Chapter 2
The Central Pacific in Global Strategy

The devastating raid on Pearl Harbor, coupled with the destructive attacks on airfields in the Philippines, enabled Japan to seize the initiative in the Pacific. Since many of its battleships had been disabled by enemy bombs and torpedoes, the American Navy could do nothing to divert the Japanese from Singapore. This bastion fell, the Netherlands Indies were overwhelmed, and the inadequate garrison holding out in the Philippines was encircled. Instead of conducting extensive raids in the Marshalls and preparing for an eventual drive across the Pacific, the United States and her Allies were trying desperately to hold a perimeter that extended from Burma through Australia to Hawaii and the Aleutians. As the triumphant Japanese pushed southward, existing American war plans were abandoned, and the security of Australia became the principal task of the Allies in the Pacific area.

Like the United States, Japan early in the war revised her Pacific strategy. The enemy's change of plans, however, was not caused by unforeseen setbacks but by the ease with which she had gained her primary objectives. Originally, Japan's principal aim was the conquest of the Netherlands Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and Burma, areas rich in natural resources. Once these regions were taken, the Japanese empire, now self-sufficient in oil, tin, and rubber, would be capable of defending a perimeter that stretched from the Kuriles, along the outer Marshalls, through the Bismarck Archipelago, across the Netherlands Indies, to Malaya and Burma. With Malaya, the Philippines, and the Netherlands colonies firmly in her control, Japan, rather than pausing as planned to consolidate these gains, decided to expand still farther.

These secondary conquests were in a sense defensive, for the enemy wished only to protect his earlier gains. Japan hoped to seize Port Moresby in New Guinea, capture Midway, establish outposts in the Aleutians, and isolate Australia by taking New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. Should these operations succeed, Australia would be useless as an Allied base, and the United States fleet would be confined within a triangle bounded by Alaska, Hawaii, and Panama.

This series of operations ended in disaster for the overextended enemy. The Battle of the Coral Sea stopped the immediate threat to Port Moresby. A month later the Japanese fleet met defeat off Midway, a blow that caused the cancellation of the offensive aimed at the line of communication with Australia. The attempt to gain a foot-hold in the Aleutians did succeed, but before the summer of 1942 had ended


the Americans took the initiative by landing at Guadalcanal in the lower Solomons.1


Since the war against the Axis powers was a combined effort, both the United States and Great Britain had a major voice in determining Allied strategy. The agency charged with developing the program of Allied military operations and allocating the resources of the two nations was the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), which was composed of the principal military advisers of President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the CCS gave to the United States primary responsibility for the war against Japan, excluding operations in defense of Malaya, Sumatra, and Burma. Thus, planning for the Pacific war fell to the American Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

By the end of 1942, Japan had lost the initiative, and the JCS could begin exploring the most effective ways of damaging the enemy. A limited offensive had already been approved for the South and Southwest Pacific Areas, an operation undertaken to protect the line of communication to Australia. Now the JCS had to determine whether the advance northward and westward from Australia would prove more decisive than a drive across the Central Pacific and then to convince the other members of the CCS of the wisdom of its strategy.

The conference of Allied leaders at Casablanca in January 1943 gave American planners their first opportunity to present to the British their detailed views on Pacific strategy. Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, expressed his belief that an eventual goal of any Pacific offensive should be the Philippines. These islands lay astride the sea lanes over which rubber, oil, and tin were transported to Japan from the conquered territories. Submarines and aircraft operating from the Philippines could halt the flow of raw materials needed by Japanese industry.

Turning to the problem of selecting of the best route of advance toward the Philippines, King urged a move across the Central Pacific. Both the admiral and General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, hoped to outflank the defenses that the Japanese were preparing in the area north of Australia. This could be done by striking westward through the Marshalls and Carolines to the Marianas. Since planes flying from the Marianas could strike Japan while submarines based in these islands isolated the Philippines, King looked upon them as important intermediate objectives on the way westward.

British strategists, however, were not


willing to expand the effort against Japan at the expense of the European war. They agreed that limited offensives were necessary but wanted to undertake only those operations which would help protect India and Australia. British planners believed that the Allies should seize the key enemy base at Rabaul on New Britain, and recover Burma, while remaining on the defensive elsewhere in the Pacific.

Actually, a compromise was easily reached, once the JCS had agreed informally to avoid becoming involved in a series of offensives throughout the Pacific. The Burma operation could not begin immediately, and it appeared that Rabaul might fall in the near future. A Central Pacific campaign, limited in scope, would maintain pressure on the enemy during the period between the capture of Rabaul and the attack from India. After General Marshall stated that the move toward the Carolines would be undertaken with resources available in the Central Pacific Areas, the CCS recommended that the heads of state accept this broadening of the war against Japan. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, the final arbiters of Allied strategy, agreed with their advisers.


Late in February 1943, Admiral King discussed with Admiral Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), means of carrying out the policies decided upon at Casablanca. Although General Douglas MacArthur, responsible for directing the war in the Southwest Pacific, had disclosed only the general outline of his proposed operations, King and Nimitz attempted to plot the course of events in the Central Pacific. Nimitz wished to remain temporarily on the defensive, gradually whittling down Japanese strength while augmenting his own. During this build-up, submarines and aircraft would carry the war to the enemy. King agreed that to strike westward with the men, ships, and planes available in 1943 was to take a very considerable calculated risk, but he considered that the American forces must keep the initiative and that they had to be used in order to justify their allocation by the CCS.3

As a result of their conference, the two admirals agreed to a limited thrust in the general direction of the Philippines, but neither the objectives nor the timing of the attack were selected. In the meantime, the JCS had been arranging a conference of representatives from the Central Pacific, South Pacific, and Southwest Pacific Areas. At this series of meetings held in Washington, beginning on 12 March 1943, American planners heard additional details concerning the strategic design that had been prepared by General MacArthur.

Delegates to the Pacific Military Conference, as these meetings were termed, did not learn of MacArthur's planned return to the Philippines, for his representatives concerned themselves with immediate operations for the capture of Rabaul. ELKTON, the Rabaul plan,


called for continuing cooperation between the South and Southwest Pacific Areas in the capture of airfield sites on New Guinea, New Georgia, and Bougainville and in the seizure of two mighty bases---Kavieng on New Ireland and Rabaul itself.

Since a minimum of 79,000 Japanese troops were believed to be stationed in the area through which General MacArthur proposed to advance, his representatives told the conference that five additional divisions and as many air groups would be needed to sustain the offensive. Unfortunately, the JCS could spare neither the men nor the aircraft which MacArthur needed and had no choice but to order ELKTON revised. Instead of seizing Rabaul as quickly as possible, Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific would, during 1943, occupy Woodlark and Kiriwina Islands, continue the war in New Guinea, land on New Britain, and advance along the Solomons chain by way of New Georgia to Bougainville. These changes enabled MacArthur and Admiral William F. Halsey, who directed operations in the South Pacific theater, to get along with fewer troops, planes, and ships, some of which might now be employed in the Central Pacific.4 Although the Pacific Military Conference brought about a tailoring of ELKTON to fit the resources available for the operation, no attempt was made to coordinate this offensive with the attack scheduled for the Central Pacific. The JCS postponed this decision until the next meeting of the CCS which was scheduled to convene at Washington in May 1943.

During the discussions held at Washington the American Strategic Plan for the Defeat of Japan, a general statement of the strategy which would finally force the unconditional surrender of that nation, was presented for British approval. As at Casablanca, Admiral King urged that a powerful blow be struck through the Central Pacific, a more direct route toward the enemy heartland than the carefully guarded approach from the south. In Admiral Nimitz' theater, the American fleet could disrupt Japanese supply lines and hinder any effort to strengthen the defenses in the region. The vast expanse of ocean was dotted with potential naval bases, so the attackers could select their objectives with a view to inflicting the maximum strategic damage with the fewest possible men, ships, and aircraft. In short, the Central Pacific offered an ideal opportunity to use carrier task forces in conjunction with amphibious troops to launch a series of swift thrusts across hundreds of miles of water.

Admiral King, however, did not intend to abandon the Solomons-New Britain-New Guinea offensive. Allied forces fighting in this area could not simply suspend their operations and begin shifting men and equipment to the Central Pacific. Such a maneuver would alert the enemy to the impending


offensive and weaken the defenses of Australia. Rather than hurl all Allied resources into a single drive, the American strategist desired two offensives, a major effort through the Central Pacific and a complementary push from the South and Southwest Pacific. Exact timing and the judicious use of available strength would keep the Japanese off balance and prevent their deploying men and ships from the southern defenses to the Carolines and Marshalls.5

After listening to Admiral King's arguments, the CCS accepted the American position with one major modification. Originally, the American plan had called for the Allies, while continuing the offensive against Germany, "to maintain and extend unremitting pressure against Japan with the purpose of continually reducing her military power and attaining positions from which her ultimate unconditional surrender can be forced."6 British members of the CCS considered this statement to be permission to strike at Japan without regard to the war against Germany, and all the American representatives except King agreed that the language was too strong. Finally, the British suggested that the effect of any extension of the Pacific war on overall strategy should be considered by the CCS before actual operations were begun, a sentence to this effect was inserted, and the document approved.7 Included among the goals proposed for 1943--1944 were the seizure of the Marshalls and Carolines as well as certain operations in Burma and China, the reconquest of the Aleutians,8 and a continuation of the effort in the South and Southwest Pacific Areas.9


As soon as the Washington Conference adjourned, King hurried to San Francisco to discuss with Nimitz the attack against the Marshalls. He repeated his conviction that the Mariana Islands formed the most important intermediate objective on the road to Tokyo and recommended that the conquest of the Marshalls be the first step in the march westward. Because the resources available to Admiral Nimitz would determine the final selection of targets, the two officers also discussed the possibility of striking first at the Gilberts, a group of islands believed to be more vulnerable than the Marshalls.10


In the meantime, General MacArthur was informed of the proposed offensive in Nimitz' theater, an attack which was to be launched in mid-November by the 1st and 2d Marine Divisions. Neither the strategic plan nor its means of execution coincided with MacArthur's views. The general believed that the best avenue of approach to the Philippines was by way of New Guinea. ELKTON was but the first phase of MacArthur's promised return to the Philippines, and even this plan would be jeopardized by the loss of the two Marine divisions, then under his command.

MacArthur objected to the JCS that a campaign in the Central Pacific would be no more than a diversionary effort and that the withdrawal of the Marine units would delay the seizure of Rabaul. American strategists were able to effect a compromise by ordering the release of the 2d Marine Division, then in the South Pacific, while leaving the 1st Marine Division under MacArthur's control. Instead of capturing Rabaul, the South and Southwest Pacific forces were to neutralize and bypass this fortress.11

Even before MacArthur had voiced his objections to the proposed Central Pacific operations, appropriate agencies of the JCS were at work selecting objectives for Admiral Nimitz. So little intelligence was available on the Marshalls that planners urged the capture instead of bases in the Gilberts from which American reconnaissance planes could penetrate the neighboring island group. The defenses of the Gilberts appeared to be weaker than those of the Marshalls, and the proposed objective area was near enough to the South Pacific to permit naval forces to support operations in both places. Finally, control of the Gilberts would reduce Japanese threats to American bases in the Ellice Islands and Samoa and shorten as well as protect the line of communication to New Zealand and Australia.12 On 20 July, the JCS directed Nimitz to begin planning for the capture of Nauru Island and of bases in the Gilberts. Well within American capabilities, this limited offensive would open the way into the Marshalls, which in turn would provide the bases for a later move to the Marianas.13

The following month, the CCS, meeting at Quebec, added the Gilbert Islands to a list of proposed Central Pacific operations designed to carry the war to the Marianas by the end of 1944.14 At last the stage was set for a Central Pacific offensive similar in concept to the campaign outlined in the earliest ORANGE Plans.


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[1] See Hough, Ludwig, and Shaw, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, pp. 235--374, for the story of Marine operations in the Guadalcanal campaign.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, the material in this section is derived from: CCS, Minutes of the 55th-60th Meetings 14--18Jan43 (ABC Files, WWH RecsDiv, FRC, Alexandria, Va. ) ; John Miller, Jr., "The Casablanca Conference in Pacific Strategy," Military Affairs, V. 13, no. 4 (Winter 49), p. 209.

[3] FAdm Ernest J. King and Cdr Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1952), pp. 431--432, hereafter King and Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King.

[4] John Miller, Jr., CARTWHEEL: The REDuction of Rabaul--The War in the Pacific--The U. S. Army in World War II (Washington: OCMH, DA, 1959), pp. 12--19. For the story of the role of the Marine Corps in operations against Rabaul, see Henry I. Shaw, Jr. and Maj Douglas T. Kane, Isolation of Rabaul--History of U. S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, v. II (Washington: HistBr, G--3, HQMC, 1963), hereafter Shaw and Kane, Isolation of Rabaul.

[5] Philip A. Crowl and Edmund G. Love, Seizure of the Gilberts and Marshalls--The War in the Pacific--The U. S. Army in World War II (Washington: OCMH, DA, 1955), pp. 12--14, hereafter Crowl and Love, Gilberts and Marshalls.

[6] King and Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King, p. 441.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The invasion of Attu, one of the two Aleutian outposts seized by the Japanese, had begun on 11 May. Since Japan was unable to mount an offensive from this quarter, Attu could have been ignored, but its recapture, along with the planned reconquest of Kiska, would put additional pressure on the enemy, drive him from the fringes of the Western Hemisphere, and release American ships and troops for service elsewhere.
[For the history of the Aleutians Campaign, see HyperWar.]

[9] CCS 239/1, Operations in the Pacific and Far East in 1943--1944, dtd 22May43 (ABC Files, WWII RecsDiv, FRC, Alexandria, Va.).

[10] King and Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King, pp. 443-444.

[11] Miller, CARTWHEEL, op. cit., pp. 223-225.

[12] Moore Comments.

[13] Crowl and Love, The Gilberts and Marshalls, pp. 21-24.

[14] King and Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King, p. 489.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation