The First Major Attack on Rabaul

As the Allied forces looked beyond their current situation in October 1943, they were determined to neutralize the threat presented by the Japanese at Rabaul in order to keep moving northwest toward the Philippines. It was time to initiate a series of heavy attacks on the area, the first of which was scheduled for October 12th. Over 100 B-25s from the 345th and 38th Bomb Groups, three P-38 squadrons, 40 planes from the 3rd Bomb Group, and more than 80 B-24s from the 90th and 43rd Bomb Groups joined forces with RAAF P-40s, Beaufighters and Beauforts. They were up against a powerful foe made up of almost 300 aircraft spread out on the airfields surrounding Rabaul as well as nearly 400 antiaircraft guns. A number of ships were also sitting in the harbor at this time.

This formidable Allied force was to split up in order to tackle the defenses on each field: the 345th and 38th would attack Vunakanau, the 3rd would take on Rapopo, Beaufighters were to hit Tobera, then the B-24s would take care of the shipping in Simpson Harbor. As the formations flew toward their specific target areas, they knew the best thing for them at the start of this strike would be the element of surprise. It worked.

Flying over the hillside, the 498th Squadron began firing on the rows of Japanese aircraft sitting on Tobera’s airfield. Maintenance workers that had been working on planes quickly ran for cover and men in the B-25s noticed that the antiaircraft guns were still covered up and pointing the wrong way. The B-25s also disrupted the takeoffs and landings of several Japanese planes. As the 498th worked over its target area with machine guns and parafrags, Japanese antiaircraft gunners started firing back and dislocated part of the right aileron on 1/Lt. Kenneth C. Dean’s B-25. Dean and his crew were able to return to base without further incident.

Under Attack at Vunakanau

This Japanese “Zero” fighter was caught on the main runway during the October 12th attack on Vunakanau. It was strafed repeatedly by the waves of aircraft as they passed overhead but shows little evidence of damage in this photo taken from aircraft #220 of the 38th Bomb Group’s 71st Squadron. Strafing damage rarely showed up in belly camera photography. Two squadrons from the 38th attacked Vunakanau immediately behind the 345th. (John C. Hanna Collection)

Among the Japanese on the ground was 18-year-old Petty Officer Masajiro Kawato, who had been assigned to 253 Kokutai. That day, he was at Tobera to deal with some paperwork for his unit. Instead, he wound up defending the airfield from the Allied attack. His experiences during the strike can be found in Warpath Across the Pacific.

With each squadron’s attack on the airfields, the Japanese defenses increased as Rabaul turned into a fully armed and operational battle station. Japanese fighters attacked the enemy aircraft, with the fiercest attacks directed at the new wave of Allied aircraft: the B-24s. Two were shot down. Once the Allies left the area and began to analyze claims and photography, it was clear that this raid was a success. Approximately 100 Japanese planed on the ground were destroyed and 26 more were shot down. Several ships and harbor facilities also sustained damage.

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