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My Search For Douglas MacArthur
An overheard remark sent the author off on a years-long quest to discover the truth about a man whose power to inspire both rage and reverence has only grown after his death
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Here, too, MacArthur was the victim of a deliberate attempt to falsify the documentary record. When he was made commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East in July 1941, he needed an air commander to oversee the buildup of American airpower in the Philippines and counter the growing Japanese air threat building up on Formosa. What he got was Brig. Gen. Henry Clagett, a notorious drunk, who arrived with an aide, Lester B. Maitland, who was also an alcoholic. The bottle brought the careers of both Clagett and Maitland to an ignominious close; they got so drunk at an official banquet in China the State Department wanted them recalled, and MacArthur’s failure to defend them was eloquent.
In November 1941 Clagett’s replacement, Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, arrived in Manila. Indolent, party-loving, self-indulgent, Brereton failed in every wartime command he was given. Yet whenever he failed at one job, he managed to get a more important assignment somewhere else. One of his greatest blunders was the disastrous August 1943 low-level attack on the huge oil complex at Ploesti. Bombing experts who studied the plan said it would fail, but Brereton insisted it be mounted. Nearly half the 164 B-24s that made the attack were shot down, and Ploesti’s oil output was unaffected. Not even this had any effect on Brereton’s career. He played a key role in yet another blunder, the Allied defeat at Arnhem in September 1944.
As soon as World War II ended, many commanders rushed to publish their accounts of what had happened. Brereton was one of the first into print. He had more explaining to do than most and cleverly hit on the idea of presenting his account as a diary, when in fact much of it had been written long after the events described. This was particularly true of the entries dealing with his brief but cataclysmic spell in the Philippines. But even this wasn’t enough. The headquarters diary of his Far Eastern Air Forces for December 1941 was crudely falsified a day or two after the Japanese attack. Both Army and Air Force official historians noticed this long ago, and when I looked at it myself at the Air Force’s Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, the erasures and type-overs were still plain fifty years later.
MacArthur publicly defended his airmen, but he got Brereton out of the Philippines within days. In private he called the man and his staff “bumbling nincompoops,” a judgment it is hard to disagree with. When MacArthur later acquired a truly outstanding air commander, George C. Kenney, they became the best of friends, and Kenney proved to be the general’s closest confidant throughout the war.
Many of the most famous MacArthur stories eventually proved to be untrue or, at the least, seriously misleading. Instead of making it possible to understand him better, they added to the legend, even if only to tarnish it. There was not one accurate account, for example, of the supposed MacArthur-Pershing feud. By the time I had finished writing my book I had also come full circle: I discovered that the two Army sergeants on the plane flying into Clark Field were wrong.
MacArthur had been absolutely right about the Philippine Scouts. They were every bit as good as he claimed. The problem with the Philippine Scouts was not that they could not fight but that there weren’t enough of them—only eight thousand, against nearly fifty thousand Japanese. For five months they fought with exemplary courage and tenacity. Their resolution in the face of certain defeat and their unwavering loyalty to MacArthur and to the United States deserve nothing but praise.
The biggest puzzle to me, though, wasn’t what happened to MacArthur’s B-17s or whether or not he had defied orders from Hoover or why he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor in World War I, but why Norfolk? In the closing years of his life, MacArthur had decided to be buried in a place that meant almost nothing to him, rather than at his spiritual home, West Point.
MaCarthur always claimed he chose Norfolk because it was his mother’s birthplace, but even she is not buried there. If he truly wanted to emphasize in death his closeness to her in life, it would have made a lot more sense to be buried where she is: in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside her husband.
The reason, I finally realized, was that it was impossible for MacArthur to reject the chance of a memorial and archive. Four of his contemporaries—Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Truman—were going to be laid to rest in splendid presidential libraries, the body of the man enshrined with the body of his papers in monuments that keep the flame burning brightly beyond the grave’s ghastly maw. A fifth, George Marshall, was not entitled to a presidential library, but Virginia Military Institute was planning to house a splendid Marshall research library on its beautiful campus.