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Activating War Plans Rainbow 5 and Indigo 3

Men and materiel are dispatched for the defense of the Philippines and Iceland

September 1941 was a watershed month for neutral America’s military policy. Prior to June 1941, in an acknowledgment of Japanese military superiority in the Asian rim, U.S. Army planners had written off defense of the Philippines, believing it would be only a “temporary citadel defense of the naval facilities around Manila.” But in a letter U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall wrote that fall to Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, “as a result of the alignment of Japan with the Axis, followed by the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia [Operation Barbarossa], the strategic importance of the Philippines was enhanced.”

“It is the policy of the United States to defend the Philippines.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall

Meanwhile, events in the Atlantic reached a crisis point. On Sept. 11, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered to the nation a speech in response to the recent U-boat sinking of the U.S. Navy destroyer Greer.

Wainwright and MacArthur in Philippines, October 1941

Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur with Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright on Oct. 10, 1941. Wainwright was left behind to fight on against the Japanese after MacArthur was ordered to Australia. U.S. Army Center for Military History photo

He announced, “From now on, if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.”

Over the years Army and Navy planners had created a series of color-codenamed plans collectively called “Rainbow” that were regularly updated to reflect changing world circumstances. The president’s September 11 speech activated war plans Rainbow 5 and Indigo 3, the defense of the Philippines and Iceland, respectively.

MacArthur, a former Army chief of staff and an ego that walked like a man, was miffed to find himself subordinate in rank to his junior in service, Marshall. But the law at the time provided for only one four-star command, and Marshall had it. Until Congress passed new legislation, MacArthur could do nothing.

Weeks earlier in July, Douglas MacArthur, who was in the Philippines overseeing the training of the Philippine army, was recalled to active duty as the commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, with the rank of lieutenant general.

MacArthur, a former Army chief of staff and an ego that walked like a man, was miffed to find himself subordinate in rank to his junior in service, Marshall. But the law at the time provided for only one four-star command, and Marshall had it. Until Congress passed new legislation, MacArthur could do nothing.

P-38 Lightning

A U.S. Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning being warmed up on a snow-swept airfield in Iceland. Library of Congress photo

Despite their tense and awkward relationship, throughout the war Marshall was scrupulous in providing MacArthur with all the support he could. In memoranda to the president and to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark, Marshall itemized a shopping list of men and matériel being shipped to the Philippines from August through December 1941. It included everything from tanks, troops, artillery, and anti-aircraft artillery to about 130 fighters, most of them P-40s, and more than 70 modern B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Roosevelt responded by ordering the State Department to redraw the hemispherical map to place Iceland in the Western Hemisphere so it would come under Monroe Doctrine jurisdiction.

Defensive measures in the Atlantic focused on Iceland, an important, and unsinkable, outpost guarding the North Atlantic sea lanes. Beginning in May 1940 it had been defended by British and Canadian troops. Subsequent British military reverses in France and the Mediterranean, and Icelandic resentment over British troop presence, added to the pressure to remove the British garrison, then 20,000 strong.

Troops in Iceland

Soldiers of the Iceland base command receiving gift boxes of sweaters and bags containing cigarettes, soap, sewing kits and other comforts from the Cleveland, Ohio, and New Haven, Conn., Red Cross chapters. Library of Congress photo

In June 1941, Roosevelt approved the dispatch of 4,000 Marines, a move that Stark confessed was “an act of war.” On September 6, Marshall wrote a memo to the president outlining plans to replace the British garrison with American troops. Marshall’s ability to do so was complicated by the fact that by law Reserve, National Guard, and one-year draftees “were legally debarred from serving” outside the Western Hemisphere except in United States possessions.

“Even after these problems had been resolved, there remained a constant source of trouble to which some of the best minds in the Army never found a solution: the gorgeousness of Icelandic women.”

Roosevelt responded by ordering the State Department to redraw the hemispherical map to place Iceland in the Western Hemisphere so it would come under Monroe Doctrine jurisdiction. After all, the Treaty of Tordesillas that officially created the Eastern and Western Hemispheres in 1494 was Pope Alexander VI’s move to peacefully divide the globe for the convenience of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, hardly an argument to cow the anti-imperialist Roosevelt, who had already bucked tradition by successfully campaigning for an unprecedented third term as president. As the French would say, voilà. Problem solved.

Iceland Training

A U.S. Army gun crew prepares to fire a 37 mm that has been mounted on the carriage of a 75 mm howitzer during training, Sanskeid Range, Iceland, June 20, 1943. By early 1942 the Marines had been replaced by Army soldiers. U.S. Army photo

Other problems in Iceland would crop up, and the list was long. Port facilities were inadequate and harbor congestion was a chronic condition. The construction of compounds and barracks for the troops repeatedly confounded Army engineers, who had to battle extreme climate and unusual soil conditions. As historian Geoffrey Perret wrote, “Even after these problems had been resolved, there remained a constant source of trouble to which some of the best minds in the Army never found a solution: the gorgeousness of Icelandic women.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...