Remembering the war in New Guinea - Rabaul

Remembering the war in New Guinea
Rabaul, 1942 (Longer text)
Module name: Campaign history (All groups perspective)
This page was contributed by John Moremon (Australian War Memorial)

The New Guinea campaign opened with the battles for New Britain and New Ireland. In the first month of the war in the Pacific, Japanese aircraft reconnoitred the islands and in response Australian Hudson bombers and Catalina flying boats flew reconnaissance and bombing sorties over the Japanese naval bases in the Caroline Islands. The first casualties occurred on 4 January 1942 when three New Guinean workers were killed in an air raid on Rabaul. On 22–23 January the Japanese invaded Rabaul and Kavieng.

Rabaul had been the administrative capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Its pre-war populace included about 1,000 Europeans, 1,000 Asians (mostly Chinese), but also a few Japanese and about 3,000 New Guineans. Villages and plantations were spread across New Britain and New Ireland.

In March 1941, Lark Force was raised in Australia and deployed to Rabaul to defend its strategically important harbour. It included the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion along with coastal, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery batteries (each with outdated guns); supply, signals and medical detachments; and 80 militiamen of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. In addition, the 1st Independent Company (130 men) was stationed at Kavieng, on nearby New Ireland. These forces were considered too small to withstand invasion but were left in place “to maintain a forward air observation line as long as possible and to make the enemy fight for this line rather than abandon it at the first threat”.

After the outbreak of war in the Pacific on 7/8 December 1941, all Japanese on Rabaul were interned and shipped to Australia. In late December, authorities ordered the evacuation of European women and children. Chinese men were bitter at the exclusion of Asian women and children from evacuation plans, but still a handful volunteered to serve with a militia auxiliary.

The Royal Australian Air Force deployed ten Wirraway “fighters” (little more than lightly armed trainers) and four Hudson bombers. The Hudsons patrolled seaward approaches and bombed outer Japanese-controlled Caroline Islands. The first air raids occurred on 4 January 1942 when Rabaul’s airfields were bombed, killing 16 New Guineans. Five days later, a Hudson flew over the Japanese naval base at Toll, on the island of Truk; its crew spotted 13 warships, three merchant ships and a hospital ship, indicating that an invasion was planned.

The main fleet carrying Major General HORII Tomitaro’s South Seas Force, which had captured Guam from the Americans, sailed on 14 January. It linked up with a naval task force out of Truk which had orders to capture Kavieng. The combined fleet, under Vice-Admiral INOUE Shigeyoshi, included at least seven cruisers, two aircraft carriers, 14 destroyers, gunboats, minesweepers and submarines.

On 21 January, 109 Japanese aircraft raided Rabaul. In a “brave but foredoomed action”, eight Wirraways opposed them but one crashed, three were shot down, two crash-landed and another was damaged. One Japanese bomber was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. An Australian flying-boat detected the fleet and its crew signalled a warning before being shot down.

Kavieng was captured on 22 January without opposition. That night, the main fleet sailed into Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour. The coastal artillery had been silenced by the air raids. At 2.45 am, the 144th Infantry Regiment began landing. The 3rd Battalion encountered stiff resistance from a company of infantry and militiamen at Vulcan Beach but the other battalions landed without opposition and advanced rapidly. Shortly after daybreak, the Australian commander, Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Scanlan, ordered his troops to break out “every man for himself”. Thus, except for mopping-up actions, the Japanese had captured Rabaul in a single night. Its port and airfields were operational within two days.

Australian troops, local police and some civilians retreated south but the Japanese captured over 500 European civilians, six army nurses and some wounded soldiers (some of whom were executed) in and around Rabaul. These captives included 350 missionaries, priests and nuns who were interned.

The Chinese were especially fearful, as the Japanese had massacred Chinese in other countries. Some were executed soon after Rabaul fell but there was no large-scale massacre. Instead, they were ordered to live in designated areas outside Rabaul. Men were forced to work as labourers alongside Chinese prisoners of war brought to the island. An unknown number of women and girls were raped and, in the worst instances, forced to serve for periods as “comfort women”. The situation might have been even worse had the Japanese not begun importing some Japanese, Korean and Chinese “comfort women”.

Some villagers remained staunchly pro-Australian but several villages turned pro-Japanese to ensure survival under the new regime or (sometimes) to facilitate “payback” against rival groups. The Japanese were fortunate to have at least one pre-war Japanese resident who arrived with the invading force and was able to advise on Australian administrative methods. The Japanese adapted the system of delegating to Lululais and Tul Tuls (village chiefs); the few who refused to comply were punished harshly, and sometimes killed.

About 8,000 New Guineans from the mainland and some Bougainvilleans who had been employed around Rabaul were trapped on the island. Most ended up having to fend for themselves or work for the Japanese because local villagers were not very welcoming; this was due partly to ethnicity and partly the fact that locals could not feed all of the outsiders, as the island was in drought. The Japanese appointed some of these men as police while others were later transported to the mainland to work as carriers and labourers.

Outside Rabaul, Australian troops and most of the Australian-appointed local police split into parties hoping to evade the Japanese. Scanlan thought guerilla warfare might be possible but he had not prepared for this; the men had not been trained in guerilla or jungle tactics, no emergency supply dumps had been established, and he could not expect villagers to feed guerilla troops when the locals were struggling to feed themselves. Most men hoped to escape from the island but no escape routes had been marked out and no assembly points had been identified. Only the air force had made plans to evacuate personnel, sending flying boats to pick up 120 airmen from a pre-arranged evacuation point.

Some men exhausted themselves attempting to move too fast through jungle-clad terrain, a few became lost, many were struck down with tropical diseases, and some simply gave up. Leaflets left by Japanese patrols or dropped from aircraft declared: “you can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender”. Within two weeks, two-thirds of the Australians had surrendered or were captured (some betrayed by New Guineans). Most were taken to Rabaul, but Japanese troops massacred about 150 men at Tol Plantation and a few smaller groups elsewhere.

About 500 men continued moving along the north and south coasts. On 9 February, a Japanese force landed at Gasmata, effectively cutting off their retreat. Some of the Australians died of disease and others gave up hope. There was no official rescue plan but some local civilian men and officers of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit independently organised rescue missions. During March, April and May about 400 troops and 60 civilians, exhausted after weeks on the run, escaped aboard vessels.

About 900 men and six female nurses from Lark Force and the 1st Independent Company were imprisoned along with over 200 civilians, including Norwegians whose ships had been sunk in Simpson Harbour, and Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. The prisoners were treated harshly and used as labourers until June 1942 when 849 troops and 208 civilian men embarked for Japan; all were killed on 1 July when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine. Sixty officers, six army nurses, and 17 civilian nurses and female missionaries embarked on a different ship and reached Japan. Four Australian civilian men were kept at Rabaul to operate machinery.

Roman Catholic missionaries and a few other civilians from neutral nations (such as Sweden) were interned separately at Vanuapope, outside Rabaul. They established gardens and lived relatively well, but in 1944 their camp was bombed mistakenly by Allied aircraft. A few internees were killed in the raid, and others had died of disease. The 158 survivors moved to Ramale where they were liberated at the end of the war.

The Japanese developed Rabaul as their principal base in New Guinea. Over 100,000 navy and army personnel eventually would be based there. The workforce was bolstered by local Chinese and New Guineans and from mid-1942 by thousands of Chinese, Indian and British prisoners of war shipped to New Britain. From March 1942, the Allies responded with a bombing campaign and fierce aerial battles were waged over Rabaul.

Printed on 07/03/2022 12:51:29 AM