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Rabaul is a township in East New Britainmarker province, Papua New Guineamarker. The town was the provincial capital and most important settlement in the province until it was destroyed in 1994 by falling ash of a volcanic eruption. During the eruption, ash was sent thousands of feet into the air. It caused rain which caused buildings to collapse. 80% of the buildings in Rabaul were collapsed. After the eruption the capital was moved to Kokopomarker, about away. Rabaul is continually threatened by volcanic activity due to being built on the edge of Rabaul calderamarker, a flooded caldera of a large volcano.

Rabaul was the headquarters of German New Guinea until captured by the British Commonwealth during World War I, when it became the capital of the Australian mandated Territory of New Guinea until 1937. During World War II it was captured by the Japanese in 1942, and it became the main base of Japanese military and naval activity in the South Pacific. Settlements and military installations around the edge of the caldera are often collectively referred to as Rabaul despite the old town of Rabaul itself being reduced to practical insignificance by the volcanic eruption in 1994.

As a tourist destination, Rabaul is popular for scuba diving and for snorkelling sites and a spectacular harbour; it had been the premier commercial and travel destination in Papua New Guinea and indeed in the wider South Pacific during much of the 20th century until the 1994 volcanic eruptions. There are still several diving operators based there.

History

Rabaul's proximity to its volcanoes has always been a source of concern. In 1878 before being established as a town an eruption caused the formation of Vulcanmarker in the harbour.

Colonial period and aftermath

In 1910 the German colonial government during the administration of Governor Albert Hahl relocated offices, the district court, a hospital, and customs and postal facilities from Herbertshöhe (today’s Kokopomarker) to Simpsonhafen. That settlement was thus substantially enlarged with official buildings and housing and renamed Rabaul, meaning mangrove in Kuanua (the local language) as the new town was partially built on a reclaimed mangrove swamp.

At the outset of World War I, at the behest of Great Britain, Australia occupied German New Guinea 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 (Class C). Rabaul became the capital of the Territory of New Guinea.

1937 eruption

Under the Australian administration, Rabaul developed into a regional base. Then in 1937 a catastrophic volcanic eruptions destroyed the town after the two volcanos, Tavurvurmarker and Vulcanmarker, 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 Laemarker. Any long-term steps to re-establish the territorial headquarters at Rabaul were forestalled with the beginning of the World War II.

World War II

World War II Japanese landing barges in tunnels near Rabaul
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbormarker it was apparent that Rabaul would come under attack. By December 1941, all women and children were evacuated. In January 1942, Rabaul was heavily bombed, and on January 23 the Battle of Rabaul began with the landing of thousands of Japanese marines.

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 the Allied air forces. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul. The Japanese army also set up brothels in Rabaul where "... perhaps 2000 or more women were deceived and forced into prostitution of a most demanding kind ...", according to Emeritus Professor Hank Nelson from the Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

On April 18, 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbormarker, was shot down and killed by United Statesmarker aircraft over South Bougainville after taking off from Rabaul. Japanese communications giving Yamamoto's flight itinerary were decrypted by United States Navy cryptographers. Eighteen United States Army Air Force P-38 Lightning fighters took off from Guadalcanal and destroyed the two bombers of the Yamamoto flight and the escorting Japanese fighters.

Instead of capturing Rabaul, the Allied forces bypassed 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 Japanese held Rabaul until they surrendered at the end of the war in August 1945.

1994 eruption

Remains of an internal staircase in Rabaul from the 1994 eruption.
Note the depth of the ash.
In 1983 and 1984 the town was ready for evacuation when the volcanoes started to heat up. Nothing happened until 19 September 1994, when again Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted, destroying the airport and covering most of the town with heavy ashfall. There were only 19 hours of warning before the eruption and the city's inhabitants self-evacuated before the eruption. Only a handful of people were killed - several of them by lightning from the eruptive column. The advance planning and evacuation drills helped keep the death toll low. Most of the buildings in the southeastern half of Rabaul collapsed due to the weight of ash on their roofs.

The last eruption prompted the relocation of the provincial capital to Kokopomarker, the former German Herbertshöhe. Nonetheless, Rabaul is slowly rebuilding in the danger zone. Vulcan has remained dormant since the eruption, while small-scale eruptions from Tavurvur occur intermittently. A government volcano observatory is maintained in the northern portion of Rabaul. It also has responsibility for monitoring the other volcanoes on New Britainmarker and nearby islands in addition to the Rabaul caldera.

Transportation

Rabaul Airport was completely destroyed in the 1994 eruption. The airport was in direct path of the falling ash from the nearby vents. The airport was later rebuilt at Tokua, farther away outside the caldera to the southeast, but has occasionally been closed by ashfall from the continuing volcanic activity in the Rabaul caldera.

Rabaul has a large, nearly-perfect circular harbour, Simpson Harbour, one of the best in the South Pacific region for shipping. Use of this harbour for the Imperial Japanese Navy was one of the motivations for the Japanese invasion in 1942.

References

  1. Schultz-Naumann, Joachim. Unter Kaisers Flagge. Deutschlands Schutzgebiete im Pazifik und in China einst und heute [Under the Kaiser’s Flag. Germany’s Protectorates in the Pacific and China, then and today]. Munich: Universitas Verlag. 1985, p. 96. ISBN 380041094X
  2. Class C mandates were designed for populations considered incapable of self-government
  3. Grant, Rebecca. "Magic and Lightning" in Air Force Magazine, March 2006


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