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Defining the Battlefield:
War in an Unlikely Place: Japanese Air-Base Networks in the South Pacific
To understand the air-base networks that developed in the South Pacific and the war that was fought from them, it is important to make some basic observations concerning factors that made the theater unique. First, in the South and Southwest Pacific—in practice, eastern New Guinea and the Solomon Islands—there were no strategic objectives that had inherent value. There were no cities, no raw materials, no foodstuffs, nothing else that could have been of direct profit to the war effort of either side. Coconuts, the only item exported from the area before the war, were very far down the list of strategic materials and were readily available from other markets. Consequently had one side or the other occupied every square inch of this huge area, it would have helped itself not one iota and done no harm to the foe. The strategic importance of the theater lay entirely in its geographic relationship to other areas. A key by itself is of no value, but what lies behind the locked doorway might be precious indeed. The South Pacific was a strategic key to important doorways. For Japan control of the area would either help secure its conquests in Southeast Asia or serve as a stepping-stone toward the expansion of its perimeter. Conversely if the Allies gained control of the area, they would be in position to threaten the resources of the East Indies upon which Japan's war economy depended.
Second, because there was nothing of inherent importance to attack or defend, the air bases themselves became the only strategic objects of importance. Almost all air, ground, and naval action that took place in the greater South Pacific area was directed at seizing air bases and places where air bases could be built. Only in a handful of cases in the New Guinea campaign was a port the primary goal, and even in these instances an air base was always part of the bargain.
No area in the South Pacific was capable of supporting military operations employing its own resources. The area was remarkably hostile to twentieth-century man and possessed no basic physical infrastructure worthy of the name. In the entire area there was not one city. Inside the sleepy coastal settlements there were a few roads, but there was nothing resembling a road network in the theater. The crudest track that could allow passage by jeep was considered a good line of communication, and it probably did not go far. Although it is difficult to generalize on the subject, the widely dispersed indigenous population had no political stake in the war and, beyond providing manual labor, played a very small role in operations. (The peoples assisting the famous Australian Coast Watchers were notable exceptions, but in numbers they were few.) In short, this was one of the most primitive places on earth. However, airpower required some of the most sophisticated machines and support available to the combatant nations. Consequently everything required to fight had to be brought in from the outside. The aircraft themselves, all of the personnel, almost all food, all vehicles, all weapons, all communications, and all medical supplies had to be transported into the theater.
In addition, the South Pacific was an island war. In practice, the war was over islands within islands and the lines of communication between them. Because there was nothing of value beyond military bases, and because the terrain was so hostile, there was neither the need nor possibility of occupying a large portion of any major island. Guadalcanal is a good example. It was above average in size for the Solomons, being some eighty miles long and twenty-five miles wide. Had an island of that size in the Mediterranean been considered worth taking, an army would have exerted a strong presence throughout the territory. However, during the South Pacific campaign the Americans occupied a small perimeter near Lunga Point, where they built an airfield complex and held a narrow stretch of beach a few miles up and down the northern shoreline. When the climactic battle was raging on Guadalcanal between August and November 1942, the American perimeter around the crucial airstrips was not much larger than two miles by four miles. Most of Guadalcanal, during and after the battle, was left as it had always been. Many other islands in the Solomons had only token garrisons, and neither side exerted any meaningful control outside some small outposts. Although New Guinea is one of the largest islands in the world, bases there were even more separated than those in the Solomon Islands. One could go from island to island by sea, but bases and outposts in New Guinea were often linked only by a tortuous land or coastal route. In either case, any base in the South Pacific was extremely vulnerable to siege. If one side was dominant in the air over the ocean or the little ports sustaining its jungle bases, it could prevent amphibious invasion and allow friendly supply to sustain power. If it lost that dominance, its own bases would be cut off and rendered useless and the garrison doomed to gross hardship and possible starvation. Also, if air dominance was lost, it proved impossible to prevent an enemy force from taking an unoccupied or poorly defended area of the coast or moving overland for short distances. In either case, the object was the seizure of an enemy air base or the construction of a new one. Both sides learned the process quickly, and each attempted to strangle the other when possessing superior strength. The Japanese failed when they had their chance, but the Allies, once the initiative was theirs, annihilated Japan's air forces, isolated huge armies, and turned the entire theater into history's largest prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.
Obviously a symbiotic relationship existed between the forces of sea, land, and air. Despite the tremendous importance of air transport in the South Pacific, most supplies and all amphibious assaults were seaborne. Bases, because they would occupy land, had to be seized and defended by ground forces. Because Japan's central harbor and air base were at the same place (Rabaul), it proved possible for fast Japanese warships to slip through the reach of the Allied air forces and engage in ferocious surface battles at night. Yet ultimately if one side held air superiority over any patch of water during daylight, it was the warship that was on the defensive. The aircraft carrier engagements are fine illustrations of this point, but in the South Pacific land bases provided more decisive evidence. The cover of night was never total, and both navies paid a heavy price when attacked from the air. Thus without land forces there would have been no air bases to begin with. Without sea power it was not possible to sustain the flow of supplies required to keep aircraft fighting and the garrisons supported. Without air cover, warships were in deadly peril, merchant ships could not operate, and armies could not survive. It is impossible to say that one type of war—land, sea, or air—was the most important. Trying to a make judgment would be like arguing whether the heart is more important than the lungs to the human body. Yet in other theaters during World War II it was possible to fight a tenacious campaign in the face of enemy air superiority and without the aid of sea power. In the postwar era, a few nations have triumphed in war without any offensive airpower or naval forces. However, in the South Pacific yielding air superiority for an extended time led inevitably to calamity. In no theater of war in any conflict has airpower been more important than in the South and Southwest Pacific.
It was also extremely difficult to find suitable locations for an air base. In this regard, a comparison with World War II Europe in the West illustrates the point well. Prior to combat Northern Europe was strewn with airfields of all kinds, all connected to road networks. Expanding these bases was simple enough because the roads were there, construction machinery was available, and local skilled labor was on call. Constructing a new base was a matter of assembling assets already available. Experts knew the geography and geology. There were no serious diseases lurking. The land had long been cleared, so engineers could choose between a variety of possible sites. Commanders mandated an appropriate position and ordered the necessary men to the job, and the field appeared.
In the South Pacific the Western European environment was turned on its head. Almost nothing was known about the basic geography of the area, much less its geology. Intense rainfall throughout the theater greatly limited the terrain that was firm enough to handle extensive air operations. Such areas existed, but no one knew where most of them were situated. To make matters worse, although the entire area was ridden with disease, some points were particularly rife with malaria. Because nobody knew which areas had insufficient drainage or were especially poisonous, the only way to find out was to try to build a field and then fail. These factors placed a great premium on discovering a place for a good new air base or seizing one that was already proven. A good base was not only a strategic necessity; it was a gift from Mars, the ancient god of war.
Moreover, air bases in the South Pacific were useful only if commanders located them within an operational radius fitting their function. As noted, the main targets of air and amphibious attacks were other air bases. Therefore the single most important geographic characteristic of a potential air base was the combat radius it would allow aircraft to employ. The most meaningful scale was thus what airmen called "fighter range." By early 1942 the tremendous importance of fighter aircraft was recognized by both sides in the Pacific, and its standing only increased throughout the war. Simply put, bombers could not safely operate within range of enemy fighters unless they had escort from their own fighters. The strategic problem that arose from this simple fact was serious. Fighters had inherently less range than bombers. Even when the range was extended with drop tanks and more efficient flying techniques, a fighter could use up its fuel during combat (as opposed to cruising) at a startling rate. Also, a fighter was much more vulnerable to disaster if it got lost, because it lacked the time required to find its position.
The definition of fighter range varied. Early Japanese fighters had extraordinary range and were able to operate up to 600 miles from base. For a brief period Japanese Zero pilots escorted bombers well over 500 miles on their strikes from Rabaul against Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The price was high, however, and the Japanese never tried to sustain operations at such a range again. Thus phrases like "combat radius" should be viewed with great caution. In practice both air forces learned that it was extremely wise to allow for a large margin of error. Fuel consumption doubled during combat, and it was always good for pilot morale to believe that you had enough "juice" to return home. Also, heavier and more robust U.S. fighters (also flown by Anzac pilots) had a lesser range than did Japanese craft. Ironically the fighter range of Japanese aircraft decreased over time as more weight was allocated to a larger engine that would generate slightly greater speeds. The opposite occurred with U.S. aircraft. The second-generation fighters that appeared after early 1943 flew farther because they had larger fuel tanks. As a rule of thumb, fighter range for the Allies meant between 150 and 250 miles; for the Japanese it was 250-350 miles. For special missions, planes of either side could operate considerably farther. Nevertheless operational plans were made with the average mission in mind, and both sides learned to be conservative if they wished to preserve aircraft. As it was, hundreds of fighters throughout the theater had to ditch as they ran out of fuel before reaching home. Many of the same factors limited bomber range. A medium bomber rarely attacked a target more than 500 miles from home. (Again, there were exceptions, particularly with the Japanese Betty.) When they stretched their range beyond the more conservative fighter range, medium bombers would lessen their load of bombs to keep it safe. Heavy bombers likewise preferred a longer range to a heavier bomb load. Thus heavy bombers could make sporadic attacks, particularly at night, from extremely long range. Medium bombers could strike farther out than fighters, and often did, but preferred staying under the umbrella.
The differences in range also led naturally to differences in bases. Heavy bombers could fly a longer range but also needed the longest and best fields. Consequently bomber bases were often the most distant from the front. This situation paid a double dividend because bombers were more valuable and more vulnerable to air attack, so they were best kept out of harm's way. Medium bombers might well share a base with either heavies or fighters. Smaller attack aircraft like dive-bombers and land-based torpedo-bombers (which usually dropped conventional bombs) were normally glued to the fighters. Overall this meant that although air attack might begin from a great distance, a continuous and coordinated assault including all types of planes would not be launched until the respective bases were very close. This fact had two obvious results. First, it meant that the air war in the South Pacific, which took place over a vast area, would be a slow, step-by-step affair. Second, it meant that the air war in the South Pacific lasted for two years and developed into a merciless battle of attrition that would cost the lives of thousands of airmen.
One final distinction must be made before examining the beginning of air warfare in the South Pacific. Air bases varied greatly in sophistication and size. Both sides developed large base complexes that included several runways that could handle any aircraft, repair and maintenance facilities, relatively complex communications, substantial antiaircraft defenses, and a major garrison. The fields in these great complexes were near one another and probably connected by road; command was centralized. The Japanese had two such complexes: Rabaul in New Britain and Wewak in New Guinea. The Allies began with a major complex in the New Hebrides Islands and in the Townsville area of northern Australia. Thanks to good fortune, the Allies quickly added Port Moresby on southeastern Papua to the list of major complexes. After final victory, Guadalcanal joined the list, along with Dobodura in New Guinea. Acting as satellites from these major complexes were major bases that could handle and maintain a substantial number of aircraft but relied on the home base for more substantial support. For the Japanese, their major bases were in and near Bougainville (Buka, Buin, Kahili, and Shortlands), Gasmata on New Britain, Kavieng on New Ireland, and Lae on New Guinea. As the tide turned for the Allies, they created major bases at Munda on New Georgia, Torokina on Bougainville in the Solomons, and at Nadzab, Gusap, and Tsili Tsili on New Guinea, to name some of the most prominent. Last, there were the small bases. Although not major components in the air war, small outposts were invaluable as emergency fields. Often they were nothing more than mowed grass or flattened coral. In sum, a base complex like Rabaul had several fields, one over 5,000 feet long, and could potentially operate 450 planes of all types. At the other end of the ladder were small emergency strips like Hood Point that did well if any aircraft that landed was able to take off again. Rabaul was defended by more than 70,000 men with supporting artillery of all kinds. Hood Point was manned by six men with a jeep. Clearly scale and function varied greatly.
A quick geographic tour of the South and Southwest Pacific will help make events more comprehensible. Although Australians are quick to point out that their country is the size of the United States, it is more properly compared to Canada. This was particularly true during World War II, when Australia's population was much smaller than at present. Like Canada, most of the people live in the southeastern portion of the nation. The small city of Perth and its nearby port, Freemantle, lay in the southwest opposite the Indian Ocean, serving as a nice comparison to Vancouver. Like Canada the central and northern sectors of the country had very small populations. The small port of Darwin, which lay very close to the midpoint of the northern Australian seaboard, was the major settlement in the area and was not linked to any major settlement in the northeastern state of Queensland by road. Distances are great in the South Pacific. Darwin is 2,000 miles from Sydney, almost exactly the same distance that separates it from Manila. To the north and northeast of Darwin lie the Philippine Islands and the former Dutch East Indies. Northeast of Darwin, and due north of Queensland, lies the great island of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.
In 1941 New Guinea was divided into three parts. The western half was part of the Dutch East Indies. The eastern half was divided between Papua New Guinea, an area originally controlled by Britain but ceded to Australian control early in the twentieth century. Until 1914 Germany had found its place in the sun in the Pacific, controlling northeastern New Guinea as well as three large islands slightly to the east. The islands known as New Britain and New Ireland made up the bulk of the Bismarck Archipelago. Rounding out the kaiser's tropical empire was the large island of Bougainville, which was geographically and ethnically a part of the Solomon Islands directly southeast of the Bismarcks. During World War I Australians quickly seized the German territories, and after the peace the Bismarcks, Bougainville, and Northeast New Guinea together formed the Australian Mandated Territories. The Solomons, an old British colony, was administered by a handful of British officials and a few dozen constabularies.
What developed into a fierce two-year battle of attrition between the Allies and Japan in the skies over the South Pacific began as a small component of Tokyo's stunning Pacific blitzkrieg in the five months after Pearl Harbor. In the months leading up to December 1941 the Japanese government and the Imperial High Command dealt with a multitude of issues that had great potential for unforeseen consequences. The Japanese knew this and fully realized that their decision to make war on the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands was a historic gamble. It was impossible for Tokyo to envision the ramifications of each decision made within one of the broadest and most ambitious military campaigns in history.
In outline Japan's political and military quandaries were essentially quite simple. The war initiated by Japan against China had developed into a costly stalemate with no obvious end in sight. When Hitler crushed France and put Britain into mortal peril, a tremendous power vacuum appeared in mineral-rich Southeast Asia, still controlled, with the exception of Thailand, by Western powers. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Japan's traditional enemy in the modern era also appeared to be headed for doom. Japan, that same summer, possessed a freedom of action undreamed of by previous governments in Tokyo. Whether a member of the Japanese elite sincerely believed that Japan had a mission to free Asia of European and American imperialism or simply found the argument a convenient justification for the creation of a greater Japanese empire was irrelevant. The fact remained that with France gone, and both Britain and the Soviet Union facing defeat, the opportunity presented itself to destroy the European empires in Southeast Asia and bring the fabulous geopolitical riches available there under Tokyo's control.
At the heart of Japanese policy in the late 1930s was an ingrained belief, among government elites, in Japan's cultural superiority combined with the acute awareness of the roadblocks preventing it from becoming a fully developed industrial power. Japan's population was large and young. This was a military advantage in the short run but made the country dependent on food imports. Except for the basic minerals that are commonly found in landmasses, Japan lacked the natural resources required for economic development. At the top of the list of resources not present, naturally, was oil.
So Japan, in the eyes of its leadership and much of its intelligentsia, was overpopulated and lacking in physical resources. This left the country dependent upon imports from other nations. Many nationalists argued that this situation was both dangerous and humiliating. Although the public was carefully shielded from the events, Japan's industrial weakness in the military realm was shockingly illustrated in 1939 when the tanks and artillery of the Red Army administered a brutal defeat to the light infantry army fielded by Japan in Manchuria. Generals with foresight, many of whom were very influential in Tokyo, argued that a much larger defeat might await Japan unless its industrial base was brought up to a level to match that of the USSR or the United States.
Military expansion offered a tantalizing solution to all of Japan's problems. Manchuria, in addition to the Japanese homeland and Korea, would serve as the industrial heartland of a great power. The oil and minerals of Southeast Asia would allow the development of a fully mature industrial economy that would ultimately match (or surpass) any on earth. Prior to Hitler's triumphs such an expansion would require a suicidal war with at least the West and probably the USSR as well. When the Nazi juggernaut smashed the world's power relationships, a unique moment appeared that many in Tokyo were determined to take advantage of. Simultaneously in Washington, which had long been sympathetic to China's plight, there was a growing belief that Japan and Hitler were working in concert. When Japan occupied Indochina in July 1941, Washington retaliated with a trade embargo. Although the details are complex, Washington demanded that Japan cease its aggression in China and withdraw. Japan demanded something close to a free hand in Asia. Dependent on American oil and other commodities, Japan decided in September, a decision reaffirmed in November, to attack the West. (Although we shall never know what would have happened had the United States given in to Japanese demands after July 1941, it is my opinion that Japan would have attacked Southeast Asia under any circumstances. The time to profit from Nazi victories, as many Japanese expansionists argued, would not last forever.)
Ultimately Japan's decision to strike proved folly. However, given the fact that a German victory appeared extremely likely, it was a brutal but rational decision if judged by the circumstances of the moment. Japan was not unprepared for its great wager. Japanese agents had gathered information on potential targets and enemy forces throughout the Pacific. Japan's military forces, as events were to prove, lacked numerical and technological depth, but in terms of both quality and quantity Japan had a distinct edge in the Pacific in late 1941 in every area considered important by Imperial Headquarters. (Tokyo, by definition, did not know how badly it lagged in the crucial field of cryptography and overall intelligence, nor did the Japanese realize the full import of radar and sonar.) Already seasoned by several years of war in China, the naval, air, and land forces that would spearhead Japan's opening offensive were vigorously trained during the weeks before hostilities. Japan's power relative to its potential enemies was no doubt at the maximum point in December 1941.
Although Imperial Headquarters, which was inefficiently organized and always deeply divided by the miserable relationship that existed between the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), proved defective in the long run, the midranking officers who developed initial operational plans did a splendid job overall. Japanese planners assumed that they faced a long war. This was not out of preference but reflected the well-founded belief that neither the United States nor Britain would abandon Asia unless convinced by the imperial sword that further hostilities would be futile. No Japanese leader proposed the occupation of the United States, much less Britain, nor could planners count on the proposed Pearl Harbor raid to succeed. As Admiral Matome Ugaki, chief of staff to Commander of Combined Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto, noted in his diary not long after the war began, "Though a prolonged war is taken for granted, nobody is so foolish as to wish it upon himself." Consequently the Japanese decided to strike hard and fast and develop a defensible perimeter that would prove too costly for the Allies to overcome. Ultimately Tokyo believed that the Allies would see reason and sign a compromise peace. highly favorable to Japan. In essence Japanese leaders hoped to repeat the success of their limited war against Russia in 1905 on a vastly larger scale.
Therefore Japanese planners were faced with two serious problems. The first was to develop a sophisticated plan of attack that would lead to the rapid defeat of enemy forces that on paper were powerful. The second problem was to decide how far the defensive barrier should extend. If planners were too timid, the Allies might catch their breath and be emboldened to make a strong counterblow. If the perimeter were allowed to grow too large, Japanese forces might become overextended and leave the Allies tempting targets to seize. Japan expected a war of attrition. However, for the attrition to be in Japan's favor, battle had to be conducted in proper conjunction with bases seized. It would do Japan no good to possess locations that the Allies could attack with a substantial superiority of force. With one glaring exception (clear only in hindsight) the Japanese solved their first problem brilliantly, using a large number of military operations that left the Allies reeling. Ultimately, however, because of the failure of the Imperial High Command to move decisively, Japan failed utterly to solve the second. The result was a strategic calamity for Tokyo. The result also led to two years of bloody air warfare in places no one seriously contemplated as future battlefields.
Overall the Japanese onslaught between December 1941 and May 1942 in the Pacific was a textbook example of how to employ almost every major military virtue: surprise, economy of force, momentum, and shock effect. The Japanese plan, finalized in November, developed almost without a hitch. The Pearl Harbor raid, which began the tidal wave, paralyzed the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The heart of Japan's carrier strike force carried out this task. Simultaneously air, naval, and ground operations began against the flanks of the overall Allied position to prevent any coordinated defense of Southeast Asia. In practice this meant immediate assault on Malaya, air attack on the Philippines, the dramatic destruction of two British battleships off Malaya, landings in Borneo, the conquest of Hong Kong, and the occupation of Guam. In the first six weeks, operations in Malaya had broken British resistance north of Singapore, the U.S. garrison on Luzon was trapped on Bataan, Wake Island had fallen (after delivering the invaders a rare slap), and the Japanese moved into the Bismarcks and launched a heavy carrier raid against Darwin on February 19. In late February the Japanese moved against Java, demolished a joint U.S.-British-Dutch fleet, and completed the conquest of the East Indies on March 9.
During most of these assaults naval and ground attacks had been supported by land-based Japanese airpower. The destruction of the British Force Z, based on the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, was the most dramatic example of Japanese land-based air prowess. Strategically the near destruction of U.S. airpower in the first few days of the Philippine campaign was also important. Where the land-based planes could not reach, the Japanese carrier strike force, soon back from Hawaii, delivered heavy blows. In early April the invincible carrier strike force under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo began a massive raid against British shipping near Ceylon. The take was substantial: one British light aircraft carrier, two heavy cruisers, a destroyer, and two dozen merchantmen sunk. As we shall see, however, the British did not fight in vain and had inadvertently saved the Allied position in the Southwest Pacific. Naturally at the time the Ceylon raid was considered another in a long string of victories. The Japanese blitzkrieg finally paused in early May when the Americans surrendered the Philippines and the Japanese halted their advance into Burma after handing stinging defeats to both British and Chinese forces.
During these events a relatively small Japanese expedition seized the area around the town of Rabaul on the northeastern tip of New Britain in late January 1942. In physical terms, Rabaul was an ideal place to create a major base complex. The capital of the Australian Mandates, Rabaul, in South Pacific terms, was a metropolis with a population of approximately 1,000 Australians and Europeans prior to Pearl Harbor. (About half left after war broke out.) In addition, Rabaul had become a center of the Chinese diaspora of the nineteenth century, and two or three thousand lived in Rabaul proper or villages nearby. In addition, approximately 20,000 indigenous peoples inhabited the northeastern corner of the island.
The center of the area was Rabaul Town. In the South Pacific this was a genuine asset. It provided headquarters buildings, a good place for communications gear, a good water supply, a crude telephone and electricity grid, and a multitude of smaller advantages that helped base development and made life, considering the theater, relatively comfortable. Later in 1942 three or four hundred prostitutes were imported from Korea to keep the Japanese servicemen happy. Also important was the existence of an agricultural economy, however small. Relations between the Japanese and the civilians were tense, but trade naturally took place. Fresh fruits and vegetables, so sorely lacking to most servicemen in the theater, existed in unusual plenty until the Japanese garrison later grew so large that it overwhelmed the supply. This helped the health of the aircrews and garrison. The relatively dense population also provided an unusually large number of laborers needed for base development.
The only disadvantage, barring the malarial conditions common to the theater, were a number of dormant and semiactive volcanic formations that ringed Rabaul. It gave the territory a sulphurous smell. When volcanic dust periodically appeared it irritated the throats of people nearby. Later in the war these small mountains proved invaluable antiaircraft positions and made life hellish for Allied low-level attack aircraft. In the early months, when the Allies were on the run everywhere, the Japanese found the volcanoes a nuisance and worried about a major eruption at any time. As was true in many parts of the Bismarcks and upper Solomons, small earthquakes were common, helping to keep the men on their toes. However, everything taken together, Rabaul was a good place to serve in the upside-down world found in the South Pacific.
More important than Rabaul Town, however, were the lovely Blanche Bay and Simpson Harbor. Simpson adjoined Rabaul Town and was one of the best natural anchorages in the Pacific, capable of sheltering 300,000 tons of shipping. The wharf facilities at Rabaul were crude, but Japanese engineers soon improved them greatly. As long as the sea-lanes were secure and the shipping available, Rabaul could sustain a major air, ground, and naval base. In addition, the Australian government, once it decided to garrison Rabaul in February 1941, had improved the small civilian airstrip at Rabaul Town (known as Lakunai) into a modest fighter field. Soon thereafter the Australians constructed a light-bomber field at Vunakanau, approximately nine miles southwest of town. Four days after the initial landings Zero fighters landed at Vunakanau, and the Japanese possessed a splendid forward base. By April Vunakanau was home to the IJN 4th Air Group of forty-eight fighters, forty-eight medium bombers, and twelve seaplanes—the approximate strength employed later during the opening days of the Guadalcanal campaign. At this point, however, no one had yet to realize that the Japanese had thereby established the centerpiece for two major military campaigns, in New Guinea and the Solomons. Thousands of Allied fliers would learn to respect the names of Lakunai, Vunakanau, and additional bases constructed later. For two years, Rabaul was the center of the storm in the Pacific war.
The Australian force had consisted of fewer than twenty obsolescent aircraft, not one of which should have been protecting a major objective. Necessarily the facilities the Japanese seized at Rabaul needed substantial expansion for serious operations. After the war the Japanese were criticized by Western authors and many of their own officers for lacking advanced and modern military engineer units. As we shall see, they were weak in this field, and the flaw cost Japan dearly. Perhaps the Japanese economy, still with one foot in the nineteenth century, could not support units resembling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the famous Seabees (a play on construction battalions) of the United States Navy (USN). Perhaps also noncombatant forces suffered from Japan's aggressive military ethos and emphasis on attack. Both factors were undoubtedly at work, and many unforeseen weaknesses in technical services crippled Japan in a long war. I think, however, that the war in China also hurt Japan in this regard as it did in so many others. The Chinese Air Force was not able to launch a sophisticated bomber offensive on Japanese airfields. As the Japanese air forces of both IJA and IJN had long found it possible to dispense with the luxuries found at a great American base like Wright Field, they took a very utilitarian view toward the subject and saw no need for speedy work. Eventually Rabaul was by far the best-developed Japanese base complex in the theater. It may have been the best complex outside the homeland. (Clark Field in the Philippines was a likely exception—but it was constructed by the Americans.) The leisurely pace shown in airfield construction and expansion was almost certainly a function of experience as well as doctrine and technology. As in many other fields in air warfare against the Americans, lessons drawn from proved wrong.
Japan was also harmed by the interaction of overconfidence, what the Japanese later called "victory disease," and the inefficiency that flourished in such an atmosphere. Interesting testimony on this subject was given right after the war by Vice Admiral Paul Weneker, the German naval attaché in Tokyo throughout hostilities. Weneker gave a scathing description of conditions at the front and at home in the wake of Japan's great victories:
Early in the war I made a trip through the South Sea Islands to see conditions with my own eyes. I was astounded in the South Seas. The Japanese were thoroughly enjoying the lush life. They had parties continually and were drinking all the liquor they had captured. I asked them why they did not prepare fortifications and do something to make these places stronger, but they said that the Americans would never come, that they could not fight in the jungle and that they were not the kind of people who stand warfare in the south. As far as I know all those people in those places, both Army and Navy, once they got into a place where there was no fighting, would do nothing more about the war.
Obviously in such time the war effort must be the maximum of the country, but here in Japan it was very difficult because of the corruption on every hand and the continual fighting for position. Anything would be done to get power during the war. Sometimes very good men were kept at their work only a few weeks or months because someone else would get the job through corruption. You cannot be efficient with key positions constantly changing.
It is not clear that Weneker visited Rabaul. It was closer to the front than other areas taken, yet the lassitude he described was probably present everywhere to some degree. Imperial forces worked from the outset to improve the position, although at a leisurely pace. The Japanese in their own way were excellent field engineers, a fact to which many a U.S. soldier and Marine could attest. When it first came to Rabaul, the South Seas Detachment was reinforced with an engineer unit. Shortly thereafter Fourth Fleet, which momentarily took over Rabaul, brought in its "base force" unit, or naval garrison. The garrison included a "pioneer unit," a poor substitute for a modern construction battalion. However, there was a great difference between field engineers and combat engineers, the latter being considered elite troops. Combat engineers were at the center of the modern battlefield, among the most important and highly skilled troops available. They were deadly in battle and often performed tasks of great peril. Japan's combat engineers were very formidable: They created marvelous field fortifications with crude materials and often fought to the death. Field engineers might find themselves under fire; approximately 400 USN Seabees died during the war. Indeed U.S. engineers took pride in working close to the front lines. Yet the job of field engineers was to build things and build them fast, not to fight. Japan's army engineers considered standard construction work undignified, although they were often called upon to do it. In addition, no soldier, engineers included, likes to dig or do serious manual labor.
Consequently field construction was left largely to the pioneer units. Ironically it appears that Admiral Yamamoto saw the need for superior base-construction capabilities. In 1936 he wrote, "As I see it, naval operations in the future will consist of capturing an island, then building an airfield in as short a time as possible—within a week or so, moving up air units, and using them to gain air and surface control over the next stretch of ocean." In this instance Yamamoto's thoughts were not matched by action. In November 1941 the Japanese began to organize pioneer battalions of 900-1,300 men. Approximately 60-75 percent of the men were draftees from Taiwan and Korea. A small number of Japanese personnel kept discipline and defended the pioneers. Others ran the small number of light bulldozers, concrete mixers, and other simple construction machinery used by the pioneers. Much of the work, however, was manual, and pioneers did not possess any heavy equipment. Compared to Allied counterparts, Japanese pioneer units were decidedly second-class. In addition, the Japanese employed labor battalions of about 800 men who were 90 percent non-Japanese. Labor battalions lacked even light equipment, and the Japanese component merely kept discipline. One wonders whether the morale in either type of unit would have been good considering the tense relations that existed between the Japanese and subject peoples. It is not clear how many labor battalions were used in the theater, but several pioneer units appeared.
As long as Combined Fleet viewed the situation favorably, there was no haste to develop Rabaul. Tokyo had just conquered a great empire, and much had to be done throughout Asia. Events in Rabaul were very low on the priority list. When American night air raids based in Australia began much sooner than most Japanese leaders anticipated, the need to improve and expand Rabaul became painfully obvious. The early raids did little damage, but military leaders are trained to allow for the worst. A well-dropped pattern of U.S. bombs could have destroyed or damaged many precious aircraft. In addition, the brutal New Guinea climate required more sophisticated installations. Furthermore, as the aircraft at Rabaul were often called upon to attack and defend as quickly as possible, they could not function well unless the initial runway complex was substantially changed and rebuilt.
As the U.S. night raids increased, Japan increased its strength at Rabaul. When Guadalcanal began in August 1942, even more work was done to prepare the base for additional aircraft. When Japan lost the Guadalcanal campaign in February 1943, Rabaul was transformed into a fortress. Although Tokyo was well aware that the initiative had been seized by the Allies, it determined to slow Allied advance, even if it required the sacrifice of air and land units. Japanese army leaders could read a map well and knew that if the Allies got past Rabaul the road into the East Indies was wide open. Consequently an unusual pattern developed. Rabaul was a good base early in the war; for months it continued to grow stronger. Its air units varied greatly in numbers, but in general they increased in quantity, if not in quality, as the strategic situation declined. It was a foolish strategy in the long run, and by the time Japan had built Rabaul into the Gibraltar of the Pacific the situation had grown desperate.
Because Rabaul was the target of Allied efforts in two campaigns, it is worthwhile to examine the base itself. Initially the two airfields and excellent harbor made it a naturally good base. Eventually, however, as Rabaul became central to two interlocking campaigns, the Japanese developed a major air and naval base and a sizable land fortress as well. In 1942 operations centered on the fields at Lakunai and Vunakanau. In Japanese terms, both were sophisticated affairs. Lakunai was a fighter field, 4,300 feet long and 630 feet wide. Pioneer units constructed two and a half miles of taxiways from the runway to ninety fighter and ten bomber revetments. Revetments were simple structures but important, and in the South Pacific they were the first sign of a serious air base. Simply, a revetment was a pair or trio of earthen walls higher than the aircraft that would shelter them during attacks. Compared to a simple airstrip where aircraft were left sitting near the field in the open, revetments were a great advance. If solidly constructed with earth and/or coconut logs, a revetment could withstand blasts from nearby explosions and protect aircraft from bomb fragments. The walls also restricted the size of the target and made the job much more difficult for fighter-bombers on strafing runs. All important Allied air bases had revetments as soon as they could be built. The revetment served both sides well. Finally brutal U.S. low-level attack techniques defeated the revetments and were key in destroying Japan's air forces in the Pacific.
The taxiway is not one of the twentieth century's great technological advances. However, in the South Pacific they were an important feature of air bases, particularly those, like Rabaul, that had to launch many planes at a moment's notice. Taxiways were small, thin roadways between the landing strip and the revetments. At Rabaul they were unpaved, which caused trouble. Combat aircraft of this era were extremely powerful and usually taxied from the revetment to the field. Most World War II aircraft, and all Japanese types, were tail-draggers, that is, they lacked tricycle landing gear, landing and taking off on two wheels and resting on a small tail wheel when stopped. It was no simple matter trying to control a heavy aircraft with at least a 1,000-horsepower engine using a rudder and brakes. During the taxi, the pilot could see very little from his tail-dragger. He was at least ten feet off of the ground and confined within the cockpit and canopy, a space usually designed to provide completely different sight angles. It was hard to see in front and impossible to see directly under the wings. When taxiing, pilots received aid from the ground crew's hand signals, sometimes with someone sitting directly on the wing and talking to the pilot. At best this was complex. If a heavy fighter—and all World War II fighters were heavy—went off the taxiway, it could sink into the mud and miss a mission. Often, depending on the weather, the dust was so heavy the pilot could see almost nothing in front, creating conditions for a rare but catastrophic collision. In either condition a good taxiway was one that was meticulously maintained and lacked soft spots from erosion and bomb damage. If a soft spot existed and was not discovered, the aircraft would very likely damage its landing gear and be out of action for a day, a week, perhaps the entire war. In addition, getting the aircraft from revetment to taxiway often had to be done very quickly. If the mission was an attack, it was important to gain attack formation as fast as possible; in defending the airfield, getting off the ground quickly might well make the difference between a successful defense and destruction. This was no time to hit a soft spot, yet such things plagued Japanese forces from the beginning to the end of the war. The effect was fewer aircraft in combat and a less favorable ratio of numbers, one that at some point meant the difference between stalemate and crushing defeat. Much of Japan's war effort foundered on the mundane issue of poor engineering that led to bad taxiways and slowly constructed airfields.
|List of Maps|
|Important Military Terms, Acronyms, and Place-names|
|Pt. 1||The Three-Dimensional Battlefield||1|
|1||Defining the Battlefield: Air-Base Networks||5|
|2||The Land and Air||95|
|Pt. 2||Machines and Men in the South Pacific||155|
|5||Airmen in the South Pacific||309|
|Pt. 3||Fire in the Sky: Air Battle in the South Pacific||407|
|6||Deadly Geometry: Fighter Warfare in the South Pacific||445|
|7||Making History: Bombers in the South Pacific||531|
|Chronology of Events||677|
|Author's Note on Technical Information Including Table of Major Warplanes in the South Pacific Theater||679|
|Sources and Bibliography||695|