New Guinea-Papua Campaign, Phase 1, Bismarck Islands
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
On 4 Jan 1942, Japanese naval aircraft began attacking the port of Rabaul on New Britain of the Bismarck Islands, which was a part of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Sixteen Navy G3M Type 96 bombers of the Chitose Air Group scored three hits on the runways of the airfield, while the other 17 bombs landed on the Rapindik Native Hospital and the labor compound, killing 15 civilians and horrifically wounding 15 others with the shrapnel. Australian military reports noted that there were no casualties. "Evidently, thirty dead or wounded natives didn't count", observed author Bruce Gamble.
The Australians had little defense against attacks by modern aircraft. Anti-aircraft guns did not arrive until mid-Aug 1941, and even then, the weapons were WW1-vintage and were manned by militiamen; to make matters worse, they were not allowed to practice with live fire for that the ammunition supply was rather small. When aircraft finally arrived in early Dec 1941, they did not help much either, as they were not capable of intercepting Japanese aircraft. The few Hudson bombers that arrived did make some attempt at pre-emptively attacking Japanese facilities at Kapingamarangi northeast of Rabaul, but they never caused much damage. From a defensive standpoint, Australian aircraft was not even able to intercept Japanese reconnaissance flights.
At 1330 hours on 14 Jan, the South Seas Force Transport Fleet departed Apra Harbor, Guam, Mariana Islands with 5,300 men for Rabaul. Two powerful task forces led by Rear Admiral Kiyohide Shima and Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo joined the transports days later as escorts. Army Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda noted that the transport he was assigned to, Venice Maru, was "very cramped and uncomfortable". Newspaper correspondent Toshio Miyake who was embedded with the troops aboard Yokohama Maru also noted that "[t]he decks seemed to be scorched and the cabins felt like steam baths. Sweat ran down our bodies like so many tiny waterfalls." But the Japanese soldiers were conditioned to accept it as a part of life, and the spirits held high despite of the cramped quarters and the tropical heat.
On 20 Jan, aircraft from the carriers attached to the invasion fleet began attacking the island. The Japanese targeted airfields and ships, aiming to disable Rabaul's defenses. In the harbor, the freighter Herstein could have evacuated countless Australians and made a speedy withdraw from Rabaul before the Japanese struck, but instead it stuck to its mission of loading copra. When the Japanese aircraft arrived, she sat helpless as bombs fell all around her. The fact was that there were no plans to evacuate anybody from Rabaul despite the Japanese expansion into the South Pacific began weeks before the invasion fleet arrived. Sydney had time to react, but instead it chose to do nothing. As a result, the 1,400-strong Australian garrison, along with all the civilians living in Rabaul, had already been written off as a loss even before the Japanese troops boarded their transports.
As the Japanese ships arrived outside the harbor, Australian defenders were ordered by the commanding officer Colonel John J. Scanlan to don their helmets and pick up their equipment for a field exercise. The reason why they were not told the truth was not clear, but it was to have severe consequences as none of the troops brought adequate food and other supplies that would last more than a few days.
On 22 Jan, Australians began to sabotage their own airfields to prevent Japanese use. Major William T. Owen buried dozens of bombs in the runways of Lakunai airdrome while Captain Ernest S. Appel made preparations to sack their own machine gun nests and other military buildings. The bombs were set off some time that afternoon. Haste and misjudgment led to miscommunications, resulting in the failure to remove precious radio equipment from the immediate area before setting off the explosives. A few natives, unwarned, were killed by the explosions as they ventured too close to Lakunai.
On the same day, 22 Jan 1942, 50 aircraft from carriers Akagi and Kaga struck Rabaul, dropping 180 bombs on defensive positions while opposed mostly by small arms fire only. The Australians' only two large anti-aircraft guns were destroyed during this air strike. The Japanese aircraft, with bombs expended, strafed at anything that moved for the next 45 minutes before returning to their mother ships. From his flagship minelayer Okinoshima, Shima was concerned with the unknown. As he noted in his diary later, "[a]s we gradually drew closer to the coastline, we were very much worried about being caught unawares by the enemy; and indeed, it was truly by the aid of the gods that we were not troubled by them." Shima was being too careful, as they had no cause for real concern. The Australian defenses had already started to crumble in disarray even before the first landing craft were launched at 2235 that night.
Under the cover of bad weather, the landings were carried out smoothly. The first group to land was Lieutenant Colonel Hatsuo Tsukamoto's 144th Infantry Regiment, which took control of Lakunai airdrome quickly, which was one of two primary objectives set by Major General Tomitaro Horii. The other objective was to locate the up to ten coastal and anti-aircraft guns found in the surrounding hill, and the units dispatched for this task search frantically without realizing for some time that the only two guns were already destroyed, while the other eight were results of over-estimation by Japanese intelligence.
The landing near Vunakanau airdrome by Lieutenant Colonel Ishiro Kuwada's three companies of the 3rd Battalion faced some opposition dug in behind coconut log fortifications. The Japanese invaders were initially driven back, but, outnumbered and outgunned, their positions were eventually overrun.
At Raluana Point south of the bay, Captain David M. Selby's men waited for the impending landing at their sector. Gunner David Gloomfield recalled:
An enemy bugler started to blow a call, which ended abruptly, followed by a short period of silence. Then all hell broke loose. Naval guns flashed, followed by shells bursting overhead and behind us. Star shells again lit the area and we could see landing craft approaching. They were going to land at Raluana.
As they came within range our mortar crews went into action and as soon as the landing craft scraped on the sand and lowered their front platforms, the order 'open fire, open fire' was being shouted and every gun on Raluana opened up.
The Japanese invaders of Raluana Point were startled a bit, but it only took them a few minutes to reorganize. Lacking heavy weapons and ammunition, officers quickly shouted "fall back" as they realized the waves of Japanese coming were more than what they could handle. The Australians began fleeing in disarray, dashing maddeningly through bushes to their trucks, then speeding recklessly away with one truck overturning on a sharp curve in the road.
As the Australian troops fled toward Three Ways to rendezvous, Colonel Masao Kusunose's 2nd Battalion, understrength by two companies, marched into Rabaul unopposed and took control of the Government House at 0500 hours in the morning of 23 Jan 1942. Fliers urging cooperation were dropped by aircraft to ensure a smooth start to the occupation; one such flyer noted:
SURRENDER AT ONCE!
And we will guarantee your life, treating you as war prisoners. Those who RESIST US WILL BE KILLED ONE AND ALL. Consider seriously, you can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender.
January 23rd, 1942
Japanese Commander in Chief
But as the Japanese had observed, the leaflets were generally ignored by the Australians; very few Australian troops voluntarily surrendered. While this angered Horii, for the moment he chose to be patient with the Australians. By mid-day on 23 Jan 1942, all organized resistance at Rabaul ceased. An unnamed Japanese 3rd Battalion officer observed that "places on the road where the enemy had abandoned vehicles, where ammunition was scattered about, and where due to the pursuit attacks of our high-speed butai [there] were pitiful traces of the confused flight and defeat of the enemy."
Over the subsequent days, Australian troops fled into the jungles and attempted to move in various direction where they thought they would find rescue aircraft or ships waiting for them. As they looked back at the direction of Blanche Bay, "[g]reat quantities of enemy troops were ashore with trucks and armored fighting vehicles, and consolidation of the area they had so recently gained was well under way." The disease-ridden jungle not only made the experience extremely difficult, but it also provided inadequate food for them. To their relief, the terrain gave the pursuing Japanese equal trouble. By 27 Jan, the pursuing Japanese troops were slowed to a standstill as the mud, fallen bamboo, and rotted trees made movement of any mechanized unit impossible; all they could do was to patrol the coastlines with destroyers and bombard the suspected hiding locations of Australian troops or landing at locations where the Japanese believe would intercept them. As time went on, the Australians grew more and more desperate. Selby later recalled
Although Horii had, via leaflets, guaranteed those who had surrendered with decent treatment, some of his troops were eliminating prisoners of war regardless of whether they had surrendered without resistance. As early as 23 Jan, the date of the capture of Rabaul, Japanese troops were committing war crimes. On that day, Tolai natives witnessed an incident where already-killed Australians were dismembered with axes and bayonets. Elsewhere, ambulance driver Bill Collins witnessed his comrades being executed one by one by bayonet; when fellow medical personnel Private Thomas B. Clissold protested while pointing to his Red Cross brassard, the Japanese removed the brassard from him and then shot him with a pistol. Glenn Garrard recalled being forced to dig his own grave before being clubbed and stabbed with a bayonet before being left for dead, barely alive when he was discovered and brought back to life. By early Feb, the Japanese had massacred approximately 160 Australians, most of which against the laws of the Geneva Convention. Those who were spared were rounded up in barracks, working as forced laborers unloading supply ships that would subsequently arrive at the harbor throughout the Pacific War. The garrison that was originally deployed at Rabaul suffered a 96% casualty rate, far greater than any casualty rate any Australian unit suffered in all of WW2.
In Australia, the government allowed the newspapers to wildly speculate that the garrison was holding out in Rabaul, valiantly fighting against the invading Japanese. It was all propaganda in the end, and it did not take long before finger-pointing began. It was all in vain, however, as the Australian government had long ago given up on the troops deployed to Rabaul.
The Japanese built up Rabaul as one of their fortresses in the South Pacific. At the time of the invasion, 330 building stood in the harbor town. The Japanese would eventually build three-times that figure, along with 29 sawmills and other facilities to support further build-up. Some of the construction were done using forced Australian labor.
The nearby island of New Ireland was garrisoned by 130 Australian commandos. The capital, Kavieng, was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 21 Jan 1942, a day prior to troop landings. Australian troops were evacuated, and Kavieng was occupied without opposition by the end of 22 Jan. New Ireland was secured by Japanese troops by 24 Jan. Some of the Australian troops captured during the New Ireland invasion were later transported to Rabaul.
Bruce Gamble, Darkest Hour
Bruce Gamble, Fortress Rabaul
New Guinea-Papua Campaign, Phase 1, Bismarck Islands Timeline
|3 Nov 1941||The Japanese plan to occupy Rabaul, Bismarck Islands and to transform it into a forward base was presented to Emperor Showa.|
|7 Dec 1941||One day prior to the opening of the Pacific War (owing to the International Date Line), the first three Australian Hudson medium bombers arrived at Rabaul, Bismarck Islands; they were under the command of Flight Lieutenant John Murphy.|
|8 Dec 1941||The fourth Australian Hudson medium bomber arrived at Rabaul, Bismarck Islands.|
|9 Dec 1941||Australian Hudson medium bombers began patrolling out of Rabaul, Bismarck Islands. They spotted an unidentified aircraft that was suspected to be Japanese, but they failed to intercept it.|
|12 Dec 1941||The Australian government decided to abandon Rabaul in the Bismarck Islands should the Japanese invade; only civilians, restricted to women and children, were allowed to be evacuated.|
|15 Dec 1941||Australian Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Erwin spotted the Japanese invasion fleet, 19 barges and 1 transport, gathering at Kapingamarangi northeast of Rabaul, Bismarck Islands. Hudson medium bombers were dispatched to attack, but they caused no damage.|
|18 Dec 1941||Two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were spotted flying over Rabaul, Bismarck Islands. Wirraway fighters were scrambled, but they were not fast enough to intercept.|
|26 Dec 1941||Two Japanese Type 97 flying boats were spotted over Rabaul, Bismarck Islands. Wirraway fighters were scrambled, but they were not fast enough to intercept.|
|1 Jan 1942||Four Australian Hudson medium bombers attacked Kapingamarangi northeast of Rabaul, Bismarck Islands, causing light damage.|
|3 Jan 1942||Major General Tomitaro Horii and Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue met at Truck, Caroline Islands aboard cruiser Kashima to coordinate Army-Navy plans for the invasion of Bismarck Islands.|
|4 Jan 1942||16 Type 96 G3M bombers of Chitose Air Group of Japanese Navy 24th Air Flotilla, based at Truk in Caroline Islands, were spotted over Tabor 90 miles north of New Britain at 1000 hours. They reached Rabaul, New Britain at 1100 hours, where they were able to attack various military facilities with minimal resistance (only 2 Wirraway fighters scrambled, while anti-aircraft guns were ineffective). Shortly before sundown, 11 Type 97 H6K flying boats of Yokohama Air Group attacked the Vunakanam Airfield on New Britain; Australians failed to open fire with the anti-aircraft guns altogether, while most of the Japanese bombs missed the airfield.|
|6 Jan 1942||Nine Japanese flying boats attacked Vunakanau Airfield at Rabaul, New Britain, destroying a direction-finding station and damaging a Wirraway fighter, a Hudson bomber, and the runways; one Wirraway fighter was scrambled and reached the flying boats, but it failed to hit the attackers.|
|7 Jan 1942||18 Japanese Type 96 G3M bombers were spotted over Tabar en route to Rabaul, New Britain; when they struck Rabaul, they destroyed one Wirraway fighter and one Hudson bomber.|
|9 Jan 1942||An Australian Hudson bomber conducted a reconnaissance mission from Kavieng, New Ireland over Truk, Caroline Islands; it was the longest RAAF flight to date. The crew of the Hudson spotted a large invasion fleet being prepared at Truk.|
|14 Jan 1942||Part of the Japanese invasion fleet for Rabaul, New Britain departed from Guam, Mariana Islands.|
|16 Jan 1942||Japanese aircraft attacked Rabaul, New Britain, destroying fuel stores, bomb stockpiles, and other facilities at Vunakanau Airfield. Two Wirraway fighters were scrambled to intercept, but they failed to reached the Japanese aircraft in time. 6 hours later, several flying boats followed up with an attack with fragmentation bombs.|
|17 Jan 1942||A Japanese fleet consisting of four carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Zuikaku, Shokaku), two battleships (Hiei, Kirishima), and several cruisers and destroyers departed Truk, Caroline Islands under the command of Chuichi Nagumo for Rabaul, New Britain.|
|18 Jan 1942||Joseph Rochefort's cryptanalytic team in US Territory of Hawaii intercepted Japanese Navy radio messages that mentioned an invasion or occupation force against a target code named "R", which Rochefort guessed was Rabaul, New Britain. He would pass this information to Chester Nimitz via Edwin Layton.|
|20 Jan 1942||Japanese South Seas Force Transport Fleet ships crossed the Equator en route to Rabaul, New Britain at 0500 hours; it was the first Japanese Army force to cross the Equator in history. At 1214 hours, coast watchers at Tabar north of Rabaul spotted 20 Japanese Zero fighters; 109 carrier aircraft reached Rabaul at 1248 hours, destroying 5 of the 8 remaining Wirraway fighters at Rabaul. Shortly after, 27 Type 97 aircraft of carrier Kaga and a number of Type 99 aircraft from carrier Shokaku and Zuikaku attacked, sinking Norwegian freighter Herstein and coal hulk Westralia, losing only one aircraft in combat (a Type 97 piloted by Petty Officer 1st Class Tatsuya Sugihara) and two during recovery. No. 24 Squadron RAAF was effectively wiped out after the attacks on Rabaul on this day.|
|21 Jan 1942||Frustrated Australian Chaplain John May at Rabaul, New Britain sent a message to Townsville, Australia containing the Latin phrase "Morituri vos salutamus", or "we who are about to die salute you", referring to the Australian government's abandonment of those deployed to Rabaul. To the east, a Catalina aircraft from Buka Island took off at dawn and spotted a Japanese cruiser force 6 hours later; the aircraft was shot down by fighters; 3 were killed, 5 were captured by cruiser Aoba. Shortly after, 52 carrier aircraft attacked Kavieng, New Ireland. At 1630 hours, RAAF command ordered the No. 24 Squadron to attack any Japanese fleets that might be approaching Rabaul as if it did not know that No. 24 Squadron had effectively been wiped out by Japanese attacks on the previous day; nevertheless, the last surviving Hudson bomber was launched on patrol, and would return after failing to find any Japanese ships.|
|22 Jan 1942||Japanese troops landed on New Ireland, Bismarck Islands and captured Kavieng. At nearby Rabaul, the last surviving Hudson bomber was used to evacuate the wounded airmen from the hospital on Namanula Hill, taking them to Port Moresby, British Territory of Papua. After sunrise, carrier Akagi and Kaga launched aircraft against Rabaul; they attacked two coastal guns at the cost of 2 Type 99 dive bombers. In the late morning, coast watchers at Watom Island spotted a Japanese fleet, which appears on the horizon for the Rabaul defenders by 1200 hours. In the afternoon, Australian troops began to sabotage airfield facilities to prevent Japanese use after capture; when destroying a bomb store, the resulting explosion was much larger than expected, and it killed several natives and the vibration damaged all nearby radios, thus the last message sent out at 1600 hours would become Rabaul's final radio message.|
|23 Jan 1942||At 0230 hours, Japanese troops began landing on New Britain on three beachheads, two of which were defended, but in general the Japanese had little difficult overcoming the defenses. Carrier aircraft from Akagi and Kaga supported the invasion after dawn, enjoying air superiority thus losing only one pilot (Flight Petty Officer 2nd Class Isao Hiraishi) all day. As the troops entered and captured Rabaul, New Britain, Bismarck Islands, as reported by Tolai natives later, Japanese troops mutilated corpses of Australian troops with axes and bayonets. In the evening in Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Francis Forde announced that the government had learned of a Japanese landing at Bougainville, but there were no words on whether Rabaul had been invaded.|
|24 Jan 1942||Australian Deputy Prime Minister Francis Forde announced in the afternoon that the Japanese had presumably landed at Rabaul, New Britain, Bismarck Islands. On the same day, Thomas McBride Price led the second Australian attempt at attacking Rabaul (the first having been abandoned on the previous day due to weather); clouds over Rabaul obscured both the attackers (5 Catalina aircraft) as well as the defenders, thus the only damage caused was minor friendly fire incidents on the Japanese side.|
|26 Jan 1942||Japanese troops beheaded Australian prisoner of war Lieutenant Lennox Henry at Rabaul, New Britain. On the same day, Three Australian Catalina aircraft from Port Moresby, British Territory of Papua attacked Rabaul, causing minor damage.|
|27 Jan 1942||Japanese troops executed Australian prisoner of war Captain Richard Travers at Rabaul, New Britain.|
|28 Jan 1942||Four Australian Catalina aircraft from Port Moresby, British Territory of Papua attacked Rabaul, New Britain, causing little or no damage.|
|30 Jan 1942||Japanese troops executed Australian prisoner of war Captain Herbert Silverman at Rabaul, New Britain. On the same day, Australian Thomas McBride Price led 5 Catalina aircraft on an attack on Rabaul, claiming one bomb hit; Price reported the presence of newly arrived large anti-aircraft weapons.|
|31 Jan 1942||15 Type 96 A5M4 fighters of the Japanese Chitose Air Group arrived at Rabaul, New Britain to join the A5M4 fighters of the Tainan Air Group that had arrived days earlier.|
|2 Feb 1942||Major General Tomitaro Horii ordered Lieutenant Colonel Masao Kuwada of Japanese 3rd Battalion to pursue Australian troops who had previously fled into the jungles of southern Gazelle Peninsula on New Britain; Kuwada delegated the task to Lieutenant Tadaichi Noda. After sundown, six Japanese flying boats were launched from Rabaul to attack Port Moresby in British Territory of Papua; they would arrive over the Seven Mile airfield on the next date.|
|3 Feb 1942||Lieutenant Tadaichi Noda led a group of Japanese troops to the Tol plantation on the southern coast of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain and captured 180 Australian troops hiding there; the Australians were given hot meals, the first they had for several days; the prisoners, however, did not realize that most of them would only have days to live. Hours later, after sundown, Australian Catalina aircraft flew over Rabaul, New Britain and were engaged by Japanese A5M4 fighters; all aircraft on both sides survived this first dogfight over Rabaul since Japanese conquest.|
|4 Feb 1942||Japanese troops under Lieutenant Tadaichi Noda executed 130 Australian prisoners of war by bayoneting and machine gunning at the Tol Plantation on the southern coast of Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain; there were only 6 survivors; Noda ordered a message to be posted on the door of Tol noting that Australian Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Scanlan was responsible for these deaths for not having surrendered his command to the Japanese.|
|10 Feb 1942||Australian Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Scanlan decided to surrender to the Japanese and began to trek toward Rabaul, New Britain from the coast of Wide Bay on the southern coast of the island's Gazelle Peninsula.|
|20 Feb 1942||For not revealing the whereabouts of his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Scanlan, Japanese troops executed Australian prisoner of war John R. Gray at Rabaul, New Britain by slashing his chest open and removing his heart while he was still alive.|
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Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, 16 Mar 1945