In 1921 a Marine staff officer by the name of Major Earl “Pete” Ellis made an ominous forecast: the assignment of Germany’s former island colonies in the Central Pacific to Japan under the League of Nations mandate would one day make war in the Pacific inevitable. Over two decades later Ellis’s prediction came true.
Ellis, however, was not just a doomsayer. After studying islands and distances, he expanded on a plan by the Naval War College (War Plan Orange) and established a groundbreaking blueprint-Operation Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia-for defeating Japan. Twenty-three years later the Navy’s drive across the Central Pacific followed the essential details of his plan.
Despite Ellis’s prescription for success, the invasion of the Central Pacific never would have happened without the persistence and vision of Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations. The Central Pacific, the blue-water highway to Tokyo, was his baby.
The centerpiece of Admiral King’s plan was the Mariana Islands, a chain of fourteen volcanic islands, including Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, most of which were uninhabited, situated north of the island of New Guinea and south of Japan in the Philippine Sea. Ellis had excluded the Marianas from his proposal, but King believed that they were the key to ultimate victory in the Central Pacific. Other islands would come first, but upon seizing the Marianas, the United States could either starve Japan by isolating it from its resource base in the Southwest Pacific or threaten Japan directly with aircraft carriers, long-range submarines, and bombers. With a range of 3,500 miles, and a bomb capacity in excess of four tons, the heavily armed B-29 was America’s newest and mightiest weapon. By turning the Marianas into giant air bases, the U. S. could send bomber crews to the home islands of Japan, only 1300 miles away, and possibly put a quick end to the war.
Admiral Ernest King’s year-long campaign to get the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recognize the strategic validity of the Central Pacific campaign began in Morocco in early 1943. The first of many top-secret conferences, during what journalists called the “Year of the Conference,” this one took place in the French colonial city of Casablanca. For King and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their British counterparts, Casablanca kicked off a year of horse-trading, arm-twisting, and compromise in which tempers frequently spilled out of the well-appointed meeting rooms.
In the conference room, King warned against allowing Japan to consolidate its conquests. Using rough graphs to show that the Allies had directed only 15 percent of all resources in money, manpower, and weapons to the Pacific war, he lobbied for greater resources. He proposed a 15-percent increase, which, though modest, would support a series of campaigns designed to illustrate Allied resolve in the Pacific.
King irked the Brits. They found him hot-tempered and singularly absorbed with war against Japan. British general Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and the top military man in England, insisted that for King “the European war was just a great nuisance that kept him from waging his Pacific war undisturbed.” Prime Minister Churchill called the Central Pacific “Ernie King’s beloved ocean.”
President Roosevelt, however, regarded King as the “shrewdest of strategists,” and a man of extreme competence. After the debacle at Pearl Harbor, he knew that the admiral was the only person who could rebuild the Navy. Secretary Frank Knox agreed. Giving him powers that no other chief of naval operations had ever enjoyed-King was the most powerful naval officer in the history of the country-the executive order that Roosevelt issued made King responsible only to the president.
Reluctantly the British delegates listened to King, though Churchill and his advisers had no intention of giving much ground. Ultimately, however, they made a small though ambiguous concession to the admiral. They prepared a brief compromise document, which the Brits hoped might temporarily placate King. “Operations in the Pacific and Far East,” the document said, “shall continue with the forces allocated, with the objective of maintaining pressure on Japan, retaining the initiative and attaining a position of readiness for a full-scale offensive against Japan by the United Nations as soon as Germany is defeated.”
In early February 1943, King flew west to San Francisco to meet with Admiral Nimitz, the commander of his Pacific Fleet. Satisfied with his minor victory at Casablanca, King and Nimitz sat down to fashion a plan for the Central Pacific. Nimitz, too, had good news to share. Intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese had abandoned the southern Solomons, and after a battle as savage as the one fought by the Marines at Guadalcanal, MacArthur’s troops had defeated Japanese Imperial forces on New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula. Both leaders knew, though, that the Japanese would not rest. Nimitz suspected that already they were planning another attack-on Samoa, perhaps-in order to sever the Allied supply line to the South Pacific. It was not hard to convince King; he had been warning against this threat since the early days of 1941. Though King, as always, wanted to “keep pressure on the Japs,” Nimitz cautioned him. A Central Pacific push was ill-advised until war production was at full capacity and they had the ships-and forces-to pull if off.
Several weeks after returning from California, King penned a letter to Roosevelt. King’s memorandum to the president again emphasized the importance of securing the lines of communication between the West Coast of the United States and Australia by way of Samoa, Fiji, and New Caledonia. King added that it was essential to protect Australia and New Zealand because they were “white man’s countries.” Losing them would provide the “non-white races of the world” enormous encouragement. King concluded his “integrated, general plan of operations” with three directives: “Hold Hawaii; support Australasia; drive northwestward from New Hebrides.”
Not long after Roosevelt received the admiral’s memo, Churchill and more than one hundred advisers and staff members arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary for a series of meetings to be held in Washington. Hard-nosed bargaining marked the conference.
On May 21, 1943, more than a week into the Washington conference, dubbed “Trident,” King announced his plan to split the Japanese line of communications, separating the home islands from Japan’s southern resource colonies. He proposed to starve the Japanese into submission. The key to doing this, he informed the Brits, were the Marianas. By capturing the islands, especially Saipan, the Allies could cut off Japan’s access to its raw materials in the Southwest Pacific and isolate the Carolines and the great base at Truk. They could then move forces westward into the Philippines and China or northwestward into Japan. The offensive, King speculated, might even compel the Japanese navy to challenge the Allies to the decisive naval battle that he wanted. His ideas, King explained, were not novel. The Naval War College had developed them decades earlier, and most naval officers regarded them as articles of faith.
Predictably, the Brits balked at committing to anything that authorized in writing an offensive campaign in the Central Pacific. King’s temper flared more than usual when American general Richard Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, seemed to have persuaded the Combined Chiefs that King’s plan would constitute a series of “hazardous amphibious frontal attacks against islands of limited value,” and that its reliance on carrier-based aircraft operating far from their sources of fuel and ammunition made it unworkable. Seizing the opportunity, Sutherland again argued that the best line of approach, which could make use of Australia as a war base and could be supported by a large reserve of land-based aircraft, was from New Guinea to Mindanao. However, when the Combined Chiefs took the time to study the Army plan in detail, realizing that it would require thirteen new combat divisions and nearly two thousand planes along with landing craft and naval support ships, a colossal undertaking, they cooled. Sutherland’s request far exceeded American capacity.
In the end, Trident gave formal agreement to a series of compromises whereby Roosevelt and his commanders agreed to eliminate Italy from the war in return for a firm date-spring 1944-on Marshall’s coveted cross-Channel invasion. The other British concession, “Strategic Plan for the Defeat of Japan,” formalized the Allied commitment to the Pacific, giving King the green light for his long-sought invasion of the Central Pacific. The caveat? The Combined Chiefs would have final say over the offensive, and King would have to agree to seize the Gilberts before the Marshalls. Nevertheless, King emerged victorious. He had come to the conference intent on establishing the necessity of a “master plan” for the Pacific, and the British had conceded.
In August 1943, five months after Trident, the Combined Chiefs assembled again for the year’s third major conference-Quadrant-held in Quebec. Much had transpired during the months leading up to Quadrant. The Allies had captured Sicily, the Italian government had overthrown Mussolini and was threatening to leave the Axis, the Red Army had crushed Germany’s last strategic offensive in the east at Kursk, American offensives in New Guinea and the Solomons had gained considerable momentum, and the 7th Infantry Division had recaptured Attu in the Aleutian islands of Alaska. Little, though, had changed between King and the British. King hammered at old themes-more resources for the Pacific theater and the need for a broad strategy-and the British, again, resisted. Undeterred, King reiterated his plan for the Central Pacific, underlining the importance of the Marianas. Its loss, King said, would constitute an enormous strategic and psychic blow for Japan. For the second time, King outlined a scenario in which the Japanese Combined Fleet would be compelled to challenge the U. S. Navy, which with its new Essex-class carriers and F6F Hellcats, would have the chance to administer what might be the final blow to the Japanese.
What also emerged at Quadrant was King’s growing support for MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific initiative. King explained that he now saw the wisdom of a dual offensive, stretching Japan’s defenses and its fuel-starved Imperial Navy to the breaking point. By virtue of their stunning early war victories and an empire that now stretched over one sixth of the earth’s surface, the Japanese were especially vulnerable to this two-pronged strategy. King called it the “whipsaw plan,” and was convinced that it would keep enemy intelligence wondering where the next American blow would come. MacArthur, however, opposed King throughout the second half of 1943 (and the early months of 1944), and continued to try to make the case for supreme command of the Pacific theater and a single offensive led by the Army.
Ultimately it was President Roosevelt, in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who declared that the offensive would be two-pronged and simultaneous, with two separate commanders: MacArthur would fight his way across New Guinea and toward the Philippines while Admiral Chester Nimitz, King’s commander-in-chief for Allied air, land, and sea forces in the Pacific Ocean, slashed and pounded across the Central Pacific, capturing tactically important islands, en route to the innermost reaches of the Japanese empire. At the Cairo-Teheran conferences in late November and early December 1943, the Combined Chiefs gave formal approval to the two routes in a master plan titled “Specific Operations for the Defeat of Japan, 1944.”
MacArthur, who did not attend the conference, electing instead to send Sutherland, was furious at the outcome. The Central Pacific, Sutherland had argued, should be abandoned for three reasons: it could be carried out only by massive and costly amphibious operations; it relied too much on carrier-based aviation; and finally, because of the distances involved, the Central Pacific offensive would involve an agonizingly slow series of stops and starts. MacArthur’s proposal called instead for Nimitz, after taking the Marshalls, to assist the general’s forces in pushing on to Mindanao.
In another blow to MacArthur, the Combined Chiefs not only gave their approval to the Central Pacific offensive, but gave seizure of the Marshalls, Carolines, Palaus, and Marianas priority in scheduling and resources. “Due weight,” the Chiefs said, “should be accorded to the fact that operations in the Central Pacific promise a more rapid advance toward Japan and her vital lines of communication, the earlier acquisition of strategic air bases closer to the Japanese homeland and are more likely to precipitate a decisive engagement with the Japanese fleet.” Based on this decision Nimitz sketched out a tentative timetable for the drive across the Central Pacific: Kwajalein would be invaded on January 31, 1944, Eniwetok on May 1, Truk on August 15, and Saipan, Tinian, and Guam on November 15.
By committing U. S. forces to a two-pronged war in the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz knew that he would be placing enormous pressure on American industry. To outproduce Japan (and Germany, too), the country’s war effort would have to reach unprecedented new heights. Dockyards, working round the clock, would be called upon to assemble a steady stream of submarines; amphibious vehicles; large new destroyers; Independence-class light carriers; fast, well-armed Essex-class carriers, capable of hauling eighty to one hundred aircraft and over three thousand men; and cargo ships. Factories would be ordered to churn out planes and tanks. Arsenals would have to produce huge amounts of ordnance, which West Coast ammunition depots, like Port Chicago, would have to load onto Liberty, Victory, and Navy ships speeding for the Pacific.