Army vs. Navy in Alaska
A flawed joint operational command in Alaska added to the woes of weather and distance
Alaska, with respect to American military operations, was caught in a complex crossfire of competing resources, muddled strategic goals, and contradictory priorities. Worst of all was a bifurcated and distant chain of command structure that tossed out the window any meaningful attempt at joint operations.
The Army, with its Alaska Defense Command based in Anchorage, was responsible for the Alaska mainland, all Army Air Forces operations, and reported to Western Defense Command in San Francisco.
The Navy’s Northern Pacific Force (Task Force 8), based on Kodiak Island, was responsible for the defense of the Aleutian archipelago and North Pacific sea lanes. It was part of the U.S. Northern Fleet headquartered in Sitka, and under the command of the Thirteenth Naval District based in Seattle. As Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz had too few carriers for too many tasks, the Navy had been granted overlapping authority to control the Army’s Eleventh (Alaskan) Air Force in support of naval operations. This administrative solution was not only awkward, it was just plain bad. It also didn’t help that the Army and Navy commanders in Alaska didn’t get along.
“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.”
—Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall
Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was the commander of the Alaska Defense Force, established in July 1940 with about 750 soldiers when Buckner was still a colonel. Buckner immediately embarked on the Herculean task of building up Alaska’s defenses. Within eighteen months, his command had grown to thirteen airfields, more than 33,000 troops, and 10 heavy and 34 medium bombers, 95 fighters, and two fighter squadrons from the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Rear Adm. Robert A. “Fuzzy” Theobald commanded Task Force 8, containing about a third of Nimitz’s surface fleet at the time:
- 2 heavy cruisers;
- 3 light cruisers;
- 12 destroyers;
- S-class submarines;
- 5 Coast Guard cutters, and;
- A Naval air reconnaissance squadron.
When Japanese forces captured the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, everyone from President Franklin Roosevelt on down agreed that the Japanese had to be thrown out. But the aggressive Buckner and cautious Theobald clashed over planning and execution. Word of their chronic problems reached the ears of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and his Navy counterpart Adm. Ernest King. Twice during the summer of 1942, Marshall found himself sending observers to Alaska to report about the situation.
On Aug. 19, shortly after Adm. Theobald advised against the army’s recent plan for occupying Tanaga Island as the first step in recapturing Attu and Kiska, Buckner visited Theobald’s headquarters.
At one point during the meeting Buckner read a poem that had been circulating in his command:
In far Alaska’s ice spray, I stand beside my binnacle
And scan the waters through the fog for fear some rocky pinnacle
Projecting from unfathomed depths may break my hull asunder and
Place my name upon the list of those who made a blunder.
Volcanic peaks beneath the waves are likely any morning
To smash my ships to tiny bits without the slightest warning
I dread the toll from reef and shoal that rip off keel and rudder
And send our bones to Davey Jones – the prospect makes me shudder.
The Bering Sea is not for me nor my fleet headquarters
In moral 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.
Though Buckner claimed he meant no malice, Theobald “deeply resented” the poem and found its reading “gratuitously insulting.”
With so many real problems to address, Buckner’s gaffe was a headache Marshall didn’t need. On Sept. 3, he wrote a long “Personal and Confidential” memo to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, commander Western Defense Command, summarizing the situation and requesting DeWitt’s input on a number of recommendations, including a wholesale change of command. DeWitt sent Marshall three lengthy responses. Ultimately, Buckner wound up remaining at his post, for three reasons: his otherwise “splendid job” in Alaska, a suitable replacement wasn’t available, and because Theobald, who had repeatedly requested it, was relieved of command by King and replaced with the more aggressive Rear Adm. Thomas Kinkaid.