by Jack McKillop
Leyte Island (10º49'20"N, 124º52'18E) is located to the west of Samar Island and to the east of Cebu Island. The island is 2,785-square-miles (7,214-square-kilometers) and is 121-miles (195-kilometers) long from northwest to southeast and varies in width from 14-miles (23-kilometers) at the center to 45-miles (72-kilometers) in the north. The interior is mountainous with the highest peak being 4,426-feet (1,329-meters). Many of the peaks in this mountain range are extinct volcanoes. Leyte, the eighth largest of the Philippine group of island, is easily accessible from the Pacific Ocean, on the east, through the deep Leyte Gulf. Together with Samar Island, from which it is separated by San Juanico Strait, Leyte controls the Leyte Gulf and the eastern entrance to the Surigao Strait.
History during World War II
U.S. and Filipino forces on Leyte surrendered to the Japanese on 26 May 1942 but 90 percent of the men went into the hills and became guerillas. On 20 October 1944, U.S. forces landed on the eastern shore of Leyte Island and the liberation of the Philippines had begun.
Because the area was beyond the range of fighter planes from any advance bases then held by the Allies, and because of the large number of enemy planes -- on D-Day the Japanese had 52 operational airfields within a radius of 350-miles (563-kilometers) of Tacloban (11º13'33"N, 125º00'06"E), which had been picked by the planners as the naval base area -- the first objective of the construction forces was to provide landing facilities for our fighting planes.
Locations selected for naval installations during the planning stage were on the east coast of Leyte, between Tacloban and Anibong Point. Headquarters for the Seventh Fleet was to be at Tolosa (11°03'35"N, 125°02'10"E), 11-miles (18-kilometers) south of Tacloban.
A detachment of the Seabees assisted the Army's landing on D-Day, handling pontoon causeways and barges on the beaches of Leyte. As beaching conditions were favorable, however, the need for the causeways was soon over, and the Seabees then reassembled the cells for use as barges and pontoon piers.
Additional Seabees disembarked from landing ships tanks (LSTs) at Tacloban, on 24 October. Camp erection was started within the city boundaries; work was begun on the renovation of several warehouses for Navy use; and heavy-equipment crews commenced maintenance or roads.
Seabees went ashore near Dulag, 20-miles (32-kilometers) south of Tacloban and were assigned the task of completing Dulag Field (10°56'53"N, 125°00'37"E), a former Japanese base, as a fighter (later heavy bomber) base for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF).
Additional Seabees poured into Leyte and eventually 32,500 men served in the Leyte Gulf area.
In the advance planning for the Philippine campaign, it had been decided to develop the Leyte Gulf area as a naval operating base to support further operations. Facilities to be provided including a motor torpedo boat (PT) base, landplane and seaplane landing areas, supply depots, a hospital, and a ship repair base.
Study of available maps showed that although much of the island was mountainous, a broad valley facing Leyte Gulf for 35-miles (56-kilometers) and extending around the northern coast of the island, gave access to the inland waters of the archipelago. The beaches generally were sandy, though some stretches of mangrove swamps and marshlands existed, principally at the mouths of the many streams which drain the valley. Low hills intruded into the coastal plain at several points, in some places close to the shore. It seemed an excellent place for a naval base.
Military development of Leyte, however, was limited by the elements. It was found that during the northeast monsoon in October to January, severe storms lash the east coast of Leyte, making ground operations practically impossible; the south and west coast of the island are almost as hard hit during the southwest monsoon in June to September. During the monsoons, torrential rains and high winds wash out bridges and hold up shipping, frequently for weeks at a time.
The usefulness of airfields would, accordingly, be limited. The port of Tacloban could accommodate 12 to 15 vessels of 20-foot (6.1-meter) draft, but had to be kept dredged alongside the wharf to permit larger vessels to dock. There were no other major port facilities on Leyte Island, although numerous indentations along the west coast afforded anchorage except during the southwest monsoon. Ormoc Bay (10º56'53"N, 124º35'47"E), on the west coast, had unlimited anchorage for a large number of vessels but was also open to the southwest monsoons.
Construction was started in these areas but, except at Tolosa, the nature of the ground proved impractical for construction. Low-lying rice paddies and swamp land were impossible to work and no rock, coral, or other surfacing material was available. Japanese action combined with the terrain and weather difficulties to make construction progress practically impossible.
The Army was having the same difficulties with its installations, particularly the airfields under construction at Dulag and near Tacloban. Scarcity of usable area on the east Leyte coast led the Army to conclude that it would have to use the area that had been assigned to the Navy near Anibong Point (11°15'34"N, 124°59'16"E). Eventually, the Navy established two bases on Leyte:
Tacloban, Naval Operating Base
The naval station at Tacloban was reduced to include only the headquarters for the commandant of the operating base, a communication center, a fleet post office, living quarters and a dispensary for the operating personnel, and receiving barracks. Although some facilities were housed in renovated buildings, most of the activities were provided with Quonset huts for offices and living quarters.
The original plans were carried to completion. Quonset huts were provided for the quarters, offices, and communication facilities for the Commanders of the Seventh Fleet and the Philippine Sea Frontier headquarters.