. . . AND A FEW MARINES: Marines in the Liberation of the Philippines
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
It was apparently an insignificant event when a few
Marine planes flew into a muddy airfield at Tacloban on the island of
Leyte in the Philippines on 3 December 1944. All around them were the
elements of the massive U.S. Army invasion which had begun on 20
October. Seven infantry divisions and six Army Air Force (AAF) air
groups dominated the island scene. It was the start of a major campaign
in which Marine aviation would play a major role.
Unsung heroes of the air war were the ground crews, who
ensured that each squadron would have a high operational rate of its
aircraft. Capt Elton A. Barnum Collection
The first Marine planes to arrive that day were 12
Grumman F6F Hellcat night fighters of VMF(N)- 541, nicknamed the
"Bateye" squadron. They had flown the 602 miles from their base on
Peleliu in the Palau Islands. A few hours later 66 Chance-Vought F4U
Corsair Marine fighters roared in to join them at the crowded strip,
after a series of island-hopping stops on their 1,957-mile trip from
Emirau in the Bismarck Archipelago. These Corsairs were the advance
guard of the 85 planes coming from VMF-115, -211, -218, and -313 of
Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 12 in the Solomon Islands. They would serve
as part of the 308th Bombardment Wing of the Fifth Army Air Force under
Major General Ennis C. Whitehead, USA. The same day they arrived, six
night fighters of the "Bateye" squadron were already back in the air for
their first mission, flying cover for a torpedo boat. It was a small
beginning of bigger things to come.
its built-in radar, the Grumman F6F(N) Hellcat nightfighter was directed
towards lucrative enemy targets during nighttime missions in the
liberation of the Philippines. These Hellcats are shown over
Leyte. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A700605
Planning for the Philippines
The deployment of Marine planes to the Philippines
was an event which seemed unlikely earlier. General Douglas MacArthur,
Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, had been deeply committed personally
to the recapture of the Philippines ever since his speedy departure from
there in 1942 with the ringing promise, "I shall return." On 12 March
1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a directive setting the
southernmost island of Mindanao as the first American objective in the
Philippines. This prompted Major General Ralph J. Mitchell, commanding
general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) in the northern Solomon
Islands, to fly to Australia in May, and again in August, to meet with
General MacArthur and his air chief, Lieutenant General George C.
Kenney, and strenuously urge the use of Marine aviation in the impending
campaign. His reasons were compelling: Japanese air power was by now
almost wholly eliminated in the northern Solomons and his squadrons were
battle-hardened from 22 months of almost continuous air operations.
General Mitchell hit a stone wall: This was to be an all-Army
fabulous Vought F4U Corsair, the Marines' aircraft of choice in the
Pacific War, gave Leatherneck pilots a victorious edge over their
Japanese opponents. As a versatile fighter-bomber, it could carry bombs
to 1,000 pounds (as shown here) and provided both close and long-range
air support. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A412617
Then a new factor emerged in the strategic planning.
Subsequent air strikes on 12 September by Admiral William F. Halsey's
Third Fleet fast carrier force, scourging the island of Leyte (in the
central Philippines), revealed that Japanese defenses there were much
weaker than expected. Accordingly, the JCS issued a new directive on 15
September 1944, setting Leyte as the target for a 20 October landing.
With this objective a considerable distance away from the Marines'
Solomon squadrons, the outlook for their involvement in the Philippines
campaign seemed not to be in the cards.
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