Wednesday, April 6, 2011

From the Pages - Darkest Hour

January 23, 1942, 2:30 A.M.…the darkest hour of the day. On the little-known Southwest Pacific island of New Britain, all hell was about to break loose. Japanese invaders, with visions of establishing a major military complex in the city of Rabaul, would use the cover of night to initiate the landing of an overwhelming force upon the pitch-black shores. In front of them lay a determined, yet outmanned and outgunned, assemblage of island defenders.

Known as Lark Force, these fourteen hundred Australian soldiers would face an onslaught of more than 20,000 Japanese marines—insurmountable odds that would result in the overrunning of their defenses in a matter of hours.

In the following excerpt from Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul, author Bruce Gamble details the early hours of the Australians' valiant, but ill-fated, defense of Rabaul against an overwhelming Japanese landing force. 

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In contrast to the bloodless occupation of Crater Peninsula, the Japanese encountered resistance at their other landing sites. Three companies of the 3rd Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ishiro Kuwada, went ashore at two different positions along the rim of the caldera. They would accomplish their objective, the capture of Vunakanau airdrome, with a pincer movement. The plan called for the 8th Company to assault Raluana Point while the 7th and 9th Companies landed south of Mount Vulcan—but it didn’t work out that way. In the darkness, the coxswains steering the 9th Company’s landing craft strayed north of Vulcan, exactly where Major Owen’s reinforced A Company and the NGVR were waiting for them.

Concealed behind coconut log fortifications, the Australians could clearly hear the rumble of diesel motors and the scrape of steel hulls on coral. John N. Jones, a twenty-three-year-old corporal from New South Wales, was patrolling the perimeter at 0225 when he saw the barge-like landing craft approaching the beach, their silhouettes faintly backlit by the fires burning in Rabaul. The first boatload displayed remarkably poor discipline. Some of the Japanese were talking, others laughing, and one even shined a flashlight. Jones pointed a Very pistol skyward and pulled the trigger.

Seconds later, the flare cast a bright light over the beach, catching the Japanese troops by surprise. “We allowed most of them to get out of the boats,” recalled Kenneth G. Hale, another corporal in A Company, “and then fired everything we had.”

The Australians cut loose with a withering blast. The staccato chatter of machine guns and the popping of Enfield rifles blended into a solid roar. Some of the newly delivered Thompson submachine guns added their distinctive rattle, and Captain Matheson’s antitank guns joined in with a nasty whip-crack. Lost among all the gunfire was the metallic thumping of mortar rounds leaving their tubes. Additional flares whooshed skyward, lighting up the beach just as the mortar shells began to land near the barbed wire. The Japanese, thrown into disarray by the explosions and concentrated firepower, twice attempted to rush the wire and twice were driven back.

The invaders withdrew into the darkness and moved laterally down the shore toward Mount Vulcan. Subsequently the Australians ceased firing, for they lacked the ammunition to blast away indiscriminately.

Throughout the night, a squad from D Company had been quietly patrolling a little-used trail that led from Keravia Bay up to the plateau. An old ship’s boiler lay rusting near the beach, hence the name of the overgrown path: Boiler Road. The previous evening, the seven men had shaken hands with the rest of their platoon and bid them farewell. “I didn’t think we’d see them again,” wrote Private Pearson in his diary, “[because] we were going out on rather a hopeless mission.”

Led by Corporal Richard V. S. Hamill, the squad was all that potentially stood between the Japanese—if they chose to land anywhere along the wide stretch of Keravia Bay—and easy access to the plateau. The Australians had a Lewis machine gun and a Tommy gun in addition to their rifles, and a light truck with plenty of ammunition, but no radio or field telephone. “If the Japs came up that road we were to send up a red Very light and fight a retarding action until our company came down to reinforce us,” added Pearson. It wasn’t much of a plan.

In the middle of the night, a bright flare over Simpson Harbor encouraged Pearson. “We were also told that the Americans were coming to give us support, and when a Catalina dropped a parachute flare in the early hours of the morning, we thought it was a light to guide them in.”

Only much later did the Australians realize that the expected help from the United States was a myth. In the meantime, the sound of gunfire and mortars reached the squad from the direction of Vulcan Crater, a few miles to the north. The moment of truth had arrived.

At Raluana Point, Captain Selby and his tired militiamen waited tensely alongside Y Company. They had not reached the position until midnight, whereupon Captain Shiers directed them to place their single Vickers gun down on the beach. But only one small trench had been dug, and there were no wire defenses, so Selby detached five men armed with rifles to cover the machine gun, and moved the rest back to an old World War I emplacement behind the beach.

By this time, the Australians at Raluana Point were no longer deluded into believing they were on an exercise. Thanks to the faulty telephone service, Lieutenant Dawson had paid a personal visit during the night, and he’d informed Shelby and Shier about what they were up against. “I told them about the Jap task force and told them that it was no exercise,” he later stated. “Thus I disobeyed the orders I had received from Scanlan.”

At about 0230, a star shell burst high above St. George’s Channel. There, gut-wrenchingly close to the shore, were the dark silhouettes of Japanese ships. Moments later the landing craft of Kuwada’s 8th Company approached the beach.

As Gunner Bloomfield later remembered, the battle commenced with a haunting sound:

An enemy bugler started to blow a call, which ended abruptly, followed by a short period of silence. Then all hell broke loose. Naval guns flashed, followed by shells bursting overhead and behind us. Star shells again lit the area and we could see landing craft approaching. They were going to land at Raluana.

As they came within range our mortar crews went into action and as soon as the landing craft scraped on the sand and lowered their front platforms, the order “open fire, open fire” was being shouted and every gun on Raluana opened up.

Bathed in the surreal glow of star shells, the Australians poured small-arms fire into the invaders, and the first wave got no farther than the beach before their advance faltered. Japanese soldiers could be heard moving about in the surf and exhorting their troops to prepare for another attack, but after a few bursts from the Vickers gun, the noises stopped.

The silence lasted only a few minutes before the Japanese charged again. Simultaneously, the 8th Company sent landing craft around the far side of Raluana Point, and a few boatloads of troops rushed the defenders from behind. The Australians lacked the personnel and weaponry to withstand encirclement, and soon expended their ammunition. Once that happened, their fortitude quickly faltered. Noncoms and officers could be heard shouting “fall back,” and “the beach is lost!”

Selby had just started toward the beach when he heard “a crescendo of wild, savage yells.” The sounds, which came from the Japanese as they charged uphill, further unnerved the Australians. Selby met a sergeant from Y Company coming in the opposite direction and was told: “Shier’s orders are to retire to Three Ways. The beach is in enemy hands.”

In military terms, “retire” usually implies an orderly withdrawal. But as the 8th Company swarmed ashore, the Australians were soon routed. They dashed recklessly through the undergrowth to their parked trucks, and one vehicle stalled, its clutch stripped by a frantic driver. The rest of the trucks, filled to overflowing, crawled up the steep incline to the plateau. Gaining the top, one driver proved overzealous in his bid to get away from the Japanese and failed to negotiate a sharp curve. The truck overturned, spilling men into the ditch. No one was seriously hurt, but the soldiers had to walk or hitchhike several miles to Three Ways, and some did not arrive until nearly dawn.

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