38

The battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines led to the destruction of half of what remained of the Japanese navy. It also "sucked in" all the troops that Japanese could spare from elsewhere, leading to their deploying about half a million men in the Philippines, a disproportionate number, that could not be transferred after the Japanese naval defeat. So far so good.

With the above accomplished, was it militarily possible for the Americans to "island hop" the archipelago, capture only a few islands, "strand" the remaining Japanese, and "switch gears" to larger but now less-well-defended targets such as the modern Indonesia and Indochina, leaving the Japanese in the Philippines to wither on the vine, as had been the case in the Pacific Islands? (MacArthur was all for recapturing the Philippines but other military men disagreed with him.)

Did the Philippines actually have the strategic military or political importance that MacArthur attached to them, and need to be recaptured even if the Japanese had garrisoned them with a million men? Or was it even the case that the Americans had underestimated the transfer of Japanese troops to the islands, so that they thought they were facing X soldiers, when in fact, there was "a multiple of X" on the Philippines?

I know that a number of others argued for alternate plans, but were those plans soundly based on information known in the fall of 1944, or were they "after the fact" critiques or second guesses of MacArthur?

  • 2
    A good question, and I am trying to figure out how to phrase my point on the political influence MacArthur had, and how his opinions and feelings toward the PI got folded in. You read any biographies of MacArthur? One heck of an interesting character. – KorvinStarmast Sep 20 '17 at 17:09
  • I am not very sure about the current answers, because without a fleet an army just won't move. Were there important naval/air assets in the Philippines (Manila was a very strategic port, IIRC)? – SJuan76 Sep 20 '17 at 18:15
  • @SJuan76: The Japanese fleet was crippled. But the northern Philippines had significant air assets, specifically airports from which to launch the kamikaze pilots. So the issue might have been, could these airports have been neutralized without an occupation? My own preference would be to capture Minanao (where there were a lot of helpful Moros), and leave Luzon alone, but "surrounded." MacArthur though differently. – Tom Au Sep 20 '17 at 18:30
  • @TomAu Where do those planes get gas from? – KorvinStarmast Sep 21 '17 at 2:34
  • @TomAu - the Moros hated the Americans only slightly less than they hated the Japanese. – Bob Jarvis Sep 21 '17 at 3:39
28

The islands of the Philippines are quite large and close together in comparison to the Pacific islands. A battalion or regiment of Japanese soldiers left on a small island many miles from anywhere else are stuck there, and can't contribute to the war.

A much larger group of Japanese soldiers on a large island can feed themselves from the island's resources. Since they likely include combat engineers, and have an island's population under their control, they can build or commandeer boats and move to another island in the group. So bypassing them doesn't take them out of the war.

If the whole of the Philippine archipelago could be isolated and bypassed, that should work, but it's rather large for doing that without nearby bases. It was important to cut the Japanese access to Indonesia, since that was their main source of oil, and that pretty well requires bases in the Philippines. That was their grand-strategic importance.

  • 2
    Why not go after Indonesia directly, now that that there were fewer troops. Or didn't the Americans know that? – Tom Au Sep 20 '17 at 16:25
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    US WWII strategy always seemed to be rather focussed on dealing with the opponents' armies and homeland. They argued constantly with the British over strategy for the ETO, where the British were keen to reduce the enemy's power by indirect means. Their idea was to build up a large advantage before the final confrontation. – John Dallman Sep 20 '17 at 16:30
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    Why the Allies didn't invade the Dutch East Indies, a major source of oil and rubber, would be a good question. I'm not sure myself. If I had to guess it might be because the Australians were still working their way west across New Guinea, the US considered it to be "the wrong way", and the destruction of the Japanese tanker fleet made it moot. – Schwern Sep 22 '17 at 0:14
  • @Schwern: I think I "know" the answer. Originally, America only wanted to "cut off" Indonesian oil, and the Philippines served that purpose, as well as supporting operations further north, e.g. Taiwan. In June, 1945, they decided they wanted Indonesian oil for themselves and sent 30,000 (sic!) Aussies to capture Borneo. MacArthur's idea of a "feint" in the Philippines was good to destroy the Jap fleet at Leyte Gulf, but in his shoes, I would have gone after Borneo; also Celebes to surround Mindanao after capturing Leyte. But MacArthur really wanted Manila, not just the "Philippines." – Tom Au Oct 8 '17 at 15:57
23

As an addendum to the other excellent answer:

If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem.

If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem.

(attributed to Keynes and Getty).

The same goes for stranded/surrounded troops: a stranded battalion is doomed, a stranded army can cause trouble. Too many troops were stranded on Philippines.

A similar question was asked about the Operation Koltso - the assault on the surrounded 6th Army: maybe it was a better idea to let it starve?

In both cases the answer is the same: the

  • economic importance of the territory occupied by the stranded troops and
  • their potential for trouble making

override the desire to bypass it.

15

As a veteran of WWII, during the invasion of the Philippines, this is my recollection. You must remember that Mac Arthur was kicked out of the Philippines by the Japanese. He left poor General Wainright there and said he would be back. WAINRIGHT suffered atrocities under the Japanese with forced marches.I can't remember if his group were forced to march in Bataan. But I do remember seeing pictures of him looking like very sickly and starved man. After the Philippines were conquered Gen. Mac Arthur came back as promised and became a hero. Wainright was for the most part ignored.

When we moved on to invade Japan after the bomb was dropped he took up residence in the Emperors palace. He was considered an arrogant person not liked by the troops that I served with. He was eventually fired by President Truman.

  • 7
    Thank you for your service and for sharing your experience. – bishop Sep 22 '17 at 4:15
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    Great answer! Just for clarification... does "he" in the second paragraph refer to MacArthur or Wainright? It's not clear grammatically, though I'm assuming it refers to MacArthur. – anonymous2 Sep 23 '17 at 2:24
  • 1
    It was Mac Arthur who took residence in Emperor's palace and was fired by Truman (when he was considering to start nuclear war during Korean War). – Peter M. Sep 29 '17 at 20:55
13

Nimitz proposed to attack Formosa/Taiwan instead, as being a more strategically advantageous target. The goal of taking either was to cut Japan off from its source of oil (Indonesia) and other raw materials like rubber. By taking either goal, the US would fully control the sea lanes between Japan and both Indonesia and Indochina, both were primary sources for raw war materials.

MacArthur made the case that the Philippine people, who had been living under US rule since the Spanish/American war, should be rescued from Japanese brutality, and that he had promised to return so that promise should be kept. Yes, the legendary MacArthur ego was a factor here.

Also, the Philippines weren't like the many smaller bases bypassed by US forces. They had enough natural resources on hand to keep Japanese forces supplied with food and water, neither of which could be found in any abundance in the smaller atolls and volcanic islands.

Finally, the defeat of the US forces in the Philippines in 1942 was a particularly bitter blow. The invasion and defeat of the Japanese forces would be a way of erasing that humiliation. So the choice of the Philippines was as much political and morale based, as it was based on military strategy.

  • 7
    Sources would improve this answer. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 20 '17 at 21:50
  • I have read on multiple occassions (I wish I could remember where so I could cite it) that one of the reasons Taiwan was skipped was fear that the Taiwanese civilian population would not support an American invasion. This seems reasonable given that Taiwan had been ruled by Japan for 50 years and Japan had done a pretty good job of it. Then brought rule-of-law, education, infrastructure, and prosperity to Taiwan. – Readin Sep 25 '17 at 6:09
6

Looking at a map of the Pacific, it's hard to say how the Allies would bypass such a large Japanese base and maintain their supply lines while preparing for an invasion of Japan. It's also hard to say where they'd stage the troops, vehicles, supplies, and airfields for the invasion if not the Philippines; the Marianas alone would be insufficient for the 50 divisions expected. Formosa was proposed as an alternative, or addition. Either way, the Allies needed a large land base as close to Japan as possible for the invasion. Invading a place they knew well and had allies on the ground seems like a solid plan.

Such a large base, and its stockpiles of aircraft, ships, and supplies, would necessitate a siege to prevent them from being resupplied, and prevent them from conducting raids on Allied shipping. A siege on such a large scale would be nearly impossible and possibly drain more Allied resources than would be by invading, the trade-off of all sieges: the Pacific Ocean is really, really, really big. A better plan was to systematically destroy the Japanese merchant fleet which the Allies were well on their way towards, but half the fleet still remained.

Unlike smaller islands, the Philippines had a self-sustaining local economy. They could grow their own food. They had their own water supply. They would not "wither on the vine" like others. Though fuel and spares would be a concern, the island chain is so large their stockpiles may last for months of sustained operations. Their food could be exported, to the detriment of the local population and despite attempts at an Allied blockade, to feed an increasingly hungry Japan.

Finally, the Japanese would be "sucked in" to defend any major Allied invasion. The Allies were actively seeking this confrontation to remove the last major Japanese threat to their naval superiority. Prior to the invasion of the Philippines, the US Navy attacked Japanese air bases on Formosa so they could not be used to reinforce the Philippines. They provoked Japanese attacks, going so far as to use a crippled US ships as bait for the Japanese navy. Regardless of where they invaded, the US would continue these raids to further drain Japan's strategic capabilities.

The Japanese were also seeking this confrontation, it was their strategic plan all along, one big decisive naval battle. They were still seeking it despite obviously having no chance of strategic success. Shō-Go 1 nearly worked at a tactical level, but the result would always be the destruction of the last major warships of the Japanese fleet.

2

The other answers about the military difference to the Philippines garrison versus smaller islands, and the non-military necessity to "retake" the Philippines, all address good reasons.

However, there's a logical glitch underlying this question: The invasion began on October 20, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf began on October 23. The invasion was the precipitating trigger for the Decisive Battle at sea that both nations had been waiting for. Militarily, having committed the landing, it would have been nigh impossible to "back off" and bypass the Philippines.

So it's a bit contradictory to say that, having precipitated the Battle of Leyte Gulf with the invasion, couldn't the invasion just not have happened, given the pivotal nature of the Battle at sea.

  • I didn't say that we should leave Leyte. I was saying that we should capture Leyte, then island-hop e.g. Luzon, as we did in the Solomons, where Halsey bypassed Kolombangara in favor of Vella villella. – Tom Au Sep 21 '17 at 3:06
1

I recall from some TV documentary saying that MacArthur was able to charm FDR to support his invasion of Philippines over the Nimitz plan.

MacArthur's career in non-USA sources is more checkered than the hero image in USA sources. After the disaster of Philippines (when MacArthur let his air force to be destroyed on the ground, even if he was warned about impeding attack - after Pearl Harbor), the only think what saved him from court martial was that FDR did not want yet another military disaster to decrease public's morale. FDR even asked MacArthur to change his saying to "We shall return" but vainglorious MacArthur refused.

Even invasion of Lyete was not strictly necessary (according that documentary) - spies found another unoccupied island nearby which would be easier to occupy and convert to a base - but plans were not changed.

Read some Australian/NZ resources about MacArthur, they are much more critical than USA sources. Apparently MacArthur was not overly concerned about the human losses caused by his plans.

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