The Man Who Planned The Victory

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Of course we can’t go back and replay vast historical events, so we never really can know “what might have been” if we had played our cards differently. But we certainly can look back and see what alternate courses were open to us and trace out the likely consequences of taking one of those alternates. How else can we ever understand the past —or learn anything from it for future use? Incidentally, several historians in Britain and the United States have recently considered these questions and concluded that an Allied invasion of the Continent in 1943 was indeed feasible and that it likely would have resulted in an earlier victory and a more secure peace. This corroborates an opinion expressed to me in 1946 by Gen. Franz Halder, who had been Chief of Staff of the German army during the early years of the war.

When D-day eventually came, you were in New Delhi—half a world removed from the beaches of Normandy and the corridors of the Pentagon. I have heard it said that you were eased out of Washington, perhaps at British suggestion, because your independence made you unmanageable. You continued to press strongly for the early Channel crossing, for example, and thus were seen as inconvenient to have so close to America’s high command.

There were rumors in Washington to that effect at the time. I discounted them because I could not believe that Mr. Churchill would attempt to influence Allied strategy in such a manner. Since the war, however, much evidence has come to light suggesting he was indeed capable of such maneuvers.

Were you pleased at the thought of going out to the new Allied Southeast Asia Command?

I would have preferred combat duty or, if not that, continued assignment to my challenging job in War Plans. General Marshall had frequently mentioned the possibility of my commanding an armored or an airborne division. My appetite for action had been stirred, too, by a recent visit to General Patton’s army during the invasion of Sicily.

You said you had met Admiral Mountbatten before you reported to his command at SEAC.

Yes, on the trip to London in April 1942. He was handsome and personable, as everyone knew, and seemed to be caught up in his work and very much on top of it. I knew of his connections with the Royal Family, and of Churchill’s high regard for him, so I confess that I kept an open mind as to whether he had “made it” on his own. But my doubts proved unfounded. Mountbatten was first-rate in every respect. He did a remarkable job of holding together all the various forces that were resisting the Japanese in that part of the world. There were tensions among the Allies, problems with the natives, inter-service rivalries, prima donnas—to say nothing of the fact that we were operating almost at the end of the global pipeline, under conditions of terrain and climate that were extremely difficult, against an ingenious and ruthless enemy. Surmounting all of this, the “Supremo”—as the admiral came to be known by all ranks—brought a sense of common purpose to the command. He was fair-minded and diplomatic and had a flair for leadership.

There must have been some disagreements between you and him?

I visited a large Chinese army hospital and was unable to tell the living from the rows of dead.

I can’t really recall any during my year in SEAC. We were on the same team, working toward the same goals, under the same instructions from the Combined Chiefs of Staff. I understand that a few of the Americans serving with General Stilwell in India thought I was too “pro-British.”

Later, when I was transferred to China, I found myself working for a radically different Allied commander —Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek- under a different set of instructions from Washington. Frictions inevitably developed under these circumstances between the two geographically contiguous commands—SEAC and the China theater (which included French Indo-china). I continued, nonetheless, to find Admiral Mountbatten a cooperative ally and an understanding friend.

Several recent historians and biographers have blown out of all proportion the issues that arose between our respective commands. It has even been suggested that my personal friendship with Mountbatten was strained by suspicions of double-dealing, but all I know is that our friendship survived in all its warmth until his tragic death in 1979.

China has often been described as a graveyard for Western diplomats and soldiers—or at least for their reputations. Did you feel any apprehension as you flew over the Himalayas from India to assume command of the China theater?

There wasn’t much time for such reflection. The change came with almost no warning when General Stilwell was called home, and the U.S. China-Burma-India theater was split up into Burma-India and China theaters. My directive from the President required me to keep China afloat and in the war. The hard-pressed and terribly suffering Chinese were pinning down approximately one million Japanese who might otherwise have been transferred to the Philippines or elsewhere to oppose MacArthur or Nimitz.

What was the situation when you arrived in China?