Crafting an Allied Air Strategy with Pacific Air Forces
The “Germany first” policy had made the Pacific a secondary theater in the conference rooms of Anglo-American military planners, but to people on the street in the United States, it was just the opposite. It was Japan that had attacked Pearl Harbor, and it seemed to many that the war against Japan should come first.
As the planners anxiously awaited the start of the land war in Northwest Africa, the United States was already fighting a land war in the Pacific. American soldiers had fought, died, and lost at Bataan. American Marines had fought, died, and lost at Wake Island. Even as most Americans were blissfully unaware of Operation Torch, the headlines they were reading every day told of the hard, close combat in Guadalcanal, where the Marines had landed in August, and in New Guinea, where American and Australian troops were fighting desperately to halt the vigorous Japanese advance toward Australia. In June, the Japanese had even occupied American territory—the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian chain, which were part of Alaska.
In June 1942, U.S. Navy airpower sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and a cruiser at the Battle of Midway. For US Army Air Forces Commander Hap Arnold and his staff, this remarkable victory only made it harder to justify their crusade to concentrate strategic airpower in Britain.
So far as public opinion was concerned, the buildup in Europe didn’t seem to be accomplishing very much. When Americans looked across the Atlantic, they saw small results from small USAAF air raids against an enemy against which American ground troops were not yet engaged.
If Arnold and the strategic thinkers saw the big-picture implications of the “Germany first” policy, people who read the headlines perceived that the war was being fought, and fought desperately, by the soldiers and Marines in the South West Pacific Area. The SWPA was the swath of the Pacific Theater centering on New Guinea that stretched from Australia to the Philippines, and from Java to the Solomon Islands—including Guadalcanal, the date line of the most attention-grabbing news stories. Nevertheless, in keeping with the prevailing strategic paradigm, Arnold had gone so far as to recommend against sending the nine groups earmarked for the SWPA. In a July 29 memo to Chief of Staff General George Marshall, he asserted that in the SWPA, “the initiative still rests with the enemy, and suitable objectives may not be available for effective full scale operations. It should also be noted this theater cannot, at this time, safely and properly sustain operations of an Air Force augmented over nine additional Groups because of the dangerous concentration which would result from limited base areas and base facilities.”
USAAF Coordinates Pacific Air Forces
A turn of events came at a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting two months later on September 16, 1942. The chief of naval operations practically begged the commanding general of the USAAF for more airplanes!
“There was quite a flare-up at the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting, when Admiral [Ernest] King asked for more planes for the South Pacific,” Arnold wrote. “I said planes were not what they needed; landing fields were the determining factor; not planes. All they could do with the planes, in excess of 80 or 100, was to let them sit on the few landing fields they then had. With no training, the pilots would get stale, while in England they could be used against the Germans every day.”
“We must keep the South West Pacific saturated,” King insisted. “What is the saturation point?” Arnold asked. “Certainly, not several hundred planes sitting on airdromes so far in the rear [in Australia] that they cannot be used. They will not do us any good, and may do us some harm.”
The tension, even in Arnold’s measured recollections, is palpable. “I was not surprised when General Marshall said he thought it was a good time for me to go to the South West Pacific and have a look around,” Arnold recalled of the aftermath of the “flare-up” meeting. Marshall diplomatically told Arnold that “the most immediate way I could help Torch and the Eighth Air Force was to turn my back on both and go to the Pacific.”
Flying aboard a Consolidated C-87—the transport variant of the B-24 Liberator—Arnold and his staff reached Hawaii on September 20. Here, they were joined for the next leg of their trip by General Delos Emmons, formerly of GHQ Air Force, who had been in Hawaii for the past year. As Arnold wrote, Emmons had just returned from the South Pacific, “where he had spent considerable time with General Harmon, Admiral Ghormley, and General MacArthur. I was somewhat depressed after hearing Emmons’ report on MacArthur’s estimate of the situation. MacArthur, at the time, he thought, seemed not to be in too good health; and blamed our Air Force commanders for failure of the Air in the Philippine Islands.”
When he met Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, Arnold found him to be “far more optimistic” than Emmons. He wrote that “Emmons was convinced that Guadalcanal could not be held; Nimitz was just as sure it could be. Nimitz’ idea was that the Japanese shipping losses were so great they could not keep up such operations indefinitely.” As Arnold recorded in his diary for September 21, Nimitz believed that the Japanese “are getting worried. . . . The Japanese losses [from Midway through Guadalcanal] had been terrific…. The Japanese planes and pilots are both of inferior quality, and the war could be won in the Pacific.”
Arnold left Ghormley’s headquarters with the impression that the Navy “did not have a logistic setup efficient enough to insure success. The Marines were very tired and would grab at anything as a possible aid—something to restore their confidence…. Talk among the Navy staff officers indicated that conditions in New Guinea were very, very bad…. The Japanese would take over all of New Guinea soon. It looked to me as if everybody on that South Pacific Front had a bad case of jitters.” Arnold later described Ghormley as “suffering mentally, physically and nervously.” A month after Arnold’s visit, Nimitz replaced Ghormley with Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr.
Arnold took exception when Admiral McCain asked for USAAF Flying Fortresses for long-range reconnaissance missions, writing that this was “amazing to me, in view of the propaganda we had heard prior to the war, that the big PBYs, the Navy flying boats, were the airplanes the Navy was [originally] going to use for reconnaissance and on long-range patrols. Here they were asking for our long-range bombers to do their work for them.”
The maximum range of the twin-engine PBY was actually greater than that of the Flying Fortress, but the patrol bombers had relatively minimal bomb-carrying capacity. In his diary entry for September 23, Arnold noted that McCain “finally admitted the possibility of using PBYs.”
“Everyone just happened to be thinking of B-17s and P-38s,” Arnold observed about the Navy’s desire for the most up-to-date USAAF aircraft. “When I went into the question of using P-38s out of Noumea, I was confronted with the fact that they had no way to get them from the ships on which they arrived to flying fields. They were too big to get over the roads, and there were no docks near the airfields.”
As with Admiral King’s pleas at the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting on September 16, Billy Mitchell would have laughed at the admirals lusting for USAAF aircraft.
Pacific Air Forces Battle for Air Supremacy
Everyone with whom Arnold had met—Army, Navy, and USAAF— was disdainful of the “Germany first” paradigm, and argued eloquently for a realignment of priorities. They saw no reason why the grand strategy should put so much emphasis on Operation Torch to the detriment of the desperate campaign to stop the Japanese onslaught.
They were equally derisive of the USAAF plan to use long-range bombers in a strategic air offensive against Germany. Nimitz had told Arnold pointedly that “the bombardment of Germany was of no use.”
Hap Arnold complained both about the “uninformed pressures” of “American popular opinion” back home and about the parochialism of the admirals in the South West Pacific. In his diary entry of September 16, the day of the “flare-up” at the Joint Chiefs meeting, he paraphrased Frederick the Great, writing that “small minds want to defend everything. Intelligent men concentrate on the main issue, parry the heavy blows and tolerate small evils to avoid a greater one. He who wants to defend everything saves nothing.”
Of course, it can also be said that those, like Arnold, who had become adherents to the “Germany first” policy were no less parochial than the Pacific commanders. Indeed, in September 1942, based on the best available information, Australia was in greater danger of a Japanese invasion than Britain was from Nazi Germany, and Operation Torch might have seemed far more parochial than the fighting in the SOPAC.
On September 25, Arnold sat down with MacArthur, an outspoken, charismatic figure who was lionized on the home front and respected—if not universally loved—in the field. Like the admirals with whom Arnold had been meeting, he was not shy about sharing his perspective on the war in the Pacific and on global strategy. If anything, he was more forceful in expressing his views because it was the nature of his personality to be sure that his convictions were fact, not merely opinion.
Unlike many who met MacArthur for the first time, Arnold was not overawed by the colorful general’s larger-than-life presence. Indeed, Arnold had known him for nearly two decades. They were not close friends, but they knew each other reasonably well.
MacArthur told Arnold flat out that the aim of the Japanese was to “control the Pacific Ocean . . . move into the Aleutians and be ready for a general move into Alaska.”
As had the others with whom Arnold had met, he dismissed the “Germany first” doctrine out of hand, stating that Britain was merely a “besieged citadel,” and that “it would be very difficult to establish a Second Front from England, [the] movements into North Africa would be a waste of effort, [and] a sufficient number of air bases could never be established in England to provide air cover for a Second Front.”
MacArthur recommended that the Allies should “build up Australia as a reservoir of supplies, troops, and planes, and use them in any direction against the Japanese.”
Far from being swayed by MacArthur, Arnold felt a sympathy that bordered on pity.
“Thinking it over, MacArthur’s two hour talk gives me the impression of a brilliant mind, obsessed by a plan he can’t carry out; frustrated, dramatic to the extreme, much more nervous than when I formerly knew him, hands twitch and tremble, shell-shocked,” Arnold wrote in his diary that night.
He then traveled to the Allied stronghold of Port Moresby on New Guinea’s southeast coast, where Arnold was greeted by Australian Generals Thomas Blarney and S. F. Roswell, and USAAF Brigadier General Ken Walker.
Arnold sat down to breakfast with Walker and General Ennis Whitehead, Kenney’s deputy. The discussions focused on the air-crews of the 19th Bombardment Group. Among other missions, they were carrying out raids against the big Japanese bastion at Rabaul, the center of enemy power in the region.
In his diary, Arnold described the 19th Bombardment Group men as including “war-weary pilots, experienced but indifferent [who had] been in war since the Philippines . . . too many stars; know all the answers.”
This description, along with Walker’s maverick reputation, was illustrative of the status of the USAAF in a theater at the ends of the earth, making do with limited equipment and informal organization, thousands of miles from a USAAF headquarters ruled by the “Germany first” doctrine.
In his diary, Arnold jotted down some observations about the strategic situation in the SWPA: “If we don’t take the offensive soon, the Japanese will drive us out [of New Guinea]. We have enough troops to do it…. Taking the offensive, we can secure bases at Buna, Lae, Salamaua, and operate strongly against Rabaul. If we don’t take the offensive, we will lose Port Moresby, the south side of New Guinea, and open up the north shore of Australia to attack and possible occupation by the Japs.”
Having seen his men at war, on the front lines, for the first time, Arnold was greatly heartened by what he had found: “The youngsters who were actually doing the fighting, actually meeting the Japanese in combat, were not the people who were jittery. They had no doubts about their ability to lick the Japanese and they were positive of the action that could and must be taken.”
In his memoirs, Arnold extolled the virtues of his Fifth Air Force commander and his men, writing that “Kenney had certainly developed into a real leader and he had one of the finest groups of pilots and combat crews I have ever seen. Many of those who were nervous and worn out, and who had wanted to go home when he first got there, had withdrawn their requests and now wanted to stay.”
Arnold may have remained wedded to the idea that Germany was the Allies’ first priority, but he was gaining useful insight into, and appreciation for, the work being done by Allied soldiers and airmen facing Japan. As for the naval war, it was another matter.
Arnold noted that the US Navy for years had been thinking toward a state of readiness to lick the Japanese. They knew they could do it with little, if any, trouble!—“with one hand tied behind them.” Pearl Harbor came as a distinct shock to all of us, but to our Navy more than anyone. It upset years of their planning. It was only natural for them to figure on regaining their position in the sun. They must do everything possible to make the Pacific campaign not only the first-priority war theater, but also to make it a Navy war theater, run by the Navy.
“I was more convinced than ever that there must be unity of command in our Pacific operations if we were to get economy and maximum effectiveness,” Arnold wrote.
Arnold’s questions about where the war was to be won and with what plan were about to have an unexpected answer. Within a week of Hap Arnold’s return to Washington, the Japanese succeeded in reinforcing their forces on Guadalcanal with a contingent of three thousand troops. Aware of both the impending Operation Torch and the midterm elections, a startled Franklin
Roosevelt reacted by ordering a renewed emphasis on the Pacific. The “Germany first” doctrine may have remained as the key strategic policy among military leaders, but in the president’s perception, it was first among equals.
In an October 24 memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president wrote that “my anxiety about the Southwest Pacific is to make sure that every possible weapon gets into the area to hold Guadalcanal, and that, having held in this crisis, munitions, planes, and crews are on the way to take advantage of our success. We will soon find ourselves engaged on two active fronts [Southwest Pacific and Northwest Africa], and we must have adequate air support in both places, even though it means delay in our commitments, particularly, to England.”
This article is part of our larger resource on the history of aviation in World War Two. Click here to read more about WW2 aviation.
This article on Pacific air forces is from the book Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the US Air Force © 2013 by Bill Yenne. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
You can also buy the book by clicking on the buttons to the left.