McArthur in Australia 1942-44

By Bill In Oz

Some Australian Background

Macarthur in parliamnetAt the start of 1941 Australia was still a ‘dominion‘ within the British empire. One of 4 such British dominions at the time : Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. They were all self governing with their own parliaments and laws but still with close bonds to Britain when it came to foreign affairs and defence. When WW2 started in September 1939, Australia was as part of the British empire, automatically at war with Nazi Germany & later Fascist Italy.

At that time Canberra was the recently designated capitol of Australia and the location of the newly built Parliament house. However Melbourne was still the effective capital of the Australian government, the public service and the military head quarters.

The Australian Labor Party was in government led by John Curtin as prime minister. He became PM in October 1941 after the previous conservative government lead by Robert Menzies lost it’s majority in the House of Representatives.

John Curtin was a former union official & journalist before entering parliament in 1928. He is remembered here as a very, very good prime minister in that time of major crisis. He is also remembered as a heavy regular drinker. Ironically he became leader of the ALP opposition only because he was an ‘outsider’ and neither of the two dominant factions in the ALP had the numbers to get their man up. By way of compromise the ALP party faction bosses agreed to back him as opposition leader, but only if he stopped drinking! And he did. Curtin also suffered from heart disease and this grew worse after he became Prime Minister especially during much of 1944-45. This affected his ability to be on top of the many problems he faced as prime minister during the war. Curtin died in his sleep in July 1945 while still prime minister from a heart attack.

In April 1942 the total Australian population was just seven million. Over the course of the war 1939-1945, almost one million served in the armed forces. More than 730,000 men served in the army during the war. The rest in the Royal Australian Navy & Royal Australian Air force.

Despite this there were very few trained and battle hardened troops in Australia when Japan entered WW2 in December 1941. Almost all “were overseas fighting the Germans and Italians in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. The 8th Division was scattered across the northern approaches to Australia. Australia’s Air Force was mostly in England serving beside the Royal Air Force in the defence of Britain while Australia’s Navy was scattered around the world serving Britain’s interests in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific operational theatres.” James Bowen

Three divisions ( roughly 52,000 men ) were serving in North Africa with the British army fighting Germany & Italy. Another division the 8th, was sent in 1941 to Singapore & Malaya to support the British forces there against a Japanese attack in 1941. These men 17,000 men became prisoners of war when Singapore was captured by the Japanese in February 1942.

The Geopolitical Context in early 1942

In the early 1940’s Japan was the dominant conquering power in the East Asia & the Western Pacific. In 1941-2 all the colonies of the old European countries were occupied or conquered: French Indo-China; the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya, Singapore and Borneo, Portuguese East Timor, Guam, and the Philippines which Japan saw as a US colonies. Thailand became a Japanese ‘protectorate’. British controlled Burma was attacked and occupied. The Japanese army reached the eastern fringe of British India. Japan also launched attacks on the Australian controlled part of New Guinea, & the British controlled Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides. The Japanese started planning to attack & occupy Hawaii. The Curtin ALP Australian government believed that Australia would be invaded and occupied next. Prime Minister John Curtin said in an official press release on the 16th of February 1942. “The fall of Singapore can only be described as Australia’s Dunkirk…The fall of Dunkirk initiated the Battle for Britain. The fall of Singapore opens the Battle for Australia.”

The Japanese air force attacked Darwin & Broome numerous times in 1942-43. The Japanese navy attacked Australian shipping. There were 2-3 landings by Japanese on various isolated parts of the Northern coastline to check out possible future invasion points.

The Australian government wanted the 3 divisions fighting the Germans & Italians in North Africa to be sent home to help cope with this very dangerous situation. The British government lead by Winston Churchill was reluctant to allow this happen. He thought it would weaken the Allied position in North Africa and imperil the Suez canal and the oil fields in the Middle East.

Following the attack on Pearl harbor in December 1941, Churchill went to Washington to meet Roosevelt at the ‘Arcadia conference’. Also attending were their major military Chiefs. This major war conference decided that the Allied war strategy would give priority to defeating Germany. This reflected Churchill’s view the war with Japan in the Pacific could wait till later. In his view South East Asia was expendable. The Philippines was expendable. As for Australia in his view the Japanese were unlikely to invade Australia, but even if they did Australia was expendable. (A side note: In Churchill’s view British India was not expendable!) Fortunately for Australia, the Philippines and the other peoples of South East Asia, the Commander in Chief of the US Navy, Admiral King spoke up about the necessity for the US to also prevent further Japanese attacks & expansion. And Roosevelt listened to his views. The surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor was viewed as treachery by the US public because there Japanese made no declaration of war & continued to negotiate with the US in Washington until the last days before the attack happened. Roosevelt listened to US public opinion despite Churchill’s attempts to persuade him against it.

The Australian government was not represented at the Arcadia conference. Neither was the government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines lead by President Quezon. But the Australian government heard about it and heard found out out that the Pacific war with Japan was not a priority & and in Churchill’s view Australia did not matter.

At this time of crisis Curtin decided that enough was enough. Curtin made a public New Year message at the end of 1941 in the aftermath of the fall of Singapore and the defeat of the US in the Philippines. It was a turning point in Australian history for Curtin decided to appeal to give Churchill and Britain ‘the flick’, and appeal for American help to defend Australia against the Japanese.

Curtin said “without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

Later Curtin also made a radio broadcast to the American people in which he referred to Australia as ‘the last bastion between the West Coast of America and the Japanese”. He was keen to establish direct communications between Washington & the Australian government. In March 1942 Curtin sent his foreign minister Herb Evatt to the USA and to Washington to ask for more US troops and equipment.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was annoyed. He claimed that the statement would `cause resentment throughout the Empire’. However in Australia public opinion massively supported Curtin’s declaration.

Curtin also continued to demand of Churchill that the Australian troops in North Africa be sent home to defend Australia. Perhaps Churchill realised that Australian troops would not fight for the empire if they found out he had refused to send them home to defend their own country. Perhaps someone told to stop being an arrogant bully. Starting in February 1942 Australian troops in the Middle East were sent by troop ships across the Indian ocean to Australia Most arrived in April 1942. But it took a year for all of three divisions to come home. Royal Australian Navy ships also came home at the same time. Australia also stopped sending it’s RAAF pilots to Britain.

The return home voyage of these troops was not without incident. Burma was under Japanese attack. Churchill ordered that the ships carrying 7th Division divert towards Burma. He did so without first seeking Australian approval. Curtin was enraged. Top secret cables flashed between the two leaders. Curtin told Churchill of the Australian government’s complete & total refusal to allow Australian troops to go to Burma. Churchill finally agreed to their return to Australia and the ships changed course for home. To save some of Churchill’s ‘face’ a brigade of troops was temporarily left at Columbo in Ceylon to boost the garrison there.

But the press in Australia published the details of what had happened. Churchill was not a popular man. He was seen as someone who had betrayed Australia’s trust. Since 1942 no Australian troops have fought under British command. On occasion they have fought with and alongside British troops ( Malaya 1950’s ) but never under British control. Really this was the moment that Australia left the British ‘empire’. Later on the Curtin government passed the ‘Statute of Westminster Adoption” Act which legally confirmed Australia’s international position as a nation independent from Britain not subject to any more British parliamentary or executive ‘oversight’.

Curtin & McArthur: The Odd Couple 1942-45

Curtin and McArthur (Source: Australian National archives)

When McArthur arrived in Australia in March 1942 he thought that there were newly deployed US army waiting for him to take command. It was not so. At that time there were just 32,000 US servicemen scattered all over Australia and many of them were Air Force personnel not army. He is reported to have said “ God help us” when he found out. Most of these US forces had arrived in Australia because they were diverted from their original mission of reinforcing US forces in the Philippines. The conquest of the Philippines by Japan & Japanese control the air and seas of the western Pacific meant no US convoy ships could safely reach the the Philippines.

After spending some days recovering from the long journey from the Corregidor, on the 26th of March 1942 McArthur travelled to the new national capital Canberra 400 kilometers North East of Melbourne.There he met John Curtin the Australian Prime Minister. Here is a photo of their meeting McArthur was also feted aa a war hero in Australia.He was invited to attend and make an address to parliament. There is a photo of McArthur seated close to Curtin on the floor of the House of Representatives. In April 1942 McArthur was appointed supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area, with authority over all Australian & US and other allied naval, land and air forces in Australia. This happened with the support ( indeed the request ) of the Australian government led by John Curtin.

In placing the Australian forces under MacArthur, the Australian Commonwealth government surrendered a part of our national sovereignty. But it was seen as a necessity. Australia had a small population and limited limited military forces at the time. By contrast the Japanese threat seemed huge and imminent.

These two men quickly developed a warm and trusting relationship which lasted as long as Curtin was healthy enough to lead Australia as PM. McArthur is reported to have said to Curtin after his appointment : “ we two, you and I, will see this thing through together . . . You take care of the rear and I will handle the front”.

And in the 30 months that McArthur was in Australia up to 1945, there is no report that they ever had a major argument. But their relationship is curious because they were so very different in character and political sympathies. There were huge personal & political differences between these two men It puzzled Australians at the time and was a source of annoyance at times.

Curtin was the son of poor Irish immigrants to Australia. His father managed various ‘hotels’, licensed bar that sold alcohol. Curtin never finished secondary school. He gained his education from reading in public libraries. He was a dedicated unionist. He worked as a journalist and was employed as the ‘secretary’ of 2 different unions before entering Parliament in 1928. Politically he was a ‘democratic socialist’ and joined the Australian Labor Party at a time when the ALP’s main policy platform was the “nationalisation of the means of production and distribution”. A second major ALP policy was maintaining the “White Australia” policy which Curtin also supported. Curtin never joined the armed forces. In fact he probably had an anti military bent in his younger years. 1917 he was an ardent ‘anti conscription’ leader. He opposed Billie Hughes, the then ALP Prime Minister who wanted to introduce military conscription in Australia to support the British forces on the Western Front in WW1. Such was the character of the man.

This character emerged during his years as Prime Minister. Curtin in 1943 started the process of creating the Australian welfare state. He introduced “a wide range of nationally based social service benefits including unemployment benefits, widows’ pensions, health and medical benefits and services and allowances for ex-service men students” (David Black page 7)

General Douglas McArthur was a complete contrast to Curtin. MacArthur was the son of a US Army officer. His father was sent to the Philippines as an army officer to suppress independence the revolution in 1899. Later on his father became the Colonial governor of the Philippines. Later on McArthur went to West Point to become a US army officer as well.He served in the US army on the western front when US troops arrived in 1917. In the 1920 & 1930’s McArthur again served as an army officer in the Philippines. After the war he was gradually moved up the hierarchy and became a general. But McArthur was not just an army officer. He was also profoundly conservative politically. During the depression when the Veterans March on Washington took place McArthur mobilised 800 troops and evicted the veterans from public buildings with bayonets and tear gas. He then issued a comminique saying that an insurgency and insurrection had been suppressed. (Karnow 268-9 ) Curiously (in contrast to Curtin’s support for the white Australia policy) McArthur was extremely liberal in his views on Asians. He was against racial segregation in the Philippines.

So why & how did the two so different men get along so well ? Well it helped that at the start McArthur’s strategic ideas and ambitions were almost the same as those of the Curtin Labor government. McArthur wanted the US government to send as many US troops, ships and air force planes to Australia as quickly as possible. Even at this early stage McArthur had in mind returning to the Philippines with a major invasion force to attack & defeat the occupying Japanese forces. And courtesy of Admiral King’s advocacy to Roosevelt for strengthening US forces in the Pacific, as troops, equipment and aircraft became available, this started to happen in April & May 1942.

This is exactly what the Australian government wanted to happen. Fearing a Japanese invasion they wanted military support from the US. And in fact there is some speculation that the Australian government supported McArthur’s appointment as Supreme Commander of the South West pacific Area in order to encourage it to happen. McArthur also realised that the return to the Philippines could,only happen through using Australia as a base for building up the invasion army. He also decided that the road to the Philippines lay through New Guinea just North of Australia.

The Japanese had in early 1942 occupied a large part of Dutch New Guinea, New Britain with it’s large deep water port at Rabaul, and part of the northern coast of Australian controlled Papua &  New Guinea.

McArthur & The Australian Military

Roosevelt, MacArthur & Nimitz in Hawaii

Roosevelt, MacArthur & Nimitz in Hawaii

After arriving in Australia in March 1942. McArthur made his headquarters in Melbourne. At the time this was also the head quarters of the Australian armed forces. And while relations at the political level, between McArthur & Curtin were good, things were very different at the the military levels. McArthur was Supreme Commander of the South-West Pacific Area. But until late 1943 the only trained and battle hardened troops available were Australian. There was just one single division of US army troops in Australia but it was untrained and inexperienced ‘green’. So it was Australians who did the fighting. And many of these troops were men who had come back after doing well fighting the Germans & Italians in North Africa for 2 years. They were experienced, they were battle hardened & they were proud men with their own military traditions. They arrived back in Australia to be told that ‘the man in charge’ was a just arrived foreign general named Douglas McArthur who had just been defeated & lost the Philippines to the Japanese. They did not respect him. And as time went by they discovered other reasons for loathing him.

This situation could have been managed if there had been a level of recognition and mutual understanding by McArthur of his military ally. But McArthur had trouble cooperating with US Navy & Air Force staff. Cooperating with lesser local Australian military was beyond his capacity. Here is an example. McArthur was ‘ordered’ by Washington to include Australian, British & Dutch officers in his head quarters staff. However McArthur headquarters staff consisted almost entirely of Americans with members of his defeated ‘Bataan gang’ at the heart of it. There was just one exception: General Sir Thomas Blamey, the commander of the Australian Army. As a member of McArthur’s command Blamey was given the title “ Commander Allied Land Forces”. But as he later said,he had little practical control over any American troops during the entire war. (Karl James page 45)

Major problems between the Australian military and McArthur emerged in July 1942 when the Japanese landed troops on the North coast of Papua New Guinea at Gona/Buna. They then pushed South over the Owen Stanley range to try and capture Port Moresby.

This lead to a very famous and well remembered series of battles between Australian & Japanese troops on the Kokoda Track.

The Kokoda track in 1942 was a single file walking 120 kilometer trail over the Owen Stanley Ranges from the North coast to Own’s Corner 60 kilometers from Port Moresby. The mountains range up to 2500 meters high. They were covered in jungle and were so tortuous, steep with razer backed ridges. No roads existed. Malaria & dengue fever were endemic. Both the Japanese attackers and the Australia defenders had to carry by hand everything they needed to fight and survive. Australian wounded had to be carried out over the steep terrain by stretcher.

There were Australian troops posted on the Kokoda track in July 1942. Initially these were ‘mobilised’ militia battalions rushed North from Australia because there were no regular troops available. And they were few in number just a few hundred. The Japanese invaders were specialist attack troops and numbered in thousands. The Australian troops were forced into a series of managed fighting retreats back Southwards on the Kokoda track in July-September 1942. It was savage jungle warfare. This was a successful way of stopping the Japanese. For as they got further & further into the Owen Stanley mountains they had greater & greater difficulty supplying their men. They also got sick from malnutrition and disease. And as the Australians retreated it became easier for them to be supplied and reinforced.

Meanwhile McArthur based back in Melbourne, roughly 3500 kilometers away was furious & blind panic. He feared that this the first battle he commanded in Australia would be a defeat. He feared that a defeat at Kokoda, after the loss of the Philippines would lead to him being dismissed from his new command. He ordered General Blamey to immediately send reinforcements to Port Morseby. He demanded that Blamey go to Port Moresby himself to oversee the battle. Curtin who was also the minister for Defence, later on admitted that he “did not know that the commander of the national military forces cannot afford to be supervising a brigade of 3500 men on the front line’.

McArthur also moved his own headquarters from Melbourne to Brisbane so he could be closer to the battle. But it was still over 2000 kilometers away from Kokoda and neither he or his staff went there during the course of the campaign. And though he had no knowledge of the Owen Stanley Ranges he started trying to order the Australian troops there to stand & fight to the death rather than stage a fighting retreat. He commanded the Kokoda troops to ‘dynamite the passes’ to stop the Japanese advance. What ‘passes’ ?

General Blamey was sent to Port Moresby by McArthur to take charge and stop the retreat at Kokoda. Blamey without actually checking the terrain sent up fresh troops & removed 2 brigade officers who has been in charge of the fighting retreat. Then to top it off he addressed the Australian troops who had just been relieved from the fighting at Kokoda on the parade ground at Port Moresby. He told them ‘not to run like rabbits’ & hold their ground. The men were furious. The officers still with the units were furious. Usually at the formal end of a parade ground event the troops will salute & do an “eyes right” to acknowledge a commanding general officer’s presence. On this occasion they ignored him and marched straight off with no salute or eyes right. They snubbed him. He could get away being short and tubby. He could get away with being a womaniser and a drunkard. But calling them cowards and being McArthur’s lap dog was beyond their
limit. It took considerable efforts on Blamey’s part over the next three years to regain the respect of his army. He was known as “that Bastard”. Standing up to McArthur for his own fellow Australian men was a necessary part of that process.

In the face of tenacious Australian resistance, the Japanese push over the Owen Stanley Ranges over the Kokoda track petered out. Then the Australian troops went on the offensive. Gradually the Japanese retreated fighting back to the North coasts at Buna/ Gona. For the first time since the Pacific war started the Japanese army was defeated in a battle campaign.

Thus MacArthur discovered that the Australian Army was very capable of winning battles. And over the next 2 years he built his own reputation as their victorious commanding general fighting the Japanese on the the abilities of these Australian troops. The Battle of Buna-Gona is a good example. Initially MacArthur keen to show how good his US troops were, sent in The US 32nd Infantry Division, But it was ‘green’ just out of training camp and had had no training in jungle warfare, The result was a disaster. MacArthur relieved the division commander and instructed Lieut. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, commander of the US I Corps, to go to the front personally with the charge “to remove all officers who won’t fight … if necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions ..I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.” However it was only after the battle hardened & experienced Australian 7th Division joined the battle that Gona fell to the Australians on 9 December 1942, Then Buna to the US 32nd on 2 January 1943.

After this the Australian army went on to defeat the Japanese at Milne Bay, Lae, Markham Valley, Salamis, Nazdab and Finsdchafen. All these battles happened in Papua New Guinea. (Stanley 2003)

And all of these battles were reported in the press & radio in Australia & America. However all,of them were reported by communiques released by McArthur. And in all of the communiques McArthur reported victories “By allied troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur”. In truth they were Australian victories fought without much benefit from being “Supremely Commanded” by MacArthur.

This sort of behavior breed a deep resentment among all the Australian army against MacArthur and his “Bataan gang’. But it was specific and did not extend to the US forces in Australia as a whole. There was close cooperation between the Australian & US navy & Air Force personnel. And when US Army forces started arriving in the region, they too cooperated closely together. A key driver in this was that McArthur’s press releases & communique’s did not even acknowledge the role of his US colleagues. As in the Philippines he kept the limelight for himself. And so generated animosities against him by his fellow US military officers.

Animosities can linger for a long time and be passed down the generations. I had an odd experience a few days ago when I met a 60 year Australian friend. He asked me what I had been doing since retiring and I mentioned writing this blog about MacArthur. His immediate response was to tell me about his father who served in the Australian Army in WW2 in North Africa, Greece, New Guinea & Borneo. He served as a RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major, the highest non commissioned rank in the Australian army). The last two campaigns in New Guinea & Borneo were served under McArthur’s ‘Supreme” leadership. “My dad thought he was an arrogant a******e”. This is very anecdotal..But the force of the expression 70 years later was unmistakable.

So McArthur’s arrogance, ignorance and stupidity was obvious to all in the Australian military. But this was happening in a war with extensive censorship. The Australian public were kept completely ignorant. So was the public in the USA. The only ‘news’ that could be published were the propaganda communiques released and often written or edited by McArthur himself. His communiques unique. And they were entertaining. Here is what one Australian historian has written about them. “McArthur as a general had an unrivaled ability with propaganda… The American public were bombarded with stories about valiant defenders, and glorious victories. Not only were the Japanese dying in their thousands, and being shot out of the sky, but their battleships were being sunk apparently at will by McArthur’s vastly outnumbered but indomitable forces. For an American public receiving a steady diet of failure and disaster in the Pacific and Atlantic, MacArthur was presented as a shining beacon of steadfast endurance and indomitable will.” (Source: Nigel Davies)

The US Navy & The war against Japan

I have missed out asking an important question so far in my discussion of the Kokoda Track campaign in Papua New Guinea. It is a crucial question.

Why did the Japanese try to attack and capture Port Moresby by walking 120 kilometers over the Kokoda track across rugged Owen Stanley Ranges?

It would have been far easier & quicker to send an invasion force by sea around the coast from Rabaul. And in the answer to this question lies part of the reason why Japan lost the Pacific war with the USA : the US Pacific fleet.

In fact in May 1942, Japan did send a strong convoy or troops and warships to attack & conquer Port Moresby. But the convoy was forced to turn back and return to Rabaul after Japan lost the battle of the Coral sea. The attempt to capture Port Moresby via the Kokoda track was not the preferred option at all. It was a ‘last throw of the dice’ to capture Port Moresby.

What happened to force the Japanese to try such a desperate measure ?

In the Pacific theatre 1942 – 45, a second very different war was being waged with Japan : the war between the ‘allied’ navies and the Japanese Imperial Navy. I just used the word ‘allied’ here. But after the British warships, the Rodney & the Prince Of Wales were sunk off the coast of Malaya in December 1942, after Singapore surrendered in February 1942, there were no British ships in South East Asia or the Pacific. The British fleet retreated to the Indian ocean & did not return until late 1944. The war at sea against Japan was fought in the Pacific, overwhelmingly by ships of the US Pacific fleet with Australian navy ships having returned from the Mediterranean, helping & taking part.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7th 1941 the US Pacific fleet was badly damaged with 12 battleships sunk and 3000 men killed. The US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Kimmel ,was effectively sacked because of that defeat. In his place Admiral Ernest Nimitz was appointed by Roosevelt, to command the US Pacific fleet. Nimitz became the “Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas“, with operational control over all Allied units (air, land, and sea) in Pacific, & the seas of Australia, The Pacific islands, The Philippines and the rest of South east Asia. Nimitz first action was to go to Hawaii to inspect Pearl Harbor. After the inspection, he is reported to said to his officers and men that the situation was not as dire as he had been told. When they asked him ‘why’ in great surprise, he replied:

  1. The Japanese attack happened early on a Sunday morning and most of the crews of the fleet were on shore leave. Only 3200 men were killed while another 30,000 navy seamen, were ashore and uninjured.
  2. The massive US navy fuel tanks storage site with 5 million gallons of fuel, remained undamaged. The Japanese had not attacked it even though it was 4 ks. away ‘over the hill’ from the ships.
  3. The carrier fleet (of four carriers) was out at sea conducting exercises when the Japanese attacked. None of the US Navy carriers were damaged or sunk.
  4. The submarine fleet was not targeted or damaged in the Japanese attack and was available for immediate offensive operations.

All of these things were major miscalculations by the Japanese. And sowed the seeds of their future defeat. Another major factor was that Admiral King the Commander in Chief of the US Fleet & Admiral Nimitz were determined that whatever the British Prime Minister Churchill thought, Japan would be punished for it’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. King became known for his “Anglophobia ‘ in these years. But these two Admirals, King & Nimitz were the real American ‘Commanding heroes’ of the Pacific war.

With King directing from Washington, it was who Nimitz implemented the key USA military strategies of the Pacific war to defeat Japan. In 1942 Japan was an island ‘maritime’ empire scattered across South east Asia and the Pacific Ocean. It depended on it’s navy and air force to move men, supplies, and diesel fuel. It depended on it’s merchant marine to move essential supplies like crude oil, iron ore, rubber, rice, sugar and other commodities to Japan itself. And this were it’s major weak spots.

Thus Nimitz first adopted the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare targeting any Japanese shipping to shut down the Japanese merchant marine, & prevent the Japanese occupying forces from being resupplied, re-equipped or reinforced. And as mentioned already the US submarine fleet based in the Philippines and the submarine fleet based at Pearl harbor were not damaged at all in the initial Japanese attacks. The US submarine fleet increased in strength gradually in 1942-3. And their range & design also improved. They became thus more effective.

From 1943 the US submarine fleet operated at will in the seas of Japan’s maritime empire. And Japan gradually lost the capacity to resupply it’s armies with food, ammunition or fuel. They lost the capacity to reinforce or reposition their occupying army units scattered over the Pacific Islands and South east Asia. These army units became isolated and as far as the war was concerned of no value at all. This had major consequences in the conduct of the war.

Second in a series of major naval battles Nimitz targeted the Japanese carrier fleet to degrade and destroy it. It was aircraft from ships of the Japanese carrier borne fleet arm which attacked at Pearl harbor. It was aircraft from ships of the carrier fleet which attacked the Philippines on the 8th of December. It was aircraft from ships of the carrier fleet which sank the British battleships the Rodney & Prince of Wales at the start of the invasion of Malaya. So destroying this Japanese carrier fleet was crucial to defeating Japan. These naval battles In the Pacific were :

  • The Battle of the Coral Sea in 4-8th of May 1942, : this prevented the sea borne attack on Port Morseby
  • The Battle of Midway 3-7 of June 1942 : this prevented the Japanese from occupying Hawaii which was planned for August 1942
  • The battle of the Eastern Solomons 24-25 of August 1942: this prevented the Japanese from cutting off the sea lanes & communications between Australia & the USA.
  • The battle of Santa Cruz 25-27 of October 1942 Prevented the Japanese winning in the US Navy’s campaign ( using US Marines ) to defeat the Japanese occupying Guadalcanal

As a result of these navel battles many of the Japanese carriers were either sunk or damaged and forced to return to Japan. Also most of the aircrew of Japan’s carrier fleet were killed or wounded. of the seas & the air in the Pacific ocean. Thus of the 750 aircrew who took part in the PearL harbor attack over 400 were dead by the end of 1942. In the latter stages of the war, Japan adopted ‘Kamikaze’ tactics with young inexperienced pilots being instructed to crash their planes into US ships. They did this because they no longer had an elite ‘corps’ of experienced highly trained carrier pilots. All they had were young newly trained & commissioned inexperienced ones.

Japan gradually lost control of the air above it’s scattered maritime empire. By 1945 it had lost control of the air even above the Japanese home islands. This in combination with loss of control of the seas laid the ground for Japan defeat in 1945.

Nimitz had a third strategy against Japan : attack and defeat the Japanese army only at ‘key’ islands locations in the Pacific. These ‘key points’ then became jumping off points for waging the war closer to Japan and thus attack Japan on it’s home ground. The names of these ‘Key points “ are remembered well in US history of WW2 and especially in US naval history : Guadalcanal, the Mariana Islands, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Okinawa, Iwo Jima. The Japanese realised the nature of the US strategy. So they resisted and fought to the end. These battles were mostly fought by US marines not the US army. And they were under the operational command of Admiral Nimitz. They were not under the command of General McArthur. As each of these key points was captured it became a base for US Air Force air craft who also helped to ensure that the Japanese lost control of the air above their maritime empire.

Meanwhile Nimitz ordered that most other Japanese occupied areas be ignored and isolated. He decided that there was no point in attacking every island that the Japanese army had occupied. The Japanese could not be resupply them. They were isolated and neutralized. Towards the end of the war in 1945 some of these positions were gradually mopped up. The Australian & American troops found that the Japanese soldiers had become farmers & gardeners to feed themselves.

This strategy meant that local inhabitants suffered under Japanese army occupation for more time. But had the virtue that far fewer of the local people were killed, injured or destroyed in the course of endless land battles between the Allied forces and the Japanese. Nimitz & King both believed that destroying Japan in it’s home ground would be better than ‘liberating’ the people that Japan had occupied and in the process destroying them. One of the fundamental principles of waging war is that “it is far better to hit & hurt the enemy’ than it is to impose suffering & destruction & death on your own people or allies I think this was very important. Unfortunately this strategy was not employed in the Philippines.

McArthur Launches the Campaign to Return to the Philippines

At this point we need to return to General McArthur in Australia. He was the Supreme Commander of the Australian forces during 1942-43 & they gradually degraded, defeated and isolated the Japanese forces in New Guinea. Toward the end of 1943 more & better trained US army troops started arriving in Australia and New Guinea. They were integrated into his strategy. McArthur saw how successful the ‘island hopping’ strategy devised by Nimitz & King was. So after 1943, he implemented the same strategy in his own South West Pacific Army command area with a series of attacks along the North coast of New Guinea in early to mid 1944. Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea and then Morotai Island were attacked and became bases for further advances. However McArthur’s long term goal was very different to Nimitz or Kings’.

In early 1944 Nimitz and King proposed to Roosevelt that the US an invade the Japanese island of Formosa. Formosa had been a Japanese colony since 1894. It had been settled by many Japanese and it’s original inhabitants brought up to think of themselves as Japanese citizens. Many Formosan men were part of the Japanese armed forces. So from attacking Formosa would be hurting the enemy. Also Formosa had been developed by Japan as one of their industrial & military centres. Nimitz & King believed that capturing Formosa would weaken significantly weaken Japan’s capacity to continue the war and also cut off Japanese communications with occupied Philippines, Indo-China, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies.

There were additional reasons for attacking and occupying Formosa. The US military were seeking an easier way to supply arms & other military equipment Chiang Kai Chek’s Kuo Min Tang (Nationalist) government in China in it’s fight against Japan. China was being supplied with at great cost & great difficulty from India via planes flying over the Himalayas. Attacking & seizing Formosa would make it much easier to supply Nationalist China via the Chinese coastal ports. Finally Formosa would become a base to mount major attacks on Japan itself. Such was the plan and it had the support of some of the US Chiefs of staff in Washington. It had the definite support of the US navy.

However it did not have the support of McArthur. He saw the plan to attack Formosa as a direct threat to his personal crusade to return to the Philippines. And so he turned his attention and his considerable propaganda abilities to having the Formosa plan scuttled and replaced by his own to ‘return’ to the Philippines. There is no doubt McArthur was sincere. He believed that the USA had a moral ‘obligation’ to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation. And he had made his own personal pledge to return.

McArthur wanted his share of military glory so he would not be overshadowed by his former assistant General Eisenhower who in June 1944 commanded the D-Day Invasion in June 1944 that lead to the liberation of France. Winning victories over the Japanese in New Guinea was all very well for MacArthur but it was a minor part of the world war. Returning to & liberating the Philippines would provide him with a place in history.

In July 1944 McArthur, Nimitz & Roosevelt met in Hawaii. Among the major topics discussed was the the alternative strategies for pursuing the the next stage of war with Japan : invading & liberating the Philippines or Formosa. It has been suggested that 1944 was a US Presidential election year. Roosevelt wanted to avoid alienating US voters who saw McArthur as America’s national war hero. Vetoing MacArthur’s plan to return to the Philippines would have done just this. So Roosevelt instead of approving Nimitz & King’s gave the go ahead to McArthur plans for the ‘liberation’ of the Philippines. It can be argued that Roosevelt with this decision betrayed the Filipino people. But he had already done it before in 1941-2 at the ‘Arcadia conference’. Remember that is when Roosevelt & Churchill decided to give priority to Britain’s war against Germany and let the US Troops on Bataan and Corregidor go unsupported until they were forced to surrender.  Such are the decisions made in war.

What happened next ? Instead of Formosa, Nimitz & King went on to plan and execute the attacks on the Japanese islands of Okinawa & Iwo Jima. The US marines who fought there had a hard battle and many died. But they won the battles. And Okinowa & Iwo Jima islands then became the US bases used for more intense air attacks on Japan. And Formosa was spared an American invasion. Yes it was bombed in air raids by the Americans as a part of the Japanese empire. But in large part at the end of WW2 it was still functioning normally. It’s major cities had not been destroyed and the inhabitants had not been forced to flee their homes. In August 1945 Hirohito told the Japanese military to surrender and obedient to the emperor, this is what they did. Little damage was done to the infrastructure or the people of the island. Thus when the Chinese nationalist government took the island over at the end of 1945 and renamed it Taiwan, it inherited an
already well developed province which in the next 20-30 years was well on the way to being a prosperous modern society. This was also helped by the fact that the Japanese sugar plantation ‘settlers’ in Formosa were expelled back to Japan. This lead to a massive redistribution of land and other property.

The Philippines however was propelled along a different path. The fate of the Philippines was to be liberated.

Sources Used :

Thanks once more to Bill in Oz for this entire McArthur series, which is excellently researched and detailed.

The next article about the return to the Philippines shall be most interesting.

Irineo B. R. Salazar, München, 20. February 2016