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Luca Ruffato
Historical Researcher & Author

In memory: Luca Ruffato passed away September 20, 2013.

Tell about yourself and your background
I was born in 1965 and live in Italy. Upon graduation at highw school specializing in scientific studies, I tried, like Icarus, to realize my dream, but unfortunately I failed the last of a series of examinations to enter first the Air Force Academy and then “Alitalia” Flying School.

As a child I spent primary and secondary schools’ vacations accompanying in various building yards my father who was yard foreman with a building contractor, and after the above mentioned bitter disappointments, those earlier experiences led me to go in for a profession by entering the University of Architecture in Venice. Before taking the degree I met the military service obligation as Platoon C.O. with the rank of Sub Lieutenant (Reserve), Corps of Engineers, and subsequently for five years I worked as architectural surveyor & designer with a firm specialized in archaeology applied to restoration of monumental and historic buildings.

Then for fifteen months I undertook the academic career by assisting, on a voluntary basis, a professor of architecture within his degree workshop and acting as tutor in two international workshops activated by the University of Dortmund in Germany. Currently I am a professional architect working as design principal, project principal, job captain, security captain for public works (the last main job was a technical high school for 350 students).

How did you become interested in WWII Pacific studies?
This is a good question. Maybe someone will wonder how an Italian can be interested in matters so far away from his living place. I cannot give a satisfactory answer because these interests just happened. As a little boy I drew aircraft with the Red Ball insignia! Such attitude underwent a series of modifications passing through attending air shows, aircraft modeling, war gaming and readings of the scant literature available in my country at that time (a reprint of Saburo Sakai’s book Samurai! in 1985).

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Luca Ruffato in 2007

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Ruffato with EFA Typhoon 2005

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Luca Ruffato in 2011

I realized to be fascinated by Japanese culture and history and wanted to learn more about that country. The step leading to WWII was immediate but more I read and collected from the Allied side, less I found about the Japanese version of the events. The same was for the Japanese aircraft, but English sources were in so great number that I had no difficulty in pursuing my interest. By the way I like floatplanes – ‘Rufe’ and ‘Pete’ – and flying boats – ‘Mavis’ and ‘Emily’ - and so I devoted to them the great part of my attention (and money too!).

After about thirty years my library counts now at least three thousand titles (papers, books, articles, magazines, journals, essays, archival documents either on paper or digital format), and more than two thirds deal with WWII in the Pacific. I choose two mottos: “History that is not remembered is history that never happened” and that of famous architect Mies van der Rohe: “Gods and Evil are in the details”.

Talk about how you've studied Japanese and Allied primary documents
As time passed I improved my English language skill and I recognized the urgency of collecting also the original Japanese documents. This necessity arose when I discovered that the Japanese Official History Series counted 102 titles! No Allied nation could cope with such voluminous coverage of the war. It should have been absurd to proceed without consulting such monumental collection.

Thanks to the assistance of Kawano Teruaki and Kitazawa Noritaka of the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo I was able to obtain a series of translations and reports. The use of Japanese sources poses many major and often frustrating problems for a foreign researcher. The complexity of the language is the obvious one, but it had to be pointed out that this exists on different levels, from the more than occasional ambiguity of meaning on the printed page to the great difficulty in reading sōsho, or cursive script, in which so much of the Navy’s reports are written. I find it almost impossible to match the kanji up to the dictionary I have (the dated “Japanese names and how to read them”) and it took me hours to try and find enough characters to partially understand words or phrases. Anyhow as a self-taught man I became scantily proficient with people and geographical names, military symbols, dates, measures and others keywords used in Navy’s tabular reports (kōdōchōsho and at a lesser extent senjinisshi and sentōshōho).

In 2008 a great boost was registering at J-Aircraft where James Lansdale gave me the opportunity to join the “confraternity” (as I joyfully call it) enabling me to contact a number of specialists, authors, historians who otherwise should have been impossible to meet. It was a real pleasure to join and share information, but above all to read thoughtful, intelligent debate with out all of the diatribe, one-sided dogma, and uninformed opinion that so dominates other supposedly informative discussion websites.

What is the focus of your research and goals?
The main goal is reconciling the opposing perspectives of events, victories and losses. I confess that at first my research was not well organized but a number of generous people helped me a lot with advices and material; then I set up a strict methodology made of painstaking investigation work, collation of various material, cross-checking of conflicting sources from both sides. When "new" information becomes available, then I try and update it.

Every book/article/research is only as good as the sources the author use, but sometimes in writing with primary sources, the fact that a document may be authentic does not guarantee that it contains accurate information. So the author had to cope with possible errors of judgment in relying upon particular sources and facts. I tried to overcome this difficulty by trying to become one with the original compiler; this necessitated an overall understanding not only of his possible state of mind, but also of the situation at that time, the operational doctrine of his forces, the technical characteristics of the weapons, the military tradition and training, etc. I confess that by putting into practice the above methodology I solved many complicated matters.

I think that history is a never-ending “work in progress” and researching detailed air combat history is like piecing together a big jigsaw puzzle. Little by little the pieces fall into place. That's what makes it so much fun, but I have always in my mind to act with no ax to grind, no preconceived facts to prove, no one to attack, no one to defend, but to be objective. In giving an honest and accurate account of the events, the reader will always be the judge and will decide if I have reached my purpose.

Tell about your focus on 1942 operations in New Guinea
I still remember well the starting point, it was 1982. After buying a second-hand copy of the Italian edition of Vader’s “Pacific Hawks” I read a phrase about the evacuation of New Guinea using civil aircraft and the later arrival of Kittyhawks to defend Port Moresby. Those few lines generated an unrestrained interest and great curiosity so that Papua New Guinea is now my favorite topic! From then on that theatre of operations catalyzed all my resources. Civil aircraft in under-developed New Guinea? I couldn’t believe what I read, but when I collected Sinclair’s “Wings of gold” I examined the scene with a different perspective realizing the amazing achievements in that rugged country where an isolated valley was transformed in an industrial hub for gold mining entirely by airlifting.

I can say that PNG has a particular mix of explorations, remoteness, history, environment, geography, beauty which represent a unique theatre of operation. PNG itself provided arguably the worst fighting and weather conditions in the world where the latters were an enemy as well as the belligerents. Another peculiarity is that the air bases were sited on the opposite sides of the divide, just across the ridge, so that aerial engagements took place within an hour from friendly bases although there was a high range to get over, the terrible Owen Stanleys. No other place has such characteristics (maybe the English Channel, but in that case there was no obstacle between the opposite bases, only the Dover white cliffs!).

Also, your interest includes many periods and regions of the Pacific War?
There are certain areas that I have studied intensely over the years just as others have, so I have some expertise in those areas. For the rest, I usually know where to go to find records if they exist. What capture my interest are little known and obscure topics even if they are of minor importance in the war strategy (i.e. friendly fire cases between Axis blockade runners and Japanese bombers in Central Pacific; the Battle off Endau; the capture of Lesser Sunda Islands, Operation “MU”; the temporary occupation of Deboyne Island, etc.) and generally the Imperial Japanese Navy air (flying boat and floatplane units) and land (Tokubetsu Rikusentai, Konkyochitai, Setsueitai, etc) operations in the South West Area until late-1943, South East Area until late-1942, Central Pacific Area until early-1944, the Aleutians until mid-1943.

Talk about your current book project
Actually I am completing the untold story of the first four months of war in the South West Pacific (volume one tentatively titled “Dogged defense”) and then it will be the turn of the aerial battles over Port Moresby, Lae and Rabaul (volume two “Blow for blow”). I have still a long time to go due to the job engagements, but I have a great enthusiasm.

The heart of the study is the daily narrative of events describing every single mission and action from both sides. What is coming out is full of dates, statistics, movements, take offs and landings times, combats, crew lists, OoBs resembling more a chronology than literary prose for purists, poets and bibliophiles. Having as reference the format of Shores’ acclaimed “Bloody shambles” volumes I decided to compile the story without the words of the veteran pilots and so quite depriving the narration of liveliness and immediacy, so there's no doubt that some readers are going to miss the voices of the airmen. But this is an inevitable choice because of the impossibility by the undersigned to interview surviving veterans and of space limitation because I want to compile a more detailed account than the above mentioned books by  presenting also a broad view of the land and naval operations and the main strategies with particular attention to the Japanese side.

Until now the “Air War Over Papua, New Guinea, Bismarck and Solomon Islands: December 1941 – July 1942” has received little attention and few publications have been devoted to this forgotten subject. I found myself searching libraries for books on the early stage of the Pacific War eager to know more and more about the events; I began to wonder, if the full, true story of this specific campaign has not yet been be told, might I consider filling the void myself?For the first time this endlessly fascinating subject will be covered from beginning to end from both the Australian / American and Japanese points of view.

Australia’s involvement in air operations against Japanese forces in the Pacific began even before Japan commenced hostilities on 8 December 1941. The presence of RAAF Squadrons in Singapore and Malaya meant that Australian airmen were engaged in monitoring shipping and other military movements which preceded Japan’s multi-pronged strike. The fact that four RAAF Squadrons were stationed on the Malayan Peninsula (against three in the Queensland-New Guinea Area), comprising roughly a quarter of the British air defence forces available there, points to another important and obvious factor worth noting: the British Empire connection.

Australia, and specifically the RAAF, did not receive the benefits which might have accrued to it as a service in terms of readiness, refining tactics and other techniques, or acquiring a broader human experience of the effects of actual operations. It should be noted that the RAAF was worse off  than either the AIF or the RAN, both of which can be said to have emerged battle-hardened and sharpened from the involvement in the various campaigns fought in Europe and Middle East during 1940-41.

By comparison, the RAAF in the Homeland had become essentially a vast training organization to meet RAF needs. As such, the force had only a slender combat capability to meet national defence needs. Though the Minister for Air in August 1941 trumpeted a 1600 per cent increase in Australian air power since September 1939, the reality was that this meant little in terms of combat power. This much is disclosed by the fact that in early-January 1942 the RAAF possessed in its North Eastern Area no fighter or bomber aircraft at all and just 4 Hudsons and 12 Catalina flyingboats for general reconnaissance plus 10 Wirraways training aircraft used as makeshift fighters (but it is still overlooked that the Japanese were in no better position having only 3 bombers, 9 obsolete fighters and a dozen reconnaissance floatplanes!).

Of course, it would be easy to attribute this lamentable situation as being due to achievement of complete strategic surprise by the Japanese against European colonial powers. The likelihood of Japan opening the hostilities was, in the main, fully recognised and understood. There can, therefore, be no pretence that 8 December 1941 come as an unforeseen development: at most only a tactical surprise had been sprung by the Japanese. So why has the early stage of the air war in the South West Pacific been so largely forgotten? Part of an answer lies in the fact that in that wide area nothing existed which related to the combatant’s intellectual and social heritage. The huge geographical area itself was scantily known. Accurate figures are impossible to find, but it is clear that prior to the war only a very small number of Australians, British, Japanese and Americans had any first-hand knowledge of New Guinea. The climate and living conditions were also perhaps better forgotten. Operating and living conditions for Allied aircrews and support staff were better but fell far beyond an acceptable standard. At Port Moresby in early-1942, No. 75 Squadron pilots often faced odds of four to five to one in an aircraft which lacked the performance to climb above an incoming attack; if they returned there was only squalor. To use modern terminology, the SWPA lacked a marketable “product”.

The strenght of the forces involved (at least until March 1942) by both combatants reveals the low priority of the SWPA. For many it seems increasingly that the RAAF had become involved in a backwater war lacking in purpose. There was, however, a further reason: the divided nature of the overall Australian air effort itself in WWII. When Air Vice-Marshal Jones wrote in September 1946: “The major RAAF effort during the war was the training of aircrews for the European theatre. Based on casualty basis, the RAAF effort in Europe was four times as large as that in SWPA…”.

It is only in the last decade and sometimes with the assistance of official institutions, that authoritative, largely anedoctal studies began to appear in Western countries. One thing is certain: the analytical and scholarly study of the Japanese and Allied Air Forces in the SWPA still awaits its historian. What little now remains as memory of the early RAAF’s “Dogged defence” against the multi-pronged Japanese southward advance is the 50-years old book written by Douglas Gillison for the Australian War Memorial and more recently (1992-93) the excellent and comprehensive account titled “Bloody shambles”; within this latter, I had to say, the New Guinea events are almost lacking and often what is reported presents errors and gaps (I argue that this was due to the fact that the subject was outside the boundaries of the original editorial project). The former is still invaluable but, as with most official histories, is short on controversial analysis.

What above can be said also for the American side, as publications and reminescences are mainly focused from late-1942 onward. The early period is poorly documented even in the official sources, and events are hard to check and collect together. A number of subjects in my book break fresh ground or highlighted topics usually hidden. The magnificent performances by a handful of RAAF Catalina (Nos. 11 and 20 Squadron) and Hudson (Nos. 24 and 32 Squadrons) aircraft will be described in detail, until now those crews’ accomplishments have not yet properly been recognized.

Most of the material concerning the Rising Sun (in the book are mentioned about one thousand Japanese personalities) has never been published in English and here for the first time is put into light, particularly the raids against Port Moresby by 4 Kōkūtai and 1 Kōkūtai. And what’s about the early skirmishes at isolated Kapingamarangi Atoll in the Japanese Mandated Islands? Here, just after the outbreak of hostilities, the RAAF did not have a passive attitude, being the first to strike in the area fighting against 17 Kōkūtai! Another original feature is the detailed description of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 1 Kōkūsentai and 5 Kōkūsentai raids against Rabaul, Kavieng, Madang, Bulolo, Lae and Salamaua, no one has done this yet until now. The obscure and forgotten, but indispensable support of Kiyokawa Maru Hikōkitai will be fully described for the first time too as well as the amazing tasks accomplished by a handful of Yokohama Kōkūtai’s flyingboats.

Speak about other projects, articles and research you are involved with
My main topics are: air war over the Arafura Sea and SW Dutch New Guinea 1942-1945 (a forgotten campaign fallen into oblivion and deserving to be unveiled), Italian-Japanese Naval cooperation 1935-1943 (manuscript tentatively titled “The Lictor’s Fasces, Crown and Chrysantemum”), history of Japanese commerce raiders in the Pacific and Indian oceans. These manuscripts are in different stages of progress; besides I wrote some articles for the respected monthly journal “Storia Militare”.

For the time being I collaborated to a couple of books: Dan E. Bailey / WWII wrecks of the Truk Lagoon, Redding CA, North Valley Diver Publications, 2000; David L. Williams’ “Naval camouflage 1914-1945”, Rochester (Kent, GB), Chatham Publishing, 2001. Further collaborations are underway with Canadian, French, Australian, American fellow researchers whose books are due to publication.

- Anything else you would like to add about yourself?
I have a strong passion for geography and in particular for islands and I am fascinated by charts and maps. I am not a cartographer nor a collector of ancient maps, but if there is something I should say right away about myself  is that I am an incorrigible “mapperist”, an enraptured contemplator of cartographic material (William Shakespeare coined directly a new word – “mapp’ry” – to describe the passionate study on a map or a nautical chart). As a consequence I am convinced that historical narratives must be accompanied by a series of detailed maps.

Last Updated
May 22, 2017

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