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Horrors in Wrecked Rabaul
Australians Are Now Trying to Restore Order - From a Special Correspondent
The story of what happened inside Rabaul, after the Jap occupation in January 1942, still has to be told. The little that has already been published indicates a long series of atrocities and horrors.
Australian Forces have been in occupation of Rabaul since September 10, but singularly little has been published to describe either the Jap occupation or the Australian re-occupation.
Major Edmonds-Wilson, commander of the tiny Kavieng garrison of 150 men, has told how he got his men away from Kavieng in a schooner, but they were captured by Japs and taken to Rabaul. He was there until he was shipped away to Japan at the end of June 1942. He was liberated in Japan, and he told a reporter that atrocities during the first few days of the Jap occupation of Rabaul were indescribable. He could hear the screams of crazed women while the drunken Japs went from house to house raping, looting and killing.
This doubtless refers to the Japanese looting of Rabaul's Chinatown. The Japs treated the Chinese community, especially the women, with fearful cruelty.
It appears that after the Australian soldiers and civilians were shipped away from Rabaul in June 1942 (the most of whom were never heard of again) the Japs brought to Rabaul 600 surrendered British soldiers from Singapore and forced them to dig the innumerable tunnels with which the hillsides around Rabaul are now honeycombed. They arrived in October 1942, when the Japs were confident they could hold Rabaul, and use it as a base against Australia.
Of the 600, only 18 survived - they were liberated when the AIF went into Rabaul - and they were badly diseased. Sixty four died in Rabaul from disease and malnutrition, and 517 were drowned on a ship in Rabaul Harbour when shipping there was attacked by American planes.
Later the Japs took 80 American soldier prisoners into Rabaul, but their fate is not clear. One report indicates that a number of them were flown from Rabaul to Tokyo after Rabaul surrendered.
From about the middle of 1943, Jap communications between Japan and Rabaul were seriously interrupted, and the Rabaul Japs were thrown on their own resources. From then on the prisoners were forced to live on meagre rations of locally grown vegetables.
What remained of the town of Rabaul seems to have been finally wiped out by a terrific Allied air raid on March 2 1944. It continued for the better part of 24 hours, destroyed the town and the harbour shipping, and killed large numbers of Japs. In reprisal the Japs followed their usual practices and tortured and killed their prisoners.
Meagre and disconnected reports from Rabaul indicate that large numbers of Australian troops now are encamped in or near the town, and that the Japs are being compelled to provide much of the labour for restoring the roads and streets, and removing the jungle growth which had been taking possession of the ruined town.
It is also indicated that a proportion of the Rabaul Chinese - about 850 - are encamped some 20 miles out of Rabaul. There were about 1200 in Rabaul when the invasion occurred.
HMAS Manoora was undergoing overhaul at Garden Island, Sydney, when orders were received that she had to be completed and ready for sea by a certain date.
Miraculously the jobs were completed, stores and ammunitions came aboard, crew recalled from leave began to report, fuming at the cut in their leave; and on the day ordered we left Garden Island, swung compasses and in the afternoon slipped through Sydney Heads and headed north.
We were bound for Jacquinot Bay, New Guinea, and thence, Madang. But two days out we received orders to embark troops and equipment and lead the reoccupation of Rabaul.
Some days before our arrival the surrender had been signed in Rabaul Harbour on HMS Glory, an aircraft carrier of the British Pacific Fleet. Following the surrender HMAS Shepparton, hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Reserve, and the AMS's Kiama, Dubbo, Lithgow and Townsville had been busy locating and 'danning' our own and Japanese minefields and sweeping a channel clear of mines, pending our arrival.
HMAS Vendetta, immediately after the surrender, had brought out to Jacquinot Bay a number of European ex POWs for hospital treatment and onward air passage to the mainland.
The transport SS Katoomba joined us, and after completion of embarking troops and equipment, we sailed in convoy with HMAS Vendetta as escort. Numerous Army small craft, fully laden, had already left in order to reach the rendezvous on schedule.
We reached the rendezvous in the early morning of September 10 and as soon as all ships had taken station HMAS Vendetta followed by HMAS Manoora led the squadron into Simpson Harbour, with air cover provided by RNZ Air Force Corsairs.
The peaks of the Mother and Daughter were veiled with fleecy clouds, and at the base of each could be seen some of the extensive gardens laid out by the Japanese.
The scenic beauty of Simpson Harbour unfolded as we made our way slowly to our anchorage. Matupi had been active, and wisps of steam were rising from the crater, vents and fissures as we passed.Vulcan looked quite serene. His slopes now are about three quarters covered with vegetation.
The Japanese in the Rabaul area were known to exceed 83,000, and in the eyes of the civilian population of Japan were heroes who had protected and delayed the occupation of the Homeland. These were the men who said they would fight on to the end, even if Japan proper surrendered.
There was an inward questioning as to what reception we might get, as our force was tiny compared with theirs. One felt the brooding quietness of the place; and we were thankful that we were not entering to make a landing under the hail of fire which would have greeted us if the invasion had taken place a few weeks before.
We anchored about half a mile from the beach head, and the Naval Port Director and senior Army officers went ashore to meet the two white clad envoys and their interpreters who were waiting on the beach.
At the wharf, towards the now non-existent town of Rabaul, the remainder of the Japanese left in the area were drawn up. These approximated 400 Army and Navy men left as guards for the ammunition and stores dumps, the remainder having already moved out into the area defined in the surrender terms.
Obviously the two envoys representing the Japanese Army and Navy respectively were less antagonistic to us than they were to each other, but the negotiations proceeded smoothly.
In the meantime, assault barges were being rapidly loaded with troops and equipment, and soon the first wave was heading for the beach head where a base was quickly established.
Japanese transport was in an appalling condition. But our Army men soon took over trucks and cars, and then a continuous stream of traffic commenced to flow to the various bases being set up. Roads were in a bad condition, but soon bull dozers and road equipment were quickly on the job and before we left there was a very big improvement in the road surfaces. It was interesting to see the nonchalant way the bull dozer drivers went on with the job, as if they had been there for years. Wide eyed natives who had started to come in watched the proceedings with great interest, whilst Japanese guards on the dumps looked on with expressionless faces.
The news cameraman who had accompanied us had a marvellous outing. Just how much film he used is his own private secret, but by now you will have seen the fruits of his efforts in the newsreels.
The whole shore line of Simpson Harbour is littered with bombed, gutted and burnt out ships, some half on the beach, others submerged, with only their masts and the tops of funnels showing here and there.
A very effective job had been done by our Air Force, as the results showed. There were a few ships of varying sizes which were in reasonable order, including a seagoing tug which the enemy had skillfully camouflaged to give the impression that it was wrecked and useless. A midget submarine and a small float plane were added to the collection.
The float plane was in good order, having been used by the Japanese to bring in the wounded from outlying islands. Red Cross markings were conspicuously displayed on it. Our pilots soon had it in the air, and we next saw it at Jacquinot Bay.
When we had completed disembarking troops and stores, we had an opportunity of going ashore and taking stock of the area which we were permitted to visit.
In the years that the Japanese have been in Rabaul it is estimated that 283 miles of tunnels and underground workings were constructed. Many of the underground workshops, stores and air raid and living quarters were on a large scale. In effect they went underground as they have done in so many other places.
The town of Rabaul as the old residents knew it has been completely wiped out. There remains the front wall of Burns Philp's store, battered by shell fire and bomb blast and the concrete entrance to what appeared to be the Rabaul Club. Concrete foundation posts were a mute reminder of the homes that once stood there, together with broken windmills and water tanks.
As I have said, the roads were very bad indeed. Down near the wharf you can see the gutted and holed fuel oil tanks on their sides, the twisted framework of the cargo sheds and the cantilever crane, with a twisted girder here and there.
One thing that impressed us were the very extensive vegetable gardens which had been laid out by the Japanese. It is estimated that they planted 15000 acres of garden for food supplies. Most of these gardens were between the foundations of the old homes.
We obtained a supply of fresh fruit and sweet potatoes, which were welcome additions to our table.
Obviously the Japanese had planned Rabaul as a major base of operations and the starting point for the invasion of Australia. Underground stores and workshops were found of all kinds of equipment and there were large ammunition dumps containing all types of explosives and shells. Amidst the undergrowth, along the foreshore, were dumps of aero engines which had been 'given the works' by our Air Force. The value of the equipment must run into a huge figure.
The Japanese we saw looked very fit and, whilst they saluted regularly and bowed and smiled, one was left with the impression that while it suited them to be helpful and willing, unless they are kept down and watched very carefully indeed they will plan another war infinitely worse than this. We can not be too careful in the next few years to avoid lulling ourselves into a state of false security.
European, Indian and Indonesian prisoners of war were found - the Europeans and Indonesians in reasonable health. The Indians (officers and men from Singapore) had a very bad time and were very thin indeed. They were cheerful and awfully pleased to see us.
Most of the ex-residents of Rabaul captured by the Japanese had been shipped to prison camps in Japan.
Whether Rabaul will be rebuilt and return to its former importance in Island life is a matter depending on Government policy and further volcanic activity. At present the Island will remain under Army and ANGAU control as it will be some time before the Japanese POWs can be cleared out.
Before leaving Rabaul on our second voyage we embarked some hundreds of cheering and singing Indonesians for transportation to the Dutch East Indies. They had made their own musical instruments in the prison camps and, at a concert they gave us, one felt the joy and relief they felt as they sang and played Hawaiian and Indonesian songs and music. This was a concert of thanks and gratitude, as they expressed themselves, to repay the kindness extended to them in the ship, where a collection of all articles of use - tobacco, razor blades, toothpaste etc - had been quickly made. When they were disembarked at their various ports it was a pleasure to see the welcome given them by the local residents, and reunions between relatives was not an uncommon sight.
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