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  • History Friday: MacArthur’s SWPA Intelligence

    Posted by Trent Telenko on June 7th, 2013 (All posts by )

    One of the most important things to know about General Douglas MacArthur is that almost everything you “know” in popular culture and from official WW2 US Navy and US Intelligence histories about MacArthur as a military commander is wrong. This is especially true with regard to his intelligence operations. Like MacArthur himself, when MacArthur’s intelligence institutions were very, very good, such as in the use of Ultra intelligence in the Bismark Sea, Lae, Wewak,and Hollandia in 1943 and 1944, his bureaucratic enemies described his intelligence work and motives badly in official histories…if they mentioned them at all. And when MacArthur was struggling with intelligence, they were worse…and what they did “while being worse” wasn’t documented in those official histories.

    MacArthur developed a wide ranging set of intelligence institutions that supported his drive to the Philippines, which answered only to him, and through him to Washington, DC. This made these organizations “less efficient” than the centralized intelligence model the British used, and the FDR Administration partially copied, because it duplicated cryptographic efforts of other commands and Washington, DC. However, it was far more responsive to MacArthur’s needs and especially the needs of battlefield commanders in his theater.

    General Douglas MacArthur created the following intelligence agencies —

    o The Central Bureau, under the direction of his Signals officer, General Akin
    o The Allied Intelligence Bureau, under the direction of his G-2 intelligence officer, General Willoughby
    o The Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, under the direction of his G-2, General Willoughby
    o The Allied Geographical Section, under the direction of his Chief Engineer, General Hugh J. Casey
    o Section 22 Radio and Radar Countermeasures, under the direction of his Signals officer, General Akin

    Every one of the organizations above was run by one of MacArthur’s “Bataan Gang”, officers who had been with him at the siege and defeat at Bataan in the Philippines. And every one of them gave their chief loyalty to MacArthur. This drove the US Army and US Navy intelligence Mandarins in Washington, DC crazy, particularly with regard to the caviler way MacArthur’s people used Ultra signals intelligence.

    Ultra in context requires some explaining. In the beginning with the British in 1940, “Ultra” referred to German Enigma machine decodes by the British, and “Magic” was the US Army breaking of the Japanese diplomatic code. These two efforts were horse traded by British Prime Minister Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt to form the basis of the UK-US intelligence “Special Relationship”. Eventually in World War 2 the term “Ultra” came to mean any signals intelligence product, especially intelligence involving decoding of enemy communications.

    In this UK-US “Special Relationship”, in which it was an unwilling participant, the US Navy was very heavily involved both in the breaking of the Japanese JN-25 naval code and later — separately — providing Enigma decoding machines or “bombes” for decoding of German submarine fleet Enigma messages. The US Navy did not like sharing intelligence with the US Army, let alone the British, and in WW2 the US Naval Intelligence Mandarins did not share a single in-Pacific theater intercept-decrypt for release back to the Army without it going direct to Washington, DC for review first.

    Admiral Nimitz had his own decoding team in Hawaii for most code breaking, but the DC crowd often had more machines to code break than Nimitz and thus some Pacific Naval signals intelligence suffered a transmission delay as a result.

    This dislike of the US Army played out in a number of ways as the recent US Air Force history “Piercing the Fog – Intelligence and Army Air Forces Operations in World War II” makes clear at this link — Pay close attention to chapter five of the book for the issues of US Navy versus Army Air Force sharing of Ultra signals intercepts and how the 13th Air Force under Adm. Halsey went to MacArthur’s command during Operation Cartwheel to get Ultra data, when Halsey’s intelligence officer refused to provide it. The story is on pages 256 and 257 and this is the most relevant paragraph in those two pages:

    Because Admiral Halsey’s intelligence officer would not provide Harmon’s staff with a regular flow of ULTRA early in 1943, and over the objections of Halsey’s intelligence officer, Sherman arranged with General Willoughby to receive locally derived and Washington SIGINT information from Brisbane. Sherman sent as much of this material as possible to Twining and the Thirteenth Air Force A-2.22
    22. Diary, L. C. Sherman, AFHSO, pp. 12, 17, 21, 26-27..

    When you look up the histories of the US-UK “Ultra Deals”, this is no surprise. The US Navy during the entire war refused to share Pacific theater Ultra data directly with US Army theater commanders in the Pacific. This included Generals Short, Harmon and Richardson, as well as MacArthur.

    MacArthur played the intelligence game differently. One of the better places to see General MacArthur’s command style — in terms of communications with the Navy — is CHAPTER VIII Communications in the Southwest Pacific to Mid-1944 in the US Army WW2 Green book “The Technical Services THE SIGNAL CORPS: THE OUTCOME ( Mid-1943 Through 1945)” by George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris.

    The following passages should be of real interest as far as the Leyte-MacArthur myths are concerned, since the US Navy blames MacArthur — in the form of oral history that Admiral van Deurs gave back in 1975 and showed up in the 2003 E. B. Potter book entitled “Bull Halsey” — for the lack of communications between Admirals Halsey and Kinkaid at Leyte:

    Page 242

    An activity wherein direct control and quick action were peculiarly necessary was signal intelligence, one of the SWPA chief signal officer’s large responsibilities. General Akin arranged for the direct and immediate provision of intercepted information to the commanders who were empowered to act thereon. To this end he attached signal intelligence elements to the commanders’ headquarters or located them nearby. He assigned a signal intelligence detachment to Admiral Halsey’s flagship, at the admiral’s request. Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, when he took command of the Fifth Fleet in SWPA, found this Army service so valuable that he continued to keep the signal specialists on duty with him. Similar units were likewise attached to AAF advanced headquarters as well as to ground force commands, and were always sufficiently close at hand so that information from their intercept sources could be acted upon immediately.

    and Page 243

    Although the SWPA chief signal officer through his relations with Allied and joint liaison officers in the GHQ accomplished a kind of joint control over SWPA signals, he did not direct that SWPA communications below his level be conducted jointly, and in signal matters. He pursued the policy of MacArthur himself, allowing each service to operate separately but to co-operate at the same time. Each subordinate element down the line was thus expected to use its own communications equipment, personnel, and procedures in its own usual manner, while coordinating with participating forces. This was not a joint operation, duplication might be expected, but General Akin believed this method of operation was faster, more efficient, and entirely justifiable in wartime if it brought victory and brought it quicker. 11

    There was sufficient communications between the American Army and Navy at Leyte. There wasn’t enough between the Fleet units of the American Navy. That was Nimitz’s, Halsey’s and Kinkaid’s problem, not MacArthur’s.

    The pattern I keep seeing, regards service communications operating styles in WW2, was that communications for the US Navy was a power and control issue. While the US Army, due to its Signal Corps charter to COMMUNICATE, saw it as a technical background detail that only mattered when there wasn’t enough material and people to communicate for operations or logistics. It helped that both Generals Akin and Willoughby also went out of their way to prevent the British centralized control Ultra model from being instituted in the SWPA — with MacArthur’s backing — to keep it that way.

    That institutional difference between the SWPA, the US Navy and the Washington DC intelligence organs, alone, would and did cause no small amount of friction in the Pacific.

    MacArthur’s decrypts — particularly of the Japanese Army’s “Water Transport code” by the Central Bureau – were sent both to US Army Signals Intelligence (aka Sigint) in Washington, DC, adjacent commands, _AND_ shared directly with US Naval units to strike Japanese shipping _simultaneously_. Some times this Ultra sharing was with commanders at General Kenney’s and Admirals Halsey’s and Spruance’s level included raw Ultra decodes that “jumped queue” at General Akin’s discretion. This was a huge violation of Ultra security protocols outside the SWPA, but was standard operating procedure within it.

    Thus, MacArthur’s intelligence was far more timely than the Naval Sigint simply because he and his Chief Signal Officer General Akin removed a huge transmission cycle and analysis delay from the distribution loop for much of the material.

    This also meant that MacArthur could and did use his Allied Central Bureau Sigint liaison to provide “command influence” over the actions of Admirals Halsey, Spruance and ultimately Nimitz for a number of things, including ultimately convincing the lot that the Philippines was a better option than Formosa.

    Adm. King and US Naval intelligence in DC did not realize, until well after the fact, exactly how badly MacArthur out-played them on that score. That US Naval Historian Adm. Morrison had anti-MacArthur motivations, given that particular turn of events, is a given. That MacArthur’s direct control of Ultra intelligence distribution — outside Washington, DC Ultra intelligence bureaucracy’s hands — played a huge role in his successes is something US intelligence agency histories of the era still don’t want to mention.

    When it came to _using_ Ultra intelligence, compared to the US Navy, MacArthur was more interested in winning the war than in power games. Try and find that fact in either of the official US Naval and intelligence histories of the Pacific War!


    10 Responses to “History Friday: MacArthur’s SWPA Intelligence”

    1. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Great post, but I tend to see it as an example of centralizing forces of bureaucracy versus decentralizing forces of networks. The USN in Washington wanted a monopoly on decrypting. Look at what they did to Rochefort, admittedly a poor bureaucratic infighter, but still one of their own, after he embarrassed DC at Midway. MacArthur and company must have seen that and recognized that they really had to protect their own assets.

    2. Mike K Says:

      I think it’s pretty well accepted that the battle of Leyte Gulf was “The Battle of Bull’s Run.” Nimitiz minimized the consequences to Halsey and again after the typhoon although McCain was relieved. Halsey was too public a figure to allow him to fail even though those two events were terrible examples of his command failures. Of course, the people who saved Halsey’s reputation from ruin were the sailors of Taffy Three.

    3. Trent Telenko Says:

      This —

      >>Great post, but I tend to see it as an example of centralizing
      >>forces of bureaucracy versus decentralizing forces of networks.

      That is a very powerful modern observation and understanding I am going to use a lot.

    4. tomw Says:

      Link didn’t work, and the search tool couldn’t find… So, look here for Piercing the Fog:

      It is a bit down the page if you want to read.


    5. Trent Telenko Says:

      This is Google’s latest search result for a direct PDF link —

      And it works with the current adobe reader when clicked upon via Google.

      Yet it does not work as a click from my post.

    6. Jonathan Says:


      There’s a period at the end of the URL in your “href=” link. That looks like the cause of your problem.

    7. Trent Telenko Says:


      I removed the period and tried the link both directly and as a new tab. It still gives me ‘no link found.’

      This appears to be a security thing at the USAF end.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      It works for me. Perhaps you are looking at a cached version of the page?

    9. Trent Telenko Says:

      It works on the wife’s computer. So it looks like a cache issue.

    10. Leather Helmet Says:

      I have read that MacArthur had advance knowledge
      of the Japanese landing that led to their drive on
      Port Morsby. According to them, MacArthur could
      have put troops into the landing grounds, and
      possibly prevented the whole Buna campaign.

      Is that a myth?