MacArthur at War

World War II in the Pacific


By Walter R. Borneman

Read by David Baker

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The definitive account of General Douglas MacArthur’s rise during World War II, from the author of the bestseller The Admirals.

World War II changed the course of history. Douglas MacArthur changed the course of World War II. Macarthur at War will go deeper into this transformative period of his life than previous biographies, drilling into the military strategy that Walter R. Borneman is so skilled at conveying, and exploring how personality and ego translate into military successes and failures.

Architect of stunning triumphs and inexplicable defeats, General MacArthur is the most intriguing military leader of the twentieth century. There was never any middle ground with MacArthur. This in-depth study of the most critical period of his career shows how his influence spread far beyond the war-torn Pacific.

A Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History at the New York Historical Society


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List of Maps

Pacific Theater, World War II here
The Philippines, 1941 here
Luzon, December 1941 here
Bataan, January 1942 here
MacArthur's Escape, March 1942 here
Pacific Commands, 1942 here
Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942 here
Japanese Advances, 1942 here
Across the Owen Stanley Range, 1942 here
Battle of the Bismarck Sea, March 1943 here
Northeast New Guinea, 1943 here
Admiralties Invasion, March 1944 here
Leap to Hollandia, April 1944 here
Biak-Morotai-Palau, September 1944 here
Battle of Leyte, October 1944 here
Operations on Luzon, Early 1945 here
Pacific Operations, 1945 here




I wish to reiterate my appreciation of the splendid support you and the War Department are giving me. No field commander could ask more.


MacArthur in a pretty complete disregard of everything except his own personal interests has taken his entire staff away with him from Bataan.


On his lone visit to Bataan from Corregidor, MacArthur tours the front to visit corps commanders with chief of staff Richard K. Sutherland (over left shoulder), January 10, 1942. Courtesy of the MacArthur Memorial, Norfolk, VA


First Charge, First War

Douglas MacArthur always lived in his father's shadow. It grew long before he was born, when the crisp notes of a bugle sounded the call to advance through the fading light of a November afternoon in 1863. After a week of rain, it was cold and damp—even in southern Tennessee. Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant had encountered tough resistance as they tried to dislodge Braxton Bragg's Confederates from Missionary Ridge and lift the siege of Chattanooga. Grant's plan called for William Tecumseh Sherman to surmount Missionary Ridge from the north while Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker swept up its southern flanks, squeezing Bragg between them like a lemon.

But Sherman's divisions bogged down against stout defenses on Tunnel Hill, and Hooker's troops slowed after retreating Confederates destroyed a critical bridge over Chattanooga Creek. That left the remainder of Grant's army hunkered down in a series of newly captured rifle pits directly below the center of the Confederate line. From the slopes above, Bragg's forces poured an unrelenting fire into the massed Union troops.

Quite suddenly, other bugles took up the call to advance. Regiment after regiment from Philip Sheridan's division climbed out of the rifle pits and started up the ridge behind a bright array of fluttering flags. The divisions on either side of Sheridan's followed suit, and soon a line of blue was crawling skyward along a two-mile front. Grant was dumbfounded. "Who gave the order to advance?" he demanded. None of his staff had a ready answer.1

At the forefront of Sheridan's effort was an eighteen-year-old captain from Milwaukee—his regiment's adjutant—exhorting his troops with shouts of "On, Wisconsin!" Up Missionary Ridge the 24th Wisconsin went. Its color sergeant fell in a hail of bullets; one color bearer was bayoneted and a second decapitated by a cannonball. The young captain nonetheless unabashedly seized the regimental standard and repeated his cry of "On, Wisconsin!" as the Union line surged toward the top of the ridge.

Which regimental flag reached the summit first was difficult to say, but Captain Arthur MacArthur Jr. waved his banner with all his might as Sheridan's division swarmed up and over the crest. Then young MacArthur, exhausted and covered in the blood of others but, miraculously, unhurt himself, collapsed in a heap. According to MacArthur family lore, Sheridan dismounted, swept the boy adjutant up in his arms, and tearfully commanded, "Take care of him. He has just won the Medal of Honor."2

Whether the 24th Wisconsin moved forward at young MacArthur's behest or Sheridan gave a direct order for his division to advance is uncertain. Regardless, those few minutes on Missionary Ridge would forever overshadow Arthur MacArthur's military career. Among the war stories MacArthur later told his sons, the tale of this day in 1863 was oft repeated. For his third child, Douglas, the Missionary Ridge charge was to carry with it the lesson that initiative and aggressiveness—even when unaccompanied by direct orders—were enough to carry the day.

The MacArthurs were of Scottish descent, Arthur MacArthur Sr. having arrived in Massachusetts in 1825 from Glasgow at the age of ten with his widowed mother. Arthur studied law in New York, married Aurelia Belcher, and moved west to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a four-year-old son, Arthur junior. The senior MacArthur became enmeshed in Wisconsin politics and, after a brief stint as lieutenant governor, was elected a circuit judge in 1857.

By the time of the Civil War, Arthur junior, not quite sixteen, went to his father determined to enlist. Patience was not a MacArthur family trait, but the judge counseled it anyway—to no avail. When an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point proved unattainable in the short term, Arthur junior took matters into his own hands, and on August 4, 1862—two months after his seventeenth birthday—he marched out of Milwaukee as a first lieutenant and adjutant of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, the judge having relented and lent his political clout, securing Arthur junior his officer position.3

The 24th Wisconsin became part of General Philip Sheridan's division in Kentucky and received its baptism by fire at Perryville that October. Neither side could claim victory, but Sheridan noticed Arthur junior's poise under fire and awarded him a brevet promotion to captain. After the Chattanooga campaign and that day on Missionary Ridge, the 24th Wisconsin fought with Sherman to capture Atlanta before coming back to Tennessee for the Battle of Franklin late in 1864. There, Arthur junior suffered wounds to his chest and leg that ended his combat service.

But what a war it had been. Still only nineteen when the Confederacy surrendered, Arthur MacArthur emerged from it an acknowledged leader of men. Having risen to the brevet rank of full colonel, he had commanded the 24th Wisconsin after Missionary Ridge. Recuperating in Milwaukee from his wounds, he studied law for several months to please the judge but quickly determined to make the regular army his career.4

Young Arthur's decision led to a string of rather dismal postwar assignments, from dusty army forts in the West to occupation duty in Louisiana. Advancement above his permanent rank of captain appeared unlikely. Past exploits and good looks aside, there wasn't much to recommend him to the ladies, but during a Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans in 1875, he met Mary Pinkney Hardy, a twenty-two-year-old southern belle who was visiting from Norfolk, Virginia. Pinky, as she was known, was taken with this Yankee even though her brothers had fought for the Confederacy and her ancestral home, Riveredge, had suffered under occupation by Union troops. A whirlwind courtship by correspondence ensued, and Pinky and Arthur were married at Riveredge on May 19, 1875, the absence of several of her disapproving brothers notwithstanding.

Fortunately for Pinky, her first assignment as an army wife was in Washington, DC, where Arthur was assigned staff duty. By then, Arthur senior was on the bench of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The first of three sons, Arthur III, was born in 1876 at Riveredge and a second, Malcolm, in 1878, while Pinky was vacationing with the Hardy family in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, Captain MacArthur had been posted back to Louisiana as a company commander and then ordered to Little Rock, Arkansas. Pinky had plans to return to Riveredge for the birth of their third child, but Douglas arrived early, on January 26, 1880, in a two-story former arsenal that had been converted to married officers' quarters. Decades later, with his usual flair for the dramatic, Douglas MacArthur would say that his first recollection was that of a bugle call.5

That recollection might also have been of wind and blowing sand, because the MacArthur family spent the next three and a half years at Fort Wingate, in the high desert of New Mexico Territory. Pinky made the best of the post's spartan facilities as she raised three small boys, yet in April of 1883, while the family was on leave to visit her relatives in Norfolk, four-year-old Malcolm succumbed to measles. His loss was a terrible blow, but it seemed only to increase Pinky's devotion to Arthur III and Douglas. "This tie," Douglas later acknowledged, "was to become one of the dominant factors of my life."6

In 1889, after twenty-three years as a captain in the regular army, Arthur MacArthur was promoted to major and once again posted to Washington. Judge MacArthur had retired from the federal bench two years before, and this gave him freedom to use his connections to promote Arthur junior's military career as well as his family's social status. Pinky was back in her element, and Washington gave young Douglas his first glimpse at what he called "that whirlpool of glitter and pomp, of politics and diplomacy, of statesmanship and intrigue." He professed it no substitute for "the color and excitement of the frontier West"; but of those worldly characteristics, he would never be able to get enough.7

Among the events in which Judge MacArthur had a hand were Arthur junior's assignment to the adjutant general's office, his belated receipt of the Medal of Honor for his dash up Missionary Ridge, and Arthur III's appointment to the United States Naval Academy. According to Douglas, Judge MacArthur also taught him to play poker and administered a life lesson or two along the way. On the last hand the two ever played, Douglas bet every chip he had on four queens and beamed with confidence until his grandfather quietly laid down four kings and opined, "My dear boy, nothing is sure in this life. Everything is relative."8

With Arthur III headed to Annapolis, the other three MacArthurs returned to Texas for duty at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, in the fall of 1893. Upon his high school graduation four years later, Douglas hoped to enter West Point. Before his death, Judge MacArthur had undertaken a final round of lobbying in support of his progeny and orchestrated letters of recommendation for a presidential appointment for Douglas. Despite these, Democrat Grover Cleveland declined to award him one of his four appointments.

This rejection may have been the first occasion upon which Douglas, who would always be paranoid about the way the powers in Washington treated him, felt a bias against him. But if such a bias then existed, it did not appear to be politically motivated. Another round of recommendation letters the following year also failed to secure him a presidential appointment from William McKinley, a Republican and Civil War veteran.9

During these years, Arthur MacArthur Jr.'s star was at last rising through army ranks. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in May of 1896, Arthur was assigned to the Department of Dakota at Saint Paul, Minnesota, the following year. Pinky and Douglas used the occasion to return to Milwaukee—to which Arthur commuted when possible—so that Douglas might establish residency within the congressional district of Theobald Otjen, a faithful and longtime friend of Judge MacArthur. One way or another, Douglas was determined to get into West Point.

When war broke out with Spain over Cuba in 1898, Arthur was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and initially assigned to expeditionary troops organizing at Chickamauga, Georgia, within sight of Missionary Ridge. Events moved quickly in this ninety-day war, however, and before Arthur could sail for Cuba, he was ordered to the Philippines, where he would soon be made a major general.

The MacArthur who went off to Cuba proved to be Arthur III, who, having graduated from Annapolis in 1896, took part in the naval battle off Santiago along with 1897 Annapolis graduate William D. Leahy. Convinced he was being left out of this family affair, Douglas redoubled his efforts at preparatory study and scored first on Congressman Otjen's competitive exam for the class of 145 plebes entering West Point in 1899.10

West Point and its traditions would forever be at the core of Douglas MacArthur's personality, motivation, and ambition. Sworn into the Corps of Cadets on June 13, 1899, MacArthur brought with him two things that would strongly influence his future. One was enormous personal pride—both in himself and in the accomplishments of his father; the other was his mother. Yes, it was true: Douglas MacArthur arrived at West Point accompanied by his devoted mother, who gave no sign of leaving. With Arthur junior still on duty in the Philippines, Pinky moved into the decrepit Craney's Hotel, on the northern edge of the parade ground, and stayed for two years to keep a close eye on her offspring. (Another young man, whose country home was just up the Hudson and who was two years MacArthur's junior, would also remain under his mother's protective eye as he started classes at Harvard the following year; his name was Franklin Roosevelt.)

MacArthur's pride was sorely put to the test during his first summer as a plebe. Vicious hazing was the academy norm, and MacArthur's dashing good looks, his father's notoriety, and the presence of his mother all combined to make MacArthur a ready target. By force of personality, he survived repeated rounds of physical abuse bordering on torture with what one first classman (senior) recalled were "fortitude and dignity."11

MacArthur finished his first year at the top of his class and was on his way to a similar finish his sophomore year when his pride almost derailed him in an incident that speaks volumes about his sense of personal honor. Knowing that he held the highest average in mathematics, MacArthur expected to be excused from the final exam, as was the custom. When he nonetheless found his name on the examination list, MacArthur stormed to the personal residence of the department head, Lieutenant Colonel Wright P. Edgerton, a longtime West Point professor who served during the Spanish-American War. Edgerton might have put him on report for this breach of etiquette, but the colonel calmly informed the cadet that in addition to grade average, those exempt were required to have taken two-thirds of the course quizzes. Because of absences for illness, MacArthur was short one quiz.

MacArthur boldly asserted that Edgerton should have informed him of this and given him the opportunity to make up the quiz. Edgerton made no reply, and MacArthur spun on his heel and angrily marched back to his barracks, where, according to his roommate, he grandly declared, "If my name is not off that list before nine in the morning, I'll resign!"

The following day, ten minutes before the scheduled exam, MacArthur received a message from Edgerton excusing him. It is far too much speculation to suggest Pinky's intervention on Douglas's behalf, but she was not above doing so, and there is no better explanation for Edgerton's leniency. According to his roommate, MacArthur believed it his duty to obey an order "no matter how disagreeable," but when he felt he had been treated unjustly, MacArthur considered it an affront to his personal honor. MacArthur would always be quick to paint his disagreements with superiors in such terms.12

On the athletic fields, MacArthur won his varsity A on the baseball team in the spring of 1901, playing left field in Army's first matchup ever against Navy. Army won 4–3, and by MacArthur's telling, he scored the winning run when, after drawing a walk, he stole second base and went scurrying home on an errant throw into the outfield.

At five feet eleven and a half inches in height but a skimpy 135 pounds, MacArthur was too light for collegiate football, but he lent his enthusiasm to the gridiron team as its manager in the fall of 1902. With President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, MacArthur's Army team beat Navy, 22–8. Navy's regular fullback was injured, and its team was playing with a second-stringer, a third-year cadet and future admiral named William F. Halsey Jr.13

It was as a military leader, however, that MacArthur really shined. During his senior year he was appointed first captain of the Corps of Cadets, the highest position in the cadet chain of command. He served as a corporal during his second year and his company's first sergeant his third year, the only year he failed to rank first in his class academically. (He was fourth.) Almost uncannily, he stood second in least number of demerits in each of his first three years. None of his few infractions was particularly egregious, but together they hint at MacArthur's flaunting of his independence as he achieved higher cadet rank: "long hair at inspection"—personal style in uniforms would be a MacArthur trademark; "slow obeying call to quarters"—taking things in his own time; "trifling with drawn sabre"—always exhibiting theatrical flair.14

Despite these minor violations, when MacArthur graduated from West Point on June 11, 1903, he stood academically and militarily at the top of his class of ninety-four newly commissioned second lieutenants. Major General Arthur MacArthur, who had returned from duty in the Philippines and by that time commanded the Department of California, watched with pride as Douglas received his diploma.

Outgoing secretary of war Elihu Root warned the graduates that another war was "bound to come," adding, "Prepare your country for that war."15

Having been assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, as was the norm for graduates who ranked at the top of their class, Douglas MacArthur embarked for the Philippines with the Third Engineer Battalion in September of 1903. Landing in Manila after a thirty-eight-day voyage, the shiny new second lieutenant inspected his father's old haunts and immediately felt at home. "The Philippines charmed me," MacArthur later recalled, and "fastened me with a grip that has never relaxed." His posts included Tacloban, on the island of Leyte, and Manila, where two newly minted law school graduates, Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña, were reportedly among his Filipino acquaintances.16

By the spring of 1904, MacArthur was a first lieutenant. After a year in the Philippines, which included an almost ritual bout with malaria, he returned to the United States and was soon appointed acting chief engineer of the Department of California, his father's command. Whether Arthur MacArthur, who was then serving as a military observer in Manchuria as the Russo-Japanese War wound down, had a hand in his son's assignment is unknown, but three months later, as the general prepared to embark from Yokohama for a grand tour of the Far East, he requested that Douglas accompany him as his aide-de-camp.

The following nine months gave Lieutenant MacArthur invaluable lessons in the history, politics, and military preparedness of the Far East. The MacArthurs' itinerary—Pinky was along, too, to make it even more of a family affair—led them from Japan to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Java, Singapore, and Burma. By January of 1906, they were in Calcutta, and a two-month tour of India took them all the way to the Khyber Pass. Then it was eastward to Bangkok, Saigon, and more of China before returning to Japan. Among General MacArthur's observations were that Japan's imperialist ambitions posed "the problem of the Pacific" and that stronger Philippine defenses were necessary to prevent the archipelago "from becoming a liability rather than an asset to the United States."17

By the time of this tour, Arthur MacArthur, the aging veteran of the charge up Missionary Ridge, had been causing President Theodore Roosevelt and his new secretary of war, William Howard Taft, a good deal of angst. Taft and MacArthur first crossed swords in 1900 in the Philippines over the differing roles of civilian and military authority when Taft was civilian governor of the islands. Before MacArthur's Far East tour, the general had been critical of plans to form an American general staff modeled after the German army and gone so far as to predict a war with Germany. "Recently I had to rebuke MacArthur for speaking ill of the Germans," Theodore Roosevelt wrote Taft. "Our army and navy officers must not comment about foreign powers in a way that will cause trouble."18

Arthur MacArthur's extended tour throughout the Far East may even have been Roosevelt and Taft's way of getting him out of the mainstream. Despite a promotion to lieutenant general that many viewed as something of a sop, MacArthur was not made chief of staff even as he became the army's highest-ranking officer. Instead he was ordered to Milwaukee to await a future assignment that never came.

The result was that Arthur MacArthur retired from his beloved army in 1909, shortly after Taft's inauguration as president, with a bad taste in his mouth, going so far as to instruct Pinky that he should not be buried in his uniform. But there was to be a silver lining to his father's retirement for Douglas. Many of the men coming into the army's top ranks, including then chief of staff J. Franklin Bell and future chiefs Leonard Wood and Peyton C. March, owed a great deal to Arthur MacArthur for nurturing their careers. They in turn would do the same for his son.19

That son loved the army as much as his father had, but two examples of his behavior—acts that smacked of his father's independence—threatened to derail Douglas's career. They occurred not because of lack of competence but because of his insistence on setting his own priorities. While posted to Washington to attend an engineering school, Douglas was also appointed a social aide-de-camp at the White House. MacArthur found this far more interesting than engineering school and ignored his studies so much that the chief of engineers wrote, "His work was far inferior to that which his West Point record shows him to be capable of."20

Douglas didn't do any better at a subsequent assignment in his hometown, Milwaukee. He was supposed to be developing harbors on Lake Michigan, but he preferred spending long hours with his father discussing military strategy, the Far East, and the inadequacies of William Howard Taft. Then, too, there was Pinky. She wanted to show off Douglas to the Milwaukee social set. Douglas could never say no to his parents and often chose these commitments over his duties.

When his commanding officer wrote that MacArthur's "duties were not performed in a satisfactory manner," MacArthur judged the report—despite its truth—one of those affronts to his personal honor against which he often railed. He protested "the ineradicable blemish" placed on his record and argued his belief that "my presence in the office was not regarded as a matter of much practical importance." Then, in typical fashion, MacArthur sent his response not to his immediate superior but directly to the chief of engineers, who reprimanded him for doing so and noted that MacArthur's ignorance of proper channels and his indelicate words were themselves justification for his superior's assessment.21

Lieutenant MacArthur was momentarily silenced, but as usual he shared the exchange with his mother. Pinky was furious. How dare they treat her boy that way? She went so far as to write E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad about a job with greater promise for Douglas. But it was one of his father's friends who saved him.

In the midst of the row over MacArthur's performance in Milwaukee, army chief of staff J. Franklin Bell, who had served under Arthur MacArthur in the Philippines, signed orders sending Douglas to the garrison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then the center of the army's junior officer training. Suddenly back in his element, MacArthur took command of Company K of the Third Engineer Battalion and transformed it from the lowest-rated of the twenty-one companies at the post to the champions. Later he was made an instructor in the Field Engineer School.22

His record at Fort Leavenworth got him promoted to captain and again noticed in Washington. Meanwhile Arthur, his recent disappointment with the army aside, had been giving a speech to a reunion of the 24th Wisconsin in Milwaukee on September 5, 1912, when he suffered a stroke and died at the podium. "My whole world changed that night," Douglas later wrote. "Never have I been able to heal the wound in my heart."23

Within weeks of Arthur's death, another of his protégés, then chief of staff Major General Leonard Wood, tapped Douglas for duty with the General Staff of the War Department, and the general's widow took up residence with her son at his new Washington assignment. For once, Pinky felt that her youngest was being fully appreciated, as Wood rated him "a highly intelligent and very efficient officer."24

General Wood's confidence in Captain MacArthur was at the core of a secret mission MacArthur undertook to Veracruz in May of 1914. A change of government in Mexico had resulted in a perceived insult to the American flag, and the United States Navy and Marines occupied the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico in response. Wood prepared to take the field with an army expeditionary force, but he needed intelligence on the state of Mexican railroads beyond Veracruz. Rather than involve the local American commander, he dispatched MacArthur.


  • "A first-rate account of its subject and an excellent history of the less-known half of the American experience in the Pacific."—Robert Messenger, Wall Street Journal
  • "More than any other book I have read, MacArthur at War gives readers a unique portrait of the great general with his almost incredible combination of admirable and detestable qualities. Nearly as important are the insights into unflappable General George C. Marshall, who managed MacArthur's gifts and flaws to wrest victory from near defeat in a global war."—Thomas Fleming, author of The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II
  • "The special quality of MacArthur at War is its combination of research in relevant literature and archives with a fairness of presentation and judgment often missing when MacArthur is the subject."
    Gerhard L. Weinberg, History Book Club
  • "As he did with his previous WWII narrative, The Admirals, Walter Borneman does full justice to yet another colossus of WWII. It took flawed giants to forge victory and this account of the legendary Douglas MacArthur, warts and all, is superb history and an enormously enjoyable read. You can't ask for more."—Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter
  • "A no-holds-barred portrait of a controversial figure and a feast for World War II aficionados."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "This balanced account of one of the most notorious Allied World War II generals should be well received by readers interested in World War II history, specifically the ­Pacific Theater."—Matthew Wayman, Library Journal
  • "Irresistible.... A necessary read for anyone who attempts to understand the man."—Joseph C. Goulden, Washington Times
  • "[One of the] best examples of the middle ground lying between hero-worship and derision."—Jonathan W. Jordan, Wall Street Journal
  • "Borneman has found a sweet spot... a worthwhile and commendable addition to military writing."—Raymond Leach, The Virginian-Pilot

On Sale
May 10, 2016
Hachette Audio

Walter R. Borneman

About the Author

Walter R. Borneman is the author of nine works of nonfiction, including MacArthur At War, The Admirals, Polk, and The French and Indian War. He holds both a master's degree in history and a law degree. He lives in Colorado.

Learn more about this author