Japan has always been a special guest to these historical commemorations too because as time healed old wounds, friendship and goodwill among all the players of these great events now reign. These two major historical events inspired this writer’s “The Saga of Leyte Gulf,” a work of historical fiction based on actual events in Leyte and Samar, Philippines, and the states of Hawaii and California, from the 1930s to the present. These events are important for having changed the course of modern history and the lives of a large group of people.
Somehow the island of Leyte, one of 7,100 islands in the Philippine Archipelago, has figured prominently in a number of important historical events in the Philippines. Leyte island is about 2,785 square miles in land area and the seventh largest island in the Philippine archipelago. It lies less than 600 kilometers southeast of the island of Luzon, which forms the “lower back” of what looks like a sitting dog of an archipelago. It connects with Samar island via the San Juanico Bridge, and these two island provinces connect with the main islands of Luzon and Mindanao through the Maharlika Highway, which starts from Northern Luzon down to Southern Mindanao. This highway was built in the ‘70s and was funded with the help of the Japanese government’s Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Japanese counterpart of the United States Assistance for International Development (USAID). It coordinates all Japanese development assistance to developing countries like the Philippines.
Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” Leyte on March 16, 1521. The quotation marks are necessary because Filipino historians are all in agreement – so was Pigafetta, the historian who was with Ferdinand Magellan -- that the Filipinos had been in touch with other Asian and western Europeans long before Magellan strayed into Homonhon island to get fresh water.
From the large expanse of the Pacific Ocean, trade winds, and ocean currents could naturally bring any sailboats to the shores of Samar and Leyte, just like Ferdinand Magellan’s ships on March 16, 1521. This historical landing led to the Philippines becoming the only predominantly Christian country in Southeast Asia.
The first Catholic mass in the Orient was celebrated on March 31, 1521 on Limasawa island, just southeast of Leyte. The Philippines is preparing to celebrate 500 years of Catholicism on March 31, 2021. Historian Pigafetta wrote that the friendly natives led by a “datu” with five wives ceremoniously welcomed in full regalia the Spanish invaders led by Magellan.
Four hundred twenty-three years and eight months after Magellan, the Battle of Leyte Gulf from October 23 to October 26, 1944 would take place, as a crucial blow to the fortunes of the Japanese Imperial forces in World War II.
This battle was between the American Third and Seventh Fleets and the mighty Imperial Japanese Navy. The American fleets were defending and protecting the successful landings of the American forces under General MacArthur on the shores of Tacloban, Palo, Tolosa, and Dulag, Leyte on October 20, 1944. The Japanese were attempting to defeat those landings and stop the liberation of the Philippines.
It was on Palo Leyte’s “Red Beach” that Gen. Douglas MacArthur uttered his famous words: “People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces are in Philippine soil again.”
According to military historians, particularly Samuel Eliot Morison (Rear Admiral, Ret.) who wrote 15 volumes of factual accounts of the history of the United States Naval Operations in World War II, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle ever fought. In Volume 12 entitled “Leyte” (1963), he claims this for three main reasons:
First is its impact on history and final outcome of the Second World War. It led to the liberation of the Philippines, the destruction of the mighty Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), and the eventual surrender of Japan;
Second, the battle covered thousands of square miles (Leyte Gulf and South China Sea on the west, Formosa on the north, the boundary of Guam on the east and Sulu Sea on the South and Southwest).
Third, the tonnage and strength of the forces involved were unprecedented. The battle involved about 370 ships (large aircraft carriers, heavy and light cruisers, battleships, and destroyers) from both sides, (US/Australia 300 versus Japan 67+) and more than 1,800 planes (US 1500, Japan 300+).
Total naval personnel from both sides numbered more than 200,000. The logistical operation of transporting 20,000 tons of war materials, supplies and more than 160,000 troops within a couple of weeks was just unimaginable even by today’s standards. Morison writes that nearly half of these were put on shore within only 72 hours. The operation was so large that it took the US Navy several months to account for what happened in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Leyte landings. The battle “had been too large, involved too many U.S. military personnel, ships. and supplies, and had resulted in too much loss of life to ignore.”
The Battle of Leyte Gulf involved the last of only two “battleship-to-battleship” shooting engagements to take place during World War II. The first one was the Battle of Guadalcanal, involved only a fraction of the combined number of personnel, warships, and airplanes from both sides that saw action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf involved the whole force of the once mighty Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) under the command of the Supreme Commander of the IJN, Admiral Toyoda. The armada included the heaviest and biggest battleships ever built, the Yamato and Musashi, which had a combined displacement of 138,000 tons. The opposing side involved the mighty US Third Fleet, the US Seventh Fleet, Australian warships, the US Sixth Army and the whole of the US Pacific Armed Forces, airmen, and allies under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
Gerry P. Palabyab was the Publisher and Editor of The Manila Bulletin USA, a Bay-Area Fil-Am weekly, and Executive Producer of “Pinoy Pa Rin” a tele-magazine that aired at KTSF Channel 26 from 1995 to 1997. He also wrote “The Untold and Unfinished Coconut Story” in August 1997, a discussion paper submitted to the first Fil-am Empowerment Conference in Washington D.C. organized by the NaFFAA. He retired in the Philippines as Regional Director of a national government agency that was based in Tacloban City Leyte, in Eastern Visayas in February, 2016.