MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific, by Colonel Thomas E. Griffith, Jr., U.S. Air Force, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan., $40.
Colonel Thomas E. Griffith’s MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific fills a neglected spot in U.S. Air Force history. As the man General Douglas MacArthur came to depend on for a successful air strategy in the Pacific War, Kenney made a key contribution to the Allied victory. Griffith has written a fascinating biography of an outstanding air commander.
George Kenney was born in 1889, 14 years before the Wright brothers’ first flight. By the time he became a flying cadet in 1917, he had completed most of a civil engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had also run a successful contracting business, so he was older, better educated and more experienced than his contemporary pilot trainees.
When World War I ended, Kenney–by then a captain who had commanded the 91st Aero Squadron–had been the victor in two aerial combats, even though he flew an observation plane. He had also earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.
After World War I, Kenney served in a variety of staff and combat assignments in America’s fledgling air arm. He studied the problems of designing, producing and modifying aircraft for multiple missions. Kenney also canvassed the military schools, learning about the problems associated with preparing and commanding forces in combat. Eventually he was promoted to major general.
Prior to Kenney’s arrival in the southwest Pacific in 1942, Allied air forces operations in that theater had been largely ineffective. Most of the air force had been destroyed in the Philippines, and a lack of spare parts, a shortage of aircraft, inappropriate tactics and poor training had caused MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, to lose confidence in General George H. Brett, Kenney’s predecessor.
Kenney’s first priority was to gain MacArthur’s confidence, something he managed to do a short time after his arrival. He then drew on his experience to put into effect the tactics that would result in victory. His first goal was to gain air superiority by attacking the Japanese in the air and on the ground. His next focus was interdiction of the enemy’s attempts to supply and reinforce units along the north coast of New Guinea, the farthest thrust of the Japanese toward Australia.
Kenney, possibly more than any other air commander, was able to use Ultra code-breaking intercepts of Japanese communications to stay one step ahead of Japan. Knowing when Japanese convoys would depart and their proposed routes allowed America’s air forces to lie in wait for the Japanese ships, sinking them through low-level attacks by heavily armed light bombers trained in skip-bombing–techniques pioneered in that theater of the war.
American victories in New Guinea and subsequent campaigns were as much dependent on an airfield-building program as on combat tactics, since the short ranges of Kenney’s fighters and bombers made it difficult to conquer the great distances to targets in the Pacific. Leapfrog tactics that bypassed Japanese garrisons in New Guinea and the islands north of there paved the way for the liberation of the Philippines beginning in October 1944.
When Kenney stood on the deck of USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender ceremonies on September 2, 1945, he must have felt a real sense of accomplishment. MacArthur referred to George Kenney as “the most effective air commander in World War II,” acknowledging that the campaigns in the southwest Pacific would not have been possible without the effective use of air power.
Calvin G. Bass