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Seventy Years Later, Relics of South Pacific Fighting Still Powerful

As an astronaut in Earth orbit I spent every spare moment I could scrutinizing the lovely face of our planet, with an eye toward history as well as its delicate beauty. What brought the terrain to life for me were the human stories intertwined with a particular country or region. Sweeping my eyes and camera over Australia, New Guinea, and the Coral Sea, I replayed in my mind the rich, desperate history of the World War II campaigns fought there in 1942-44 between the Allies – American and Australian – and Japan.

Even a lifetime of travel back on terra firma couldn’t be stretched enough for me to visit physically the places where every fascinating chapter of the saga of World War II’s Pacific conflict occurred.

These awe-inspiring views of the tropical South Pacific always came with a twinge of regret: I would never have the opportunity to personally explore this vast region. Even a lifetime of travel back on terra firma couldn’t be stretched enough for me to visit physically the places where every fascinating chapter of the saga of World War II’s Pacific conflict occurred.

Japanese Supply Barges Rabaul

A cave on Rabaul that contains rusting Japanese cargo barges. The Japanese dug thousands of caves to shelter a force that grew to almost 110,000 by 1943. Tom Jones photo

So when the opportunity came, seventy years after the war, to visit some remote areas of New Guinea and northern Australia that saw fierce World War II combat, I jumped at it. My Travel Quest expedition was in pursuit of the Nov. 14, 2012 total solar eclipse, but encompassed much of the Japanese 1942-43 campaign to seize island airfields and choke off the U.S. supply routes into Australia.

Rabaul was the center of a whirlwind of take-no-prisoners combat between the desperate Allied and the Japanese forces expanding into the southwest Pacific.

First stop: Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. From space, Rabaul is little more than a remote harbor at the northeastern tip of New Britain, surrounded by the blasted hills of an active volcanic caldera, sometimes emitting a wisp of ash. But during 1942-1944, Rabaul was the center of a whirlwind of take-no-prisoners combat between the Allies and the Japanese forces expanding into the southwest Pacific.

Japanese Tunnel Rabaul

An entrance to one of the many tunnels on Rabaul that sheltered the Japanese garrison as well as Allied POWs, who many times were worked to death. Tom Jones photo

The Japanese took Rabaul and its magnificent natural anchorage, Simpson Harbor, from the Aussies in January 1942. Thereafter it served as their main air and naval base, a Gibraltar held by 90,000 troops and naval personnel. From Rabaul, Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto threatened to seize the eastern tip of New Guinea and its capital, Port Moresby. Australia would then be an easy jump across the Coral Sea.

Touring Rabaul, I glimpsed a few of the hundreds of caves bored by slave laborers into the soft volcanic rock.

Touring Rabaul, I glimpsed a few of the hundreds of caves bored by slave laborers into the soft volcanic rock. One enormous shelter still holds three rusting Daihatsu Japanese cargo barges; each night, they were winched down 200 meters of track to the harbor, transferring supplies ashore. At daylight, prisoners dragged them back to shelter before Allied bombers appeared overhead.

Japanese Sally Bomber

A destroyed Mitsubishi Ki-21 “Sally” bomber at Lakunai Airfield, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. Lakunai Airfield was originally built by the Royal Australian Air Force before being captured by the Japanese in 1942. It was the scene of heavy Allied bombing that neutralized the airfield. Tom Jones photo

The tunnels also housed supplies and various Japanese command posts, but some were hell-holes holding Australian and American POWs. Captured Allied fliers were herded into caves on Tunnel Hill. If they were lucky they were shipped, after interrogation, to Japan as slave laborers (a story well told in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken). Most, though, did back-breaking work on Rabaul’s installations until the Japanese decided they were of no further use. Trucked out to the bleak, ash-covered slopes of Tavurvur volcano, these brave men dug their own graves under the eyes of pitiless executioners. Hundreds of Allied POWs were murdered on Rabaul. Many still lie there today.

Hundreds of Allied POWs were murdered on Rabaul. Many still lie there today.

Not far from Rabaul is Lakunai airfield, a Japanese fighter strip during the war. The airfield was visited by Yamamoto in the days before his fateful flight to Bougainville in April 1943, where Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning pilots intercepted and destroyed his plane. At Lakunai, buried in 1994 under four feet of volcanic ash, the locals have unearthed the skeletal remains of a Mitsubishi Ki-21 “Sally” twin-engine bomber. Now a popular tourist attraction, this Sally was apparently crushed during an Allied raid under its collapsing hangar. The canopy frame of the wrecked bomber is still recognizable, as are two nacelles and a pair of corroded lumps of metal, once the Sally’s radial engines. Aircraft aluminum and machined steel are no match for seventy years of exposure in a tropical climate.

Yamamoto Bunker

Japanese maps and defense plans are still visible on the walls of the Yamamoto Bunker. Rhonda Coleman photo

In Rabaul’s old center, nearly destroyed by that 1994 volcanic outburst, is the prewar New Guinea Club, now a small museum. Inside is a treasure trove of war relics: the wing and drop tank of a Japanese A6M2 Zero fighter, a P-38 Lightning forward canopy frame, and a collection of light antiaircraft and infantry weapons. Next door is the Yamamoto Bunker, a Japanese naval command post roofed by reinforced concrete; it was once the hub of the harbor’s searchlight and antiaircraft defenses. Japanese defense maps and writings are still visible on the bunker’s walls, where Yamamoto supposedly spent his last night. By late 1943, Allied raids, launched ever more frequently from New Guinea, and later, from bases in the Solomons, neutralized Rabaul’s offensive striking power, and Gen. Douglas McArthur wisely bypassed the bristling fortress.

Japanese defense maps and writings are still visible on the bunker’s walls, where Yamamoto supposedly spent his last night.

Just three months after their strategic reverses at the Coral Sea and Midway, the Japanese launched a sudden raid to capture airfields at New Guinea’s eastern tip. They hoped to use them to threaten Australia and support their overland attack on Port Moresby. Alotau Town, in Milne Bay, was the scene of fierce combat in late August 1942.

New Guinea Club

The New Guinea Club on Rabaul houses a small museum that contains relics of the World War II fighting that took place on Rabaul. Rhonda Coleman photo

Landed on August 25 and 29 , the 1,900-man assault force from the Imperial Navy’s Special Landing Forces encountered determined Aussie and American defenders, some 8,800 of them. Japanese failures were many: their intelligence failed to detect the defenders’ heavy air and firepower, the landing force splashed ashore in the wrong spot, and Japanese light tanks bogged down in the muddy terrain. The result was a bloody repulse – banzai charges could not take Airfield #3, and after losing some 625 killed, most of the surviving attackers were withdrawn by a flotilla of Imperial Navy warships. The Australians hunted down those who remained. It was the first land defeat for Japanese troops after a nine-month string of victories ashore.

A memorial at Airfield #3, later Turnbull Field, surmounted by an aircraft propeller and Japanese mountain howitzer, honors the defenders who turned back the final, desperate Japanese assault.

Today on the beach near Alotau, visitors can see the twisted steel ribs of a Japanese landing barge, strafed and destroyed by Australian P-40 Kittyhawk fighters, flown from the very airfields the Japanese hoped to capture. A memorial at Airfield #3, later Turnbull Field, surmounted by an aircraft propeller and Japanese mountain howitzer, honors the defenders who turned back the final, desperate Japanese assault.

Australian Memorial

An Australian Memorial commemorates the Allied victory in 1942 at the Battle of Milne Bay. Tom Jones photo

From Milne Bay, the fighting shifted west to the doomed Japanese land assault on Port Moresby over the Kokoda Track, and east to the Solomons and the bitter struggles for Guadalcanal.

Trees now grow through their rusting, skeletal hulls, in peaceful contrast to the violent wartime history of this coastal strip.

On the harbor front in Alotau, an imposing black granite monolith, labeled “Milne Bay,” commemorates the courage of the Allied defenders of August and September 1942. Farther east, behind the Japanese landing zone, lie the hulks of half a dozen U.S. LCVP landing craft, abandoned on the banks of a quiet jungle creek. Used as supply haulers after the battle, trees now grow through their rusting, skeletal hulls, in peaceful contrast to the violent wartime history of this coastal strip.

LCVP Landing Craft

The rusting hulls of American LCVP landing craft rest on a quiet creek bank near Alotau, Papua New Guinea. Abandoned at war’s end, these craft were used for a time as cargo lighters to and from ships in Milne Bay. Rhonda Coleman photo

The New Guinea coast offers many similar reminders, faded by time, of the conflict in the southwest Pacific. The backdrop of lush rain forest and teeming, offshore coral reefs are a naturalist’s delight. Perhaps the best reason to visit New Guinea today are the peaceful Papuan villagers, who offer a colorful cultural experience to visitors: dances, traditional costumes, and “sing-sings” to the beat of hand-carved wooden drums. This beautiful and idyllic coast should be on the itinerary of any student of World War II in the South Pacific.

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Tom Jones is a veteran NASA astronaut, scientist, speaker, and author.