One of the important things to know about General Douglas MacArthur was that almost nothing said or written about him can be trusted without extensive research to validate its truthfulness. There were a lot of reasons for this. Bureaucratic infighting inside the US Army, inside the War Department, and between the War and Naval Departments all played a role from MacArthur’s attaining flag rank in World War 1 (WW1) through his firing by President Truman during the Korean War. His overwhelming need to create what amounts to a cult of personality around himself was another. However, the biggest reason for this research problem was that, if the Clinton era political concept of “The Politics of Personal Destruction” had been around in the 1930’s-thru-1950’s, General Douglas MacArthur’s face would have been its poster boy. Everything the man did was personal, and that made everything everyone else did in opposition to him, “personal” to them. Thus followed rounds of name calling, selective reporting and political partisanship that have utterly polluted the historical record and requires research over decades to untangle.
Case in point is the aftermath of the Sandakan Death March, where the Australian Army and in particular it’s commander General (eventually Field Marshal) Sir Thomas Blamey, blamed MacArthur for the cancellation of “Project Kingfisher” rescue mission and by extension the deaths of those POW’s.
To understand these charges against MacArthur requires a little back ground. Sandakan was a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Northern Borneo that took 2345 British and Australian prisoners captured in Singapore in Feb. 1942. These Australian and British POWs were shipped to North Borneo in order to construct a military airstrip as well as their POW camp. “Project Kingfisher” was a daring plan in late 1944 by which an the First Australian Parachute Battalion would have rescued the 1900 or so British and Australian POW left alive there in January 1945.
Unfortunately, due to combination of official indifference in both Australian high command and intelligence circles, plus disputes with MacArthur’s Headquarters over whether Australian plans to drop the 1st Parachute Battalion were either realistic or had enough resources, PROJECT KINGFISHER never got off the ground. It was finally and officially cancelled in March 1945. The failure to free these POW resulted in a series of Japanese death marches in January and May 1945 for which there were only six Australian survivors by August 1945.
Blamey and MacArthur
Relations between Generals MacArthur and Blamey in WW2 were never good. Both were “difficult” men by any standard. When Australian Militia troops did not perform well in early engagements on the Kokoda Trail, MacArthur made disparaging remarks. When the ill-trained for jungle warfare US National Guardsmen of the 32nd Infantry Division all but fell apart at Buna, Blamey “returned serve” with the same sort of disparaging remarks, with compound interest, for they had the ring of truth for the defeated at Bataan General MacArthur.
It also didn’t help the two men that they had their relationship poisoned by politics before it ever began. Officially General Blamey was the Australian head of Allied Land Forces in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) — and unlike the situation with Admiral Nimitz in the South, Central and Northern Pacific with non-US military forces — MacArthur was not given the authority to directly command Australian forces by President Roosevelt and General Marshall. If American troops were under “Allied Land force,” Blamey and not MacArthur would command them. MacArthur would only be able to “suggest”, not command, those American troops under Blamey.
MacArthur breezed through this Washington DC limitation on his powers of command via creating “Task Forces” apart from Allied Land Forces to command American ground forces directly, minus Blamey. Who took this with public silence and private anger, as his government needed MacArthur and the American aide behind him, but could replace Blamey at need…and both generals knew it.
This situation was further inflamed by Blamey’s tendency to place an Australian officer of one rank higher than the local American one at every level of command. The administrative limits on field promotion placed by US Army Ground Forces under General Marshall’s appointee (and hatchet man) General Lesley James McNair prevented MacArthur, and all other local theater Army commanders, from simply brevetting* their officers one higher rank to deal with this bureaucratic power play.**
Suffice it to say there was ample basis for a mutual and very personal loathing between the men, and for the blame game Blamey did later.
The FDR Administration having been caught out by MacArthur’s unwillingness to take a hint to ‘toe the line’ — and being unwilling to pay the domestic political price for more publicly limiting MacArthur’s command authority with something far more overt — cut out the South Pacific theater from MacArthur’s SWPA and limited the forces under MacArthur.
The dual crisis of Guadalcanal and the Kokoda Trail invasion of Port Morsby finally forced Washington to give the SWPA more forces to neutralize Rabaul via Operation Cartwheel and set the stage for MacArthur shedding the Australian Land forces, and Blamey himself, for the invasion of the Philippines.***
In the run up to, and immediately after the Leyte Invasion, MacArthur’s theater G-2 intelligence officer General Willoughby split up the turf of the various intelligence units under the SWPA Allied Intelligence Bureau (See my previous column: MacArthur’s SWPA Intelligence ) into regional commands. This placed the Special Operations Australia (SOA) directly under General Sir Thomas Blamey as Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces (AMF), based at Allied Land Headquarters in Melbourne. The “Services Reconnaissance Department” (SRD) was the cover name for Special Operations Australia (SOA) after it moved out of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB).During this period two major things happened that affected Project Kingfisher. First, the SRD discovered a massive failure of it’s Timor operation where it found out the Japanese had fooled the SRD into sending them supplies for years. And also condemned 32 SRD operatives who were immediately captured, tortured for code information to maintain the Japanese deception and executed.
Second, the first draft plan for the First Australian Parachute Battalion “Project Kingfisher” operation reached SWPA General headquarters and was summarily rejected for having a “Market Garden Problem.” The drop zone for the 1st Para was too far away from airfield and the POW camp. The concept of operations looks to have been to para-drop a Burma Chindit style flying column to march across Borneo with SPD/Native support to free the prisoners. With a US Army Airborne Division and an independent Parahute Regiment in theater, MacArthur’s SWPA staff paid a great deal of attention to both parachute operations in other theaters as well as the air resupplied Chindits. To the point of requesting and receiving one of the “Air Commando” Fighter/Bomber/Transport groups — identical to the ones that supported the Chindits in Burma — to support guerrilla operations in the Philippines. MacArthur’s SWPA headquarters staff was well equipped to evaluate issues with the feasibility of the proposed operation, and there were major issues.
Operational feasibility issues like how starved and beaten POW were supposed to get away after being freed by the flying column? This was unclear at the time of the plan’s rejection, as MacArthur’s Far Eastern Air Forces had so heavily cratered the airfield the POW’s built that it was out of operation by January 1945 and sea lift from Northern Borneo was impossible at the time given that the Japanese had started Kamikaze operations only four months before at Leyte.
At this point the Project Kingfisher plan went into a low priority limbo of paper shuffling, distrust of the SPD by Blamey, and a lack of focused SPD reconnaissance until cancellation in March 1945.
In January 1945, Japanese Sandakan camp commandant Captain Hoshijima Susumu, noting the bombed out airfield and fearing a rescue attempt, marched the first several hundred POW away from Sandakan, most died on the trip or at the destination of Ranau. At the time of the second death march in May 1945, ordered by Susumu’s replacement Capt Takakuwa, to avoid the recapture of the POW’s by the Australian Oboe plan invasion of Northern Borneo, the remaining survivor from the 1st death march numbered six. Of those POW that reached the camp, none survived to August 1945. Six Australians managed to hide in the jungle and get help from natives whom the Japanese also abused..
When the Japanese surrendered, and the Australians found out the fate of their POW, they disarmed the Japanese and ordered then to march to a collection point across the Borneo…and gave them no escort. They turned a blind eye to the head hunting natives of Borneo taking revenge, and heads. Very few Japanese soldiers in Borneo survived the head hunters.
The post war Allied War Crimes trial of the first Japanese camp commandant for Sandakan Captain Hoshijima Susumu found him guilty of war crimes and hanged him on April 6 1946. The second Japanese camp commandant for Sandakan Capt Takakuwa and his second-in-charge, Capt Watanabe Genzo, were also found guilty of causing the murders and massacres of prisoners-of-war and were hanged and shot on 6 April 1946 and 16 March 1946 respectively.
After Japanese surrender General Blamey ordered the most secret files of the Australian military destroyed and sealed many operational records under the UK style 50-year classification rule. This hid the SRD Timor fiasco for decades. When questions about Project Kingfisher came up — too many in the 1st Australian Parachute Regiment knew about the aborted operation and the reality of the Sandakan Death March — Blamey blamed MacArthur for not providing him enough transport aircraft to carry out the operation.
It was not until the late 1990′s that the unsealed Australian military records revealed that Australians had 71 C-47 transports, were not using them at the time, and only needed 54 to deliver the Project Kingfisher rescue force. But by then the Blamey “I would have done it but for MacArthur” narrative had been well established in Australia.
And now you know why almost nothing said or written about General Douglas MacArthur can be trusted without extensive research.
WW2 Military Culture Notes:
* AKA temporarily promoting an officer to a higher rank without the pay of the higher rank. This was abused by officers in WW1 to get favored subordinates higher permanent rank in the post WW1 peacetime army.
** General Curtis Lemay suffered from this same administrative promotion power play dilemma that MacArthur did in his dealings with the US Navy for logistical support in the Marianas Islands. The US Navy kept their shipping liaisons one rank higher than LeMay’s, so they could over rule any USAAF B-29 fleet logistical requests that did not serve U.S. Navy interests. LeMay in desperation finally sent a NY Democratic Politician in USAAF uniform to wheel and deal on the east coast to get 20th Air Force its own fleet of six small Army freighters. Nimitz’s theater policy was that all shipping was under his control, and when he heard of LeMay’s trick. He tried to have LeMay relieved. LeMay was saved by General Arnold via the expedient of kicking him to the Chief of staff slot under General Spaatz, who effectively replaced Lemay as commander of Strategic Army Air Forces in the Pacific.
*** Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, Admiral Ernest King was greatly displeased to have both lost this bureaucratic fight with MacArthur and having to accede to MacArthur’s requested relief of Admiral Arthur S. Carpender.
Carpender had refused to provide his single destroyer, his only major surface warship given the needs of the Guadalcanal campaign, to provide fire support to General MacArthur’s and General Blamey’s ground forces at Buna and avoided a surface engagement with a far superior force of Japanese warships that landed an invasion at Milne Bay. This made him unacceptable to both MacArthur and the Australian Government. In November 1943, Admiral Kinkaid replaced Carpender as Commander Allied Naval Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, and the Seventh Fleet, known as “MacArthur′s Navy”. Shortly after Kinkaid arrived came 3 cruisers, 27 destroyers, 30 submarines, 18 destroyer escorts, an amphibious command ship, an attack transport, an attack cargo ship, 5 APDs, 40 LSTs, and 60 LCIs.
To show his pique in losing out to MacArthur, King neither consulted nor informed MacArthur and the Australian government about the appointment of Kinkaid before it was announced. And King placed both Kinkaid and the 7th Fleet directly under him and not Admiral Nimiz in Hawaii. This lack of consultation was a violation of the international agreement that had established the Southwest Pacific Area.
Notes and Sources:
Internet links (accessed 7-22-2013) —
KINGFISHER: SRD bungle or American reluctance?
Stolen Years — Australian Prisoners of War
Australian prisoners of war: Second World War – Prisoners of the Japanese, Borneo (Sandakan)
Sandakan and Project Kingfisher,
Address at The Australian Golf Club, Sydney for their War Memorial and War Service Day 28th August 2008 Dr Kevin Smith OAM
Operation Kinggisher II
History of the 3rd Air Commando Group
History of the US Marine Corps in World War II, Isolation of Rabaul, Part VI Conclusion
Thomas C. Kinkaid
Air Commando Fighters of World War II by Bill Young, @ January 2000
Superfortress: The Story of the B-29 and American Air Power by Curtis E. LeMay, Bill Yenne @ 1989
We Shall Return!: MacArthur’s Commanders and the Defeat of Japan, 1942-1945 William M. Leary (Editor), University Press of Kentucky, @ November 19, 2004