Leyte Gulf veterans return to Philippines

When General Douglas MacArthur escaped the Japanese advance into the Philippines in 1942, he vowed he would return, and on 20 October 1944, he did so. An enormous Allied invasion force, including Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessels, delivered General MacArthur to Leyte Island, where he famously proclaimed: ‘People of the Philippines: I have returned’.

Two elderly men on board a ship. Both are carrying flowers and wearing medals.

Rear Admiral Guy Griffiths AO DSO DSC RAN (Ret’d) (left) and David Mattiske taking part in the Floral Offering at Sea Ceremony in Surigao Strait.

Rear Admiral Guy Griffiths AO DSO DSC RAN (Ret’d) and David Mattiske were among the Australians who were part of that invasion force. Both served aboard HMAS Shropshire. David later recalled:

Well, here we were in Shropshire, fulfilling a prophecy, a promise and creating history. The lowliest seaman can say to his grandchildren with pride, ‘I helped take MacArthur back’.

In October 2019, David and Guy made their own return with other veterans and relatives of those who had served, participating in events to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Leyte Gulf landings and the Battle of Surigao Strait. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the most significant naval engagements in world history, was a decisive sea and air battle that effectively crippled the Japanese fleet.

On 20 October the group attended the 75th National Commemorative Ceremony at the MacArthur Landing Memorial as VIPs. The MacArthur Landing Memorial National Park is on Red Beach, where General MacArthur stepped ashore in 1944. A party of Australian sailors from HMAS Stuart, which was anchored offshore, was also in attendance and attracted much positive attention, serving as a reminder of Australia’s role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The next morning the Australian commemorative group boarded a ferry and travelled through waters where the Battle of Surigao Strait took place. In the Battle of Surigao Strait, Allied ships, including HMAS Shropshire, successfully defended against a night attack by the Japanese Southern Force on the landing forces.

Guy later recalled the dramatic sights of the battle:

The cruisers and battleships opened fire … and it was really a most incredible sight, because you had this line of ships all shooting in the one direction virtually to a focal point and they were firing tracer ammunition, and so you could see all this stuff hose-piping towards the lead ship of the Japanese force.

The group also visited the newly built Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial and Museum, for a dawn commemorative service and the unveiling of a wall bearing a quotation from David during his 2018 visit: ‘Let us pray: that we never have another world war.’

After the ceremony, the party boarded the Philippines Coast Guard BRP Malapascua for a Floral Offering at Sea Ceremony in Surigao Strait. The RAN commitment to the commemoration included HMAS Stuart, Leeuwin and Sirius accompanied by Philippine Navy ships, which steamed back and forth in the waters below the memorial as the service took place — a very special sight for those in attendance.

A war memorial made up of curved and circular white walls and walkways.

Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial and Museum.