Rabaul lies on the eastern end of the island of New Britain. At the time of the battle, the town, was the capital of the Australian-administered Territory of New Guinea, having been captured from the Germans in 1914. In March 1941, the Australians despatched a small garrison to the region, as tensions with Japan heightened. The small Australian Army garrison in New Britain was built around Lieutenant Colonel Howard Carr's 700-strong 2/22nd Battalion, an Australian Imperial Force (AIF) infantry battalion. This battalion formed part of Lark Force, which eventually numbered 1,400 men and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Scanlan.The force also included personnel from a local Militia unit, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), a coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance. The 2/22nd Battalion Band—which was also included in Lark Force—is perhaps the only military unit ever to have been entirely recruited from the ranks of the Salvation Army. A commando unit, the 130-strong 2/1st Independent Company, was detached to garrison the nearby island of New Ireland.
Throughout 1941, the Allies had planned to build Rabaul up as a "secure fleet anchorage" with plans to establish a radar station and a strong defensive minefield; however, these plans were ultimately shelved. Allied planners later determined that they did not have the capacity to expand the garrison around Rabaul, nor was the naval situation conducive to reinforcing it should the garrison come under attack. Nevertheless, the decision was made that the garrison would remain in place to hold Rabaul as a forward observation post. The main tasks of the garrison were protection of Vunakanau, the main Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield near Rabaul, and the nearby flying boat anchorage in Simpson Harbour, which were important for the surveillance of Japanese movements in the region. However, the RAAF contingent, under Wing Commander John Lerew, had little offensive capability, with only 10 lightly armed CAC Wirraway training aircraft and four Lockheed Hudson light bombers from No. 24 Squadron.
For the Japanese, Rabaul was important because of its proximity to the Caroline Islands, which was the site of a major Imperial Japanese Navy base on Truk. The capture of New Britain offered them a deep water harbour and airfields to provide protection to Truk and also to interdict Allied lines of communication between the United States and Australia. Following the capture of Guam, the South Seas Force, under Major General Tomitaro Horii, was tasked with capturing Kavieng and Rabaul, as part of "Operation R".
Japanese planning began with aerial reconnaissance of the town, which sought to identify the dispositions of the defending troops. Planners, who had been flown from Guam to Truk, determined three possible schemes of manouevre based on these dispositions: a landing near Kokop, aimed at establishing a beachhead; a landing on the north coast of Rabaul, followed by a drive on Rabaul from behind the main defences; or a multi-pronged landing focused capturing the airfields and centre of the town. They eventually settled upon the third option. For the invasion, the Japanese established a brigade group based on the 55th Division. Its main combat units were the 144th Infantry Regiment, which consisted of a headquarters unit, three infantry battalions, an artillery company, signals unit, and a munitions squad, as well as a few platoons from the 55th Cavalry Regiment, a battalion from the 55th Mountain Artillery Regiment and a company from the 55th Engineer Regiment. These forces would be supported by a large naval task force, and landing operations would be preceded by a heavy aerial campaign aimed at destroying Allied air assets in region, so that they could not interfere with the landing operations.
Most civilians who were not necessary to the defence of the base were evacuated in December 1941, shortly before Japanese air raids began. Starting on 4 January 1942, Rabaul came under attack by large numbers of Japanese carrier-based aircraft. After the odds facing the Australians mounted significantly, the RAAF commander, Lerew, signalled RAAF HQ in Melbourne with the Latin motto "Nos Morituri Te Salutamus" ("we who are about to die salute you"), the phrase uttered by gladiators in ancient Rome before entering combat. On 14 January, the Japanese force embarked at Truk and began steaming towards Rabaul as part of a naval task force, which consisted of two aircraft carriers—Kaga and Akagi—seven cruisers, 14 destroyers, and numerous smaller vessels and submarines under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue. On 20 January, over 100 Japanese aircraft attacked Rabaul in multiple waves. Eight Wirraways attacked and in the ensuing fighting three RAAF planes were shot down, two crash-landed, and another was damaged. Six Australian aircrew were killed in action and five wounded. One of the attacking Japanese bombers was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. As a result of the intense air attacks, Australian coastal artillery was destroyed and Australian infantry were withdrawn from Rabaul itself. The following day, an RAAF Catalina flying boat crew located the invasion fleet off Kavieng, and its crew managed to send a signal before being shot down.
Japanese fleet to be employed in the invasion of Rabaul, photographed by an RAAF Hudson over Truk on 9 January 1942
As the Australian ground troops took up positions along the western shore of Blanche Bay where they prepared to meet the landing, the remaining RAAF elements, consisting of two Wirraways and one Hudson, were withdrawn to Lae. Once the aircraft had departed with a number of wounded, the Australians destroyed the airfield. The bombing continued around Rabaul on 22 January and early that morning a Japanese force of between 3,000 and 4,000 troops landed just off New Ireland and waded ashore in deep water filled with dangerous mudpools. The 2/1st Independent Company had been dispersed around the island and the Japanese took the main town of Kavieng without opposition; after a sharp fight around the airfield the commandos fell back towards the Sook River. That night, the invasion fleet approached Rabaul and before dawn on 23 January, the South Seas Force entered Simpson Harbour and a force of around 5,000 troops, mainly from the 144th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Masao Kusunose, began to land on New Britain.
A series of desperate actions followed near the beaches around Simpson Harbour, Keravia Bay and Raluana Point as the Australians attempted to turn back the attack. The 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada Ishiro, was held up at Vulcan Beach by a mixed company of Australians from the 2/22nd and the NGVR, but elsewhere the other two battalions of the South Seas Force were able to land at unguarded locations and began moving inland. Within hours, Lakunai airfield had been captured by the Japanese force. Assessing the situation as , Scanlan ordered "every man for himself", and Australian soldiers and civilians split into small groups, up to company size, and retreated through the jungle, moving along the north and south coasts. During the fighting on 23 January, the Australians lost two officers and 26 other ranks killed in action.
Only the RAAF had made evacuation plans. Although initially ordered to turn his ground staff into infantrymen in a last-ditch effort to defend the island, Larew insisted that they be evacuated and organised for them to be flown out by flying boat and his one remaining Hudson. In the days the followed the capture of Rabaul, the Japanese began mopping up operations, starting on 24 January. Australian soldiers remained at large in the interior of New Britain for many weeks, but Lark Force had made no preparations for guerrilla warfare on New Britain. Without supplies, their health and military effectiveness declined. Leaflets posted by Japanese patrols or dropped from planes stated in English, "you can find neither food nor way of escape in this island and you will only die of hunger unless you surrender". The Japanese commander, Horii, tasked the 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment with searching the southern part of the Gazelle Peninsula and securing the remaining Australians. Over 1,000 Australian soldiers were captured or surrendered during the following weeks after the Japanese landed a force at Gasmata, on New Britain's south coast, on 9 February, severing the Australians' line of retreat. Following this, the Japanese reorganised their forces, occupying a line along the Keravat River, to prevent possible counterattacks.
From mainland New Guinea, some civilians and individual officers from the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit organised unofficial rescue missions to New Britain, and between March and May about 450 troops and civilians were evacuated by sea. Notwithstanding these efforts, Allied losses, particularly in relation to personnel captured, were very high and casualties during the fighting for Rabaul in early 1942 were heavily in favour of the Japanese. The Allies lost six aircrew killed and five wounded, along with 28 soldiers killed in action, and over 1,000 captured. Against this, the Japanese lost only 16 killed and 49 wounded.
Of the over 1,000 Australian soldiers taken prisoner, around 160 were massacred on or about 4 February 1942 in four separate incidents around Tol and Waitavalo. Six men survived these killings and later described what had happened to a Court of Inquiry. The Australian government concluded the prisoners were marched into the jungle near Tol Plantation in small groups and were then bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. At the nearby Waitavalo Plantation, another group of Australian prisoners were shot. The Allies later placed responsibility for the incident on Masao Kusunose, the commanding officer of the 144th Infantry Regiment, but in late 1946 he starved himself to death before he could stand trial. At least 800 soldiers and 200 civilian prisoners of war—most of them Australian—lost their lives on 1 July 1942, when the ship on which they were being transported from Rabaul to Japan, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk off the north coast of Luzon by the U.S. submarine USS Sturgeon.
The Japanese attack on Rabaul is regarded as their only entirely successful operation in the South Pacific.
But relatives of the nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers and civilians who were left behind when Japan invaded the island of New Britain have not forgotten what happened in 1942.
At the time, New Guinea was an Australian territory, part of Australia, under the constitution Australia cannot have colonies, and Rabaul was an important town filled with Australian soldiers, officials and planters.
When Australia declared war on Japan in December 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Diana Martell walked with her father and uncle down to the beach in front of their home, just outside Rabaul.
"It was just dawn, grey light, and I remember thinking 'this was very strange,' and they were talking and you could sort of feel that something terrible was happening," she said.
Within weeks, Diana and her mother were evacuated to Sydney.
Six weeks later, on 23 January 1942, Japan invaded Rabaul, and within six months Diana's father, uncle, and most of the nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers and civilians who had been left behind were dead.
Thousands of New Guineans, Chinese and people of other nationalities would also die as a result of the invasion.
"The battle for Australia has commenced," the acting prime minister and minister for the army, Frank Forde, told the nation during an emergency national broadcast on January 24, 1942, the day after the invasion of Rabaul.
In 2017, 75 years since all the dreadful events of 1942 and 100 years since 1917, there has been a procession of war anniversaries, all vying for a place in the nation's memory.
There have been national commemorations for the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin. But the fall of Rabaul was marked only by a few quiet ceremonies, attended mostly by families.
So why has this national disaster never been part of the nation's story?
Part of the reason seems to be that many of the survivors remain so traumatised by what happened that they can hardly talk about it.
Graham Manson remembers, but finds it almost impossible to speak about.
Now in his mid-90s, he lost his sister, brother, brother-in-law and 11-year-old nephew.
"The last time I saw Dickie, he would have only been, I don't know, eight or nine," Mr Manson said, turning the page of a photo album, at his home in Sydney.
"That's Dickie in a cowboy suit. He's a beautiful little boy.'
Dickie lived with his family on a plantation near the town. They all vanished after the invasion.
"The word we got in the end was they'd all been … assassinated."
In 1943, Mr Manson's father, still waiting for word, died of a heart attack, and his mother later took her own life. Today, he can't talk about Rabaul without crying.
"I'm the last one left," he said.
The civilian men were not given the option of leaving.
At least 1,200 Australian soldiers and civilians died in the six months following the invasion.
Some were killed in the battles, others died in the jungle, 160 were massacred at a plantation called Tol, and more than 1,000 military and civilian prisoners from Rabaul drowned when the prison ship Montevideo Maru was sunk by an American submarine off the Philippines.
Many other civilians, like Mr Manson's family, simply vanished.
"They just disappeared," Ms Williams said.
"One of the things about the civilians in Rabaul is that their names are nowhere, and to me that means they don't exist.
"You've got to put the name somewhere and recognise that these people actually existed … Whether they died in Rabaul, on the Montevideo Maru, at Tol or somewhere else, they died as tragedy of war."
Today Graham has nowhere to grieve for his lost family.
Recent research revealed the family, including Dickie, were executed for spying. But their names are listed on no memorials and the nation doesn't remember.
Even the end of the war in 1945 brought no end to the suffering of Mr Manson's family.
"I remember all the people were cheering in the streets," he said.
"But Mum had been praying every day. She kept saying, 'Where's my family?'
"We never ever heard through the whole war, and the most heartbreaking thing was … when peace was declared we waited and waited and waited."
Use the audio controls to your left to hear the ABC Radio Documentary broadcast Monday 6 November 2017 1105 ESAD on the battle we forgot.
Text courtesy Wikipedia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.