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Posted on Jun 8, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

MacArthur Myth

By Mo Ludan


I wish to comment on the following issues re: Richard B. Frank’s “Pacific Battle Casualties and the MacArthur Myth” (Armchair General magazine, July 2006).

Issue #1: “The JCS authorized a three-phased campaign that began in August 1942… In 1943, however, Nimitz’s local commander, Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr and his South Pacific command fell under MacArthur’s authority. Accordingly, the casualties sustained in the first phase of the South Pacific campaign rightfully accrue to Nimitz, and those for the following two phases accrue to MacArthur.”


Comment: Although his powerful Third Fleet provided support to the Leyte Landing, Halsey took direct orders from Nimitz not only during the retaking of the Philippines but throughout the Pacific campaign.

Issue #2: “Based on available information, an estimate of Filipino casualties would be at least 60,000 including a minimum of 10,000 deaths.”

Comment: Unbeknownst to MacArthur and Filipino leader Manuel Quezon, Washington had earlier written off the Philippines in favor of focusing the war effort on Europe. In fact, Washington did not seriously plan a rescue. Since the decision to abandon the Philippines had been decided earlier in Washington, MacArthur could hardly be blamed for subsequent losses incurred in the defense of the doomed islands. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall kept assuring MacArthur and Quezon that help was “on the way.”

Issue #3: “These facts illustrate that a valid comparison of losses under MacArthur and Nimitz involves fixing boundaries in both time and command jurisdiction.”

Comment: Should we therefore start the timeline from the moment MacArthur and Nimitz were both given theater commands for a consistent “theater commander to theater commander” comparison?

Soon after Japan’s entry into the war on December 7, 1941, the Allies decided to unify command in the South West Pacific with the appointment of Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, a British, as theater commander of what was known as the ABDA area (American, British, Dutch, and Australian). His deputy, an American admiral named Thomas C. Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, directed all naval forces independent of MacArthur, who was technically subordinate in rank to Wavell.

Issue #4: “The United States Navy sustained 57,149 casualties in the Pacific. Since … these losses resulted from the air-sea battles that annihilated the IJN and sank Japan’s merchant marine, a valid comparison of casualties in the two Pacific theaters must exclude Navy losses.”

Comment: I feel that the war mission of every theater commander is to decisively defeat the enemy by whatever means available in his authority- at land, sea, or air. To exclude air-sea battle casualties sustained under his command would therefore present an incomplete assessment of his combat loss role.

Issue #5: “The same source indicated that the beginning strength of the Republic of the Philippines armed forces was about 120,000…..”

Comment: The “Republic of the Philippines” did not exist until after July 4, 1946 when the Philippines, a U.S. colony, gained her independence. Virtually all records were destroyed during the country’s liberation. One wonders about the accuracy of the author’s sources from the two post-war Manila agencies (Office of the Adjutant General and National Historical Institute). How did these records survive the war and how could they be at variance with authoritative U.S. military sources?

Issue #6: “Casualties in MacArthur’s recapture of the Philippines nearly equaled Nimitz’s losses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”

Comment: Total casualties in the Philippines numbered 65,000, about half the 118,000 lost in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. These losses must be seen in light of enemy casualties inflicted by the two commanders. In the Philippines, Japan lost 350,000 men vs. 130,000 in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

MacArthur‘s troops slogged their way through a Philippine land area totaling 115,800 sq. miles vs. 466 sq. miles secured by Nimitz’s equally tough soldiers in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Tables 1, 2, and 3 attempt to underscore MacArthur’s economy of ground losses per sq. mile of ground contested (although one can argue for Nimitz that fighting intensifies and casualties rise dramatically as the battle zone nears the enemy’s homeland, e.g., Okinawa, Iwo Jima). Due to his vast territory, MacArthur faced a much larger enemy force. The Philippine island of Luzon alone was defended by 285,000 Japanese ground troops, nearly equal the total ground forces faced by Nimitz in his entire Pacific campaign.

Conclusion: Regardless of how one examines the casualty record of these two brilliant commanders, we must not overlook the fact that Nimitz and MacArthur performed superbly, in spite of being relegated to subsidiary roles vis-à-vis their European counterparts. They cooperated with each other at every step of the way toward their common goal: the defeat of Japan. Each commander covered the other’s flank. One would not have succeeded without the other.

General Douglas MacArthur



Issue #1 “While (MacArthur) was Commander-in-Chief within his own SW Pacific Theatre, Halsey’s Third Fleet and naval support from the Central and South Pacific areas were distinctly without his jurisdiction. He had absolutely no authority over them.“ Frazier Hunt, “The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur”. Devin-Adair. New York. 1954.

“Bill Halsey’s Third Fleet of eighteen aircraft carriers, six battleships, seventeen cruisers, and sixty-four destroyers were……under Admiral Nimitz’s orders… Halsey and his powerful Third Fleet would be operating independently of MacArthur, continuing to take their orders from Nimitz at Pearl Harbor.” William B. Breuer, “Retaking the Philippines,” St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1986.

Issue #2 “Indeed, a crucial decision had been reached in Washington. America’s first priority would be the defeat of Nazi Germany. The full brunt of Uncle Sam’s military power would be unleashed against the Germans, not the Japanese. That crucial secret was kept from the commander most affected – Douglas MacArthur.” Wm B. Breuer, “MacArthur’s Undercover War.” J. Wiley. N.Y. 1995.

Marshall cabled MacArthur: “A stream of four-engine bombers is en route… another stream of similar bombers started today for Hawaii… Two bomber groups leave next week.” FDR promised Quezon: “I can assure you that every vessel available is bearing the strength that will eventually crush the enemy and liberate your native land.” But not a single American soldier, airplane, or ship ever reached the Philippines. Breuer, Wm. “Retaking the Philippines.” op. cit.

Issue #3 “Proposed by Marshall, ABDA was a desperate measure to try to organize a scattering of Allied units under a unified command… at Marshall’s suggestion, Field Marshal Wavell was chosen to serve as Supreme Commander.” Harry A. Gailey, “The War in the Pacific.” Presidio Press. Novato. 1995.

It was not until April 18, 1942, one month and a day after MacArthur arrived in Australia from his escape from Corregidor (Allies’ last outpost in the Far East that fell on May 6 – ed), that the large South Pacific area once allotted to Wavell in December 1941 would now form the new boundaries of his SW Pacific theater. Meantime, Nimitz was given command of Pacific Ocean Area theater. Hunt, F., op. cit. Other sources: Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, ed., “War Diaries 1935–1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke.” Phoenix Press. London. 2001; (New Zealand Electronic Text Center)

Issue #6 “At that time there were almost 260,000 Japanese troops in Luzon which was not far from the Sixth Army Intelligence estimate of 234,5000 on 5 December (1944)… There were also about 25,000 naval ground troops divided between Manila, Clark Air Field, and Legaspi under the command of Admiral Denshicho Okochi.” Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Liberation of the Philippines.” Little Brown & Company. Boston. 1959.

“Total American ground casualties on Okinawa were put at 65,631 including 7,300 dead. Naval casualties afloat were estimated at 27,000 men, with 4,907 killed on the U.S. ships.” Hunt, F., p. 387, op. cit



MacArthur* Table 1

Land Battles (World War II name)


Square Miles

Leyte, Bismarck Archipleago




New Guinea (Papua, W. Irian/Dutch East Indies or DEI)




Luzon, Mindoro, Mindanao, rest of Philippines




Borneo, Sulawesi (Celebes, Moluccas), Java








 Nimitz* Table 2

Land Battles (World War II name)


Square Miles


Micronesia (Caroline Is.), Kiribati (Gilbert, Tarawa)




Volcano Is, Ryukyus, Marianas, Solomons, Palau, other




Aleutians, Vanuatu (New Hebrides),Taiwan (Formosa)







* excludes a) Australia and New Zealand in MacArthur’s zone, and b) Hawaiian Islands in Nimitz’s theater.

 .   Table 3

Ground Casualties: author’s numbers






 U.S. casualties






 Allied casualties






 Combined casualties CS






 Sq. Miles (ground) SM






Ground casualty ratio  CS/SM 

0.24 casualties per sq. mi.


2.45 casualties per sq. mi.


** includes 60,000 American and Filipino defenders in Bataan, Corregidor + 18,541 Australian and New Zealand troops

*** excludes 57,149 air-sea casualties





  1. I will be in dangerous territory here when I suggest that Douglas MacArthur was one of the most overrated military leaders in history, largely in part due to his media machine which was constantly churning out supposed victories against non-existent or barely present enemies (in New Guinea in particular) ‘MacArthur’s Victory’ in New Guinea was gained almost in its entirety by Australian forces which he constantly derided but who inflicted the first defeat on the Japanese on land ( Milne Bay) and were the major and most successful combat forces in the Buna/Gona campaign not to mention the Kokoda Track. MacArthur ran his ‘New Guinea’ campaign from his comfortable quarters in Brisbane far away until the threat was long gone.

    Typical of this mythmaking is his biography which is is replete with a ficticious reconnaissance report for which he tried to get recommended for the Medal of Honour. In fact, his entire ‘combat’ experience prior to WWII was very limited (read a few months)of low activity experience at the end of WWI. He and his GHQ staff were vastly underqualified copared to teh Australian counterparts many of whom had foungt for the entirety of WWI and in the case of Australian General Blamey, was responsible for some of the most stuning victories that helped bring WWI to an end.Following the attack on Pearly Harbour, he was shamefully negligent in doing nothing for over 9 and letting his entire fleet of aircraft be destroyed on the ground. He promptly retreated to a mountain fortress where he earned the soubriquet ‘Dugout Doug’ from the troops. He should have been sacked. Throughout the war he fought a political battle of obstruction with the US Navy while remaining safe and sound in Australia (apart from a quick day visit to Moresby with his staf to qualify for campaign medals) until the threat was far away. This man managed to take credit for everyone else’s hard work, blood and sweat and continue his foibles into Korea…Serious military historians (as opposed to myth makers) have derided his reluctance to visit the battle areas or even send useful staff officers to make a serious investigation of conditions. As a result, he ignored the advice of his battle hardened Austraian advisors and the first US units sent to New Guinea were completely unprepared for jungle warfare and were either decimated or simply stopped advancing following first serious contact with the enemy. (A minor point is that this famous general seemed to be okay with wearing medals to which he was not entitled.) How must the GIs , Marines and Diggers feel about that…. enough myths. It only leads to more folly…

  2. It’s easy to criticize and nitpick MacArthur. He had huge imperfections as a commanding general but the fact remains that he was in charge of military operations in the Southwest Pacific and determined the overall strategy in the conduct of war there which in the end was very successful. And he did so with a relatively low casualty rate compared to the bloody slaughter of Americans troops for strategically useless Japanese island strongholds such as Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

  3. I have “self” studied military history and leaders for many years, particularly WWII. Without any bias whatsoever, I was captivated by how much attention and energy (good and bad) focused on Douglas Mac Arthur to a far greater extent of any other WWII leader in any theatre. Subsequently, I can say, without getting into writing a book, General Mac Arthur was the finest military leader of any service in WWII. I don’t say that with any bias for or against any other military leader, only that this was my conclusion based upon the facts as I know them to be. Of particular interest to me was the fact that while many of his peers did not personally like him, both publicly (a few) and privately (many more) concluded that he was among, if not the best general America has ever produced. Not without his faults, but overall probably the best.

  4. I am 74 years old, and when I began on my first jobs as a teenager, many of the older men I worked with were WWII veterans, many of the SWPA under MacArthur. They all spoke well of him, some revered him. Why? Because they made it home. They all, everyone, mentioned the low casualties.
    MacArthur isolated and by-passed at least a quarter million Japanese troops who never got to fire a shot at Allied soldiers. Many of these Japanese troops also made it home at wars end.
    Head-on attacks on heavily defended positions was not his style. He did it only once at Buna and never did it again. His strategy was ” hit’em where they ain’t”.