Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Origin of Australia’s “Ferdinands” in the Pacific

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 4766-4787:

THERE WERE SEVERAL mastas [white men] on New Britain and many of the other islands in the Bismarcks and Solomons, all linked by radio to a secretive unit called Ferdinand. Developed at the beginning of the war by two officers in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the organization took its name from the 1936 picture book The Story of Ferdinand. The Aussies were more familiar with Walt Disney’s cartoon adaptation, “Ferdinand the Bull.” By the time the cartoon reached movie houses in Australia, Europe was on the threshold of war.

Enter the naval intelligence director, Cmdr. Rupert Basil Michel Long, RAN. A World War I veteran, he realized that the hundreds of landowners along Australia’s coast and those living among the islands in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea could be organized into a network connected by two-way radios. Most already had the equipment. At the time, the state of the art in long-distance communications was low-frequency (LF) radio, known to most Australians as “wireless.” Compared with high-frequency radio waves, which provide excellent clarity over short distances (but quickly loose strength and are easily bent or turned by obstacles), low-frequency signals travel great distances without degrading. The government had a monopoly on two-way radio equipment in those days, having purchased a majority share of Amalgamated Wireless of Australasia (AWA) stock in 1922. So the company was obliged to provide communication services across the continent as well as to the hundreds of populated islands in the mandated territory. Two-way radios were essential for relaying messages and news among the plantations, airstrips, mines, and settlements across the Pacific islands, many of which were separated by hundreds of miles.

Commander Long aimed to organize hundreds of civilians into a unified coastwatchers organization. In 1939 he appointed Eric A. Feldt, then a government administrator in New Guinea, to run the network in the islands from a headquarters in Port Moresby. A former RAN officer, Feldt was given a lieutenant commander’s stripes and spent several months traveling “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” along the coast of New Guinea, through the Bismarcks, down the Solomon chain, and finally to the New Hebrides. His four-thousand-mile journey achieved brilliant results. In the coming years, the coastwatchers would provide useful intelligence and perform extraordinary feats, many at the cost of their lives.

Who chose the organization’s name is unknown. Feldt later explained the logic: “The code name, Ferdinand, was … an order to the coastwatchers, a definition of their job. It was a reminder … that it was not their duty to fight, and thus draw attention to themselves; like Disney’s bull, who just sat under a tree and smelled the flowers, it was their duty to sit, circumspectly and unobtrusively, and gather information. Of course, like Ferdinand, they could fight if they were stung.”

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U.S. Drone Attacks on Rabaul, 1944

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 7089-7112:

Throughout 1944 and well into 1945, bombers, dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers continued to hit Rabaul’s airfields to prevent their use; they kept a watchful eye on Simpson Harbor and attacked barges trying to resupply the garrison; they destroyed gardens to prevent the Japanese from growing food; and they strafed vehicles hauling supplies from remote caches. The number of sorties per month gradually declined, from a peak of approximately 2,200 in January 1944 to less than 300 by December. At the lowest ebb, an average of ten planes hit Rabaul every day, and the effort surged again in mid-1945 to more than five hundred sorties per month.

Of all the missions flown against Rabaul—or even throughout all of World War II—few were as unusual as the sixteen one-way sorties by unmanned “assault drones” in October 1944. Almost seventy years before the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as those used in the Global War on Terror, expendable radio-controlled drones were used to attack Rabaul. The TDR-1 looked conventional in almost every respect, with two inexpensive Lycoming six-cylinder engines, tricycle landing gear, and the capability to carry an external bomb or torpedo. A cockpit with flight controls was included for test or ferry flights, then faired over for the unmanned attack. Equipped with an RCA television camera in the nose, along with a gyro stabilizer and radar altimeter, the drones were flown by an operator in a stand-off TBM (General Motors–built) Avenger using radio control. Almost two hundred drones were manufactured, using lightweight tubular frames supplied by the Schwinn Bicycle Company, before the contract was cancelled. Most of the completed TDRs were shipped overseas with a unit called the Special Task Air Group (STAG)-1.

Before launching the drones against enemy targets, a live demonstration was conducted on July 30 for the benefit of the ComAirSols [Commander, Aircraft, Solomon Islands] brass. Four drones carrying two-thousand-pound general purpose bombs were directed by their control planes against Yamazuki Maru, a 6,500-ton merchantman beached on Guadalcanal. Technically the drones scored three direct hits, although one bomb failed to detonate. The fourth drone missed the superstructure by a matter of feet, exploding against the tree line.

On the heels of that success, two missions were conducted against ships off southern Bougainville, along with other well-defined targets such as antiaircraft emplacements. Initial results due to malfunctions and equipment failures were disappointing. Nevertheless four separate strikes were flown against Rabaul by STAG-1 in October. Flying from Nissan in the Green Islands, each strike consisted of four drones for a total of sixteen sorties against Rabaul. A great majority either missed due to radio interference or malfunction, or crashed en route. (One of the wrecked drones was partially recovered by the Japanese, who discovered that the lightweight generator assembly and a sparkplug from one of the engines made an excellent cigarette lighter.) The last strike, on October 27, resulted in one direct hit on a secondary target, and a couple of hits on buildings near their intended target. The following day, the program was officially terminated.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Taiatari, Hineri-komi, Lufbery circle

体当たり tai-atari ‘body-hit’ (from Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble [Zenith, 2013], Kindle Loc. 1909-1916):

High above [Tsili-Tsili Airfield], the Oscars lagged behind the seven [Ki-48 "Lily"] bombers. Too late, they charged in to break up the intercepting Airacobras. Captain Shigeki Namba, leading one of the cover elements, later lamented that “one by one the Ki-48s were shot down in flames.”

Two of the doomed bomber crews attempted a taiatari, or suicide dive. Literally translated as “body crashing,” taiatari was the honorable choice for a crew whose plane was crippled over the target. Bailing out and becoming a prisoner, akin to surrendering, was anathema to those who subscribed to the Bushido philosophy of an honorable death in combat. Fliers who deliberately chose to crash into an enemy ship, plane, or structure were therefore hailed as heroes in Japan. On this day, at least one taiatari succeeded: a falling bomber smashed directly into the chapel, killing the chaplain and six or seven men inside.

The chapel was the only structure seriously damaged by the Japanese attack.

捻り込み hineri-komi ‘twisting entering’ (from Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble [Zenith, 2013], Kindle Loc. 1608-1621):

But the bomber continued to fly on four good engines. The bad news was that it still had to cross five hundred miles of ocean before reaching safety. Disoriented and losing blood, sometimes in agony, at other times semiconscious, Zeamer grimly held the controls as he headed toward New Guinea. It was now about 0900, the sun still relatively low in the sky. The remaining Zeros stunted around the damaged B-17 in what the crew later described as “a Lufbery,” a compelling comment which indicates that the Japanese employed a maneuver known as hineri-komi (literally, “twisting in”). The tactic involved multiple fighters in a looping tail chase.

Upon seeing the maneuver for the first time, most Allied pilots called it a “Lufbery Circle,” referring to a World War I tactic named for French ace Raoul Lufbery. The Japanese adaptation puzzled Allied airmen, for it often seemed that they were merely performing the maneuver to taunt their enemy or show off. Perhaps, in the absence of Oki, his subordinates resorted to the hineri-komi as a fallback. Periodically, one of them would peel away from the circle and commence a gunnery run on the B-17, usually pressing in close. But the crew of Old 666 kept up their defensive fire, and the slicing attacks caused no additional damage.

After forty-five minutes, the Hamps [= Zekes/Zeros] turned away and headed back to Buka. American gunners had hit three more, bringing the total number of damaged fighters to four. And thanks to the preservation of the kodochosho [行動調書 koudouchousho 'action records'?], some interesting statistics are available. Air Group 251’s seven participating Zeros expended about five hundred 20mm shells and more than seven hundred 7.7mm rounds during this intercept. Curiously, however, while Yamamoto emptied his ammunition canisters at the bomber, Koichi Terada, a pilot of the same rank, apparently never fired a shot.

Hinerite (捻り手 ‘twisting techniques’) account for nearly a quarter of the 82 officially recognized kimarite (‘deciding techniques’) in Japanese sumo.

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Japanese Slaughter of PNG Civilians, 1943

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 925-960:

AMONG THE DOZENS of church-based missions in New Guinea, some of the oldest were German organizations established before World War I, when New Guinea was a territory of Imperial Germany. During World War II, Japanese forces in New Guinea did not regard German missionaries as allies, even though Nazi Germany and Japan shared a military allegiance. Instead, missionaries came under the jurisdiction of the minsei-bu as neutral civilians. Soon after the Japanese occupied Wewak, they rounded up the local missionaries and transported them to Saint John’s Catholic mission on Kairiru. At first the civilians were free to move about the island, but the situation soon changed.

Some missionaries and natives were willing to risk their lives for the Allied cause. At least two clergymen, Father Manion and Brother Victor Salois, members of the Society of the Divine Word, were American citizens. According to postwar testimonies, the Japanese discovered that several downed Allied airmen were not only hiding in the region, but had contacted the mission with the help of “local people who harbored anti-Japanese sentiment.” Mot’s visit to Kairiru fits this description precisely, and the timing of his trip is more than coincidental.

On the morning of March 17, a few days after the Japanese patrol failed to find the Americans on Wokeo, forty-two civilian men, women, and children were rounded up at Saint John’s and escorted to the destroyer Akikaze, anchored at Kairiru. Included among the mission staff were the two Americans; there were also Chinese nationals, at least one native girl, and two Chinese infants, thought to be orphans. All were treated as neutral civilians aboard Akikaze, which sailed from Kairiru at noon. Late that afternoon the warship stopped at Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where another twenty civilians boarded—again mostly European missionaries, including six women. The next day, Akikaze arrived in Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland, stopping only long enough to receive a message delivered by boat. Akikaze then steamed south, navigating a maze of small islands until it reached the Bismarck Sea. Once safely in open water, the warship headed toward its Eighth Fleet base at Rabaul.

Akikaze’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Tsurukichi Sabe, evidently presumed he would deliver the civilians to New Britain. Several hundred missionaries and associates were already interned at Vunapope, the largest Catholic mission in the territory. But the message delivered at Kavieng rattled him. With a pale, somber expression, Sabe gathered his officers and informed them that Eighth Fleet Headquarters had issued orders “to dispose of all neutral civilians on board.”

No one would dare question the order. In the Japanese military, instructions from a superior were regarded as though issued by the Emperor himself.

Sabe directed his crew to carry out the orders. First, the civilians were moved to forward berthing spaces below the main deck. Then, within about an hour, a wooden rig was erected over the ship’s fantail. It consisted of a platform covered with mats and a simple hoisting structure. Canvas screens were spread amidships to keep the civilians from viewing the aft third of the ship.

When the preparations were complete, Akikaze throttled up to her maximum speed of twenty-four knots (approximately twenty-seven miles per hour). One at a time, beginning with the men, the civilians were escorted to the bridge. After an interpreter recorded each individual’s name and nationality, they were led aft. Suddenly, they were seized, blindfolded, and bound at the wrists. With no time to comprehend what was happening, they were led onto the platform, attached to the overhead rig, and then hoisted into the air.

At a signal from a junior officer on a nearby gun platform, each victim was shot by four crewmen: one armed with a light machine gun, the other three with rifles. The rig was designed so that the force of the wind from the destroyer’s high speed, together with the impact of the bullets, would swing the victims beyond the platform, where their bodies were released into the churning wake. In theory, at least, this would minimize the amount of gore that collected on the deck. It was also surmised that the sound of gunfire would not carry forward against the wind, thereby reducing psychological stress on the civilians.

The process dragged on for three hours as sixty individuals—priests, friars, nuns, staff, and family members—were systematically hauled into the air, riddled with gunfire, and dumped off the fantail. The two infants were simply thrown into the sea. Afterward, sailors unrigged the platform and hosed the bloodstains off Akikaze’s steel deck. Finally, the officers conducted a funeral ceremony for the souls of the dozens of Christians they had just murdered—almost certainly with a Shinto ritual. Perhaps that, too, was in response to orders.

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Burning Down Rabaul, October 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4092-4125:

[General George] Kenney’s vow to burn down Rabaul began with the positioning of three dozen B-17s from Mareeba to Port Moresby on October 8. The planned mission called for total efforts by both the 19th and 43rd Bomb Groups, which would coordinate their attack to follow a preliminary raid by RAAF Catalinas. Thirty-six Fortresses were scheduled to participate, making it the largest Allied bombing effort yet attempted in the Pacific. A follow-up attack was also planned for the night after.

But the initial event almost didn’t go off. After receiving a forecast of foul weather between Port Moresby and Rabaul that afternoon, Walker cancelled the mission. In his defense, three weeks earlier he had flown a night mission over Rabaul and saw firsthand the hazardous conditions created by the powerful storm system that routinely thwarted flights over the Solomon Sea. Kenney wasn’t convinced, however, as biographer Martha Byrd later explained: “When he learned that Walker had canceled the first of the two planned strikes, Kenney consulted a different weatherman, got a favorable forecast, and overruled his bomber commander.”

Kenney’s instincts were correct. The weather was not a factor, and the preliminary raid by the RAAF exceeded all expectations. Flying all the way from Cairns, four Catalinas from 11 and 20 Squadrons arrived over Rabaul at 2050 on October 8. Ordered to “light up the town and harbor perimeter,” the heavily laden flying boats carried an amazing payload. As they crossed over the township at several thousand feet, the Cat-boats dropped twenty demolition bombs, ten small fragmentation bombs, and sixty incendiaries. Approximately half of the incendiaries fell into the residential area north of Simpson Harbor, starting numerous fires. Six heavy bombs landed in the commercial district and ignited one of the many stockpiles of ammunition or fuel the Japanese had imprudently placed throughout the town, and an enormous fire flared up. The flames were still visible from sixty miles away as the Catalinas made their way back to Australia.

The Flying Fortresses, representing four different squadrons, began taking off just prior to midnight. Six bombers dropped out for various malfunctions, but the remaining thirty aircraft gathered at a marshalling point one hundred miles south of Rabaul. Grouped in elements of two or three planes each, they headed toward the target in a strung-out line at altitudes ranging from 4,500 feet to 11,000 feet. Even in the darkness, the crews could see Rabaul from many miles away. The fires started by the RAAF eight hours earlier burned brightly, casting a reddish glow over the township.

The attack commenced at 0400, and for nearly two hours the heavy bombers made individual passes over Rabaul. Japanese antiaircraft positions reacted by shooting wildly, while the searchlight crews tried to pinpoint B-17s. The night sky was turned into a bizarre montage of arcing tracer rounds and brilliant fingers of white light, punctuated by the staccato flashes of exploding antiaircraft shells. Inside the bombers, pilots whose vision was adjusted to the soft red glow of instrument lights were temporarily blinded. To the men in the trailing B-17s, the view up ahead was spectacular. One pilot likened the scene to “a colossal fireworks display.”

Although the sudden loss of night vision and the intense pyrotechnics created a nerve-wracking experience for the Americans, the bombardiers took advantage of the fires illuminating Rabaul to release an impressive amount of ordnance. Ninety 500-pounders, more than two hundred 300-pounders, and fifty-five incendiary clusters followed the path of the bombers from west to east, blasting a swath of destruction across the township. Bombs damaged the coaling jetty on the western shore of Simpson Harbor, hit the Malaguna Road encampment, exploded stockpiles of fuel or ammunition in the Bayloo district (centered around a large Chinese construction business), and demolished several buildings in Chinatown.

The following day, listeners tuned to Radio Tokyo heard the announcer complain that a bomb had struck a hotel in Rabaul, killing fifty “Geisha girls.” The Allies would have been incredulous to learn that the enemy had indeed transported some three thousand conscripted prostitutes to Rabaul in early 1942. Known as “comfort women,” most were Koreans and Formosans taken from their homes or hired under false pretenses, then forced to provide a sexual outlet for the troops. The army and navy each maintained three “special purpose houses” in Rabaul, and the 3rd Infantry Battalion set up a brothel at Vunapope in a monks’ dormitory (after first evicting the Brotherhood of the Sacred Heart).

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Singapore POWs in the Solomon Islands

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 5582-5601:

THE BOMBERS’ FIRST destination was Ballale, an island so tiny that its crushed-coral airstrip reached from one side of the island to the other. Officially part of the Shortland group, the arrowhead-shaped isle lay fourteen miles southeast of Moila Point on the tip of Bougainville. The airfield was built by the Imperial Navy’s 18th Construction Battalion, headed by Lt. Cmdr. Noriko Ozaki, between November 1942 and January 1943. Because the Japanese had no bulldozers for such big projects, much of the labor was done by hand. In early December 1942, a shipment of 517 POWs arrived from Rabaul to work on the airfield—and therein lay another dark story of Japanese atrocities.

Known unofficially as the “Gunners 600,” the prisoners sent to Ballale were among the thousands of British soldiers captured after the surrender of Singapore the previous February. Some 50,000 POWs were initially held near Changi Prison, but in mid-October about 600 Royal Artillerymen were sent to New Britain. After three weeks of misery at sea aboard a “hellship,” they arrived at Kokopo on November 6. One prisoner had died en route, and many others were sick with dysentery, beriberi, and malaria. About a week later, 517 men were sent on to Ballale, leaving 82 of the sickest at Kokopo.

From the time of their arrival at Ballale, the British gunners were harshly treated. Ozaki himself was said to have beheaded a prisoner the next day, no doubt to establish his absolute authoritarianism. The POWs, housed in a compound of huts near the southwestern end of the airstrip, received no medical attention and were not allowed to dig or construct air-raid shelters. Korean laborers, Chinese prisoners, and native islanders also worked on the airfield, but they were strictly prohibited from making contact with the white prisoners.

The island’s occupants were all living on borrowed time. On January 15, 1943, a single B-17 from Guadalcanal bombed the airstrip, and within a matter of weeks, aerial attacks became heavier and more frequent. Unknown to the American aircrews, dozens or possibly even hundreds of POWs were killed by friendly bombs. The Japanese permitted the burial of the victims, whereas POWs who died due to illness or neglect were placed in rice sacks and dumped at sea. By the time [Admiral Isoroku] Yamamoto’s party approached Ballale, the tiny island had been hit at least fourteen times—and only a few dozen of the original 517 gunners were still alive.

Whether Yamamoto was aware of the British prisoners at Ballale is unknown. Either way, the gaunt, sickly survivors would probably have been kept out of sight while the commander in chief visited the garrison. There is no point in speculating further, however, because Yamamoto never reached the island.

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Military Incompetence at Port Moresby, 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3451-76:

Visiting the front lines on just his second full day in the theater, [George] Kenney impressed the men at Port Moresby. They had lost faith in [George] Brett, who rarely visited and had no concept of how awful the conditions at Port Moresby had become. Kenney later wrote: “[Brett] didn’t get up there very often; I think he was up there maybe twice. They didn’t have much equipment and weren’t getting any more equipment; they weren’t getting spare parts when their airplanes began falling apart. Brett didn’t get up to [see] them, and he didn’t check and find out what they needed and see that they got it. Their food was terrible stuff, and he wouldn’t do anything about that. They were getting malaria pretty badly, and there was nothing done about that.”

Kenney was disgusted with just about everything he saw on the tour. Joined by Brig. Gen. Martin F. “Mike” Scanlon, the ranking American at Port Moresby, Kenney spent the day visiting the base with Royce and Whitehead. During the briefing for a bombing mission, Kenney was appalled by the lack of organization. The preliminaries were conducted by an Australian officer who simply declared that the objective was Rabaul, giving no specific targets. Kenney later wrote, “I found out afterward that nobody expects the airplanes to get that far anyhow, and if they do, the town itself is a good target.”

A meteorologist spoke next. His estimates of the weather conditions over Rabaul were based on historical data rather than real-time analysis. Kenney observed that no one was designated to lead the formation, mainly because the bombers were not expected to stay together en route to the target—and no one seemed to care. The only thing the crews fretted about was their bomb load. “The personnel are obsessed with the idea that a bullet will detonate the bombs and blow up the whole works,” Kenney noted. “If enemy airplanes are seen along the route, all auxiliary gas and bombs are immediately jettisoned and the mission abandoned.”

Thoroughly displeased with bomber operations, Kenney next inspected the fighter squadrons and found them no better. After touring the fighter area for a few hours with Lt. Col. Richard A. Legg, commanding officer of the 35th Fighter Group, Kenney wrote, “His organization is lackadaisical, maintenance is at a low ebb, and while he is short of spares there is no excuse for only six P-39s out of forty being constantly available for combat.”

Kenney also investigated the camp areas. “Throughout the Moresby area the camps are poorly laid out and the food situation is extremely bad,” he later wrote. “There is no mosquito control discipline and the malaria and dysentery rates are forcing relief of a unit at the end of about two months’ duty.”

Now Kenney knew why MacArthur was displeased. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about the appalling conditions at Port Moresby, though Kenney did find a few subordinates—none above the rank of major—who were actually attempting to improve things.

After a quick assessment of the overall situation, Kenney immediately began to make changes. First, he told Whitehead to remain at Port Moresby to “look after the fighters” and implement some new policies. He directed that an American staff officer attend every mission briefing; also, every bombing mission would have a specific primary target assigned along with at least two alternates. Finally, he instructed Whitehead to inform Legg that if he didn’t snap out of his lethargy, he’d be replaced.

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Evolution of Rabaul as Japanese Military Base

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 65-66 (paraphrased freely):

Even after Japanese forces occupied Rabaul at the outset of the Pacific War, it was not a major center until May 1942, when large-scale American and Japanese carrier-borne forces clashed in the nearby Coral Sea. Not long after that, in August 1942, the U.S. Navy landed its crack 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. As all of Japan’s attention focused on the Solomons and New Britain, the Japanese Navy came to appreciate the magnificence of Rabaul as a naval base.

Rabaul had several sites suitable for large-scale airstrips and good anchorage, too. The land was suitable for cultivation and it was located in the center of the Pacific theater. During the Solomon Islands Campaign, the Japanese often compared Rabaul to the rivet of a folding fan, implying that it was so important that its loss would cause their whole campaign to fall apart.

From the autumn of 1942, Japan, especially its Navy, did everything it could to reinforce Rabaul by stocking it with as many weapons, airplanes, and ammunition as it could spare. Even so, these stocks were almost exhausted by February 1944, in the wake of the disaster in Truk Lagoon, when Japan was forced to withdraw its air forces from Rabaul and cease supplying it.

Japan moved its air forces from Rabaul to Truk and the Marianas not long before the Allied Powers penetrated the Dampier Strait [between New Guinea and New Britain] and invaded the Admiralties, leaving Japan without any means to counterattack. The Admiralties are situated in a position to cut Rabaul’s communication lines with Japan. In consequence, the once-famed base was left isolated in the Southern Pacific, serving primarily as a training target for Allied air forces.

The Admiralties are not only strategically well situated, but also offer a good harbor in Manus, one of the most magnificent bays in the southern Pacific. Whey did the Japanese forces let the Allied Powers invade such an important island without any effective counterattack? Why did the Japanese forces make no effort to fortify it to meet the enemy? Didn’t the Japanese Navy, which constantly emphasized the importance of the South Pacific theater, realize the importance of Manus and the Admiralties?

One cannot but doubt it. I once asked Capt. T. Ohmae, who was a staff officer in that theater, why the Navy did not recognize the importance of Manus? He replied, “It was not that the Japanese Navy didn’t recognize its importance. It was just that some survey of that island found that it was not entirely suitable for human habitation. So we had to give up building a base there.” This was indeed among our great blunders, for the Allied Powers succeeded in constructing a magnificent naval base at Manus after they occupied it.

The fate of once-famed Rabaul went from bad to worse after the fall of the Admiralties in February 1944. After losing its air power, the Japanese garrison at Rabaul had to go underground—literally. They constructed extensive underground fortifications, containing factories as well as warehouses. When the war ended in August 1945, Rabaul was found to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Pacific.

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Military Importance of Truk Lagoon to Japan’s Navy

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 63-65 (paraphrased freely):

Truk Lagoon is one of the greatest, forming a rough triangle more than 30 miles on each side. Inside the lagoon are many islands, not sand islands or coral reefs, of which more than eight are more than one square mile in size. It provided not just sufficient anchorage for a whole Japanese fleet during that era, but also enough area to allow several vessels to maneuver for training. The islands also provide enough room for several airstrips. In fact, by the end of the war, the Japanese Navy had built at least four such strips. The climate is also tropical but mild. In addition to these advantages, Truk occupies a key position in the middle Pacific area, able to control Midway to the north, the Marshalls in the east, and Rabaul and New Britain to the south. From every point of view, Truk was one of Japan’s most important bases in the Pacific.

When it occupied Micronesia in World War I, and during the League of Nations mandated administration that followed, the Japanese Navy was well aware of Truk’s importance. However, in strict observance of the postwar naval treaties, it did little to establish a naval base there. It may be hard to believe, but it is true. At the outbreak of the Pacific War there was only one half of a completed airstrip on Takeshima (Bamboo Island), a small island less than 1,000 meters long. There was no underground oil storage, nor any repair facilities on land. The only naval facility worthy of the name was that half-completed airstrip.

Even after war broke out, the Japanese Navy was rather slow to strengthen Truk Naval Base. As soon as the U.S. Navy began its offensive on Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, and the Solomon Islands became the main theater of fighting for both navies, Truk became the center of Japanese naval operations. Almost all naval vessels gathered there before making sorties into the Solomons, and returned there for refueling and repair when damaged. Never before had the need for oil storage and repair facilities been more urgent, and the Japanese Navy concentrated its oil tankers and repair ships there while quickly trying to build such facilities on land as well. But it was too late. This concentration of oil tankers in Truk disrupted the flow of oil from Southeast Asia back to the Japanese homeland. Even the giant battleships Yamato and Musashi, which should have been at the center of the Japanese fleet, were often nicknamed “the tankers Yamato and Musashi” because they served as tankers supplying fuel to smaller warships instead of engaging in combat operations.

As there were not enough repair facilities on Truk, Japanese naval vessels sometimes had to go all the way back to the homeland for repairs, thus reducing the size of the naval forces available for the Solomons campaign.

It was not until the summer of 1943 that the Japanese Navy began to construct three more airstrips at Truk, two on Harushima (Spring Island) and one of Kaedeshima (Maple Island). By the time the U.S. Navy made a surprise attack on Truk on 17 February 1944, those three bases were almost complete, but they lacked adequate radar and command-and-control equipment, which would have made them more useful.

As a result, during the surprise attack on Truk in February 1944, U.S. Navy carrier-borne aircraft came out of the blue, destroying one light cruiser, 4 destroyers, 26 transport ships, 3 oil tanks, 2,000 tons of food, and more than 180 airplanes, of which more than 100 were lost on the ground.

This fiasco, together with the loss of the Gilberts and Marshalls, suddenly lessened the importance of Truk as a naval base. The Japanese fleet, which had long gathered at Truk, moved westward into the Carolines, Singapore, and even the homeland. Soon afterward, the Japanese Navy withdrew its land-based aircraft to the Marianas and western Carolines. Truk was no longer a vital naval base, just a stepping stone between the Marianas and Rabaul.

The bad situation on Truk got worse when U.S. forces invaded the Marianas in June 1944. Truk could contribute little to the Japanese defense, and the fall of the Marianas left Truk largely isolated, except for very few small visits by submarines and flying boats. From that time on, Japanese forces on Truk had to endure not just Allied air attacks, but mounting starvation and disease until the war ended in August 1945.

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Filed under Japan, Micronesia, military, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war

Japanese Surrender at Bougainville and Rabaul, 1945

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6821-6840:

On 11 August, General Savige had ordered his troops on Bougainville to suspend hostilities unless attacked. Two days later, Private Eric Bahr, of the 7th Battalion, was shot dead by an enemy sniper at a position north of Pearl Ridge. Three of his comrades were wounded when the Japanese position was attacked in response. Though others would die later of wounds, accidents and illness, Eric Bahr was the last Australian killed in action on Bougainville.

Lance Corporal Shigeo Nakano, of the II/81st Battalion, had arrived in Rabaul on 3 November 1943. American submarines had sunk one of the convoy transports on the way south, and Nakano’s battalion had reached Rabaul via the deck of the cruiser Minazuki. The unit had been sent south to Bougainville, and after the abortive attack on the Torokina perimeter, the men had been engaged in planting and harvesting what food they could to survive. Now, as the war neared its end, Nakano was at Numa Numa. The Allies had for some time been dropping leaflets urging the Japanese to surrender. Gradually, it dawned on the troops that what these leaflets said about landings in the Philippines and beyond was closer to the truth than what they heard on Japanese radio broadcasts. The latest leaflet informed them that the war had ended—a message reinforced by aircraft with the words ‘Japan has surrendered’ painted under their wings in Japanese. Nakano reflected that ‘of the four thousand troops who sailed from Shanghai less than two years before, only 170 of the originals had survived and we were ragged and starving.’ Some days later, when five Australians arrived at Numa Numa, the Japanese battalion commander paraded his men and offered the Australians the only gifts he had, a fresh coconut each. One of the Aussie soldiers turned to Nakano, held the coconut aloft and said, ‘Well, here’s to peace.’ When the Seventeenth Army commander, Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda, surrendered at Torokina on 8 September 1945, an extraordinary 14,546 Army and 9366 naval personnel ‘went into the bag’ as prisoners.

On 4 September, Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura and Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka had surrendered all remaining Japanese army and naval forces on New Britain to Lieutenant General Vernon Sturdee, the commander of the First Australian Army, on the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory, anchored off Rabaul. When the Australians landed at the town, there were 57,225 Japanese Army and 31,923 naval personnel there. The war had long since passed them by. The first repatriations to Japan took place on 28 February 1946, and they continued until 13 June.

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Filed under Australia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, war