Behind the Battle of Leyte Gulf

National Archives How did you get involved in telling the story of Leyte Gulf and what sort of fighting did it entail?

Associate Producer Jason Kopp: It is the largest naval battle in World War II. It boggles my mind that when you say "the Battle of Leyte Gulf" that people have never heard of it.

Producer Steve Tierney: One of the Japanese government officials said if they lost Leyte they were going to lose the war. And they did in fact lose. The battle of Leyte Gulf is essentially the naval battle off the beaches of the Philippines where Gen. MacArthur was landing. The Japanese Navy was trying to get to the beaches to stop the landings, but they encountered so much resistance and fierce fighting on the sea that they never got near the beaches. The battle of Leyte itself is four separate battles — all occurring within a three-day period.

It’s a controversial battle and never really got its due because of something Admiral William Halsey did. The Japanese sent a decoy force to drag Halsey away from the battle and he took the bait. He was widely criticized for that, but he was such a revered person that they kind of swept it under the rug.

Kopp: Also — don’t let Steve fool you — his father fought in Leyte Gulf.

Tierney: That’s true. My dad was there and landed on the beach before General MacArthur did. It’s kind of neat because he always told my mother, “I was there before MacArthur,” and she always thought he was making that up. But then I did the chronology and he was in fact in the third wave that landed. Then MacArthur came in and did his famous walk up to the beach. Did you get stories from your dad for the episode?

Tierney: It is ironic for me to be making this show 60 years later about a pivotal moment in my father’s life, because he never talked about it. But I was able to use an excerpt from a letter he had sent my grandmother from the Philippines. It’s funny, whenever we went to the Jersey shore, my brothers and sister and I went separately with my mom because my dad would never go to the beach again after World War II. How did you begin gathering the resources you needed for the show?

Kopp: You find this a lot with World War II veterans, but when we started researching I called one guy and he was best friends with eight other veterans 60 years later. He had all their numbers and they still talk all the time even though they live all across the country.

Tierney: These guys are scarred by this stuff, and they talk about it like it happened yesterday afternoon. It’s something we’ve learned from doing the entire series. It’s just part of who they are. A lot of them suppress it, because it is just so damaging that it would ruin them if they really let it overtake them. I think that’s why somebody like my dad couldn’t talk about it. The most compelling engagement?

Tierney: The battle off Samar. Basically little destroyer escorts, these little puny boats, were taking on these gigantic battleships. At first the Japanese found it to be a nuisance, but these guys would not relent. Finally the Japanese turned around and went back home. So these little guys fought the Japanese for three hours and stopped them from advancing on the beaches of Leyte. We interviewed some guys who had their ship sunk, leaving them floating on the water for 50 hours, hallucinating and seeing glasses of lemonade off in the horizon. I didn’t know that ingesting salt water would make you crazy. It does. What was the chief lesson learned?

Tierney: The main thing, which was problematic for me in telling the story, was that there was no single guy in charge. MacArthur was in charge of the Army and had his own fleet underneath him. Nimitz was in charge of the Navy, and he had Halsey underneath him. Messages were being routed all over the place, so there wasn’t one guy calling the shots. That probably led to the biggest amount of confusion and casualties in this battle. What is the most striking thing to you about this episode?

Tierney: The amazing thing is it wasn’t like these guys looked at each other and said, “Hey, do you think we can win this? Yeah I think so, let’s go in.” What actually happened was the commander of the ship came over the intercom and said to them, “It looks like we’re outnumbered, this doesn’t look good. We probably won’t survive. Let’s go.” And they all just got in there and started firing and tried to stop the Japanese from going where they wanted to go.

Kopp: A lot of people think that war is won because you have a bigger tank or a faster ship. Leyte Gulf is proof that strategy is as important as technology.  The strength of your men is incredibly important, but so is the strength of your leaders, and this is a very strategic, won-by-brains type of battle.

Another thing we hope people take with them is that as huge as Normandy and Okinawa were, people need to know about battles like Leyte Gulf, Tarawa, and the Mariana Islands, because a lot of people suffered and a lot of people gave their lives at these places. It is not right that the majority of people have never encountered their stories. But now they will.

Watch "The Battle of Leyte Gulf" this Sunday at 8 pm ET.