By July of 1942, the U.S. Navy had proven itself in two critical battles and a number of smaller but significant actions. The Battle for the Coral Sea and Midway proved that the American sailor was more than an equal for any naval force on the face of the planet. Despite numerical strength, the Japanese fleet was unable to destroy the American effort in either battle and their march through the Pacific was significantly slowed.
In the Solomon’s however, the biggest test was yet to be run. The supply and communications routes to Australia and New Zealand were slowly being choked off which would cause vast repercussions in the war effort. The Japanese movement southward towards these strong allies was threatening to make freedom of movement and freedom of resupply for vital war materials nearly impossible. In those hectic early days, the Japanese Navy (despite her losses) still posed a significant threat.
The air forces of both the Imperial Navy and Army were capable of shutting off free movements of ships and materials from a number of island bases. A small force took the island of Tulagi and started building an airbase on the larger island of Guadalcanal. The importance of the location of this new airfield was that it helped to strangle the movement of ships.
Defeating an enemy that is entrenched on an island was already well known to strategists but lessons learned about the tenacity of the Japanese were costly reminders about the cost of not moving quickly enough.
Two battles were already raging in early July that would determine the outcome of the campaigns ahead as well as the war
Those battles were as old as the opposing forces themselves: The fight between the War Department under General Marshall and the Navy Department under Admiral King was the key battle that was constant and ongoing.
The second battle was between two seasoned warriors in their own right; General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz.
These battles had been going on for many decades. Prior to the war being thrust upon the United States, the Navy and the Army had opposing plans on how to react to the coming assault form the east. Resources were fought over, money was constantly being argued, even the priority of who would lead in the case of an attack were debated endlessly.
The Army, being the “senior” service was confident that their strategic land role would be the determining factor in any successful venture. After all, wars were always settled on the field of battle and the new air power of the Army’s air force would be able to sweep the ocean of slower moving ships. The Navy’s role in Marshall and MacArthur’s view would be to simply deliver the Army wherever their planning groups determined and make sure that there was enough logistics to support the Army
The Navy looked at the map of the Pacific and even with its numberless island nations recognized that free flowing ships were needed to fight the enemies vast and powerful fleet. Submarines would play a role in disrupting the extended supply lines. Naval air would play a vital role in supporting any island campaign since the distance the existing Army planes had to travel were prohibitive in such a combat scenario.
Complicating the matter even more was the overall war plan that had already been committed to
Despite the Japanese advances, American strategy had been pledged to defeat the Germans in Europe while trying to use the available forces in the east to try and contain the Japs form moving forward. The new base at Guadalcanal was a game changer. Time for discussions and tactical arguments was cut short by the threat of this new air base.
From the book “A World at Arms” by Gerhard L. Weinberg (Page 341), the battle lines were clearly drawn:
“The Navy, and especially Admirals King and Nimitz, was not about to let an army commander, least of all General MacArthur, control the deployment of its main fleet in an area that was so obvious an oceanic one as the Central Pacific. On the other hand, there was no way that as assertive a general as MacArthur was going to serve under any admiral.”
For weeks, the fighting between the Army and Navy delayed real action but in the end, it was the existence United States Marine Corps that finally settled the argument. The Army’s realization that it had no capacity in the Pacific do land on islands against entrenched enemies made all the difference. In the weeks to come, the adaptability of the Corps and the U. S. Navy would be tested in ways that set the stage for the remaining parts of the war.
This back and forth between the two American leaders lasted throughout the war in in the minds of many historians probably drove both the army and the navy to achieve more significant victories. As the Japanese tried to fight their way towards Port Moresby and Australia, this tension would prove to be a valuable source of energy.
There will probably never be an end to the unique battle between the Army and the Navy of the United States
Both will always see their unique roles as the ultimate winner of wars. This of course was complicated even further by the creation of the Air Force in 1947 and the advancement of missiles and the nuclear arsenal. Even now, the Marine Corps is evolving with their new role in the Global wars we are engaged in. My hope is that the tension will always drive the people in charge to find better ways to defend this nation.