From: Oregon, USA
August 15, 1942
Location: 100 miles west of Reef Island
Course: Holding position
Attached to: TF 79
Mission: Air combat
System Damage: 3
Float Damage: 0
Orders: Hold position and wait.
Excerpt from “Naval Battles of the Pacific War, Volume II: Pacific Empire” by Morris Elliot Samuelson; Harper, Row, and Fujimori, New York, 1965
In contrast to the events in the Far East, the Pacific theater settled into a period of quiet following the Japanese repulse at Wake Island and the Australian capture of Gili Gili. Both sides circled each other like two wary fighters unwilling to drop their guards long enough to throw a punch.
American morale had received a much needed boost following these victories. It had been proven that the Japanese could be stopped, and the public mood in the days that followed was noticeably brighter. As the weeks went on, however, and something like a stalemate began to set in the pressure increased to follow this victory with further signs that the tide had turned and the war could in fact be won.
Against this backdrop Admiral William D. Leahy, the recently appointed Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, called a meeting in Washington on August 15 to discuss Allied strategy in the Pacific. Present were General Marshall, Admiral King, General Arnold, and Field Marshall Sir John Dill, among others.
These men were aware of the need to maintain pressure on Japan. Without such pressure and the attrition of Japanese forces they feared that Japan might be able to fortify her defensive perimeter to an extent that would make future operations very difficult. There were, however, deeply divided opinions on how to proceed.
Of the three Allied penetrations of the Japanese defensive perimeter – Wake Island, Nanomea, and Gili Gili – only New Guinea seemed to provide the opportunity the Allies were seeking to engage the Japanese and wear down their forces. Wake Island was too remote and under too much Japanese pressure. In the weeks following the failed Japanese invasion two convoys had attempted to reach the island. Both had suffered heavy losses. Nanomea was also isolated and was being largely ignored by the Japanese.
Gili Gili had the advantage of being close to major Allied bases in Australia and of being even closer to major Japanese bases at Port Moresby, Lae, and Rabaul. The Allied situation there, however, had deteriorated rapidly since the initial occupation. The Japanese had complete control of the air and sea around eastern New Guinea, making offensive operations out of the base impossible.
As the discussion of the strategic situation continued it was apparent that the major stumbling block Admiral Leahy and the others faced was the Japanese carrier force. Every plan that was proposed ran the risk of disastrous losses should it intervene. With the British aircraft carriers either sunk or out of action there were only four US fleet carriers currently available. Against this force the Japanese were known to be operating eight fleet carriers and three light carriers in the Pacific. Eventually this imbalance would be redressed by US carriers currently under construction, but for the moment Japan retained a decisive edge.
It was reluctantly decided that the risks of a major naval defeat were too great. Though it might harm public morale and give the Japanese more time to prepare their defenses, they agreed to recommend that further offensive operations in the Pacific be postponed until 1943. Admiral Leahy directed that a document be drawn up outlining the situation and the group’s recommendations. He himself would brief President Roosevelt.
Unfortunately a copy of this document fell into the hands of Gyorgy Emale, the notorious Axis spy whose information did so much damage to the Allied cause until his capture and execution in 1943. It was soon in Berlin and the Germans thoughtfully forwarded a copy to the Japanese, who received it some two weeks later.
This intelligence revealed to the Japanese that they were waiting for an attack that would not occur in the near future. After some debate it was decided that this presented an opportunity to interfere with the Allied build up in the Pacific. Word was thus sent to the forces lurking in the South Pacific that defensive operations were cancelled. The Japanese carriers were released to become hunters once again.