault troops fought it out, changes were in the making. At the Quadrant Conference in Quebec the timetable of advance was quickened. MacArthur and Nimitz had expected to take one more set of intermediate islands before reaching the Philippines. Now it looked as if there were a possibility that they could move straight to the heart of the Philippines instead. Japanese naval power and air strength were obviously weakening—though that was more obvious in headquarters than it was on Peleliu—and it was a time for daring initiatives. Asked if they could advance their timetables, MacArthur and Nimitz both said they could. After feverish staff work and exceptional interservice cooperation, the target date for the invasion of Leyte in the central Philippines was moved up from mid-December to October 20. While army and Marine officers moved frantically to rearrange troop allocations and reinforcement schedules, the navy roamed the Philippine Sea, striking heavily at targets on Formosa and other islands which might be used as supporting bases for the 350,000 Japanese in the Philippines themselves. The end result of these strikes was minor damage to American units, and the destruction of another 650 Japanese aircraft, just as they were attempting to rebuild their shattered squadrons after the beating in June.
In the Philippines, the Japanese were well aware that the Americans were coming. Their troops were commanded by the conqueror of Malaya, General Yamashita. The islands were doomed to succumb to any enemy possessing naval and air control, as the Japanese knew from their own experience in 1941-42. But the archipelago was central to the entire empire; if it fell, all communications with the East Indies and much of Southeast Asia would go with it. The Japanese Army determined to put up a fierce fight for the Philippines, and the navy decided, once again, that while the Americans were tied to the amphibious landing forces, there might just be a chance to wipe them out. If all went well, and if they were lucky, the whole tide of the war might be turned. They set in train what was to become the greatest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The invasion of the Philippines began on October 20, right on schedule, when units of the U. S. 6th Army, under General Walter Krueger, landed in Leyte, a large island in the center of the archipelago. Yamashita poured in reinforcements, and while the ground troops fought it out, the Japanese Navy moved to implement its immensely complicated plan for the annihilation of the U. S. Fleet.
The Sho Plan, or Victory Plan, called for a complex converging operation by initially widely separated units of the Japanese Navy. The Main Body, under Admiral Ozawa, was to sortie from the home islands, move south, and act as a decoy to draw off Halsey’s 3rd Fleet. The Second Striking Force, Admiral Shima, was also to sail from the home islands, south through the Formosa Strait, west of the Philippines, to the Sulu Sea. There it would fall in with part of the First Striking Force, under Admiral Nishimura, coming north from Singapore and Borneo. This so-called Third Section of the First Striking Force, plus Shima’s Second Striking Force, were to turn northeast and sail into Leyte Gulf via Surigao Strait, where they would pounce on the amphibious assault ships under Admiral Kincaid. Meanwhile, the rest of the ships from the south, redesignated Central Force, were to make their way under the command of Admiral Kurita through the Sibuyan Sea and San Bernardino Strait, down past the island of Samar, to Leyte Gulf from the north, where they were to hit the aircraft carrier groups supporting Kincaid’s landing forces.
All of these plans resulted in a series of interconnected but separate engagements that combined to form the Battle of Leyte Gulf. There were six encounters in sequence.
In the earliest of them, and well ahead of the Japanese schedule, two American submarines, Darter and Dace, intercepted Kurita’s Central Force while it was still west of the island of Palawan in the South China Sea. Pressing home their torpedo attacks, they sank two cruisers, including Kurita’s flagship, the Atago, and crippled a third. Still possessing five battleships, including the superbattleship Musashi (the largest in the world), nine undamaged cruisers, and fifteen destroyers, Kurita pressed on. The second attack came next day, the 24th, when planes from the 3rd Fleet caught Kurita in the Sibuyan Sea. The Japanese had no air cover; their weakened carriers were all up north, so the Americans attacked at will; in five strikes they hit all the battleships and disabled the Musashi, so that she began to flee back westward. The Americans then came back for one last time and finished her off; flooded bow and stern, she went down with 1,100 of her crew still aboard. Kurita, complaining he was doing all the work and suffering all the consequences, turned back during the night, but then he subsequently changed his mind and resumed his track toward San Bernardino Strait.
Meanwhile, in the third preliminary bout, planes from Ozawa’s Main Body attacked units of Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, sinking the small carrier Princeton for a loss of two thirds their own number. Halsey now knew there were Japanese carrier units to the north of him, and he also had the reports of his own returning pilots that Kurita was stopped and retreating. He therefore led 3rd Fleet off northward after the Japanese Main Body, unaware that Kurita had now had third thoughts and had once again turned back to fight. By dark on the night of the 24th, the stage was set for the three main battles.
Shima’s Second Striking Force, plus Nishimura’s Third Section had made their way through the Sulu and the Mindanao Sea, and entered the confined waters of Surigao Strait. Nishimura led, with two battleships, a cruiser, and four destroyers. Shima, two hours behind him, had three cruisers and four destroyers. They hoped to surprise the soft-skinned American transport vessels, and if they were lucky, wipe them out. Once more, however, the Americans were ready for them. Kincaid had given Admiral Jesse Oldendorf the bulk of his shore bombardment vessels; these were ranged across the top of Surigao Strait, and the Japanese were sailing right into a trap. Emotionally, it could hardly have been a more satisfying trap, manned as it was by the ghosts of Pearl Harbor, the old prewar battleships raised from the mud and rebuilt. As the war went on and newer ships came into service, these slower vessels had been relegated to supporting amphibious landings. Now they, plus their attendant cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats, were to get their innings at last.
Nishimura, in the lead, was attacked first by the torpedo boats, and he ran a gauntlet of them for twenty-five miles; at the end, waiting front and flank, were the bigger ships. The destroyers darted out and launched their own torpedo attacks, then the cruisers and battleships spoke up. The old battleships paraded back and forth across the mouth of the strait at a stately five knots, firing full broadsides as they went. The Japanese forces, already in confusion, were deluged by hits and the splashes of near misses. In a hectic hour’s action, Nishimura, his two battleships, his cruisers, and three of his four destroyers all went down. In the midst of the gunflashes, the splashes, the cries of thousands of men drowning for their Emperor, one destroyer survived and turned back down the strait. Meeting Shima’s force coming north this survivor sent one of the least revealing messages in naval history—“I am having steering trouble”—and kept on her way Shima soon realized what had happened and turned back too. The Americans pursued far enough to sink one of his cruisers, then Oldendorf, conscious of his responsibility to protect the transports, in his turn went back to his station.
With the Battle of Surigao Strait fought and won, it was Halsey’s turn. Dawn of the 25th found him to the north, east of the island of Luzon, and his search planes picked up the Japanese Main Body. In what became known as the Battle of Cape Engano, the nearest point on Luzon, Halsey’s planes caught and sank four Japanese carriers—all but planeless and able to serve only as sacrificial decoys—and a destroyer. Halsey was on the verge of making surface contact and closing in for the kill when he received a chilling message. With Kincaid busy in the south, and Halsey busy in the north, Kurita had suddenly appeared out of the mouth of San Bernardino Strait and was striking at the light carriers and their escorts supporting the landing; the wolf was in among the fold at last.
It was a David and Goliath fight; the Japanese still had their four surviving battleships plus several cruisers and destroyers, while the American admiral Clifton Sprague had only six escort carriers and half a dozen destroyers and destroyer-escorts. His whole force mounted nothing heavier than a five-inch gun. The Americans raced off to the southward, while the destroyers popped away at the giants, and the fighter-bombers leaped off the little carriers to plaster the battleships with the light fragmentation bombs they had been using against shore targets—roughly equivalent to throwing pebbles at a charging rhinoceros. Sprague yelled for help; planes came screaming in from all points of the compass. Halsey turned back from his near-triumph, Kincaid came dashing back from Surigao Strait. Still it was only a matter of time before the “jeep” carriers would be overwhelmed. Gambier Bay went down; so did three of the gallant little escorts. What probably saved the rest of them was the fact that the Japanese were firing heavy armor-piercing shells, and the carriers were so lightly built that many shells went right through them without encountering enough resistance to make them explode. After two hours it looked as if the Americans were on the point of annihilation, when suddenly Kurita turned away, back where he had come from. On the verge of contact with the amphibious ships that were the target of the whole endeavor, Kurita became convinced he was sailing into a trap and broke off the action, reputedly prompting the oft-quoted remark from a sailor on one of the escort carriers, “Hell, they got away….”
In fact they did not quite get away. As they fled, carrier planes caught them in the Sulu Sea and sank another cruiser. The end result of the battle was the destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy as a fighting force. They lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers—more than 300,000 tons of combat ships, as against 37,000 tons for the Americans. Only one recourse lay open to them now. During the battle several Japanese pilots deliberately crashed their planes into American ships: the time of the suicide plane—the kamikaze—had arrived.
Concentrated naval battles tend to be relatively short, compared with land campaigns. The Battle of Leyte Gulf lasted in its entirety but a few days. The land campaign to secure the Philippines went on until the end of the war and really involved three interrelated operations: the drive to secure Leyte itself, the northern advance into Luzon and the fight for that main island, and the southern advance to clear the islands south of Leyte.
MacArthur and his planners had regarded the taking of Leyte as largely a preliminary operation, designed to gain them bases for their air power, which they would then use in the main battle for Luzon. Initially, Yamashita agreed with them: the island was lightly garrisoned, and the Japanese commander did not intend to fight a major battle there. However, he became caught up in the momentum generated by the battle itself and began shipping reinforcements into the island. Most of the new troops had to be brought in by fast transports running the gauntlet of American air strength. The Japanese had weak air units in the Philippines and they largely destroyed themselves in fierce attacks on the Americans that in the end achieved no real effect.
On Leyte the campaign ground slowly ahead. The Japanese had good defensive positions, the weather was bad with heavy rains turning the roads to mud, and the supply buildup went more slowly than planned. The Japanese managed to put together a defensive line running along the mountainous spine of the island and there they held on. Once Yamashita had a chance to assess the full impact of the loss of the naval battle, he recommended that Leyte be abandoned. His superiors turned him down, however, so he continued to filter troops into the island and determined to make a fight for it as long as he could.
Exerting gradually increasing pressure, the American vise slowly closed around the Japanese. By the first week of December the western Leyte ports through which the Japanese reinforced were taken by amphibious assault, and they were cut off. They launched one last offensive, designed to seize American airfields, an offensive notable for one of the rare appearances of Japanese parachute troops, but they lacked the resources to hold on to their gains. By mid-December the defense was collapsing, and by the end of the year the Americans had entered the mopping-up phase, which in fact lasted for another four months, while isolated and roving bands of Japanese were rounded up. In the end the Leyte campaign had destroyed the Japanese Navy, exhausted most of their Philippine air strength, and cost them 70,000 ground force casualties, seriously weakening their ability to hold the rest of the islands.
In mid-December, while the fight for Leyte still went on, units from the U. S. 8th Army, the follow-up force to 6th Army, landed on Mindoro, a smaller island just off Luzon, and rapidly set up airstrips. MacArthur planned to invade Luzon by way of Lingayen Gulf, the same route used by the Japanese in 1941, and drive down the central plain to Manila. Krueger’s forces landed on January 9 after heavy suicide attacks on the invasion fleet by Japanese planes that sank twenty ships and damaged another two dozen. Yamashita had 250,000 troops still on the island, but shortage of equipment and transport plus the superior mobility of the Americans had forced him into a static defensive role. He had organized his forces into three main groups, each assigned a sector of the island, and told them to fight to the end.
Therefore, as the Americans drove south from Lingayen, in some places they met relatively light opposition, and the chief problem of their advance was logistical; but in other places they came up against the Japanese in prepared positions and had to fight hard for every yard. One of their major concerns was the rescue of American prisoners of war and civilian internees. These victims of 1942 had suffered tremendous deprivations at Japanese hands; several thousand had been shipped off to Japan itself, but other thousands still remained in camps on the island, and the Americans were afraid the Japanese might well massacre them as the battle went against them. One of the determinants of the progress of operations thus became the quick capture of prison camps before the guards could kill the inmates.
As Krueger’s soldiers fought their way south from Lingayen, MacArthur utilized to the full the amphibious and airborne capability he now possessed. Landings at unexpected points along the coast kept the Japanese off balance, and they were further dislocated by airborne drops, including one on the island of Corregidor in February, and a later one in the suburbs of Manila itself. In 1942 MacArthur, uncertain of his exact relation with the Filipinos, had declared Manila an open city. Yamashita was constrained by no such diplomatic problems and the Japanese fought hard to hold on; most of the city was in ruins by the time it was cleared. The last fighting was around the University of the Philippines and the old walled city called the Intramuros; it was necessary to breach the ancient Spanish walls with point-blank artillery fire, and then the infantry went in and rooted the Japanese out one by one. By mid-March central Luzon was under American control, and Yamashita’s forces pushed back into the extremities and the mountains of northern Luzon. Krueger’s 6th Army handed over to 8th Army, and went off to train for the invasion of Japan. Eighth Army spent the rest of the war whittling down the enemy, but by the time the Japanese surrendered in August, there were still 50,000 troops at large in Luzon, so to the very end they were doing their best to tie down and kill Americans, a thankless, unrewarding battle for both sides.
The same kind of deadly game went on in the southern Philippines. The 100,000 ill-equipped Japanese troops there had hoped to be left alone, but MacArthur needed the southern islands for air bases to support the projected Australian invasion of Borneo, and to operate against the East Indies shipping lanes. He therefore directed 8th Army to send some of its units from Luzon south. Only on the large island of Mindanao were the Japanese able to put up an effective resistance. In the other islands they faded into the backlands as the American forces landed, and hung on until mobile columns of Americans and Filipino guerrillas finally ran them down, or starvation reduced them to collapse. In Mindanao they were strong enough to retain the eastern part of the island until the general Japanese surrender, by which time, subjected to constant ground pressure and relentless air attack, they were here too in a state of near-starvation and semi-collapse.
In all, the Philippine campaign cost the Japanese the entire 350,000 men they had garrisoning the islands. The Americans themselves suffered 62,000 casualties, including almost 14,000 killed. As the war flowed by to the northward several things were obvious. The Japanese Empire was doomed; by the end of 1944 their fleet and air forces were both mere shadows of what they had been. But it was equally apparent that they were not yet ready to admit defeat. If victory consists, as Clausewitz said, of making the enemy accept your will rather than his own, the Allies had not yet achieved victory. The home islands of the empire lay ahead, and no one in his right mind could possibly relish the task of taking on the Japanese on their own territory. But the prison camps on Luzon had hardened any Allied hearts that yet needed to be hardened. It might be that the Japanese would insist on dying as a people before they would concede defeat. If that was what they wanted, so be it. The Americans had the matériel, the manpower, and the expertise to do it, and by 1945, after the long road from Pearl Harbor to Manila, they were as determined as their enemies on a fight to the finish.