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The Pacific

I: America Plans the Offensive

I: America Plans the Offensive

AN unbroken series of retreats and territorial losses of the greatest strategical importance and significance followed the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, as the Japanese thrust continued to the south and ultimately reached the Solomons in April. Although America was quick to act after the attack on Pearl Harbour, time and space dictated action and strategy in the Pacific—time to organise men, assemble materials, ships, aircraft, and naval support for a global war which meant fighting not only on two fronts but in several widely separated theatres; space because of the vast distances over which men and materials had to be carried before they were committed to action.

Time and space were also influenced by command. Soon after Japan's entry into the war a unified command was created in the South West Pacific under General Sir Archibald Wavell, who took over what was known as the ABDA area (American, British, Dutch, and Australian). His deputy commander was an American, and Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commanding the United States Asiatic Fleet, commanded all naval forces. Wavell's command included Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, Netherlands East Indies, Dutch New Guinea and, later, Northern Australia. Beyond this area, east of the Philippines and Australia and New Zealand, the defence of the Pacific became the responsibility of the United States Navy.

In January 1942 the Anzac area was created. This was an addition to the Pacific Ocean area to include East Australia, New Zealand, and part of New Guinea, and was still the responsibility of the US Navy, which assigned Vice-Admiral H. F. Leary to command the first Anzac naval force. When Singapore fell the ABDA command was dissolved, and a Dutch commander-in-chief took over for a brief period until the fall of Java.1 Once more the

1 These commands existed for only brief periods and were created in an attempt to meet a situation which changed radically almost from day to day. But they were soon dissolved, for they were never satisfactory in meeting a grave situation which not only involved the use of all three services of the contries concerned in stemming the Japanese advance, but also had to satisfy the demands and wishes of Governments and the most senior officers.

page 58 strategic boundaries were shuffled, this time into two spheres of responsibility—the Indian Ocean, including Burma, became the British sphere, and the Pacific Ocean, including Australia and New Zealand, fell to the United States.

An attack could not be mounted quickly in the Pacific, however urgent the necessity to stem the seemingly overwhelming Japanese tide. The main Allied bases, in Australia and New Zealand, were at the end of a long ocean haul of more than 6000 miles from United States ports, and only a slightly shorter haul to Fiji, New Caledonia, and the New Hebrides, some of the more important subsidiary forward bases. After transhipment at those bases, there was another 1000- to 2000-mile haul to the immediate battle area through submarine-infested waters. And at that time, particularly, there were not enough ships, landing craft, aircraft, men or supplies to mount an attack in any great force. Even when it came, the required strength to mount an offensive was dribbled across the Pacific under navy protection for assembly and final preparation at hastily organised and constructed advanced bases. Moreover, almost the whole of the Allied strength at that time had been committed—either in preparation for a resumption of the attack in Egypt, where in June the British had been forced back beyond the Egyptian frontier, or in preparation in the United Kingdom for the landing on the Normandy coast. Russia, too, was causing some concern. She was being hard pressed by the German thrusts to Stalingrad and Sevastopol, and the Allies were therefore sending her all the assistance they could afford in supplies and war materials. It was also the generally agreed Allied plan to defeat Germany first, because of the fear that she might first produce an atom bomb or develop other defensive weapons of equal destructive power, after which the full Allied strength could be turned against Japan.

Because of vital shortages, the first phase of the Pacific war was indecisive and unspectacular. From the attack on Pearl Harbour to the Battle of Midway was a defensive phase; it was followed by a holding phase and finally an offensive phase, which did not really begin until 1944, when the full force of armament and highly-trained fighting services had been assembled, and after lessons learned in early conflict had been absorbed by units not yet committed to battle. Nor was Pacific strategy fully developed until after the first foothold had been obtained in the Solomons. This evolved as a series of giant pincer movements to eliminate the bases of Rabaul and Truk in preparation for the thrust into the Philippines. As the Pacific offensive developed in 1943, three giant spearheads converged on the arsenals of Japan's inner defence line. MacArthur's force, which included Australians under General page 59 Sir Thomas Blamey and Americans under Lieutenant-General Walter Krueger, thrust through New Guinea and New Britain to Rabaul; and Americans, first under Ghormley and later under Halsey, and including New Zealanders under Major-General H. E. Barrowclough,1 slowly fought through the Solomons to the same objective. Coming in on the right flank through the islands of the Gilbert and Marshall Groups, an amphibious American force struck at successive islands on the way to Truk, the key to the whole Japanese defence system and secured by a series of interlocking island bases. That was the early broad plan of the campaign.

Through all the phases of this campaign New Zealand played her part, which began before Pearl Harbour by garrisoning Fiji and other Pacific islands. Small though they were compared with America's vast resources in men and material, ground forces of 3 New Zealand Division, aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and ships of the Royal New Zealand Navy lent their courage and strength to the long and arduous battle. New Zealand also provided bases and training grounds and supplied fresh foods in such quantity that, according to General Marshall, ‘In Australia and New Zealand American forces obtained almost all their food requirements locally’. New Zealand also despatched vast quantities of fresh foods to the forces in the Pacific.2

Through early 1942 a series of mutually supporting island bases was built up through the Pacific, extending from the New Hebrides, where a huge naval base capable of undertaking heavy repair work on damaged ships was established at Havannah Harbour on Efate, to New Caledonia (the largest military and supply base), Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. These rear islands were not regarded as impregnable bases, but they were sufficiently strong if an attack developed to enable their garrisons to hold out until help arrived. On 2 July the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the Allied forces to mount a limited offensive with the men and ships then available, but before that could be done the vexed question of command had still to be settled.

By the end of March 1942 the division of the Pacific into two commands had been agreed—the South West Pacific area, which included the Philippines, the South China Sea, the Netherlands East Indies (except Sumatra), the Solomon Islands, and Australia

1 Maj-Gen H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m. i. d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre; Auckland; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); commanded 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Brigade, May 1940-Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div Aug 1942-Oct 1944.

2 By 31 Dec 1943, under reciprocal lend-lease aid, New Zealand had supplied 113,886 tons of food, including butter, meat, vegetables, eggs and milk, valued at £11,190,000, to the American forces, as well as vast quantities of stores and war materials.

page 60 and waters to the south, under MacArthur, with headquarters in Australia, to which he had been ordered by his Government before Singapore fell; and the Pacific Ocean area under Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, with headquarters at Pearl Harbour.

Nimitz's area was again subdivided into three—the North, Central and South Pacific areas, which made the situation confusing to readers of the daily news. Most of the established Allied bases were in the South Pacific area, which lay south of the Equator and west of 110 degress West, joining MacArthur's command off the east coast of Australia. This area of more than one million square miles of water was dotted with groups of islands vital to future plans, and included New Zealand, New Caledonia, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, the Cook and Society Islands. Nimitz commanded all Allied forces, except the New Zealand land defences, in the Pacific Ocean areas, but Ghormley was appointed his subordinate commander in the South Pacific, with headquarters at Auckland in the early stages and later in Noumea, to which he transferred on 1 August 1942 and which became the principal United States base until the end of the campaign in the Solomons.

Both MacArthur and Nimitz were responsible to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. There was some conflict of opinion between Navy and Army before the commands were finally settled, after weeks of negotiation during which both Australia and New Zealand vigorously protested against being placed in separate areas, since they regarded both countries as a strategical whole.

New Zealand at this time was represented in both Washington and London. Nash departed from Wellington in January to become New Zealand Minister in Washington, where Brigadier A. B. Williams became New Zealand's representative on the British Joint Staff Mission. Brigadier R. S. Park was appointed in London as New Zealand's representative on the joint planning staff. In Washington the Rt. Hon. R. G. Casey was Australian minister, and lent his support when both New Zealand and Australia pressed hard for the establishment of a Pacific War Council in Washington, urging their desire in long and extremely frank signals to Churchill. The rapidly changing war situation lent force to their argument, but London was at first hesitant to agree. A Far Eastern Council, on which Jordan represented New Zealand, had been established in London on 9 February, with a staff council in Washington, but New Zealand and Australia, supported by the Dutch Minister, maintained that the prosecution of the Pacific war would be more easily directed from Washington and that the United States was better situated to control it. They wished, also, for a unified page 61 command co-ordinating all land, sea, and air resources, realising that a multiplicity of commands would ultimately weaken and prolong the war effort. The Pacific War Council first suggested by New Zealand and Australia on 21 January 1942 was ultimately set up, though a Council still remained in London to advise on political matters.

Encouraged by their successes after the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese prepared to continue their advance south, and planned an attack on Port Moresby from the sea and to establish bases in New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa from which to sever the American supply lines across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia. United States naval forces, weakened at Pearl Harbour, were no match for the still undamaged Japanese Grand Fleet, but Nimitz made the best use of his Task Force 3, consisting of eight 8-inch cruisers, three aircraft carriers, and a destroyer screen. This, with the later formation of the Anzac Striking Force, which included HMAS Australia, HMAS Perth, HMNZS Achilles and HMNZS Leander, was almost the whole Allied naval strength in the Pacific during the critical months of early 1942.

Estimates of the strength of any further attacking Japanese forces varied widely. On 11 December 1941 information from London contained in a singal from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, assumed that there would be ‘no immediate large-scale threat to the territory of Australia and much less to New Zealand’. Washington advised on 8 January 1942 that an attack on Fiji could be expected at any time after 10 January, and that the probable scale would be one division escorted by four aircraft carriers. In March, in view of the altered situation, the British Chiefs of Staff, who previously presumed that any attack on New Zealand would be at brigade strength, raised their figure to ‘ten or eleven divisions, accompanied by very large naval forces, including five aircraft carriers’, and added that the Japanese might employ one or two divisions for the initial purpose of seizing a base; but, despite this estimate, they did not suggest increasing the defence force of the Dominion, for which they considered seven brigade groups or formations were sufficient, supported by five air squadrons (only two of which were equipped with modern aircraft), augmented by four fighter squadrons, two general reconnaissance squadrons, two torpedo medium bomber squadrons, one bomber-reconnaissance or dive-bomber squadron, and four transport aircraft.

In the light of later knowledge from Japanese sources, the estimates of enemy strength were exaggerated; no attack on New Zealand was ever planned. Orders for a continuance of the attack page 62 south, issued on 12 May 1942 to the commander of the 17th Japanese Army, were delayed for two months after the Battle of the Coral Sea, when the force intended for Port Moresby was turned back, and were finally cancelled on 11 July after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Midway.

MacArthur, from his headquarters in Australia, began planning for an offensive against the advancing Japanese early in May 1942, when he realised that the overwhelming enemy victories in the Philippines, Burma, and Malaya would release more forces to continue the move south. His presumption was correct, since orders to continue the advance south from the Solomons were issued by the Japanese High Command that same month. Airfields, which the Allies lacked, were being hastily constructed in the north of Australia, in the valleys inland from Port Moresby and at Milne Bay, New Guinea, but MacArthur wanted greatly increased numbers of aircraft carriers, aeroplanes, and ground troops before he could move. Nimitz was also contemplating an attack to destroy a seaplane base which the Japanese had constructed at Tulagi, the southern limit of their move in the Solomons, but the Marine raider battalion he proposed to use was rightly considered too small for such a task. MacArthur's desire was for an early attack to dislodge the enemy from his newly won bases in both the Solomons and New Britain before they were consolidated, but as only three partly trained and equipped divisions were then available, and the objectives in the New Britain-New Ireland area were beyond the range of Allied fighter support from Port Moresby and the Australian mainland, close fighter air support would have had to come from aircraft carriers, none of which had been assigned to the South West Pacific area. British attacks against Timor or the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which were on the outer rim of the Japanese penetration in that area, were planned to co-ordinate with the American attack, using units of the British Eastern Fleet, but they did not get beyond the stage of suggestion.

The mounting of a Pacific offensive entailed the appointment of an overall commander, and here negotiations were for a time halted. General Marshall favoured MacArthur, already the hero of the Philippines and a man of tried battle knowledge, and he believed that an attack could be mounted by July, using for the initial assault 1 US Marine Division, under Major-General A. A. Vandegrift, part of which was going to Wellington. Three Australian divisions were to take over after a bridgehead had been established. This force was to be assembled at Brisbane, the nearest available port to the battle area. Aircraft, many of them now pouring into Australia through Fiji, would be available for bombing, page 63 but fighter support would be required from aircraft carriers. The American War Department suggested a naval commander under MacArthur for the operation; the Navy Department, however, thought differently and suggested that Nimitz should command the offensive and that the attack towards the New Guinea-New Britain area should be pressed up through the Solomon Islands, the immediate objectives, using 1 Marine Division, two aircraft carriers with cruisers and destroyers, five Marine air squadrons and land-based aircraft from the South Pacific. Any captured islands were to be occupied under MacArthur with troops from Australia. The Navy planned to attack Tulagi first and, by progressive moves, ultimately to reach Rabaul, instead of attacking Rabaul directly from Australia, which would require a strong naval task force, an army garrison, and additional land-based aircraft from Australia and Port Moresby. The Japanese were already established along the northern coast of New Guinea at lae and Salamaua. Nothing could be done before August because of the time required to assemble shipping and supplies.

The American operations division at first supported a direct thrust at Rabaul, which had been rapidly developed into the key Japanese base south of Truk, and recommended that the Navy provide 1 Marine Division and twelve transports, two carriers and supporting vessels, under MacArthur's command. While discussing the plans, no agreement could be reached between Army and Navy on a commander. Army insisted that as the attack would be in MacArthur's area he should command it, with a naval officer directing the tactical attacking force. Navy thought that MacArthur might expose their precious carriers by placing them in range of Japanese land-based aircraft in the Solomons, where several airfields had already been established on islands through the group, therefore it was essential first to reduce Tulagi. Command should therefore go to Ghormley, under Nimitz. When he was informed of Navy opposition, MacArthur insisted that his long-range plan had been misinterpreted, and that he had envisaged a final assault on Rabaul only after progressive moves up through the Solomons.

By 26 June no decision had been reached by Marshall and King, as King was still insisting on a naval commander and that MacArthur should take control at the conclusion of the amphibious stage. King also suggested that Navy begin immediate operations and directed Nimitz to go ahead with plans for an offensive in the Solomons. Nimitz and Ghormley immediately began their preparations. First Marine Division, part of which had landed at Wellington and was training along the coast from Plimmerton to Waikanae, was ordered to prepare for the attack, and Nimitz requested the Joint page 64 Chiefs of Staff to move eight army B. 17 and thirteen B. 26 aircraft from Hawaii to New Caledonia and the same number to Fiji, where the Nandi airfields could now accommodate them. He also asked for surface ships, submarines, and long-range aircraft from the South West Pacific area to support Ghormley. Marshall was perturbed by King's implication that the Army might not co-operate fully, and decided to negotiate personally with him, which he did from 29 June to 2 July. Finally, a compromise was reached. Ghormley was to command the offensive until the Tulagi operation was completed, after which MacArthur was to take over and control the advance to Rabaul. An alteration was made in the boundaries of the operational areas to allow the island of Guadalcanal to come into Ghormley's command.

On 2 July King and Marshall signed a ‘Joint Directive for offensive operations in the South West Pacific area agreed on by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff’. The operations were divided into three tasks:


The seizure and occupation of Santa Cruz Islands, Tulagi, and adjacent positions, for which MacArthur was to attach naval reinforcements and land-based aircraft and immobilise enemy and air activity west of the combat area.


Seizure and occupation of the remainder of the Solomons, Lae, Salamaua, and the north-east coast of New Guinea, which would come under MacArthur's command.


Seizure and occupation of Rabaul and adjacent positions, also under MacArthur's command.

The South West Pacific and South Pacific boundaries were moved so that Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Florida, the Russell Islands, Malaita, and San Cristobal came under Ghormley, leaving the rest of the Solomons to MacArthur. Curiously enough, Guadalcanal was not mentioned in the first task, but it was included when information reached the planners that the Japanese were constructing an airfield at Lunga Point. This had been revealed by reports from coastwatchers and by air reconnaissance.

Ghormley flew to Australia from Auckland on 7 July to confer with MacArthur and agree upon preliminary plans. They both were apprehensive because of the shortage of ships and aircraft and recommended a postponement until both the South and South West Pacific areas were strengthened, as all previous engagements with the enemy had demonstrated the value of air power in naval combat. This recommendation was rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, who controlled the broad strategic allocation, though the actual control of operations in the Pacific was page 65 retained by the United States Chiefs of Staff. Unity of direction stemmed from a British-United States War Council, formation of which was announced in Washington on 17 January 1942, but the United States-British Combined Chiefs of Staff organisation was not formed until 6 February ‘to ensure complete co-ordination of the war effort.’ Australian, New Zealand, the Netherlands and United Kingdom representatives on the Far Eastern Council acted in an advisory capacity in London, but as the war progressed almost the whole direction for the Pacific war came from Washington.

When MacArthur and Ghormley's request for postponement was rejected, plans went ahead. The first offensive of the war against Japan began when the Americans landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August, to begin the long, exhausting struggle for the Solomons. It did not end until the New Zealanders and American forces landed on the Green Islands on 15 February 1944.

New Zealand land and air forces were at first excluded from any Pacific command, but after lengthy negotiations with London and Washington, all except the land forces stationed in the Dominion, which remained under the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, came under command of the South Pacific area. These included major units of the Army and Air Force located on Pacific islands beyond the Dominion's shores. Such naval units as were required were already under American operational command. This co-ordinated effort made for greater unity, though the approval of the New Zealand Government had first to be obtained before any of her services could be committed to action, and administrative command remained with the New Zealand commanders in the areas where the forces were stationed. This meant that Ghormley, and later Vice-Admiral W. F. Halsey, who succeeded him in the South Pacific Command in October 1942, could call on all New Zealand units in his area if he required them, but could commit them to action only through their own commanders.