As part of the Midway attack plan, the Japanese mounted a subsidiary operation to lure the U.S. Pacific Fleet to the North Pacific. Aware from intelligence decrypts of Japanese intentions, Nimitz concentrated his main forces at Midway and dispatched a nine-ship force of cruisers and destroyers under Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald to deal with the secondary threat. Despite information that the Japanese would strike the western Aleutians, Theobald positioned his ships far to the east, where he had air protection and theorized the attack would come. While a Japanese task force landed troops on Attu and Kiska islands and withdrew in peace, Theobald’s force floundered hundreds of miles away under radio silence, “as useful as if it had been in the South Atlantic,” according to Nimitz’ biographer E. B. Potter. It was an inauspicious beginning.
In a particularly awkward arrangement, naval and air forces were commanded by Theobald, while ground forces were under Army Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Theobald reported to Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, and Buckner belonged to Lieutenant General John L. De Witt’s Western Defense Command based in San Francisco. Any unresolved disputes between the services—and there were many—needed to be settled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington. Seeking clarification from Nimitz as to who should be considered in overall command, Theobald was told, “The command relationship . . . is to be by mutual cooperation.” In the opinion of Brian Garfield in The Thousand-Mile War , “that decision was one of Admiral Nimitz’s few important mistakes.”
If the command organization was less than perfect, it was worse in practice during the earliest months. Possessing one of the best brains and worst dispositions in the Navy, Theobald disliked his assignment and developed an immediate antipathy for Buckner. Buckner, the son of a Confederate lieutenant general, was energetic, high-spirited, and very outspoken. It was a combustible mixture of personalities.
Theobald’s mission was to keep the Japanese on the defensive, wearing them down until ground forces were available to retake the islands. A few naval bombardments of Kiska were attempted, causing greater damage through ship collisions than harm to the enemy. Afterward, Theobald was reluctant to risk his vessels for what he considered little purpose, causing Buckner to sneer, “He’s as tender of his bottoms as a teen-age girl.” Theobald then relied on the air forces to carry out the attack, but bombing results were limited in weather that grounded aircraft most days and caused flying accidents that far exceeded combat losses.
To mount a more effective air campaign, an advanced fighter base was needed. After the JCS decided on Tanaga, the Army’s preference, Theobald succeeded in reversing the decision and had Adak chosen instead. Striking back, Buckner composed and recited in public a rhyme ridiculing Theobald for his fear of risking his vessels. This so infuriated Theobald he formally severed all social relations with Buckner and sent a copy of the letter with the offending poem to King. When the letter and poem were passed along to General George C. Marshall, who represented the Army on the JCS, he nearly relieved Buckner before adopting a wait-and-see approach. After a tug-of-war developed between Theobald and De Witt about jurisdiction over the remote Pribilof Islands garrison, Marshall groaned, “What is it that produces so many complete misunderstandings?”
Later, when another island base was needed, there was renewed conflict and again, despite strong Army objections, Theobald got his way in the selection of Amchitka. However, the unending contention finally forced Marshall and King to make a choice. While Buckner retained the high regard of Marshall and De Witt, Theobald’s negativity and performance had made him an embarrassment for King. Theobald was replaced by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, fresh from combat in the South Pacific. He was a perfect choice.
Unlike Theobald, Kinkaid relished the opportunity to close with the enemy. The fleet was pushed westward into Japanese home waters to intercept supply ships before they reached the Aleutians. One foray resulted in the 26 March 1943 Battle of the Komandorskis, a marathon gun battle in the best tradition of the Navy that turned back a supply convoy and discouraged the Japanese from ever trying the same again. Kinkaid’s fighting spirit matched Buckner’s, and together they forged a close relationship that surpassed Nimitz’ expectation of “mutual cooperation.” When Army ground troops became available to retake the islands, Kinkaid ably led the campaign. After the Japanese were ousted from the Aleutians, in testament to the dramatic turnaround in relations, King wrote Marshall: “This arrangement . . . worked extremely well . . . largely due to excellent cooperation between the responsible commanders concerned. I have not seen fit to press for a change in this set-up.”
Dubbed the “Theater of Military Frustration” by Samuel E. Morison in his History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II , the North Pacific was the Theater of Opportunity for Kinkaid and Buckner. When General Douglas MacArthur needed a new naval commander, Kinkaid’s aggressiveness and ability to work well with the Army were pivotal in his selection to head the 7th Fleet, popularly known as “MacArthur’s Navy.” Buckner’s energetic performance led to his command of the 10th Army, which he ably led on Okinawa until becoming the highest-ranking American field commander killed in the war.
After his relief, Theobald was assigned command of a naval district and then retired. Contentious to the end, he wrote a widely read exposé claiming that President Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately withheld vital information from his Pearl Harbor commanders so the Japanese would commit the first act of war. Theobald’s 1957 obituary in The New York Times largely focused on the book without a word about his unhappy service in the North Pacific.
Smith versus Richardson
Within Nimitz’ command, Army division commanders were relieved on New Georgia, Attu, and Saipan. The first two cases attracted little notice and were quickly forgotten. The third reverberated through the services and the American public and remains controversial even today. Critical to the outcomes was the extent of senior Army participation in the decisions. In the South Pacific, the commander of the 43rd Infantry Division was relieved on New Georgia by the theater’s Army commander, Harmon, who acted as Halsey’s eyes and ears for the ground campaign. In the North Pacific, Kinkaid relieved the commander of the 7th Division on Attu after consulting with Buckner and De Witt. In the Central Pacific, no senior Army representative had a voice in the decision by the Marine amphibious corps commander to relieve the commanding general of the 27th Infantry Division on Saipan.
In his outspoken memoir, Coral and Brass , Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith left no doubt why, as commanding general, expeditionary troops, he relieved Army Major General Ralph C. Smith. The official charges were limited to two command infractions and tardiness in an attack on Saipan, but the real causes were more serious and of longer duration. Months earlier, on Makin and Eniwetok, two of the 27th’s regiments had moved very slowly and overcautiously to win lightly held atolls. The consequence at Makin was the disastrous loss of the carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), torpedoed while standing by in support.
Holland Smith diagnosed the problem as “militia-itis”—a tendency for National Guard divisions to be officered by unqualified cronies bound together by social, business, and political connections. Although Marshall recognized the problem and reorganized many Guard divisions, he left the 27th alone, likely because of special political sensitivities with this New York division. During his 19 months as commander before Saipan, Ralph Smith also refrained from shaking up the organization. To Holland Smith, gentlemanly Ralph Smith was too soft for the job.
As the only Army division available, Holland Smith had no choice in accepting the 27th as his corps reserve for the Marianas. Fierce resistance quickly required its deployment on Saipan. Division units were first committed to the drive toward Nafutan Point, making very slow progress against light opposition much as on Makin and Eniwetok. Most of the 27th was then concentrated between the two Marine divisions for the main drive near Mount Tapotchau. By the second day of the offensive, the 27th had barely moved despite Holland Smith’s repeated prodding, exposing the flanks of the Marine forces that had meanwhile advanced.
The designated Army garrison commander was sent to investigate and based largely on his assurance that he could get the division moving, Holland Smith decided to relieve Ralph Smith. Although he had the authority to act, Holland Smith first obtained the approval of Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner and then Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, the operation’s supreme commander. In a message to Nimitz, Spruance explained, “No other action appeared adequate to accomplish the purpose.” The usually wise Spruance may not have gotten this one right.
Whatever Holland Smith hoped to achieve, he gained little if anything. Command of the division passed successively to the designated garrison commander and then to another Army general, neither of whom had battlefield experience. The Japanese were found to be in greater strength and the terrain was more difficult than Holland Smith had believed, so that a further six days were needed before aptly named Death Valley was won. Meanwhile, Japanese forces broke through a battalion of the 27th operating under corps command near Nafutan Point, creating mayhem at Aslito Airfield until Marines wiped them out.
Then, just two days before the island was declared secure, the 27th was struck by the largest banzai charge of the entire war. Despite warnings of impending attack, the division was caught unprepared. Men fled in panic, nearby units remained uncommitted, and the division—as well as Marines caught up in the melee—suffered heavy casualties. Holland Smith expressed his disdain by immediately withdrawing the 27th.
In response to the relief of Ralph Smith, a counterattack was mounted by Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson Jr., commanding general of Army forces in the Central Pacific. Although the press came to refer to the fracas as “Smith vs. Smith,” considering Richardson’s leading role it should more accurately have been called “Smith vs. Richardson.”
Described by Marshall’s biographer Forrest C. Pogue as having “a temper as quick-triggered as Holland Smith’s,” Richardson was an ex-cavalryman unhappily marooned in a purely administrative job. The situation was of his own making, as Richardson’s reluctance to serve under an Australian commander had so angered Marshall that he lost the opportunity to command forces that grew into MacArthur’s 8th Army. Richardson’s uncooperative attitude left such a poor impression with the War Department that General Dwight D. Eisenhower called attention to it in his memoir Crusade in Europe . Before Saipan, Richardson had tried to convince Nimitz that Marine commanders lacked the background to command large bodies of troops, and proving Holland Smith wrong would provide vindication. Further, when the 27th was first assigned to serve with the Marines, Marshall had cautioned Richardson, “If there remain . . . leaders who cannot be depended upon . . . those leaders must be eliminated now, immediately.” If the 27th did not measure up to Marshall’s expectations, Richardson deserved part of the blame.
Richardson touched things off on a visit to Saipan. After reviewing the 27th and distributing medals without authority, he loudly complained to Holland Smith, Turner, and Spruance about what he considered high-handed treatment of the Army. Turner responded with his very best invective, and charges of “unwarranted assumption of authority” were lodged against Richardson. Before his descent on Saipan, Richardson had convened a court of inquiry that, without gathering testimony from the Marines’ side, decided Holland Smith was unjustified in ordering Ralph Smith’s relief.
King took strong exception to the negative comments about Holland Smith and was prepared to fight it out. However, Marshall’s staff stayed cooler. They agreed with the report that “staff work of Holland Smith . . . was below acceptable standards” and that he was strongly prejudiced against the Army. But they also believed that “Ralph Smith failed to exact the performance expected from a well-trained division.” Marshall then decided the acrimony must stop and persuaded King to join with him in barring all further official discussion. However, the damage was done, and animosity between the services persisted.
Meanwhile, the American public was drawn in through newspapers and magazines. Time and Life came down solidly for the Marines, while the powerful Hearst newspapers strongly supported the Army. The Hearst press had long championed MacArthur to lead all U.S. forces in the Pacific, losing no opportunity to disparage Marine methods they claimed made for higher casualties than the more methodical Army approach. After five years, when it seemed the case might finally fade from memory, Holland Smith’s incendiary memoir appeared. The same year, Edmund G. Love ably presented the 27th’s side in a fine division history, and in later years additional tendentious studies kept the affair alive. It was unhelpful to the debate that the specific charges lodged against Ralph Smith were relatively minor and explainable, unlike the more pervasive reasons behind his relief. In the end, it was hard to dispute the opinion of Marshall’s staff that there was considerable fault on both sides.
Army officers vowed they would never again serve under Holland Smith, and they never did after his elevation to command of all Marines in the Pacific. Holland Smith bitterly resented the absence of support from Nimitz, who refused to be drawn in and removed adverse comments about the 27th from Spruance’s official report. The Pacific commander was himself so bitter about the poisoning of interservice relations that he later would not allow Holland Smith to attend the Japanese surrender ceremony.
Although Spruance escaped blame, he must have reflected that it would have been better to delay Ralph Smith’s removal until the campaign was done and the problem could be dealt with more discreetly. Richardson was unable to turn the situation to his advantage and remained stranded behind his desk in Hawaii for the duration. The 27th trained intensively to correct the deficiencies identified during the battle and went on to fight on Okinawa, where the last regimental colonel retained after Saipan was relieved of command. Except for a brief interim assignment in Hawaii, Ralph Smith never again commanded combat troops. As the Army’s foremost French expert, he served as military attaché and performed humanitarian work in France before retirement. On his death at age 104, Ralph Smith was the oldest retired general officer of the Army.
‘Genial John’ and the 7th Air Force
Samuel Morison observed that the excellent interservice cooperation in the South Pacific in land-based aviation was not matched in the Central Pacific because of a clash of personalities. That was true, although much more was involved. Unlike the Saipan and Aleutian interservice conflicts, the problems surrounding Central Pacific land-based aviation have been almost entirely ignored by historians. The single in-depth study is an unpublished thesis written by then–U.S. Air Force Major Peter S. H. Ellis at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies, titled “Hale’s Handful . . . Up from the Ashes.”
From the start of the Central Pacific offensive with the attack on Tarawa, land-based aviation was led by Vice Admiral John H. Hoover. The many duties of Hoover’s command included strategic and close-air support of Spruance’s offensive operations and defense of occupied positions. The principal battle force available to Hoover was the fighters and bombers of the Army’s 7th Air Force, headed by Major General Willis H. Hale. A good friend of Spruance’s, Hoover was known as “Genial John” for being anything but that. As described by Potter, Hoover was hard-nosed and authoritarian, with a reputation for being difficult but efficient. “A perfectionist, harsh and demanding . . . in a calm, almost-silken voice he would blisteringly assail any subordinate whose command failed to meet his exacting standards.”
According to Ellis, Hale was “a quiet man, though one who could curl the paint off a Liberator with a whisper.” He was deeply devoted to his airmen and unyielding in his determination to avoid unnecessary casualties.
After incurring heavy losses by employing relatively aggressive tactics during the Gilberts campaign, Hale ordered a more cautious approach. Heavy bombers were then flown at high altitudes and in tight formation, while medium B-25 Mitchells operated at increased altitudes to avoid enemy flak. This sharply diverged from the approach Hoover and Spruance wanted—low-level aggressive attacks by individual aircraft on specific targets. Although that method made for greater losses, they believed it shortened campaigns and in the long run saved lives. A less aggressive air campaign also prolonged the fleet’s exposure to attack. In particular, attacking at higher altitudes severely limited aircraft effectiveness against enemy vessels. Memories of Midway still rankled Spruance; during the battle, B-17 pilots made fruitless high-level attacks on the Japanese fleet and then claimed spectacular successes that were trumpeted in the American press.
Nimitz had insisted that naval commanders of joint forces allow subordinate units “to accomplish assigned tasks by . . . their own technique as developed by precept and experience.” Hale believed that Hoover was flouting that order and was, as Ellis put it, “micromanaging his forces.” In at least one instance, by enlisting the support of Richardson, whose administrative domain included the theater’s Army Air Forces, Nimitz intervened on Hale’s behalf. Afterward, in combination with his attempt before Saipan to wrest away corps command from Holland Smith, Richardson tried without success to unseat Hoover from his control of all land-based aviation.
When that approach to Nimitz failed, Richardson traveled to Washington with Hale to argue the case before the War Department. In a message to King alerting him what to expect from a situation that pitted Richardson and Hale against Hoover and Holland Smith, Nimitz viewed it as a “clash of difficult personalities [that] will not be removed by changes in organization.” Nimitz hastened to let King know that his own relations with Richardson continued friendly, although anecdotal evidence indicates his true feelings were less warm. In fact, their close proximity in Hawaii may have been one reason Nimitz later moved with a small forward headquarters to Guam and left Richardson behind. Even genuinely genial Nimitz had his limits.
Eventually the situation engaged the third service chief on the JCS, Army Air Forces General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. After much negotiation, the command was reorganized so that Hale was given full operational control over all land-based aviation in the Central Pacific. However, in response to concerns that it would be excessive responsibility for him to continue to command the 7th Air Force, whose resources and span of operations had increased exponentially, Hale reluctantly surrendered that command. No less painfully, he continued to report to Hoover in the admiral’s new capacity as commander, Forward Area. Ellis interprets this compromise, which “sacrificed General Hale,” as a product of Arnold’s interest in firmly establishing the Army Air Forces’ operational control over land-based aviation. Arnold would have anticipated the concentration of air resources in the Pacific after Germany’s defeat that might decisively end the war.
Seven months later, Hale’s command was disbanded and he became deputy commander of a new Army Air Forces organization that reported directly to Nimitz. Hoover continued in command of the forward island bases to the end of the war. After two devastating typhoons, Genial John solidified his reputation when he headed a court of inquiry that decided Halsey was primarily responsible for the fleet’s losses in the storms. Off the record, Hoover favored court-martialing America’s favorite admiral for dereliction of duty. Halsey was saved only by the appreciation of Nimitz and King for his past service.
Although they enlivened and inflamed all these situations, personality differences were secondary to the substantive issues involved. In the Aleutian and land-based aviation situations, doctrinal differences were important but not more so than individual proclivities. Theobald’s unwillingness to risk his fleet was more a matter of caution than naval doctrine. Kinkaid would probably have acted more boldly but not necessarily more wisely when the Japanese descended on the Aleutians with superior forces.
Analogously, had MacArthur’s air commander, General George C. Kenney, been in Hale’s position, his aggressive instincts would probably have better satisfied Hoover, especially in his enthusiasm for low-level shipping attacks. But conditions in the two theaters were quite different, especially the very long distances flown in many 7th Air Force missions. It is also difficult to think of dour Hoover and peppery Kenney, never unready to exaggerate results, bonding much better than Theobald and Buckner. Personalities do count.
The Saipan situation was more complex. Morison particularly noted the incompatibility of the 27th Infantry Division’s training with the Marines’ style of war, retention of incompetent and overage commanders for fear of political repercussions, and loss of a fighting edge during long garrison duty in Hawaii. Expressing “no doubt that General Holland Smith was right,” Morison avoided the question of whether, in hindsight, that was the best course. Still, the historian was clearly correct in his belief that the 27th “should never have been included in the same attack force with Marines.” The great losers were the rank and file of the division; they deserved better.
To his considerable credit, Nimitz stood discreetly apart from partisan conflicts in all these cases, a model of interservice cooperation that all those who exercise high command could usefully follow.
Larry I. Bland, ed., The Papers of George Catlett Marshall : Volumes 3 and 4: December 7, 1941–May 31, 1943 and June 1, 1943–December 31, 1944 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991 and 1996).
Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).
Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980).
Norman V. Cooper, A Fighting General: The Biography of Gen. Holland M. ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 1987).
Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War II : Vol. 4, The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan August 1942 to July 1944 ; Vol. 5, The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki June 1944 to August 1945 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950 and 1953).
Philip A. Crowl, The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Campaign in the Marianas (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1960).
Peter S. H. Ellis, “Hale’s Handful . . . Up from the Ashes” (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 2000, available electronically from Air University Press).
Harry A. Gailey, Howlin’ Mad vs. The Army: Conflict in Command, Saipan 1944 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986).
Brian Garfield, The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).
Stephen Howarth, ed., Men of War: Great Naval Captains of World War II (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
Edmund G. Love, The 27th Infantry Division in World War II (Washington, DC: Infantry Journal Press, 1949).
Samuel E. Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Vol. 4 , Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions May–August 1942; Vol. 7, Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls June 1942–April 1944; Vol. 8, New Guinea and the Marianas March 1944–August 1944 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1949, 1951, and 1953).
Lewis Morton, The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Strategy and Command: The First Two Years (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1962).
Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943–1945 (New York: Viking Press, 1973).
E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).
Buckner’s Ode to Theobald
In far Alaska’s icy spray, I stand beside my binnacle
And scan the waters through the fog for fear some rocky pinnacle
Projecting from unfathomed depths may break my hull asunder
And place my name upon the list of those who made a blunder.
The Bering Sea is not for me nor for my Fleet Headquarters.
In mortal dread I look ahead in wild Aleutian waters
Where hidden reefs and williwaws* and terrifying critters
Unnerve me quite with woeful fright and give me fits and jitters.
* violent squalls that blows in near-polar latitudes