Text and web-site by James Bowen. Last updated 8 October 2009

Admiral King refuses to accept a defensive role for the US Navy in the Pacific

Admiral Ernest J. King was appointed Commander in Chief of the United States Navy (COMINCH) in mid-December 1941, and he replaced the more cautious, Europe-centred Admiral Harold R. Stark. The man chosen by President Roosevelt to slow the Japanese rampage across the Pacific was an unlikely choice of commander to undertake a purely defensive function. King was a brilliant, tough and aggressive naval officer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Roosevelt initially supported aggressive action by Admiral Ernest J. King to halt the Japanese rampage in the Pacific and save Australia from invasion. When Admiral King's counter-offensive against Japan was opposed by the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, in April 1942 on the ground that it breached the agreed Allied "Germany First" war plan, Roosevelt cut military support for the Pacific theatre. Admiral King refused to accept the largely defensive posture assigned to the US Navy in the Pacific and went on the offensive with the ships that had survived Japan's treacherous attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

When Admiral King assumed command of the US Navy, he found that Stark had been prepared to sacrifice everything west of the International Dateline to the Japanese, including Australia and the American army in the Philippines. Admiral King rejected Stark’s approach. He believed that the United States would need access to Australia as a major base for a counter-offensive to recover the Philippines from Japan. He refused to adopt a defensive posture while the United States rebuilt its fleet.

Admiral King attended the Arcadia Conference and although he agreed in principle with Churchill’s "Germany First" war strategy, he insisted that the vaguely worded Arcadia agreement include words that would permit the United States to defend positions in the Pacific that were deemed necessary "to safeguard vital interests". The words "vital interests" were not defined, and King argued successfully for inclusion in the agreement of words authorizing the seizure of "vantage points" from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed.

The Arcadia Conference ended with Churchill and the US Army believing that the United States would pursue a war strategy that placed priority on defeating Germany and relegated the Pacific to a secondary theatre in which the United States would pursue a passive defensive posture until such time as Germany had been defeated. The US Army position was largely motivated by self-interest. The generals knew that there would be little employment for two million under-trained American soldiers in the difficult island fighting that characterized the Pacific War. The only place to deploy an army of two million recruits was on the continent of Europe, and the American generals were determined to send them there.

The US Navy was well satisfied with the final wording of the Arcadia agreement. Churchill may not have realized it, but Admiral King was determined to prevent Australia becoming part of the Japanese empire and to secure the lines of communication between Australia and the United States. The Pacific Fleet had been savaged by the treacherous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the four American fleet carriers had survived. Admiral King had been authorized by Arcadia to "safeguard vital interests" and seize "vantage points" in the Pacific from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed. King interpreted the wording of the Arcadia agreement as allowing him to go on the offensive against Japan with the limited naval resources available to him.

When Admiral Chester W. Nimitz replaced Admiral Husband Kimmel as Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) on 31 December 1941, he found new orders from Admiral King. Nimitz was ordered to defend vital military areas, halt the Japanese advance, keep the lines of communication with Australia open, and mount offensives against the Japanese with his three aircraft carriers USS Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga and other warships available to him in the Pacific. King ordered the return of aircraft carrier USS Yorktown to the Pacific after a stint of convoy duty in the Atlantic.

The US Navy and Army disagree over allocation of American military resources

During the early months of 1942, fierce debate ensued between the US Navy and Army as to where America’s then limited military resources of shipping, trained troops, and equipment should be allocated. Following the Churchill line, the US Army rated the European theatre, the Middle East, and India as being America’s top war priorities. Although the US Army rated the keeping open of lines of communication with Australia as being "highly desirable", and was prepared to allocate under-trained garrison troops for that purpose, it consistently opposed allocation of significant numbers of Army aircraft and its best troops to the South Pacific theatre.

As the Japanese rapidly tightened their grip on South-East Asia and threatened Australia, Admiral King moved quickly to establish garrisons on islands that would provide Allied staging and defensive strongholds between Hawaii and Australia. He rushed a US Marine brigade to the South Pacific to provide a garrison for American Samoa. Rather than endure the embarrassment of allowing huge numbers of American army reservists and recruits to remain idle in the United States, the US Army provided small garrisons for America’s Palmyra, Canton, and Christmas Islands. The US Navy then established a refueling base at Bora Bora in the French Society Islands.

The strategic importance of New Caledonia, as a rich source of the minerals nickel and chrome, persuaded the US Army to cobble together an improvised Americal division of 15,000 infantry supported by tanks, artillery and a fighter squadron as a garrison for that island. Technicians, engineers, and fuel supplies were also rushed to each of these island staging posts between Hawaii and Australia. The US Army components of these South Pacific island garrisons were mostly drawn from under-trained Army Reservists, National Guards, and raw recruits.

Admiral King establishes an ANZAC Command for the defence of Australia

The squabbling between the US Navy and Army over allocation of resources to the South Pacific was interrupted by the extension of Japanese military aggression to Australian New Guinea with the capture of Rabaul on 23 January 1942. Admiral King responded quickly to the developing Japanese threat to Australia by appointing Rear Admiral Herbert F. Leary commander of a new ANZAC Area with responsibility to protect Australia and New Zealand from the advancing Japanese. King also dispatched the carrier USS Lexington to patrol the seas north of Australia.

The US accepts responsibility for the defence of Australia against Japan

Following the capture of Rabaul, British intelligence predicted, correctly as it turned out, that Japan's next move would be to capture the Solomon islands, New Caledonia and the Fiji Islands. The Japanese assigned the code reference "Operation FS" to this plan which was intended to cut the lines of communication between Australia and the United States, intensify the Japanese blockade of Australia, and hopefully, persuade Australia to surrender to Japan.

With the capture of Rabaul, the Japanese were not merely on Australia's doorstep but already had one foot through the front door. The only troops available in Australia to defend it from invasion were 265,000 undertrained and poorly equipped militia recruits. Three of Australia's four well trained and equipped AIF divisions had answered Britain's call and had been sent to the Middle East. The fourth division (8th AIF Division) was scattered across Australia's northern approaches at Singapore, Timor, Ambon, and Rabaul.

Responding to the grave threat of Japanese invasion, Prime Minister Curtin called for the return of two Australian AIF divisions from the Middle East to defend their own country. Curtin’s request cut squarely across British-American war strategy that gave priority to defending India and the oil-rich Middle East and no priority to the defence of the Philippines, Australia, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. Winston Churchill was very reluctant to see two battle-toughened Australian divisions released to defend their own country when he wanted to employ them in the defence of India. The British Prime Minister felt obliged to ask President Roosevelt to provide American troops for the defence of Australia. Roosevelt agreed, and on 15 February 1942, he announced that the United States would accept responsibility for the defence of Australia and New Zealand. Pursuant to that undertaking, a forward echelon of the US 41st Infantry Division embarked for Australia on 4 March 1942, and arrived in Sydney on 7 April 1942. On 22 April 1942, the 32nd Infantry Division sailed from San Francisco for Australia and arrived at Adelaide on 14 May 1942. Although welcomed by the Australian government, these American divisions were composed of under-trained and inexperienced National Guard units.

The US Army opposes Admiral King’s plans to go on the offensive against Japan

The Allies were stunned by the fall of Britain’s much vaunted "impregnable fortress" Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. On 18 February 1942, Admiral King proposed to his army counterpart General Marshall establishment of naval facilities at Tongatapu in the Friendly Islands, and establishment of army garrisons at Tongatapu and Efate in the New Hebrides. Marshall balked at this proposal. He suspected that King was preparing for a major offensive against the Japanese in the South Pacific in defiance of the agreed "Germany First" war strategy, and requested clarification of the purpose of establishing American bases so far west of Hawaii. King responded in a memorandum dated 2 March 1942. The Navy chief admitted that his purposes in establishing the two bases were not only to protect the lines of communication with Australia but also to establish bases from which a step-by-step advance could be mounted through the Solomons to the Bismark Archipelago situated off the north-eastern coast of the New Guinea mainland. King pointed out that such an advance against Japan’s southern defensive perimeter would be likely to deflect the Japanese advance towards Australia and draw Japanese troops away from Burma and India.

President Roosevelt appears to support Admiral King’s aggressive Pacific War strategy

The disagreement between his senior Navy and Army commanders caused President Roosevelt to convene a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 5 March to discuss Pacific strategy.

Predictably, the Army chiefs argued that Admiral King’s Pacific strategy would undermine the "Germany First" commitment. King summarized his proposal as being to hold Hawaii, support Australia, and drive deeply into Japan’s southern defensive perimeter through the Solomon Islands.

President Roosevelt was keenly aware that, after Pearl Harbor, the American people and Congress were in no mood to tolerate inaction by his government in the face of continuing rapid Japanese military advances in the South Pacific. Affirming the need to defend Australia, the President appeared to give his support to Admiral King’s aggressive Pacific strategy.

The US Navy develops a war strategy for the Pacific War

Admiral King now felt that he had backing from Roosevelt to go on the offensive against Japan, and he passed his plan for development to Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, chief of the War Plans Division in Washington. Turner presented his "Pacific War Campaign Plan" to Admiral King on 16 April 1942. The Pacific War plan involved a basic premise that it would be much more difficult for the United States to recover territory after it had been captured by the Japanese and fortified. Turner argued that the Japanese should be prevented from occupying areas that the US Navy viewed as being vital for mounting a successful American-Australian counter-offensive. Turner included in those areas Australia, Port Moresby on the southern coast of the New Guinea mainland, the Solomon Islands to the east of New Guinea, and the string of islands between the Solomons and Hawaii.

The Turner Pacific War plan comprised four phases. The first phase required a build-up of American forces and positions in the South and South-West Pacific. The second phase was to be a combined American-Australian offensive through the Solomons and New Guinea to recapture the northern coast of New Guinea and the Bismark Archipelago where the Japanese were establishing a major base at the former Australian port of Rabaul.

The third phase involved the removal of the Marshall and Caroline Islands from Japanese control and establishment of advanced American air and naval bases on those island groups. This phase had been US Navy war strategy between the World Wars in the event of war with Japan, but the rapid Japanese advances across South-East Asia and deepening threat to Australia had forced priority to be given to mounting a counter-offensive through the Solomons and New Guinea.

The final phase would involve an Allied advance into the Netherlands East Indies or the Philippines, depending upon which of the two offered the greater strategic advantage to the Allies.

The Turner plan envisaged a step-by-step and simultaneous Allied counter-offensive through New Guinea and the Central Pacific island groups. Pacific islands would be used as stepping stones to reach the Philippines, and land-based aircraft would protect each advance. Retaining Allied control of Port Moresby was viewed as being vital to the success of the Allied counter-offensive.

Admiral King approved Rear Admiral Turner’s Pacific War plan, and it became the US Navy’s basic war strategy for the Pacific.

The US Army refuses to provide additional troops for a Pacific counter-offensive

Although Admiral King had the President’s verbal approval to pursue an aggressive Pacific war strategy, the US Army refused to provide additional troops beyond the 41,000 already committed to defend the lines of communication with Australia. As mentioned above, these US Army troops were mostly drawn from under-trained Army Reservists, National Guards, and raw recruits. The US Navy had already committed 15,000 of its own Marines.

On 9 March 1942, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff split the Pacific into the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) and the Pacific Ocean Area (POA). The South-West Pacific Area comprised Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines. General MacArthur would be rescued from his beleaguered army in the Philippines to take command of this new military area from Australia. SWPA was not viewed in Washington as a prestigious command. President Roosevelt was not an admirer of MacArthur’s leadership qualities, and he felt that MacArthur deserved a posting to a location that was viewed in Washington as one of the backwaters of World War II. The ANZAC Area was abolished and Rear Admiral Leary and his ships were placed under MacArthur’s control.

In addition to his command of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz was appointed Commander in Chief Pacific Ocean Area. Under the overall command of Nimitz, the Pacific was divided into North, Central, and South Pacific sub-commands. Nimitz retained direct operational command of the North and Central Pacific areas. Rear Admiral Robert L. Ghormley was appointed Commander South Pacific, and he was responsible to Nimitz.

The US Army persuades Roosevelt to deny additional resources for the Pacific

On 1 April 1942, the US Navy’s Pacific War plan received an unexpected setback. General Marshall complained to the President in what has become known as the Marshall Memorandum that diversion of military resources to the Pacific placed Britain and the Soviet Union at risk of defeat by Germany. Marshall called for a massive build-up in Britain of American troops and aircraft , code-named "Bolero", in preparation for a limited offensive in Nazi-occupied Europe in late 1942 to take pressure off the Soviet Union. Marshall also proposed a major invasion of Europe, set tentatively for April 1943. Churchill, with his own experience of disastrous landings at Gallipoli and Narvik, was appalled by the failure of the American army commanders to appreciate the grave dangers involved in putting inexperienced troops ashore on a strongly defended coast. He had warned Roosevelt and Marshall of these dangers on his visit to Washington in late December 1941, but Marshall had chosen to ignore Churchill’s advice.

In the first week of May 1942, President Roosevelt did an extraordinary backflip on US Pacific War policy. Perhaps influenced by very heavy American shipping losses from German U-boat activities in the Atlantic, Roosevelt reaffirmed priority for Churchill’s "Germany First" war strategy. By making this decision, Roosevelt effectively declared Port Moresby, the Australian mainland, Hawaii, and all of the island groups between them to be hostages to fortune. Denied significant military resources by Roosevelt from early May 1942, Admiral King would have to try to save Australia, Port Moresby, and Hawaii from Japanese attack and occupation with the meagre resources already available to him, including all that remained of his Pacific Fleet after the devastating Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Fortunately for Australia and Hawaii, the US Navy had in Admirals King and Nimitz two of the best commanders of World War II. King was a brilliant and bold strategist. Nimitz was a brilliant and bold tactician. Aided by Allied code-breaking skills, American heroism, and extraordinary good luck, these two admirals would save Roosevelt’s presidential reputation at the crucial Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942.