MacArthur’s best general won hard-fought campaigns against Japan.
On November 30, 1942, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander of World War II’s South West Pacific Area, summoned Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger to fly from Australia to MacArthur’s for- ward headquarters at Port Moresby, New Guinea. The meeting was not a “social call”; indeed, it produced one of the most dramatic and stark mission statements any American commander has ever issued to a subordinate. Yet these were desperate times in the Pacific War – Japanese forces were still on the offensive –and such times required desperate measures.
Eichelberger commanded U.S. I Corps, consisting of 32d and41st infantry divisions, the only two American combat divisions in MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area at this stage of the war. The reason for Eichelberger’s summons was the dire situation faced by Major General Edwin F. Harding’s 32d Infantry Division that had been battling unsuccessfully for two weeks to capture Buna, a strategically located village on New Guinea’s northeastern coast. Harding’s soldiers not only were encountering fierce Japanese resistance and horrific conditions in the disease-infested jungle, they also lacked adequate supplies, heavy weapons fire support, competent leadership and,above all, fighting spirit. The division’s attack on Buna, whose seizure would provide the vital launching pad for MacArthur’s campaign to recapture New Guinea from the Japanese, had disastrously stalled.
As the two generals met on the veranda of the Port Mores by headquarters building, MacArthur paced back and forth, as was his habit in times of stress or crisis. Suddenly, he turned to Eichelberger and said: “Bob, I’m putting you in command at Buna. Relieve Harding. I want you to remove all officers who won’t fight. Relieve regimental and battalion commanders. If necessary, put sergeants in charge of battalions and corporals in charge of companies – anyone who will fight. Time is of the essence.” To ensure that Eichelberger was absolutely clear about the seriousness of the situation, MacArthur issued his stark mission statement: “Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.”
The first battle in Eichelberger’s three-year Pacific war would be, quite literally, a desperate “do-or-die” mission.
Robert Lawrence Eichelberger was born in Urbana, Ohio, on March 9, 1886, the son of a successful farmer and lawyer. Although young Eichelberger enjoyed social life over studies – which resulted in poor grades – he read widely from the books in his father’s extensive library. He read literature from Dickens to Shakespeare, enjoyed historical fiction, and devoured books on Civil War history. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but the father’s law partner, who had been elected to Congress, offered Eichelberger an appointment to West Point. A military career interested Eichelberger, so after a brief stint at Ohio State University, he accepted the appointment and entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1905.
At West Point, Cadet Eichelberger had trouble balancing rigorous academic studies with his greater interests in football and other non-scholarly pursuits. Yet despite poor grades, he graduated 68th of 103 graduates in the class of 1909. His classmates included future World War II generals George S. Patton Jr., Jacob L. Devers, William H. Simpson, and the officer he later would relieve of command at Buna, Edwin F. Harding.
After graduation, Lieutenant Eichelberger joined 10th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, with follow-on assignments at various posts and units in the United States and the Panama Canal Zone. In these early postings, he encountered different leadership styles and made note of what soldiers expected of their leaders. Some of the important leadership lessons that Eichelberger took to heart from his early service with troops, and which later would characterize his World War II command, were that officers must lead by example and that strict discipline, thorough preparation and training were required for units to operate at peak efficiency.
COMBAT IN SIBERIA
Like future World War II senior commanders Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley, Eichelberger did not get sent to France during World War I. However, unlike Eisenhower and Bradley, Eichelberger did get valuable combat experience in a shooting war – halfway around the world in Siberia.
In the spring of 1918, Eichelberger was a captain assigned to the War Plans Division in Washington, D.C. His boss, Brigadier General William Graves, had been designated to command an infantry division scheduled for deployment to France, and he chose Eichelberger to accompany him. Within weeks, however, Eichelberger learned from Graves that the division’s destination unexpectedly had been changed from France to the Russian port of Vladivostok on Siberia’s Pacific Ocean coast.
The change in plans was part of the Allied response to the turmoil and upheaval in Russia after Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who had seized power in November 1917, took Russia out of World War I by signing a separate peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The Allies, led by Britain, France, Japan and the United States, responded by sending military forces to Vladivostok, Archangel in north Russia and Crimea. Although their stated purpose was to protect huge stores of war supplies at those locations that the Allies had sent to Russia, when the Allies also sought to support factions within the country that were willing to continue fighting World War I, they soon encountered armed opposition from Bolshevik, or “Red,” forces.
On August 15, 1918, Eichelberger sailed to Vladivostok with two infantry regiments as the expedition’s intelligence officer (G-2). However, instead of merely standing guard over war supplies and protecting the strategic Trans-Siberian Railroad, Eichelberger and Graves found their Siberian expedition in the middle of a full-scale civil war as Lenin’s Red forces fought pro-Czarist “White” forces and various separatist armies in Ukraine, western Russia and Siberia. The “strict neutrality” which Graves’ expedition had been ordered to observe was a practical impossibility given the confusing, chaotic situation – and the fact that the Bolsheviks saw the Allied expeditions as armed invasions of their country. Therefore, in addition to fighting their Russian Civil War opponents – White armies and separatist bands – Red forces also attacked Allied units, including the “neutral” Americans.
Although there were no large-scale, pitched battles between Lenin’s Reds and U.S. soldiers in Siberia, the Bolsheviks launched numerous small unit attacks on American troops that produced sharp, bloody fighting and nearly 200 U.S. casualties. Since Eichelberger often accompanied American (and some Japanese) units in operations in Siberia as part of his intelligence-gathering duties, he was involved in combat against Red forces several times. Notably, in July 1919 during a punitive raid against the Bolsheviks, Eichelberger at great personal risk covered the withdrawal under fire of a heavily outnumbered U.S. patrol by taking over for the wounded patrol leader and establishing a firing line against attacking Red forces. The day before, he had picked up a rifle and protected the retreat of an American platoon that had suffered numerous casualties in a Bolshevik ambush. “For [this] extraordinary heroism in action,” as his award citation stated, Eichelberger received the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States’ second-highest valor medal. He also received the Distinguished Service Medal for his success as the expedition’s G-2.
By April 1920, Lenin’s Bolsheviks had seized the upper hand in the Russian Civil War. Although the fighting would continue for another two years, it was clear to the Allies that their intervention no longer served any useful purpose. Allied forces were withdrawn that year, ending Eichelberger’s Siberian mission.
Instead of returning to the United States, Eichelberger remained in the Far East. He was reassigned as the assistant chief of staff, intelligence (G-2), of the Philippines Military Department and reverted from his wartime rank of lieutenant colonel to his permanent rank of major. In this position, he monitored Japanese activities in the Pacific and East Asia, prepared contingency plans for a (at the time theoretical) war against Japan, and wrote reports on developments in China. In October 1920, he relocated to China to establish intelligence-gathering offices in Peking (Beijing) and Tientsin (Tianjin).
In August 1921, Eichelberger returned to Washington, D.C., and was assigned to the Far Eastern Section of the Army General Staff ’s Military Intelligence Division. There, he drew on his expertise and experience to prepare intelligence reports on China, the Philippines and Siberia, and wrote a short primer for general staff officers on Chinese history.
In the spring of 1924, Eichelberger decided to transfer to the Adjutant General Corps to increase his chances for promotion and selection to advanced schooling. The transfer worked, and he was soon selected to attend the Command and General Staff School (CGSS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1926, he completed the course as a “distinguished graduate,” which meant he was in the top 25 percent(Eisenhower was the number one graduate in the class). Eichelberger remained at CGSS for three years as the adjutant general of the school and as an instructor. He attended the Army War College in1929-30 and in 1931 was posted to West Point as the U.S. Military Academy’s adjutant general.
In 1935, Eichelberger began a tour of duty in Washington, D.C.,working closely with the senior officer who would be his boss during the Pacific War. That year, Lieutenant Colonel Eichelberger became secretary of the general staff (SGS) for Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur. In this influential position, he served as “gatekeeper” for MacArthur and largely controlled the flow of information and reports into and out of his office. When MacArthur left the chief of staff position to begin rebuilding the Philippines military forces, he wrote to Eichelberger, “I shall watch your future career with keen interest.”
In August 1937, Eichelberger transferred back to the infantry branch to be eligible for troop command assignments. He was promoted to colonel in August 1938 and became commander of 30thInfantry Regiment at the Presidio, San Francisco, in December. His command of the regiment impressed senior officers. Notably, General George C. Marshall, who became Army chief of staff in September 1939, was impressed by Eichelberger’s regiment in an amphibious exercise in 1940. Seeking to advance the careers of promising officers, Marshall ensured Eichelberger’s promotion to brigadier general in October 1940.
Following a stint as superintendent of West Point in 1940-41, Eichelberger, who was promoted to major general in July 1941, took command of 77th Infantry Division at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. By this time, the United States had entered World War II, and from January to June 1942, Eichelberger prepared the division for combat. He continued to impress Marshall, who selected him for corps command in June. Eichelberger took command of I Corps at Fort Jackson, and Marshall slated him for corps command in the upcoming Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942).
Eichelberger would, indeed, command a corps in combat. However, it would not be under his CGSS classmate Eisenhower fighting Germans and Italians in North Africa. Instead, in August 1942, Eichelberger and the I Corps staff were redirected to Australia, where as part of South West Pacific Area forces under MacArthur they would fight the Japanese.
NIGHTMARE AT BUNA
In late August 1942, Eichelberger and his small I Corps staff of about 20 officers arrived in Brisbane, Australia, where they established corps command of South West Pacific Area’s two American combat divisions, 32d and 41st infantry divisions. Eichelberger immediately began inspection tours of the two divisions and found that although both had been training in Australia since May,their troops were unprepared for jungle warfare against the Japanese.
Despite suffering two strategic naval setbacks at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June, Japanese forces continued their sweep into the South West Pacific Area, posing a threat to Australia and its vital sea-lanes with the United States. The Japanese established a major ground-naval base at Rabaul on New Britain, built airfields throughout the Solomon Islands, and were locked in a major land-sea-air struggle with American forces at Guadalcanal. Of immediate concern to MacArthur, however, were Japanese advances in New Guinea, particularly the recently landed 11,000 troops at Buna and nearby Gona on New Guinea’s northeastern coast. (See map.)
In mid-November, MacArthur’s forces began the assault to capture Buna and Gona, with Harding’s 32d Division attacking Buna and Australian 7th Division targeting Gona. Eichelberger had warned MacArthur and his South West Pacific Area chief of staff, Major General Richard K. Sutherland, that 32d Division’s soldiers were insufficiently trained to match Japanese veterans in jungle combat. But when Eichelberger suggested that he and I Corps staff officers accompany the division in the Buna operation,he was told to remain in Australia to oversee training. Two disastrous weeks of combat later,however, MacArthur gave Eichelberger his “take Buna or not come back alive” mission.
Upon arrival at Buna on December 2, 1942,Eichelberger quickly spotted the effects of poor leadership: lax or nonexistent troop discipline,and soldiers who were riddled with tropical maladies, hungry from inadequate rations, dressed in ragged uniforms and worn-out shoes, and carrying weapons that had not been cleaned regularly. When touring the front line, he found it only weakly held because unit leaders at all levels lacked aggressiveness.The leading regiment’s command post was 4.5 miles behind the front line, while the regimental commander and his staff rarely went forward.Troops manning the front had no useful tactical information on enemy positions – frightened by the jungle, soldiers shirked conducting the combat patrols necessary to gather accurate intelligence.
Eichelberger relieved Harding of division command that same day and replaced other 32d Division ranking officers with officers from his I Corps staff to lead combat operations. He immediately halted operations for two days to reorganize the division’s units and to prepare them to renew the attack on Buna. Eichelberger also set about fixing the massive supply problems that were a major hindrance to the division’s ability to fight effectively.
On December 5, Eichelberger launched 32d Division in another attack on Buna. The combat was exhausting siege warfare through thick jungle against a well-entrenched enemy that skillfully used camouflage and dense vegetation to conceal strong defensive positions. Eichelberger instituted active patrolling and set a personal leadership example by frequently touring the division’s forward-most elements. Risking Japanese sniper fire – several times officers standing near him were hit – he raised troop morale by demonstrating the aggressive leadership the division desperately needed.
Buna was finally captured on December 14, but the cost to 32d Division was high. Combat losses were 686 dead and 1,954 wounded. However, tropical diseases and illness ravaged the unit even more than did combat – over 7,000 soldiers became casualties from malaria and other debilitating conditions. The nearly 10,000 total casualties exceeded 32d Division’s authorized strength. Eichelberger, in his postwar memoir, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, wrote: “Buna was … bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair and human suffering. … Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare.”
LEAPFROGGING TO VICTORY
Eichelberger’s victory at Buna and the Australians’ capture of Gona saved MacArthur’s first Pacific War offensive. But there were still 6,000 Japanese troops in eastern New Guinea that had to be eliminated before the campaign to recapture the rest of New Guinea could begin in earnest. With Australian forces blocked by strong defensive positions around Sanananda, Eichelberger was appointed to command the Australian and American units attacking the stronghold. Although the Australian command expected the operation to last several months, under Eichelberger’s tenacious leadership the objective was captured in 10 days.
Eichelberger returned to Australia, where he expected to receive another combat mission for I Corps. However, he discovered that MacArthur had created a new command, 6th Army, with Lieutenant General Walter Krueger as commander. Krueger informed Eichelberger that since all planned operations in 1943 would be conducted by division-size units or smaller, an intermediate corps command between army and divisions would not be necessary. Eichelberger and his I Corps staff’s sole responsibility was to train new divisions in Australia, and thus they instituted an intensive training program to prepare troops and commanders for jungle warfare. Eichelberger stressed small unit actions, flexibility in execution, and initiative by leaders at all levels.
Eichelberger wanted active combat command and, in fact, during 1943 the War Department had twice requested that MacArthur release him to command an army in Europe – initially 1st Army and then later 9th Army. MacArthur denied both requests, which bitterly disappointed Eichelberger. Omar Bradley and then Courtney Hodges commanded 1st Army, while Eichelberger’s former West Point classmate William H. Simpson commanded 9th Army.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1944, Eichelberger and I Corps went back into combat as part of MacArthur’s “leapfrogging” (or “island hopping”) campaign. This strategy involved American and Australian units leapfrogging along New Guinea’s northern coast and offshore islands to bypass and isolate the strongest Japanese positions,with the ultimate objective being to position MacArthur’s forces to invade and liberate the Philippines.
In April 1944, Eichelberger led I Corps in the invasion of Hollandia on New Guinea’s northwestern coast in what was the largest amphibious landing in the South West Pacific Area up to that time. His twofold mission was to capture the area and then quickly build up a logistical base and airfields for additional operations at Wakde and Biak.
I Corps’ amphibious assault landed on two beachheads, with24th Infantry Division (assigned to the corps in September 1943) at Tanahmerah Bay and 41st Infantry Division at Humboldt Bay. Eichelberger accompanied the main effort at Tanahmerah. Both landings were unopposed, but he soon discovered that Tanahmerah’s beaches were too constricted and abutted an impassable swamp. Thus, they could not support building up a logistical base. Eichelberger therefore quickly shifted the main effort to Humboldt Bay. By the end of April,the Hollandia operation concluded as an overwhelming success that disrupted Japan’s defensive plans in northwest New Guinea.
A month after the Hollandia victory, 41st Infantry Division, operating under 6th Army’s direct control, invaded Biak, which was defended by 11,000 Japanese. On May 27, the division landed two regiments on Biak and initially met no resistance. Yet by mid-June, skillful Japanese troop deployments – inland from the beaches in caves and along coral ridges to create deadly kill zones – had halted the American advance. Under increasing pressure from MacArthur to produce results, Krueger brought in Eichelberger to take command at Biak.
Eichelberger spent three days at the front becoming familiar with the tactical situation and assessing 41st Division’s fighting capabilities. He thought the slowness of the advance was because the division’s commanding general, Major General Horace Fuller, had not gone to the front. On June 18, Fuller was relieved of command. Although under pressure to attack immediately, Eichelberger rested and reorganized the division’s soldiers while sending patrols to locate and reconnoiter Japanese positions. Once he ordered the assault resumed, he avoided costly frontal attacks by maneuvering around the Japanese flank to seize dominating positions in the enemy rear area.
The attack proved so successful that in five days Eichelberger and his men seized Biak’s three important airfields and broke the enemy’s main line of defense. MacArthur rewarded Eichelberger with command of the new 8th Army that had been activated on June 10.
After completion of a nearly two-year-long successful campaign of leapfrogging along New Guinea’s northern coast, MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area forces were positioned to invade and liberate the Philippines. On October 20, 1944, MacArthur returned to the Philippines with the invasion of Leyte. He chose Krueger’s 6th Army for the attack, believing Eichelberger’s newly formed 8th Army lacked sufficient experience in planning and executing amphibious operations.
Although the amphibious landings were brilliantly executed with few U.S. casualties, 6th Army met fierce Japanese resistance, particularly in Leyte’s rugged western mountains. The Japanese heavily reinforced the island’s defenders, making 6th Army’s progress slow and costly. With enemy forces still resisting after two months of hard fighting, MacArthur – anxious for Krueger and 6th Army to prepare for the invasion of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and most important island – turned over the Leyte campaign to Eichelberger and 8th Army on December 26. While MacArthur publicly announced that only “mopping-up” operations remained on the island, Eichelberger later noted that although 6th Army had killed 55,000 Japanese, 8th Army’s so-called “mopping-up” operations killed 24,000 more.
On January 9, 1945, MacArthur landed 6th Army on Luzon. He had correctly concluded that the Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, would withdraw into northern Luzon’s mountain strongholds to hold out as long as possible. Therefore, in order to divert some of Yamashita’s forces southward to allow 6th Army to move faster in the north, MacArthur ordered Eichelberger to conduct an amphibious landing 45 miles south of Manila on January 31.
Eichelberger landed 188th Regimental Combat Team at Nasugbu, encountering light resistance. He exploited the initial success by sending 11th Airborne Division as rapidly as possible toward Manila.Eichelberger ordered continuous advances day and night, keeping the enemy confused and unable to organize a defense. Eighth Army’s speedy attack from the south continued to surprise the Japanese defenders, allowing the Americans to reach the southern approaches to Manila by February 6. There, 8th Army served as the “anvil” as Krueger’s 6th Army “hammered” its way into Manila from the north.
Eichelberger, however, departed Luzon before Manila’s capture in early March in order to lead operations to clear the southern Philippines of Japanese forces. In mid-February, 8th Army simultaneously conducted multiple amphibious operations to clear the Visayan Passages, Panay, Cebu and Mindanao. Eichelberger demonstrated a remarkable ability to focus on the widespread, multiple operations, and his liberation of the southern Philippines was his high point as an army commander.During the campaign he exhibited his trademark operational style: aggressive “up-front” leadership; thorough reconnaissance and preparation; seizure of key objectives and dominant terrain; and rapid exploitation to maintain relentless pressure on the enemy to prevent a coherent defense.
Eichelberger’s success in liberating the southern Philippines exceeded all of MacArthur’s demanding expectations, convincing the South West Pacific Area commander to pick Eichelberger to command the upcoming planned invasion of Japan. Fortunately, however, America’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 made the invasion unnecessary.
After Japan’s surrender, Eichelberger led the Army of Occupation until the summer of 1948, when he retired after nearly 40 years of service. In 1950, he published his memoir, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, and during the Korean War he advised the secretary of the Army and MacArthur on Far Eastern affairs. In 1954, Eichelberger was promoted to four-star general on the Army’s retired officer list.
Remaining active in retirement, Eichelberger wrote and lectured on political and military affairs. He died on September 27, 1961, in Ashville, North Carolina, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Despite notable accomplishments as a battlefield leader and impressive achievements in 1942-45, Robert L. Eichelberger remains relatively unrecognized for his crucial tactical and operational triumphs in key Pacific War operations. Today, unfortunately, MacArthur’s best general is one of the “forgotten victors” of World War II.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong has written numerous military affairs/history articles for professional and historical journals and has authored several books, including “Red Army Tank Commanders” and “Soviet Operational Deception.”
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.