Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942–April 1943

By Bruce Gamble. 416 pp. Zenith Press, 2010. $28.

To human history’s endless chronicle of sieges by land and sea, World War II added a new phenomenon: sieges by air, where aerial bombardment substituted for ground assault or sea blockade to reduce a fortress into submission. In the Pacific, the outstanding exemplar was Rabaul, a strategically important harbor on the northeast tip of New Britain. Its magnificent natural anchorage initially attracted Japanese interest, and the conquerors swiftly created a mighty fortress. Multiple airfields were home to hundreds of Japanese aircraft. The garrison would eventually total over 90,000—a figure exceeded only by Japanese forces on Luzon and Okinawa. No wonder, then, that for more than half the Pacific War, American and Allied efforts in the South Pacific were preoccupied by this Japanese bastion.

Though Rabaul has naturally loomed large in prior works on the South Pacific war, it takes center stage for the first time here, in the first of what promises to be two high-quality volumes. Opening with the easy Japanese conquest of Rabaul in January 1942 and ending with the death of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto in April 1943, author Bruce Gamble sidesteps the pitfall of serving up a mind-numbing flow of statistics from what was essentially a campaign of attrition. Instead, he shrewdly culls out episodes that have long-term significance, such as the near annihilation of the Japanese 4th Air Group in February 1942, and demonstrates key if often elided facets, like the modification of the North American B-25 for low-level attack.

Using international sources, Gamble musters anecdotes from airmen on both sides to illustrate the appalling natural challenges of capricious weather, miserable living conditions, primal diseases, and frightful hazards posed by limitless spans of water and cloud-cloaked jungle peaks. He also incorporates incisive sketches of key leaders among the antagonists, notably American Maj. Gen. George Kenny and Japanese Vice Adm. Jinichi Kusaka, and underlines the logistical nightmares that rendered both aircraft and spare parts scarce for combatants locked in war at such distant reaches.

The narrative is littered with accounts of Japanese atrocities against Allied captives, but is equally unblinking concerning the savagery of Allied airmen who were confronted with thousands of helpless Japanese survivors from a troop convoy nearly annihilated in March 1943. Particularly commendable is Gamble’s attention to the usually overlooked Australian role in the campaign. He also notes some unusual facts, such as the coincidental first combat missions flown by two standard American medium bombers, the B-25 and the Martin B-26, on April 6, 1942, against New Britain.

The only feature here that may disappoint some readers is the asymmetric coverage of Japanese raids mounted from Rabaul. Far more detail is provided for raids to New Guinea, even though sortie counts were higher for Guadalcanal during this period. Stumbles are blessedly rare, though Australians may bristle over news that American troops participated in halting the Japanese drive over the Kokoda Trail on New Guinea. Despite these minor flaws, Fortress Rabaul opens a broader vista on this under-studied campaign with its wide research, thoughtful analysis, and gifted storyteller’s panache.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.