When Japan launched its treacherous surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, and seized American island bases between Hawaii and the Philippines (Guam and Wake), one major aim was to facilitate capture of the Philippines without interference from the United States Navy. As starving American and Philippine troops fought a hopeless battle against invading Japanese troops between December 1941 and May 1942, any hope of reinforcement by the greatly weakened United States Pacific Fleet was negated by the Japanese Navy's control of the vast stretch of water between Hawaii and the Philippines. To appreciate the major contribution by General Douglas MacArthur to the American military disaster in the Philippines, see Battle of the Philippines.


Commander in Chief US Navy 1942 - Admiral Ernest J. King

Admiral King refused to accept the largely defensive role assigned to the US Navy in the Pacific War theatre by Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. With the warships that were left to him after the treacherous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he went on the offensive against Japan and almost certainly saved Australia and Hawaii from Japanese occupation in 1942.

Pearl Harbor found the United States with a mostly obsolete Navy

At the time of Pearl Harbor, the warships of the United States Navy were mostly elderly relics dating back to the World War I era and earlier. This situation had been brought about by two decades of isolationism and neglect of the Navy by the US Congress and Administrations before that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. An exception to this neglect of America’s defences was the Pacific Fleet’s force of four large fleet carriers. Each of these carriers was equal to any of Japan’s six largest fleet carriers. The major difference between the American and Japanese carriers lay in the quality of the aircraft and the experience of the aircrews. The aircraft on the American carriers were either obsolete or nearing obsolescence. Most of the American aircrews lacked any combat experience, and many were under-trained. The Japanese naval airmen had been honing their combat skills in Japan’s brutal war against China since 1937.

Within the limitations imposed by the Washington and London Naval Treaties, Japan had built the most powerful navy in the Pacific region at the time of Pearl Harbor. To match the power of the Imperial Japanese Navy in early 1942, the US Navy needed to be provided with a large fleet of modern warships, especially fast and powerful aircraft carriers. Apart from the four large aircraft carriers that had escaped the deadly Japanese onslaught at Pearl Harbor, and the addition of USS Hornet in February 1942, that modern fleet still had to be built in American shipyards that were struggling at the time of Pearl Harbor to meet the demands of the Battle of the Atlantic. American shipbuilding capability had been seriously impaired during the Great Depression years (1929-1939) when many American shipyards had been forced to close their gates.

The problem facing Americans after Pearl Harbor was the lead time necessary to build a large warship and prepare it for battle. Under pressure of war, the time between the laying of the keel of a large carrier and achieving operational status was reduced to two years. The first of the powerful Essex Class carriers was laid down in April 1941. USS Essex (CV-9) became fully operational in June 1943. It was joined by the second Essex Class carrier Yorktown (CV-10) in December 1943. These inescapable timings meant that between Pearl Harbor and the middle of 1943, the United States had only four of the large carriers mentioned above to keep the powerful Japanese Navy at bay across the vastness of the Pacific. USS Saratoga (CV-3) was torpedoed twice during 1942, and was out of action for most of that critical year.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor would transform American Pacific war strategy, naval tactics, and senior naval command.

President Roosevelt is persuaded to adopt a "Germany First" war strategy

Less than two weeks after he won an unprecedented third term in office in November 1940, President Roosevelt received a private briefing from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark. Stark warned Roosevelt that failure by the United States to aid Britain against Germany would almost certainly lead to Britain's defeat and German domination of the whole of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Stark argued that American aid to Britain should include actual participation in the war in Europe and North Africa by US armed forces. Stark also argued that top priority should be given to defeating Germany regardless of any threat that might arise from Japan.

Admiral Stark's advice that the defeat of Nazi Germany should be the top priority of the United States even in the event of war with Japan was accepted by President Roosevelt, and formally designated as "Plan D". The plan acquired the designation "D" simply because it followed the numbering in Stark's formal memorandum to the President. However, Plan D was effectively an implementation of the American military’s Rainbow -5 strategic war plan. Rainbow -5 stipulated as its premise that the United States was engaged in war against the three Axis powers, Japan, Germany and Italy. This plan specified that American military power would be deployed against Germany and Italy as a priority even if Japan had already entered the war as their ally. Until Germany and Italy were defeated, Rainbow -5 required the United States to adopt a defensive posture in the Pacific behind lines linking Hawaii to Alaska and Panama. The Rainbow -5 war plan clearly involved abandoning everything west of Hawaii to the Japanese, including the Philippines and Australia.

The US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, supported Plan D and President Roosevelt authorized talks between the American and British military chiefs of staff to implement Plan D. In March 1941, the American and British chiefs of staff met secretly and agreed that the Americans would join Britain in pursuing a "Germany First" war strategy if the United States was drawn into World War II as an ally of Britain.

The "Germany First" war strategy was not announced to the American public for a number of reasons. One compelling reason for secrecy was the fact that the United States was not yet at war with Germany. There would also have been major political risks for Roosevelt in disclosing the proposed war strategy. Apart from attracting the fury of the powerful isolationist and peace lobbies, it would have been an admission that America's army in the Philippines would be abandoned to its fate in the event of a Japanese attack.

The Arcadia Conference confirms a "Germany First" Allied war strategy

As the United States increased its military support for Britain during 1941, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill foresaw the probability that the Americans would be drawn into the conflict with Germany and Italy as an ally of Britain. In that event, Churchill strongly supported adoption by the Anglo-American Allies of a "Germany First" war strategy. Churchill appreciated that this war strategy would put Australia, British Malaya, the Philippines, and the rest of South-East Asia at serious risk of Japanese occupation if Japan entered the war on the side of Germany and Italy. However, this prospect does not appear to have greatly concerned Churchill whose top war priorities were the defence of Britain, Egypt, Palestine, the Suez Canal, and India.


The top war priorities for British Prime Minister Winston Curchill were the defence of Britain, Egypt, Palestine, the Suez Canal and India. He argued strongly for the United States and Britain to pursue a "Germany First" war strategy and treat the Pacific as a secondary theatre of World War II. Churchill does not appear to have been greatly concerned by the Japanese threat to invade Australia.

As Churchill saw it, the Philippines, Australia, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies could be recovered from Japanese occupation after Germany had been defeated.

The treacherous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor both delighted and worried Churchill. He knew that the United States would now be fighting the Axis powers with Britain, but he was concerned that President Roosevelt would be unable to resist public pressure to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor. Just before Christmas 1941, the British Prime Minister and his military chiefs travelled to Washington aboard the battleship HMS Duke of York to consult with President Roosevelt and his military chiefs. The purpose of this journey was to persuade Roosevelt to adhere to the secret agreement between the American and British governments to give priority to defeating Nazi Germany, and not to divert America's vast resources to halting Japanese aggression in the Pacific. This meeting of the two leaders and their military chiefs became known as the Arcadia Conference.

Churchill was alarmed to find on his arrival in Washington that the American public and Congress were calling for an all-out war of vengeance against Japan. The American people were still unaware that their President and his military chiefs had secretly committed the United States to defeating Germany as its top priority, and that this agreement meant holding a defensive line between Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. They were also unaware that the "Germany First" war plan effectively made everything west of that line expendable, including Australia and American military forces in the western Pacific.

When Roosevelt and Churchill joined the American military chiefs in conference on 23 December 1941, Admiral Stark had been replaced as chief of the US Navy. The new Commander in Chief of the US Navy was Admiral Ernest J. King, and he was strongly opposed to any downgrading of the war against Japan to a secondary theatre. The US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, was conscious of the fact that his army troops would have a much larger role to play in an assault on the Nazi stronghold of occupied Europe and he supported the "Germany First" strategy. With nearly two million American recruits in the US Army, and his troops heavily under-employed at that moment, Marshall was keen for the assault on Nazi-occupied Europe to be undertaken as quickly as possible.

Churchill dismissed the feasibility of an early invasion of Europe. He pointed out that the Allied forces were simply not trained, equipped, and ready to invade Nazi-occupied France. Churchill argued forcefully that American troops would be better employed in a lower scale invasion of North Africa to assist British and Australian troops to defeat General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. Having been the architect of disastrous amphibious landings in World War I (Galipolli) and World War II (Narvik), Churchill knew better than Marshall the grave dangers inherent in putting inexperienced troops ashore on a strongly defended coast. Churchill had assigned the code-name "Gymnast" to his plan for American army troops to gain amphibious landing experience in North Africa, before they undertook the far more dangerous task of assaulting the strongly defended coast of Nazi-occupied France.

To the dismay of the American military chiefs, President Roosevelt supported Churchill. Roosevelt underlined the political necessity of bringing the rapidly expanding American recruit army into action as soon as possible, and agreed that the North African operation was appropriate for that purpose. The American landing in North Africa was fixed for November 1942. It would later become known as "Operation Torch".

Roosevelt maintains the secrecy of the "Germany First" war strategy

Although conscious of the political risks for his Democratic Party in adhering to the "Germany First" war strategy so soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was persuaded by Churchill to adhere to this plan and it was confirmed in writing at the Arcadia Conference. Appreciating that the American public and Congress would not tolerate a war strategy that allowed the Japanese to proceed on an unchecked rampage across the Pacific, President Roosevelt decided to keep secret his government’s commitment to the "Germany First" war strategy.

The United States establishes a military command in Australia

Despite committing the United States to defeating Nazi Germany as its top priority, Roosevelt appreciated that the inevitability of American defeat in the Philippines made it important for the United States to hold Australia and the string of islands between Australia and Hawaii as bases for an eventual American counter-offensive against Japan. During the Battle of the Philippines , the United States Army established a new command in Australia on 22 December 1941. The new command was based at Brisbane and designated the US Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA).

The commander of USAFIA was Major General George Brett, and he was answerable to General MacArthur who was still at that time the commander of the American army in the Philippines. The purpose of USAFIA was initially to channel military supplies to the Philippines. However, the Japanese overran South-East Asia so quickly that few supplies reached the beleaguered American army in the Philippines except by submarine. Although circumstances prevented USAFIA making a significant contribution to the defence of the Philippines, the American government appreciated the importance of building up American military strength in Australia which was intended to be the main base for an Allied counter-offensive against Japan’s southern defensive perimeter which was anchored on the port of Rabaul in New Guinea after 23 January 1942.