The declared policy of the War Department during January and early February on troop movements to Australia had been to restrict them to air corps, antiaircraft, and service troops—to such troops, in short, as would be of direct value to the support of air operations. This policy had been adopted in the hope that, if everything was concentrated on the air build-up of the Indies, it might still be possible for General Wavell to hold the Barrier. The hope had proved vain. By mid-February, the debacle was at hand. Not only was the ABDA Area on the point of collapse, but Australia itself was in danger. Faced with this situation, the War Department, in a swift reversal of policy, ordered the first U.S. ground forces to Australia.
The High Command Acts Reinforcing the Australian Base
The first unit ordered to go was the 41st U.S. Infantry Division, then in training at Fort Lewis, Washington. On 17 February, General George C. Marshall ordered its transfer to Australia. The main body, less one regiment, was to go immediately; the remaining regiment would leave later when additional shipping became available. Upon arrival, the division’s mission would be to protect Australia’s ports and air bases and to provide garrisons for the defense of its eastern and northeastern coasts.
While the War Department was thus preparing to send U.S. ground troops to Australia for use in its defense, the question came up of what to do with the Australian corps which was then en route to the Southwest Pacific from the Middle East. Inasmuch as it was clear by this time that the corps would arrive too late to be of use in the defense of the ABDA Area, General Wavell proposed on 18 February that it be diverted to Burma where the enemy was advancing unchecked on Rangoon. President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill took substantially the same position. Pointing out that the leading elements of the corps (which was then in the Indian Ocean) were the only troops that could intervene in time to save Burma, each asked Mr. Curtin on the 20th that he permit the temporary diversion to that country’s defense of at least the leading division.
Feeling, as he was to put it later, that his “primary obligation” was “to save Australia,” Mr. Curtin flatly refused to sanction the diversion. Moreover, in addition to demanding the immediate return to Australia of the 6th and 7th Divisions (the two divisions en route) he demanded the return of the 9th Division, the one Australian division still in the Middle East.
Little exception could be taken to the transfer home of the 6th and 7th Divisions, especially since the Australian Government agreed to the temporary diversion of two brigades of the 6th Division to Ceylon, which was then believed to be in imminent danger of invasion. The case of the 9th Division was another matter. To pull it out of the Middle East without replacement could conceivably so weaken the British line in the western desert that disaster might result The United States, at Mr. Churchill’s suggestion, therefore offered to send a second division to Australia if the Australian Government would temporarily leave the 9th Division in the Middle East. The Australian Government gave its consent to this arrangement, and the 32d U.S. Infantry Division, then at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where it had been preparing for early shipment to Northern Ireland, was immediately ordered to Australia. The leading elements of the AIF began debarking in Australia in mid-March, and with the 41st Division due to arrive in April, and the 32nd Division in May, a rapid concentration of ground forces in Australia was assured.
The U.S. Air Force in Australia, at low ebb after the Indies campaign, was strengthened, and immediate steps were taken to bring it up to authorized strength—two heavy and two medium bombardment groups, one light bombardment group, and three pursuit groups.[NOTE 3]The island bases in the South Pacific were secured. By early February there were garrisons at Palmyra, Christmas Island, Canton Island, Bora Bora, Samoa, and the Fiji Islands. On 26 February the garrison for New Caledonia, a force of 17,500 men, reached Australia, and on 12 March it was redeployed to its destination without incident.
[NOTE 3: Msg, Gen Marshall to Gen Brett, No. 479, 1 Mar 42; Msgs, Gen Brett to Gen Marshall, No. 490, CM-IN 48, 4 Mar 42, No. 505, CM-IN 99, 5 Mar 42. The original allotment had been four, not three, pursuit groups, but an undertaking by the United States to maintain one Australian pursuit group at full strength had cut down U.S. pursuit strength by one group.]
As a crowning touch to this defensive deployment, new bases were being established at Tongatabu in the Tonga Islands and at Efate in the New Hebrides. The establishment of these bases had more than merely a defensive intent. As Admiral Ernest J. King pointed out to the President, when these and the existing bases at Samoa, the Fijis, New Caledonia, and Bora Bora were “made reasonably secure, we shall not only be able to cover the lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand, but given the naval forces, air units and amphibious forces, we can drive northwestward from the New Hebrides into the Solomons and the Bismarck Archipelago after the same fashion of step by step advances that the Japanese used in the South China Sea.”
Reorganizing the Pacific Theater
These reinforcing moves were accompanied by a reorganization of the Pacific Theater to fill the void left by the collapse of ABDACOM. After sounding out the British and finding them agreeable, the President proposed on 9 March that the world be divided into spheres or areas of strategic responsibility and that the United States, as the power best fitted to do so, assume responsibility for operations in the Pacific.[NOTE 4]
[NOTE 4: Msg, Roosevelt to Churchill, No. 115, 9 Mar 42, in CCS 56/1 ABC 311.5 (1-30-42). The full proposal was that there be three theaters: the Pacific Theater, the Indian Ocean-Middle East Theater, and the European-Atlantic Theater. The Pacific Theater as a responsibility of the United States would be under the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Indian Ocean-Middle East Theater would be under the British Chiefs of Staff; and the European-Atlantic Theater would be a joint responsibility.]
With British approval of the plan a foregone conclusion, the Joint Chiefs had meanwhile been considering how the Pacific Theater was to be organized. They had heard from the Australian and New Zealand Governments in connection with the matter on the 8th. After a four-day conference at Melbourne, attended by their Chiefs of Staff, the responsible ministers, and General Brett, the Australian and New Zealand Governments had agreed that the new area should have an American supreme commander; that it should include Australia, New Zealand, Timor, Amboina, and New Guinea; and that it should be under the strategic direction of the Combined Chiefs of Staff.
The Joint Chiefs objected to these proposals on two main grounds. They had already agreed that the Supreme Commander would operate directly under them, not the Combined Chiefs of Staff; and they did not like the idea of having Australia and New Zealand in one area, for the reason that the two did not constitute a strategic entity.
As Admiral King was to explain the matter to the President: Marshall and I are in complete agreement on subdividing the Pacific. We believe Australia proper and the New Zealand line of communication area are two strategic entities. The defense of Australia is primarily a land-air problem for which the best possible naval support is a fleet free to maneuver without restrictions imposed by local conditions. New Zealand, on the other hand, is the key point for Pacific lines of communication which is a naval responsibility. New Zealand has no relation to the defense of Australia in these circumstances.
By the following day, 9 March, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had worked out the main lines that the organization in the Pacific was to take. It was decided that the ABDA and ANZAC Areas would be abolished; that Australia and New Zealand would be in separate areas; and that the Pacific Theater would be divided into two main areas: the Pacific Ocean Area, including the North, Central, and South Pacific Areas; and the Southwest Pacific Area, including Australia, the Philippines, a portion of the Netherlands Indies, and Australia’s land and sea approaches, north and northeast. Australia, the Netherlands Indies, and the United States, as the governments participating in defense of the latter area, would select a Supreme Commander, whose directive would be prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in collaboration with the governments concerned.
[ NOTE 5: JCS 18, Governmental and Strategical Control and Command in the ANZAC Area, 8 Mar 42, in ABC 323.31, POA (1-22-42), Sec. la; JCS 18/2, Creation of Southwest Pacific Area, 9 Mar 42, in ABC 323.31, POA (1-29-42), Sec. 2; JCS 5th Mtg, 9 Mar 42. In addition to the Southwest Pacific Area and the Pacific Ocean Area, the Pacific Theater included the Southeast Pacific Area—a broad band of ocean facing the western coasts of Central and South America, well outside the combat zone.]
Because the Pacific Ocean Area covered principally the ocean areas already under command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, it became obvious that Nimitz would be its commander. Nor was the identity of the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area to be long in doubt; he was already preparing to leave for Australia.
General MacArthur’s Arrival
As early as 4 February, General Marshall had radioed General MacArthur that, with the situation on Bataan what it was, there might be more pressing need for his services elsewhere, and that there was therefore a likelihood that the President might order his withdrawal with such a purpose in view. The orders from the President came on 22 February. In them, General MacArthur was directed to proceed as quickly as possible to Mindanao, and from Mindanao to Australia. “It is the intention of the President,” the dispatch continued, “to arrange with the Australian and British Governments for their acceptance of you as commander of the reconstituted ABDA Area.”
General MacArthur, fifteen members of his staff, two naval officers, his wife and child, and the child’s nurse left Corregidor by motor torpedo boat on 11 March, and arrived safely at Mindanao two days later. To take them the rest of the way, General Brett had sent four B-17’s to Mindanao— “beat-up” veterans of the fighting in Java but the best he had. Three of the B-17’s failed to arrive because of mechanical difficulties, and the fourth was found to be in such poor condition upon arrival that General Brett had to ask Admiral Leary for the loan of three of his comparatively new ANZAC B-17’s. Leary’s bombers reached Mindanao on 16 March, picked up their passengers, and landed them safely at Darwin the next day.
General Brett, who had been ordered to keep MacArthur’s coming a matter “of profound secrecy” until the actual moment of his arrival, at once called Mr. Curtin by telephone and told him the news. Then, in accordance with prior instructions from the President and speaking in the President’s name, he proposed that the Australian Government nominate General MacArthur as the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area. It was a matter of regret to the President, Mr. Curtin was told, that it had not been possible to inform the Australian Government “in advance of General MacArthur’s pending arrival,” but such a course had been necessary “because safety during the voyage from the Philippines required the highest order of secrecy.”
[NOTE 6: Tel Msg, Gen Brett to Mr. Curtin, 17 Mar 42, in 384-1, MacArthur File, G-3 Files, GHQ SWPA. The message, which had been prepared in advance, was read over the phone to Mr. Curtin at 1615 that day, and a confirmation was sent by mail later the same day.]
Mr. Curtin, who had had no prior intimation that General MacArthur was coming, was (as the President reported to Mr. Churchill) extremely “enthusiastic” at this turn of events and at once nominated General MacArthur as his government’s choice for Supreme Commander.
A joint press release was issued on 17 March at Melbourne and Washington, announcing that General MacArthur had arrived in Australia and would be Supreme Commander of the forces there and in the Philippines. To forestall Axis propaganda which might make capital of General MacArthur’s departure from the Philippines, the release at Washington contained the additional statement (later cleared with the Australians) that his arrival had been “in accordance with the request of the Australian Government.”
A great feeling of relief swept the Australian people when they learned that General MacArthur had arrived to take charge of their country’s defense. The Australians had good cause to be enthusiastic over MacArthur’s coming. One of the most renowned soldiers of his time, a divisional commander in World War I, a former Chief of Staff of the United States Army, a field marshal in the Philippine Army, and, as Commanding General of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, the leader of the heroic defense of the Philippines, MacArthur had shown himself to be possessed of exceptional gifts as a commander. There was every reason to believe that Australia’s defense would be safe in his hands.
The Interim Period the Initial Problems
On 18 March, the day after his arrival in Australia, General MacArthur, who was then still operating as Commanding General, United States Army Forces in the Far East, was told by General Marshall that in accordance with the ABDA precedent he would as Supreme Commander be ineligible to command a national force. General Brett would therefore have to continue temporarily at least, as commander of USAFIA, though it was intended that he would ultimately command the combined air forces of the area; Admiral Leary, the naval forces; and an Australian, the ground forces.
Three days later, with the approval of the Australians, General MacArthur, and the War Department, General Brett became Allied Air Commander, with Major General Julian F. Barnes, Deputy Commander of USAFIA, slated to take Brett’s place as its commander. This at once brought up the problem of the command of the American ground forces. General MacArthur proposed that this command go to General Barnes when he became commander of USAFIA. General Marshall strongly opposed the suggestion and pointed out that, with the bulk of the ground forces in the area Australian, both the American and Australian ground forces should be under an Australian commander, “in accordance with the policy developed for combined commands.”
Acting on this suggestion, General MacArthur at once worked out the ground force organization which was subsequently adopted. As outlined to General Marshall on 24 March, its basic feature was that all ground combat forces, Australian and American, would be under command of “the appropriate Australian general.” The Australian and American ground forces would, however, continue as before with separate service organizations. The existing Australian supply organization would continue to operate through established Australian channels while USAFIA, its American counterpart, would have only supply and administrative functions, and its commander, General Barnes, would operate, as General MacArthur put it, “under policies established by me.” In this way, General MacArthur felt, he would “free the combat echelons of all administrative, supply, and political considerations, permitting uninterrupted concentration on combat.”
Since General MacArthur was not at the time Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area and could not be until the area was formally established and he assumed command, it became necessary that he act in the interim as if he had already become Supreme Commander. With the good will and enthusiastic support of the Australians, the transition was successfully negotiated. By the end of the month, General MacArthur was able to report that he was enjoying extremely cordial relations with the Australian authorities, that all his suggestions were being adopted without reservation, and that every possible step within the means available was being taken “to place the area in a posture of secure defense.”
The Joint Directives of 30 March
On 18 March, Prime Minister Churchill replied favorably to the President’s proposal of nine days before that the world be divided into areas of strategic responsibility, with the United States responsible for the conduct of the war in the Pacific. On 24 March, the Combined Chiefs of Staff formally established the Pacific Theater as an area of U.S. responsibility. By 30 March the directives to General MacArthur as Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, and to Admiral Nimitz as Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Area, were ready, and the President approved them the next day.
The Southwest Pacific Area, as set forth in the directive to General MacArthur, included Australia, the Philippines, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomons, and, except for Sumatra, the Netherlands Indies. As Supreme Commander, General MacArthur was to hold Australia as a base for future offensive action against Japan; sustain the U.S. position in the Philippines; support the operations of friendly forces in the Pacific Ocean Area and Indian Ocean; and “prepare to take the initiative.”
The Pacific Ocean Area, Admiral Nimitz’s command, was to be divided into three component parts: the Central Pacific, North Pacific, and South Pacific Areas. The first two would be under Admiral Nimitz’s direct command; the third, the South Pacific Area, the area immediately adjoining the Southwest Pacific, [NOTE 6] would be under a naval officer of flag rank, who would be appointed by Nimitz and operate under his direction.
[NOTE 6: It should be noted that the South Pacific Area included everything south of the equator between 160° east longitude and 110° west longitude, except for the Solomon Islands, which were then in the Southwest Pacific Area, and Canton Island, which was in the Central Pacific Area. Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, and New Zealand were thus in the South Pacific Area, as were the New Hebrides and the Santa Cruz Islands.
GENERAL HEADQUARTERS SOUTHWEST PACIFIC AREA
General Orders (No. 1) Melbourne, Vic.,
10 April, 1942.
- By agreement among the Governments of Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States there has been constituted, effective 1400 GMT, 18 April, 1942, the Southwest Pacific Area, with boundaries as defined in Annex 1.
- By virtue of the same authority, the undersigned hereby assumes command,
- The following commands are hereby created with commanders as indicated, composed of forces assigned to the Southwest Pacific Area by the respective Governments, and assigned to specific commands by this headquarters, initially as provided in Annex 1.
(a.) Allied Land Forces, Southwest Pacific Area. Commander: General Sir THOMAS BLAMEY, K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., Australian Army.
(b.) Allied Air Forces, Southwest Pacific Area. Commander: Lieutenant General GEORGE H. BRETT, United States Army.
(c.) Allied Naval Forces, Southwest Pacific Area. Commander: Vice Admiral HERBERT F. LEAHY, United States Navy.
- United States Forces in the Philippines. Commander: Lieutenant General JONATHAN M. WAINWRIGHT, United States Army.
- United States Army Forces in Australia. Commander: Major General JULIAN F. BARNES, United States Army.]
As CINCPOA, Admiral Nimitz was to hold the island positions between the United States and the Southwest Pacific Area; support the operations of the Southwest Pacific Area; protect essential sea and air communications in his area; and “prepare for the execution of major amphibious offensives against positions held by Japan, the initial offensives to be launched from the South Pacific Area and the Southwest Pacific Area.”
The Assumption of Command
Approval of General MacArthur’s directive by the participating governments was delayed. The Australian Government—the last to give its approval—only did so on 14 April, after certain questions relating to the movement of its troops out of Australian territory, and the right of its local commanders to communicate freely with their government, had been settled to its satisfaction.
On 18 April, a month almost to the day after his arrival in Australia, General MacArthur assumed command of the Southwest Pacific Area. All combat echelons of the Australian forces, naval, ground, and air, were assigned to his command as of that date, and the Australian commanders concerned were notified that orders issued by him as Supreme Commander Southwest Pacific Area were to be considered “as emanating from the Commonwealth Government.”
General MacArthur, who chose to designate himself as Commander in Chief Southwest Pacific Area rather than as Supreme Commander, formally established the Allied Land Forces, Allied Air Forces, and Allied Naval Forces the same day. General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander in Chief, Australian Military Forces, who had just arrived from the Middle East, became Commander Allied Land Forces; General Brett became commander of the Allied Air Forces; and Admiral Leary took over command of the Allied Naval Forces. Also incorporated into the command structure of the area that day were two previously established U.S. commands—the United States Army Forces in Australia, under General Barnes, and the United States Army Forces in the Philippines, under Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright, then only eighteen days away from surrender and dissolution.
In the matter of his staff, General Marshall had recommended to General MacArthur that all the participating governments be represented as had been done in the case of ABDACOM. Marshall suggested to MacArthur that this arrangement would be particularly desirable in his area since the Supreme Commander of the area, his chief of staff, and the air and naval commanders would be Americans, and the President had stated it as his wish that “a number of the higher positions” on the staff go to Dutch and Australian officers, and particularly to Australians.
The staff of General Headquarters was named on 19 April; the day after General MacArthur assumed command. Its members were Major General Richard K. Sutherland, Chief of Staff; Brigadier General Richard J. Marshall, Deputy Chief of Staff; Col. Charles P. Stivers, G-1; Colonel Charles A. Willoughby, G-2; Brig. General Stephen J. Chamberlin, G-3; Colonel Lester J. Whitlock, G-4; Brigadier General Spencer B. Akin, Signal Officer; Brigadier General Hugh J. Casey, Engineer Officer; Brigadier General William F. Marquat, Antiaircraft Officer; Colonel Burdette M. Fitch, Adjutant General; and Colonel LeGrande A. Diller, Aide-de-Camp and Public Relations Officer.
General Chamberlin, Colonel Whitlock, and Colonel Fitch had served on the staff of USAFIA, and the other members of the staff had come out of the Philippines with General MacArthur and served on his staff there. All the heads of staff sections were Americans; such Dutch and Australian officers as were assigned to General Headquarters Southwest Pacific Area served under them as members of the staff sections.
Though General Marshall again pressed him on the point, General MacArthur did not then or later assign a Dutchman or an Australian as a senior member of his staff. The reason for his failure to do so, as he stated it to General Marshall in June, was that there were no “qualified Dutch officers” present in Australia, and that the Australians, with a rapidly expanding army, did not have nearly enough staff officers to meet their own needs, let alone to serve on his staff. “There is no prospect,” he told Marshall flatly, “of obtaining qualified senior staff officers from the Australians.”
The Defensive Problem General MacArthur’s Decision
General MacArthur arrived in Australia to find that the Australian Chiefs of Staff, feeling that they could not hope to hold Port Moresby without proper naval and air support, had based their strategy for the defense of Australia on continental defense, the defense, that is, of the mainland rather than of the approaches. They had considered the reinforcement of Port Moresby a few weeks before and decided that “it was out of the question since we have inadequate forces for defense of the east coast . . . the only area from which reinforcements can be drawn.” Since to withdraw the garrison was also out of the question, they concluded that they would have to hold Port Moresby “as long as possible, and exact heavy toll from the enemy should he attack it.”
Though they were thus committed to continental defense, the Australian Chiefs of Staff were well aware of the difficulty of attempting to defend a country so vast in area and so poor in communications without adequate naval and air support. “Until such time as adequate naval and air forces are available,” they noted, “it is estimate that it would require a minimum of 25 divisions [to hold Australia] against the scale of attack which is possible.” “This would mean,” they added, “that 10 fully equipped divisions would have to be supplied by our Allies” —an impossible figure, as they well knew, since neither the British nor the United States between them were in any position at the time to supply them with that many ground troops.
In March 1943, a year after his arrival, General MacArthur publicly revealed that he had no sooner reached Australia than he concluded that the key to its defense lay not on the mainland but in New Guinea. Although his available means were extremely meager, [NOTE 7] he assumed as a matter of course that he would be given sufficient naval and air support to ensure a successful defense of the continent at its approaches, an assumption that the Australian Chiefs were then in no position to make, especially after what had happened to their ground forces in Malaya, Amboina, and Timor.
[NOTE 7: The order of arrival from the Middle East of AIF brigades at Fremantle was as follows: the 25th on 4 March, the 21st on 15 March, the 18th on 20 March (these three units comprising the 7th Australian Infantry Division) ; and the 19th Brigade of the 6th Australian Infantry Division on 20 March. United States troops in Australia numbered less than 25,000—about half of them air force personnel and the rest, field artillery, antiaircraft, and service troops. The Air Corps had planes enough only for one heavy bombardment squadron, one light bombardment squadron, and six pursuit squadrons. Admiral Leary’s command consisted of a few cruisers and destroyers, and the squadron of B-17’s assigned to him for operations against Rabaul. Msgs, Gen Brett to Gen Marshall, No. 510, CM-IN 115, 8 Mar 42, n. n., CM-IN 108, 12 Mar 42, No. 727, CM-IN 59, 17 Mar 42: CPS 9th Mtg, 9 Mar 42, sub: Defense of Australia, in ABC 381 Australia (11-23-42) ; Msg, COMINCH to COMANZACFOR, 11 Mar 42, in OPD Exec Off File, Bk 4; Craven and Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, I, 411.]
MacArthur’s position, as he explained it a year after the event, was essentially that it was too much to expect that naval and air support on a scale sufficient to defend the vast reaches of the continent successfully either would or could be made available. He told Mr. Curtin (who understood it to be the main point of difference between him and “our Chiefs of Staff earlier appreciations”) that even twenty-five divisions would probably be insufficient to hold the mainland without such support. [NOTE 8] He was reasonably sure, however, that it could be held with such forces as were likely to be made available if the main defensive effort was made not in Australia itself but in New Guinea. The strategic principle as he conceived it at the time, and as he stated it later on, was that the successful defense of Australia required that the battle “be waged on outer perimeter territories rather than within the territory to be defended.”
[NOTE 8: Ltr, Mr. Curtin to Gen MacArthur, 16 May 42, in 314.7 MacArthur File, Rec Sec Files, GHQ SWPA. In this letter, Mr. Curtin summarizes for General MacArthur and the record his understanding of a previous conversation with MacArthur.]
The fight for Australia, in short, would be waged not on the mainland but in New Guinea. As events turned out, both the defense and the offense—when offense became possible—were pivoted on Port Moresby. That General MacArthur had conceived such a strategy upon his arrival was questioned by the Australians. Mr. Curtin’s impression of the matter was, for instance, that it was not until some considerable time later that MacArthur was able to transform his strategy “from a defensive one on the mainland, to a defense of the mainland from the line of the Owen Stanley Range.” But General MacArthur insisted that he had held this view from the start. “It was never my intention,” he told Mr. Curtin, “to defend Australia on the mainland of Australia. That was the plan when I arrived, but to which I never subscribed, and which I immediately changed to a plan to defend Australia in New Guinea.”
Putting the Strategy into Effect
On 4 April, the Australian Chiefs of Staff, in conjunction with General MacArthur’s headquarters, prepared a joint estimate of the situation. The estimate noted that the enemy had virtually undisputed control of both sea and air in the South and Southwest Pacific and could be expected to undertake an offensive in great strength “against Australia’s supply line and against Australia itself,” in the very near future.
The one part of Australia “essential to the prosecution of the war,” the estimate continued, was on the southeast and east coasts in the general area between Melbourne and Brisbane. The “critical point” which controlled this area was Port Moresby, against which a major offensive could be expected almost any time, for the enemy was known to be massing heavy forces at Rabaul for a possible thrust against it. Darwin and Fremantle, isolated points on the north and southwest coasts far from the vital centers of the country, were also open to attack, but their defense presented no great problem if they were to be suitably reinforced, for their position was such that they could be held as outposts.
The real danger was at Port Moresby. If Port Moresby fell to the Japanese, its loss would put in immediate jeopardy the safety of Australia’s “all important area”—the Brisbane-Melbourne coastal belt Such being the case, a maximum effort would have to be made to provide additional air and sea power for the defense of Port Moresby and the other threatened areas. A successful defense would require several aircraft carriers and at least 675 land-based aircraft, including seventy B-17’s. Both staffs were agreed that, if such a force was provided, it would be possible to defend Australia successfully and ultimately mount an offensive to the northeast of it, aimed at Rabaul.
The means with which to begin putting this strategy into effect were at hand. The 7th Australian Infantry Division, and Headquarters, 1st Australian Corps, reached Adelaide from the Middle East at the end of March. The main body of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division docked at Melbourne on 6 April; a few days later, the 32d U.S. Infantry Division and the rest of the 41st Division were put on orders for early departure to Australia. The Air Force was brought up to strength during April, except for one heavy bombardment group and one medium bombardment group, neither of which had as yet any planes. Admiral Leary’s command was substantially reinforced and soon came to include three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, fifteen destroyers, twenty modern submarines, eleven old submarines, six or seven sloops, and some smaller craft. One of the light cruisers was Dutch; two of the heavy cruisers, one of the light cruisers, and four of the destroyers were Australian; and one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, eleven destroyers, and all the submarines were American.
Though the Dutch also provided a fusilier company and a completely equipped medium bombardment squadron (B-25’s), their greatest contribution was a merchant marine, a part of the Koninklijke Paktevaart Maatschappij, better known as the K.P.M. Line, which had operated a far-flung interisland service in the Netherlands Indies before the war. After the fall of Java, most of the K.P.M. ships escaped to Australia and India. A portion of those which reached India were rerouted to Australia. In all, twenty-nine ships, displacing from 500 to 6,000 tons, reached Australia where they were to play a major role in the supply and reinforcement of the Southwest Pacific Area’s outlying positions.[NOTE 9]
[NOTE 9: Msgs, Gen MacArthur to Gen Marshall, No. AG 441, CM-IN 2601, 25 Apr 42, No. AG 506, CM-IN 7516, 28 Apr 42; The Koninklijke Paktevaart Maatschappij (K.P.M. Line) and the War in the Southwest Pacific Area, copy in the Office of Naval History. The K.P.M. ships, with Dutch masters and crews, were under charter to the British Ministry of Transport, which had allocated them to the U.S. Army. They were thus under direct control of USAPIA, rather than (as might be imagined) of Allied Naval Forces.]
The reinforcement of Port Moresby and the more isolated garrisons in Australia itself began in early April. The 19th Brigade Group and U.S. antiaircraft and engineer troops were sent to Darwin; a squadron of U.S. heavy bomber planes and a U.S. antiaircraft regiment were ordered to the Perth-Fremantle area; a U.S. antiaircraft regiment and an additional Australian infantry brigade to Townsville. The rest of the U.S. antiaircraft troops were concentrated in the Brisbane area, and the bulk of the remaining land forces, including the 7th Australian Division and the 41st U.S. Division, were deployed in the Melbourne- Brisbane area. The Air Force concentrated most of its striking forces in the Townsville—Cloncurry region, where by this time airfields (which had been begun in January) were ready for their reception. The Allied Naval Forces, with the addition of more ships, expanded their operations; and the submarines began operating against the enemy from Fremantle and Brisbane—the new type of submarines from Fremantle, the old types from Brisbane.
The reinforcement of Port Moresby was no easy matter. Its supply line from Australia across the Gulf of Papua was exposed to enemy action. Its port facilities were inadequate; its two existing airfields were small and poorly built; and, except for one field at Horn Island in Torres Strait, there were no intermediate air bases between it and the concentration area in the Townsville-Cloncurry region, 700 miles away.
After a thorough reconnaissance of Port Moresby, General Casey, General MacArthur’s engineer officer, began drawing plans for its conversion into a first-class operational base. The port and the two existing airfields were to be improved, and three new airfields were to be built in the general Port Moresby area. It was also planned to improve the existing field at Horn Island and to begin the construction of new fields northward from Townsville along the Cape York Peninsula, principally at Mareeba (southwest of Cairns), Cooktown, and Coen. When completed, these fields would permit the rapid staging of all types of aircraft to Port Moresby. They would not only make it possible for the Air Force to provide cover for Torres Strait and the supply line to Port Moresby, but would give the Air Force greater flexibility in both offensive and defensive operations.
Work began at once on the bases in the Cape York Peninsula; and, in late April, the first U.S. engineer troops were ordered to Port Moresby. The first to go were Company E, 43d Engineer Regiment (GS), and two Negro units, the 96th Engineer Battalion (less two companies) and the Dump Truck Section of the 576th Engineer Company. The 101st Coast Artillery Battalion (AA), the first U.S. antiaircraft unit to be ordered to Port Moresby, followed hard on their heels and arrived there only a short while after. Two other moves were to be made as soon as possible: the troops in the Bulolo Valley were to be reinforced with an Australian Independent Company, and the Port Moresby garrison with an additional infantry brigade.
Air activity at Port Moresby, meanwhile, had been greatly intensified. By late April, B-17’s, B-25’s, and B-26’s were using it regularly as a jump-off point for attacks on Lae, Salamaua, and Rabaul; and air units based there, in addition to Australian P-40’s, Catalinas, and Hudsons, included two American air groups, one equipped with A-24’s, and the other with P-39’s. [NOTE 10]
[[NOTE 10: AAF, The AAF in Australia to the Summer of 1942, pp. 21, 23; Craven and Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, I, 425. The A-24’s, the first U. S. planes to be based at Port Moresby, reached it in late March. The P-39’s arrived in late April.]
A good beginning had been made in the defense of Australia and its advance base, Port Moresby, but it was only a beginning. General MacArthur, who had counted on greater support than he was receiving, felt very strongly that the allotted means were insufficient for the task in hand and began at once to press for additional forces.
The Sufficiency of the Means CINCSWPA Asks for More
General MacArthur was to have no easy time in his attempt to secure greater means than had already been allotted to his area. In late December, the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, meeting at Washington with their military advisers, had decided that the Atlantic-European area would be the decisive theater of operations. They had also agreed as a corollary to that decision that until Germany was defeated operations in the Pacific would have to be primarily defensive in nature.
On 16 March, the matter came up before the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After considering a paper submitted to them by the Joint Staff Planners listing the alternatives open to the United States in its conduct of the two-ocean war, the Joint Chiefs decided that they could maintain a strong defensive in the Pacific with the forces already allotted to that theater and still build up forces in the United Kingdom for an early offensive against Germany.
The decision having been reached, General MacArthur was given prompt intimation that his means would be limited. On 18 March, the day after he arrived in Australia, he was advised by General Marshall that because of serious shipping shortages and critical situations elsewhere it had become necessary to fix definite limits on United States commitments in the Southwest Pacific. United States ground forces, other than field artillery and antiaircraft units already in Australia or en route, would be limited to the two divisions already allotted to the Southwest Pacific Area. United States air units in Australia would be brought up to full strength as soon as possible, and MacArthur’s lines of communication with the United States would be secured. Six weeks later, in response to are quest for an aircraft carrier to increase the effectiveness of his naval force, he was told that all the carriers were being employed on indispensable tasks.
General MacArthur did not take this as the final word on the subject. Two days later, in a meeting with Mr. Curtin, he expressed himself as being “bitterly disappointed” with the meager assistance promised him by Washington. After going on to say that the forces allotted to him were “entirely inadequate” for the performance of the tasks imposed upon him by his directive, he agreed, upon Mr. Curtin’s query, that the latter would do well to ask the British Prime Minister not only for an aircraft carrier, and the temporary diversion to Australia of two British divisions then on their way to India, but also for a substantial increase in the number of British ships allocated to the United States-Australia run. Mr. Curtin communicated these requests to Mr. Churchill the next day, stating that he was doing so at General MacArthur’s request.
[NOTE: Ltr, Mr. Curtin to Gen MacArthur, 28 Apr 42, in 314.7, MacArthur File, Rec Sec Files, GHQ SWPA; Msg, Mr. Churchill to Mr. Roosevelt, No. 73, 29 Apr 42, in OPD Exec Off File, Bk 10; Msg, General MacArthur to Gen Marshall, CM-IN 0667, 3 May 42. General MacArthur’s quoted statements are from Mr. Curtin’s letter to MacArthur, which is devoted principally to the text of a cablegram which Mr. Curtin sent that day to his Minister for External Affairs, Dr. H. V. Evatt, who was then in Washington, telling Evatt what MacArthur had said in the course of this meeting]
Surprised that General MacArthur should have apparently cut through channels in this way, Mr. Churchill passed the message on to the President with the remark that he was quite unable to meet these demands. “I should be glad to know,” he added, “whether these requirements have been approved by you . . ., and whether General MacArthur has any authority from the United States for taking such a line.”
Taken to task in the matter by General Marshall the next day, MacArthur, who had just sent Marshall a message complaining about the general inadequacy of his forces, replied on 3 May that he should not be held responsible for the use to which Mr. Curtin had put his remarks. He had made them, he said, at Mr. Curtin’s request, and purely as he thought for the Australian’s personal information. His position was, MacArthur pointed out, a delicate one.
Mr. Curtin expected him to advise the Australian Government on all matters relating to Australia’s defense, and if he was to continue as Supreme Commander, and hold the confidence of the Australian Government, he had no choice but to do so. The preoccupation of the Australian Government with the security of its country was well known. The difficulty was that the Australians, both in government and out, were fearful that insufficient forces had been allotted to the defense of their country, a view in which he in his professional military capacity could not help but concur. The issue was joined; the next move was General Marshall’s.
By this time, the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 16 March to build up forces in the United Kingdom for an early offensive against Germany had found expression in the BOLERO plan. Proposed by General Marshall and accepted by the British Chiefs of Staff and the British Government on 14 April, the plan called for the reception and maintenance of an American force in the United Kingdom which, in concert with the British, would launch an air offensive against Western Europe and ultimately invade it. Since it was clear that BOLERO would either have to be suspended or appreciably delayed if further reinforcements were sent to the Pacific, General Marshall asked the President what his desires were. Mr. Roosevelt replied at once that he felt that further reinforcement of the Pacific would be inadvisable inasmuch as he did not want BOLERO slowed down.
The President went further and, in a personal message to General MacArthur, explained why it had been decided not to increase the existing allocation in his area. He wrote that he found it difficult to get away from the fact that the armies of the USSR were, at that time, “killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.” It seemed logical therefore to try to support the Russian effort “in every way that we possibly can, and also to develop plans aimed at diverting German land and air forces from the Russian front.” MacArthur was assured that despite this emphasis on European operations, his needs would not be lost sight of, and he was promised all the air strength that could possibly be spared.
The President told General MacArthur that the difficulty of his position was appreciated, and the fact understood that he had “to be an ambassador as well as Supreme Commander.” “I see no reason,” Mr. Roosevelt said, “why you should not continue discussing military matters with the Australian Prime Minister, but I hope you will try to have him treat them as confidential matters, and not use them as appeals to Churchill and me.”
General MacArthur replied two days later, urging that he be provided at once with additional means in order to secure Australia properly and that, when the country was secured, a full-scale offensive be launched in the Pacific. Such an offensive, he said, besides having “the enthusiastic psychological support of the entire American nation,” would serve not only to secure Australia and India, but would also open up a “second front” which would be of incalculable aid to Russia. The first step was to secure Australia, and to do that properly, he said, required at least two aircraft carriers, an increase of U.S. air strength in Australia from 500 to 1,000 planes, and the assignment to his command of a U.S. Army corps of three first-class divisions “capable of executing an offensive maneuver.”
The same day that he dispatched this message to the President, General MacArthur told Mr. Curtin (who at once passed on the information to Dr. H. V. Evatt, his Minister for External Affairs) that he was “determined to seek a clarification in regard to the precise terms of his directive, and the forces which were to be made available to him to enable him to fulfill it.” “He would not be content,” he said, “to be left with a directive which sounds grand but has no backing behind it.”
Mr. Churchill had neither a surplus aircraft carrier nor additional shipping to allocate to General MacArthur’s area, nor did he take kindly to Mr. Curtin’s request that two British divisions be diverted from the defense of India to that of Australia. In a letter to Mr. Curtin on 4 May, he recalled that, while it was true that he had promised to divert British divisions to Australia if the Japanese gave signs of an intention to invade it with eight or ten divisions, there was no sign that the Japanese had in mind a major attack on Australia. That being the case, he questioned the wisdom of sending the divisions to Australia instead of India, especially because India had already been invaded, and the switch, if it went through, “would involve the maximum expenditure and dislocation of shipping.”
Four days later, Dr. Evatt, who was then in London conferring with the British authorities, was assured personally by Mr. Churchill that, should Australia be invaded, he would “at once divert at least two divisions including an armored division, as they pass around the Cape”; and that he would, in addition, “throw everything possible into the defence of Australia preferring it to the defence of India.”
The President Has the Last Word
General MacArthur was still not satisfied. On 12 May he presented Mr. Curtin with an estimate of the situation which read in part as follows: I cannot too strongly emphasize the need for haste in the development of this defensive bastion. The territory to be defended is vast; the means of communications are poor; the defensive forces are few in number and only partially trained. The enemy, on the other hand, if supported by major elements of his fleet, can exercise control of the sea lanes, and consequently can strike with a preponderance of force on any chosen objective. We have present therefore in this theater at the present time all of the elements that have produced disaster in the Western Pacific since the beginning of the war.
Aroused, Mr. Curtin dispatched a message to the Australian Legation in Washington on 14 May with the request that its contents be communicated to the President through the appropriate channels. Repeating General MacArthur’s request for additional forces, including aircraft carriers, the message went on to say that the Australian Government would continue to “argue” the matter, until such time as General MacArthur was satisfied that he had at least the minimum forces needed for the proper discharge of his mission.
The message reached Field Marshal Sir John Dill, head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, on the 16th. Dill at once referred the matter to General Marshall, who replied on 18 May that the planned strength of U.S. Forces in Australia was 100,000 men, including two infantry divisions and considerable numbers of antiaircraft and auxiliary troops. First line air strength to be provided by the United States was, he added, 535 planes, and both troops and planes were either already in Australia or on the way.
Four days later, General Marshall wrote to Sir John again. Noting that Australian ground strength in Australia would total 400,000 men by June, he told Dill that, with the shipping situation what it was, there seemed to be little justification for the dispatch of additional U.S. ground forces to Australia. Ground and air forces projected for Australia, General Marshall continued, were believed to be sufficient for such operations as were immediately visualized for the area, especially since full-scale invasion of Australia did not appear to be imminent and the British had obligated themselves to send both troops and naval forces from the Indian Ocean if it was.
General Marshall agreed that aircraft carriers for the Southwest Pacific Area would be extremely useful, but pointed out that they were simply not to be had. The Chief of Staff concluded his analysis of the situation in these words: The directive to General MacArthur definitely assigns a defensive mission with the task of preparing an offensive. This conforms to our basic strategy. To be able to take positive action in any theater, it is necessary to hold forces in defensive theaters to a minimum, and, in doing so, to recognize the acceptance of certain calculated risks. The measures General MacArthur advocates would be highly desirable if we were at war with Japan only.
The President, who still had to answer Mr. Curtin personally, did so the next day. Taking up where General Marshall left off, he told the Australian Prime Minister that while he too was concerned about the possibility of a Japanese invasion of Australia from New Guinea, and recognized the serious threat to its communications if the enemy should attack New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, he nevertheless “could not lose sight of the fact that Australia could not be supported, nor could her lines of communication be kept open unless Hawaii was securely held.” Mr. Roosevelt conceded that the naval and air resources available to the United Nations in the Pacific were insufficient as yet to hold at all threatened points, but he assured Mr. Curtin that the available resources would be used wisely, and “in accordance with the most thorough and careful consideration of the potentialities, known dispositions and intentions of the enemy as they can be deduced or otherwise discovered.” The matter was settled. If the primary effort in Europe was not to be hamstrung, General MacArthur would have to make the best shift he could with what he had.
SOURCE: Victory in Papua, BY: Samuel Milner (United States Army Center of military History)