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47 Note of Secraphone Conversation between MacArthur and Curtin

CANBERRA, 17 September 1942


General MacArthur said he was disturbed at the situation in New Guinea and his view as to the real reason for the present unsatisfactory position is the lack of efficiency of the Australian troops in that theatre.

2. He feels quite convinced that we have superiority in numbers, but the report this morning is that once again we are withdrawing [1], although no casualties are reported. As at the beginning, our troops are constantly pulling back, and this is the cause of the Commander-in-Chief's uneasiness.

3. The troops are not worn out, being only two days out from Port Moresby. Their mission has been clearly defined and the report yesterday was that they were setting up an attack. However, the report this morning is that they have now withdrawn in order to secure better co-ordination. The point about this is that the Japanese have the same troubles as our troops, but they are not withdrawing. [2]

4. General MacArthur wishes the Prime Minister to understand that the view he takes is not the view of the Australian Command. They have the utmost confidence in their ability to deal with the situation, but General MacArthur, for the reasons given, no longer has confidence. General MacArthur therefore proposes to do all he can to meet the situation, and is arranging to despatch American troops to New Guinea by air or by sea, in order to do everything possible to stem the attack.

5. General MacArthur feels that should there be complete penetration, it may necessitate concentrating our forces in New Guinea for defence, and this is not welcome to him, because he sees in it a duplication of what took place under Percival in Malaya. [3]

6. Therefore, General MacArthur says it is his opinion that General Blamey should proceed to New Guinea and take personal command, not only to energise the situation, but to save himself, because, in the event of the situation in New Guinea becoming really serious, it would be difficult for General Blamey to meet his responsibility to the Australian public. 7. General MacArthur points out that he has no authority to direct General Blamey, but he will advise him that he thinks he should proceed to New Guinea.

8. General MacArthur enquired as to General Blamey's whereabouts and the Prime Minister advised that he left Canberra at 4 p.m.

today for Melbourne. General MacArthur said he would get in contact with General Blamey. General MacArthur suggested that the Prime Minister should speak to General Blamey, but thought he (General MacArthur) should speak to him first.

9. General MacArthur went on to say that within a week he expects to have over 40,000 men in New Guinea, and, if they fight, they should have no trouble in meeting the situation. If they will not fight, 100,000 would be no good.

10. General MacArthur is confident that General Blamey can right the position and bring about the change that is necessary.

11. General MacArthur enquired whether the Prime Minister had had a signal in reply to his recent cables to America. [4]

12. General MacArthur stated that he had had an intimation that as soon as possible, having regard to other obligations, the United States are going to give to this theatre 1,000 additional planes, making a total of 1,500. No date has been fixed for the supply of those planes, but General MacArthur says this is part of the psychological change of the men at Washington towards the Pacific war, and, although Washington has entered into serious commitments in other theatres, as soon as the flow to England stops, larger allocations will be made here, and plans for a future push in the Pacific are now being set up. They are considering the number of divisions which should be sent here.

13. All this means that we have to hold out until this additional strength comes, and New Guinea is the place where we should fight the enemy as things now stand.

14. General MacArthur frankly recognised that his picture is different from that given by the Australian Command. They feel sure they have the situation under control, but General MacArthur is not so sure. General MacArthur acknowledges that the Australian Command may be right, but he has a feeling of uneasiness.

15. It is not a serious force that the Japanese have pushed across the mountains, but the fact that a small force can push us back fills him with concern.

16. General MacArthur said he wished that we had the naval strength to assist this operation. Great Britain says she cannot give us naval strength and, after all, it has been agreed that the United States will be responsible for this area. The United States rejoinder is that they have other tasks and are doing all they can. The position is that between the two fleets we are left without adequate support.

17. It is General MacArthur's view that the position in the Solomons is not so favourable. Losses have not been given out. The American forces in the Solomons are now on the defensive as the Allied Forces are in New Guinea, only that they have the fleet to support them and we lack such support.

18. On the whole, the problem is one of fending the enemy off for some months. Support is coming, but the query is will it be too late? 19. If the Japanese forces turn on New Guinea, it will be a bad situation, but despite such an eventuality, General MacArthur considers that we should make our fight in New Guinea.

20. The Prime Minister said that, in view of the advice of General MacArthur, he would inform General Blamey that he considered he should go to New Guinea, as suggested. [5]

1 On 16 September Japanese forces advancing over the Kokoda Trail from Buna had driven Australian forces back to Imita Ridge, some 50 km from Port Moresby. This in fact represented the southernmost point reached by the Japanese, who were then compelled to retreat northwards over the Owen Stanley Range.

2 For more detailed discussion of MacArthur's criticism of Australian forces in New Guinea see D. M. Horner, Crisis of Command, Australian National University, Canberra, 1978, ch. 7 and 8, and Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area-First Year, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1959, ch. 6 and 7.

3 i.e. the withdrawal from Malaya to Singapore Island.

4 See Documents 31 and 43 and Document 44, note 8. Roosevelt's reply is published as Document 48.

5 Later the same day Curtin asked Blamey to go to New Guinea and the latter arrived in Port Moresby on 23 September, subsequently assuming effective command.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History