Built prior to the war by Australians, Vunakanau bordered the northern edge of Empress Augusta Bay. It was rebuilt and enlarged by the Japanese, using American POWs as labor. The airstrip consisted of two parallel runways, each 5,199 feet long, plus scores of revetments and taxiways that fanned out from every side of the runways. A hidden entrenchment of antiaircraft defenses included 15 heavy, 14 medium and 12 light guns, according to postwar records. Whatever the number, Vanakanau was one of Rahaul’s strongest and most important air bases.
Our strike force of 24 TBFs was divided between 12 planes from New Zealand’s NZTB-30 and 12 planes from VMTB-242, each plane loaded with four 500-pound bombs with delay fuses.
The New Zealanders led the way on this one. At the briefing the night before, we were confronted by the Kiwi’s burly, flight leader, F/LT. M. G. Stubbs, RNZAF. His squadron mates called him Old Tank. Stroking a thick, heavy mustache with the back of his hand, he glared at us, then cut loose.
“Gentlemen,” he bellowed. “Our takeoff is 0500. And Yanks, I don’t mean 0504. We proceed to squadron rendezvous over Point Obo at 0535. And Yanks, I damn well don’t mean 0539.
“When we close in on the south end of Simpson Harbor, I may alter the course sharply away from the harbor, at which time I don’t want to hear some Yank break radio silence with a wiseass remark, like where is this stupid bastard taking us? For your information, Yanks, I will be employing something called tactics that were practiced successfully by Alexander and Hannibal and the Roman commanders and, belatedly, by Napoleon himself. Such will bring us to a point of attack from the fan side of the Mother and Two Daughters instead of the customary Mother and nearest daughter approach up the channel.”
He rolled on like this for several minutes. We resisted breaking out in raucous laughter and applause. But it was a grand performance. We just grinned, stifled our laughs, and gave him our full attention.