General MacArthur is appointed Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area

On 22 February 1942, President Roosevelt reluctantly ordered General Douglas MacArthur to abandon his hard-pressed army in the Philippines and assume the office of Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area (SWPA) with headquarters in Australia. Roosevelt believed that General MacArthur had personally compromised the defence of the Philippines through serious errors of military judgment, but MacArthur had promoted an image of himself in the United States as a hero and brilliant general, and Roosevelt came under enormous public pressure to save MacArthur and give him a new command. MacArthur ordered his starving and desperate troops to fight on to the end, and gave them false hope of survival with a cruel lie that substantial military relief would soon arrive from the United States.


General Douglas MacArthur possessed a deeply flawed personality. He was vain, aloof, and showed no interest in the welfare of the troops he commanded. His mind was too closed and inflexible for him to readily deduce an enemy's strategic and tactical goals or options. He ignored unpleasant realities when it did not suit him to acknowledge them, and tended to surround himself with servile staff officers who were aware of this dangerous weakness and indulged it. A surprise move by an enemy could produce paralysing indecision at MacArthur's headquarters.

On 11 March 1942, under cover of night, MacArthur departed for Australia with his family and senior staff officers. He left his troops, his army nurses, and American civilians to face the fury of a Japanese army frustrated and humiliated by the courageous, but pointless, resistance of the American and Philippine troops.

On 17 March 1942, MacArthur's B-17 touched down at the RAAF Batchelor Field which was located 72 kilometres (45 miles) south of Darwin. He was accompanied by his wife, his child, the child's nurse, and thirteen of MacArthur's senior staff officers. The presence on the flight of thirteen of MacArthur's staff officers, known as "The Bataan Gang" by fighting soldiers on the Philippines, defied General Marshall's authorisation for Major General Sutherland alone to accompany MacArthur and his family to Australia.

MacArthur arrived in Melbourne on 21 March 1942, and immediately installed himself in the best suite in the Menzies Hotel. In the climate of great anxiety in Canberra for Australia's survival, the Curtin government was greatly relieved by General MacArthur's appointment as Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area and the location of his headquarters in Australia. The self-styled "Hero of the Pacific" was greeted with adulation by Australian politicians, public and media. Despite this adulation, MacArthur's passion for self-glorification drove him to lie about the manner in which he had arrived in Australia. He told the press that his aircraft had been closely pursued by Japanese fighter planes and had narrowly escaped Japanese bombers as it was landing at Batchelor Field. This story captured the public imagination but it was all a lie. Master Sergeant Dick Graf, who was the wireless operator on MacArthur's flight from the Philippines, later exposed MacArthur's story as a figment of his imagination. According to Graf, the flight to Australia was uneventful. MacArthur's aircraft was never under threat from the Japanese.

MacArthur came to Australia with an obsession to return to the Philippines as a hero. With his mind unwaveringly fixed on a triumphant return to the Philippines, MacArthur would neglect the northern defences of Australia and almost hand the Japanese a victory on the Kokoda Track.

In March 1942, the first American troops were sent to Australia from the United States.

Lieutenant General Blamey is appointed Commander-in-Chief of Australian Military Forces

On 23 March 1942, the Australian government recalled Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey from the Middle East to be Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces. Blamey was appointed Land Forces Commander under MacArthur.

MacArthur leaves the northern Door to Australia ajar

Shortly after his arrival in Australia, MacArthur committed the first of a series of major errors of military judgment that were to show that he had learned nothing from his part in the American debacle in the Philippines. On 3 April 1942, MacArthur received from the Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff in Washington a directive concerning the conduct of the war in the South-West Pacific. MacArthur was specifically directed to include on his staff senior Australian military officers. He defied the direction by appointing only Americans as his staff officers. The American officers appointed to his staff in Australia lacked combat experience almost to a man, and most had escaped with him from the Philippines and shared his responsibility for the debacle in the Philippines. By defying the order from his superiors, MacArthur acquired American staff officers who could be trusted to understand and support his grand vision for recovery of the Philippines, but he deprived himself of advice from Australian generals with actual experience in the conduct of war. In the subsequent bloody fighting on the island of New Guinea, the absence of experienced Australian military advisers on MacArthur's staff would be reflected in poor planning and intelligence gathering, near panic-stricken responses to surprise moves by the Japanese, and unrealistic demands by MacArthur and his staff on field commanders.

Curtin was aware that MacArthur had defied his own superiors by excluding Australians from his staff, but he made no protest to Washington. It appears likely that Curtin's acquiescence was prompted by his overwhelming relief that the United States had come to Australia's aid, and a desire not to appear ungrateful.

On 18 April 1942, General MacArthur formally assumed command of the Australian armed forces. At this time, MacArthur commanded 100,000 members of the 2nd AIF, 265,000 Australian Militia, and 38,000 Americans.

On 25 April, MacArthur issued his first directive as Supreme Commander in Australia: Allied Land Forces were to prevent any Japanese landing on the north-east coast of Australia or on the south coast of the island of New Guinea. Although the directive appeared to recognise the strategic importance of Port Moresby and the vulnerability of northern Australia to increased aerial bombardment and invasion if it were to be captured by the Japanese, MacArthur and Blamey took no immediate steps to fortify Port Moresby or reinforce with battle-toughened AIF troops the poorly armed and inadequately trained militia garrisons in New Guinea. This inexcusable neglect of the defence of Port Moresby by MacArthur and Blamey becomes even more difficult to understand in the light of evidence that the Japanese and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, were well aware of the strategic importance of Port Moresby.

At Port Moresby, Major General Basil Morris was in command of the 30th Australian Infantry Brigade, a militia formation comprising the 39th, 49th and 53rd Australian Infantry Battalions. With the exception of the 53rd Battalion, the militia were led by experienced AIF officers and NCOs, but they were only raw recruits with an average age of eighteen. In addition to the Australian militia units, General Morris also had troops of the local Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) and the local New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR). The troops of the NGVR, all European and numbering about 450, were spread thinly across areas of the Australian Territory of New Guinea not occupied by the Japanese. The fortifications of Port Moresby in April 1942 comprised two ancient naval guns, a field artillery regiment, a heavy anti-aircraft battery, and a few mobile anti-aircraft guns.

Having finally been made aware of the seriousness of the Japanese threat to Port Moresby by the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942), MacArthur requested additional Australian troops to bolster the weak defences of Port Moresby. On 15 May 1942, Blamey assigned to the defence of Port Moresby another militia formation, the 14th Australian Infantry Brigade. As we shall see when dealing with the great struggle between Australia and Japan on the Kokoda Track, the failure of the two senior commanders to send seasoned AIF troops to New Guinea at the earliest opportunity could have had disastrous consequences for Australia when elite, battle-hardened Japanese troops began their determined drive along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby in August 1942. It was only then that MacArthur and Blamey appear to have appreciated the danger to which their neglect had exposed Australia, and they rushed seasoned AIF troops of the 7th Division to New Guinea.

When heavily outnumbered and poorly supplied Australian AIF and militia troops could not initially stem the determined Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby, MacArthur and Blamey were severely criticised for their neglect to provide adequate defences for Port Moresby and the heavy loss of Australian lives on the Kokoda Track which resulted from that neglect.

MacArthur was adept at shifting the blame for his mistakes to troops under his command, and he announced his view that the Australian troops on the Kokoda Track were poor fighters who were retreating from a smaller number of Japanese troops. This was a monstrous lie. The Australian troops were outnumbered by at least five to one by elite Japanese troops, and MacArthur and Blamey had sent them into action without adequate arms or supplies. With his leadership of the Australian Army on the line, and seeing his dream of a Field Marshal's baton fading, General Blamey adopted MacArthur's lie to excuse his own neglect of Australia's northern defences and her soldiers. He ignored the overwhelming strength of the Japanese invasion force and the grave supply problems faced by Australian troops on the Kokoda Track. To his everlasting discredit, he blamed the fighting qualities of the Australian troops and their field commanders for their failure initially to stem the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby. The behaviour of General Blamey during this shameful episode will be covered in greater detail in the section dealing with the Battle of the Kokoda Track.

MacArthur, the Man and the General

To understand General MacArthur's inexcusable neglect of Australia's northern defences in 1942, and his completely unjustified criticism of the fighting qualities of Australian troops, it is necessary to say something about his military judgment and character at this point.

MacArthur possessed a deeply flawed personality. He was a commander with a mind that was too closed and inflexible for him to readily deduce an enemy's strategic and tactical goals or options, and this impaired his capacity to take appropriate measures to counter them. He ignored unpleasant realities when it did not suit him to acknowledge them, and tended to surround himself with servile staff officers who were aware of this dangerous weakness and indulged it. A surprise move by an enemy could produce paralysing indecision at MacArthur's headquarters. Coupled with his obsession with recovery of the Philippines, MacArthur's closed and inflexible mind caused him to reject warnings from Allied intelligence that the Japanese were planning an overland attack on Port Moresby.

MacArthur possessed other character flaws that should have excluded him from senior command. He was a cold man who distanced himself from his troops and he showed an indifference to their welfare that at times was callous. He was a conceited man, with a passion for self-glorification, and incapable of admitting serious military errors or learning from them. His dread of removal from command verged on paranoia. These character failings caused him to blame his commanding officers in the field and his troops for his own errors of judgment.

Perhaps the last comment on MacArthur's failings as a commander is best left to the distinguished American historian Edward J. Drea. Drea's references to "ULTRA" are to analysis of intercepted Japanese radio traffic of the kind that gave the United States Navy vital forewarning of Japanese naval movements and contributed to the American victory over Japan at the Battle of Midway. Speaking of MacArthur's neglect to make proper use of special intelligence predictions concerning Japanese intentions, Drea said:

"MacArthur consistently dismissed ULTRA evidence that failed to accord with his preconceived strategic vision. Nothing influenced him more than his desire to liberate the Philippines..and thereby erase the stain on his military reputation.

"What remains is a striking impression that MacArthur did not rely heavily on ULTRA either to frame his strategic concept of the war in the South-West Pacific or to devise operational plans to implement the strategy. A sense of destiny, not revelations from ULTRA, propelled MacArthur through his South-West Pacific operations."

Edward J. Drea: MacArthur's Ultra: Code-breaking and the War against Japan, 1942-45,at p. 230.

It is necessary to turn to MacArthur's incompetent defence of the Philippines to really appreciate how deeply flawed were his character and military judgment, and how these failings contributed significantly to the American debacle in the Battle of the Philippines. To cover these failings, MacArthur had developed a talent for self-promotion which he used to generate an image of himself in the United States as a military hero. His disastrous errors of military judgment preceding and during the Battle of the Philippines, and his callous treatment of those he left behind in the Philippines, would not be disclosed until 1945 when Lieutenant General Wainwright and other senior commanders of the United States Forces in the Philippines were released from Japanese prison camps. If the truth about MacArthur's behaviour in the Philippines had been known in 1942, it is highly likely that he would have been dismissed from command. This was the man that President Roosevelt had placed in Australia in 1942 to command Australian, American and other Allied troops.

It is necessary to mention in this context the serious flaws in General Douglas MacArthur's character because heavily outnumbered Australian troops struggling to hold back the powerful Japanese drive towards Australia in the harsh jungles of New Guinea would gain first-hand experience of these character flaws, and suffer greatly from them.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that Australia did receive a real benefit from MacArthur's appointment as Supreme Commander, South West Pacific Area, with his headquarters in Australia. MacArthur was obsessed with recovering the Philippines from the Japanese invaders, possibly from a sense of guilt for his part in the magnitude of that debacle. MacArthur's obsession worked to Australia's great advantage because it was necessary first to oust the Japanese from the island of New Guinea, and MacArthur was a powerful advocate in Washington for his command in Australia to receive the military resources necessary to achieve both tasks.