It was October, 1944, and I was involved in the greatest naval battle in history and didn’t know it.
I was on a tiny ship, the USS PC 470, a submarine chaser, and we were anchored about 1,500 yards off the beach at the Philippine Island of Leyte. We were part of the 7th Fleet under Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. There were hundreds of ships in his fleet and we were among the smallest.
We had been outfitted with extra radio gear before we shoved off from the island of Manus to make the voyage to the Philippines. Our mission, once we anchored, was to act as a control ship, a base for a senior officer to come aboard and unload men and supplies from the transports in the harbor.
I have vivid memories of the big guns on the battleships and cruisers firing monster shells over our heads into the beach. The shells sounded like subway trains roaring by. And, a few minutes later, tiny landing craft, called LCIs, loaded with troops, passed us as they sped into the shore.
A half hour later, the landing craft sped past us again, back to the transports from which they had come. On the deck of the tiny amphibious vessels were bandaged, wounded men of the Sixth Army. They were being taken to medical facilities aboard the transports anchored behind us. For youngsters like me -- I was 20 -- it was sobering to see these young men, who had gone in just minutes before, coming back wounded, with the smoke from the big guns still hovering overhead..
That was the morning of October 20, 1944. A few days later, I reported to the bridge at 4 in the morning for the watch [there were five officers and we took turns on the bridge]. I was surprised to see that the captain was there and, when I looked around, I saw that all the big warships had left the harbor. The battleships, cruisers and destroyers were gone too. In the distant sky, I saw flashes of light.
"What’s that, heat lightning?" I asked the skipper. He looked at me impatiently. "Here, read this," he said, and thrust a dispatch into my hands. It was a radioed message from fleet command, saying tersely: "Expect bombardment from Japanese fleet."
What we were seeing in the sky were guns firing in the straits. A Japanese fleet was attempting to break through our line and blast the invading force out of the water -- and bash the infantry on the beach as our men tried to advance into the interior of the island.
Our 7th Fleet battle wagons, cruisers and airplanes were firing back. And we succeeded, I found out months later, in sinking 16 Japanese warships and one submarine in one day. But all we could see from our 23-foot-wide deck in the morning twilight were flashes in the sky.
The captain said he wasn’t sure what to do. If the Japanese manage to break through, he said, our little ship and other small vessels would be blasted right out of the water. We would not last long. He said he was thinking of distributing small arms to the 60-man crew and beaching our vessel. Then we could join the soldiers and marines ashore.
But it wasn’t necessary. The flashes stopped. We couldn’t tell what was happening. But the battle seemed to be over and it was.
The Japanese, I know now, had suffered heavy losses but they still had a considerable force. They could have hit us hard in the harbor but the enemy brass chose a different course. For reasons that to this day remain unclear, the top Japanese commander, Admiral Kurita, made a u-turn. He led his remaining force back to the Japanese home islands.
Naval history buffs have been perplexed by several actions by the commanders. Not only did Kurita turn tail and steam back home. The American Admiral, William "Bull" Halsey, an impetuous, tough guy who was the U.S. Navy’s counterpart to General Patton, went off with his Third Fleet, chasing a Japanese decoy force, and never joined in the big battle. Exactly what motivated these two admirals is still a matter of some debate. But the fact is neither made the right decision for his side. With the help of Halsey’s Third Fleet, the Americans might have clobbered the Japanese so hard they would have surrendered sooner. Who knows?
It’s just conjecture.
Yet experts agree. This was the greatest naval battle in history. There will never be another like it.
It was many months before I realized all this. The Battle of Leyte Gulf has faded in memory. I remember it every October when the leaves turn and Halloween approaches.
Six years ago, I visited Leyte and talked to several people who were there when the big guns roared and the United States came back. We were fulfilling Douglas MacArthur’s promise when he left the island in a submarine as the Japanese engulfed his forces and he vowed: "I shall return."
On the beach at Leyte is a huge statue of MacArthur. The waves wash over his feet. He has aides sculptured on either side. His return to the island is thus commemorated every day of the year.
The people of the Philippines love America and even the young people who weren’t there are big fans of MacArthur. It’s an enduring love affair between us and them. They’ll never forget the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was an affirmation of America’s commitment to freedom.
It was all part of the "good war." How sad it is that subsequent wars fought by America have been so controversial. The return to Leyte should make us all proud.