Military Incompetence at Port Moresby, 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3451-76:

Visiting the front lines on just his second full day in the theater, [George] Kenney impressed the men at Port Moresby. They had lost faith in [George] Brett, who rarely visited and had no concept of how awful the conditions at Port Moresby had become. Kenney later wrote: “[Brett] didn’t get up there very often; I think he was up there maybe twice. They didn’t have much equipment and weren’t getting any more equipment; they weren’t getting spare parts when their airplanes began falling apart. Brett didn’t get up to [see] them, and he didn’t check and find out what they needed and see that they got it. Their food was terrible stuff, and he wouldn’t do anything about that. They were getting malaria pretty badly, and there was nothing done about that.”

Kenney was disgusted with just about everything he saw on the tour. Joined by Brig. Gen. Martin F. “Mike” Scanlon, the ranking American at Port Moresby, Kenney spent the day visiting the base with Royce and Whitehead. During the briefing for a bombing mission, Kenney was appalled by the lack of organization. The preliminaries were conducted by an Australian officer who simply declared that the objective was Rabaul, giving no specific targets. Kenney later wrote, “I found out afterward that nobody expects the airplanes to get that far anyhow, and if they do, the town itself is a good target.”

A meteorologist spoke next. His estimates of the weather conditions over Rabaul were based on historical data rather than real-time analysis. Kenney observed that no one was designated to lead the formation, mainly because the bombers were not expected to stay together en route to the target—and no one seemed to care. The only thing the crews fretted about was their bomb load. “The personnel are obsessed with the idea that a bullet will detonate the bombs and blow up the whole works,” Kenney noted. “If enemy airplanes are seen along the route, all auxiliary gas and bombs are immediately jettisoned and the mission abandoned.”

Thoroughly displeased with bomber operations, Kenney next inspected the fighter squadrons and found them no better. After touring the fighter area for a few hours with Lt. Col. Richard A. Legg, commanding officer of the 35th Fighter Group, Kenney wrote, “His organization is lackadaisical, maintenance is at a low ebb, and while he is short of spares there is no excuse for only six P-39s out of forty being constantly available for combat.”

Kenney also investigated the camp areas. “Throughout the Moresby area the camps are poorly laid out and the food situation is extremely bad,” he later wrote. “There is no mosquito control discipline and the malaria and dysentery rates are forcing relief of a unit at the end of about two months’ duty.”

Now Kenney knew why MacArthur was displeased. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about the appalling conditions at Port Moresby, though Kenney did find a few subordinates—none above the rank of major—who were actually attempting to improve things.

After a quick assessment of the overall situation, Kenney immediately began to make changes. First, he told Whitehead to remain at Port Moresby to “look after the fighters” and implement some new policies. He directed that an American staff officer attend every mission briefing; also, every bombing mission would have a specific primary target assigned along with at least two alternates. Finally, he instructed Whitehead to inform Legg that if he didn’t snap out of his lethargy, he’d be replaced.

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Filed under Australia, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

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