Biography of Douglas MacArthur, 5-Star American General

Douglas MacArthur
Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Douglas MacArthur (January 26, 1880–April 5, 1964) was a soldier in World War I, the senior commander in the Pacific theater during World War II, and the Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command during the Korean War. He retired as a highly-decorated five-star general, although fairly ignominiously relieved of his duty by President Harry S. Truman on April 11, 1951.

Fast Facts: Douglas MacArthur

  • Known For: American 5-Star General, United States military leader in World War II and Korean War
  • Born: January 26, 1880 in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Parents: Captain Arthur MacArthur, Jr. and Mary Pinkney Hardy
  • Died: April 5, 1964 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland
  • Education: West Texas Military Academy, West Point.
  • Published Works: Reminiscences, Duty, Honor, Country
  • Awards and Honors: Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross, many others
  • Spouse(s): Louise Cromwell Brooks (1922–1929); Jean Faircloth (1937–1962)
  • Children: Arthur MacArthur IV
  • Notable Quote: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

Early Life

The youngest of three sons, Douglas MacArthur was born at Little Rock, Arkansas, on January 26, 1880. His parents were then-Captain Arthur MacArthur, Jr. (who had served in the Civil War on the Union side) and his wife Mary Pinkney Hardy.

Douglas spent much of his early life moving around the American West as his father's postings changed. Learning to ride and shoot at an early age, MacArthur received his early education at the Force Public School in Washington, D.C. and later at the West Texas Military Academy. Eager to follow in his father into the military, MacArthur began seeking an appointment to West Point. After two attempts by his father and grandfather to secure a presidential appointment failed, he passed an appointment examine offered by Representative Theobald Otjen.

West Point

Entering West Point in 1899, MacArthur and Ulysses Grant III became the subjects of intense hazing as the sons of high-ranking officers and for the fact that their mothers were lodging at the nearby Crany's Hotel. Though called before a Congressional committee on hazing, MacArthur downplayed his own experiences rather than implicate other cadets. The hearing resulted in Congress banning hazing of any sort in 1901. An outstanding student, he held several leadership positions within the Corps of Cadets including First Captain in his final year at the academy. Graduating in 1903, MacArthur ranked first in his 93-man class. Upon leaving West Point, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Early Career

Ordered to the Philippines, MacArthur supervised several construction projects in the islands. After brief service as Chief Engineer for the Division of the Pacific in 1905, he accompanied his father, now a major general, on a tour of the Far East and India. Attending the Engineer School in 1906, he moved through several domestic engineering posts before being promoted to captain in 1911. Following the sudden death of his father in 1912, MacArthur requested a transfer to Washington, D.C. to aid in caring for his ailing mother. This was granted and he was posted to the Office of the Chief of Staff.

In early 1914, following heightened tensions with Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson directed U.S. forces to occupy Veracruz. Dispatched south as part of a headquarters staff, MacArthur arrived on May 1. Finding that an advance from the city would require the use of a railroad, he set out with a small party to locate locomotives. Finding several in Alvarado, MacArthur and his men were forced to fight their way back to the American lines. Successfully delivering the locomotives, his name was put forward by Chief of Staff Major General Leonard Wood for the Medal of Honor. Though the commander in Veracruz, Brigadier General Frederick Funston, recommended the award, the board tasked with making the determination declined to issue the medal citing that the operation had occurred without the knowledge of the commanding general. They also cited concerns that making the award would encourage staff officers in the future to conduct operations without alerting their superiors.

World War I

Returning to Washington, MacArthur received a promotion to major on December 11, 1915, and the following year was assigned to the Office of Information. With the U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917, MacArthur helped form the 42nd "Rainbow" Division from existing National Guard units. Intended to build morale, the units of the 42nd were intentionally drawn from as many states as possible. In discussing the concept, MacArthur commented that the membership in the division "will stretch over the whole country like a rainbow."

With the formation of the 42nd Division, MacArthur was promoted to colonel and made its chief of staff. Sailing for France with the division in October 1917, he earned his first Silver Star when he accompanied a French trench raid the following February. On March 9, MacArthur joined a trench raid conducted by the 42nd. Moving forward with the 168th Infantry Regiment, his leadership earned him a Distinguished Service Cross. On June 26, 1918, MacArthur was promoted to brigadier general becoming the youngest general in the American Expeditionary Force. During the Second Battle of the Marne that July and August, he earned three more Silver Stars and was given command of the 84th Infantry Brigade.

Taking part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September, MacArthur was awarded two additional Silver Stars for his leadership during the battle and subsequent operations. Shifted north, the 42nd Division joined the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in mid-October. Attacking near Châtillon, MacArthur was wounded while scouting a gap in the German barbed wire. Though again nominated for the Medal of Honor for his part in the action, he was denied a second time and instead awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross. Quickly recovering, MacArthur led his brigade through the final campaigns of the war. After briefly commanding the 42nd Division, he saw occupation duty in the Rhineland before returning to the United States in April 1919.

West Point

While the majority of U.S. Army officers were returned to their peacetime ranks, MacArthur was able to retain his wartime rank of brigadier general by accepting an appointment as Superintendent of West Point. Directed to reform the school's aging academic program, he took over in June 1919. Remaining in the position until 1922, he made great strides in modernizing the academic course, reducing hazing, formalizing the honor code, and increasing the athletic program. Though many of his changes were resisted, they ultimately were accepted.

Marriage and Family

Douglas MacArthur married twice. His first wife was Henriette Louise Cromwell Brooks, a divorcee and flapper who liked gin, jazz, and the stock market, none of which suited MacArthur. They were married on February 14, 1922, separated in 1925, and divorced on June 18, 1929. He met Jean Marie Faircloth in 1935, and despite that Douglas was 19 years older than she was, they married on April 30, 1937. They had one son, Arthur MacArthur IV, born in Manila in 1938.

Peacetime Assignments

Leaving the academy in October 1922, MacArthur took command of the Military District of Manila. During his time in the Philippines, he befriended several influential Filipinos, such as Manuel L. Quezon, and sought to reform the military establishment in the islands. On January 17, 1925, he was promoted to major general. After brief service in Atlanta, he moved north in 1925 to take command of III Corps Area with his headquarters at Baltimore, Maryland. While overseeing III Corps, he was compelled to serve on the court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. The youngest on the panel, he claimed to have voted to acquit the aviation pioneer and called the requirement to serve "one of the most distasteful orders I ever received."

Chief of Staff

After another two-year assignment in the Philippines, MacArthur returned to the United States in 1930 and briefly commanded IX Corps Area in San Francisco. Despite his relatively young age, his name was put forward for the position of Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Approved, he was sworn in that November. As the Great Depression worsened, MacArthur fought to prevent crippling cuts in the Army's manpower—although he was ultimately forced to close more than 50 bases. In addition to working to modernize and update the Army's war plans, he concluded the MacArthur-Pratt agreement with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William V. Pratt, which helped define each service's responsibilities in regard to aviation.

One of the best-known generals in the U.S. Army, MacArthur's reputation suffered in 1932 when President Herbert Hoover ordered him to clear the "Bonus Army" from an encampment at Anacostia Flats. Veterans from World War I, the Bonus Army marchers were seeking early payment of their military bonuses. Against the advice of his aide, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, MacArthur accompanied the troops as they drove off the marchers and burned their camp. Though political opposites, MacArthur had his term as Chief of Staff extended by the newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Under MacArthur's leadership, the U.S. Army played a key role in overseeing the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Back to the Philippines

Completing his time as Chief of Staff in late 1935, MacArthur was invited by now-President of the Philippines Manuel Quezon to oversee the formation of the Philippine Army. Made a field marshal of the Commonwealth of the Philippines he remained in the U.S. Army as the Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines. Arriving, MacArthur and Eisenhower were forced to essentially start from scratch while using cast off and obsolete American equipment. Relentlessly lobbying for more money and equipment, his calls were largely ignored in Washington. In 1937, MacArthur retired from the U.S. Army but remained in place as an advisor to Quezon. Two years later, Eisenhower returned to the United States and was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sutherland as MacArthur's chief of staff.

World War II Begins

With tensions with Japan growing, Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to active duty as commander, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East in July 1941 and federalized the Philippine Army. In an attempt to bolster the Philippines' defenses, additional troops and material were dispatched later that year. At 3:30 a.m. on December 8, MacArthur learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Around 12:30 p.m., much of MacArthur's air force was destroyed when the Japanese struck Clark and Iba Fields outside Manila. When the Japanese landed at Lingayen Gulf on December 21, MacArthur's forces attempted to slow their advance but to no avail. Implementing prewar plans, Allied forces withdrew from Manila and formed a defensive line on the Bataan Peninsula.

As fighting raged on Bataan, MacArthur established his headquarters on the fortress island of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Directing the fighting from an underground tunnel on Corregidor, he was derisively nicknamed "Dugout Doug." As the situation on Bataan deteriorated, MacArthur received orders from Roosevelt to leave the Philippines and escape to Australia. Initially refusing, he was convinced by Sutherland to go. Departing Corregidor on the night of March 12, 1942, MacArthur and his family traveled by PT boat and B-17 before reaching Darwin, Australia five days later. Traveling south, he famously broadcast to the people of the Philippines that "I shall return." For his defense of the Philippines, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had MacArthur awarded the Medal of Honor.

New Guinea

Appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area on April 18, MacArthur established his headquarters first at Melbourne and then at Brisbane, Australia. Largely served by his staff from the Philippines, dubbed the "Bataan Gang," MacArthur began planning operations against the Japanese on New Guinea. Initially commanding largely Australian forces, MacArthur oversaw successful operations at Milne Bay, Buna-Gona, and Wau in 1942 and early 1943. Following a victory at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943, MacArthur planned a major offensive against the Japanese bases at Salamaua and Lae. This attack was to be part of Operation Cartwheel, an Allied strategy for isolating the Japanese base at Rabaul. Moving forward in April 1943, Allied forces captured both towns by mid-September. Later operations saw MacArthur's troops land at Hollandia and Aitape in April 1944. While fighting continued on New Guinea for the rest of the war, it became a secondary theater as MacArthur and SWPA shifted its attention to planning the invasion of the Philippines.

Return to the Philippines

Meeting with President Roosevelt and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, in mid-1944, MacArthur outlined his ideas for liberating the Philippines. Operations in the Philippines commenced on October 20, 1944, when MacArthur oversaw Allied landings on the island of Leyte. Coming ashore, he announced, "People of the Philippines: I have returned." While Admiral William "Bull" Halsey and Allied naval forces fought the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26), MacArthur found the campaign ashore slow going. Battling heavy monsoons, Allied troops fought on Leyte until the end of the year. In early December, MacArthur directed the invasion of Mindoro, which was quickly occupied by Allied forces.

On December 18, 1944, MacArthur was promoted to General of the Army. This occurred one day before Nimitz was raised to Fleet Admiral, making MacArthur the senior commander in the Pacific. Pressing forward, he opened the invasion of Luzon on January 9, 1945, by landing elements of the Sixth Army at Lingayen Gulf. Driving southeast toward Manila, MacArthur supported the Sixth Army with landings by the Eighth Army to the south. Reaching the capital, the Battle for Manila began in early February and lasted until March 3. For his part in liberating Manila, MacArthur was awarded a third Distinguished Service Cross. Though fighting continued on Luzon, MacArthur began operations to liberate the southern Philippines in February. Between February and July, 52 landings took place as Eighth Army forces moved through the archipelago. To the southwest, MacArthur commenced a campaign in May that saw his Australian forces attack Japanese positions in Borneo.

Occupation of Japan

As planning commenced for the invasion of Japan, MacArthur's name was informally discussed as for the role of overall commander of the operation. This proved moot when Japan surrendered in August 1945 following the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Soviet Union's declaration of war. Following this action, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan on August 29 and charged with directing the occupation of the country. On September 2, 1945, MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Over the next four years, MacArthur and his staff worked to rebuild the country, reform its government, and implement large-scale business and land reforms. Handing over power to the new Japanese government in 1949, MacArthur remained in place in his military role.

The Korean War

On June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea beginning the Korean War. Immediately condemning the North Korean aggression, the new United Nations authorized a military force to be formed to aid South Korea. It also directed the U.S. government to select the force's commander-in-chief. Meeting, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously chose to appoint MacArthur as Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command. Commanding from the Dai Ichi Life Insurance Building in Tokyo, he immediately began directing aid to South Korea and ordered Lieutenant General Walton Walker's Eighth Army to Korea. Pushed back by the North Koreans, the South Koreans and the lead elements of the Eighth Army were forced into a tight defensive position dubbed the Pusan Perimeter. As Walker was steadily reinforced, the crisis began to lessen and MacArthur began planning offensive operations against the North Koreans.

With the bulk of the North Korean Army engaged around Pusan, MacArthur advocated for a daring amphibious strike on the peninsula's west coast at Inchon. This, he argued, would catch the enemy off guard, while landing UN troops close to the capital at Seoul and placing them in a position to cut the North Korean's supply lines. Many were initially skeptical of MacArthur's plan as Inchon's harbor possessed a narrow approach channel, strong current, and wildly fluctuating tides. Moving forward on September 15, the landings at Inchon were a great success. Driving toward Seoul, UN troops captured the city on September 25. The landings, in conjunction with an offensive by Walker, sent the North Koreans reeling back over the 38th Parallel. As UN forces entered into North Korea, the People's Republic of China issued a warning that it would enter the war if MacArthur's troops reached the Yalu River.

Meeting with President Harry S. Truman on Wake Island in October, MacArthur dismissed the Chinese threat and stated he hoped to have U.S. forces home by Christmas. In late October, Chinese forces flooded across the border and began driving UN troops south. Unable to halt the Chinese, UN troops were not able to stabilize the front until they had retreated south of Seoul. With his reputation tarnished, MacArthur directed a counter-offensive in early 1951 which saw Seoul liberated in March and UN troops again cross the 38th Parallel. Having publicly clashed with Truman over war policy earlier, MacArthur demanded that China admit defeat on March 24, preempting a White House ceasefire proposal. This was followed on April 5 by Representative Joseph Martin, Jr. revealing a letter from MacArthur that was highly critical of Truman's limited war approach to Korea. Meeting with his advisors, Truman relieved MacArthur on April 11 and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway.

Death and Legacy

MacArthur's firing was met with a firestorm of controversy in the United States. Returning home, he was hailed as a hero and given ticker tape parades in San Francisco and New York. Between these events, he addressed Congress on April 19 and famously stated that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Though a favorite for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, MacArthur had no political aspirations. His popularity also fell slightly when a Congressional investigation backed Truman for firing him making him less a less attractive candidate. Retiring to New York City with his wife Jean, MacArthur worked in business and wrote his memoirs. Consulted by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, he warned against a military buildup in Vietnam. MacArthur died in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on April 5, 1964, and, following a state funeral, was buried at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Biography of Douglas MacArthur, 5-Star American General." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Biography of Douglas MacArthur, 5-Star American General. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Biography of Douglas MacArthur, 5-Star American General." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).