I Corps and Eighth Army
Robert L. Eichelberger was an American general who commanded the American forces during the battles for Buna and Gona on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, before commanding I Corps of the Sixth Army during most of the campaign on New Guinea, and the US Eighth Army during the invasion of the Philippines.
Eichelberger was born in 1886 in Urbana, Ohio, the son of a prominent lawyer. After attending Ohio State University, he went to West Point, graduating in 1909 68th in his class of 103.
During the First World War Eichelberger served on the War Department General Staff, working for Major General W. S. Graves, the executive assistant to the Army Chief of Staff. In July 1918 Graves was given command of a division, and Eichelberger became his operations officer (G3).
This division didn’t reach France, and instead Graves was sent to Vladivostok, to command the small American expeditionary force sent to Siberia in September 1918. Eichelberger served as both his intelligence and operations officers (G2 and G3) during this expedition. The American expedition had been sent to Vladivostok to help a 70,000 strong Czech army, one of the stronger forces opposing the Bolshevik government. In 1918 the main objective of the Allied intervention in Russia was to revive the eastern front, or at least prevent the Germans from moving too many troops from east to west, and it was hoped that the Czechs would be able to advance west to directly threaten the Germans.
Amongst the forces sent to Vladivostok was a very large Japanese force, which took control of the Chinese Eastern Railway. By the end of November 1918 the Japanese had 72,400 men in Siberia and northern Manchuria. Eichelberger thus has a good chance to work with his future opponents in the Pacific, and was thus more aware than most Western soldiers of the good discipline and tactical skills of the Japanese soldiers.
Eichelberger emerged from the failure in Russia with the DSC and DSM, both one during fighting around Novitskaya on 2 July 1919. Between the wars he spend most of his time serving in intelligence, the Adjutants General’s Department and in the office of the Secretary of the General Staff (SGS). He was promoted to brigadier general in 1940, became superintendant of West Point in November 1940, and was promoted again to major general in 1941.
In March 1942, after the American entry into the Second World War, Eichelberger was given command of the newly formed 77th Division. On 22 June 1942 he was moved again, this time to command I Corps, which was taking shape in Australia. Eichelberger reached Australia in August, and with Brigadier General Clovis E. Byers, his chief of staff, set up the Corps head quarters at Rockhampton, on the east coast. On 5 September the 32nd and 41st Divisions were allocated to the Corps, and on 15 October Eichelberger was promoted to lieutenant general, his last wartime promotion.
Of his two divisions, the 41st was undergoing training at Rockhampton, but elements of the 32nd had been rushed to New Guinea, with the first elements reaching Port Moresby on 15 September. They had then marched or been flown across Papua, in preparation for an attack on the Japanese strongholds at Buna and Gona, at the northern end of the Kokoda Trail, the route taken by the Japanese in their unsuccessful attempt to capture Port Moresby by land.
The Allied offensive began on 16 November 1942. The Australians were responsible for the attack on Gona, while the US 32nd Division carried out the attack on Buna. This was the 32nd Division’s first combat experience, and it came in some of the most difficult jungle terrain, mixed with waterlogged swamps and more open plantations. The inexperienced American soldiers made very little progress against the well dug-in Japanese defenders of Buna, much to the fury of General MacArthur.
On 29 November he ordered Eichelburger to come to New Guinea, and on 1 December Eichelburger took over command of all troops in the Buna sector. At this stage Eichelburger reported to General Edmund Herring, the Australian commander of Advance New Guinea Force, who in turn reported to General Thomas Blamey, commander-in-chief of the Australian Army and Commander, Allied Ground Forces under MacArthur, who at this point was also commander of New Guinea Force.
On 2 December Eichelburger visited the front line, and in the aftermath of his visit replaced the commanders of both task forces involved (Warren and Urbana forces), and the commander of the 32nd Division (Albert W. Waldron replaced Edwin F. Harding). On 5 December Waldron was wounded while observing the fighting, and replaced by Eichelburger’s Chief of Staff, General Clovis Byers, who was in turn wounded on 16 December, forcing Eichelburger to take direct command of the division. Despite all of these changes progress was still slow, and the Japanese held out until late December. On 31 December the two American task forces finally made contact, and on 2 January Buna mission finally fell.
On 13 January General Herring became commander of New Guinea Force, and Eichelberger replaced him as commander of Advance New Guinea Force. He was thus in overall command on the Buna-Gona front for the final successful assault on the last Japanese strongholds, which ended in success on 22 January 1943.
I Corps and Eighth Army
On 16 February 1943 the American forces in the South West Pacific Area were organised into the US Sixth Army, under the command of General Walter Krueger. Eichelberger returned to his original post, as commander of I Corps within the Sixth Army. Over the next nineteen months I Corps took part in the campaigns on the northern coast of New Guinea as well as on New Britain, the Admiralty Islands, Biak, Numfoor and Morotai. In March 1944 Eichelberger began the planning for the attack on Hollandia, which took place in April. Beween 15 and 27 June he took temporary command of the invasion of Biak, which was believd to have stalled.
On 7 September 1944, Eichelberger was promoted to command of the US Eighth Army. This new army’s first offensive was an attack on the Mapia Islands, which began on 15 November, followed on 20 November by an attack on the Asia Islands.
The Eighth Army then moved into the Philippines, relieving the Sixth Army in the Leyte-Samar area on 25 December 1944. The clear-up on Leyte lasted until May 1945.
On 31 January 1945 the Eighth Army made its first landing on Luzon, a successful assault on the Nasugbu area that soon turned into a thrust towards Manila. Eichelberger was also responsible for attacks on Palawan, the Zamboanga Peninsula on Mindanao) and in the San Bernardino Strait.
After the end of the war Eichelberger served as commander of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan, remaining in that post until 3 September 1948. In 1954, after he had retired, Eichelberger was promoted to full general. He died in 1961.