Book Review – War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945

I am an avid military history fan, so give me a good book on World War II, and I’m in heaven. It may take me forever to get through it, depending on the density of the material, but I’ll be enthralled from page 1.

Today’s review is a fascinating look at a part of the Pacific war that isn’t talked about that much, other than maybe a small section or two in some grand strategic World War II overview book somewhere.

War at the End of the World

In War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight for New Guinea, 1942-1945 (don’t think I’ll by typing all of that again this review), author James P. Duffy chronicles the vicious fighting that took place all over the Papua New Guinea island in the South Pacific as US General Douglas MacArthur tried to make good on his promise to the people of the Philippines to return after his evacuation.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military made a series of strikes throughout the Pacific theater, attempting to enlarge its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. One of these was an invasion and takeover of the Philippine Islands, where General MacArthur was the US commander.

While Duffy does not spend a lot of time on that (it’s not the focus of the book, obviously), he does spend a chapter on MacArthur’s history, including his evacuation from the overrun islands and his vow to return to them.

As detailed in Chapter 3, MacArthur initially refused evacuation, either ignoring suggestions that he and his family do so or answering “they and I have decided that they will share the fate of the garrison.” Roosevelt reportedly felt that withdrawing MacArthur and the garrison “would mean the whites would absolutely lose all face in the Far East. White men can go down fighting, but they can’t run away.”

Ultimately, it was Australian Prime Minister Curtin and the Australian desire to withdraw all three Australian divisions fighting in the Middle East to protect the Australian homeland that saved MacArthur, as they were willing to change their demand to two divisions if they received American troop support as well as a good American commander (i.e. MacArthur). Thus, Roosevelt finally insisted that MacArthur be evacuated to go to Australia.

I’m not sure how much of that is up for debate. Duffy says that there is “no doubt” that MacArthur was willing to die on the Philippines. Others who I have mentioned this to seem to dispute that.

The reason I mention this, however, is that MacArthur detractors could easily consider this a puff piece on MacArthur because of things like that, and the book doesn’t seem to be that way if you read the rest of it.

It doesn’t really get into a lot of the negatives regarding MacArthur’s personality or relationship with other military figures, but it also doesn’t blow him up to be a heroic figure better than everybody else either.

War at the End of the World does talk about MacArthur’s frustrations with the Southwest Pacific getting short shrift from the Allies in regards to their “Germany First” motto for dealing with the Axis powers. The Southwest Pacific theater was second to the Central Pacific in regards to American emphasis in the Pacific war as well. Duffy doesn’t seem to take sides on this issue, instead just showcasing MacArthur’s annoyance at this and showing the reader how the war happened.

Another concern some have had is whether the Australians are well-represented. This too seems not to be an issue. Duffy is very matter of fact in how the events in the war turned out. He doesn’t overly highlight Australian heroism nor does he deny it when it happened, talking about the valor that some heavily outnumbered Australian units demonstrated as they held out against superior Japanese forces during the initial Japanese advances. When Duffy talks about the battles where Australian forces took part, he doesn’t gloss over what they did to contribute to the outcome.

Duffy does a great job covering all the aspects of the ground, naval, and air war over the New Guinea island as MacArthur’s troops slowly made their way across and up the island. Each chapter covers a discrete phase in the war, talking about the amphibious invasions that would extend Allied reach, the need for new airfields to get closer to the front, and the isolation of those Japanese forces that were too strong to face head-on.

While the book doesn’t get into the down and dirty infantryman’s point of view and the harsh jungle conditions, it does talk about them enough that the reader gets a sense of just horrible they were. It often seemed that more men died of disease then of battle wounds, with dysentery, malaria, and other maladies taking hold as often food and other supplies were hard to come by.

While I definitely enjoyed the book, it is quite methodical in moving from point A to point B and to point C. Duffy talks about the battles in question, detailing some of the strategies and tactics, and then giving the reader a casualty count (often estimated in regards to the Japanese). In that sense, it can sometimes be a little dry, but it was interesting enough that it didn’t bother me.

The book also appears to be well-sourced, with tons of citation notes in the back from a variety of sources. Japanese archives and memoirs are well-represented, giving readers a more complete feeling instead of a one-sided account.

Overall, I quite enjoyed War at the End of the World. It’s a part of the World War II Pacific conflict that I didn’t have much information on before. Perhaps it’s a blind spot in my reading, but I had no idea that the Allies had even contemplated skipping over the Philippines to instead invade Formosa and Japanese home islands, leaving the Japanese garrison on the Philippines to wither away or surrender when the war ended.

MacArthur wasn’t having any of that.

The book ends with the final bits of fighting on New Guinea as MacArthur gets ready for the invasion he’s waited three years for: a return to his adopted home, and a promise to his people that he would return.

I highly recommend this book for anybody who likes reading World War II history. It’s  well-written, engaging, and well worth your time.


War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight for New Guinea, 1942-1945

Author: James P. Duffy

Published Date: January 5, 2016

Pages: 448


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