Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Guest Post: 25 May, 1942 - New Guinea Force stems the tide

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input from Allen W. McDonnell.

Supreme Commander Allied Forces South West Pacific Area General Douglas MacArthur issued General Headquarters Operational Instruction No.7 placing all Australian and US Army, Air Force, and Navy Forces in the Port Moresby Area under the control of New Guinea Force.

Six months earlier, MacArthur had been recalled to active duty in the United States Army and designated commander of the United States Armed Forces in the Asia-Pacific region. In this role, he had led the defending Philippine and United States troops against a Japanese invasion ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The aircraft under his command were destroyed; the naval forces were ordered to leave; and, because of the circumstances in the Pacific region, reinforcement and resupply of his ground forces were impossible. MacArthur was ordered to Australia, where he started to plan for a return to the Philippines

Given his recent failure to properly prepare or execute the defense of the Philippines, this reorganization of the New Guinea Force might have been viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism. The truth was that, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington had been reluctant to invest in defensive reinforcements at a time when the Commonwealth was preparing for full independence. The reality now was rather different; unlike his unhappy experience in the Philippines, MacArthur actually had massive support from Washington, making a decision that was high-profile but also ill-fated. A key strategic decision was to massively reinforce the Australian Armed Forces. Given the staggering amount of military resources that the Empire of Japan would pour into New Guinea, this move not only made a great deal of tactical sense but also made the south-west area the center point of the American effort in the Pacific War.

The military logic was fundamentally sound but overshadowed by the wider Germany First vs. Japan First debate, which had raged for months. Almost inevitably, the final outcome would be that both theatres would be given equal priority. MacArthur privately called this fudge the "Both First, Japan Quickest" strategy, which in cynical terms was exactly what it was. There were two main corollaries of this equal priority strategy adopted by America: to use submarine warfare as a primary means to interdict Japanese shipping and to send greater troop strengths to Borneo and New Guinea. This later decision was a tacit acknowledgement that the fighting in China and Burma would not shorten the war.

Aircraft carrier production was up to full speed by late 1943. Thanks to the submariners, Japan was unable to support the Imperial armies fighting on mainland Asia, let alone return them to the Home Islands for defensive purposes. MacArthur began to prepare his forces for a knock-out blow from a nearby island, requesting massive reinforcements. Unfortunately, the US was unable to simultaneously invade Japan and France; therefore, the "Equal Priority" strategy had backfired. The fudge came back to haunt President Roosevelt and Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who bitterly quarreled with MacArthur. This dispute would result in MacArthur's relief leading to him entering the presidential race for 1944.

Author's Note:

In reality, during the second phase, lasting from late 1942 until the Japanese surrender, the Allies--consisting primarily of Australian forces--cleared the Japanese first from Papua, then the Mandate, and finally from the Dutch colony.

Notes from Allen W. McDonnell:

The surge of manpower in the Pacific theatre was perhaps even more important than MacArthur's personal qualities in leadership. Despite phantom fear of Italian and German battleships that would have been sitting ducks without air cover if they had managed to cross the Atlantic undetected, battleships including the North Carolina and Washington, along later with the New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Wyoming served effectively in hit-and-run raids with CVE assigned for air cover. Their guns could hit almost anywhere on most of the smaller Japanese-held islands, supplying devastating artillery barrages to cover amphibious invasions. The early deployment of the carrier Ranger, too, placed American naval strength at least on equal footing by 1942. With the Japanese navy balanced out of the equation, MacArthur started getting the logistical support he needed much quicker for the New Guinea campaign. Japan could not ignore that force, now forced to respond with as much strength as they could with the USN picking off troop transports and cargo ships delivering men and material to New Guinea from day one of the campaign. Despite the massive effort, or because of it, the losses in New Guinea put Japan on a desperate defensive posture for the rest of the war.

Provine's Addendum:

MacArthur handily won the 1944 Republican nomination for the presidency. Older elites were concerned about the general being a wild card, so Governor of New York Thomas Dewey agreed to serve in the vice-presidential nomination spot with promises that his level-headed legal mind would get its turn at presidency down the road. The election became brutal as Democrats sought to bring light to MacArthur's habit of firing staff before properly reviewing the situation, while MacArthur enthusiasts pronounced him the greatest military leader in American history since Andrew Jackson or even George Washington. MacArthur himself pressed the appeal to end the war sooner by whatever means necessary, accusing FDR of dragging his feet and placating his overseas friends, especially Stalin. MacArthur won the vote in November, and upon his inauguration began the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.

American troops found Japan a starving military factory well loaded with materiel it had been unable to deliver to troops in China and Indochina due to submarine warfare. Food and raw materials were scarce, and the population had been rationed nearly to death. By the time of the surrender that fall, occupation forces became popular due to the flood of new supplies that winter. Japanese troops returned from mainland Asia, where they had been ravaged by Chinese defenders and often unable to return fire due to the lack of ammunition.

In 1945, MacArthur turned his attention more thoroughly to Europe, at last opening a front in northern France that Stalin had begged for months. With German forces still concentrated in eastern Europe, the Russian counteroffensive had been as grueling as American and British Commonwealth soldiers had experienced in the long-lasting Italian campaign. That fall, to bring the war to an early end, MacArthur played the card Allies had held close to the chest since 1942: an atomic bomb. Two bombs were dropped, first on Dresden and then Berlin. Hitler himself was believed to have been killed in the second, though his body was eventually unburied from his bunker with a gunshot wound. Surviving German leaders surrendered. Word of radiation poisoning and radiation drift across the prevailing winds into Soviet territory shocked the world, lending to the eventual Baruch Plan that would stymie the development of further nuclear weapons.

Hailed as a hero, MacArthur handily won reelection in 1948. By 1952, however, the populace had wearied of the wave of conservatism both from the White House and in Congress from leaders such as Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and Richard Nixon of California. Democrat Adlai Stevenson II won by a narrow margin, which many reactionaries declared was somehow fraud orchestrated by the new world order. Although Stevenson mocked the idea of outside forces controlling US citizens, his presidency affirmed the legal international might of the United Nations that would prove itself by overcoming the Cold War.

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