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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Filed under Australia, Japan, Papua New Guinea, slavery, U.S., war

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