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The intriguing military history of Rabaul during World War II

If you are not familiar with Rabaul, it is a township in East New Britain province in the country of Papua New Guinea.

Located on the New Britain island, the town used to be an important settlement in the province until it was destroyed no thanks to falling ash from a volcanic eruption in 1994.

Looking back to its establishment history, Rabaul was built around the harbor area called as Simpsonhafen under the German New Guinea administration from 1884 until 1919. The British Empire then captured the township during the early days of World War I (WWI).

Life before World War II (WWII)

According to Ian Townsend writing for ABC Radio Nation in 2017, Australia was given a mandate to administer New Guinea as its territory after WWI. For most of the two decades between the wars, Rabaul was its Australian capital of New Guinea.

Townsend stated, “It (Rabaul) looked a lot like a Queensland town, with high-set wooden homes and wide verandahs, red roofs and gardens of frangipani and bougainvillaea.

Australian businessmen, public servants and planters walked the wide, shady streets in white suits and stopped at the pubs to drink Australian beer.”

The town even had a racetrack, picture theaters and an Australian school.

The dawn of WWII

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on Dec 7, 1941, the country of the Rising Sun started to take control of some of the islands, including Borneo and the Philippines.

It was then expected that Rabaul would be on the list of targets. Hence, by the end of that December, the women and children (except for Chinese migrants and the local indigenous people) were evacuated.

Families were separated during the evacuation as about 2,000 Australian soldiers and male civilians were left behind in Rabaul.

The Japanese called the invasion Operation R and historians later on mostly referred to it as the Battle of Rabaul (1942).

On Jan 4, 1942, the Japanese carrier-based aircraft started its assault on the town particularly on its Vunakanau Airfield situated on a plateau just outside Rabaul.

By Jan 20, a force of over 100 Japanese aircraft comprising bombers, dive bombers and fighter escort, converged on Rabaul.

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had controlled the attack on Pearl Harbour, led the Japanese force in the battle.

As the odds stacked up against the Australians, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commander John Lerew sent a signal to RAAF HQ in Melbourne. He signalled the Latin motto “Nos Morituri Te Salatamus” (“We who are about to die salute you”), a phrase said by gladiators in ancient Rome before entering combat.

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Sure enough, the Japanese invasion force quickly overwhelmed the small Australian garrison.

In the days following the invasion of Rabaul, the Japanese began mopping up operations starting on Jan 24.

The Japanese posted up and dropped from planes leaflets in English stating, “You can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender.”

 The Adler River, in the Bainings Mountains on the eastern side of the Gazelle Peninsula, an obstacle to the Australian troops retreating from Rabaul after the successful attack by Japanese forces. This is the point where at least two parties of retreating Australian troops crossed the Adler River. The first party of twenty one men from the Anti-aircraft Battery Rabaul and the 17th Anti-tank Battery crossed here on 1942-01-26 securing a lawyer vine rope to cross the river. This image was taken in late January 1942 and shows some of the men of Sergeant L. I. H. (Les) Robbins’ party fording the river as they make their way south toward Palmalmal Plantation and rescue in April 1942. Credit: Public Domain.

Why the Japanese wanted to attack Rabaul?

There are many reasons why the Japanese decided to capture this island town. While Japanese captured towns such as Tarakan and Balikpapan in Indonesia and Miri in Sarawak for their oil and gas, they wanted Rabaul so that they could turn it into a major base.

According to Gordon L. Rottmah in World War II Pacific Island Guide, Rabaul provided an ideal location to base a fleet, air assets and command and control centres for the Japanese.

The site was strategic for them to direct, launch and support the conquest of New Guinea and the South Pacific region.

“It was centrally located, and initially at least, far enough from Allied bases to protect it from air and sea attack. It possesses one of the best anchorages in the region and held abundant sites for airfields,” Rottmah stated.

Besides, its location was significant because of its proximity to the Japanese territory of the Caroline Islands, a site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk about 1,800 km northeast of New Guinea.

Under Japanese occupation

Once they had captured the town, the Japanese wasted no time in developing it. Rottmah pointed out that the Japanese airfield program in Rabaul was extensive, with Vunakanau becoming the main Japanese airbase.

They dug many kilometres of tunnels as shelter from Allied air attacks such as the bombing of November 1943.

Additionally, they also expanded the facilities by construction army barracks and support structures.

By the summer of 1943, there were more than 100,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul.

Operation Cartwheel

Map of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, Papua and Bougainville 1942-45 showing sites of various battles and strategic locations. Credit: Public Domain.

With that high number of Japanese troops, how could the Allied forces possibly recapture the town?

Hence, instead of trying to capture Rabaul town, the Allies determined to neutralise Rabaul by isolating it and eliminating its airpower.

The Allied forced decided to bypass it by establishing a ring of airfields and naval bases on the islands around it.

The plan was initiated at the end of April 1943 in the codenamed ‘Operation Cartwheel’.

It called for General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific Areas to approach Rabaul town from the southwest, through New Guinea and the southern Bismarcks.

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Meanwhile, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz would advance through the Solomons, forming two pincers that would close in on the Japanese base.

The Allied forces involved were from Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the US and various Pacific islands.

On each island the Allied forces captured, they constructed air bases, allowing them to block any westward movement by the Japanese.

Operation Cartwheel, which stretched from 1943 to 1944, proved the effectiveness of a strategy of avoiding major concentrations of enemy forces and aiming to sever the Japanese lines of supply and communication instead.

The Neutralisation of Rabaul town

A photo taken from a Marine SBD during an airstrike on Rabaul, 1944. Credit: Public Domain.

Once the Allied forces managed to slowly isolate Rabaul, they began air raid attacks on it. Allied fighters and bombers continue to attack the town through 1944 and 1945.

The Allied forces began to call the attack on Rabaul town ‘milk run’. It is a phrase US Army Air Corps and UK Royal Air Force (RAF) aircrew used to describe any mission where minimal resistance from the enemy was expected.

Eventually, the Allied forces used Rabaul as a live-fire exercise to give aircrew some training and taste of combat before the real deal.

As for the Japanese, they suffered a lot during the campaign. First of all, they no longer had a base which they could threaten the Allied in the Solomons.

Secondly, they lost many of their experienced carrier pilots and aviation maintenance personnel.

The last Allied airstrike took place on Aug 8, 1945, only weeks before the Japanese surrender.

Australian Military Court

After the war from 1945 till 1951, Australian Military Courts convened in Maratoi, Wewak, Labuan, Darwin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manus Island and Rabaul.

Overall, 300 war crimes trials took place with 190 of them convened in Rabaul.

By the end, 812 mostly Japanese and some Korean as well as Taiwanese alleged war criminals had been tried.

The charges included ill-treatment, murder, massacre, cannibalism and other violations of war laws.

In Rabaul, there were five command responsibility trials. Sometimes referred to as the Yamashita standard or the Medina standard, command responsibility is the legal doctrine of hierarchical accountability for war crimes.

It is an omission mode of individual criminal liability and the superior is responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates.

The command responsibility trials that convened in Rabaul were namely against Major General Hirota Akira, Lieutenant General Adachi Hatazo, Lt Gen Kato Rinpei, Gen Imamura Hitoshi and Lt Gen Baba Masao.

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A Japanese Manga artist and his military history in Rabaul

Of all the WWII stories which came out from Rabaul town, one of the most interesting accounts must be the story Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015).

He was a Japanese manga artist and historian, best known for his manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro.

In 1942, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and sent to New Britain Island.

There, he contracted malaria and watched his fellow comrades died from battle wounds and disease.

During one of the Allied forces air raid, Mizuki was caught in an explosion and lost his dominant left arm.

Being the only survivor of his unit, Mizuki was instructed to commit suicide, an order he considered ridiculous.

While in a Japanese hospital Rabaul, he made friends with the local Tolai tribe. They even offered him land, a home and an offer to marry a Tolai woman.

At first, Mizuki considered the offer to remain behind in Rabaul. However, after being rebuked by a military doctor for his plan, he eventually returned home to Japan reluctantly.

The aftermath of WWII

After WWII, Rabaul and the whole of eastern New Guinea was returned to pre-war administrator Australia.

At least 1,200 Australian soldiers and civilians died within the six months following the invasion.

While some died during the battles, about 160 were massacred in the jungle on Feb 4, 1942. About 800 soldiers and 200 civilian prisoners of war (most of them Australians) lost their lives on July 1, 1942.

They drowned when the prison ship Montevideo Maru which they boarded heading to Japan from Rabaul was sunk by an American submarine.

The saddest part is that most of the families of the civilians never really knew what happened to their loved ones who were left behind in Rabaul town.

These civilian men were never given the option of leaving in the first place.

Did they die during the battle, did the Japanese massacre them or were they in the sunken prison ship? With no proper records during the Japanese occupation, we will never know and their families will never have closure.

Fast forward to the present day, tourism is a now major industry of the town. It is popular for its volcanoes, flora and fauna and the culture of the Tolai people.

To top it all, its rich WWII history provides the town with plenty of historical sites to visit and shipwrecks to explore for scuba diving.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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