General Douglas MacArthur and his U.S. and Australian staffs could congratulate themselves in early January 1943 on having wrested the initiative from the Japanese. In conjunction with the naval and ground forces in the eastern Solomon Islands, the threat to Australia, once so feared, had been removed. Allied air forces, particularly the Fifth Air Force, dominated the skies over Papua New Guinea, and made systematic regular raids on the Japanese strongholds at Rabaul on New Britain. The Japanese attempt to take Port Moresby by crossing the Owen Stanley Mountains along the Kokoda Trail had been halted within sight of the objective. In a bloody six-month advance, the Australians had reversed the situation and driven the Japanese back along the trail toward the north coast of Papua. Another attempt to take Port Moresby was foiled in August by the Australians at Milne Bay. MacArthur committed the green troops of the 32nd Division in an attempt to quickly capture the Japanese stronghold of Buna. Without adequate artillery or naval support, the U.S. troops, augmented by Australians, fought a bloody and at times seemingly fruitless campaign against fanatical Japanese resistance in the swamps around Buna. Ultimately they would succeed. The last major defensive position in the Buna region fell on January 22.1
At the same time, the Australians drove the remnants of the Kokoda invasion force into enclaves at Sanananda and Gona. These were systematically reduced, with massive losses to the Japanese. In total the Japanese lost approximately 12,000 men from an original 18,000 committed to the invasion. The victory was also costly for the Allies. The Australians had suffered 2,037 killed and 3,533 wounded. The U.S. losses amounted to 847 killed and 1,918 wounded.2 These figures are misleading since tropical disease took such a toll that a large percentage of Allied troops engaged were rendered unfit for immediate duty. Nevertheless, despite tactical mistakes, MacArthur was in possession of valuable bases on the north coast. Oro Bay would become a major area for mounting later operations. The airfields, particularly that at Dobodura, would be invaluable to the Allies’ continued dominance of the air. However, MacArthur was still plagued by many of the problems he had wrestled with since assuming command of the Southwest Pacific Theater in April 1942.
The first and most pressing problem continued to be the need to increase the number of troops available for future operations. Secondarily, he needed to be assured of the requisite supplies, particularly landing craft, if he were to launch any amphibious operations against Japanese positions at Lae, Salamaua, Wewak, and Hollandia. In late August, MacArthur returned to the question of the need for more troops and ships. He wrote Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall that without additional naval and ground forces, there would arise “a situation similar to those that have successfully overwhelmed our forces in the Pacific since the beginning of the war.”3 The continuing pleas of Australian Prime Minister John Curtin and MacArthur for more troops were silenced on September 16 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in a communication to MacArthur agreed with the Combined Chiefs of Staff that his present armed forces were “sufficient to defeat the present Japanese force in New Guinea and to provide the security of Australia against an invasion.”4 The Southwest Pacific Theater would remain subordinate to all others.
Much to MacArthur’s chagrin, the Southwest Pacific Theater was from the first viewed by Washington and the Joint Chiefs as tertiary to the European and South Pacific Theaters. MacArthur had imagined before his arrival in Australia in March 1942 that a large number of combat troops would be waiting for him and that reinforcements and supplies that would enable him to immediately take the offensive would be quickly forthcoming. He discovered that not only did he not have any prospects for an immediate substantive augmentation to his forces, but also that his appointment as supreme commander was being held up by opposition from Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations, who maintained that command should go to a naval officer. This would set the tone for the difficult relations with the Navy that would persist throughout the war.
Even after his command had been approved, MacArthur encountered continuous opposition in Washington to his requests for more troops. After a series of communications with Marshall over a period of months, he was bluntly informed that few troops could be spared from the European buildup. His and Curtin’s requests for a return of all Australian divisions then in Europe and North Africa were met at first with excuses. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that the removal of Australian units from North Africa would seriously damage an already weakened front.5 Ultimately most of the Australian divisions were released, but at first only the 7th Division and one brigade of the 6th were returned. As a belated recognition to Australia’s vulnerability, two U.S. Army divisions were sent. The 41st and 32nd Divisions, ill prepared for warfare in New Guinea, had arrived by May. The protracted battle for Buna reduced the effectiveness of the 32nd so much that in January 1943 it was ordered back to Australia, where the bulk of reinforcements received in early 1943 would be used to replace those lost. The 41st Division, although having suffered during the latter stages of the Buna campaign, was kept in the vicinity of Buna. Elements of this division were used to pursue the remnants of the Japanese garrisons up the coastline. Two Australian divisions that had been used on the Kokoda Trail were also available in the Sanananda region and at Milne Bay. They, too, had suffered heavy battle casualties, and a large portion of these troops also suffered from malaria. There was also a small contingent of Australians, the Kanga Force, based at Wau in the interior from Lae. Most of the other Australian units then in training would not be immediately available for offensive action since the Australian government insisted on retaining a large defensive force in Australia.6
In March 1943, at the time of the Pacific Military Conference in Washington, D.C., which was attempting to devise a Pacific strategy, MacArthur’s force had been augmented by the 1st Marine Division, which was refitting after its bloody battle in Guadalcanal. However, he was informed that this unit would not be permanently assigned and was needed for the contemplated island campaigns in the central Pacific. Of the total of 374,000 U.S. troops in the Pacific, more than half were on garrison duty and were to be utilized in the planned-for campaigns in the central Solomons. The answer from Marshall, brought back by Major General Richard Sutherland, MacArthur’s representative to the Washington conference, was that, given the situation elsewhere, MacArthur would simply have to make do.7
MacArthur’s problems with the Navy existed at a number of different levels. At the highest was the opposition of Admiral King to MacArthur’s appointment. (Later, King would be the most active opponent to MacArthur’s strategy of liberating the Philippines.) As chief of naval operations, King was committed to building the big blue-water Navy based on Hawaii under Admiral Chester A. Nimitz’s command. The goal of this fleet would be to defeat the Japanese navy and support the seizure of island stepping-stones in the central Pacific. This strategy was in dramatic opposition to MacArthur’s plans.8 Thus it was obvious that the Navy would not approve the transfer of any significant number of capital ships from Nimitz’s command to MacArthur’s. Even when it became necessary for major fleet units to support actions in the southwest Pacific, these were only loaned and were never totally assigned to MacArthur.
MacArthur had real as well as imagined problems with the U.S. naval commanders. When he arrived in Australia, he inherited commanders not of his choosing. One of these was Vice Admiral Herbert Leary, who had only token forces made up of a few submarines, smaller U.S. craft, and the tiny Australian fleet. It was obvious that MacArthur did not appreciate Leary’s problems, which were compounded by King’s insistence that he communicate directly with Nimitz without immediate reference to MacArthur. The situation was not improved when Leary was replaced in September 1942 by Vice Admiral Arthur Carpender, who suffered from the same problems of lack of ships and a divided command structure. Personalities obviously played a part in the tension between MacArthur and Carpender, but there were significant differences in the way they felt the small naval force should be used. For the Navy in the latter months of 1942, the most important campaign was Guadalcanal, and MacArthur was ordered to share his meager air and naval units with Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley. MacArthur’s main naval contingent, the Australian cruisers Australia, Canberra, and Hobart, were shifted to the Solomons and took part in a series of important naval operations there, including the disastrous battle of Savo Island, in which the Australia was sunk. Nimitz even wanted the submarines based in Australia placed under his control for the Guadalcanal campaign. MacArthur protested vehemently to the Joint Chiefs but to no avail. The submarines were transferred.9 The main elements of “MacArthur’s navy” were not returned to his command until after the major actions on Guadalcanal had been completed.
The Buna campaign was fought almost entirely without naval support. The ostensible reasons were the lack of good charts showing the reefs and the proximity of Japanese airpower. The supply of men and matériel to the Buna-Gona region was provided mainly by small craft run by a Dutch maritime company. General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of the Allied ground forces, requested a number of times that the Navy dispatch at least a destroyer whose guns could support the infantry attacks. His dissatisfaction with the Navy mirrored MacArthur’s when he pointed to the dire situation facing the ground troops in November 1942. He noted, “The attitude of the Navy in regard to the destroyers appears to avoid risk at a time when all services should give a maximum of cooperation to defeat the enemy.”10 After considerable delay Carpender reported to MacArthur that his naval experts had vetoed sending any capital ships into the area until more was known of the reefs. Thus the men of the 32nd Division had to attack the entrenched Japanese without artillery or naval gun support. A contrast in commanders can be seen in the actions of Vice Admiral William Halsey, Ghormley’s successor, who concluded that his major task at Guadalcanal was to support the ground troops and committed all his resources to that end. One observer later reported that if only a token naval force had been available for the assaults at Buna, the Japanese could have been driven out within a few weeks instead of months.11
MacArthur’s navy was not improved by the designation of this small naval force as the Seventh Fleet on March 15, 1943. The mainstay of the fleet was the two remaining Australian cruisers and one U.S. light cruiser. By contrast, Halsey’s Third Fleet consisted of five carriers, six battleships, and thirteen cruisers.12 An example of the thinness of MacArthur’s forces in early 1943 was the condition of the amphibious force. The overall strategy was developed by General Marshall and Admiral King and issued as a directive on July 2, 1942. The major goal was to isolate and later capture Rabaul. The strategy was divided into three tasks. The first called for Admiral Ghormley’s troops in the South Pacific to seize the Santa Cruz Islands and Tulagi. Implementation of this would lead to the Guadalcanal venture begun in August. The other two would be MacArthur’s responsibility. Task two envisioned the capture of Lae and Salamaua, and the last the invasion of eastern New Britain with the objective of capturing Rabaul. In order to provide air cover and a supply base closer to Lae, the decision was made to take Buna. However, the slowness of the occupation of Buna allowed the Japanese to occupy the area from Sanananda to Buna. The need to drive them out resulted in a costly campaign, which was not completed until January 1943.13
The planning for these operations was grouped under an overall plan called Elkton. Although the major objectives were not changed, the Elkton plan was revised and ultimately issued as Elkton III on April 26, 1943, after a meeting of MacArthur’s staff members with Nimitz at Pearl Harbor the previous month. The operation as a group was code-named Cartwheel. The first phase of the plan was the occupation of Woodlark and Kirwina Islands and New Georgia. Two months after the start of the offensive, MacArthur would launch the second phase with the capture of Lae, Salamaua, and Finschhafen. Phase three would involve the capture of the Shortland Islands and Bougainville in the South Pacific. In December MacArthur would then send troops to seize Cape Gloucester in western New Britain. Shortly thereafter, Rabaul would be captured.14 The Cartwheel plan called for thirteen amphibious operations in six months. There were no serious problems in providing ships and landing craft in Nimitz’s area. However, at the beginning of the year MacArthur had practically no amphibious equipment or experts in these kinds of operations. The only units available then were the Army’s Engineering Special Boat Brigade, which operated a few small craft.
The man who would be responsible for the amphibious assaults during much of the coming campaigns was Rear Admiral Daniel Barbey. On January 10, 1943, he took command of the forces that would later be designated the 7th Amphibious Force. Barbey immediately established good relations with MacArthur, who eventually came to trust him as much as he did his air force commander, General George Kenney. However, Barbey had little to work with. There were no amphibious training facilities available, and therefore he immediately established bases at Toobul Bay, near the mouth of the Brisbane River, and Point Stephens. It was necessary for his permanent party personnel to build their own facilities at each station.
Equipment that was readily available in other theaters was at a premium. As early as mid-1942, MacArthur had requested more small craft and transports, but because of European and central Pacific priorities, little had been done to build up the amphibious capabilities of his command. Even as U.S. and Australian troops arrived, Barbey’s officers had to improvise. MacArthur wanted the troops trained in debarking from larger ships down cargo nets to smaller landing craft. However, Barbey did not have an attack transport (APA), which was a key vessel for this kind of operation. A partial solution was to rig the nets from cliffs. The first LSTs and LCTs did not arrive until mid-January, and it was not until Easter Sunday that thirteen LCIs were delivered; this gave little time before the first operations to train crews how to use them.15 One should not be surprised that the first operation, mounted in late June against Kirwana and Woodlark Islands and the Huon Gulf, showed a number of serious deficiencies. By then the 7th Amphibious Force had grown to four old destroyers converted as troop carriers, six LSTs, and thirty assorted landing craft. Barbey had received an APA transferred from the South Pacific, and the Australian government had promised him almost all the small metal boats then under construction.16 With these additional landing craft and more experienced personnel, many of the problems were solved before the September landing of the Australian 9th Division at Lae.
Excerpted from MacArthur's Victory by Harry A. Gailey. Copyright © 2004 by Harry Gailey. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.