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Nations at war
Gailey, Harry. MacArthur Strikes Back: Decision at Buna: New Guinea, 1942-1943. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2000.
Maps; photos; Epilogue; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Although it has received far less attention in post-war literature, the opening rounds of the New Guinea campaign in 1942-1943 proved nearly as important as the campaign on Guadalcanal in terms of halting Japanese expansion and turning the tide in the Pacific.
Despitecompared to Guadalcanala relative dearth of works on the Japanese effort to capture Port Moresby and the eventual Allied victories at Buna, Sanananda, and Gona, there are already a couple of important heavyweights in the field. The Victory in Papua volume of the US Army Official History series devotes over 400 pages to the campaign while the South-west Pacific Area, First Year: Kokoda to Wau volume of the ground series of the Australian official histories offers another 500 pages on the same topic. Harry Gailey has distilled these two tomes, studied some primary sources, mixed in several dozen secondary works, conducted a few interviews, and produced a solid, accessible history of the campaign. MacArthur Strikes Back is a workmanlike if unspectacular survey of a fascinating part of the war.
Gailey's account opens with an outline of Japan's initial moves in the Pacific, the threat to Australia, and General Douglas MacArthur's escape from Corregidor to Down Under. At this point MacArthur had few resources and little clear idea of how to halt the Japanese. His initial plan, envisioning immediate assaults directly against New Britain, was a pipe-dream. While MacArthur demanded ground, air, and naval reinforcements to make his ambitious schemes feasible, the Japanese produced their own plan and beat the Allies to the punch. Only the naval Battle of the Coral Sea saved Australia from disaster when the Japanese invasion force destined for Port Moresby was turned back. Given the setback at sea, the Japanese decided to capture the important port on the south coast of Papua New Guinea not by amphibious landing, but by an overland assault through the jungles, swamps, and nearly impassible Owen Stanley mountains.
The main narrative of MacArthur Strikes Back commences with the Japanese setting out from the Buna/Sanananda/Gona area and pushing up the Kokoda Track with only a few understrength, unsupported, unsupplied Australian units standing in their way.
Right from the beginning Gailey makes it clear that MacArthur and most of his staff believed the Aussies wouldn't fight. (Of course, General Blamey and most of his Australian staff felt the same way about the Yank troops when they entered the campaign.) MacArthur's preconceptions went unchallenged when the Japanese forced back the defenders and, eventually looking down on the Coral Sea from the last ridge above Port Moresby, seemed on the verge of capturing their objective. The author is far more sympathetic to the combat soldiers (of Australia, the US, and Japan) who were forced to fight in such appalling conditions, andwith the facts laid squarely in front of the readerthe dismissal of the Australian tactical commanders who had actually saved Blamey and MacArthur from disaster seems all the more outrageous.
Gailey describes the failed Japanese effort at Milne Bay and the gradual turn of the tide as growing Allied airpower took command of the skies, American and Australian reinforcements joined the battle on the ground, and a pitifully small but ultimately decisive Allied naval flotilla made its presence felt.
With Japanese forces tied down and suffering steady attrition in the Solomons, MacArthur's forces went over to the offensive. The Aussie brigades fought their way back up the Kokoda Track and across the Owen Stanleys while the American 32nd Infantry Division moved toward Buna. The Japanese could barely supply or reinforce their positions on the north coast; Allied air transport and a few coastal vessels made it possible for MacArthur to sustain and supportbarelyhis advancing ground forces.
The Americans, after traversing knee-deep swamps, had to stop at a miserable site at Guri Guri, near Totore. The engineers built a log raft and crossed the river, only to discover they were on the wrong trail. They then decided to string a cable upstream from the camp. Fifteen hundred feet of cable was dropped by air, but the engineers had no special tools. All this proved fruitless when it was discovered that the trail ahead was under seven feet of water. Faced with this situation, it was decided to attempt to move the troops to Pongani by water. The 3rd was ordered to march to Gobe village, just west of Porlock Harbor. From there they would be taken by ship around Cape Nelson to Pongani. The other battalions would wait at Wanigela until boats were available to transport them. The march of the 3rd Battalion to Gobe took four days, with a large portion of the unit debilitated by malaria.
Fighting in the worst conditions imaginable, the green 32nd Division suffered heavy casualties and failed to make much headway against the determined defenders. MacArthur was not impressed, and he insisted that his troops must push forward at all costs before the Japanese pulled some fresh strategic trick out of their bag. Having already issued a highly optimistic press release about the advance on Buna, MacArthurwithout any first-hand knowledge of conditions at the frontfired blameless American commanders as willy-nilly as the Aussies had been canned. Their successors could only report the same terrible weather, the same unforgiving terrain, and the same slow progress.
Eventually, thanks to the sacrifices of the American and Australian infantrymen (and a few invaluable tanks), the Japanese positions were broken. With these successes, the door had been finally slammed shut on any possibility of the Japanese invading Australia or interdicting the vital supply lines leading there. Likewise, with new forward bases, airfields, and harbors, the Allies were in a position to seriously contemplate the same kinds of plans that had been nothing but pipe-dreams a few months earlier.
Gailey's description of the campaign is fast-paced and succinct. Combat and maneuver are detailed at brigade/regiment/battalion/company level, and the author is especially careful to keep track of where all the units are at any given time. While the comings and goings and plans and decisions of commanders are thoroughly covered, relatively little is said about the day-to-day experiences of individual soldiers in their soggy foxholes (except for a few critical individual actions and medal winners). In that sense this is much more of a history of the battle as a whole than it is a collection of personal stories.
A certain amount of attention is paid to the Japanese side of the lines, but the perspective here is mostly that of the Allies. Similarly, although air operations are not ignored, they are not covered in nearly the same detail, or with the same careful identification of units involved, as the ground actions. On the sigint dimensions of the campaign, the book remains mostly silent except for noting how MacArthur's staff consistently underestimated enemy strength. (Gailey mentions on more than one occasion how MacArthur's instructions to push ahead rapidly and at any cost contained dark hints about unforeseen eventualities, but the author seldom ties these to broad intelligence assessments. In fact, as Edward J. Drea makes plain in MacArthur's Ultra, during much of the Allied offensive, their sigint simultaneously underestimated the strength of the Japanese defenders in Papua, inflated vastly and mistakenlythe strength of Japanese forces available to intervene, minimized the ability of the enemy to move reinforcements to Papua, and predicted a major Japanese offensive.)
Unlike the official histories, which are generally more circumspect in this regard, MacArthur Strikes Back can be unabashedly judgmental. Gailey is not reluctant to point out when commanders made mistakes in Papua. Unfortunately for MacArthur and Blamey, they take the heat far more than anyone else. The author unambiguously demonstrates that neither was producing brilliant tactical or strategic decisions at this point in the war, neither was sufficiently familiar with the realities of what was happening at the front, and both were willing to sacrifice competent subordinates for what were essentially reasons of politics and publicity.
The later victories that would bolster MacArthur's reputation as a brilliant strategist rested upon the all-but-forgotten earlier Papua campaign. In this he had shown little of the brilliance he would later display. Beset by political difficulties and provided with few of the supplies he needed, he compounded the problem by underestimating his enemy and not realizing the actual combat conditions facing his forces. The mistakes of both MacArthur and Blamey, operating with little knowledge but nevertheless deciding a priori on the tactical situation, did not show either commander at his best. The ultimate victory depended not on brilliant generalship but on the courage and dogged determination of thousands of tired and sick troops who gave the Allies their first victory and paved the way for all subsequent successful actions in New Guinea.
Recommended for anyone who wants to learn about the Papua campaign, and for anyone who wants blunter assessments of the mistakes of famous generals than can be offered by official histories. And an excellent antidote for anyone who thinks the remainder of the Pacific was quiet while the battle raged on Guadalcanal.
(Once again, by the way, although there seems to be no mention of it between the covers, the maps here owe a great deal to the originals in the US Army volume.)
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Presidio.
Thanks to Presidio Press for providing this review copy.
Reviewed 19 November 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone