Chapter 2: Appraisal
Until the Japanese Emperor issued his rescript directing his forces to lay down their arms, troops of the Eighth Area Army and Southeast Area Fleet were still full of fight. On Bougainville, they were locked in desperate struggle with units of the Australian II Corps; on New Britain and New Ireland they were ready for battle but frustrated by lack of an opponent. Had the Allied seizure of Rabaul been necessary, the operation certainly would have been a bloody one.
Despite the steady pounding that Allied aircraft gave the enemy base—20,967 tons of bombs dropped in 29,354 sorties (over half of them flown by Marine planes)2—the Japanese had plenty of guns left with which to fight. According to postwar interrogations of officers of the garrison, only 93 out of a total of 367 antiaircraft guns were destroyed, 1 of 43 coast defense guns, and none of the thousands of infantry supporting weapons, ranging in size from light machine guns to 150-mm howitzers. Since ground and beach defenses were seldom subjected to air attack, the high survival rate of the guns is not unusual. Even if they had been primary targets, however, many would have escaped destruction in the jungle or the caves where they were hidden.
By the war’s end, the Japanese had built or improved more than 350 miles of tunnels and caves, where they had stored all their essential supplies and equipment. These stocks were sufficient to support the garrison well beyond the time when it surrendered. Ironically, it was the efficiency of the Allied naval and air blockade that was responsible for the favorable enemy logistic situation. In large part, Rabaul’s troops subsisted on rations, dressed in uniforms, and used equipment that had been intended for garrisons cut off in the northern Solomons and eastern New Guinea.
Wherever supplies were short, the Japanese improvised. Issue rations were supplemented by extensive gardens, devoted primarily to cassava and sweet potato plants. Factories were set up which turned out black powder and sulfuric acid for explosives, manufactured flame throwers and mortars, and fabricated enough antitank mines to arm each man with one. Over 30,000 bombs were fused and planted as antipersonnel mines. The Japanese at Rabaul were prepared to do battle, and many of them, after 18 months of constant aerial attacks, were even anxious to meet
an opponent that they could come to grips with.
Fortunately, the encounter never took place. The Allied casualty list of an amphibious assault at Rabaul would have been as lengthy and grim as any of the Pacific War. When the order came for the Japanese to cease fighting, Eighth Area Army had about 57,000 men and Southeast Area Fleet about 34,000 on Gazelle Peninsula, with an additional 7,700 Army and 5,000 Navy troops a night’s barge trip away on New Ireland.3 These men, as part of the amazing display of national discipline evident throughout the Pacific, accepted the Emperor’s surrender order without incident.
On 6 September 1945, General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka boarded HMS Glory, standing off Rabaul, and surrendered the forces of the Eighth Area Army and the Southeast Area Fleet, to General Vernon A. H. Sturdee, commanding the Australian First Army. Two days later, at Torokina, the Japanese who had fought so tenaciously on Bougainville formally capitulated to the Australian II Corps’ commander, Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Savige. At each ceremony, Air Commodore Roberts, RNZAF, was present as New Zealand’s senior representative.4 In a larger sense, he represented also his predecessors, ComAirNorSols and Com AirSols, and the thousands of Allied flyers who had a part in neutralizing Rabaul’s offensive power.
At times in the first eight months of the war, it appeared that the tidal wave of Japanese expansion would never ebb. Yet, like its natural counterpart, the enemy wave washed to a halt, and then receded. Guadalcanal and Papua were the Japanese high water marks in the southern Pacific.
The naval battles off Guadalcanal, virtually a standoff as far as ships’ losses were concerned, hurt the Japanese far more than the Allies. Confronted by ample evidence of America’s superior productive capacity, the enemy could ill afford to trade ship for ship. Once the Cactus Air Force won control of the skies of the southern Solomons from the Zekes, the Japanese realized they faced unacceptable shipping losses if they continued the fight for Guadalcanal. The resulting evacuation of enemy troops from the key island foreshadowed other retreats and defeats certain to come.
Less than a month after the threat posed by the planes at Henderson Field forced the Japanese to pull out of Guadalcanal, a smashing victory won by land-based Allied aircraft crippled enemy efforts to hold positions on the opposite flank of the Solomon Sea. The heavy transport losses in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea ended large-scale reinforcement of the Eighteenth Army fighting in northeast New Guinea. Although the Japanese fought just as hard as before to hold what they had, they fought with fewer men, fewer weapons, and less food and supplies.
When the successful capture and defense of Guadalcanal and the simultaneous seizure of the Buna-Gona area of New Guinea wrote “finish” to the Japanese advance, the stage was set for a coordinated Allied offensive aimed at the enemy strategic citadel, Rabaul. General MacArthur’s ELKTON plans, as revised in Washington in the light of forces available to the South and Southwest Pacific, formed the basis for the JCS CARTWHEEL directive of 28 March 1943. Under its provisions, a series of intermediate objectives were to be taken before the culminating assault on Rabaul. The common determinant for the selection of these objectives was their utility as air bases.
The seizure of the Russell Islands by Admiral Halsey’s forces on 21 February, though not a part of the ELKTON concept, was, in spirit at least, the opening move of the drive on Rabaul. The airdrome that was constructed on Banika housed fighters and medium bombers which supported CARTWHEEL operations in the central and northern Solomons. The advance to the boundary of the South Pacific Area was characteristic of Admiral Halsey’s infectious determination to maintain the initiative over the Japanese. He was equally anxious to get on with his first operation under CARTWHEEL, the seizure of New Georgia, but had to agree to several delays of D-Day in order to coordinate his attacks with those of Southwest Pacific forces. The joint landing date finally agreed upon was 30 June; the simultaneous targets were the Trobriands, New Georgia, and Nassau Bay near Salamaua on New Guinea.
The Japanese threat to Segi brought Marines to New Georgia nine days ahead of schedule, and the lack of enemy opposition enabled Army shore parties to land on Woodlark and Kiriwina a week before the garrison arrived. Otherwise, the main landings went ahead as planned. Four months of determined fighting were necessary before the successive Allied objectives on New Guinea, Salamaua, the Markham Valley, and Lae were captured. In the smaller compass of the New Georgia Group, the defeat of the Japanese took equally as long.
New Georgia was far from the best-managed or best-fought campaign of the Pacific War. It was, however, a time of learning for the Allied leaders and men involved, even though the learning process was prolonged and painful. The troops that finally broke out of the jungle to take Munda airfield were combat-wise, and their commanders had learned to make more realistic estimates of the time and men necessary to root the Japanese out of heavily defended objectives. Once Munda was in Allied hands, the enemy situation deteriorated. The rest of the island group was taken with increasing skill and spirit, with each assault demonstrating a greater familiarity with the tools and techniques of amphibious operations and the demands of jungle warfare. The Japanese finally gave way before the persistent pressure and evacuated their surviving forces from Kolombangara to fight again another day.
By the end of a summer of fighting marked by a gradual increase in Allied strength, it was apparent that the outer perimeter of Japanese island defenses soon would collapse. On 30 September, Imperial General Headquarters ordered the commanders of these vulnerable positions to do their utmost to hold out as long as possible. Time was needed for the construction of a cordon of defenses along a line arcing from the Marianas through the Palaus and western New Guinea to the
Philippines. General Imamura and Admiral Kusaka responded to the directive, which, in effect, conceded the eventual loss of Rabaul, by reinforcing Army and Navy garrisons in the northern Solomons, the Bismarcks, and eastern New Guinea. Both enemy commanders retained a large portion of their troops and matériel on New Britain and New Ireland, however, in the belief that a showdown battle for possession of Rabaul was inevitable.
The conviction of the Japanese leaders, that Rabaul would have to be taken, was shared in Brisbane, but not so freely accepted in Noumea, Pearl Harbor, or Washington. What ComSoPac, CinCPac, and JCS planners envisioned instead was the possibility that Rabaul could be bypassed and its strength neutralized by an aerial blockade mounted from bases within fighter range. Although General MacArthur opposed this concept, it won acceptance from the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Quebec Conference in August and became a part of Allied strategy. The large number of troops, ships, and planes that would have been necessary to capture Rabaul were allotted instead to other operations of the two-pronged drive on Japan. To ensure the isolation of the enemy fortress, Kavieng and the Admiralties were designated as targets for SWPA forces in addition to the remaining CARTWHEEL objectives in eastern New Guinea, western New Britain, and southern Bougainville.
In the fall of 1943, Australian and American forces steadily drove the Japanese back from coastal and inland positions on the Huon Peninsula. The Allied goal was the seizure and security of airfields from which planes could support operations on both sides of Vitiaz Strait. Once Nadzab and Finschhafen were operational, air superiority over the strait and adjacent areas was assured.
The SoPac operation parallel to that on the Huon Peninsula entailed the seizure of a foothold on Bougainville. While the Marine parachutists’ diversionary raid on Choiseul and the New Zealanders’ capture of the Treasurys were part of the overall campaign, the main event was the IMAC landing at Cape Torokina on 1 November. By shunning the areas where the Japanese were concentrated, and hitting instead a lightly defended objective that required extensive base development, Admiral Halsey drastically reduced his assault casualty lists and avoided the prolonged battle to seize a major fortified position that had characterized the New Georgia operation.
The Japanese, recognizing the grave threat to Rabaul, reacted violently and swiftly to the Bougainville landing. AirSols and carrier planes, Third Fleet ships, and the dogged fighting of Marines and soldiers holding the beachhead beat back all attacks. Within the protection of the perimeter, Seabees and engineers overcame formidable natural obstacles to construct Torokina and Piva airfields and make them ready for their essential role in the reduction of Rabaul. By mid-December, Com AirSols was able to launch a sustained aerial attack designed to wipe out every vestige of the enemy’s offensive power.
By design, the start of the massive AirSols assault on Rabaul coincided with the opening phase of the last CARTWHEEL operation, the seizure of western New Britain. One of the enigmas of the ensuing campaign was that the Japanese paid an inordinate amount of attention to the preliminary landing at Arawe,
although they were well aware of its limited strategic value. The tiny peninsula seemed to have a special attraction for pilots of the Eleventh Air Fleet, even after the 1st Marine Division’s landings at Cape Gloucester made the Allied main objective obvious. The Japanese never had a chance to mount any telling air attacks on the new beachheads, however. They were too busy trying to defend Rabaul.
On 2 January 1944, three days after the Marines at Cape Gloucester seized their airdrome objective, other SWPA forces sailed through Vitiaz Strait, now secure on both shores, and landed at Saidor. The seizure of an enemy position on the New Guinea coast west of the Huon Peninsula was a giant stride forward on the way to the Philippines. Before the next scheduled amphibious operation was launched, the strategic situation was changed drastically by the evacuation of Japanese aircraft from Rabaul.
Credit for forcing the enemy withdrawal belongs to many Allied commands, but to none in so large a measure as to Aircraft, Solomons. The American and New Zealand pilots, aircrewmen, and ground personnel who fought as part of AirSols the long way up the Solomons chain made Rabaul a yawning grave for Japanese naval aviation. The final two months of incessant attacks, made possible by possession of the Bougainville airfields, disintegrated the defending air fleet. Although the order to pull out was precipitated by the devastating American carrier raid on Truk, the end of Japanese air operations at Rabaul was already certain.
The seizure of the Green Islands, just before the Combined Fleet ordered all serviceable aircraft withdrawn from New Britain, emphasized the steady worsening of the Japanese situation. Only a feeble attempt was made to punish an Allied amphibious force making a landing within easy range of any plane based at Rabaul. Once fields at Green were operational, it was inevitable that fighters and light bombers based there would own the skies over Gazelle Peninsula and southern New Ireland. Possession of Green also meant that ComAirSols could begin a systematic program of attacks on Kavieng, one of the two staging bases through which aerial reinforcements still could reach Rabaul.
As long as the Japanese had airfields at Kavieng and in the Admiralties, Allied leaders felt that Rabaul’s air garrison might be rebuilt. The cost of such a risk-laden move appeared to be prohibitive, but there was no guarantee that future events might not make it appear worthwhile to Imperial General Headquarters. If the two positions were taken or neutralized, however, nothing but a trickle of enemy long-range aircraft would get through. The isolation of Rabaul would be complete.
The enemy avenue of approach from the Admiralities was blocked on 29 February, when a small Army reconnaissance force, outnumbered but not outmatched, was able to seize a beachhead on Los Negros. The Japanese garrison, cut off from all outside help, fought doggedly but hopelessly until it was wiped out. The fighting did little to impede the building progress of a base that was destined to play a major part in the advance to the Palaus and the Philippines. Seeadler Harbor proved to be everything in the way of an advance naval base that Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor might have been, with the added virtues of a more favorable location and a cheaper price. Most missions flown from the airfields constructed on Los Negros supported the drive west along the New Guinea coast
or struck enemy bases in the Carolines. There was little call for the squadrons in the Admiralties to hit Rabaul or Kavieng. The capture of Emirau on 20 March 1944 sealed the fate of both enemy bases.
The decision to bypass Kavieng in favor of Emirau, like the earlier decision to bypass Rabaul, was made in Washington. In both cases, the consensus of JCS opinion, reinforced by the recommendations of Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, overweighed General MacArthur’s belief that the major enemy bases constituted such a threat that they would have to be taken. By using Marines and ships that were ready to take part in the Kavieng operation, Admiral Halsey was able to effect a swift and bloodless occupation of Emirau. Planes flying from the airbase that was soon built on the island pounded Kavieng until the war’s end, and took their turn, as well, in the raids flown against Rabaul.
Even though the taking of Emirau meant that the enemy’s last chance of reinforcing the Southeast Area was gone, there was no thought of surrender on the part of General Imamura or Admiral Kusaka. Instead, the Japanese commanders kept their men keyed up, ready to fight a battle that never took place. Most of the Allied leaders and men who took part in the campaign against Rabaul passed on to more active fronts, and those who remained had the thankless task of keeping the Japanese beaten down.
For the most part, except where the Australians kept the ground campaign alive, what was left of the war in the Solomons and Bismarcks was a deadly boring routine for pilots and aircrews. Marine and RNZAF squadrons drew the majority of the unwanted assignments of maintaining the aerial blockade, and they did their job well. In light of postwar analyses of the destruction wrought by air attacks on the bypassed Japanese bases, it appears that much of the bombing effort was wasted, once the enemy was forced to go underground in order to survive. In fact, it now seems plausible to believe that the Japanese could have been contained just as well by using fewer planes and men.
The evaluation of any military campaign breeds such second guessing. Benefiting from knowledge of the situation of both sides at a given moment, it is easy to decide that certain operations were unnecessary and that others should have been conducted differently than they were. The men who planned and fought the battles, however, did so without the enlightenment provided by hindsight. They learned, instead, from the mistakes that they unwittingly made in the process of becoming veteran fighters.
Of all the lessons that were absorbed during the successful campaign to isolate and neutralize Rabaul, none was more important than the absolute necessity for interservice and inter-Allied cooperation. Few commands in the Pacific war evidenced such wholehearted subordination of self-interest as the South Pacific Forces who won their way from Guadalcanal to Emirau. Admiral Nimitz saw this spirit as “a guiding directive to all armed services of the United States, now and in the future.”5 There can be no more fitting memorial to the bitter fighting and sacrifice of the Rabaul campaign than its ample proof that the separate services meshed together well as one fighting team.