Often, history's greatest battles are the hardest to understand. That's certainly true for Leyte Gulf, which took place 65 years ago. The confusing battle seemingly had it all: a pitched big-gun fight, carrier-plane strikes, the first organized kamikaze missions, PT-boat and submarine attacks?as well as high drama and at least several seemingly boneheaded decisions.
I took my first step toward grasping this massive naval encounter 15 years ago when I read Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler's book The Battle of Leyte Gulf. So, when I started planning how Naval History would commemorate the battle's anniversary, it made perfect sense to go down two decks to the Naval Institute Press, where Tom is senior acquisitions editor, and ask if he would write our Leyte Gulf package's main article. He readily agreed, but explained that because so much has been written about the battle, he'd like to give some thought to how he could present a fresh perspective.
While Tom mulled over how to do so, I began assembling the other parts of our package. One element came from our story bank: "'Hell Broke Loose' at Leyte Gulf," Marc D. Bernstein's gripping, well-researched look at the costly fight the USS Birmingham (CL-62) waged to save the Princeton (CVL-23) after the light carrier had been hit by a Japanese bomb.
I also recalled that James Hornfischer, author of the classic Leyte Gulf book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, had once offered to write a profile of Naval Reserve Captain Robert Hagen, who had served as gunnery officer in the Johnston (DD-557) when she charged the Japanese Center Force during Leyte's Battle off Samar. After reminding Jim of his offer, he soon submitted "A Warrior's Destiny."
Realizing that Tom Cutler's article was not likely to be a Leyte Gulf overview, I wanted somehow to present the battle's basic facts. Our staff came up with "Leyte Gulf: The Pacific War's Greatest Battle," a chronology, order of battle, and visual guide that we hope will help readers better understand the complicated contest.
By this time, Tom had submitted his article, "MacArthur, FDR, and the Politics of Leyte Gulf." Many of you are doubtless wondering what a story about Army General Douglas MacArthur is doing in Naval History magazine. But Tom's article is about the battle's background, and in it he makes a convincing argument that decisions President Franklin D. Roosevelt made involving MacArthur and Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chester Nimitz came home to roost in the waters off Leyte.
MacArthur and Nimitz, the Allies' Pacific war commanders, embody a fascinating contrast in temperament and style. The general (even his wife referred to him by his rank) was egotistical, flamboyant, and mercurial, while the admiral was easy-going, gracious, and even-tempered. MacArthur reportedly would pronounce the admiral's name as Nee-mitz when he was angry over one of his statements or actions. Nimitz, on the other hand, was loath to say anything derogatory about anyone.
There was, however, at least one veiled exception, which Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, the Pacific Fleet's head of intelligence, revealed to Nimitz's biographer, E. B. Potter. According to Layton, the admiral kept a framed photograph of MacArthur on his office desk throughout the war. After working with him a long time, the intel officer finally worked up the courage to ask Nimitz why. He recalled that the admiral, with a smile, replied: "Layton, I'll tell you. That's to remind me not to be a horse's ass and to make Jovian pronouncements complete with Thunderbolts."