Let’s Unscramble Our Unwieldy Pacific Command

Dec. 1, 1955
Look at this big area! Just look at it! Yet if a flap starts, I get my orders from Honolulu!”

It was Brig. Gen. William L. Lee speaking, as we stood before a huge map that almost covered the wall opposite his desk at headquarters of the Thirteenth Air Force, Clark Air Force, Philippines. This officer, called with respect and affection by his associates “the toughest man in the Air Force,” was using his pipestem as a pointer, aiming at Hawaii over the east of us, Japan to the north, and back along Korea and down the Asian coast to Okinawa, to Formosa, to Indo-China, and the Philippines.

“Look what a distance we got to defend,” he growled. “And at almost any point, hell could break loose any time the enemy wants to start something. Yet Air Force operations are divided right across the middle, between Okinawa and Formosa. If they needed my fighter wing up in Japan, I’d have to go to headquarters in Hawaii to get the order!” When Bill Lee talks about that Asian area, he’s in his own backyard. Aside from Claire Channault, few American airmen know the Far East region and its problems better than he. Lee was in the Philippines long before World War II, helping General MacArthur beef up the Philippine defense forces. His job was to create an air arm, and he trained the first pilots of what was then the Air Force of the Commonwealth Government.

I heard General Lee’s sentiments about the confused operational command in the Pacific-Far East area backed up time and again on a swing that too me into most of the free areas of eastern and southeastern area. I talked to scores of Air Force officers in that vast region for which the United States has assumed so heavy a responsibility. Without exception, those I talked with are concerned about what they consider an arbitrary application of the concept of unified command, and an obsolete scheme of control whereby the Air Force within that area finds itself divided geographically.

Many officers of the Army and the Navy agree with them. And let it be understood that no one is beefing from interservice rivalry. These men speak as realist, facing continuous fact of Communist pressure and the uncertainty of Communist plans for aggression in the future. It is unmistakable that they feel something should be done to bring the Pacific-Far East command up-to-date—and the quicker the better.

To get the true picture, let us fill in that map of General Lee’s, with the US military power it represents:

Sitting at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, we have CINCPAC—Commander-in-Chief, Pacific. That’s four-star Adm. Felix B. Stump. He wears another big hat—pardon, cap—besides commander of the big theater: He is also commander of PACFLT—the Pacific Fleet. Under the Chief of Naval Operations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the admiral’s geographical authority extends over the Pacific Ocean until it hits land. Then it stays south of that line drawn between Okinawa and Formosa.

Functionally, CINCPAC’s lines of command go to the Philippines Defense, the Southeast Asia Defense, the Formosa Defense, Marianas and Bonin Island Defense, and the atomic energy activities at Eniwetok. Also, through the Pacific Fleet to Fleet Logistics Wing, Alameda, Calif.; Naval Air Pacific and Amphibious Force Pacific, San Diego, Calif.; the First Fleet, The Marine Force Pacific, the Command, at Pearl Harbor; the Navy Command Philippines, and the civilian defense forces of the area.

Under the Pacific command also are the US Army, Pacific, with its Hawaiian Defense, and the Joint Military Assistance Advisory groups for the Philippines, Formosa, Indo-China, and Thailand.

Now we go out to Tokyo, to the headquarters of the geographical section north of the line which cuts below Okinawa, and we find CINCFE—Commander-in-Chief, Far East, who currently is Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, US army. He receives his orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, through the Department of the Army, and has lines of unified command for the Army and Navy include the ground forces of Japan and Korea; and the Navy, Far East.

The Divided Air Force

Where does this leave the Air Force in the Pacific-Far East? You guessed it—divided between the two commands.

Ranking officer is Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, commanding the Far East Air Force, under General Lemnitzer’s unified command in Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. Principal unit is the powerful Fifth Air Force, largest in the service, commanded by Lt. Gen. Roger M. Ramey. The Fifth has five air divisions, many combat and auxiliary groups. Actually, it is both a tactical and air defense command rolled into one, protecting an area larger than the entire United States.

Under Admiral Stump is the Air Force, Pacific commanded by Maj. Gen. Sory Smith. Organized on July 1, 1954, has command does a continuous job of war planning, and maintains operational units that are little better than skeletons of the real thing that would come very much alive if an emergency arose: The Seventh Air Force at Wheeler Field; the Thirteenth Air Force at the Philippines (Lee’s); the units on Formosa, under command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and the auxiliary units of the area.

“Actually, this arrangement is just a holdover from World War II days,” declared a veteran Air Force officer, who had plenty of experience in both that war and the Korean fracas. “It’s the old General MacArthur-Admiral Nimitz concept. The Army for the land, and the Navy for the water. They seem to forget that the air covers both the land and water!”

It will be remembered that in those World War II days, as MacArthur was leading the victorious US and allied offensive back to the Philippines, on to Okinawa and to Japan, his air support was called Far East Air Forces. The Army Air Force units supported the naval commanders were called Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Area. We were still in the day when the air arm was an auxiliary of the ground troops and the fleets.

The B-29, with its long-range, over-water capabilities, rendered that idea obsolete. To solve the problem of area control between Army and Navy, the strategic air units of 1944-1945 operated directly under the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In ten years’ time, the whole concept of warfare has changed. Today nuclear weapons are the most important factor in all military planning. Translated into plain factual terms, the next year, if any, will be an atomic war, in which the airplane carrying nuclear weapons will be the decisive arm.

Going back to General Lee’s map, and looking at that huge triangle stretching from Hawaii to Japan to the Philippines, we are stuck with the importance of this vast area in the defense of the United States and the Free World. In the area and its neighboring Thailand, Burma, and India live half the people of the globe. Nothing has happened at any time in the last ten years to indicate any change in the Soviet policy of world domination through Asia. The aggressions in China, Korea, and Indo-China have only confirmed the plan.

Red Air Strong in Asia

No one can read the scheming minds of the Communist leaders in Moscow and Peiping, but the fact remains that one-third of the Communist’s air strength has been moved into Asia. Pentagon intelligence tells us that much of this power has gradually been shifted southward from Manchuria and North Korea.

In the office of Nationalist China’s minister of defense in Taipeh, I was shown aerial photos, some of them taken personally by rugged General “Tiger” Wang, of new airfields opposite Quemoy, Matsu, and other coastal areas across the Formosa. A whole chain of these Russian built strips, capable of handling the fastest jet fighters and the biggest bombers, now lines the east coast of the mainland of China.

“Such a shift would support any Communist program to ‘liberate’ Formosa,” declared Col. James T. Stewart, FEAF Assistant Deputy for Operations, at a military briefing for American news writers which was held in Tokyo last July.

Colonel Stewart estimated that the steady build-up of Communist airpower in recent years has resulted in a Red air strength in the Far East of approximately 8,000 aircraft—against which the US Air Force, incidentally, has in this area less than 2,000 planes.

“No one in his right mind can doubt that if trouble starts, it will be the Air Force that will receive the first blow and will be forced to strike the first blows in return,” Maj. Gen. Hunter Harris, Jr., FEAF Deputy for Operations, told me. “In the military airplane, we have a weapon not limited to any geographical boundaries.”

To get the reaction of the Department of Defense to the matter, I went to the office of that excellent spokesman for American fighting forces, Adm. Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His director for public relations, Col. C. E. Hutchin, referred to a recent statement of the admiral’s:

“We have unified or joint commands in every important strategic area overseas into which US forces have been deployed. . . . Actually, they don’t have operational-area delineations until it is necessary to make them. Instead, they have forces and missions. They do have area delineations for certain specified functions.”

“We don’t mind taking orders from an admiral or an Army general. But we cannot see the wisdom of creating a geographical ‘mission’ bounded on the north by Formosa, and having to look at a commander-in-chief in Hawaii when we know darn well trouble is likely to break out at any point from Korea to Viet Nam.”

As examples of the confused command situation that exists, Air Force officers pointed out that Maj. Gen. Sory Smith’s Hawaiian Air Force Command comes under General Kuter at FEAF for logistics and certain administrative matters, but for operations affecting the Pacific area it comes under Admiral Stump. The B-36 bombers located on Guam are directly under orders of the Strategic Air Command as is the Guam base itself.

“Operational control in the Pacific-Far East comes under commanders who are highly trained in either Army or Navy tactics and functions but know little about the Air Force,” explained an experienced AF commander. “So we must assign to them the Air Force personnel necessary to inform them constantly as to the place of airpower in their own commands. Here is a needless duplication of effort.”

Clearance to Operate

Most severe criticism, perhaps, of the geographically divided command stems from the requirement that units of the Air Force must get clearance to operate from the area of one command to the other.

“Imagine that—in this atomic age!” an Air Force colonel remarked. “Sure, we can get clearance within a day—maybe within a few hours, if we rush it. But if trouble should start, even a few minutes’ delay might be fatal. Our air units must be ready to move anywhere, any time, on plans approved far in advance, whether the trouble comes from a limited aggression or all-out global warfare.”

“We could not afford one minutes’ delay to unscramble who’s going to command what. You can be certain that the enemy will not respect any geographical divisions!”

It is freely admitted that if war comes, the very necessity of unified control within Air Force operations would promptly wipe out the boundary line dividing the Pacific-Far East area. Why not, argues the Air Force unofficial spokesmen, do it now and bring future operational planning up to the atomic age?

The solution is clear. Not one single Air Force officer I talked to, whatever his rank, but agreed there should be some reorganization which would unshackle their branch of the service from its geographical split in the Pacific sector of the globe. Most agreed that the following plan would be most practical and effective:

  • Create a unified command for the entire Pacific-Far East area.
  • Create under this command three equal, component commands, Army, Navy and Air Force, each possessing the theater forces of their respective services.

Each service would cover the respective armed forces for the entire area. Each component commander would be responsible for the operations of his unit, coordinated with the operations of the other two for complete defense of the area and offensive action if required. The joint Coordinating Boards of the present separate commands in Tokyo and Hawaii would merge from the unified command.

Commanders of each component service would be equal in authority over their commands, and equal in rank. General Lemnitzer, Admiral Stump and General Kuter are all four-star rank. Certainly under the reorganization, the commands would warrant this rank.

Under is arrangement, the office of Commander-in-Chief, Pacific-Far East, might well rotate among the three services. He would stand between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service commanders.

Logical Headquarters

What bases should serve as headquarters for the unified command and for each of the service commands? That is top-level policy, of course. But as a matter of speculation, Hawaii seems to the logical headquarters for the new Commander-in-Chief, Pacific-Far East.

Japan and Korea are the areas for the greatest share of land forces operations, and will likely continue so for some years to come. Therefore, Tokyo would remain the headquarters for the Army, at least until the gradual phasing out from Japan makes another site more feasible.

Okinawa is for all intents and purposes the center of air operations in the area, and would become the logical headquarters for the entire Pacific-Far East.

Because of the unmatched naval facilities of Pearl Harbor, that base would likely remain the headquarters for the Navy component.

There are some who will give you an argument as to locating the unified headquarters in Hawaii, and for that matter, the Navy component command at Pearl Harbor. An old Navy officer who has served in about every US naval base from the West Coast to Asia told me:

“Hawaii is an integral part of our West Coast defense. The whole Pacific area should have three unified commands: West Coast-Hawaii for one, Alaska-Aleutians for another, and Far East the third. Headquarters for the latter should move over to Guam.”

Those who support this detail of the plan point out that it is only about 2,000 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, while Guam is nearly 3,000 miles closer to the Asian coast than Hawaii.

No Time to Waste

Locations of headquarters can be left to Defense and National Security Council decisions. Immediate task is to put through the needed reorganization, putting an end to the confused commands and having everything ready to move, without one minute’s delay, if trouble starts in the Asian powderkeg.

No congressional action is necessary. All that is needed is for the top officials entrusted with the defense of the nation to realize that from Guam westward to all the areas of Communist pressure from Japan and Korea to Viet Nam and the Philippines, no dividing line must hamper the operations of the Air Force. No obsolete concept of Army-Navy control should set artificial boundaries for the military airplane.