View of Simpson Harbor with Lakunai Field to the upper right during an August, 1943 attack.
At the most Northwest point of New Britain is a mountainous crook-shaped area of land. It is the city of Rabaul and it surrounds a natural deep
water harbor, Simpson Harbor.
In January, 1942, Rabaul, then defended by Australia came under heavy aerial bombardment by the Japanese for three weeks. Japanese ships
then landed approximately 5,000 troops to take the 1,500 garrisoned at Rabaul. Before withdrawing, the Australians would make a courageous stand.
Remaining Australians evacuated in several small boats to sea, but the majority were taken prisoner and many were murdered.
Rabaul's natural defense of surrounding
high mountains and deep water harbor, Simpson Harbor was deep enough for submarines to enter and exit without surfacing. The main airfield, Lakunai Field was located only a
mile south of Rabaul. Eight miles to the south is Vunakanau Field, another large airfield. Others are Tobera, a fighter field, Rapopo, a bomber field, and Keravat.
Rabaul became a primary base for naval and air operation to support further Japanese advance and control of the South Pacific.
When it came to fighter planes, there were few that could match the A6M Zero for all-around effectiveness in air combat. Also known
as "Zeke" and "Hamp"*, the Zero, developed in the late 30's, saw it's first combat in China in 1940. During that time, the Zero exhibited its superiority
as a light-weight, highly manueverable, fast, long range fighter. It's large canopy provided its pilot with excellent visability. Equipped with a 980 HP 14-cylinder engine,
the Zero, weighing typically between 4,000 to 6,000 pounds, attained speeds up to 351 mph with a maximum range of about 1,200 miles.
*The Japanese A6M Fighter was universally known as the Zero from its Japanese Navy type designation, Type 0 (zero) Carrier Fighter. The official Allied code name was "Zeke" and the A6M3-32 variation was called "Hamp".
The Zero effectively paralleled
the image of the Samarai warrior with its quickness and deadly precision. Combat encounters at the start of the war left U.S. pilots in awe of it's capability. Marine Ace
Joe Foss commented,
"After my first kill a Zero shot me to pieces and I had to land with one on my tail. They were hungry that day. We were hit all the time.
When you had so many Zeros around you expected to get hit. It wasn't a case of 'if' but a case of 'when'. There was no way you could fly around and be clean. One day I
landed and said I didn't get hit today. And one of my men said, 'What's that?' One lone bullet had come through the canopy and hit the darn doughnut: That round pad you're
supposed to lean against if you're launched from a catapult. I never knew that one. There wasn't a one of us that made it if the good Lord didn't want us to. There is no
excuse for any of us to be around. If you weren't a believer before, a lot were when they left. I told my pilots that if you were alone and saw a Zero at the same altitude
you were flying that you were outnumbered and should go for home. They were not a plane to tangle with unless you had an advantage."
Though the Zero
possessed numerous advantages, it's disadvantages were just as much so. It's lightness was, in part, due to a lack of armor protection for the pilot, engine, and fuel tank.
The fuel tank was not self-sealing (as were tanks on allied fighters) and a hit to the tank could turn the plane into a fireball. The Zero's lightness and speed allowed it
to easily turn inside any U.S. plane. While this was an asset in low-speed dogfights, it was simply no match in a dive against the heavier, more powerful aircraft. Armed
with two 7.7mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons, the machine guns lacked effectiveness except only at close range and the 20mm cannons possessed a slow rate of fire.
The Zero dominated the air over the Pacific until heavier more powerful aircraft as the F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat were introduced. The Zero finally met a
formidable opponent when the very tough, well-armed F4U Corsair was introduced in the South Pacific. At this time, the F4U became the fastest aircraft in the Pacific capable
of speeds well over 400 miles per hour.
Japanese pilots recount a previous aerial combat success.