The Battle for Leyte Gulf Revisited
by Irwin J. Kappes
any measurement, the Battle for Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle in
history. That has never been in doubt. But there is much about the recounting
of that battle that is open to challenge.
First, let's take a look at the names historians have given to the Great
Battle. It turns out that they can't even agree on that. Some call it "The
Battle of Leyte Gulf" (whereas two of the four "battles" that comprise it
weren't fought anywhere near Leyte Gulf). Others call it "The Battle for Leyte
Gulf" which makes a lot more sense. Only one thing: The battle was by
definition fought for control of the Gulf, but at the end of it on October 25,
1944 the Allies still did not control the area. The Tokyo Express was still
re-supplying Japanese troops which continued to hold about two-thirds of the
island of Leyte. And a month after the famous battle enemy strength had more
than doubled. This hardly suggests a major victory.
In one sense, the four battles that make up the Great Battle (Battle of Surigao
Strait, Battle of Sibuyon Sea, Battle Off Cape Engano and Battle Off Samar) did
sound the death knell of the Japanese fleet as a fighting force. But after all,
words do mean something. And because "The Battle for Leyte Gulf" didn't change
the situation on the ground in any important way, it can't go down as a major
victory unless the largely unknown fifth battle is included as part of it. It
was that battle that determined the final fate of the Japanese in the central
The Battle of Ormoc Bay started on November 11, 1944 and ended on December
21st. Why those dates? On the 11th of November, Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet
carrier planes were first to raid Ormoc Bay—the major Japanese supply base on
Leyte's west coast. They struck a major blow by sinking four destroyers and
five transports. General MacArthur himself declared the end of the battle, and
of combat operations in the region, on December 21 when he said, "This closes a
campaign that has had few counterparts in the utter destruction of the enemy's
forces with the maximum conservation of our own…" But between November 11 and
December 21 there were almost daily surface and air operations constituting a
drumbeat of destruction for Japanese reinforcement attempts.
Why has this Battle of Ormoc Bay escaped the attention of historians? The men
who wrote the history are all gone now but a few answers suggest themselves.
First, most naval battles took place over a short span such as a day or two,
but there are exceptions. Take the naval battle of Guadalcanal, which began on
August 7, 1942 and ended on December 30th.
Then too, some historians may have seen the action in Ormoc Bay as little more
than a series of skirmishes because the largest ships involved were destroyers.
But that wouldn't explain why other acknowledged "battles" were fought only by
destroyers. One example is the Battle of Vella Gulf.
One is compelled to conclude that the writers of WWII history had a naval bias
that is not appropriate in an era with a great degree of command integration.
Since the purpose of the Battle for/of Leyte Gulf was to secure the Gulf area,
any fair-minded assessment has to include the contributions of Army land
forces—particularly the 77th Division, destroyer squadrons that raided enemy
re-supply bases on the island, and Marine Fighter-Bomber groups that dealt
heavy blows to Japanese shipping.
The truth is that historians were apparently too eager to write "finis" to the
Great Battle after the Japanese fleet cut and ran after the Battle Off Samar.
MacArthur was right in establishing December 21 as the end of the battle. But
he had always referred to it as "The Leyte Campaign". Naval historians of the
time would naturally shun such terminology because it was suggestive of land
and sea forces. And writers with a naval bias were not about to share credit
for victory in this one, so the name of the battle remains today as "The Battle
for/of Leyte Gulf". But MacArthur's designation makes far better sense. After
all, isn't it a bit confusing to use the term "battle" to describe another
battle which is itself made up of four other battles?
Copyright © 2003 Irwin J. Kappes
Written by Irwin Kappes. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Irwin Kappes at:
About the author:
Mr. Kappes served in U.S. Navy on destroyers in the Atlantic and
Pacific during WWII. He holds an MBA from Boston University and retired after a 32 year advertising career with the Du
Pont Company. He was also a retired Vice President with United States Hosiery. He is married and his hobbies include painting,
writing, and travel. His hometown is New Castle, PA. and presently living in Tinton Falls, NJ.
Published online: 06/08/2003.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.