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Authors: Bruce Gamble

Invasion Rabaul

BOOK: Invasion Rabaul
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Praise for
Invasion Rabaul

“Author Gamble pored over forgotten files and official reports and conducted interviews with the handful of surviving veterans to craft this tragic, heroic story. A terrific tale about a little-known (to Americans) battle.”

—WWII History

“With vivid, compassionate and precise prose, Bruce Gamble brings to light and life the overlooked story of gripping adventure and immense tragedy that enveloped Lark Force, the Australian garrison at Rabaul in 1942.”

—Richard B. Frank, author of
Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire

“Bruce Gamble writes this historic story as if he were an eyewitness to the events. It is a most compelling and entertaining tale that shows the courage, sacrifices and horrors of war first hand. The writing is top-notch and goes beyond a mere reporting of what happened. It captures the heart and soul of that time and place. Reading this true story will change you; you cannot help but be moved by what happened to these men and women.”

—W. H. McDonald Jr., founder, Military Writers Society of America

“Exhaustively researched and descriptively written, Gamble’s narrative … is rich in detail but yet still easy to read. Pick up a copy, settle into your favorite chair, and be careful not to get lost in the wild growth of the South Pacific jungles.”

—World War II Database

“The author takes a grunt’s-eye view of not just the battle, but its horrid aftermath for POWs.”

—World War II




Author of
Fortress Rabaul




Chapter 1 Diggers

Chapter 2 Evil Spirits

Chapter 3 Hostages to Fortune

Chapter 4 Prelude to an Invasion

Chapter 5 Chaos

Chapter 6 Vigorous Youth from Shikoku

Chapter 7 Every Man for Himself

Chapter 8 You Will Only Die

Chapter 9 Tol

Chapter 10 Escape: The Lakatoi

Chapter 11 Escape: The Laurabada

Chapter 12 Outcry

Chapter 13 Inside the Fortress

Chapter 14 Cruel Fates

Chapter 15 The Long Wait






I first learned about Rabaul almost forty years ago, at the age of eight, when I discovered my parents’ large, heavy copy of
Life’s Picture History of World War II
. I spent many hours looking at that book, which included a dramatic photograph of Rabaul and Simpson Harbor under attack by American carrier planes. I also remember hearing one of my relatives, Uncle Johnny, mention Rabaul—by far the toughest target he flew against as a navigator in B-17s of the Fifth Air Force.

Thirty-some years later, after my own military flying career was cut short by retirement for medical reasons, I wrote two books about U.S. Marine Corps pilots in the Southwest Pacific. Some of the men I interviewed had flown numerous missions over “Fortress Rabaul,” and they still spoke of it with a touch of awe. I wondered what made it such an extraordinary place. The more I discovered, the more fascinated I became, particularly in the story of Lark Force, the garrison that first fortified Rabaul in 1941. Numerous memoirs and photographic reference works were available, but no one had yet done a comprehensive narration of the entire Lark Force story. Hopefully, this book will help fill the void.

I am grateful for the many individuals who have provided assistance over the years. Topping the list is Dr. Brian Wimborne, undoubtedly the most capable (and cheerful) researcher I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. As my direct liaison with the Australian War Memorial and the
Australian National Library, he previewed and then obtained literally thousands of pages of military documents, personal collections, and vintage newspapers. I am also indebted to several other Australians who enthusiastically gave their support. Lindsay Cox and Carl Johnson generously provided photographs as well as permission to quote from their respective books. Peter Stone helped with questions and allowed me to quote from his huge reference work (see bibliography). Ted Harris, a walking encyclopedia of “Digger History,” was especially helpful in answering my questions on the Australian Army; Barb Angell graciously allowed me to borrow material from her extensive research on the army and civilian nurses; maritime expert Peter Cundall spent many hours assisting me with the naval aspects of this book; and Ian Hodges granted permission to quote from his stirring presentation at the Australian War Memorial in 2002.

The list of Stateside individuals to acknowledge is even longer. I am privileged to know five Pacific War experts who helped with a multitude of details: Rick Dunn, Larry Hickey, Henry Sakaida, Osamu “Sam” Tagaya, and Mike Wenger. I would also like to thank individuals at several research facilities who provided assistance: Dennis Case and Sam Shearin at the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center in Montgomery, Alabama; Donna Hurley at the Nimitz Library in Annapolis, Maryland; Helen McDonald at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas; Dan Miller at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington; and Barry Zerby at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

All of the experts and researchers were helpful, but the people who truly made this project rewarding were those who experienced firsthand the events described herein. I am extremely grateful for the interviews, correspondence, and other support given by Peter Figgis, Bill Harry, Lorna (Whyte) Johnson, Fred Kollmorgen, John Murphy, and Bruce Thurst.

Last, but certainly not least, a hearty thanks to Richard Kane of Zenith Press and copyeditor Tom Kailbourn for their guidance and expertise.


2200 HOURS (10:00 P.M.), JUNE 30, 1942

The moon was nearly full as it ascended over the South China Sea, providing excellent visibility for the lookouts and watch officers standing on the open bridge of a rust-stained American submarine. For the past five days and nights, the USS
(SS-187) had quietly hunted the warm waters off Cape Bojeador, Luzon, where an old stone lighthouse, its beacon long out of operation, served as a reference point.

The crew was growing restless. Their last action had occurred well to the south on June 25, when they fired three torpedoes at a Japanese merchantman traveling in a convoy from Manila. An escorting warship had immediately turned toward the sub, and they dove deep to elude a total of twenty-one depth charges. The crew heard an explosion that might have been caused by one of the torpedoes, but without observing it directly, the commanding officer was unable to confirm that a hit had been scored.

Afterward, the
moved north to hunt for enemy ships entering or exiting the Babuyan Channel, a natural chokepoint at the northern tip of Luzon, but no one had sighted anything larger than a sampan. To make matters worse, the three previous war patrols had been disappointing, with only one small ship confirmed sunk, and now their fourth patrol was half finished. In all, they had patrolled the normally busy sea lanes off the Philippines for three weeks, with only the one inconclusive engagement to show for it.

The boring routine was becoming hard to endure. For virtually every member of the crew (five officers and fifty enlisted men), the long hours of daylight were the worst. Each morning before dawn, the submerged to avoid detection, then spent the next fourteen to fifteen hours hunting quietly at periscope depth. The twin propellers were powered by four huge electric motors fed by banks of more than 250 lead-acid batteries, which generated a tremendous amount of heat. Outside the hull, the water temperature averaged 85 degrees Fahrenheit: too warm to ease the crew’s discomfort. An air-conditioning system removed some of the greasy odor, cigarette smoke, and moisture from the atmosphere, but it couldn’t replenish the oxygen that was being steadily depleted by fifty-five men. Furthermore, whenever the sub was rigged for silent running, the noisy air conditioner was shut off. The temperature inside the boat then rose to more than 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and the interior dripped with condensation. As the hours passed, it was sometimes necessary to spread carbon dioxide absorbent or release small amounts of oxygen from the emergency bottles stored in each compartment, but even with those measures it was common for the oxygen content to fall so low that a cigarette wouldn’t burn.

Despite the mind-numbing routine, none of the crew could afford to relax their vigilance. They carried out their duties with the underlying knowledge that the next instant could bring unexpected disaster. A roving aircraft, a drifting mine, or an enemy warship could kill them all in the blink of an eye. Conditions were generally safer after dusk, when the boat could operate on the surface with less risk of detection. To the crew’s great relief, the deck hatches were opened and the foul-smelling air inside the hull was purged by electric blowers. As soon as the hull was safely ventilated, two of the sub’s quadruple diesel engines were brought on line to turn the propellers and recharge the batteries. Watch officers and lookouts manned the bridge, and the hunt continued nonstop.

Finally, at 2216 on this humid night, after scanning the empty sea for about three hours, the lookouts were rewarded. A lone ship, identified as a large cargo-liner, had just exited the Babuyan Channel and was headed west at high speed, without lights. Observing it through a pair of powerful binoculars, the sub’s commanding officer shouted orders to start the other two engines and called for flank speed. With a surge of adrenalin, the crew jumped into action.

To set up a proper attack, the
first had to get well ahead of the target, then turn and fire a spread of torpedoes at right angles to the ship’s path. But the submarine, supposedly capable of twenty-one knots on the surface (faster than just about any merchantman of the period), could not pull ahead. Duly impressed with the enemy’s speed, the skipper decided to hang on for a while. An hour and a half later, the Japanese ship suddenly cut its speed to twelve knots. The
continued ahead at full speed for another hour and forty-five minutes, then slowed to a crawl and descended to periscope depth.

Now that the submarine was several miles ahead of the ship, the crew had ample time to plot the attack. Here at last was a superb opportunity to make up for earlier disappointments. The
s overall accomplishments would be measured not only by the number of ships sunk but also by gross tonnage, and the destruction of the approaching vessel, a big liner of about 10,000, tons would more than double the sub’s existing record. And yet, as eager as the crewmen were to sink this ship, they would have willingly let it pass … if only they had known what it was carrying.

Eight days out of Rabaul, New Britain, the ship was bound for Hainan, an island off the south coast of China, with more than a thousand Allied prisoners crammed into its holds. The vessel bore no special markings, for the Japanese refused to recognize the conventions followed by most of the nations involved in the war. Thus, to the skipper of the
, the approaching ship was simply a big
, a legitimate target. As it continued to draw closer, he periodically relayed periscope information to a young lieutenant manning the torpedo data computer (TDC) console. The officer dialed the updated information into the computer, which solved several geometric variables and provided the firing solution for each torpedo.

At 0225 on July 1, the first torpedo shot from its tube. Three more, each carrying a twenty-one-inch warhead packed with the equivalent of seven hundred pounds of TNT, followed at eight-second intervals. Traveling at a speed of forty-six knots, they would cover the four thousand yards to the target in slightly more than two and a half minutes. Time seemed to almost stand still, but the TDC officer was supremely confident. “One of those will get him,” he said aloud.

Unfortunately for the souls locked inside the darkened ship, he was right.



“They were a great band of boys.”

—Lorna Whyte Johnson, Australian Army Nursing Service

illiam Arthur Gullidge was in a quandary. Many of his countrymen had volunteered for military service after Australia declared war on Germany in September 1939, but for months he struggled mightily with the idea of joining the army. For one thing, he was a pacifist. Although he dearly loved his country, his heart also belonged to that conservative Christian denomination known as the Salvation Army, an organization that shunned warfare and violence.

BOOK: Invasion Rabaul
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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