Ernest Wertheim Tells General MacArthur He’s Not His Favorite General [Book Excerpt, Chasing Spring]

Ernest Wertheim Tells General MacArthur He’s Not His Favorite General [Book Excerpt, Chasing Spring]

Ernest Wertheim - with MacArthur slide show

Ernest Wertheim (middle) confers with General MacArthur over a map.


Editor’s note: Wertheim was recruited to train as an intelligence officer. Prior to D-Day, he was assigned to a group that would go behind enemy lines into Germany for a secret mission, with each team member taking a different route into London to rendezvous. So when he received orders to leave, he didn’t think it odd he headed west. However, when his final destination was the South Pacific, he realized a mistake had been made. Here is an excerpt which recounts Wertheim’s first encounter with General Douglas MacArthur, when he finally learns why the mistaken assignment was not corrected.

The 40th encountered several severely damaged bridges. The Army engineers had to repair them before we could cross with all our heavy equipment, and this caused a substantial deal in our flanking maneuver.

In the meantime, the 37th ran into far less opposition and made it to the meeting place outside Camiling. Communications between the two divisions was abruptly cut off. It became my job to establish contact with the intelligence office of the 37th and inform him of our situation and when he could expect our troops. The only way to do so was to tell him in person.

No translator was available, so I packed up and set off immediately wearing a farmer’s outfit. My helmet and jacket were concealed in my rucksack. I would have to walk alone and at a good pace, most of the way through enemy territory.

At first, I walked through an area we controlled. Our engineers were working on a damaged bridge and some of our patrols had fanned out but only for so many miles.

Once I got past them, I stayed off the main road because the Japanese controlled the area. I walked through agricultural fields planted with grains and vegetables, and of course, I walked through rice paddies. Most of the land was dotted with small farmhouses. Around the farmhouses, I saw chickens, picks, and other farm animals, but hardly any cows. I avoided going through villages, although I did ride on one farm wagon pulled by horses.

Wherever there were trees or hedges, I would take detours in case anyone was observing me. I was aware of some Japanese troop movements, and those I avoided since they were on roadways. I had to cross over streams several times, wading through the water because I thought it wise to avoid bridges. Where it was too deep or difficult to cross and I had to use the bridge, I observed the area for a long time to make sure there were no enemy troops nearby.

When night fell, it was difficult to walk in the dark. I had a flashlight, but felt the light would draw attention, so I didn’t want to use it. Choosing a dry spot in a field of tall native shrubs, I propped my bag up as a pillow and curled up to sleep with my rifle in the crook of my arm. Being used to foxholes, a protected area with shrubs around it served as a fine bed. I suppose I could have stayed the night on a farm, but I did not know if the natives were on our side or working with the Japanese. It was best not to take any chances.

A day and a half later, I reached the 37th. I quickly changed into my Army uniform and searched for the intelligence officer. Announcing myself to the guard patrol, I was led through a courtyard and into a building, where I found my counterpart and exchanged information.

The task done, there was nothing to do but return to the 40th and report back to General Brush’s headquarters. Whatever happened next was up to the generals in charge of each division. I walked through the entrance court when a loud voice called out, “Is there anyone here from the 40th Division?”

I approached the speaker, a full colonel, identified myself, and asked him what I could do for him. The colonel waved his arm toward a jeep and told me to speak to the person sitting in the front seat next to the driver. Walking toward the jeep, I noticed five stars on the license plate. As I got closer, I recognized the man sitting there. It was General Douglas MacArthur.

Saluting, I gave my name and rank, but I am certain I did not state my name very clearly. I was taken aback to see the general in a combat zone, let alone to be speaking to him. To my great surprise, the general shook my hand.

“I’m glad to meet you, Lieutenant Wertheim.”

He spread out a map on his knees and asked me to show him where the 40th Division was being held up and why. It turns out someone took a photograph of me with the general, but I was too busy illustrating the information on the map and answering his questions to notice.

Then the general asked me to guide him to the 40th Division. This was a nice way of telling me what I was about to do. It seemed unwise to chance the life of the commanding general of the Southwest Pacific theater, through no-man’s land where we were sure to run into Japanese patrols. I expressed this to the general, but MacArthur insisted on going. I suggested the 37th Division could give us a couple of scout cars with machine guns, but the general would not hear of it.

“Climb in,” he said, and we took off in his jeep, just the general, his driver, the general’s aide, the colonel, and me. I felt an incredible responsibility on my shoulders.

The first half hour was smooth sailing. Then we ran into a Japanese patrol. The driver steered the jeep to the side of the road, and we quickly jumped out into a ditch, using the jeep as a shield.

“Can I borrow your rifle?” General MacArthur asked me. I handed it to him, feeling naked and vulnerable without my rifle and a strange sense of guilt that I should be trying to protect the general. Instead, I watches as he shot three of the threatening Japanese soldiers. The res fled. He handed me back my rifle. “I know it is military practice to clean a rifle after using it, but I will rely on you to do this for me.”

While we continued on our journey toward the 40th, MacArthur asked me about troop morale. It was not in my nature to skirt the truth (nor is it now). Besides, it was my job to pass on information with absolute accuracy. I had found that doing so almost always helped, so I did not hesitate in my reply

“Well, sir, you are not very popular with the men.” Then added, “Often we do not have the right supplies. There have been times when we have run out of ammunition and food. Another complaint is it takes too long to transport wounded soldiers to the hospital.”

“How about your morale, Lieutenant?” he replied.

I did hesitate before answering this time, taking a breath, “Well, sir, you are not my favorite general, either.”

MacArthur encouraged me to elaborate. I explained I had trained with a group of officers to go into northern Germany, in advance of the landing in France, now known as D-Day, the June 6, 1944 invasion on the beaches of Normandy. I was the only person in the group well acquainted with the region west of the Elbe River, and therefore, an important part of the team, independent of the fact that I spoke German fluently with the correct dialect for this area. I complained about the snafu that brought me to the South Pacific and about the general not releasing me when he was asked to send me back to Washington, D.C. I explained I felt I had deserted my team.

At that point MacArthur turned his body to face me where I sat in the back of the jeep. He told me his command was the stepchild of the war department. Most of the war supplies were headed to Europe, commanded by Generals Eisenhower, Clark, and Patton, and to battles in the Pacific commanded by Admiral Nimitz. He, in turn, had to fight for whatever he could get. He was short on airplanes to replace those that had been lost, and he didn’t have enough men.

“By chance, I receive word that a new officer who had been trained in intelligence work was in my command. Why do you think you were sent to New Britain to get the missionary out of Rabaul? Why do you think you were sent on the submarine to visit the guerrillas in Luzon, and why were you involved in the search for the intelligence plane? I needed you.” I couldn’t believe he could just rattle off my missions like that. Then he asked me, “If you were in my shoes and you had found an office on your staff with your training, would you have sent him to Europe?”

“No sire,” I answered immediately. MacArthur laughed. “Well, this means you also would have been a bastard.”

He said he was glad to meet me in person. He expressed his sympathy for the loss of my mother and grandmother in the concentration camp. I couldn’t believe he knew. I was really touched he had bothered to discover and remember my mother and grandmother’s deaths. Likely, my mail was being read, and he found out from one of my intelligence friends at headquarters.


Ernst Wortheim July 2015 Chasing Spring by Ernest WertheimYou can buy Chasing Spring in either black and white or in full color.
• Black/white:
• Color: Contact Jacquie Courtwright
(who owns Alden Lane Nursery) at
925-447-0280 or [email protected].

Read all our coverage of Ernest Wertheim’s memoir: