Rabaul Under Japanese Occupation


On 23 January 1942, just 46 days after Pearl Harbor when the Japanese Navy had taken all before it, the bastion town of the South Pacific, Rabaul, fell to the Japanese invasion force of 5,000 troops. Pandemonium reined after its commanding Officer, Colonel J. Scanlon, issued the ignominious order that very afternoon of ‘Every man for himself!’ The consequences were dire!

Of the 1,485 Lark Force troops and the 275 civilians of Rabaul – a total of 1,760 – only 422 (24%) survived. Thus, 1,338 (76%) were casualties. This was the greatest Australian military disaster of the war against Japan in World War II (compared with Buna-Gona 967, Malaya 700 and Kokoda 625) with the sinking of the Japanese POW ship Montevideo Maru with 1,053 victims – of whom 208 (20%) were non-combatant civilians – the greatest Australian maritime disaster (compared with HMAS Sydney 645).

My story unfolds…

Once my family learned the fate of my brother Bob – lost on the Montevideo Maru in 1942 – I had always wondered how the prisoners fared during the five months before they were transported. It was not until August 2008 that I obtained a first-hand account of that time and events!

A story in our local newspaper by Max Hayes (a member of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia) told of the retrieval of a handkerchief – with a name and number, VX 19523 B. O’Neil, noted on it – tossed aside by a prisoner as he was being loaded onto the Montevideo Maru. This handkerchief was picked up by a 12-year-old onlooker, Rudy Buckley, which put paid to occasional theories that the men were not lost on the Montevideo Maru but had been slaughtered.

I was able to obtain Rudy’s phone number (in Kingston, Queensland) and later made arrangements to fly to Coolangatta and then travel by bus and rail from Coolangatta to meet up with him, when he was kind enough to pick me up at the Loganlea rail station and take me to his home to have a talk.

As background, Rudy is a very responsible person with 30 years in electrical maintenance with the Department of Civil Aviation, both in New Guinea and, after he and his family relocated to Queensland, in Australia.

The following notes are based on his comments in response to my questions in 2008.

Rudy told me that he had kept O’Neil’s handkerchief for many years as a souvenir until he drew attention to it at a recent Montevideo Maru commemoration in Brisbane at which the handkerchief was displayed. I checked the names of prisoners listed on the Montevideo Maru, and confirmed that Cpl O’Neil’s name is on it, as are the names of my brother and his mates in the Engineers. Rudi’s comments, which I have briefly paraphrased, follow:

* During the Japanese occupation of Rabaul, there were always approximately 100 Japanese ships of all kinds, including aircraft carriers and battleships, in Simpson Harbour. (Apparently, this included the period following the Japanese defeat in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 when the invasion fleet that had been headed for Port Moresby returned, badly damaged, to Rabaul.)

* Rudy confirmed he had watched the prisoners on their death march to the Harbour and then being barged out to the ill-fated Montevideo Maru.

I then asked him about life under Japanese occupation, which I believe is the only account of that time.

* His wife Mary’s father was Japanese and was deported along with German nationals to the Cowra enemy detention centre in New South Wales.

* The Japanese had been bombing Rabaul regularly, including the hospital, before the invasion, but not doing too much damage to the airstrip (such as it was), obviously destined for their future use.

* The Japanese landed on 23 January 1942 from the north of Simpson Harbour and on the other side, cutting off Praed Point where two massive gun barrels pointed menacingly towards the sea (like Singapore!). The guns never fired a shot, but the landing in that location would have denied many of our soldiers any prospect of responding effectively to the ‘Every man for himself!’ order.

One of the two guns at Praed Point 'guarding' the entrance to Simpson Harbour. Photo taken post-war.

One of the two guns at Praed Point ‘guarding’ the entrance to Simpson Harbour. Photo taken post-war.

*The Japanese soldiers were extremely cruel and not averse to killing anyone on the spot, including civilians, who gave them trouble. In fact, Rudy’s 42-year-old father, a mechanic, was killed with many blows from a tyre lever when he was slow in repairing an engine.

* Prior to their shipment on the Montevideo Maru, the Australian prisoners were used largely in loading and unloading ships in the Harbour.

* Countless other prisoners, including Koreans, British and Indians, had been imported as slaves and were used to dig all the tunnels into the mountains around Rabaul. They were also used to clear all available fields to establish the growing of rice, tapioca, sweet potatoes and other vegetables to fulfil the enormous task of feeding over 60,000 of their troops.

* All natives had been relocated to the Chinese quarter and outer areas. There were no shops: Rudy’s family – his mother, two brothers and two sisters – survived by selling and bartering rice, fish and craft products with the Japanese in exchange for tinned food and other goods. The Japanese had ships producing food and treating whales from fishing expeditions.

* Generally the Japanese didn’t worry children and natives and even had a system of feeding them. They also organised a school to teach the children the Japanese language, but this didn’t last long when the school was destroyed in a bombing raid.

* From 1944 Rabaul was routinely attacked by Allied bombers, usually from 10am to midday with occasional raids at night to keep the Japanese ‘on their toes’. Apparently, they tried to bomb the Matupi volcano to cause an eruption, without success.

* During Japanese rule, approximately 42 US, New Zealand and Australian airmen who had been shot down were captured and executed by sword; Rudy witnessed some of this from a Japanese truck. In 1949, he met up with members of the War Graves Commission visiting Rabaul and was able to direct them to the site of the burial.

It is not impossible that one of these executed airmen was my twin brother Flight Sgt Tom Burrowes of the RAAF’s 100 Squadron. As mentioned elsewhere, Tom went down on his first mission to Rabaul in a Beaufort bomber from Goodenough Island.

* Rudy had also seen the prisoner John Murphy, one of the Coastwatcher party leaders captured at Gasmata. Murphy was court-martialed after the war for disclosing the positions of other parties in enemy occupied New Britain, but was exonerated.

* There was great elation for all of the surviving indigenous population when the war ended. Apart from the prisoners, there had been only four Europeans in Rabaul since the departure of the Montevideo Maru.

It is worth adding that I have also spoken to Lex Fraser (since deceased), who had been the only surviving officer of the Ist Independent Company prisoners held in Rabaul for five months before being transported to Japan (on another ship). He told of the unspeakable conditions in the prison quarters, with poor accommodation, no clothing replacement, meagre food and water, unattainable medical and latrine facilities….

It is perhaps also worth briefly noting that, after capturing Rabaul, the Japanese quickly established a massive military base to support their navy, air force and infantry. At its height, the Rabaul base and its surrounding encampment served 100,000 soldiers and thousands of other personnel. Because aerial bombardment was the main threat to the island’s remote location, the Japanese used their own personnel but also much slave labour (local people, as well as British, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Korean prisoners, many captured at Singapore) to build an estimated 300 to 500 kilometres of tunnels into the volcanic soil around the Gazelle Peninsula and the caldera wall surrounding Rabaul Harbour where a number of facilities – such as hospital complexes, barracks, storehouses and command centres – were installed.

It was because of its importance to their military operations in the South Pacific that my own Coastwatching party had been deployed to report Japanese movements to and from Rabaul.