The Japanese Were Petrified of MacArthur’s Ships
Written by tokyoclub on June 25, 2021
Key Point: MacArthur’s insistence was too much for the navy brass.
In November 1941, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet weighed anchor in Shanghai, China, for the last time. Alarmed by the growing hostility and aggressiveness of the Japanese, Admiral Thomas Hart ordered the outnumbered and outgunned American vessels moved to the relative safety of Manila Bay in the Philippines.
Admiral Hart sought to coordinate Army Air Corps reconnaissance flights with his naval activity. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of American and Philippine forces, would have none of it. He refused to allow cooperation and coordination among the services. He believed that all forces—naval, air, and land—should operate under a single command: his command. Nothing short of that was acceptable.
With the beginning of hostilities, the army’s planes were destroyed on the ground and the naval base at Cavite was bombed out of action. Manila Bay became untenable for the navy. Orders from Washington, D.C., instructed Admiral Hart to move his ships to the temporary safety of Java. General MacArthur accused Hart of desertion.
MacArthur might have been able to persuade Admiral Hart to remain and fight alongside him if they had established a working relationship. The imperious general personified the interservice rivalry then burgeoning between the army and the navy. There was no love lost between the two men. Leaving Manila Bay was an easy order for Admiral Hart to follow.
‘America’s First Soldier’
By the end of December, American resistance on Guam and Wake had ceased and the only place in the South Pacific where the American army continued to fight the Japanese was in the Philippines. General MacArthur became a hero back home and was referred to in the press as “America’s First Soldier.” That soldier was demanding assistance, which could only come by sea. He continually requested that massive convoys of men and materiel be sent to the defense of the Philippines. He wanted the aircraft carriers that had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor to ferry fighter planes to him.
MacArthur’s insistence was too much for the navy brass. Fleet Admiral Ernest King, the Navy’s ranking officer during the war, would never agree to give control of fleet carriers to MacArthur. The thought of this singular army officer controlling the navy’s only real offensive assets was unbearable. In King’s mind, and in those of many other naval officers, the only weapons that stood between the Japanese and the west coast of the United States were those precious few aircraft carriers.
In the Far East, the Japanese were much too dominant in the air, on the ground, and at sea for America’s carriers to be risked on some quixotic adventure of MacArthur’s. In Washington, the gloomy assessment was that the Philippines were doomed. Yet, officially the government told MacArthur that it would sustain him. On Bataan and Corregidor wild rumors flew about of 100-mile-long convoys threading their way into Manila Bay to relieve the hard-pressed garrison. But other than the occasional submarine, no supplies were forthcoming.
In Washington, MacArthur had become something of a hot potato. He had to be ordered out of the Philippines for the sake of public opinion, if nothing else. President Roosevelt appointed him commander of all American and Allied forces in the South Pacific and ordered him to Australia to take up his new post.
Somehow MacArthur had deluded himself into thinking that all of the ships, supplies, and reinforcements that had been promised him in the Philippines were awaiting him in Australia. Upon his arrival in Sydney, he learned the bitter truth. Most of the Australian army was busy fighting with the British in North Africa, and their navy was scattered about the Atlantic. The American presence on the vast continent consisted of bits and pieces of National Guard units not yet fully assembled or trained.
Admiral King refused to allow naval personnel and ships to serve under MacArthur’s overall command, so the vast Pacific area was divided into four parts. The navy would run things in the North, Central, and South Pacific theaters, while MacArthur and the army held sway over what would be called the Southwest Pacific, basically Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines.
In the meantime, the U.S. Asiatic fleet had been largely destroyed in the Battle of the Java Sea. The tattered remains of the fleet made it to Australia, but they amounted to no more than six obsolete destroyers, a damaged light cruiser, and couple of gunboats. Significantly, however, several submarines came through, and these would sorely vex the Japanese in the coming years. These few boats, along with Australian units, formed the nucleus of what would be called “MacArthur’s Navy.”