Fortress Rabaul, (2008) by Bruce Gamble, is a riveting history of two years of unrelenting conflict in the South Pacific triangle of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Britain Island, on which the port, village, and Japanese military base of Rabaul was established at the expense of a luckless Australian unit known as Lark Force.
The conquests of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Guam, Malaya, Hong Kong, and Wake Island in December 1941 and of Singapore, in February 1942, made the western and southern Pacific into a Japanese lake.
New Guinea, situated directly between the Philippines and Australia, physically dominates the region’s geography, overlooking the west and south Pacific, Indonesia, the Malay peninsula and Singapore, and Australia. Whether for colonial expansion or as a bulwark to defend its oil and mineral gains in Malaysia, New Guinea was too great a prize for Japan to squander. In 1942, New Guinea was protected only by Australian outposts at Port Moresby on the southern coast and the island of New Britain, a harbor-rich target a few hundred miles off the eastern coast. In January and February, 1942, those Australian outposts were poorly defended, the Australian fighting force having been stripped by England for troops to defend the Empire in North Africa and the Middle East. New Britain, and Rabaul, fell to the Japanese juggernaut in a walk-over. The Japanese immediately undertook to improve the port, docks, and airfields to establish a mighty base for both the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army and their attached aviation units. Rabaul developed into the hub of an impregnable naval base and fortress and remained in Japanese hands through the end of the war.
Bruce Gamble begins Fortress Rabaul with the plight of Lark Force, a small Australian army unit stationed on New Britain at the time of the Japanese invasion. Undermanned and equipped with pitifully outdated weapons, the defenders were defeated, then hunted down in the jungles and rounded up by the invaders. Only a few escaped to New Guinea and Port Moresby. By the time the Royal Australian Air Force counterattacked (with Catalina flying boats), Japanese commander Horii had begun emplacement of over 400 anti-aircraft guns ringing Rabaul and Simpson Harbor. The island defenses, along with its location and geography, would make Rabaul a nightmare for the Allies.
Gamble excels at writing this riveting study. If to a carpenter with a hammer all the world’s a nail, to a military historian with a story the choices of building the tale at the expense of the story are tempting and risky: one may decide whether to write about the events of a location, or of personalities, or of unit engagements, with the all too-familiar result of a work that makes a battle, or a commander, or a unit into a Homeric epic, all at the expense of portraying them within the frame of a much larger picture. The best histories balance each of the components and place them in context, and at this Fortress Rabaul reaches for the very top of its genre.
The fate of the first defenders, and of the air crews who follow in an attempt to stop the Japanese attacks that soon originate from Rabaul, is hinted when Gamble discloses that of the Lark Force survivors, most were promptly taken from their prisoner enclosures and murdered. However, rather than compose a tome about the atrocities of war, Gamble proceeds to move the scene from the Rabaul stockage cages to the Port Moresby air fields and the beleaguered aviators who both defended themselves and mounted attacks on the Japanese, first at New Britain and soon on the Japanese beachheads on New Guinea, just across the Owen Stanley Mountains. He then subtly shifts from the all-but-lost defense of this last outpost to the larger view of a failing command structure that was revamped in time to lead a carrier task force into the Coral Sea to engage the Japanese en route from Rabaul to a landing assault on Port Moresby. In this manner, Gamble moves effortlessly between the principal fronts of this theatre – Rabaul, Port Moresby, and Guadalcanal – and the devastating toll on aircraft and vessels. He also weaves in the progression of aircraft that were built and moved into the battle, from the Wirraways and Hudsons to the B-26 bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and P-38 and F4F fighters, from the Japanese Zekes and Kates to the Zeros. And, without the reader noticing, he subtly moves the story along as the Allies slowly take the offense after the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Most importantly,Gamble does not let the reader lose sight of the ultimate truth of war as a policy of nations that is fought by real people who die in support of bad ideas. Lark Force defenders were not the only victims of the Japanese at Rabaul. Over one thousand mostly-Australian prisoners died in the sinking of a ship that left the island to transport them to Japan. Thereafter, prisoners stayed and died on the island, either as slaves or victims. In a wrenching chapter, Gamble relates that among them were the Alfred Harvey family, plantation owners accused of spying. Their eleven year old son Richard, who played ball with Japanese guards during the family’s drum head trial, was executed while holding his parents’ hands. Medal of Honor winner Capt. Harl Pease was put to death along with almost every other airman in the stockade at that time. Of the hundreds of downed Allied pilots and crew who were imprisoned at Rabaul, only seven were alive on the island at the end of the war.
Gamble, however, avoids the opportunity for drum-beating. In an equally chilling chapter he details the escalation of vengeance Allied pilots wreaked on the Japanese, first on a convoy dispatched from Rabaul to the relief of a garrison on the coast of New Guinea, then on the thousands of Japanese sailors and soldiers who abandoned their ships only to be machine-gunned in the water by B-17 crews who pointed every weapon downward to spray lifeboats, rafts, and knots of men clinging to debris. Such was the fury of the war in the Pacific.
By the time Allied area commanders settled on the policy of island hopping, thereby bypassing an increasingly desperate yet redundant stronghold, the Japanese on Rabaul were isolated, irrelevant, and facing two years of starvation as the war moved north to the Central Pacific and the Japanese home islands. Gamble’s fine study, balanced in context and point of view and nuanced in scholarship as well as clarity, is an exceptional book about the war in the Pacific.
Jack Woodville London is the author of French Letters: Virginia’s War (2009), a finalist for Best Novel of the South and Best Historical Fiction of the Year. Publication release date of the sequel, French Letters: Engaged in War, was September 2010.
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