Douglas MacArthur – Part I

“The American Caesar”

General Douglas MacArthur
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Few World War II-era American commanders are as famous, and as controversial, as General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964). The moniker given to him by a biographer, “American Caesar,” encapsulates him perfectly: courageous but vain, a shrewd politician who nevertheless failed to reach his ultimate goal, and a military commander whose brilliant successes have long caused the public to ignore his ignominious failures. Today’s article is about the career of Douglas MacArthur, one of the truly larger-than-life (but flawed) American figures of World War II.
MacArthur was born into a military family: his father, Arthur MacArthur Jr, was an Army captain who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and who later briefly served as the military governor of the Philippines. Young Douglas spent his first decade at a series of frontier posts, and later wrote: "I learned to ride and shoot even before I could read or write—indeed, almost before I could walk and talk."

MacArthur as a student at the West Texas Military Academy
(Photo: public domain)

MacArthur attended the West Texas Military Academy, then entered West Point, where he was singled out for unusually harsh hazing by Southern cadets due to his Union officer father. He graduated first of his 93-man class in 1903, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, as was customary for top graduates. He received a pair of golden castle pins, associated with the engineers, on graduation. He gifted these pins to Major General Leif Serdrup in 1945, who then passed it on to the Chief of Engineers in 1975. Every Chief of Engineers has worn MacArthur’s pins since then.

MacArthur’s golden pins, now worn by the Chief of Engineers
(Photo: FT Eyre / Wikipedia)

MacArthur served in the Philippines until catching some tropical diseases in 1904 and being recalled to the States. He was then appointed as aide-de-camp to his father and served in Japan (still friendly with the U.S. at the time), India and China. He served at several other positions before joining the headquarters staff of the half-year U.S. occupation of Veracruz in Mexico, where he had a chance to demonstrate his personal courage.

A friendly boxing match between two Marines during the Veracruz Expedition
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
MacArthur, serving as captain at the time, realized that the expedition needed to use the local railroad to secure supplies. There were plenty of railroad cars in Veracruz but no engines, so he acquired a handcar, hired three Mexicans and went on an unauthorized expedition to search for engines in nearby Alvarado.  He found three suitable engines, but was attacked by armed men on the way back. He shot two of the first group of five people and left the others behind, but was then set upon by fifteen others on horseback, and by a third group of third riders later on. The small group fought off the attackers; MacArthur escaped unscathed, but with several bullet holes in his clothes.
U.S. Navy sailors on a train during the Veracruz Expedition
(Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

He was recommended for the Medal of Honor for the brave expedition, but was denied because he acted behind the back of his commanding officer. The officer in question, a Medal of Honor-recipient himself, actually supported his nomination for the award, but the board demurred, reluctant to encourage similar behavior in others. Still, MacArthur was promoted to major in 1915 and assigned as head of the Bureau of Information at the office of the Secretary of War, essentially becoming the Army’s first press officer.

MacArthur in 1916 with his signature corncob pipe
(Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Unites States declared war on Imperial Germany and entered World War I in April 1917. The National Guard was to be used on the Western Front alongside the regular military. MacArthur suggested that the first Guard division to be deployed overseas should comprise men from various states so that no state could be accused of receiving preferential treatment. This unit became the 42nd “Rainbow” Division; MacArthur, promoted to colonel, became its energetic, enthusiastic and competent chief of staff.

Men of the 42nd Division during training
(Photo: Alan Platt Sands)
MacArthur acquitted himself well during the Division’s time in Europe and was promoted to brigadier general in June 1918. At the age of 38, he was the youngest brigadier general in American Expeditionary Force – for about half a year, when Lesley McNair (Read our earlier article) and Pelham Glassford snatched that record from him.  On one occasion, he participated in a French trench raid. Another time, he led a squad on a patrol to confirm the existence of a large gap in the German barbed wire defenses. The squad came under enemy fire and every man was killed, except for MacArthur, who escaped with light wounds. This act earned him a second nomination for the Medal of Honor and one for promotion to major general, though he didn’t get either. He was also gassed twice: while he was strict about his men always carrying a gas mask, he was somewhat negligent in doing the same.
MacArthur with a riding crop in France, 1918
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
MacArthur also started showing signs of the egocentrism that later came to dominate his personality, and eschewed the standard American uniform in favor of scarves, his own jacket and a modified officer’s hat (even in no man’s land, instead of a helmet). This landed him in hot water when soldiers from another division mistook him for a German general and briefly took him prisoner. After the war ended, the 42nd Division stayed in Germany for a while as part of the occupation forces with MacArthur as its commander.
MacArthur (center) wearing his unauthorized uniform
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Returning home to the States, MacArthur was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Here, he fought hard to reform the outdated curriculum based on his experience in the war. He found that the Army had to deal with political, economic and social problems during the occupation, tasks newly commissioned officers were not prepared for. He also strove to increase the length of tuition, improve morale and cut back on vicious hazing. He shifted emphasis from the Civil War to World War I in Military Art class, placed more importance on the Far East in History, and added liberal arts, economics and politics classes. The traditional summer camp was replaced with practice with modern firearms under the supervision of regular army sergeants, ending in a full-pack march back from Fort Dix to West Point some 120 miles (193 km) away. MacArthur’s radical reforms gained protest from both professors and alumni. Many of his changes were discarded after his time as superintendent, but eventually gained recognition and acceptance.
MacArthur as superintendent at West Point
(Photo: U.S. Military Academy)
MacArthur left West Point and sailed with his family to the Philippines as the new commander of the Military District of Manila, a place he knew well from his days as a young lieutenant. The earlier revolts for independence had already been suppressed, and the Philippines, still a U.S. colony, was on the track for a peaceful independence process.  He managed to quell a mutiny in the ranks of the Philippine Scouts, but his efforts to secure better salaries for Filippino troops were frustrated by racial prejudice and financial stringency.
MacArthur returned to the States for new assignments as a major general in 1925, and served as the youngest of 13 judges on the court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, “the father of the Air Force.” Mitchell, embroiled in an acrimonious interservice debate over the future of military aviation, was charged with insubordination, convicted, and resigned shortly after. MacArthur voted against the conviction, believing "that a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine."
Billy Mitchell during his court-martial
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)
MacArthur moved to the Philippines again in 1927 as commander of the Philippine Department, a U.S. Army organization charged with protecting the Philippines and training the new Philippine army of the soon-to-be-independent country. He returned to the U.S. in 1930 and was appointed Army Chief of Staff. His egotism became even more obvious to those who knew him. He wore a Japanese kimono at his desk, smoked cigarettes from a jeweled cigarette holder, and started referring to himself in the third person as “MacArthur,” just a Julius Caesar had used to. He also hired a public relations staff to promote his image and his political views: that America needed a strongman leader to deal with Communism, that America’s future lay in the Pacific, and a hostility toward the British Empire. He was once described as having a court rather than a staff. On the upside, he supported the development of the B-17 Flying Fortress, and four-engine bombers in general, even in the midst of the Great Depression. He also personally intervened in a debate over the M1 Garand rifle (Read our earlier article).  The debate was over the caliber of the new weapon, and MacArthur had the gun rifled for the .30-06 Springfield round, which was already used by the older M1903 Springfield – this way, the Army didn’t need to keep stores of two different rifle-caliber rounds.
MacArthur as Army Chief of Staff with his aide, Dwight D. Eisenhower
(Photo: Getty Images)
MacArthur became involved in the controversial Bonus Army incident of 1932. The Bonus Army was a protest group of 17,000 World War I veterans demanding their promised bonuses, who marched on Washington D.C. with their families. MacArthur initially provided the marchers with tents and mobile kitchens, but became unduly concerned that the protest had been taken over by communists and pacifists. He was ordered to clear out the protesters, an act that was carried out with bayonets and sabers and ended in a public relations disaster. MacArthur lost popularity with the people at large, but became a hero with the more right-wing elements of the Republican Party, who believed he saved the country from a communist takeover.
Bonus Army protesters clashing with the police
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932. Roosevelt and MacArthur were friends despite their political differences, and MacArthur supported the new president’s New Deal efforts through the Army’s operation of the Civilian Conversation Corps, a work relief program for young men. He remained Chief of Staff until 1935, when he was retroactively awarded two Purple Hearts for his World War I wounds, one of them being the very first Purple Heart ever awarded, engraved with “#1.” As it happens, he himself authorized the creation of the Purple Heart a few years earlier.
The very first Purple Heart, issued to MacArthur
(Photo: General Douglas MacArthur Memorial)
He moved to the Philippines again in the same year, 1935, when the commonwealth became semi-independent. The country’s first president, Manuel Quezon, had been MacArthur’s good friend since the latter’s childhood, and asked him to help create the new Philippine Army. MacArthur accepted the assignment with Roosevelt’s approval, with the agreement that he would receive the Philippine rank of field marshal along with its salary and allowance, while also receiving his American salary as the Military Advisor of the Philippines. This move made MacArthur the best-paid soldier in the world, but was ethically dubious to say the least: he was simultaneously an officer in the U.S. Army and the supreme military commander of another nation, which had potentially different geopolitical goals from the U.S.
President Quezon and Douglas MacArthur
(Photo: Presidential Library and Museum, Philippines)
Development of the Philippine Army got off to a poor start: it was badly underfunded, poorly equipped, and local bases could not be expanded or modernized due to the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty: the Malinta tunnel complex on the strategically important island of Corregidor had to be constructed with condemned TNT and without a single dollar of U.S. government money. The best thing MacArthur achieved was arguably persuading the Navy to begin development of the PT boat. (Read our earlier article) He officially retired from the U.S. Army on the last day of 1937, but remained in Manila as President Quezon’s adviser.
Ceremony on the Philippines in August 1941, marking the induction of the Philippines Army Air Corps. MacArthur is in the front.
(Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)
With relations with Japan deteriorating rapidly, Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to active duty in July 1941, named him commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, promoted him to lieutenant general the next day, and to full general on December 20, shortly after America entered World War II. Existing plans for the defense of the Philippines called for U.S. and Philippine forces to withdraw from most of the island of Luzon and dig in on the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor – these two places controlled the entrance to Manila Bay, which was considered the most strategically important location. MacArthur insisted that his forces would be capable of holding all of Luzon by stopping the Japanese landing attempt that would most likely occur at Lingayen Gulf to the north, while sinking Japanese ships with B-17s.
MacArthur was informed of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor at 3:30 a.m. on December 8, local time (9:00 a.m. December 7 in Pearl Harbor), about an hour after the event began. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall ordered MacArthur to execute the existing war plan two hours later, an order he did not follow. MacArthur refused to send his air force on an air raid against Japanese airfields in Formosa (today Taiwan), and had them fly defensive patrols instead. This allowed the Japanese to take off from Formosa and attack MacArthur’s own airfields by surprise nine hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To make things worse, most of the planes on the ground were bunched up to make it harder for saboteurs to approach them; this made them an easy target for the Japanese planes, which managed to take a huge chunk out of the Far East Air Force in a single attack, then destroy almost all of the rest in the next few days.
Fires at Cavite Navy Yard on the Philippines after a Japanese air raid
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
As predicted, the Japanese started landing at Lingayen Gulf on December 21. MacArthur’s faith in his Filippino troops proved misplaced, as the defenders, spread too thinly in an effort to protect the entire island, failed to stop the landings. He still had a chance to save the island, as sea conditions slowed down Japanese attempts to bring heavy equipment on shore. Had MacArthur counterattacked with his 100 M3 Lee tanks and the rest of his forces, he might have been able to throw the invaders back into the sea. Instead, he refused to deploy the tanks and the Filippino soldiers melted away into the hills. He had his troops abandon most of their supplies and retreat from their positions to the Bataan Peninsula, while he himself took refuge on the island fortress of Corregidor. The media in the States have built MacArthur up into a heroic figure, the only man fighting tenaciously against the Japanese. Meanwhile, the troops on Bataan knew they were left hung out to dry, but continued to fight on, sometimes singing a bitter song about “Dugout Doug,” as MacArthur came to be called. Those who survived the battle ended up in Japanese POW camps, used as slave labor, or sent on the Bataan Death March.
MacArthur (center) with his Chief of Staff in the tunnels under Corregidor
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Acting in a highly questionable manner, MacArthur, on the verge of complete defeat, accepted 500,000 dollars, the equivalent of over 6.6 million dollars today, from President Quezon as payment for his services. This payment was only known to a few people, and only made public in 1979, when it greatly tarnished MacArthur’s reputation.
With Japanese forces establishing their control over the Philippines, MacArthur was ordered to retreat in February 1942. He left Corregidor with his family and a few of his staff on the night of March; they travelled stormy seas and evaded Japanese warships in PT boats until they reached Mindanao, from where they flew to Australia. His famous speech on the occasion, first delivered at a railway station, included the words "I came through and I shall return." Washington asked him to amend it to “We shall return” to express the entire nation’s intent to liberate the Philippines. MacArthur refused to make the change.
PT-32, one of the four PT boats used in the escape
After being twice denied the Medal of Honor for genuine acts of bravery, he ironically received it for something he had no reason to be proud of. Eisenhower pointed out that he had not actually committed any acts of valor, a legal requirement for the award, but it was bestowed on MacArthur, a public symbol of resisting the Japanese, anyway. Other accolades he received were being named “Chief of Chiefs” by the Native American tribes of the Southwest, and Father of the Year in 1942.
Our article on Douglas MacArthur will continue in the second part of the article.

Veterans Day Promotion

$500 discount on all tours

WWII veterans celebrated in Normandy
(Photo: Author’s own)
On the occasion of the upcoming Veterans Day, we are offering all our available tours with a discount of $500 if you book and pay in full until November 11, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants at 
Book now
Hear from our Passengers
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

up to30%
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"It was truly amazing, I would definitely recommend BoN"D-Day Anniversary Tour, 2023
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"It was everything I could have hoped for and more"Band of Brothers Tour, 2023
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in history that changed the world"D-Day Anniversary Tour, 2023
4.9 - 235 reviews