During the Bombing of Rabaul, the Fifth Air Force mounted a concerted campaign to render the Japanese bastion in the South Pacific ineffective.
by Sam McGowan
In some historical circles, a mistaken impression has developed that the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 38 launched the aerial offensive on the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, New Britain, that ultimately rendered the base useless. This idea is probably due, at least in part, to the writings of historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who held the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and who wrote with a definite pro-Navy slant.
The many plots to assassinate the madman responsible for the death of millions...
Get your copy of Warfare History Network’s FREE Special Report,
Killing Adolf Hitler
Such, however, is not the case. While the carrier strikes in November 1943 were the first air action against the Japanese stronghold by Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s South Pacific Area (SOPAC) forces, they were hardly the first attacks of the campaign, and they were far from the first against the complex. Japanese sailors, soldiers, and airmen stationed at Rabaul were no strangers to the sight of American aircraft over their bases. In fact, the famous Navy air raid on November 11, 1943, had been preceded by several weeks of air strikes by heavy and medium bombers of General George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force. Those raids were but the latest in a series of attacks that actually commenced in the spring of 1942, shortly after Japan occupied New Britain.
A Picturesque Island City
The city of Rabaul is located on the northeastern tip of New Britain, one of two islands—the other is New Ireland—that make up the Bismarck Archipelago. It sits on the narrow St. Georges Channel, which divides the two islands. Before it became the major Japanese forward base in the Southwest Pacific, Rabaul had been a picturesque island city located on the banks of one of the region’s largest natural harbors, a feature that brought it to the attention of military planners in both Washington and Tokyo as America and Japan geared up for war.
Several weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the beginning of open hostilities in the Pacific, the U.S. Army and Navy began preparations to establish a base there that could be used to oppose the Japanese threat to the Netherlands East Indies. The U.S. Army Air Corps saw Rabaul’s two airfields as a potential refueling stop for military aircraft bound for the Philippines, and the Navy was interested in Simpson Harbor. Unfortunately for the United States, in 1941 time was on Japan’s side.
Quick Fortifications by Japan
The Royal Australian Air Force maintained a base at Vunakanau Airfield, where a squadron of twin-engine Lockheed Hudson bombers and a few lightly armed Wirraway observation planes were stationed. Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck Rabaul for the first time on January 20, 1942. The markedly inferior Wirraways were quickly dispatched, but not without a fight. The Hudsons managed to escape before Japanese troops landed on January 23.
Due to its position south of their main Pacific supply base at Truk Atoll in the Carolines, the Japanese quickly built up their presence at Rabaul, making it their advance base for the conquest of the Solomon Islands and Papua, New Guinea. The natural harbor made an ideal port for transports and warships, while the two airfields served as bases for air operations in the Solomons and New Guinea. Their efforts did not go unhampered, however. Although the Allies had been driven out of the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies, when General Douglas MacArthur arrived to take command of the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations (SWPA) in March 1942 he immediately drew the line in New Guinea. He further decided that offensive operations there were the best defense for Australia.
Sleeping on the Wings of Their Airplanes
In early 1942, the only means of offensive operations in the region were the remnants of two squadrons of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers belonging to the 19th Bombardment Group, which had been brought out of the Philippines, then reinforced with additional aircraft and personnel sent from the United States. A second group, the 7th Bomb Group, operated out of Australia for a time but was suddenly diverted to India immediately after the fall of Java.
The B-17s of the 19th Group began offensive operations from Australia on February 23, 1942, and flew about a dozen missions by April 1, of which half were directed against the Japanese installations around Rabaul. The raids were small scale, consisting of an average of three airplanes, and were usually flown at night to avoid fighter interception. Just mounting a mission was a struggle in itself. To fly to Rabaul, the bomber crews had to depart their base near Townsville and fly 600 miles north to Port Moresby, where the bombers were refueled and armed while the crews tried to grab some rest wherever they could. This usually meant sleeping on the wings of their airplanes, or under them if it rained. It rained often in New Guinea.
Departing From Port Moresby
The bombers would depart Moresby in the wee hours of the morning and cross the 13,000-foot Owen-Stanley Mountains, which were often covered by turbulent storm clouds, then continue across the Bismarck Sea and along the coast of New Britain to the target. The initial raids were generally ineffective as far as doing serious damage, but they served as a good source of intelligence on Japanese strength at Rabaul.
The only other Allied bombers in the theater in early 1942 were several Lockheed Hudson light bombers operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. The Hudsons were a military version of the Lodestar transport, but they offered very limited capabilities. In March 1942, Major Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn entered the picture when he engineered the “transfer” of a dozen North American B-25 Mitchell bombers from the Netherlands East Indies Air Force to the 3rd Attack Group.
The 3rd had been operating Douglas A-24 Dauntless dive-bombers that had been on the way to the Philippines when the war broke out. It was originally supposed to operate Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers but, although the personnel were in Australia, their airplanes had yet to arrive. The first B-25 mission was against Gasmata, a Japanese airfield on the southwestern end of New Britain. A few days later, on March 25, V Bomber Command was further reinforced with the arrival of several Martin B-26 Marauders of the 22nd Bombardment Group.
Plagued With Supply Problems
Although the B-17 had been designed for strategic bombing, the Flying Fortresses were plagued with maintenance and supply problems. It was often impossible to scrape up enough airplanes for even a small-scale mission. Consequently, V Bomber Command assigned the newly arrived 22nd Group to missions against Rabaul until the B-17 force could be brought up to strength. Beginning on April 6, 1942, the 22nd Group B-26s flew 16 missions with more than 80 sorties before medium bomber missions to Rabaul were discontinued.
Although the B-26s were able to attack Lakunai and Vunakanau airfields as well as ships in the harbor and shore installations, they were operating at the very edge of their limits. The distances involved required the installation of bomb bay fuel tanks, which reduced their bomb loads to four 500-pound bombs or 20 100-pounders. Ordinarily, the bomb capacity of a B-26 was half that of a B-17, but the long-range fuel tanks halved it again.
The whole idea of aerial bombing is to put as much high explosive onto a target as possible, but the B-26s’ limited bomb loads greatly reduced their effectiveness.
Before the medium bombers were taken off the Rabaul run, their crews claimed hits on three transports, two merchant ships, and an aircraft carrier. Marauder gunners claimed 16 Japanese fighters. In spite of fighter opposition and antiaircraft fire, B-26 losses were surprisingly low; only three Marauders were lost in combat between April 24 and July 24.
This article is from the July 2005 issue of WWII History Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.