The Biggest Theater

In the month and a half between Tokyo and Midway, our big carriers steamed four times across the Pacific—a distance halfway around the world.

Japan’s thrust into Burma simultaneously threatened India. Early in 1942 the same carrier task force that had hit Pearl Harbor severely battered British forces on Ceylon, in the Bay of Bengal, and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. Outnumbered British naval and air forces withdrew to secure bases west and south of the Indian peninsula. Australia could expect no help from them. To the east, America after Pearl Harbor hardly seemed in condition to help. In short, Japan could go where it wished, do what it wanted, conquer what it coveted.

The easiest, shortest, most logical Japanese move was clearly due south, and this seemed to be what its high command had in mind. Early in March Japanese forces landed on the northeastern coast of the New Guinea “tail.” Port Moresby, with a fine harbor on the other side of the tail directly across from Australia’s Cape York, was their obvious objective, and immediately upon landing they began crunching overland toward it. Their air forces had already severely bombed the town and would continue to do so. Only the difficult mountain ridge along the tail’s center line obstructed approach from the land side, but this was not impossible for a determined army. Or the port could be attacked by sea, by an arm of Japan’s everywhere victorious navy. In April 1942 it seemed inescapable to Australians that Port Moresby would soon become the staging base for an all-out invasion of the sparsely inhabited and undefended continent a few miles to the south. It made eminent sense.

Today it does not appear the Japanese originally expected to invade Australia, but in early 1942, with the extraordinary momentum they had built up, they could not fail to appreciate the opportunity represented by the harbor at Port Moresby. Once it was in Japanese hands, the obvious threat to Australia, whether or not Japan chose to exploit it, would in itself have a massive effect on Allied strategy.

The initial reaction of the U.S. Pacific forces was an attempt to divert Japanese strategic attention back to the central Pacific by hit-and-run raids on Japanese-occupied islands, but these had little effect. The Japanese high command pretty much ignored them and continued drawing up plans to send Rabaul-based forces around the New Guinea tail to take Port Moresby from the sea. Then came a master stroke: the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, ordered from the White House by the President himself. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had opposed the idea as too risky for the little gain offered, but Col. Jimmy Doolittle, one of the foremost fliers of the era, was able to convince a higher audience.

Franklin Roosevelt realized Doolittle’s bombing planes could do no important damage to Japan, but he no doubt expected the raid to increase Japan’s attention to the central Pacific area. He could not have anticipated that it would speed up the timetable for the South Pacific as well. Japan’s navy chief, Admiral Yamamoto, had been urging a big movement directly eastward: occupation of Midway and the nearest Aleutian Islands. Doolittle’s exploit brought on an immediate go-ahead for that operation. Something of this nature—though in much less force—was expected, but what our leaders did not foresee was the acceleration also of Japan’s plans involving Port Moresby. Consolidation and solidification of gains are always important in war, especially when enemy intentions are unclear. To Japan’s high command, therefore, taking the southern coast of New Guinea and poising its forces opposite Australia gave it greater freedom to aim its later military moves west, south, or east, whatever might seem most called for.

In April 1942 Admiral Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, had one very important advantage: intelligence information that was far superior to anything available to Admiral Yamamoto. It was also far superior to anything the fleet commander during Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, had ever received. Nimitz’s intelligence officer, Commander Edwin T. Layton, happened to be a close friend of his fellow intelligencer Commander Joseph J. Rochefort, who occupied a basement office in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard and analyzed radio intelligence for hints at enemy intentions. Both commanders had agonized over the failure to keep Kimmel better informed. Rochefort also, as Layton well knew, was the best man the U.S. Navy had for actual decipherment of enemy messages. He had a good grasp of Japanese and seemed often to possess nearly extrasensory understanding of what the enemy intended to transmit in the messages. In short, Rochefort had a natural bent for code breaking. His chain of command, however, was direct to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., on which Admiral Nimitz (like Kimmel before him) was institutionally required to rely for official estimates of enemy intentions and forces. Whether Rochefort possessed information he subsequently wished Kimmel might have had must forever remain a conjecture. What is known for sure is that he, and everyone in the intelligence branch, was appalled at the breakdown of the system so far as keeping Kimmel informed was concerned.