“The battle for Rabaul was World War II’s longest,” writes Bruce Gamble, a retired naval flight officer, in the final volume of this trilogy. “Some historians might argue that the Battle of the Atlantic, from September 1939 to May 1945, was longer, and chronologically they have a point. But the campaign in the Atlantic covered an area of hemispherical proportions, with clashes occurring thousands of miles apart. Rabaul, a township of less than one square mile, was fought over from Jan. 4, 1942 to Aug. 15, 1945, a near-constant battle spanning almost forty-four months.”
“The battle for Rabaul was World War II’s longest.”
American air crews — both land- and carrier-based — dreaded missions to Rabaul, on the northern tip of the island of New Britain in present-day Papua New Guinea. The natural harbor, roughly three times the size of Pearl Harbor, was surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and defended by swarms of fighters. The prospect of being killed bombing Rabaul was not nearly as frightening as the idea of being captured. In the appendix, Gamble lists Allied prisoners of the Japanese at Rabaul. After many of the names appears the word: “Executed.”
Gamble writes about the experiences of ordinary fighting men as deftly as any author alive. He also takes us into the minds and private conversations of key commanders who devised Operation Cartwheel, the campaign to chip away at fortress Rabaul. Southwest Pacific air commander Gen. George Kenney comes across well in this narrative, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. William “Bull” Halsey not quite so well. All of these leaders celebrated success in the siege of Rabaul prematurely.
Gamble writes about the experiences of ordinary fighting men as deftly as any author alive. He also takes us into the minds and private conversations of key commanders who devised Operation Cartwheel, the campaign to chip away at fortress Rabaul.
The follow-up to Gamble’s earlier Invasion Rabaul and Fortress Rabaul, has an SBD Dauntless dive-bomber on its cover. It’s attractively designed, laid out and illustrated, although the designers needn’t have introduced a faux shopworn appearance to a portion of the cover. The text is crisp, accessible and suitable for both general and specialized readers.
The final passage in this narrative impressed me so much I’d like to quote it in full:
“Rabaul has still not fully recovered. It may never recover. And it will never be like it was in the years before World War II. During its heyday Rabaul was a lovely tropical port of call. Those were days of progress, days of peace, when giant casuarinas and mango trees shaded the boulevards, and men in tropical suits and ladies in flowered sundresses strolled past gardens of bougainvillea, frangipani, and hibiscus, and thought their lives could not get any better,
“Maybe they were right.”