Bravery behind Enemy Lines in Retaking the Philippines
The American victory during the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, which ended Oct. 26, 1944, was the final blow that destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy. During the biggest naval battle in history, more than 300 warships and 1,800 planes fought a series of battles to determine the fate of the Japanese stronghold on the Philippine islands. When the fighting was over, the Americans had achieved a resounding victory and the Japanese navy ceased to be a viable force for the remainder of the war.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a desperate attempt by the Japanese navy to stop the American invasion and liberation of the Philippines. Japan had seized control of all the Philippine islands during the first half of 1942, gaining a vital strategic and resource-rich area to fuel its war machine. American General Douglas MacArthur had abandoned his Philippine headquarters on March 12, 1942, famously vowing “I shall return.” He fulfilled that promise when he led an American assault on the Philippine island of Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, announcing: “People of the Philippines—I have returned.”
The October 23-26 Battle of Leyte Gulf was the Japanese navy’s response to MacArthur’s return, and the American victory (with support from the Australian navy) meant the liberation of the Philippines could proceed. With its defeat, the Japanese navy lost access to its vital supplies of oil in Southeast Asia, and its warships that survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf basically spent the rest of the war stuck in port. This defeat not only meant losing the Philippines, it made the final Japanese surrender inevitable: the formal surrender ceremony took place in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
Even with victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the campaign to retake the Philippines was a protracted and grueling affair, although eventual success by the combined American and Filipino forces was never seriously in doubt. Fighting in some pockets of the Philippines continued right until the conclusion of the war. The Allies suffered over 60,000 casualties during the Philippine campaign of 1944-45, while the abandoned yet determined Japanese army lost over 330,000 soldiers killed and another 12,000 captured.
Paving the way for the Allied success in the Philippines was some remarkably brave work done behind the Japanese lines—demolition, fighting, and espionage—by courageous Filipinos and a few daring Americans. One such American was Lt. Leon Tinnell, who spent seven harrowing months hidden on the Philippines, spying on the Japanese and gathering intelligence in preparation for the Philippine liberation campaign. His heroic story appeared in this copyrighted article published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on the front page of its Oct. 25, 1944, issue:
Seven Months’ Spying behind Jap Lines on Mindanao Prior to Landing on Leyte Told by St. Louis Officer
The story of a heroic American officer who went behind the Japanese lines in the Philippines to work as a spy and a guerrilla fighter was told in a radio message Tuesday from Leyte island, Philippines, by Associated Press war correspondent Richard Bergholz.
By Richard Bergholz
Associated Press Staff Writer
With the American Rangers in the Philippines, Oct. 23 (Delayed) (AP)—Lt. Leon Tinnell of the Army Air Corps, whose wife lives in St. Louis, Mo., returned recently after spending more than seven months behind Japanese lines on Mindanao island fighting with the guerrillas and gathering information which played a key part in the drive back to the Philippines.
Tinnell Craves Action
Tinnell went to Mindanao by submarine. He came out the same way. During those seven months he radioed information back to American headquarters which resulted in the sinking of more than 50 enemy ships.
Tinnell told headquarters when and where Japanese troops were moving; what installations the enemy was building and where. Then he came out weighing only 126 pounds—17 under normal. He was sick with malaria. But the Japanese had never caught up with him or wounded him.
Now Tinnell is back in the Philippines again. But this time he did not have to sneak in by submarine. He heads a picked group of reconnaissance troops which landed with the Rangers on Homonhon island, in the mouth of Leyte Gulf.
Instead of the three men he had on Mindanao, Tinnell’s particular unit now has 29—16 Filipinos and 13 Americans. They are highly trained in reconnaissance and demolition. Their job is about as hazardous as can be found.
Why does Tinnell do it? Because he craves action.
“I’ve been in every theater of war except China-Burma-India,” said Tinnell. “I used to be a radio gunner on Liberators and Flying Forts. I am used to action, lots of it.
“When I came to the southwest Pacific and they asked for volunteers for a ‘secret assignment’ I took the leap.
“I’m not sorry. The close calls I’ve had scared me. Sure. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing I helped sink some Jap ships and kill some Jap soldiers.
Filipino Guerrillas Effective
“And I’ve seen Filipinos wage deadly effective guerrilla war against the enemy. I’ve seen how they made the Japs so scared of them that the little bastards no longer dared to leave their camps to move inland except in force.
“When I left, the guerrillas controlled a large section of one Philippine island. And I mean controlled it. Sure, the Japs could drive them out of town whenever they wanted to. But they couldn’t hold it without diverting strength.
“The Japs worked hard to buy Filipino 5th columnists. I know one case where they paid 1000 pesos for information. That’s a staggering sum to most Filipinos and a few turned traitor, but died regretting it.
Americans with Natives
“Sometimes the Japs moved into guerrilla villages and ruthlessly killed everyone who did not escape and then burned the village to the ground.
“This only made the guerrillas more deadly.
“The guerrillas were well organized. Most of them had had army training before the war. They lived quite well off the land, but were pinched for ammunition, weapons and medical supplies.
“Among them were many Americans, including soldiers who escaped from Luzon and civilians who took to the hills rather than surrender. One American guerrilla leader was an insurance salesman in Manila. There were many like him. Men with no previous military experience. Men who learned to fight the Japs where it hurt the worst—behind the lines.
High Commissions Given
“Naturally guerrillas rely on ambush. But when Japs come in force they let go with all the firepower they can muster and then take to the hills to fight another day.
“The women fight right along with the men. Everyone fights the best he can. Thousands have been sworn into the United States Army even as they waged guerrilla warfare. I know men, both Filipinos and Americans, who have been commissioned as high as colonels for their part in guerrilla warfare.
“In areas the Japanese controlled they’ve built walls around villages with only one entrance. Every Filipino as he passes through is required to bow to the sentry. Now the Filipino is a proud man and doesn’t forget humiliation. He will remember and hate the Jap as long as he lives. Now that the tide is turning, the hunter will become the hunted.”
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