Part I: Strategic Situation, Spring 1943
Chapter 1: Setting the Stage
World War II had the dubious distinction of being the first truly global conflict. The Allied and the Axis Powers clashed on a dozen widely separated fronts and a thousand different battlefields. Six years, lacking only 26 days, passed between the fateful dawn when Nazi tanks rumbled across the Polish border and the solemn moment when the Enola Gay released its bomb load over ground zero at Hiroshima. The United States was in this war from the beginning, perhaps not as an active belligerent, but certainly as an open and material supporter of its friends and allies.1
Germany was tagged “the predominant member of the Axis Powers” and the Atlantic and European area “the decisive theatre” eight months before the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor.2 The stark fact of that surprise attack and its resulting havoc did not alter the basic decision made by the responsible American military and naval chiefs to give priority of men, equipment, and supplies to the campaign against Germany. Their analysis of the situation boiled down to the simple conclusion that Germany was more dangerous to the United States than Japan.
The “Germany-first” decision was made in terms of overall war potential, not solely in terms of fighting men. Indeed, the sobering succession of Allied reverses in the Pacific during the early days of 1942 gave ample evidence of the formidable fighting qualities of Japanese soldiers and seamen. Japan was no pushover; her defeat would require years of all-out effort. However slim the allotment of resources to the Allied troops that faced the Japanese, constant military pressure had to be maintained. Casualties and costs would soar if ever the enemy was allowed time to consolidate his hold on the strategic islands, to dig in and construct defenses in depth.
The United States had the primary responsibility for halting the Japanese advance south and east through the Pacific. The fact that the battleground included thousands of open miles of the world’s largest ocean added immeasurably to the logistic problem involved and made mandatory the assignment of amphibious-trained troops to the fighting. In such a situation, the Marine Corps, which had argued and coaxed, sweated and struggled, to develop workable amphibious techniques in the 20’s and 30’s, soon proved the worth of its findings and training.
A Marine occupied a unique position among American servicemen during World War II. While his country battled a coalition of enemies, and most of his countrymen in arms were fighting halfway across the globe from him, the Marine trained to meet only one enemy—Japan. As the war moved inexorably onward, the men who flocked to join the Corps in unprecedented numbers were literally and consciously signing up to fight the Japanese. This orientation toward a single enemy and towards one theater, the Pacific, colored every Marine’s life in and out of battle and had an incalculable but undeniably beneficial effect on the combat efficiency of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).
A glance back over the first year highlights of the Pacific war will set the stage for the stirring events to follow—for the story of the Marine Corps’ vital part in the all-out Allied shift to the offensive.
The First Year of the Pacific War3
The homespun philosophy of America furnishes an apt saying that described Japan’s plight in World War II: “she bit off more than she could chew.” Not only did the Japanese militarists grossly underestimate the staying power and counterpunching ability of the United States and its allies; they also failed to make a realistic appraisal of their own nation’s capabilities. Compounding their original error of starting the war, the enemy leaders indulged in some wishful thinking about the invincibility of their fleets and armies.
Certainly the Japanese had cause to view their parade of early victories with chauvinistic pride. There were only a few moments during the first half year of fighting when the Allies were not faced with the alternatives of retreat or defeat. But even then, for every outpost like Guam or Hong Kong where token garrisons had no choice but to lay down their arms, there was a Wake or Bataan where a desperate last-ditch defense was fought. True, the Japanese prevailed on all fronts, but the bitter nature of the fighting should have furnished a clue to the spirit of the defenders and the certainty of retaliation.
In Tokyo, the staff members of Imperial General Headquarters ignored or misread the warning signs. Japan had caught the Allies off balance and ill-prepared; she had taken all of her original objectives and held the “Southern Resources Area,” the Netherlands Indies and Malaya, in a tight grip. Ostensibly, she now had the means to make herself self-sufficient, and she needed every bit of time and every man she could muster to consolidate her hold on her prize. Her next logical move, and the one called for in original war plans, was to strengthen defenses. A line along which she would make her stand had been picked out: a long, looping arc that ran south from the Kuriles through Wake to the Marshalls and Gilberts and then west to include the Bismarck Archipelago, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malaya, and Burma. The defense of this perimeter was probably a task beyond Japan’s resources, even with the help of the newly seized territories. At the war’s end, one
senior Japanese officer described this perimeter as “just about the limit, the maximum limit of our capability.”4
The natural clairvoyance of hindsight similarly aided a number of enemy officers to recognize the fact that Japan had overextended herself by early spring of 1942. At that time, however, the headquarters faction that had authored the original ambitious war plan was still in the saddle and their aggressive philosophy prevailed. Orders went out from Tokyo to continue the advance, to seize further positions that would shield the initial perimeter. It was this decision more than any other taken by Imperial Headquarters during the course of the war that hastened the downfall of the Japanese Empire. In less than a year’s time, enemy forces were reeling back all across the Pacific, and the reserves that would have bolstered the original perimeter were dissipated in a fruitless effort to continue the offensive.
The new expansionist plans called for the occupation of strategic islands, suitable for air and naval base development, in the North, Central, and South Pacific. The grand prize sought was Midway; it was hoped that a thrust there would bring out the American fleet for a decisive engagement. Closely linked to this projected attack was the movement of an occupation force into the Aleutians to seize Kiska, Attu, and Adak Islands. The two operations would be conducted simultaneously, and both enemy supporting fleets would be available to combine against the American ships. In the south, the objective was to strengthen the Japanese position in the Bismarcks and on New Guinea. Plans were laid to take Port Moresby in southeastern New Guinea and to move outpost garrisons into the Solomons. After the successful conclusion of the Midway operation, the Japanese planned to move against New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, and sever Australia’s lifeline to the States.
The enemy timetable for expansion listed the seizure of Port Moresby for early May, followed in a month’s time by the attack on Midway. In both cases the carefully selected occupation troops never got a chance to set foot on their objectives. Seen in retrospect, the issue was decided at sea, and the decision was final.
On 7-8 May in the Coral Sea, an American carrier task force intercepted the invasion fleet bound for Port Moresby and was successful in turning it back. In “the first major engagement in naval history in which surface ships did not exchange a single shot,”5 carrier aircraft inflicted all the damage. Each side lost a carrier, each had one severely damaged, but the honors of the field fell justly to the American pilots who forced the Japanese to withdraw. The Port Moresby operation was put off until July, but the outcome of the Battle of Midway ensured a permanent postponement. (See Map I, Map Section.)
Midway could hardly have been called a surprise target. The intelligence available to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), regarding where and when the enemy would strike next was conclusive. When the Japanese carrier attack force approached within launching distance of the atoll on 4 June, it ran into a whirlwind of
American planes. Nimitz had brought up all his available carriers, had added long-range bombers staging from Hawaiian fields, and had given the Midway garrison’s Marine Aircraft Group 22 (MAG-22) new planes to meet the enemy threat. The result of these preparations was electrifying; all four of the Japanese carriers were sent to the bottom and the invasion force streaked back for the relative safety of home waters. The Battle of Midway was a disaster from which the Japanese naval air arm never recovered. The battle has frequently been termed the decisive engagement of the war in the Pacific and its results were certainly far reaching. The severe and sudden cut in enemy carrier strength put a crimp in all plans for further offensive actions.6
The immediate reaction of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, to the news of his Midway losses was to recall the Aleutian occupation forces. Then, almost immediately, he reversed himself and ordered the operation to continue but with the modification that only the two westernmost targets, Kiska and Attu, would be seized. Perhaps Adak Island was too close to the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor for comfort. Although Yamamoto’s exact reasoning in ordering the operation to continue is not known, it is probable that he gave a great deal of weight to the fact that more American territory would be occupied, a definite boost to Japanese morale that would be needed if the truth of the Midway battle leaked out. On 7 June, occupation troops landed on the two bleak islands, there to stay until the Allies could spare the men, supplies, and equipment which were needed to drive them out. Although there was considerable public alarm in the States, especially the Pacific Northwest, over the presence of Japanese in the Aleutians, actually the new enemy bases were not much of a threat. The rugged island chain, cursed with more than a fair share of the world’s miserable weather, was no avenue for conquest.
Midway’s results went far to redress the balance of naval strength in the Pacific and to give the Allied leaders a chance to launch a limited offensive. The logical target area was the South Pacific, where the Japanese, despite their Coral Sea misadventure, were still planning to take Port Moresby and were continuing their encroachment into the Solomons. The enemy field headquarters for this two-pronged approach to the Australia-United States supply route was Rabaul on New Britain, a prize whose capture dominated Allied planning. But Rabaul was far too ambitious an objective for the summer of 1942, when almost any offensive effort severely strained available resources.
The calculated risk of the first offensive—a “shoe-string” operation—was made at Guadalcanal, a hitherto obscure jungle-clad island in the lower Solomons. The Japanese first moved into the area in April, when they occupied tiny Tulagi and set up a seaplane base and anchorage in the fine natural harbor between that island and neighboring Florida. A stretch of some 20 miles of open water, which was soon to earn the grim name of “Iron Bottom Sound,” separated Tulagi from Guadalcanal. The larger island was one of the few places in the Solomons where
terrain favored rapid airfield development, and the Japanese, soon after Midway, began to clear ground and construct a fighter strip along its northern coastal plain.
Guadalcanal’s airfield and Tulagi’s harbor became prime objectives once Washington okayed the opening offensive in late June. In contrast to the months of meticulous planning that characterized later amphibious operations, this first effort, code-named WATCHTOWER, was surrounded by an aura of haste. The unit picked to do the job was the one most likely to be successful, one which had more of the requisite amphibious training and indoctrination than any other at this stage of the war—the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced). The division was in the process of completing a move to New Zealand, its rear echelon still at sea, when warning orders were received designating it the WATCHTOWER assault force. In less than a month, the division had changed its orientation from routine training to preparation for jungle fighting, had prepared its tactical plans in light of the scanty information available on enemy and terrain, and had unloaded its ships and then reloaded them for combat. A rendezvous was made at sea in the Fiji rehearsal area with the convoy of the 2nd Marines, which had been sent out from San Diego to take the place of the 7th Marines, one of the division’s regular regiments detailed to Samoa’s garrison.
On 7 August, assault elements of the 1st Division landed on Guadalcanal and moved inland according to plan without meeting any opposition. Simultaneously, Marines stormed ashore on Tulagi and its neighboring islets, where the landings were opposed violently. Several days of hard fighting were needed to secure Tulagi’s harbor, but when this first battle was over the scene of ground action shifted to Guadalcanal. There, engineers worked feverishly to put the partially completed airstrip in shape to receive friendly fighters. And the Marine defenders desperately needed aerial reinforcement, in fact any kind of reinforcement that they could get, for the Japanese reaction to the Guadalcanal landing was swift and savage.
For six hectic months, during which it often seemed that WATCHTOWER would prove a fiasco, the 1st Division and an all-too-slowly swelling number of Army and Marine reinforcements stood off a series of sharp enemy counterattacks. The Japanese poured thousands of crack troops into the jungles that closed on the Marine perimeter, but never were able to put ashore enough men and equipment at one time to overcome the garrison. From the captured airfield (Henderson Field), a weird and wonderful composite force of Navy, Army, Marine, and New Zealand planes fought the Japanese to a standstill in the air and immeasurably strengthened the Allied hand at sea by attacking enemy transport and surface bombardment groups as they steamed from bases in the upper Solomons to Guadalcanal.
Although Allied naval forces lost heavily in the series of sea battles that were fought for control of Solomons’ waters, the American and Australian ships kept coming back on station. The Japanese admirals strove mightily to seize the advantage when it was theirs, but the opportunity faded. By the end of November, enemy losses had increased so sharply
that capital ships were no longer risked in Iron Bottom Sound.7
When the anniversary of Pearl Harbor rolled around, the Japanese situation on Guadalcanal was desperate. A steady parade of men, ships, and planes had been committed to drive out the Americans and every effort had failed. Even the firebrands in Imperial General Headquarters were now convinced that Japan had overreached herself. By the year’s end, the decision had been made to evacuate Guadalcanal and orders were sent out to consolidate positions on the original perimeter.8
Guadalcanal and Papau9
By the time of the Guadalcanal landing the Japanese held effective control of all the Pacific islands they had invaded but one—New Guinea. In March of 1942, the enemy had occupied positions along the northeast coast of the enormous island at Lae and Salamaua, and their local naval superiority gave them the means of moving in wherever else they wished along this virtually undefended coast. Allied air, operating from carriers or staging from Australia through Port Moresby, was the principal deterrent to further Japanese encroachment. When, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Port Moresby Invasion Force was forced to turn back to Rabaul, the obvious capability of the enemy to attack again prompted the Allies to make a countermove to ward off this threat. In June and July, Australian ground units and fighter squadrons supported by American engineers and antiaircraft artillery moved to Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea to build and hold an air base that would cover Port Moresby’s exposed flank.
The Japanese thwarted a further Allied advance planned for early August when they landed their own troops near Buna Mission on 22 July. Buna was the northern terminus of the Kokoda Trail, a difficult 150-mile route over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Port Moresby. The superior enemy landing force soon fought its way through the light Australian defenses and reached Kokoda village, about 30 miles inland, where it held up. This first move by the Japanese into Papua, the Australian territory which comprised most of the eastern part of New Guinea, was essentially a reconnaissance in force to test the feasibility of an overland drive on Port Moresby. Thousands of enemy reinforcements arrived from Rabaul in August to strengthen the Buna position and add weight to the proposed attack. By 26 August the Japanese were ready, and they jumped off from Kokoda in a determined assault that quickly overpowered the few
Australians who tried to block their advance. The problem of supporting these defending troops was a logistician’s nightmare, but it was a nightmare that the Japanese inherited as the distance from the front line to their base at Buna increased.
The enemy troops attacking along the Kokoda Trail were operating with minimal air cover, in fact the Allied air forces were doing their best to cut them off completely from Buna and to sever Buna’s supply lines from Rabaul. These Japanese were now making an isolated effort since the secondary operation planned to complement the overland drive had miscarried.
Originally, the enemy operation plan had called for the seizure of Samarai Island, off the eastern tip of New Guinea, as a seaplane base and staging area for an amphibious assault on Port Moresby, timed to coincide with the Kokoda Trail approach. When reconnaissance planes discovered the Allied activity at Milne Bay, the target was shifted to this new base. The Japanese, in a move characteristic of their actions in this period, underestimated their opposition and assigned a grossly inadequate landing force for the operation. On 25 August, about a thousand enemy troops from Kavieng began landing in the bay and immediately made contact with the Australians. A reinforcement of 500 men came in on the 29th, but by that time they were only enough to fill the gaps in the ranks of the first unit. The Milne defense force, a reinforced brigade almost 10,000 strong, first blunted, then smashed the Japanese attack. The dazed survivors were evacuated on the nights of 4-5 September, victims of an Australian victory that did much to hearten Allied morale.
The failure at Milne Bay, coupled with similar disasters on Guadalcanal, prompted Imperial General Headquarters to check the overland advance on Port Moresby and concentrate its efforts on achieving success in the lower Solomons. The Japanese troops on the Kokoda Trail had reached a point so close to Port Moresby that “they could see the lights of the city,”10 but it is doubtful if they could have ever reached their objective. An outpouring of Allied troops from Australia into Port Moresby had strengthened the position to the point that preparations were underway to mount an offensive when the enemy fell back with the Australians hot on their heels. Throughout October the pressure was increased until the Japanese position had contracted to a perimeter defense of Buna and Gona (a native village about seven miles north of Buna Mission).
The Australian 7th Division and the American 32nd Infantry Division closed on the perimeter. The Australians came overland for the most part, the majority of the Americans by air and sea. The fighting was bitter and protracted in jungle terrain even worse than that encountered by the Marines on Guadalcanal and against a deeply dug-in enemy who had to be gouged out of his bunkers. Gona fell to the Australians on 9 December and Buna Mission to the Americans on 2 January; the last organized resistance was overcome on the 22nd, six months to the day after the Japanese had landed in Papua. On the same day that the Australians drove the Japanese out of Gona, the 1st
Marine Division was officially relieved on Guadalcanal, its mission completed. The tide of battle had swept full course to the Allied favor, and strong Army and Marine forces of the XIV Corps were now capable of annihilating the remaining Japanese. When evacuation orders were received from Tokyo, however, the Japanese Navy in a series of high-speed night runs managed to bring off about 13,000 men from the island. On 9 February, Guadalcanal was cleared of enemy units and the campaign was ended. American losses in dead and wounded by ground action were close to 6,500, but more than 23,000 enemy lay dead in the jungles around Henderson Field, victims of combat and disease. The loss of additional thousands of enemy sailors and pilots, hundreds of planes, and more than a score of warships and transports increased the wastage of Japanese strength that marked the fruitless effort to retake Guadalcanal.
With the victories in Papua and on Guadalcanal, the Allies had flung down the gauntlet. The Japanese had to accept the challenge; they had lost the initiative.
The original impetus for the Japanese move into the Solomons and Eastern New Guinea came from enemy naval officers who felt “that a broad area would have to be occupied in order to secure Rabaul.”12 Although the Navy promoted the advance, the Army accepted the concept readily enough, and both services began to develop outlying bases which would cover the approaches to New Britain. When the Allies struck at Guadalcanal, the Japanese Navy “was willing to stake everything on a decisive fight”13 to regain the island and turn back the offensive thrust. Army leaders, interested mainly in the war on the Asian mainland and in the spoils of the Netherlands Indies, woke up too late to the realities of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Two months passed before realistic estimates of the strength of Henderson Field’s defenders began to figure in enemy reinforcement plans. By the time the Japanese were ready to commit enough men to retake Guadalcanal, the chance for them to reach the island in decisive numbers had passed. The Allies were able to choke off most attempts, and the shattered units that did reach shore were seldom in shape to mount a sustained attack. The situation called for a reevaluation of Japanese strategic objectives in the light of Allied capabilities.
At the year’s end, military planners in Tokyo, acting on the discouraging reports from the field, projected accurately the course of Allied action for the next months, pointing out that:
... the enemy plans to attack Rabaul since it is the operational base for Army, Navy, and Air Forces. The enemy will try to accomplish this task in the Solomon Is. Area by driving our units off Guadalcanal Is. and advancing northward on the Solomon Is. In the Eastern New Guinea Area, the enemy will secure the Buna Vicinity and attack the Lae and Salamaua Areas from
the sea. After penetrating Dampier [Vitiaz] Strait, they will attack Rabaul in joint operations with forces on the Solomon Is. After this, planning to attack the Philippine Is., they will continue operations along the northern coast of New Guinea.14
On 3 January, the text of the “Army-Navy Central Agreement on South Pacific Area Operations” was radioed to Rabaul; it laid down Tokyo’s newly approved strategy. Although expressed in the bombastic language characteristic of the spirit of the offensive permeating Japanese military documents, the “Agreement” was in fact the outline of a defensive pattern. Key points, mainly airfields and anchorages, were to be occupied or strengthened in the North and Central Solomons and in Eastern New Guinea after the first order of business, the evacuation of the troops on Guadalcanal, had been completed. Some of the names that were to figure prominently in the war news—Lae, Salamaua, Wewak on New Guinea; New Georgia, Bougainville, and Buka in the Solomons—were emphasized in the allotment of defensive sectors. The Japanese Army and Navy had divided the responsibility for base defense along service as well as geographic lines, a factor that was to have considerable influence on the conduct of the fighting.
The enemy naval planners, running true to form, wanted to get the main defenses in the Solomons as far away from their major base at Rabaul as possible. The Army authorities, made cautious by the outcome of the attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal over a long, exposed supply route, were willing to move only major forces into the Northern Solomons. As the Army already had primary responsibility for ground defense of the Bismarcks and New Guinea, the additional task of conducting the defense of Bougainville, Buka, Choiseul, and the Shortland-Treasury Islands was considerable. Since the Navy wanted the New Georgia Group and Santa Isabel included in the defended area, it received operational responsibility for these islands and their garrisons. Land-based naval air squadrons were to operate primarily in the Solomons and Bismarcks, while most Army air units were assigned to the defense of the New Guinea area. The Combined Fleet, its main strength concentrated at Truk, stood ready to engage any Allied striking force moving north through the Solomons or west from Hawaii.
One of the fundamental differences between the Japanese and the Allied conduct of the war in the Pacific was pointed up by the high command setup established in the “Agreement.” There was no area commander appointed with authority to exercise final control of all defensive measures; consequently, there was no joint staff with the function of preparing and executing an overall defense plan. Instead, the senior Army and Navy commanders in the field were responsible directly to their respective headquarters in Tokyo.15 This duality of command was a feature of the Japanese military system, and to a great extent it also existed in Tokyo at the heart of the enemy war effort. Imperial General Headquarters was only the term used to connote the co-equal existence of the general staffs of the two services. Any order tabbed as coming from the Headquarters
was simply an Army-Navy agreement. In operation, this system could mean, as one Japanese admiral expressed it, that:
... as far as questions of Army operations are concerned, if the Chief of the Army General Staff says we will do this; that is the end of it; and so far as the Navy operations are concerned, if the Chief of the Naval General Staff says we will do this, that fixes it... .16
Obviously, decisions involving inter-service operations had to be made; stalemate was unacceptable, but the opportunity for unnecessary delay and uncoordinated unilateral action was inherent in the system.
Fortunately for the Japanese, the two commanders at Rabaul got along well together and were determined to cooperate. The single aim of both General Hitoshi Imamura and Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka was to hold their portion of Japan’s defenses with all the men and material at their disposal. Imamura’s command, the Eighth Area Army, comprised the Seventeenth Army in the Bismarcks and Solomons and the Eighteenth Army defending Eastern New Guinea. Both were supported by the 6th Air Division. Kusaka, as Commander of the Southeast Area Fleet, controlled the land-based planes of the Eleventh Air Fleet and the ships and ground units of the Eighth Fleet which were strung out from New Guinea to New Georgia. Both men expected that the next Allied targets would be found in the area under their control. The choice of the time, place, and strength of those attacks was made, however, by planners in Brisbane, Noumea, Pearl Harbor, and Washington.
In World War II the military fortunes of Great Britain and the United States were so closely enmeshed that it was imperative that a workable inter-Allied command system be developed both in the field and at the national level. Meeting in Washington five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the political and military leaders of the two major Western powers agreed to adhere to the principle of unity of command in the various theatres of operations. The same basic decision was reached in regard to the higher direction of the military effort of the two nations and of the numerous other Allied powers that they perforce represented. While the concept of a single commander who would control all national forces committed was accepted for limited areas and specific operations, there was no inclination to trust overall command to one man, if indeed such a superman existed. The chosen instrument for the direction of what might
best be called the Western war effort was the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS); its membership, the chiefs of the land, sea, and air services of Great Britain and the United States.
Washington was selected as the site of the new headquarters and Field Marshal Sir John Dill, as the senior on-the-spot representative of the British chiefs, was permanently stationed in the American capital with an executive staff. In order to represent adequately the military views of the United States in CCS discussions, it was necessary that the American chiefs meet regularly and air the problems of their respective services. In short order, a series of inter-service staff agencies came into being to support the deliberations of the American chiefs, and a flexible working organization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), became the right hand of the President, acting as Commander in Chief.18
Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, was the naval representative in the JCS. The Army was represented by two officers, its Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, and its senior airman, General Henry H. Arnold, whose opposite numbers on the British Chiefs were the heads of the Imperial General Staff and the Royal Air Force. Through most of the war there was a fourth member of the JCS, Admiral William D. Leahy, who acted as Chief of Staff to the President.
The Combined Chiefs, working directly with Churchill and Roosevelt, established spheres of strategic responsibility best suited to national interests and capabilities. In mid-April, the United States was given responsibility for directing operations in the Pacific from the mainland of Asia to the shores of the Western Hemisphere. This decision had the effect of placing all Allied troops and matériel alloted to the Pacific under control of the Joint Chiefs and of the two men they selected for command.
The JCS divided the Pacific into two areas of command responsibility, one including Australia, the Netherlands Indies, and the Philippines and the other the rest of the ocean and its widely scattered islands. To head the relatively compact Southwest Pacific Area, where most operations could be conducted under cover of land-based air, the JCS chose the colorful commander of the defense of the Philippines—General Douglas MacArthur. The appointment of MacArthur, made with the assent of the Australian government, was announced on 18 April 1942 after the general was spirited out of beleaguered Corregidor; his new title was Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area (CinCSWPA). For Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPOA) the logical choice was Admiral Nimitz; his concurrent command of the Pacific Fleet as CinCPac recognized that the war in his area would be essentially a naval one.
The initial boundary line between the SWPA and POA included all of the Solomon Islands in MacArthur’s command; however, the fact that Nimitz’ forces were going to mount the first offensive at Guadalcanal made a shift of the line westward a matter of practicality. The new boundary just missed the Russell Islands, ran north to the Equator, turned west to 130° north longitude, then north and west
again to include the Philippines in the SWPA. The line hugged the tortuous Indochinese, Thai, and Malayan coastlines to Singapore and then cut south between Sumatra and Java to divide the American area of responsibility from the India-Burma sphere of operations, which came under the British Chiefs of Staff.
The JCS issued a directive on 2 July 1942 to govern offensive operations in the Southwest Pacific, setting forth a concept that included three tasks: 1) the seizure and occupation of the Santa Cruz Islands, Tulagi, and adjacent areas; 2) the seizure and occupation of the rest of the Solomons and the northeast coast of New Guinea; and 3) the seizure and occupation of Rabaul and surrounding positions. A subordinate command, the South Pacific Area, was established under Admiral Nimitz and charged with responsibility for executing Task One—the Guadalcanal operation. The post of Commander, South Pacific (ComSoPac) was held first by Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley and then by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. Task One was completed under Halsey with the evacuation of Guadalcanal by the Japanese, but neither Nimitz nor MacArthur considered that he had available the forces or supplies necessary to initiate Task Two immediately. The relatively few Australian and American infantry divisions assigned to the Southwest Pacific were either committed to forward garrisons, still forming and training, or badly in need of rest and rehabilitation as a result of hard campaigning.19
Equally as important, though hardly as well publicized as the feats of the fighting troops and ships, were the accomplishments of the service and supply agencies furnishing logistic support to the combat operations. The South and Southwest Pacific are certainly not areas that would be voluntarily chosen for amphibious campaigns. When the fighting started, there was almost a total lack of ports and bases suitable for support of large scale operations. In a surprisingly short time, however, islands like Espiritu Santo and Efate in the New Hebrides and New Caledonia sprouted vast compounds of supplies, tank farms for fuel storage, and a host of vital maintenance, repair, and service facilities. Hardly had the smoke and dust of battle settled before Tulagi was turned over to the engineers, base personnel, and defense troops who quickly converted it into an essential advance naval base. Guadalcanal in its turn underwent extensive development as the Japanese were driven off. A full stride forward in terms of the 2 July JCS directive could be taken only after an adequate stockpile of military matériel had accumulated in the forward dumps and depots of an expansible logistic network.
A good part of the supply and manpower difficulties of the Pacific commanders were traceable directly to the favored apportionment given to the European and North African theaters of operations. The basic war policy of the Western Allies was affirmed by the Combined Chiefs in January at the Casablanca Conference where their outline of action for 1943 emphasized again the primacy of the defeat of Germany. First priority of resources was allotted to the campaign to wipe out the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic; the occupation of Sicily, a stepped-up bomber
offensive against Germany, and “the sending of the greatest volume of supplies possible” to Russia were among the other priority programs. Offensive operations in the Pacific were to be kept within limits that would not jeopardize the chance for a decisive blow against Germany.20 In their report to the President and Prime Minister, the CCS indicated a number of prospective lines of action in the Pacific, including an advance west from Midway toward the Marianas and Carolines and a drive north from Samoa into the Marshalls. Implicit in these projections of possible offensive action was the successful completion of a campaign to capture or neutralize Rabaul.21
In early February, Admiral Halsey was queried by King on his reaction to an operation to seize the Gilbert and Ellice Islands using South Pacific forces. Halsey strongly recommended against it, preferring instead to continue pressure in the Solomons. Admiral Nimitz supported Halsey’s opinion, but asked if South Pacific operations could be depended upon to pin down the Japanese Fleet. On 17 February, ComSoPac replied that he believed “that the best way to pin down the Japanese Fleet is to threaten Rabaul,” and went on to indicate that he intended to occupy the Russell Islands inside of a week and move into the New Georgia Group “as soon as possible.”22 He soon set early April as his target date for the New Georgia operation, but a re-evaluation of Pacific strategy forced a revision of his plans.
Under terms of the JCS directive of 2 July 1942, General MacArthur had been given responsibility for strategic direction of all operations against Rabaul, including those undertaken by South Pacific forces after completion of Task One. On 28 February 1943, his staff completed a plan (code-named ELKTON) that reflected MacArthur’s conviction that the Japanese were now much stronger in the Southwest Pacific than they had been the previous summer. The situation prompted him to submit a new concept of operations calling for a more deliberate advance than had once been contemplated and a substantial increase in all categories of forces.
Under ELKTON, the command position of Admiral Halsey as ComSoPac was an unusual one. The operations contemplated in the Solomons would of necessity get their logistic support from SoPac bases and be executed in the main by SoPac forces. Naval officers were strongly of the opinion that these forces should remain under command of Halsey, but did not question the need for MacArthur to continue to give strategic direction to the overall campaign against Rabaul. Halsey’s plan to attack New Georgia in April, tentatively approved by Nimitz, clashed with the sequence of operations thought necessary by SWPA planners. The upshot of the submission of ELKTON to the JCS was that a Pacific Military Conference of representatives of SWPA and POA was called together in Washington to resolve differences and to try to find the additional troops and equipment that MacArthur thought necessary.
En route to Washington, MacArthur’s representatives, headed by his chief of staff, Major General Richard K. Sutherland, stopped at Noumea to talk with Halsey and hear his plan for New Georgia.
They then flew on to Pearl Harbor where in a round of conferences with Nimitz’ staff they learned the views of that commander on ELKTON. On 10 March, the conferees arrived in Washington to begin two weeks of discussion in an atmosphere where the requests from the Pacific could be best assessed against the world-wide commitments of the United States.
The sequence of operations called for in the ELKTON Plan listed the capture of airdromes on the Huon Peninsula of Eastern New Guinea as a necessary preliminary move to closing in on Rabaul. Bomber squadrons operating from fields in the Lae-Salamaua-Finschhafen area would then control the Vitiaz (Dampier) Strait and could neutralize the Japanese strongpoints at Kavieng, New Ireland, and on New Britain, Buka, and Bougainville. With this assistance from SWPA air, SoPac forces would seize and occupy positions in the New Georgia Group. Next would come a simultaneous drive on western New Britain from New Guinea and on Bougainville from the lower Solomons. The two-pronged attack would then converge in the capture of Kavieng, or if the situation seemed favorable, the last step, the capture of Rabaul, would be attempted directly.
General Sutherland and Major General Millard F. Harmon, commander of Army forces in Halsey’s area, agreed that in order to accomplish ELKTON as outlined, all the men, ships, and planes asked for would have to be made available.23 There was no chance that this would be done, since the JCS was already engaged in a reexamination of the resources available for all the strategic undertakings decided on at Casablanca. It was now apparent that there just was not enough to go around to give full coverage to every scheme; forces requested for ELKTON would have to be cut drastically.24
The requirements of the heavy bomber offensive against Germany changed one aspect of ELKTON immediately. The planned aerial interdiction of Japanese rearward bases from the Huon Peninsula depended on more long range planes reaching the Southwest Pacific. Since these planes could not be made available, airbases closer to Solomons’ objectives within range of medium bombers would have to be taken. Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands in the Solomon Sea east of Papua were agreed upon as suitable objectives. Despite this modification of the ELKTON concept, General Sutherland still considered that the Huon Peninsula operations would have to precede all others; on the other hand, Halsey’s Chief of Staff, Captain Miles R. Browning, USN, maintained that the seizure of Woodlark and Kiriwina would allow Halsey to make his move into New Georgia without waiting for the capture of Huon airfields. The varying points of view were presented to the JCS for decision.25
The solution arrived at by the JCS was workable and retained elements of both the unity of command concept and that of cooperative action. Subject to the check-rein authority of the JCS, General MacArthur was given overall control of the campaign. Admiral Halsey would have direct command of operations in the Solomons
within the scope of MacArthur’s general directives. Any Pacific Ocean Area forces not specifically approved by the JCS for inclusion in task forces engaged in ELKTON operations would remain under Admiral Nimitz.
On 28 March 1943, the Joint Chiefs issued a new directive that cancelled that of 2 July 1942 and outlined the new scheme of operations for the campaign against Rabaul. The schedule of tasks now called for establishment of airfields on Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands, to be followed by seizure of bases on Huon Peninsula concurrently with Halsey’s move into New Georgia. Western New Britain and southern Bougainville were the next steps toward the goal of Rabaul. The purpose of these operations was set down as “the ultimate seizure of the Bismarck Archipelago.”26