Operation Battle of Leyte

The 'Battle of Leyte' was fought between Allied and Japanese forces for the island of Leyte in the Philippine islands group (17 October/26 December 1944).

The 'King II' amphibious landing on the eastern side of the island paved the way for a US and Filipino guerrilla land campaign, under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, against the Japanese occupation under the overall command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 14th Area Army. 'King II' launched the whole campaign of 1944/45 for the recapture and liberation of the entire Philippine islands group.

Japan had taken the Philippine islands group in 'M' (ii) during the first moths of 1942. Control of this archipelago was vital for Japan’s survival in World War II as it commanded the sea routes to and from Borneo and Sumatra by which rubber and petroleum were shipped to the Japanese home islands.

For the USA, the recaptured of the Philippine islands group was a key strategic step in the planned isolation of Japan’s military holdings in China, the South-West Pacific Area and the Pacific Areas. It was also a personal matter of pride for MacArthur: in 1942, just a month before Japan forced the surrender of all US Army Forces in the Far East, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippine islands group and start on the organisation of the US forces gathering in Australia, which were meant to relieve the US Army Forces in the Far East. Those relief forces were non-existent, and Roosevelt’s true intention in ordering MacArthur to leave the Philippine islands group had been to prevent his capture by the Japanese. Still, MacArthur had vowed that he would return, and repeatedly stated that it was a moral obligation for the USA to liberate the Philippine islands group as soon as possible. In March 1944, the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff ordered MacArthur to plan an attack on the southern part of the Philippine islands group by the end of the year, and on Luzon early in 1945. In July 1944, Roosevelt met MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas, in Hawaii, where the decision was made to invade the Philippine islands group, on which air bases could be developed and used to support the Pacific Theater of Operations.

During the summer of 1944, carrierborne aircraft of Admiral William F. Halsey’s US 3rd Fleet carried out several successful missions over the Philippine islands group and found Japanese resistance to be signally limited. Halsey therefore recommended a direct assault on Leyte island, cancelling other operations which were being planned against islands farther to the south, and the Leyte invasion date was moved forward to October.

One of the larger islands of the Philippine islands group, Leyte has numerous deep-water approaches and sandy beaches which offered opportunities for amphibious assaults and fast resupply. The roads and lowlands extending inland from Highway 1, extending for some 40 miles (65 km) along the eastern coast between Abuyog town to the north and the San Juanico Strait between Leyte and Samar islands in the south, provided avenues for infantry and armoured operations, as well as ground suitable for airfield construction. US air forces based on Leyte could strike at Japanese bases and airfields anywhere in the archipelago.

A heavily forested north/south mountain range dominates the interior of Leyte and separates two sizeable valleys, or coastal plains. The larger Leyte valley extends from the northern coast to the long eastern coast and contains most of the island’s towns and road. The smaller Ormoc valley, situated on the island’s western side, was connected to the Leyte valley by a roundabout and winding road, Highway 2: this extended from Palo town on the eastern coast, then to the west and north-west through Leyte valley to the northern coast, where it turned to the south and wound through a mountainous neck to enter the northern part of the Ormoc valley. This continued south to the port of Ormoc City, then along the western shore to Baybay town. The road then turned east to cross the mountainous waist of the island and linked with Highway 1 on the eastern coast at Abuyog. Below these towns, the mountainous southern third of Leyte was mostly undeveloped. Mountain peaks rising to a height of 4,400 ft (1340 m) or more, as well as the jagged outcroppings, ravines and caves typical of volcanic islands offered formidable defensive opportunities. The timing of the assault late in the year would force combat troops and supporting pilots, as well as logistical units, to contend with monsoon rains. It was expected that Leyte’s population of more than 900,000 persons, mostly farmers and fishermen, would assist a US invasion, since many of them were already supporting the guerrilla struggle against the Japanese in the face of harsh repression.

The Japanese troop strength on Leyte was estimated by US intelligence at 20,000 men, mostly of Lieutenant General Shiro Makino’s 16th Division.

The US theatre, naval and air force commanders for the recapture of the Philippine islands were respectively MacArthur heading the South-West Pacific Area, Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid heading the 7th Fleet and Lieutenant General George C. Kenney heading the Pacific Air Command (his own 5th Army Air Force and Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith’s 13th Army Air Force).

Local command of the 'King II' assault was vested in Kinkaid’s Central Philippines Attack Force (Task Force 77), which was divided into Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey’s Northern Attack Force (TF78) embarking Major General Franklin C. Sibert’s X Corps and Vice Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson’s Southern Attack Force (TF79) embarking Major General John R. Hodge’s XXIV Corps. The land forces were major elements of Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger’s 6th Army, with the X Corps also known as the Northern Landing Force (Major General Frederick A. Irving’s 24th Division and Major General Verne D. Mudge’s 1st Cavalry Division), and the XXIV Corps also known as the Southern Landing Force (Major General Archibald V. Arnold’s 7th Division and Major General James L. Bradley’s 96th Division). The local reserve was Major General Joseph M. Swing’s 11th Airborne Division, and the theatre reserve was Major General William H. Gill’s 32 Division and Major General Andrew D. Bruce’s 77th Division.

The order of battle of the opposing Japanese land forces, under the overall command of Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi’s Southern Expeditionary Army Group headquartered in Saigon and theatre command of Yamashita’s 14th Area Army headquartered in Luzon, was based on Suzuki’s 35th Army, whose Leyte Defence Forces were centred on Lieutenant General Shiro Makino’s 16th Division (9th, 20th and 33rd Regiments, 22nd Artillery Regiment, 16th Engineer Regiment and 34th Air Sector Command).

The Japanese air formations involved in the defence of the Philippine islands group were Vice Admiral Kinpei Teraoka’s 5th Base Air Force based on Formosa, and Lieutenant General Kyoji Tominaga’s 4th Air Army headquartered in Manila on Luzon island.

Preliminary operations for 'King II' began at dawn on 17 October with minesweeping operations and the movement of the 6th Rangers toward three small islands in Leyte Gulf. Although delayed by a storm, the Rangers were on Suluan and Dinagat islands by 08.05. On Suluan island, the rangers dispersed a small group of Japanese defenders and destroyed a radio station, while on Dinagat island they found no Japanese. A third island, Homonhon island, was taken without any opposition during the following day. On Dinagat and Homonhom islands, the rangers started the process of erecting navigation lights for the amphibious transports to follow. Meanwhile, reconnaissance by underwater demolition teams revealed that there were no obstacles in the water off the planned landing beaches for the assault troops on Leyte island. Independently, the 21st Infantry on 20 October landed on Panaon Strait to take control the entrance to Sogod Bay.

Following four hours of heavy naval gunfire on A-day, 20 October, forces of the 6th Army landed on their assigned beaches at 10.00. From north to south, these were the White Beach (5th, 7th and 12th Cavalry), Red Beach (19th and 34th Infantry), Blue and Orange Beaches (381st, 382 and 383rd Infantry), and Yellow and Violet Beaches (17th, 32nd and 184th Infantry). In the north, the formations and units of the X Corps pushed across a 4-mile (6.4-km) stretch of beach between Tacloban airfield and the Palo river. Some 15 miles (24 km) to the south, the formations and units of the XXIV Corps came ashore across a 3-mile beach between San José and the Daguitan river. The US troops found as much resistance from swampy terrain as from Japanese fire, but within one hour of landing, units in most sectors had secured beach-heads deep enough to receive heavy vehicles and large amounts of supplies. Only in the 24th Division’s sector did Japanese fire force a diversion of follow-up landing craft, but even that sector was secure enough by 13.30 to allow MacArthur to make a dramatic arrival through the surf onto Red Beach and announce the beginning of their liberation: 'People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.'

By the end of A-day, the 6th Army had moved 1 mile (1.6 km) inland across a 5-mile (8-km) front. In the X Corps' sector, the 1st Cavalry Division held Tacloban airfield, and the 24th Division had taken the high ground on Hill 522 commanding its beach-heads. In the XXIV Corps' sector, the 96th Division had taken the approaches to Catmon Hill, and the 7th Division held Dulag and its airfield.

Makino spent the day moving his command post from Tacloban some 10 miles (16 km) inland to the town of Dagami. The US forces had won the initial fighting at a cost of 49 men killed, 192 wounded, and six missing. The Japanese counterattacked the 24th Division on Red Beach throughout the night but were unsuccessful.

In the Leyte valley, the 6th Army made steady progress inland against sporadic and unco-ordinated Japanese resistance during the next few days. The 1st Cavalry Division secured Tacloban, the provincial capital, on 21 October and Hill 215 on the next day.] On 23 October, MacArthur presided over a ceremony to restore civil government to Leyte. The 1st and 2nd Cavalry Brigades initiated a holding action to prevent a Japanese counterattack from the mountainous interior, after which the 1st Cavalry was allowed to move forward. The 8th Cavalry established itself on Samar by 24 Oct, securing the San Juanico Strait.

On the X Corps left, the 24th Division drove inland into heavy Japanese resistance. After days and nights of hard fighting and killing some 800 Japanese, the 19th and 34th Infantry expanded their beach-head and took control of the high ground commanding the entrance to the northern Leyte valley. By 1 November, after a seven-day tank and infantry advance supported by artillery fire, both regiments had pushed through Leyte valley and were within sight of the northern coast and the port of Carigara, which the 2nd Cavalry Brigade occupied on the following day after Suzuki ordered a withdrawal. In its drive through Leyte valley, the 24th Division inflicted nearly 3,000 casualties on the Japanese. These advances left only one major port on Leyte, namely Ormoc City on the western coast, under Japanese control.

From the XXIV Corps' beach-head, Hodge had sent his two divisions into the southern Leyte valley, which already contained four airfields and a large supply centre. The 96th Division was to clear Catmon Hill, a 1,400-ft (425-m) promontory and the highest point in both corps' beach-heads, and used by the Japanese as an observation and firing post to engage landing craft approaching the beach on A-day. Under cover of incessant artillery and naval gunfire, Bradley’s troops made their way through the swamps to the south and west of the high ground at Labiranan Head. After a three-day fight, the 382nd Infantry took a key Japanese supply base at Tabontabon, 5 miles (8 km) inland, and killed some 350 Japanese on 28 October. Simultaneously two battalions each from the 381st Infantry and 383rd Infantry slowly advanced up opposite sides of Catmon Hill in the face of determined Japanese resistance. When the mop-up of Catmon Hill was completed on 31 October, the US forces had cleared 53 pillboxes, 17 caves and several heavy artillery positions.

On the left of the XXIV Corps, the 7th Division moved inland against the Japanese airfields of San Pablo 1 and 2, Bayug, and Buri, using 'flying wedges' of the 767th Tank Battalion’s vehicles, which cleared the way for the infantrymen. Between Burauen and Julita, the 17th Infantry overcame fanatical but futile resistance from Japanese soldiers concealed in spider holes, who placed satchel charges on the hulls of the US tanks. A mile north, men of the 32nd Infantry killed more than 400 Japanese at Buri airfield. While two battalions of the 184th Infantry patrolled the corps' left flank, the 17th Infantry, with the 2/184th Infantry attached, turned to the north toward Dagami, 6 miles (9.7 km) above Burauen. Using flamethrowers to root the Japanese out of pillboxes and a cemetery, the US troops captured Dagami on 30 October, which forced Makino to shift his command post farther to the west. Meanwhile, on 29 October, the 2/32nd Infantry, preceded by the 7th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, moved 15 miles (24 km) to the south along the eastern coast to Abuyog for a probe of the area, and then over the next four days patrolled to the west through the mountains to Baybay, all without opposition.

With 432,000 men in the Philippine islands group, Yamashita decided to make Leyte the main centre of the Japanese defence, and on 21 October he ordered the 35th Army to co-ordinate a decisive battle in concert with the Imperial Japanese navy’s 'Sho 1' offensive that led to the decisive 'Battle of Leyte Gulf'. The 16th Division was to be reinforced by Lieutenant General Gyosaku Morozumi’s 30th Division from Mindanao island, landing on Ormoc Bay. Lieutenant General Shinpei Fukei’s 102nd Division was to occupy Jaro, where the 1st Division and Lieutenant General Tsuyuo Yamagata’s 26th Division were concentrating. Battalions of the 55th Independent Mixed Brigade and 57th Independent Mixed Brigade were on Leyte by 25 October.

As the 6th Army drove deeper into Leyte, the Japanese struck back in the air and at sea. On 24 October, some 200 Japanese aircraft approached the US beach-heads and shipping from the north. Some 50 land-based US aircraft rose to intercept them, and claimed to have shot down between 66 and 84 of the attackers. Day and night Japanese air raids continued over the next four days, damaging supply dumps ashore and threatening US shipping. By 28 October, however, counterattacks by US aircraft on Japanese airfields and shipping on other islands so reduced Japanese air strength that conventional air raids ceased to be a major threat. As their air strength diminished, though, the Japanese resorted to the kamikaze concept, using a corps of suicide pilots to crash their bomb-laden warplanes directly into US ships. They chose the large US transport and escort fleet that had gathered in Leyte Gulf on A-day as their first objective, and sank one escort carrier, St Lo, on 25 October and badly damaged many other vessels. This was the first instance of a major warship being sunk by kamikaze attack.

A more serious danger to the US forces developed at sea. The Imperial Japanese navy decided to destroy US Navy forces supporting the 6th Army by committing its entire remaining surface fleet to a decisive battle. The Imperial Japanese navy’s plan was to attack in three major task groups. One, which included four aircraft carriers with few aircraft aboard, was to act as a decoy, luring the US 3rd Fleet to the north and thus away from Leyte Gulf. If the decoy was successful, the other two groups, consisting primarily of heavy surface combatants, would enter the gulf from the west and attack the US transports. On 23 October, the approach of the Japanese surface vessels was detected. US naval units moved out to intercept, and the air and naval 'Battle of Leyte Gulf', the largest naval battle in the Pacific and also one of the largest naval battles in history, was fought from 23 to 26 October. The Japanese suffered a decisive defeat. Nonetheless, by 11 December the Japanese had succeeded in moving more than 34,000 troops to Leyte and large quantities of materiél, mostly through the port of Ormoc on the western coast, despite heavy losses to reinforcement convoys, including engagements at Ormoc Bay, because of relentless air interdiction missions by US aircraft.

The Japanese reinforcement posed severe problems for Krueger and MacArthur. Instead of the mopping-up operations that had been planned for the period after the clearance of Leyte island’s eastern side, the 6th Army had now to ready itself for extended combat in the mountains on the island’s western side, which included landing three reserve divisions on Leyte. This pushed MacArthur’s operations schedule for the Philippine islands campaign back and the Department of War’s deployment plans in the Pacific.

Krueger planned a giant pincer operation to clear the Ormoc valley, with the X Corps' forces moving to the south and the XXIV Corps' forces pushing to the north from Baybay. To overcome the increased resistance that was now expected, especially in the mountain barrier to the north, Krueger mobilised his reserve forces, Major General William H. Gill’s 32nd Division and and Major General Andrew D, Bruce’s 77th Division, while MacArthur activated Major General Joseph M. Swing’s 11th Airborne Division. The 21st Regimental Combat Team pulled out from the Panaon area to rejoin the 24th Division and was replaced by one battalion of the 32nd Infantry. On 3 November, the 34th Infantry moved out from the area to the west of Carigara to sweep the rest of the northern coast before turning to the south into the mountains. The 1/34nd Infantry soon came under attack from a ridge along the highway. Supported by the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion, the unit cleared the ridge, and the 34th Infantry continued unopposed that night through the town of Pinamopoan, seizing many heavy weapons abandoned by the Japanese, then halted at the point where Highway 2 turns to the south into the mountains.

On 7 November, the 21st Infantry entered its first sustained combat on Leyte island when it moved into the mountains along Highway 2 near Carigara Bay. The fresh regiment, with the 3/19th Infantry, immediately ran into strong defences of the newly arrived 1st Division, aligned from east to west across the road and anchored on a network of fighting positions built of heavy logs and interconnecting trench lines, and countless spider holes. This position became known as 'Breakneck Ridge' to the Americans and the 'Yamashita Line' to the Japanese. Krueger ordered the 1st Cavalry to join the 24th Division in the attack to the south, and the X Corps and the 96th Division of the XXIV Corps to block all routes through the central mountain range, anticipating Suzuki’s renewed attack with the arrival of his 26th Division. Additionally, the XXIV Corps had the 7th Division in Baybay, and Krueger had access to the 32nd Division, 77th Division and 11th Airborne Division, which MacArthur was staging in Leyte in preparation for the 'Mike I' invasion of Luzon island.

A typhoon began on 8 November, and the heavy rain that followed for several days further slowed the US advance. Despite the storm and is associated high winds, which added falling trees and mud slides to the Japanese defences and delayed supply trains, the 21st Infantry continued its slow and halting attack: companies often had to pull back and recapture hills that had been taken earlier. The Americans seized the approaches to Hill 1525 some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the east, enabling Irving to stretch out the Japanese defences farther across a 4-mile (6.4-km) front along Highway 2. After five days of battling against seemingly impregnable hill positions and two nights of repulsing Japanese counterattacks, Irving decided on a double envelopment of the Japanese defenders. On the east, the 2/19th Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Spragins, swung to the east round Hill 1525 behind the Japanese right flank, cutting back to Highway 2, some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south of 'Breakneck Ridge', blocking the Japanese supply line. On the west, Irving sent the 1/34th Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas E. Clifford, across the water from the Carigara area to a point 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of the southward turn of Highway 2, and moved it inland. This amphibious manoeuvre was effected in 18 LVTs of the 727th Amphibian Tractor Battalion. After crossing a ridge line and the Leyte river, the battalion approached the Japanese left flank at 900 ft (270 m) on Kilay Ridge, the highest terrain behind the main battle area. Both battalions had reached positions only about 1,000 yards (915 m) apart on opposite sides of the highway by 13 November despite strong opposition and heavy rain. The Americans were aided by the 1/96th Philippine Infantry, a local guide unit which 'owned' Kilay Ridge, and Filipinos carrying supplies.

It took Clifford’s men two weeks of struggle through mud and rain, and often dangerously close to friendly mortar and artillery fire, to root the Japanese out of fighting positions on the way up Kilay Ridge. On 2 December Clifford’s battalion finally cleared the heights overlooking the road, and units of the 32nd Division quickly took over. Clifford’s battalion had suffered 26 men killed, 101 wounded and two missing, in contrast with the Japanese loss of 900 dead. It was not until 14 December that the 32nd Division finally cleared the Breakneck-Kilay Ridge area, and linked with the 1st Cavalry Division on 19 Dec, placing the most heavily defended portions of Highway 2 between Carigara Bay and the Ormoc Valley under control of the X Corps.

Throughout this phase, US efforts had become increasingly hampered by logistical problems. Mountainous terrain and impassable roads forced the 6th Army transport units to improvise resupply trains of US Navy landing craft, tracked landing vehicles, air drops, artillery tractors, trucks, even water buffalo and hundreds of unshod Filipino bearers. The 727th Amphibian Tractor Battalion made daily, often multiple, trips with ammunition and rations between Capoocan and Calubian. From Calubian, the 727th Amphibian Tractor Battalion’s vehicles navigated the Naga river to Consuegra and then crossed overland to Agahang. On their return trips, they evacuated casualties. Not surprisingly, the complex scheduling slowed resupply as well as the pace of assaults, particularly in the mountains to the north and east of the Ormoc valley and subsequently in the ridgelines along Ormoc Bay.

In the middle of November, the XXIV Corps had the 32nd Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John M. Finn, in the western part of Leyte island, and remnants of the 7th Division securing Burauen, but the arrival of the 11th Airborne Division on 22 November allowed Hodge to move the rest of the 7th Division to the west. On the night of 23 November, the 32nd Infantry suddenly came under attack by the 26th Division along the Palanas river. The 2/32nd Infantry was driven back off Hill 918 to a defensive position along the highway together with their artillery base, which comprised Batteries A and B of the 49th Field Artillery Battalion and Battery B of the US Marine Corps' 11th 155-mm (6.1-in) Gun Battalion. Arnold had earlier placed the 2/184th Infantry as a reserve for just such a counterattack. One platoon of tanks from the 767th Tank Battalion was also stationed at Damulaan. Battery C of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion arrived on the following day. On the night of 24 November, Japanese attacks put four 105-mm (4.13-in) in) pieces of Battery B out of action. The 2/184th Infantry was then released by Arnold to Finn. The defensive battle for 'Shoestring Ridge', so named to reflect the supply situation, continued until 29 November, when US troops were able to take the offensive. During their failed attacks over the previous days, the Japanese under the command of Colonel Saito had committed six infantry battalions.

Arnold finally began his advance toward Ormoc with a novel tactic. On the night of 4 December, vehicles of the 776th Amphibian Tank Battalion put to sea and leapfrogged south along the Leyte coast to arrive to the west of Balogo. On 5 December, the amphibian 'tanks' moved to within 200 yards (185 m) of the shore and fired into the hills in front of the advancing 17th Infantry and 184th Infantry. This tactic proved effective, greatly disorganising the defenders, except where ground troops encountered Japanese pockets on reverse slopes inland, shielded from the offshore 'tank' fire. The 7th Division pushed to the north with two regiments which encountered heavy Japanese fire from Hill 918, from which the entire coast to Ormoc City could be observed. By 8 December, the US forces had taken Hills 918, 380 and 606, as well as the surrounding ridges. By 12 December, Arnold’s leading battalion was less than 10 miles (16 km) to the south of Ormoc City.

While Arnold’s force moved closer to Ormoc, on 6 December, the Japanese made a surprise attack on Buri airfield with the 16th Division, combined with 250 paratroopers of the 2nd Raiding Brigade. At the time, the 11th Airborne Division was defending the Burauen area. The Japanese aimed to recapture the airfields in the eastern part of Leyte island for use by their own aircraft. Descending Japanese paratroopers were 'cut to shreds by the antiaircraft and field artillery units,' according to one US artillery officer. Although poorly co-ordinated (only one battalion of the 26th Division reached the battlefield), the Japanese attack yielded the seizure of some abandoned weapons which they managed to use against the Americans over the next four days. The 11th Airborne Division, supported by the 149th Infantry of the 38th Division and the 382nd Infantry of the 96th Division, supplemented by hastily mustered groups of support and service troops, eventually contained the attack, and had turned the tide by 9 December. With a few US supply dumps and aircraft on the ground destroyed and construction projects delayed, the Japanese attacks on the airfields failed to exercise any real effect on the overall flow of the Leyte island campaign. Suzuki ordered a retreat so he could deal with the US landing at Ormoc, but with only 200 men returning, the 16th Division effectively ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the western side of Leyte island, the XXIV Corps received reinforcements on 7 December with the landing of Major General Andrew D. Bruce’s 77th Division in the area to the south of Ormoc City. The 77th Division’s 305th Infantry and 307th Infantry came ashore unopposed at 07.00, supported by a company from the 776th Amphibian Tank Battalion. However, Rear Admiral Arthur D. Struble’s naval convoy was subjected to kamikaze air attacks, 55 aircraft being committed in 16 raids. The arrival of the 77th Division proved decisive, for it enabled the 7th Division to resume its march to the north, and the Japanese were quickly squeezed between the two forces.

Advancing to the north, the 77th Division faced strong opposition at Camp Downes, a pre-war Philippine constabulary post. Supported by the newly arrived 306th Infantry, as well as the 902nd and 305th Field Artillery Battalions, Bruce’s troops pushed through and beyond Camp Downes on 9 Dec, and entered Ormoc City on 10 December. The 7th Division and 77th Division met on the following day.

In their final drive, US troops killed some 1,506 Japanese and took seven prisoners while sustaining the loss of 123 men killed, 329 wounded and 13 missing. With Ormoc City captured, the XXIV Corps and X Corps were only 16 miles (26 km) apart. Between them, at Cogan, the last Japanese salient with its defences anchored on a concrete blockhouse, to the north of Ormoc, and held by the 12th Independent Regiment, resisted the Americans for two days. On 14 December, the 305th Infantry closed on the stronghold, aided by heavy artillery barrages and employing flamethrowers and armoured bulldozers. Hand-to-hand combat cleared the Japanese from the blockhouse area, while the leading Company E of the 2/305th Infantry moved forward through intense fire and killed several Japanese soldiers.

After breaking out of Ormoc City, the 77th Division took Valencia airfield, 7 miles (11 km) to the north, on 18 December, and then continued farther to the north to establish contact with units of the X Corps. On that same day, Sibert ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to complete the drive to the south. The 12th Cavalry pushed out of the mountains on a south-western track to Highway 2, then followed fire from the 271st Field Artillery Battalion to clear a 3-mile (4.8-km) stretch of the road. To the north of the Ormoc valley, the 32nd Division had met determined opposition from the 1st Division along Highway 2, after moving to the south past Kilay Ridge and entering a heavy rain forest, which limited visibility and concealed the Japanese. Using flamethrowers, grenades, rifles and bayonets, troops scratched out daily advances measured in yards, and in five days of hard fighting, the 126th Infantry and 127th Infantry advanced less than 1 mile (1.6 km). Contact between patrols of the 12th Cavalry and the 77th Division’s 306th Infantry on 21 December marked the juncture of the X Corps and XXIV Corps, and the closing of the 6th Army’s pincer manoeuvre against the Ormoc valley.

While the 77th Division and 32nd Division converged on the valley, Swing’s 11th Airborne Division had moved into the central mountain passes from the east. With blocking positions established to the south of the Leyte valley on 22/24 November, the 511th Parachute Infantry pushed farther to the west into the mountains on 25 November. After an arduous advance, the 511th Parachute Infantry reached Mahonag, 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Burauen, on 6 December, the same day Japanese paratroopers landed at the Buri and San Pablo airfields. On 16 December, the 2/32nd Infantry made slow but steady progress into the mountains from the Ormoc Bay area to meet the airborne regiment and assist its passage westward. On 23 December, after battling scattered Japanese defenders on ridges and in caves, the 7th Division’s infantry met troops of the 2/187th Glider Infantry, which had passed through the 511th Parachute Infantry, to complete the cross-island move, and basically destroying the 26th Division in the process.

Bruce opened the drive on Palompon by sending the 2 and 3/305th Infantry, with armour support, west along the road on the morning of 22 December. The 302nd Engineer Battalion followed, repairing and strengthening bridges for armour, artillery and supply vehicles. Assault units progressed rapidly through sporadic Japanese fire until they hit strong positions about 8 miles (13 km) short of Palompon. To restore momentum, Bruce loaded the 1/305th Infantry on US Navy landing craft and despatched it from the port of Ormoc to Palompon. Supported by fire from mortar boats of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade and from the 155-mm (6.1-in) guns of the 531st Field Artillery Battalion, the infantrymen landed at 07.20 on 25 December and secured the small coastal town within four hours.

Learning of the seizure of this last port open to the Japanese, MacArthur announced the end of organised resistance on Leyte island. As sweeps continued, he transferred control of operations on Leyte and Samar islands to Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger’s 8th Army on 26 December. Farther to the north, other US forces made faster progress against more disorganised and demoralised Japanese forces. The 1st Cavalry Division’s troops reached the coast on 28 December as units of the 24th Division cleared the last Japanese positions from the north-western corner of Leyte on the same day, and two days later met patrols of the 32nd Division. Japanese defenders continued to fight as units until 31 December, however, and the ensuing mop-up of stragglers continued until 8 May 1945.

The campaign for Leyte island proved to be the first and most decisive operation in the US reconquest of the Philippine islands group. Japanese losses in the campaign were heavy, the army losing four divisions and several separate combat units, while the navy lost 26 major warships and 46 large transports as well as hundreds of merchant vessels. The struggle also reduced Japanese land-based air capability in the Philippine islands group by more than half. Some 250,000 troops still remained on Luzon island, but the loss of air and naval support in the Leyte campaign limited Yamashita’s options so markedly that he now had to plan to fight a passive defence of Luzon island, the largest and most important land mass in the Philippine archipelago. In effect, once the decisive battle of Leyte had been lost, the Japanese gave up hope of retaining the Philippine islands group, conceding to the Allies a critical bastion from which Japan could be easily cut off from outside resources, and from which the final assaults on the Japanese home islands could be launched.