Northwest To Victory

Sixty years ago, on March 11, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur landed on Corregidor after forces from General Walter Krueger's 6th Army had liberated it.  As General Krueger would later write in his book From Down Under To Nippon,

'General MacArthur, accompanied by various senior officers including myself, proceeded by PT boat to Corregidor, where in an impressive ceremony, he raised the United States colors over that reconquered fortress.'

It was on a PT boat that MacArthur escaped from that doomed garrison November 3, 1942 for that melancholy voyage back down to Australia.

Now when most Americans think about that vast Pacific theater of war, Corregidor might ring a vague bell, but most likely they will remember names such as Iwo Jima or Okinawa, whose seizure concluded the relentless seaborne drive across the Central Pacific.  But when it comes to that other, parallel campaign, conducted by MacArthur's South—West Pacific forces, few will know anything about it except his name.  Biak, Sansapor and Wakde will sound strangely alien; New Guinea a place for Survivor episodes.  It was, in fact, US 6th Army units who defeated the Japanese at those places and many others in that equally important drive, from the Admiralty Islands on up through MacArthur's return to the Philippines, northwest to victory.

In area, the South—West Pacific theater was about 3,000 miles wide and approximately 2,500 miles deep, encompassing 45 degrees of longitude by 30 degrees of latitude, though the fighting there was measured in deadly feet and yards on sometimes beautiful beaches and always deadly jungles.

The decision to launch both of those Pacific drives had been agreed upon by Roosevelt and Churchill at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference.  A month later, General Krueger, at MacArthur's request, was assigned to command the 6th Army.  A veteran of the Spanish—American War, Philippines combat and WW1, Krueger was known as a superb tactician and trainer of soldiers. One of his staff officers later said, 'He constantly emphasized to us that his Army headquarters mission was 'to serve the troops.''

General Krueger's naval counterpart was Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, who commanded the 7th Amphibious Force.  Also known as 'MacArthur's Amphibious Navy,' its crews, manning boats ranging from 36 and 50 footers to 158' Landing Craft Infantry would by war's end conduct 56 landing operations and transport over a million men.

Equipped with its own boats and also putting troops ashore was Brigadier General William Heavey's 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, a US Army amphibious outfit that participated in 87 minor and major landings and garnered 7 Presidential Unit Citations.  Preston, Idaho native Private Junior Van Noy of its 532nd Boat & Shore Regiment became the first Army engineer soldier to earn the Medal of Honor (posthumously) at Red Beach, Lae, New Guinea.

Those men included troopers from the famous 1st Cavalry Division, which first rode into combat aboard landing craft in the Admiralty Islands. The 41st Infantry Division next hit the beaches at Aitape, New Guinea. Its commander,  Maj. Gen. Jens A. Doe would earn two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross leading his 'Jungleers'  Of the 6th Army's 158th Regimental Combat Team, the 'Bushmasters,' MacArthur said, 'No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle.'

The term 'island—hopping' is often used to describe MacArthur's victorious strategy when actually, it could be applied more aptly to the Central Pacific campaign.  Many of the 6th Army's initial operations involved successive amphibious assaults along New Guinea's north coast, jungled steps up the combat ladder ending with the 6th Division's landings on Sansapor.

Providing essential air support for the campaign were the pilots and aircrews of the fighters and bombers of the US 5th Air Force commanded by Generals George Kenney, then Ennis C. Whitehead.

And none of it would have been possible without our gallant allies, the Australians, whose armed forces had been battling the Japanese since 1941.  It was in Brisbane that MacArthur established the headquarters where he planned his return.  It was at bases along Australia's east coast that American troops trained and prepared for the long campaign ahead.  And it was Aussie infantrymen who handed Japanese Imperial Forces their first decisive defeat at Milne Bay, New Guinea in September 1942.  Like that 'sceptered isle' from which the allied crusade to liberate Europe was launched, the island continent of Australia served as springboard to victory in the South—West Pacific.

On October 20, 1944 MacArthur kept his promise and returned to the Philippines when he came ashore at Leyte from the cruiser USS NASHVILLE.
But that was just the beginning of the end.  Eight more months of intense fighting lay ahead throughout the massive Philippines archipelago that would see 6th Army soldiers earn over 30 Medals of Honor.

I will select one action 'above and beyond the call of duty' at random as emblematic of their group heroism:  Along Luzon's Villa Verde Trail on March 10, 1945 PFC Thomas E. Atkins of Company A, 127th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division and two fellow soldiers occupied a ridgeline position outside their 1st Platoon's perimeter.  At about 3 a.m., two companies of Japanese attacked with rifle and machine gun fire, grenades, TNT charges and land mines, severely wounding PFC Atkins and killing his two companions.  Despite the intense hostile fire and pain from his deep wound, he held his ground and returned heavy fire. 

After the enemy attack was repulsed, Atkins remained in his precarious position to repel any subsequent assaults instead of returning to American lines for medical treatment.  An enemy machine gun, just 20 yards from his foxhole, vainly attempted to dislodge him.  For the next 4 hours, the Japanese made successive fierce attacks, but PFC Atkins steadfastly remained in his foxhole, maintaining steady, accurate fire until each charge was repulsed.  By 7 a.m. he had fired over 400 rounds, all that he and his dead companions possessed. He had fired all three available rifles until they were inoperably jammed. Enemy dead lay stacked in front of his position.  When Atkins withdrew to secure another weapon, platoon mates persuaded him to remain for medical treatment.  While waiting for it, he noticed an enemy soldier moving within the perimeter and, grabbing a rifle, killed him.  A few minutes later, while lying on a litter, he saw Japanese moving up behind his platoon's lines.  Despite his severe wound, he sat up, delivered heavy rifle fire, and forced the enemy to withdraw, enabling his buddies to carry him back to safety.   
General Krueger summed it up superbly in his book when he wrote: 'Highest honors must be accorded the officers and men of our combat units, who with incomparable skill, gallantry, determination and tenacity defeated the fanatical enemy in close and bitter combat on exceedingly difficult terrain.  Theirs was the suffering, the intense physical hardship and the mental strain inseparable from war — and theirs, as it should be, is the glory of the victory.'

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.