When the New Year arrives, thoughts often turn to what the coming year might bring. During wartime, service members inevitably wonder if the next year will be the year: the long-anticipated time when peace is declared and they can reunite with their families after so many months spent apart.
For soldiers fighting in the Pacific Theater at the end of 1944, peacetime seemed very far off. War-weariness abounded for soldiers and their loved ones alike. My maternal grandfather, Captain David Baker, served with the 25th Infantry Division in the South Pacific. In a letter sent to his family in Iowa at the end of December, 1944, he wrote, “‘When I get home’—that sounds like more of a phrase of magic.”
Shortly after writing this letter, Captain Baker found himself taking part in the battle of Luzon, one of two important battles that ultimately yielded control of the Philippines to the Allied forces. Under Japanese control since 1942, when General Douglas MacArthur was forced to retreat from the Bataan Peninsula, the Philippines stood as a critical part of winning the Pacific war. While MacArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines in 1944 looms large in the popular understanding of the war, the stories of the soldiers involved in the battles of Leyte and Luzon may be less well-known.
The liberation of the Philippines began with the island of Leyte; landings commenced on October 20, 1944. While the Army encountered little resistance from the enemy along the beach, once they ventured further inland, their progress was slowed by the jungle conditions as well as a lack of supplies. In his memoir, Infantry Corporal Carl Hall recalls the intense mud in the swamps: “Never shall I forget that march. It took us three days to go less than 2 miles. The weather was hell, rain every night, hot sun during the day, muddy clothes, lack of food and water…”
Another VHP memoirist, Army Sergeant Richard Foss, states, “The day of October 20th, 1944, was probably the most memorable day I spent in World War II.” Part of the First Cavalry Division, he offers a vivid description of the difficult landing on Leyte, concluding, “I don’t understand how any of us survived that ordeal.” Foss went on to spend 90 straight days in combat, including taking part in the invasion of Luzon. In his VHP interview, Staff Sergeant Richard Johnson recalls the lack of supplies that characterized his time spent in combat on Leyte, fighting with the 96th Division: “Those of us who were inland… we lived on three things… one was coconuts, one was Indian corn, and the third was sugarcane. And I lost about 30 pounds on that diet.” As Johnson describes, disease posed yet another threat: “We lost more to sickness than to Japanese bullets on Leyte. I had things like ringworm and hookworm and strongyloidiasis and yellow jaundice and dengue fever and so on… and those were normal kinds of things.” By December 31, 1944, Allied forces had captured the island, at a cost of about 3,500 American casualties.
For those in the Navy, the invasion of Leyte also involved participating in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, considered to be one of the greatest sea battles in history. It brought about tremendous loss of life on both sides, due in part to the Japanese use of kamikaze pilots. Serving aboard the USS St. Lo, Ship’s Serviceman Third Class Jerome Keith was forced overboard when the St. Lo was struck; while he survived, over 1500 of his shipmates were casualties of the battle.
Once Leyte was secured, U.S. forces proceeded to Luzon, landing on January 9, 1945. Charles Restifo, a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps serving aboard the USS Mt. Olympus, was part of the fourth wave to hit the beaches during the landing; he then proceeded to Manila, where he witnessed the liberation of American prisoners of war who had spent the last three years in captivity. Richard Foss called encountering these POWs, including civilians and soldiers forced to take part in the infamous Bataan Death March, a “once in a lifetime historical experience”: “You could feel what they had been through by looking into their eyes.” Despite intense fighting, Luzon was under Allied control by late spring 1945.
And as for Captain David Baker? Along with the rest of the 25th Infantry, he landed on Luzon on January 11, 1945, and spent six months engaging with the enemy until his division was relieved in late June. Though he and his comrades fighting in the Pacific theater might not have believed it possible, thanks in part to their efforts during the battles of Leyte and Luzon, 1945 was indeed the year that saw an end to nearly four years of warfare. Click here to view more stories of veterans who served in the Philippines.