It Really was All About Rabaul


David Mitchell


During the early days of World War II in the Pacific, about a month after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the Australian military determined that it would have to sacrifice its small garrison at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. Soon thereafter, the forces of Imperial Japan occupied Rabaul, either capturing or killing (and often both) the Australian soldiers stationed there, and then turned Rabaul into the most fortified base in the Pacific Theater. For the duration of the war, Rabaul would be targeted by intense Allied bombing runs but would remain in Japanese hands because it was just too formidable a target to invade.

Remarkably, Rabaul has largely been overlooked by historians and there has been little written on the subject. Indeed, a quick search yielded only two recent books, and both were written by Bruce Gamble. This week, I opened Gamble’s Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943 and found in it everything that I want to find in a history book.

Gamble, who previously has written two books about Pappy Boyington and his “Black Sheep” squadron, and more recently gave us Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, is a retired naval officer, having served as a navigator in EA-3B Skywarriors while completing two deployments aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As a historian and as a retired Navy flyer, he brings a keen sensitivity to the experiences of the pilots and naval personnel who fought in the Southwest Pacific at a time when it was not really clear which way the war might turn.

Wonderfully researched and indexed, with excellent end notes and a comprehensive bibliography, Fortress Rabaul satisfies both the historian in me—that part of me that wants to know what happened, and the lawyer in me—that part of me that wants to know why the historian believes what he is telling me is true. That is a rare experience for me, even when I find a book that I do enjoy and it certainly speaks volumes about Gamble’s credibility. If a writer is willing to tell me something and then give me the tools to prove him wrong, I am far more likely to believe him or her and to accept his or her words as true. Sadly, and to me surprisingly, I have read far too many historical studies in recent months that do not offer the level of scholarly support that I like to find in historical research. In that sense, Gamble’s well-documented research is both refreshing and particularly satisfying.

The story of the fight for Rabaul is far too great to be treated adequately in one volume. Gamble prudently elected to focus his attention on the bleak period beginning with the fall of Rabaul in January 1942 and ending with the death of Admiral Yamamoto in April, 1943—the period during which Japanese dominion over the Southwestern Pacific was almost complete. One can only assume, and hope, that a second volume covering the final two years of the war will be published in due course.

As is the case with all recent explorations of Japanese-held territory during the Second World War, the human experience at Rabaul was anything but human, especially for Australian and other Allied airmen and soldiers who were held by the Japanese. Gamble’s study of Rabaul is thorough in its exploration of the trauma suffered by Allied POWs. For example, early in the Japanese occupation while many Australians were still hiding in the forest or hoping for rescue on the beach, many atrocities were committed against newly captured troops. Gamble relates the fate of one group of prisoners apprehended at a New Britain plantation:

The Japanese were the cowards. Across the vast plantation, groups of roped-together prisoners were ordered to sit. A man was then pulled from each of the lines and led into a nearby thicket, where soldiers stabbed him in the back with their fifteen-inch-long bayonets. Taking their time, the executioners then walked back to the waiting groups of prisoners, making a show of wiping the blood from their bayonets before summoning the next man in line.

The killing went slowly. For the captives at the end of each line, the dread of those prolonged minutes must have been intolerable.

There is a lot of that in Fortress Rabaul and necessarily so. Indeed, by the end of the book, it is very easy to understand the emotions of the American flyers who gunned down the defenseless Japanese troops who survived the sinking of so many ships of the Imperial Navy during the Battle of the Bismark Sea. The horror of war makes the horrible seem almost rational in the moment, even though the insanity of it becomes readily apparent to later generations. Gamble captures that dichotomy brilliantly.

Gamble has also delivered a very balanced examination of both the Japanese experience and the Allied experience associated with Rabaul. Drawing heavily on Japanese diaries and other Japanese sources, his readers get a rare glimpse into the minds of the Japanese soldiers who opposed the Allies in the Southwest Pacific.

Readers of Fortress Rabaul will also appreciate the context in which the struggle for Rabaul is presented. The fight for Rabaul was really the fight for all of the Southwestern Pacific, including Australia. If the Allies had not committed the bare minimum of sufficient resources to the Pacific during the early days of the war, despite the “Germany First” philosophy that drove Allied war planners, Japan, from its base in Rabaul, would almost certainly have captured Port Moresby in New Guinea, and then retaken Guadalcanal and marched on to Australia. Gamble gives his readers not only the historic picture of the battle for Rabaul, but also the battles for Guadalacanal, New Guinea and all of the other battles that influenced both Japanese and Allied strategy and tactics with respect to Rabaul.

If anyone were to ask me to recommend a good “first book” for the study of the war in the Pacific, I would be hard pressed to suggest a better selection than Gamble’s Fortress Rabaul. It offers context, insight, data and profoundly engaging story telling. After I finished the book, my first thought was that I really wished I could read it again, immediately. That is a rare feeling and one that will cause me to savor the memory of Fortress Rabaul for a long time.

Books mentioned in this column:
Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943 by Bruce Gamble (Zenith Press, 2010)
Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II by Bruce Gamble (Zenith Press, 2006)


David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.



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