4° 12' 0S Long 152° 10' 60E Rabaul is located on the Gazelle peninsula at the northeastern tip of New Britain Island. Borders Simpson Harbor to the south and Matupi Island to the southeast. In the Tolia language "Rabaul" means mangrove, which grew in this area prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Rabaul was built by the German administration on reclaimed mangrove swamp land. The town was established in the early 1900s as the colonial capital of Deutsch Neu Guinea (German New Guinea).
World War I
At the start of World War I, the governor was Eduard Haber. On September 11, 1914, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) arrived off and landed forces at Herbertshöhe (Kokopo) and captured the German radio station at Bitapaka. After the war, the League of Nations mandated it to the Australia. During 1937, heavily damaged by a volcanic eruption when Vulcan and Tavurvur exploded.
World War II
On January 4, 1942 Japanese
flying boats first bombed Rabaul. On January 20, 1942 a Japanese carrier aircraft from Akagi, Kaga, Shokaku and Zuikaku under the command of Admiral Nagumo attacked Rabaul. On January 22, 1942 carrier planes returned, but found no targets and preformed aerobatics prior to the arrival of the Japanese invasion
force via St. Georges Channel.
After midnight of January 23, 1942
the 144th Infantry Regiment 'South Seas Detachment' landed at several locations: Raluana Point and to the west of Kokopo and Kerawun and north of Vulcan. Also Malaguna, west of Praed Point and Nordup. Opposing them were the outnumbered Australian Army 2/22nd Battalion and New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) opposed. By morning, the Japanese occupied Rabaul.
into a massive base and Army and Navy Headquarters
in the South Pacific. The Navy controlled the eastern half of the town, with their HQ at the New Guinea Club building. The 8th Army HQ at Four Corners (Four Ways). The Japanese expanded the two existing airfields and built four additional airfield in the Rabaul area. Several locations were used as seaplane anchorages. At the peak of their occupation,
97,000 Japanese were stationed in Rabaul and the vicinity,
in addition to Allied POW's, slave laborers and roughly 3,000 "comfort woman" (prostitutes) including
from Korean and Japan.
Reportedly, 367 anti-aircraft weapons
defended Rabaul (192 Army, 175 Navy) by late 1942. The harbor area was defended by an estimated 43 coastal guns and 20 searchlights according to the US Strategic Bombing Survey. Rabaul was the most heavily defended target in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA).
On February 20, 1944 the Japanese decided to withdrawal all flyable combat aircraft
from Rabaul to Truk. Roughly 30 Zeros, 6 Bettys, 8 Vals, 10 Judys and 5 or 6 Kates were successfully withdrawn by the end of the month. This effectively the end of the air war over Rabaul. Only about 30 damaged
or grounded Japanese remained at Rabaul area airfields and later in the war a few were repaired to fly by the Japanese and continued very limited operations.
Bypassed by the Allies, Rabaul
remained in Japanese hands for the duration of the war and was subject
to almost daily air raids, left to "wither
on a vine" until the Japanese surrender. In total, American aircraft dropped
20,000 tons of bombs on the town and vicinity.
Allied missions against Rabaul
January 4, 1942 - 1945
By 1945 conditions for the
Japanese deteriorated once Rabaul was was cut off from resupply. The garrison commandeered food from the natives and was forced to undertake large scale gardening to grow enough food. The Japanese at Rabaul officially surrendered in September 1945 to Australian forces.
At the end of
the war, it took two years to transfer all the Japanese POWs back to
Japan, and an Allied court and gallows dealt with war
criminals. Some prisoners were sentences of hard labor in the area until the early 1950s then repatriated.
On October 22, 1956 Japanese salvage companies Okadigumi Salvage Co. and Nayo Boeki Kaisha were given permission to salvage shipwrecks around Rabaul. During 1957-1958 salvaging shipwrecks including Naruto (Japanese Tanker No. 5301) that was loaded with scrap metal and then towed to Singapore and scrapped.
Rabaul is part of East New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG). During 1994, Rabaul was devastated and largely destroyed by a volcanic eruption that covered most of the town in ash. Since the eruption, Kokopo developed as the new economic center of town with shops and amenities. Slowly, life and commerce along the harbor and Rabaul area has returned to
normal. Today, most of the town is dug but many areas, particularly the southern portion nearest to Tavurvur remain changed by ash and have never been repaired.
Prewar, Rabaul's Chinatown area was located in the eastern portion of the town. Occupied by the Japanese during January 1942. During the early stages of the war, Japanese Army "comfort woman" (prostitutes for soldiers) were housed in this area. During early 1944, Chinatown was destroyed by Allied bombing raids.
As the war turned against the Japanese, and Rabaul area was subjected to daily bombing raids, the Japanese constructed extensive networks of tunnels into the pumice ridges around Rabaul to use as hospitals, gun emplacements, storage areas, bunkers, barracks and headquarters. The Japanese oversaw the construction and utilized laborers including prisoners of war to dig the tunnels. By November 1944, the Japanese Navy had dug 70km of tunnels and the Japanese Army 80km. By the end of the war, it was estimated these lengths doubled. Another estimate of all the Japanese tunnels dug into the entire Gazelle
peninsula area as measuring roughly 500km in collective length.
Iwao Matsuda's HQ included a four post bed, luxury bath, personal
room, air raid shelter, cans of coca-cola, Philippine beer and expensive
imported food. Meanwhile, his troops were sick, starving and dying. Post war, Japanese POW labor was used to empty out most known tunnels, especially to collect and dispose of munitions. Occasionally, a tunnel is discovered or a landslide reveals others and untouched caches of arms or equipment are found.
Installed during February or March 1943, this radar had a range of 150km working in tandem with radar sets and observers on New Ireland and Bougainville, to provide an early warning system for Rabaul's defenses.
Located to the north of Rabaul town in tunnels the Japanese installed Fuso electric generators. Postwar, the Japanese generators remained in use until at least 1952 operated by Ernie Smith.
Post war, a wooden gallows and steps were built by the the main water tank at the Malaguna Vocational
Center. On August 7, 1947 at 8:00am, Japanese war criminals were hang including Lieutenant General Masao Babaon convicted for his role with the Sandakan Death March. Until the late 1960s, the frame of the gallows remained standing.
Brian Bennett recalls:
Croydon had been the Australian Provost Marshall in Rabaul post
war and had a lot to do with Japanese POW who were held in Rabaul until
about 1947. He saw a lot of the war criminals strung up. The steps
for the gallows were by the main water tank at the Malaguna Vocational
center for many years. Harry had a yard in Rabaul for ages that still
had all sorts of interesting stuff in it. In Rabaul area it was Harry
Croydon, Arthur Viggers, Arthur Brown, Pat Roberts, Jack Chipper."
Do you have photos or additional information to add?
May 17, 2018