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

10 October 2013

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

Fortress Rabaul: the Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942–April 1943, Bruce Gamble, 2010, ISBN 9780760323502, 416 pp.

Fortress Rabaul: the Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942–April 1943 by Bruce Gamble

Fortress Rabaul: the Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942–April 1943 by Bruce Gamble

Located in what is now northern Papua New Guinea, Imperial Japan built Rabaul into an island fortress during World War II in following with is strategy of establishing supremacy in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Rabaul was ideal for commanding the southwestern Pacific to protect the oilfields and mineral wealth in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as isolating Australia from its Allies.

Rabaul was used by Imperial Japan to radiate military air and sea power and the Allied spent forty-four months in combat neutralizing Japan’s strongest fortress outside the main islands. Beginning with the Australia’s 1500 strong Lark Force which was forced to surrender to invading Japanese infantry and ending with unrelenting aerial assaults by Allied Forces there is a lot to tell — and Bruce Gamble is the author who can tell it with wise overview as well as refining, even correcting, the record in more than a few instances.

Fortress Rabaul is the middle book of a trilogy written by Gamble to tell the story of this monumental battle for the security of Australia, and wresting the initiative away from Imperial Japan, from the time after Japan’s taking of the area to the peak of the aerial attacks by land and carrier based aircraft. Gamble writes knowledgeably in a conversationally smooth manner which is not surprising since he was formerly one of the historians with the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. Gamble uses historic photos but his writing is what illustrates the tale — and there is so much to tell. Personalities as well as people are addressed as are moral issues. Gamble objectively writes about one event, which would have been investigated as a war crime if committed by an Axis power, and how its aftermath was a result of how Japan was known to address potential as well as actual prisoners of war (showing his depth of research Gamble also notes that prisoners taken to Japan’s main islands were much more likely to survive the war as opposed to those kept on Rabaul, quite something to observe given the horrid treatment of POWs in Japan proper).

Gamble also describes in detail how skip bombing evolved and the role of Major General George Kenney in this as well as gunship development. Famous for skip bombing the B-25 Mitchell bombers under Kenney’s command were also famous for being the first gunships with several 0.50 caliber machine guns in the nose (for starters) — according to Kenney’s recollection of events. Well, not quite, as Gamble corrects this common misunderstanding (one of many by Kenney) with the observation of the work of a self-taught engineer, Major Paul “Pappy” Gunn, who months before modified A-20 Havocs to carry several nose-mounted machine guns to begin the hugely successful, as well as spectacularly dangerous, low level bombing and strafing attacks.

We also learn how Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare regained honor for his tarnished family name as well as the action for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Gamble also informs us that Lt. Cmdr. John “Jimmy” Thatch (developer of the “Thatch weave” which placed the F4F Wildcats on a more-or-less even footing when defending against Japanese Zeroes) was O’Hare’s mentor and fellow combatant aboard the USS Lexington. Sometimes things just go right and this pairing is one of them — kudos to Gamble who uncommonly points to items such as this one giving rich context to the history being related.

This book not only clearly describes the strategy and combat of this historical battle but describes the personalities and their conflicts which influenced the development of these events. Gamble has synthesized an immense amount of information, as evidenced in the bibliography and end notes, in an organized and welcome manner. The index is also superb and is intelligently subdivided according to subject.

The Battle for Rabaul is where Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto lost his life due to a daring fighter intercept mission (Gamble also describes that mission and unravels the controversy as to which pilot actually shot the Mitsubishi “Betty” bomber transporting Yamamoto down). Naturally, this is addressed by Gamble but he, characteristically, goes further by describing not only Yamamoto’s State Funeral but also the effects and shake-up to Japan’s leadership which ensued.

Fortress Rabaul — image courtesy of Zenith Press

Two prominent historic figures, Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare (left) and Lt. Cmdr. John “Jimmy” Thatch (right) aboard their ship USS Lexington as pictured in Fortress Rabaul — image courtesy of Zenith Press

The first book of Bruce Gambles trilogy addresses the defense and surrender of Rabaul and is, Invasion Rabaul: the epic story of Lark Force, the Forgotten Garrison, January–July 1942. It is published by Zenith Press.

The concluding book by Bruce Gamble addresses the several months of fighting, with many more huge air battles, once the action peaked until Japan’s retreat to Truk and is, Target: Rabaul (the Allied siege of Japan’s most infamous stronghold, March 1943–August 1945). It is also published by Zenith Press.


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press provided a copy of this book for an objective review.


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