3-311 To Lieutenant General John L. De Witt, September 3, 1942

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: September 3, 1942

Subject: World War II

To Lieutenant General John L. De Witt

September 3, 1942 [Washington, D.C.]

Personal and Confidential

Dear De Witt:

I have been intending each day to send you some proposals regarding personnel changes in Alaska but have been delayed because of the necessity of correlating these with assignments in other theaters. The situation is this. Relations between the Army and the Navy in Alaska have reached a point where there appears to be no other cure but a complete change. King is replacing Theobald. We intended to replace Butler. But now it appears necessary to replace Buckner also though we intend to do this in such a way as to avoid reflection on Buckner.1

Up to very recently all reports out of Alaska were very favorable to Buckner but he evidently became so impatient with Theobald’s conception of the operation, particularly as to Tanaga, that it appears that he carried matters beyond the point of discretion. From two sources, one a formal letter from Theobald and the other from Admiral Freeman who recently has been to Alaska, it appears that Buckner visited Theobald and very aggressively attacked Theobald’s stand regarding Adak in preference to Tanaga and that Buckner verged on the contemptuous side in criticizing Theobald’s stand. This might have been passed over but he made the serious error, in my opinion, of introducing into this meeting of several officers a rhyme reflecting on Theobald’s reactions regarding the perils of navigation in the Aleutians. Theobald states that Buckner made some remark to the effect that he hoped there were no hard feelings “as he was merely trying to smoke me out.” When General Somervell returned from Alaska he had a copy of the rhyme referred to, which evidently had been given considerable circulation. This adds to the gravity of Buckner’s indiscretion.2

Under the circumstances I see no other course than to bring about a change. King and I agreed that nothing should be done until the present operation was completed and that if it was successful there would be no foundation for comment regarding the change. If unsuccessful we would have a difficult problem on our hands.

We have always had in mind that after the ground forces were well established in the Aleutians the command should pass to an air man as that would be the principal arm of operation. Therefore we wish to place a senior air man in command in Alaska and the problem has been, who is the man. Arnold has proposed Brett who is back from Australia, has had a brief rest and is now engaged in pointing up our tactical training units in keeping with experience he gained in the fighting in the Far East. There has also been the question of Brett going out to the Middle East command where he would much prefer to go.

There is a still further consideration of whether or not the time has come to make Alaska a separate theater of operations. Up to the present it has been greatly to the advantage of Alaska to be under your control because the resources of the old Ninth Corps Area and the present Western Defense Command have been at the disposal of the Alaskan theater. This would not be the case if it were made a separate theater. However the general set-up is about completed, reinforcements would have to be introduced in a more normal manner and it would appear that probably the time has come to create a separate theater. The completion of the winter road into Alaska and the development of the interior air route in Alaska would also tend to confirm this view.3

We cannot yet come to a conclusion about Brett and I [do] not know who might be substituted for him if he is not to be available.4 There is also some doubt as to who Butler’s replacement might be, and we have not worked out the procedure of replacement so as to accomplish it as quietly as possible. In the meantime I wish you would write me your views. In doing so, understand that I think Buckner has done a splendid job in Alaska and I also think, without any doubt, that he permitted himself to act with seriously bad judgment in the particular matter referred to.5

Faithfully yours,

Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Selected Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.

Document Format: Typed letter.

1. The senior officers in Alaska in order of rank were: Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald, commander of Task Force 8; Major General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., head of the Alaska Defense Command; and Brigadier General William O. Butler (U.S.M.A., April 1917), commander of the Eleventh (Alaskan) Air Force, which was a part of Task Force 8. The problems of military cooperation, army historians later observed, had been “aggravated by a lively personality clash among the senior Alaskan commanders, which tended to undermine the formal command arrangements that had been made.” In June and August 1942, Marshall had sent representatives to Alaska to observe and report on the situation. (Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engelman, and Byron Fairchild, Guarding the United States and Its Outposts, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1964], p. 267.)

2. On August 19, a few days after Rear Admiral Theobald had advised against implementing the army’s plan for occupying Tanaga Island as the first step in recapturing Japanese-held Kiska and Attu (see Marshall to De Witt, August 21, 1942, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #3-287 [3: 310-11]), Major General Buckner visited navy headquarters. During the meeting Buckner read—as he later explained, “without personal malice and with a view toward introducing a touch of levity into an otherwise ponderous discussion”—a poem that Theobald “deeply resented” and found intentionally and “gratuitously insulting.” (Theobald to Buckner, August 20, 1942, and Buckner to Theobald, August 26, 1942, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].) Buckner’s poem included a verse that had Theobald saying:

The Bering Sea is not for me nor for my Fleet Headquarters.

In mortal dread I look ahead in wild Aleutian waters

Where hidden reefs and williwaws and terrifying critters

Unnerve me quite with woeful fright and give me fits and jitters.

(Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943-1945 [New York: Viking Press, 1973], p. 152.)

3. In early March 1942 the governments of the United States and Canada agreed to construct the Alaska Highway between Edmonton, Alberta, and Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, to serve that portion of the string of airfields that constituted the Northwest Staging Route. (Stetson Conn and Byron Fairchild, The Framework of Hemisphere Defense, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1960], pp. 394-98.)

4. In mid-November 1942 Lieutenant General George H. Brett, who had been chief of the Allied Air Forces in Australia since April, became commanding general of the Caribbean Defense Command, replacing Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews, who was appointed commanding general of the United States Forces in the Middle East.

5. De Witt replied with three lengthy letters on general strategy and policy in Alaska. In the first he agreed that Theobald and Butler should be replaced—Buckner also if the poem episode was evidence of a contemptuous attitude toward Theobald and the navy. The second letter argued that the army’s air and ground forces in Alaska were better commanded “by a General officer well rounded professionally than by one who has specialized in the air arm alone.” In his final response, De Witt opposed making the Alaska Defense Command independent of the Western Defense Command. (De Witt to Marshall, September 5, 9, and 11, 1942, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].) For further developments on these issues, see Marshall to De Witt, October 2, 1942, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #3-351 [3: 379-81].

Recommended Citation: ThePapers 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. 339-341.

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