Jungle training for the Second World War was held for the benefit of the soldier’s immediate situation, but its effectual results led into the establishment of the Special Forces. This is typified by the creation of the Recon Platoon of the 11th Airborne Division and the Alamo Scouts. Out of these units we witnessed the outstanding operations of today’s special troops. In New Guinea and later during their actual combat experience, what these men learned went on to be vital assets for the future generations of soldiers.
The advantage of being acclimated to a different climate and acquainted with the strange terrain served to aid them in their survival and the success of their missions.
Although the 11th A/B was small in size and short of arms and staff, they accepted orders normally issued to full size divisions. At this time, many people believed that MacArthur was obsessed with recovering the Philippines from the Japanese and perhaps he was, and with good reason. FDR had promised him serious military assistance in 1942, but it never arrived. As a direct result, MacArthur was ordered by his president to abandon his men on the islands and escape to Australia. The Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. had not only lied to one of his generals, but caused the forced surrender of American and Filipino citizens and military personnel. The infamous Bataan Death March and ultimate fall of the Philippines into Japanese control was the end result.
But here — the invasion of Leyte — would be, by far, the greatest operation of the Pacific. For the first time, the combines forces of MacArthur and the overseas bomber commands would be joined with the vast armada of Admiral Nimitz. Land and sea would simultaneously explode into action. The Japanese government also knew in their heart of hearts that the battles fought over the Philippine islands would decide the outcome of the war. Field Marshall Hisaichi Terauchi communicated orders for additional men and supplies, while General Yamashita attempted to convince his superiors otherwise. The general did not wish to remove men and arms from the more important island of Luzon, especially as transportation would now be a major problem — thanks to the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, intentionally or not, FDR not only found a way to leak the plans of Leyte’s attack, but diplomatic sources in the Kremlin gave the Japanese a forewarning and the the enemy became determined to make the Philippines an all-out effort.
Certain matters would need to be dealt with by the soldiers, Allied and Japanese alike. For the Japanese, the concept of using retreat as a strategic tactic was confusing and unheard of by their standard of protocol. The very thought of retreat was a disgrace and therefore forbidden. The American G.I. was equally befuddled by hara Kiri and kamikaze techniques. The purpose that suicide accomplished in a battlefield was beyond their comprehension – yet these and many more differences had to be confronted. (The official name of kamikaze was Tokubetsu Kogekitai and was not quite as popular in Japan as some have been led to believe. This topic will be discussed in a later post as the action unfolds.)
Admiral Halsey led his famous fleet in the battle to clear Leyte Gulf and neighboring waters, thereby opening the way for troop landings. It was during the battle for Surigao Strait that Admiral Mitscher turned in early for some sleep and said to his aide, “It’s alright. Admiral Halsey is in command now.” But, all kidding aside, the Japanese had a very formidable navy and it would take more than one admiral to complete and win the last large sea battle of the war. Many historians , looking back on these ensuing battles, compared the forces of Nimitz with throwing a right cross and MacArthur’s troops following through with the left punch – the enemy did not stand a chance.
As General Eichelberger said more than once: “The 11th Airborne Division are the fightingest men I’ve ever seen.” And the largest and most violent armed conflict in history was about to start for these men.
November of 1944 arrived and with that came packing up for the next destination, Leyte, Philippines. It also meant the arrival of the rains, an understatement to say the least. Such downpours are alien to those who do not live in the tropics. Even the darkness is unique when it arrives in a flash and the blackness envelops everything like a sweeping shroud. A man’s eyes can no longer be trusted; he stands as though blindfolded.
Nine APA’s (naval transport ships designed to attack) and AKA’s (cargo ships designed to attack) would be required to carry the 11th A/B on to their target. Due to the constant barrage of weather, the journey lasted from Nov. 11 until the 18th. The Battle of Leyte was officially code-named “King II Operation.”
Being as their cruise took so long, Smitty had a chance to write home once again, Letter XIV will be included in the next post.
Personal note – Most acknowledgements will be at the end of this blog in the Bibliography; such as the photograph above which came from “The Pacific War Encyclopedia on-line.”