Thomas J. Cutler, The Battle of Leyte Gulf at 75: A Retrospective, Annapolis: Naval Institute press, 2019. ISBN-13: 9781682474617, 339 pages, $29.95.
By Dr. Jonathan White
Thomas Cutler, the author of the earlier definitive work on Leyte, has assembled a team of historians, returning to the field to plow it again with good results. This work is a collection of twenty-four essays about various aspects of the campaign. The 75th anniversary of the largest naval battle in history presents a good opportunity to re-examine the battle and the campaign reading up to it.
Some essays were stronger than others. The essays on the operational and strategic level, for example, were first rate. With all due respect Kevin Delamer, his essay “Syracuse in the Pacific,” was a bit forced. The Syracuse expedition did have a disastrous effect on the Athenian cause, but there is no conceivable damage that the Imperial Japanese Navy could have inflicted on Allied forces at Leyte Gulf that would have resulted in the Allies losing the war. The worst that could have happened would have been massive loss of American ships and lives, but the atomic bombs were already being developed and Tinian was already in American hands. In fact, massive losses at Leyte would probably only have filled American decision-makers with a grim resolve to employ the atomic bombs once they had them. Bull Halsey’s article made it clear that the spirit of Mahan urged him not to divide his force with a battle against Ozawa’s carrier fleet in the offing. I think that explains Halsey’s reluctance to leave a sufficient force to cover the San Bernardino Pass. Ironically, Halsey’s haste to get American fast battleships to engage Japanese carriers resulted in Japanese battleships sinking an American escort carrier (USS Gambier Bay). The articles by Japanese authors are useful to have the perspective from the other side.
As Cutler and company correctly identified in several occasions, the heart of the mistakes made at Leyte was the vicious C2 arrangement of the American forces at Leyte. Early in the war, the FDR Administration had decided to divide the Pacific into the Southwest Pacific Area under MacArthur and Central Pacific Area under Nimitz. What made some political sense in 1942 no longer made sense by late 1944. A colleague of mine in a recent conversation dissented from that theory. In his view, leaving MacArthur as the commander of the Southwest Pacific Area made sense from FDR’s perspective. It kept MacArthur from running for president against FDR in the 1944 elections. Leyte, however, was where that decision bore bitter military fruit. Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet and Halsey’s 3rd Fleet were not under one supreme naval commander, and Kurita exploiting the seam between them, with the loss of a few US naval vessels and a few hundred Americans sailors as the butcher’s bill. A former commander once said to me, “Watch the seams. That is where things will go wrong.” Leyte was a case in point.
The operational results of Leyte spelled the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy as a serious threat. As is true in many endeavors in life, the battle could have played out better (for the Allies), but it could have been worse. Cutler and company revisiting the topic has given us a solid work of naval history and has deepened our understanding of this complex naval battle.
Dr. Jonathan White served 25 years in the United States Army, mostly in special forces. He has instructed at the US Army Command and General Staff College, the British Joint Services Command Staff College, and the NATO Special Operations School. He has a PhD in military history from the University of Alabama.