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Editorial Note on the Battle of the Bismark Sea
and the Extension of the Mediterranean Campaign
March 1943
“Please give General Kenney and his fliers our warmest congratulations
on their splendid performance of the past few days," General Marshall radioed to
General MacArthur on March 3, 1943. "Japanese morale must deteriorate as
they come to realize that this is but a foretaste of the rapid growth of United
States air power in skill and daring even more than in constantly increasing
numbers." (Marshall to MacArthur, March 3, 1943, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall
Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].)
The air-sea engagements collectively known as the battle of the Bismarck
Sea, fought March 2–5, 1943, contributed significantly to Allied victory in the New
Guinea campaign. Allied Air Forces Southwest Pacific, commanded by
Lieutenant General George C. Kenney and comprising elements of the United
States and Australian air forces, defeated the Japanese attempt to reinforce and
supply their forces in the Salamaua-Lae sector on Papua via destroyer-escorted
transports. (Samuel Eliot Morison, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, 22 July 19421 May 1944, a volume in the History of United States Naval Operations in World
War II [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950], pp. 54–60, 64–65.) For
information about the coordinated Allied air effort, see Wesley Frank Craven and
James Lea Cate, eds., The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942 to July
1944, a volume in The Army Air Forces in World War II (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1950) , pp. 141, 145; George C. Kenney, General Kenney
Reports: A Personal History of the Pacific War (New York: Duell, Sloan and
Pearce, 1949), pp. 201, 203.
Kenney claimed the destruction of twenty-two Japanese aircraft and two
additional probables, with an Allied loss of three P-38s and one B-17. The
destruction of the Japanese transport force was most significant. The sinking of
seven transports, four destroyers, and one auxiliary ship eliminating 3,500 men
of the Japanese Fifty-first Division from participation in the Papua campaign
demonstrated to the Japanese the impossibility of supplying isolated garrisons
with large vessels during daylight hours. It was a persuasive show of Allied air
superiority. (Kenney, General Kenney Reports, p. 204; Maurice Matloff, Strategic
Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943–1944, a volume in the United States Army
in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1959], p. 92.)
Meanwhile General Marshall was occupied with other worldwide
problems. However heartening the victory in the Bismarck Sea, he also had to
direct his attention to other areas, such as China and continental Europe, and to
operational planning for HUSKY, the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The decision to invade the island of Sicily was made at the Casablanca
Conference held in January 1943. General Marshall was in principle opposed to
extending the war in the Mediterranean past the conclusion of the TORCH
campaign. He believed that extended Allied commitments in the Mediterranean
theater would divert American resources from the Allied buildup in England
devoted to a cross-Channel invasion. The British planning staff was opposed to
a 1943 cross-Channel invasion until German military forces were seriously
weakened through a continuation of the strategic bombing offensive and by a
successful Mediterranean campaign designed to eliminate Italy from the war.
Marshall conceded, and the participants agreed to launch an invasion of Sicily in
July 1943. The extension of the Mediterranean campaign was designed to
secure Allied communications in the Mediterranean, divert German attention from
the Russian front, and assist in driving Italy from the war. General Dwight D.
Eisenhower was named Allied supreme commander, with General Sir Harold
Alexander placed in command of the actual HUSKY operation. Alexander was
given responsibility for planning the invasion of Sicily with two armies, the British
Eighth Army commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery and the United
States Seventh Army commanded by Major General George S. Patton. (Matloff,
Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943–1944, pp. 18–26, 149.)
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon
Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981– ). Electronic
version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 3, “The Right Man for the Job,”
December 7, 1941-May 31, 1943 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
1991), pp. 573–574.