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MacArthur’s Victory: The War in New Guinea, 1943-1944

by Harry A. Gailey; Presidio Press, New York, 2004, $14.95.

As its subtitle proclaims, MacArthur’s Victory covers the campaign in New Guinea from the capture of Buna in January 1943 to the capture of Sanispor at the far end of the island in August 1944. The campaign, using both American and Australian troops under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific Theater of Operations, set the stage for his cherished goal of a return to the Philippines. Harry Gailey, author of several other books on the Pacific War, has penned a very detailed, straightforward history of the campaign, telling it like it was, without sidestepping heavily into discussions of personalities.

MacArthur’s Victory is, in essence, a continuation of Gailey’s earlier book, MacArthur Strikes BackDecision at Buna: New Guinea 1942-1943 (Presidio Press, 2000). He spends very little time explaining how MacArthur’s forces reached the starting point for this section of the campaign and, in fact, at times assumes the reader is already aware of it. For example, MacArthur’s goal of “No more Bunas!” makes little sense unless one already knows that he is talking about frontal assaults in the jungle with poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly supplied troops. That said, this book does stand on its own.

Gailey surrounds his history with brief descriptions of other Pacific events, not only to place the campaign in context, but also to add a reason for the campaign’s success. Had the Japanese not been so focused on Guadalcanal, Gailey points out, MacArthur would have had a significantly harder time earlier in the campaign. Gailey also makes sure that the reader knows how the campaign fit into MacArthur’s overall goal to steer the Pacific War in the direction he wanted it to go. The desire to call the shots drove much of his strategy and impatience when things (like the Japanese) interfered with his chosen timetable.

The key to victory in New Guinea, as elsewhere in the Pacific, was air power, and MacArthur’s Fifth Air Force, under the aggressive command of Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney, provided that key. Kenney’s fliers pounded Japanese ports and airfields, and isolated New Guinea from significant reinforcement and supply from other parts of the Japanese empire. Even when the Japanese massed aircraft, they seemed unable to withstand Kenney’s air assault. A case in point was the concentration of some 300 Japanese aircraft at Hollandia prior to the U.S. invasion there. Kenney’s bombers annihilated them in four days of concentrated attacks, allowing the invasion to proceed virtually unopposed in April 1944. Gailey does a good job describing the tactics and effects of air power.

Very few military history readers do not have an opinion about Douglas MacArthur. Gailey seems to fall into the proMac side; publicity for MacArthur’s Victory focuses on his “stunning achievement…as a fitting tribute.” Gailey discusses the general’s foibles as facts without really providing his own opinion or analysis of the man. He points out, for example, that MacArthur’s view of Australian troops as unreliable was unfounded. Much of his impatience with the flow of events, such as the extended battle on Biak, was generated with little or no real knowledge of conditions on the front line (or much desire to know). As at Buna, commanders were relieved for not adhering to MacArthur’s unrealistic schedule. For example, when I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger was ordered to relieve Maj. Gen. Horace H. Fuller on Biak for not moving fast enough, Eichelberger ended up using the same tactics and strategy Fuller had used when he was relieved, succeeding only when reinforcements— that Fuller had requested—were provided. However unfair the relief was, ultimately the job got done. As Gailey points out, regardless of your opinion of MacArthur the man, the New Guinea campaign was successful, isolating thousands of Japanese troops and putting the Allies in position to drive farther into the empire.

If MacArthur’s Victory has a real weakness, it is maps—there aren’t enough of them. Gailey provides a lot of detail on routes and battle sites, village by village, and most are not on any of the maps. Readers may find it difficult at times to follow the story without maps to view. Maps of Cape Gloucester, Wadke, Lone Tree Hill and, especially, Biak would have helped to track the narrative.

The book does a good job of re-creating the atmosphere of a hard-fought campaign and its attendant problems. Gailey provides details on command squabbles (at all levels), terrain, supply and combat in a straightforward, readable manner. He has set the stage for a potential follow-up book as MacArthur prepares for his promised return to the Philippines.

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.