Review of The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward

25 Jan

Legendary historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) is most well-known for his profound contributions to the historiography of race relations in the American South during a remarkably long and prolific career. With books such as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913, and The Burden of Southern History, he became for the span of over two generations one of the most recognized and influential authorities on some of the seminal events in the region’s rich history. Woodward taught at Johns Hopkins and Yale, winning numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and mentoring dozens of historians in beginning their careers. One of Woodward’s bestselling books is actually his first. Though it has nothing at all to do with the field of research to which he would devote most of his working life, nearly three quarters of a century after its initial publication it still stands as the essential volume on its subject and is a testimony to his brilliance. I recently got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of this book, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which Woodward first published in 1947 after working with the Navy during World War II.

Involving over 350 ships and 200,000 sailors and pilots, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered the largest naval battle of World War II and among the largest ever fought. The battle raged near the Philippine Islands October 23-26, 1944 between American and Japanese forces. American victory in the contest solidified its control of the South Pacific and further restricted the oil resources available to Japan, set the stage for the invasion of the Philippines, and virtually destroyed the power of the Japanese Imperial Fleet as a force capable of significant offensive operations. The battle featured staggering casualties for the Japanese in terms of both loss of life and loss of equipment; over 12,500 men killed or wounded, twenty-eight ships, and 300 aircraft. While Americans lost almost as many planes and suffered 3,000 casualties themselves, they lost a mere six ships in the relatively one-sided contest that in essence was a near-suicidal gamble by the Japanese to turn the tide of the war. 

Woodward’s account of the action is concise, comprehensive, and clear. So thorough is it, in fact, that scores of reviewers over the decades have praised it as the definitive history of the battle and continue to do so today, over seventy years after its first printing. Having read much of Woodward’s other work, I might add that it is probably not his most compelling writing, for it lacks the irony, humor, and narrative flair he later demonstrated in a field of study about which he spent decades of research. This does not lessen the value of the book, however. Leyte Gulf is a straightforward, to the point, telling of what happened when and why in the battle which contains insight into the strategies and goals of the contending forces. It also manages to help readers understand a bit of what the respective commanders knew and when they knew it, making the way the battle unfolded even easier to understand. If you are ever interested in reading about this pivotal naval clash, I highly recommend this volume as your starting point.


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