Authors: Bruce Gamble
THE ALLIED SIEGE OF JAPAN’S MOST INFAMOUS STRONGHOLD, MARCH 1943–AUGUST 1945
List of Maps
1 A Pirate Goes to Washington
2 Steppingstones: The Elkton Plan
3 New Guinea Graveyard
4 The Heart of Darkness
5 Lethal Moonlight
6 Zeamer and Sarnoski
7 The Big Feud
9 The Hornet’s Nest
10 Primary Colors
11 The Buccaneers Attack
12 Stormy Weather
13 Bloody Tuesday
14 Redemption for the Pond Lily
15 Carrier Raid Redux
16 Ferdinand the Bull
17 The Twisted Code
19 The Ace Race
20 Feeding Frenzy
21 Fortress Rubble
22 Island of Despair
Appendix A: The Prisoners of Rabaul
HE BATTLE FOR
Rabaul was World War II’s longest. Some historians might argue that the Battle of the Atlantic, from September 1939 to May 1945, was longer, and chronologically they have a point. But the campaign in the Atlantic covered an area of hemispherical proportions, with clashes occurring thousands of miles apart. Rabaul, a township of less than one square mile, was fought over from January 4, 1942 to August 15, 1945, a near-constant battle spanning almost forty-four months.
Before World War II, the islands of the South Pacific were as mysterious to most Americans as the dark side of the moon. Very few citizens had ever traveled to such remote places as the Solomon Islands or the Bismarck Archipelago, and hardly anyone had heard of Rabaul. What we knew of the South Pacific came from adventure movies, which typically portrayed the islands as dark and foreboding, with mist-shrouded volcanoes, thick jungles, wild animals, and headhunting savages.
The island of New Britain fit that stereotype. The northern end, where Rabaul is, has a long history of volcanic activity. The town lies inside the rim of a caldera, a vast depression mostly filled with seawater. The natural enclosure forms Simpson Harbor, one of the finest anchorages in the Pacific because of its natural protection by steep escarpments and volcanic peaks.
During the prewar years, Rabaul became a bustling, cosmopolitan trade center. Easily the largest town among the islands, it served as the capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Dozens of plantations and church missions dotted the coastal areas, but beyond those small pockets of development, the island’s vast jungles remained wild. Some of the peoples living deep in the interior still practiced cannibalism and headhunting.
My personal interest in Rabaul developed when I began interviewing members of the Black Sheep squadron, VMF-214, who flew their hairiest combat missions over the Japanese stronghold in late 1943 and early 1944. Rabaul was so iconic that they had written songs about it. Wondering what made Rabaul so extraordinary, I began to research its history—and became hooked. I was especially drawn to the story of Lark Force and the tragic sinking of the
While collecting the necessary research for a book, I thought I could narrate the story of Rabaul in a single volume. I was wrong. The tale of Lark Force occupied the first book, originally published as
. Next, I thought I could tackle the forty-four-month air war in a separate volume. Again, I was wrong. There was simply too much history to convey in one book. With the approval of the accommodating staff at Zenith Press, an agreement was reached to end the first volume,
, with the death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a crucial turning point in the battle for the Southwest Pacific.
Finally, almost fifteen years after I began the initial research, the history is complete with the third volume of the trilogy,
Or is it? As some readers will undoubtedly discover, I have glossed over segments of important battles that raged over and around Rabaul, paying scant attention to actions on New Ireland, New Georgia, and Bougainville, and barely touching on important campaigns in New Guinea. So there is still plenty of material to cover for as long as historians are interested in exploring the stories behind Japan’s most notorious stronghold in the South Pacific.
In the meantime, it is my fervent hope that the veterans who participated in the siege of Rabaul firsthand will find this work accurate and authentic. If so, I will have achieved my goal.
Consistent with the first two books of the trilogy, time is expressed using the twenty-four-hour military clock, and distances are given in statute miles (unless otherwise noted). Japanese individuals are identified in the Western style with given name first, followed by the surname. Japanese aircraft are identified by the model/year designation and the Allied recognition code name.
I am eternally grateful for the support of dozens of friends, colleagues, veterans, descendants, and enthusiasts who have provided assistance, both in the United States and abroad. Sadly, some have since passed away. But they leave an important legacy—their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews—who now carry the torch. The list of those who provided direct assistance, in alphabetical order: Dave Armstrong, Bill Barnett, Ed Bearss, Melvin Best, George Brewer, Ray Buckberry, Leslie Caruso, Michael Claringbould, Peter Cundall, Perry Dahl, Andy Decker, Rick Dunn, Andrew Frost, Mark Faram, Peter Figgis, Darryl Ford, Ken Gasteb, Bill Hess, Carlos Herrera, Curt Holguin, Dave Homewood, Maury Hurt, Sylvester Jackson, John Kepchia, Gerry Kersey, John Kinkaid, Marion Kirby, Bill Krantz, Jim Landsdale, Hap Langstaff, John Loisel, Jim Long, John Lundstrom, Marni Magda, Jim Mahaffey, Robert Marshall, Bruce Matheson, Lex McAulay, Jim McMurria, James Merriman, Joe Nason, Yoshio Okawara, Frank Olynyk, Jon Parshall, Edward Rogers, Luca Ruffato, Henry Sakaida, Jim Sawruk, John Stanaway, Al Sutton, Osamu Tagaya, Vic Tatelman, Justin Taylan, Barrett Tillman, Anthony Tully, Doug Vahry, Roger Vargas, Frank Walton, Bill Webster, Mike Wenger, Ron Werneth, Jay Wertz, David Wilson, Louise Wilson, and James Zobel.
It’s a long list that covers many years. If I’ve forgotten someone, please forgive me.
Finally, I wish to thank Erik Gilg, Editorial Director at Zenith Press, and Christine Zuchora-Walske for their patience and professionalism.
HE PROMISE OF R&R
in Sydney was a powerful incentive. To earn a week in Australia’s largest city, a crew had to complete twenty combat missions in their B-24 Liberators. Each sortie might last a grueling ten hours over some of the most unforgiving terrain on earth, and most of the targets were defended by aggressive Japanese fighter pilots and numerous antiaircraft weapons. But to the men of the 90th Bombardment Group (Heavy), a hedonistic week of “bars and belles” in Sydney was well worth the risks.
The twenty-mission policy, announced in January 1943, generated plenty of excitement among the group’s four squadrons. Since their arrival in Australia the previous November, the crews had suffered one catastrophe after another, losing eleven B-24s and eighty-four men. That most of the fatalities had resulted from accidents or unexplained disappearances, not combat, hung over the group like a curse. Weary in body and soul, the men needed something to look forward to—exactly the sort of motivation that a week of fun in Sydney would provide.
Their temporary home, an airfield slapped together in a remote section of Queensland, seemed conjured up from some alien landscape. Surrounded by murky tropical rainforests on the Cape York Peninsula, the isolated territory was known as Iron Range. “There was no town, no village, no farmers or ranchers that I ever saw at Iron Range,” recalled one pilot. “There were some crude docking facilities in its sheltered harbor a few miles from the airstrip, but I never saw anyone tending them.”
The base itself, although brand-new, was utilitarian—and utterly drab. When the crews weren’t flying or preparing for missions, they passed the time in their tents, waited in long lines for unappealing army chow, and obsessed about Sydney. There would be real beds with clean sheets in Sydney; restaurants, too, and nightclubs, and theaters. And all the liquor they could drink, and thousands of friendly women. For some crews, especially those nearing the magic number, the anticipation was almost overwhelming.
Group headquarters attempted to spread the combat assignments evenly among the four squadrons. For a week at a time, a squadron would deploy to the forward base at Port Moresby, New Guinea, and conduct a few missions. The rotation looked equitable on paper, but in practice the assignments were lopsided. On January 16, for example, the twelve crews of the 321st Squadron completed a week at Port Moresby and returned to Iron Range to learn that they would go back into combat three days later.
Some crews griped about the short turnaround; others saw opportunity. The squadron’s two most experienced crews had just completed nineteen missions, putting them on the cusp of the big prize. The commanding officer, Maj. Cecil L. Faulkner, led one. A lanky reservist, Lt. James A. McMurria, led the other. The competition between the crews to reach twenty missions was friendly, but spirited.
As ordered, Faulkner led his twelve Liberators back to New Guinea on the afternoon of January 19. At Ward’s Strip, carved from scrubby hills five miles from Port Moresby, the B-24s were parked in individual revetments, their earthen walls piled as high as the bombers’ twin tails. The nearest Japanese airfield was only 185 miles away, across the Owen Stanley Mountains. Port Moresby had already endured nearly one hundred raids, making it inevitable that formations of Mitsubishi twin-engine bombers would soon drone high overhead, or a covey of Zeros would swoop down the mountainside for a strafing attack.
Despite the threat, the men of the 321st were motivated to fly another week of missions. As the squadron’s operations officer, McMurria had Faulkner’s blessing to schedule his own crew for the first event, a solo reconnaissance of enemy shipping lanes between New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. After a predawn takeoff, McMurria’s crew would reconnoiter several Japanese strongholds, but there was little reason to expect trouble during the ten-hour circuit.
The weather was a different matter. A steady rain drenched the airdrome as McMurria and his copilot, Lt. Robert R. Martindale, began their preflight routine at 0400 on January 20. Inside the makeshift meteorological office, a bleary-eyed weather officer explained that heavy thunderstorms were blocking the preferred route over the mountains. It was off limits until daylight. Treacherous even in good weather, the mountains soared above thirteen thousand feet very near Port Moresby. Their slopes were already littered with many wrecked planes.
McMurria could neither proceed without the weatherman’s authorization nor tolerate an hours-long delay. He proposed an alternative. After taking off he would climb to the northwest, flying parallel to the mountains until the sun rose, at which time he could transit over the peaks safely. The sleepy meteorologist approved the plan, signed the necessary paperwork, and returned to his cot.
Joining the rest of the crew at their revetment, McMurria and Martindale inspected their bomber, a Consolidated B-24D Liberator, by flashlight. The four-engine aircraft was the heaviest land-based bomber in operation at that time. With a full combat load of bombs, machine-gun ammunition, fuel, and ten crewmen, it tipped the scales at twenty-eight tons. That weight rested on two large main wheels and a smaller nose wheel. On that dark, rainy morning, McMurria had to use full throttle on opposite sides to break the big bomber out of the muddy revetment.
After taxiing carefully into position on the downwind end of the duty runway, McMurria braked and waited for a flash of green light from the rickety control tower. He and Martindale peered through the dark windscreen. The rain-slicked runway, paved with interlocking steel planks, glistened in the beams of the B-24’s landing lights, but the wing-mounted lights barely cut through the rain. Two rows of flickering smudge pots along the edges of the runway provided the only other illumination.