South Pacific

Two days later, I was in the air over Rabaul on our first strike of the war.

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It was apparent to U.S. military planners that Bougainville was an important objective not because the island had any true military value but simply because it was needed to isolate and deal with Rabaul.

To put it another way—there was one reason and one reason alone for the American invasion of Bougainville. It was to get airfields within a short flight range of the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. Short range, hard-hitting SBDs and TBFs were far more valuable for precision bombing than the big, long-range, high-altitude bombers flown by the Air Force.

Located on a wide peninsula at the Northern end of New Britain and curving around a broad natural harbor, the Australian garrison of Rabaul had been overwhelmed by Jap forces at the outbreak of the war. After occupation, the Japs developed Rabaul into the most formidable fortress and supply base in the South Pacific. All Japanese invasions in the Solomons, including Bougainville and Guadalcanal, were launched and supplied from Rabaul.

At one time in 1943 there were almost 140,000 Japanese troops massed there. Using captured Australians and gaunt POWs captured at Singapore as labor, the Japanese built and rebuilt several fortified air bases on the Rabaul peninsula. The bases included heavy anti-aircraft gun installations and miles of underground tunnels and bunkers in the pumice hills.

On the heels of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to avoid the kind of bloody, overpowering commitment it would have taken to invade Rabaul. The strategists concluded it wasn’t necessary. Instead, the Allies set out to strangle Rabaul by battering its airfields and wiping out its fading air power and cutting off its supply lines.

The Siege of Rabaul was well underway.

Rabaul became our primary target

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