#OTD: U.S. Landing at Luzon Crucial Moment for WWII Win Over Japan

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

It’s early January. A lot of us are still recovering from the holidays, and there’s not much going on.

But on this day 73 years ago, the world was in chaos, and a lot was happening.

Jan. 9, 1945, marked a pivotal day for the U.S. in World War II’s Pacific theater: when the U.S. 6th Army and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. troops in the South Pacific, landed on the shores of the Philippines island of Luzon.

If you’re not sure what Luzon is or what the Philippines had to do with World War II, just know it had a huge impact on the war.

Why Were the Philippines Important?

The archipelago was a strategic point in the Pacific, but it had been under Japanese control since 1942, when MacArthur and about 14,000 U.S. troops were forced to retreat from Manila, the Philippine capital on Luzon, the country’s northernmost island.

Map by Army Center of Military History

MacArthur vowed he would return. If the U.S. could regain control of the island chain, it would be the staging area for the final assault against Japan’s home islands. It would also cut Japan off from vital resources, such as food and raw materials from the East Indies and Southeast Asia.

The Japanese knew its importance, too. They stationed a whopping 430,000 land troops throughout the Philippines, while imperial naval leaders were willing to commit the entire battle fleet to its defense.

Before Luzon, There Was Leyte Gulf

U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur returns to the Philippines, Leyte Gulf, October 1944. National Archives photo

While the Luzon landing on Jan. 9 was a major milestone, the fight to win back the Philippines began two and a half months earlier on Oct. 20, 1944, when four Army divisions landed on the central island of Leyte. Thus began the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where Allied troops aimed to get a foothold on the Philippines to prepare for the greater goal – taking back Luzon.

Thankfully, U.S. naval forces were successful. They decimated the Japanese Imperial Fleet, rendering their naval and air forces a nonfactor for the rest of the war. They also kept the enemy from harming the landing Allied troops. But the win came at a cost. Leyte Gulf is considered one of the greatest sea battles in history, and one of the bloodiest. There were heavy losses on both sides.

The battle to get inland wasn’t easy, either. Aside from stiff resistance by the Japanese, the progress of Allied troops was slowed by extreme heat and humidity, mud-filled swamps and jungles, diseases and too few supplies.

But by New Year’s Eve 1944, Allied troops had finally captured the most strategic air and logistical bases on Leyte. Their next step – head up the coast to Luzon.

Onward to Luzon & Victory

U.S. soldiers of the 122nd Field Artillery Battalion, 33rd Division fire a105-mm. howitzer against a Japanese pocket in the hills of Luzon. National Archives photo

Four U.S. Army divisions and MacArthur landed on Luzon Jan. 9 and began their push toward Manila. Ultimately, 10 U.S. divisions and five independent regiments fought on Luzon, making it the largest campaign of the Pacific war. It involved more troops than the U.S. had used in North Africa, Italy or southern France.

During the Battle of Luzon, U.S. troops liberated thousands of Allied prisoners of war who had been in captivity since the 1942 Japanese invasion and the infamous Bataan Death March.

By mid-March, Manila officially returned to Allied control. Organized Japanese resistance continued from remote mountain strongholds, but that largely ended by late June 1945.

The win in Luzon was significant for many reasons, but the key takeaway is this: it marked the beginning of the end for Japan.

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