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General Willoughby (on couch, center) poses with the Historical Section's senior editors.

In August 1945, just days after the end of the war in the Pacific, the U.S. War Department asked the headquarters staff of General Douglas MacArthur to submit histories of his wartime command. It was a routine demand. These reports would eventually be used to prepare the U.S. Army’s official history of World War II, well known to historians today as the “green books”: a 79-volume series 40 years in the making.

The MacArthur contribution began as a low-key effort. In 1945, his Historical Section, part of the G-3 (Operations) Branch, General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in occupied Tokyo, had only three officers, the part-time assistance of a GHQ librarian, and no trained historians. The project moved fitfully, and by late the next year yielded a bland, superficial, and uneven 700-page manuscript that disappointed the Supreme Commander.

As a result, in December 1946, the entire project fell into the hands of MacArthur’s wartime intelligence chief, 54-year-old Major General Charles A. Willoughby. Colorful and controversial, Willoughby was a member of the “Bataan Gang,” a small, close-knit group of senior officers who had been evacuated with MacArthur from Bataan in 1942 and loyally served him throughout World War II and during the Occupation of Japan. Outsiders derided Willoughby’s pomposity, his accent (he had been born in Germany and changed his name from Karl Weidenbach after moving to America in 1910), and his self-aggrandizing flattery of MacArthur. Under his direction as editor in chief, the once-modest project grew to employ as many as 100 well-paid men and women, military and civilian, American and Japanese, in a six-year effort costing more than $3 million—$27 million today.

The published volumes were controversial. Reports of General MacArthur drew fire from the historians at work on the official army histories because of its uncritical praise of MacArthur. The army disclaimed any responsibility for their accuracy. These limitations aside, Reports provided historians with MacArthur’s perspective on his operations against Japan during World War II. And, although not the landmark work that Willoughby wanted, the combined American and Japanese accounts and sources made the volumes an important contribution to military history.

Judge Reports of General MacArthur yourself: click here to read them online, and share your thoughts in the comments.

The full story behind the history project—and the anti-communists, spies, war criminals, and would-be military elites who used it for their own ajendas—is available in the May/June 2011 issue of World War II.