Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Thomas Blamey & Douglas MacArthur
When General Sir Thomas Blamey heard that General Douglas MacArthur had been appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South West Pacific Area, he was enjoying a drink in the first-class lounge of the Queen Mary, two days out of Cape Town. It was March 1942, a Japanese invasion appeared imminent, and Blamey was on his way home from the Middle East to take charge of Australia's military forces. MacArthur's appointment, he told his staff, was the best thing that could have happened.
A general's son who topped his class at West Point, MacArthur had led a combat division in France, risen to chief of staff of the US Army, and sent cavalry with sabres drawn against the wives and children of ragged veterans who'd marched on Washington demanding jobs. Recalled from retirement in 1941 to defend the Philippines, he escaped the island fortress of Corregidor by PT boat, flew to Australia and established his headquarters in Melbourne, 4000 kilometres from the front. It was at the Menzies Hotel on 29 March that he met Blamey for the first time.
The American supremo swept into the room as if preceded by a flourish of trumpets. Lean and clean-shaven, sporting his trademark corncob pipe, ostentatiously braided cap and Hollywood-style aviator sunglasses, he found himself face-to-face with a short, rotund figure wearing a grey moustache and Bombay Bloomers. At 57, seven years younger than MacArthur, Blamey was the very image of Colonel Blimp.
A drover's son who'd been promoted to full general only six months earlier, Blamey had a sharp mind for the strategic overview, fascistic tendencies and a reputation for favouritism, womanising and drunkenness. He'd never led troops in combat, and his most famous victories had been against the bolshie jobless during his tenure as Victoria's police commissioner.
If Blamey hoped for a rapport, he was soon disabused. Over the next three years, his staff officers were sidelined and the achievements of his troops deliberately downplayed. At Japan's formal surrender, MacArthur starred and Blamey was a mere extra, one of a shuffling queue of national representatives.
But magnanimity becomes the great, and in 1948 MacArthur invited him to Tokyo. Blamey fell asleep while visiting occupation troops. In 1950, Blamey received his field marshal's baton in hospital, and less than a year later he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Meanwhile, MacArthur had been fired as UN commander in Korea for insubordination to his commander-in-chief, President Truman. He faded away in 1964. Blamey remains the only Australia-born field marshal.