I’ VE NEVER FOUND it easy to warm up to General Douglas MacArthur, and I know I’m not alone. A haughty aristocrat in a nation that prefers home spun heroes, an aloof figure with a Messiah complex who couldn’t speak respectfully even to the President of the United States, and a commander whose arrogance led him to underestimate his enemies, often with disastrous effect: MacArthur was a problematic figure at best, and a threat to civilian control of the military at worst.
And yet, for all his maddening flaws, the man knew how to operate. If you doubt that, check out the fighting on New Guinea in 1943. A classic example of a “forgotten campaign,” that action deserves better.
Consider the scale. New Guinea is almost four times the size of Great Britain. The fighting there was not so much “island warfare” as a continental-scale land campaign, replete with the most difficult weather and terrain imaginable. Indeed, it was the sheer size of islands like New Guinea that led the Joint Chiefs of Staff to organize the Pacific Ocean into two gigantic commands. The Southwest Pacific Area, which included New Guinea, was an army domain, with MacArthur in command; the Pacific Ocean Area was the navy’s responsibility, with Admiral Chester Nimitz in the chair.
It is easy to criticize that split-ticket decision, and a lot of analysts have. It reeks of interservice rivalry—the bane of U.S. military operations—and violates the ancient precept of “unity of command.” But keep an open mind. The Pacific Ocean is no mere “military theater.” It is one-third of the globe’s surface. Operating in the Central Pacific, a vast emptiness dotted with a handful of tiny islands, was different from the Southwest Pacific, where giant islands abound and heavy ground-pounding was necessary. Putting New Guinea under the navy would have been as sense less as placing carrier operations in the hands of the army.
The Southwest Pacific required a commander able to think big, and Operation Cartwheel, launched on June 30, 1943, was Mac at his big-thinking best. The objective was Rabaul, the vast Japanese air-naval base on the island of New Britain, east of New Guinea. Assaulting Rabaul frontally was out of the question, so MacArthur drew up a plan to flank that bastion to the east and west—that is, from the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. He would command one of those two drives, in a classic campaign of airborne and amphibious maneuver in New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula.
He began by secretly building an airstrip in the grassy valley at Tsili Tsili, 60 miles west of the main Japanese positions at Lae and Salamaua. Next, he launched a series of carefully sequenced air raids on the Japanese base to the northwest, at Wewak, that gutted the Japanese Fourth Air Army. With the enemy stripped of air cover, he launched amphibious landings near Lae and an airdrop at Nadzab, just to the west.
MacArthur hit the Japanese every which way, in other words, bewildering and eventually paralyzing them. By November Allied forces had overrun the Huon Peninsula. All in all, Cartwheel involved no fewer than 10 landings within eight months. Ringed tightly by Allied bases and subject to unremitting air attack, Rabaul was no longer a safe haven, and the Japanese navy had to evacuate its fleet to Truk, 800 miles north. It was a brilliant campaign and a pinnacle in MacArthur’s career—indeed, anyone’s career.
You want to run MacArthur down? Fine. December 8, 1941, in the Philippines. Bataan and Corregidor. The Chinese counterattack along the Chongchon in Korea. The blow-up with President Harry S. Truman, a conflict generated largely by the general’s own arrogance. The man had a checkered record. I get that. Just be sure to include Cartwheel in your appraisal.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.