By MICHAEL PHILIP
RABAUL was famously known by international visitors and Papua New Guineans as Frangipani Town in the 1980s and 90s.
The town is located on the island of New Britain and lies 60km to the east of the island of New Guinea and is the old provincial capital of East New Britain but was destroyed by the volcanic eruptions in 1994.
The eruption has caused 80 per cent of the buildings in Rabaul town to collapse under volcanic ash.
After the eruption the capital was moved to Kokopo, about 20km away.
Today Rabaul is continually threatened by the volcanic activity because it is on the edge of the Rabaul caldera.
The designers of the Rabaul Town have planned to build the town around the harbour area known today as Simpson Harbour. It was built during the German New Guinea Administration which was by then controlling the region between 1884 up until 1919.
Before it was captured by the British Empire during the earlier days of the WWI, Rabaul was the headquarters of German New Guinea in 1910.
After the capture, Rabaul became the capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea from 1910 to 1937.
After 6years the town was again captured by the Japanese during the WW II in 1942 and later became the main base of the military and naval activity in the South Pacific.
The establishments of the settlements by the local people as well as the military personals around the edge of the Rabaul caldera was collectively called Rabaul despite having less importance to the people due to the first volcanic eruption in 1937 that destroyed everything.
Today Rabaul is a tourist destination and is known for its volcanoes, scuba diving and snorkelling sites, spectacular harbour and other scenery, World War II history, flora and fauna, and the cultural life of the Tolai people.
Before the town was destroyed by the volcanic ash, Rabaul was a popular commercial and recreational boating destination where fewer private small craft usually visited. It was recorded that about 10 to 12 cruise ships visit Rabaul each year including the Queen Elizabeth carrying up to 2,000 passengers. Tourism was a major money making industry in Rabaul that time.
The two volcanoes Balanakaia and Tavurvur have always been a source of concern to the whole province.
In 1878 before it was established as a town, an eruption formed a volcano in the harbour.
The German colonial government administered by Governor Albert Hahl in 1910 moved offices, district court, hospital and postal facilities from Kokopo to Simpsonhafen.
The movement from Kokopo to Simpsonhafen did create a settlement where office buildings and houses was built and then the town was later called “Rabaul,” meaning mangrove in Kuanua (Tolai Language) as the town was built on a very large mangrove swamp.
At the outset of the WWI, at the behest of Great Britain, Australia – as one of the Dominions of the British Empire – defeated the German military garrison in Rabaul and occupied the territory with the volunteer Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force.
Following Germany’s defeat at the end of the war, the occupied territory was delegated in 1920 to Australia as a League of Nations mandate.
Rabaul became the capital of the Territory of New Guinea. Visits to and stays in Rabaul during this period were described in many history books.
Gunantambu, the famous house of “Queen” Emma Forsayth and her husband, contained furniture previously owned by Robert Louis Stevenson and left to her family in Samoa.
The first volcanic eruption in 1937 did not stop international visitors from traveling to Rabaul. It remained a tourist attraction after WWII and remained so until the major eruption in 1994 which literally buried the town.
Rabaul volcano is one of the most active and most dangerous volcanoes in Papua New Guinea. Having erupted and entirely destroyed Rabaul on June 6, 1937, five years before the occupation by Japan, Rabaul exploded violently again in 1994 with devastating force.
Under the Australian administration, Rabaul developed into a regional base. Then in 1937, catastrophic volcanic eruptions destroyed the town after the two volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan, exploded killing 507 people and causing widespread damage.
Following this, the Australian administration for the Territory of New Guinea decided to move the territorial headquarters to the safer location of Lae. All long-term steps to re-establish the territorial headquarters at Rabaul were forestalled during World War II.
By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor it was apparent they would soon attack Rabaul. Hence, by December 1941, women and children (except for the Chinese and locals) were evacuated.
Rabaul was heavily bombed in 1942; on Jan 23 the battle of Rabaul began and it was captured shortly thereafter by thousands of Japanese naval landing forces.
During their occupation the Japanese developed Rabaul into a much more powerful base than the Australians had planned after the 1937 volcanic eruptions, with long-term consequences for the town in the post-war period.
The Japanese army dug many kilometres of tunnels as shelter from Allied air attacks, such as the bombing of November 1943. They also expanded the facilities by constructing army barracks and support structures. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul.
On April 18, 1943, the United States executed Operation Vengeance, in which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down and killed by a United States P-38 Lightning over south Bougainville.
Yamamoto had taken off from Rabaul on an inspection tour, and United States Navy cryptographers had intercepted and then decrypted Japanese communications giving his flight itinerary.
Because of the need to keep secret the American ability to decrypt Japanese radio traffic, the sensitive information went up the chain of command for a decision as to what actions the units in the field should take; ultimately President Franklin D Roosevelt was said to have approved the action based on these intercepts, although this is not documented.
Sixteen United States Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighters took off from Guadalcanal and intercepted and destroyed the two bombers of the Yamamoto flight and damaged some of the escorting Japanese fighters, for the loss of one P-38.
Instead of capturing Rabaul during their advance towards the Japanese Home islands, the Allied forces decided to bypass it by establishing a ring of airfields and naval bases on the islands around it. Cut off from re-supply and under continual air attacks as part of Operation Cartwheel, the base became useless.
The Pacification of Rabaul took until the end of the war and was only completed following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
After the Second World War, western New Guinea (renamed Papua) was returned to pre-war owner the Netherlands, and eastern New Guinea was returned to pre-war administrator Australia, and Rabaul flourished as the principal city and port of the archipelago, with one of the finest harbours in the world.
By 1990 Rabaul’s population was 17,044. However, Rabaul did not resume its pre-1937 role as capital, which was taken over by Port Moresby for the entirety of the two territories.
Rabaul’s magnificent harbour and central position meant it became a trading hub for the lively, and politically and economically developing New Guinea Islands region (East and West New Britain, New Ireland, Manus Island and Bougainville).
It retained that role when Papua New Guinea became independent from Australia in 1975.
In 1983 and 1984 the town was ready for evacuation when the volcanoes started to heat up. Nothing happened until Sept 19, 1994, when again Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted, destroying the airport and covering most of the town with heavy ash fall.
There were only 19 hours of warning, but the city and most nearby villages were evacuated before the eruption. Five people were killed—one of them by lightning from the eruptive column named Wagarit Apelis.
The planning and evacuation drills helped keep the death toll low. Most of the buildings in the south-eastern half of Rabaul collapsed due to the weight of ash on their roofs.
The last eruption and continuing low and modest levels of activity prompted moving the provincial capital to Kokopo. Nonetheless, Rabaul is slowly rebuilding inside the danger zone.
Vulcan has remained quiet since 1994, but small and large eruptions from nearby Tavurvur occur intermittently, with the most recent of note being on Aug 29, 2014. A government volcanological observatory was established on the northern ridge of the Rabaul caldera in the 1950s.
A team there maintains its crucial watch over the town and the volcanoes until today. They are also responsible for monitoring other volcanoes on New Britain and nearby islands.
Rabaul Airport was destroyed in the 1994 eruption, and, since the approach involved flying over the Tavurvur crater, it was abandoned.
The airport was in the direct path of the falling ash from the nearby vents. A new airport was built at Tokua, about 50 km farther away to the southeast. However, even it has been closed occasionally by ash thrown up by Tavurvur and driven by the northwest monsoon winds.
Rabaul has a large, nearly enclosed harbour, the Simpson Harbour.
Use of this harbour by the Imperial Japanese navy was one of the motivations for the Japanese invasion in 1942.
Today, due to the Covid-19 pandemic the number of international visitors has dropped but Rabaul remains one of the most beautiful tourism destinations in Papua New Guinea.
- This piece of history would not have been written without the support of my Grade 11 and 12 History teacher Mrs Willson. Thank you.