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World Battlefronts: BATTLE OF THE PACIFIC: The Admiral’s Show

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The U.S. Navy at last had opened its chosen theater: the Central Pacific. Now, with Pearl Harbor 23 months, three weeks behind and history’s biggest fleet on call, the Navy was confident. Airplane carriers and amphibious operations had altered tactics. But the basic strategy remained: to bring the Jap fleet to decisive, total action, or else to force it to surrender all by default.

In the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur glowered, let a spokesman rumble his dissent, and edged restively toward Rabaul. In the Solomons, at Bougainville, Naval and Army forces technically in his command killed more Japs, expanded their lines; U.S. destroyers sank four Jap destroyers in a bold dash which wound up 90 miles below Rabaul. In the Central Pacific, the tremendous assemblage of carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and transports which the Navy sent against the tiny Gilbert atolls also brought pressure upon the Japs at Rabaul and at their Central Pacific bastion, Truk.

Toward a Free Road? Thus the move into the Gilberts was part of a great Pacific play. For the Navy’s money, it was also the main part of the play, and it was going to be bigger. At Makin, Tarawa. Abemama, the U.S. forces won positions on the Japs’ eastern periphery similar to those already won in the Solomons and New Guinea. Some of the newly won islands could be developed into stationary aircraft carriers, protecting ships in nearby waters, extending the fleet’s area of free movement, shortening the supply lanes to the Solomons and Australia-New Guinea.

The immediate gains were secondary to the long-range intentions which the Gilberts invasion indicated. Probably in the cards was a move northwestward to the Marshalls—it would make no sense to leave the Gilberts under constant threat of attack from there. The hazards and costs of action in the Marshalls would be enormous: the Japs had 23 months to fortify tiny Tarawa; they have had 24 years in the Marshalls (160 sq. mi. land area). After the Marshalls, or concurrently with them, might come the turns of Rabaul. Truk.

But the Pacific war need not follow the logic of the maps, and the Navy may not intend it to. At some point in this pattern of pressure, the Japs may choose to risk their main fleet and overwater air forces; if they lost, such centers as Truk might become almost academic. At some point, the U.S. Admirals may find that they have what, essentially, they are fighting for—a sufficiently protected lane through the mid-Pacific to Japan and its inner Empire —and they may then abandon island-hopping for something much more direct and decisive. These possibilities may explain the choice, in the Central Pacific, of an indirect way to Tokyo which is longer—in miles—than any other.

If some such possibilities do not lie ahead, then General Douglas MacArthur has a strong case for his plaints—and for his road to the Philippines and east China (which in the end, the Admirals’ plans need not rule out). For better or worse, the Admirals’ show will bear watching.

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