American success at Guadalcanal was a turning point in the war in the Pacific. Japanese designs on Australia were thwarted, and the US began to actually roll back Japanese gains in the South Pacific.
During 1943, American forces not only continued this advance, they crept closer to Japan itself. In the first half of the year, they tightened their grip on New Guinea. During the second half of the year, they secured more territory in the Solomon Islands. They then moved north to the Gilbert, then to the Marshall, and finally to the Mariana islands. Once these atolls were under American control, the US navy and air force were positioned to strike Japan from several points along a sweeping arc.
In mid-1944, the United States and General Douglas MacArthur decided to add one other piece to this defensive-turned-offensive perimeter—the Philippines. In 1942, the egocentric general had promised to return—now American naval success had made that possible.
The battle for the Philippines involved both land and sea operations. The first wave of American ground troops—136,000 soldiers from US Sixth Army—landed at Leyte, one of larger islands in the center of the Philippines on 20 October. The naval battle began three days later on the 23rd.
The battle at sea was the largest of the war, in fact, the largest in history. Two-hundred thousand men and almost 300 ships did battle over 100,000 square miles of ocean. The American fleet held advantages on the water but an even greater advantage in the air. In the months before the battle, Americans had plastered the Japanese air force, first in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and then in raids against Formosa, Okinawa and the Philippines. Almost 1000 Japanese aircraft were destroyed.
Yet despite all of the technology amassed for the battle, it almost and then did turn on human mistakes at the top. The Japanese had sent a small decoy force to the north to draw American ships away from the primary battlefield. Vice-Admiral William Halsey bit on the fake and dispatched several ships to the north. Halsey eventually realized his error and recalled the ships but not in time. Japanese Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo took advantage of the opening left by Halsey’s foolish flight to the north. He entered the San Bernardino Straits and headed for the now thinly protected American ground troops being deposited in Leyte. Had he pushed aggressively, he might have delivered a crippling blow to the entire landing operation. But he pulled back. Afraid that he was sailing into a trap, he withdrew through the straits.
By the time the sea battle of Leyte Gulf had ended, the Japanese had lost more than 30 ships and 10,000 men. American losses totaled only six ships and 2800 men. More important, the American landing on Leyte was achieved and the land operation against Japanese forces could advance.
Resistance to the newly arrived American ground troops was not insignificant. The 16,000 Japanese troops already deployed were quickly re-enforced by another 45,000. Difficult terrain and rough weather also complicated American operations. Yet American numbers and fire-power were simply overwhelming. By the end of 1944, the island had been taken.
The Japanese subsequently concentrated most of their remaining forces in the Philippines on Luzon. The fighting that ensued during February 1945 was most vicious in the capital city of Manila—an estimated 100,000 civilians were caught in the cross fire. But the Japanese military casualties were even higher; almost 200,000 Japanese soldiers were killed trying to turn back the American force. Fewer than 8000 American were killed.
Over the six months, American troops systematically worked their way through the remaining Philippine islands. But the real work was done by February 1945 with the liberation of Manila. The United States had re-taken the Philippines and was a step closer to mounting an invasion of the Japanese islands.