Japan History Lab

Leyte Gulf: The Killing Blow

by William Chaster


Japanese soldiers were renowned for being brave to the point of insanity during the Second World War. It is easy to dismiss these men as suicidal zealots but when exploring the theme of everyday life in time of war, a topic is needed to discuss the mindset which inspired this bravery and what the experience of the typical soldier in battle was. In this, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is an excellent medium. When examining such a subject, there are several issues which must be considered. To begin with, the battle itself, its outcome, and how it fits into the Second World War will be analyzed. This will then be followed by a study of the reasons which motivated Japanese troops to fight with such ferocity and how they compared to those of American sailors. The final section will then attempt to outline the involvement of the average Japanese sailor at Leyte Gulf. Ultimately, the question is what were Japanese sailors thinking at this engagement and why were they still willing to fight and die in a war which seemed hopeless?

The Battle

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, with a combined total of more than 200,000 men and 280 warships, is one of the largest naval battles in human history.1 (pg. 431-432) By this stage of the war, American forces were closing in on Japan, capturing Japanese bases and pushing their armies back in almost all areas. By October 1944, the Philippines were some of the last outer defences left to Japan and its last lines of communication with the resource rich areas to its south.2 (pg. 36) With the American landings in late October 1944, Japan had to respond in a desperate bid to keep what remained of its defensive cordon intact. Mustering almost all its remaining forces, the Imperial Japanese Navy was sent to disrupt the American landings underway at Leyte.

Fought from October 23rd to 26th in four separate encounters, the Battle of Leyte Gulf ended in a loss for the Imperial Japanese Navy which sustained 10 000 casualties.3 (pg. 288) After this battle, Japan could offer but sporadic resistance to overwhelming American forces and would never again seriously challenge the Allies for dominance of the sea. Thanks to the loss of 24 ships, including four aircraft carriers and three battleships, this defeat "spelled the collapse of [the Japanese] navy as an effective fighting machine."4 (pg.375) Entering this engagement, the United States Navy had a significant superiority over the Japanese both in quality and quantity. Therefore, why were Japanese sailors still willing to fight and die when it was apparent that Japan was being defeated? The answer is rooted in the conditions experienced by all sailors and the pressures put on them by Japan's militaristic society.

The U.S. carrier Princeton burning after a bomb hit

The U.S. carrier Princeton burning after a bomb hit.5

The Motivating Factors

The first, and probably most well known, reason that Japanese armed forces members were so committed to fighting was the Bushido Code. Dating back hundreds of years, Bushido is the strict code that the warrior Samurai followed in battle and it still carried enormous weight in the Japanese army of the 1940s.6 (pg. 301) In Bushido, it was forbidden to surrender as this was seen as dishonorable. No matter how hopeless the situation, it was better to die in battle than to dishonor your family by being taken prisoner. 7 (pg. 264) It is well documented that this put a massive amount of pressure on Japanese armed forces members to fight to the very last. Even those who may not have followed Bushido as ardently were pressured immensely by their comrades in arms. For example, in the Burma campaign, many who were so sick or injured as to be unable to fight were "given a grenade and persuaded, without words, to sort [themselves] out."8 (pg. 202) Whether through Bushido or from fellow soldiers, Japanese troops faced high expectations exacerbated by the customs that were espoused.

Another component to the motivating factors was loyalty. In this case it has two meanings. One was remaining faithful to a commander as part of Bushido. Loyalty upheld a warrior's honor and the honor of his family, important values in Japan at the time. This was doubly important for in the eyes of the Japanese people, the emperor was an "absolute monarch"; a divine figure to whom all of Japan answered.9 (pg.102) All service given was done in his name. To surrender was seen as the worst breach possible in a warrior's duty to his leader. Therefore, in doing so, a Japanese soldier would be betraying the divine emperor. If he were to be captured alive, he and his family would be treated with contempt; thus it was not just himself he was fighting for, but for his family as well.10 (pg. 193)

The second meaning of loyalty was the fact that Japanese troops were also faithful to their fellow soldiers. In any war, soldiers fight not only for their country, but for their friends and unit. Japanese sailors at Leyte Gulf would have been fighting as much for their shipmates as they would for their emperor. Bushido has nothing to do with the desire to come out alive with one's comrades in arms. In this sense, Japanese soldiers were more similar to their American counterparts than both sides realized. Obviously, Japan's militaristic society had a strong influence over its soldiers. However, the final point is much more identifiable with broad human emotions than those based on beliefs.

The last reason for sailors in the Japanese Navy to participate in Leyte Gulf has little to do with ideological rhetoric. The Philippines were the point where two separate American thrusts would come together.2 (pg.36) This constituted a severe threat to Japan. The capture of these islands would deny Japanese access to many of its vital resources to the south which would in turn lead to a worsening of the shortages already felt in the Japanese economy. This would only increase the strangulation of the Japanese war effort, leading to defeat. Defeat was a failure in the warrior's service which could only bring dishonor on him and his family. In this sense, Japanese sailors at Leyte gulf were fighting to protect their people, their families, and their homes from being overwhelmed and invaded. This is exemplified by the statement of one navy veteran of the Philippines, sent to fight as a soldier, who said that he was fighting for his parents and younger brothers.7 (pg. 376) The desire to save one's loved ones would only inspire these men to fight harder, making it an easy choice to participate in battle if it meant potentially safeguarding their families.

The reasons that Japanese sailors fought so hard are varied: Intense societal and traditional pressures, a desire to protect their land and families, and a melding of Shinto ideology and intense nationalism all created an iron will to fight to the end.11 (pg.339) It is therefore interesting to compare these motivations with sailors of the American Navy. The differences are obvious, namely that the United States did not have the same intense brand of spiritual devotion that the Japanese did. There was no powerful belief system that prevented American troops from surrendering. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine United States armed forces members venerating and honoring President Roosevelt to the extent that they would rather die than be captured. Despite the differences, the similarities between the two sides, while more subtle, are still apparent. The values of home and family, and the will to protect those at all costs transcends religions and countries. In studying everyday life in a time of war, it is important to remember the experiences of both sides and find the commonalities between them. Therefore, with an understanding of the reasoning behind Japan's fanatical determination to fight, and an understanding of the similarities in terms of everyday life between the two sides, it is possible to try and understand the experience of the average Japanese sailor at Leyte Gulf.

A map of the battle area showing the 4 engagements fought throughout its course

A map of the battle area showing the 4 engagements fought throughout its course.12

The Sailors' Experience

Leyte Gulf would have been terrifying. Taking part in a battle pitted against superior forces would have been enough to unnerve the most hardened and dedicated soldiers. Despite this, sailors in the Imperial Japanese Navy maintained relatively high morale leading up to and during the engagement. Despite the ordeal of constant air attacks and having friendly ships sunk around them, sailors on the super battleship Yamato were reported as never faltering in their duty and maintained a "fighting spirit and...gallant attitude [which] made them worthy of praise."4 (pg. 372) In spite of the odds, there are no indications of Japanese sailors acting with cowardice or insubordination. This is partly thanks to the intensive naval training which favored physical abuse as it was thought this made cadets better sailors.7 (pg. 318) It is also partly due to the spiritual devotion felt by most Japanese sailors. This combination ensured that, despite the terror of battle, Japanese sailors did their duty with admirable determination. Stemming from this spiritual devotion is one particular aspect which deserves closer examination: the experience of those who's ships were sunk and how Bushido again dominated.

Shipwrecked sailors faced complicated issues brought on by the adherence to Bushido. This is exemplified by the experience of one officer who's ship was sunk prior to Leyte Gulf. He remarked that abandoning ship was hazardous for Japanese sailors. The usual dangers involved with being cast adrift notwithstanding, there was also the worry that if they were not picked up by Japanese forces then they would be considered missing in action. This meant that they could be taken prisoner, a great shame for them and their family.7 (pg. 296) This could have caused men to stay at their stations despite the probability of certain death as a ship sank. Indeed, this practice was not unknown among Japanese captains, an example being the captain of the carrier Akagi at the earlier Battle of Midway. In that instance, one Captain Aoki went down with his ship despite having the opportunity to get to safety.13 (pg.182-183) While not being representative of all crew members, it does display the lengths some sailors would go through to maintain their honor.

Continuing in his narration, the officer went on to remark that despite having time to equip life boats with materials to better their odds of survival, nothing was done before their ship sank. This was because he "never thought to try and save [his] own life while [his] warship was afloat. [They'd] make no preparations to extend [their] own lives."7 (pg. 296-297) While the effort to try and save their ship was admirable, this neglect in preparing for the eventuality of a sinking would lead to deaths among those who were able, or willing, to abandon their doomed vessel. Thus the experience of Japanese sailors at Leyte Gulf was one of duty and defiance, sacrifice and honor. If there were any doubts as to the dedication of the members of the Imperial Japanese Navy, they would have been eliminated by its futile, if brave, performance at Leyte Gulf.


The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a crushing defeat for the Japanese navy. The final large scale engagement of the war between American and Japanese fleets, it saw the once powerful Imperial Navy reduced to splinters by American naval and aerial supremacy. The pressures of Bushido and the qualities of sacrifice and loyalty it espoused ensured that Japanese sailors fought with a bitter determination no matter the situation. However, it is obvious that Japanese sailors were fighting for their comrades in arms, their land, and their family in addition to their ideology at this engagement; reasons which were comparable to the motivations felt by American sailors. The experiences at Leyte Gulf itself show that Japanese sailors performed their duty well, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Unfortunately, there were those who would rather face certain death over survival due to the very same ideology which motivated them to fight as hard as they did. Although the Japanese Navy effectively ceased to exist as a cohesive force after Leyte Gulf, it would be comforting for its sailors to know that they ensured it did not go down without a fight.

Feature Image: The Japanese super-battleship Yamato under attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She would survive but her sister ship Musashi would be sunk by air attack.14