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THE TUNNELS OF FORTRESS RABAUL

By   Tyson Doneley, M.S.C.

From Annals Australia, October 1985

Father Tyson Doneley, M.S.C., former Rector of Chevalier College, Bowral, N.S.W., St John's College, Darwin, and now on New Britain as Rector of St Peter Chanel Seminary writes for Annals readers about the famous Rabaul Tunnels. These tunnels were dug by the Japanese, and by local people, as well as by Indians and Chinese captured at Singapore who are buried in the cemetery at Bitapaka outside Rabaul.

RABAUL, on its magnificent reef-free harbour, is situated in East New Britain, PNG, just south of the equator. That word Rabaul conjures up visions of volcanoes, earthquakes, Japanese - and rightly so.

PNG has over 20 active volcanoes - smoking islands like Manam or Karkar, growling giants like Kilenge's Langla in West New Britain, superbly scenic like twin peaked Balbi in North Bougainville, or with a single eruption like Ulawun (the Father) 20 miles West of Rabaul; and Rabaul itself is cradled in a nest of volcanoes - its magnificent harbour the caldera of a giant volcano sea-swamped, with secondary vents producing the Mother, the North Daughter, the South Daughter, Rabalan akeia, the still-active Matupit and, most recent of all, Vulcan, which emerged from the harbour and blew its top off in 1937. And a new disturbance is threatening Rabaul again with land rising near Matupit.

Then, for earthquakes Rabaul is in one of the most earthquake-prone areas of the world. This is Ples Guria or the Earthquake (guria) Place. How eerie it is to feel this solid, solid earth moving and shaking like a trampoline under foot! In March this year we had a shake of intensity 7.6 on the Richter scale of nearly 5 minute's duration. The epicentre was 200 kms to the east, and fortunately the disturbance was some 40 kms down, or very great damage would have resulted. Little gurias, a tremble, a start, a lurch, are frequent, and provide alternative talking points to VFL results or cricket or politics.

But one other happening has left its mark on Rabaul: a human happening, the Japanese occupation in World War II. Rabaul was chosen by the Japanese to be their pivot in the S.E. Pacific because of its splendid harbour, its airfields and its strategical importance for thrusts to the mid-Pacific or south to Australia or west to Port Moresby. Overnight on January 22nd-23rd, 1942, a mighty Japanese armada slid into Simpson Harbour and Blanche Bay. Australia's token force, the 2/22nd, Lark Force, fought gallantly, especially at Vulcan Beach near Malagunan base camp, then took to the hills and jungle, which proved to be almost as hostile as the Japanese. However, many defeated both jungle and Japanese to escape from the north coast towards Talasea or the south coast towards MalMal (those who escaped the Tol Plantation Massacre).

At this stage, the war was all Japan's: Singapore fell and all the East. Rabaul was built up as Fortress Rabaul, and 100,000 air, military and naval men were poured into it. It was the springboard and supply base for the Solomons, especially Guadalcanal where 24,000 Japanese fell. From Rabaul sallied forth the invasion fleet for Port Moresby that was turned back in the battle of the Coral Sea, and so formidable were the Rabaul defences that the Allies never tried to assault it by land. Even today the beaches of the Gazelle peninsula are lined with concrete blockhouses and backed by lines of trenches and gun emplacements.

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Rabaul, looking from the Coast Watchers' memorial.

But as the war turned against Japan, Rabaul came under attack from the air more and more. Waves of U.S., Australian and N.Z. fighters and bombers firstly wiped out the Japanese air force, then began to pound Rabaul remorselessly day in, day out. 20,500 tons of bombs are estimated to have been dropped on Rabaul - more than on Berlin, it is said. Not a building stood, not even a vehicle could stir on the ground in daytime as Allied planes prowled overhead. It is estimated that the Japanese lost 2,000 planes in PNG (to the Allies' l,000) and remnants are scattered everywhere. 200 yards off Matupit airstrip, in the jungle, sit a Zero, a medium bomber and a giant twin engined bomber. Just off Matupit Island and the South Daughter volcano and Tokau plantation near Kokopo, whole planes are just below the surface of the water. Scraps of planes - wings, fuselage, propellers, engine parts - litter Rapopo plantation where Ulapia minor seminary stands. Even today live bombs are turning up; in 1982 a truckload of "old" bombs was found in the grounds of Rabaul's National Broadcasting Commission and dumped at Matupit - and soon began to explode in dump fires, and caused the closure of the nearby airport for several days.

Yet from this lethal rain of bombs, the Japanese stepped forth almost unharmed (though they themselves were contained, cut off from giving or receiving aid - 89,000 troops, 57,000 military, 32,000 naval, were here at the surrender, - frustrated by Atlied strategy). They survived by an almost incredible system of tunnels - hospitals were in tunnels, machinery was in tunnels, storehouses were in tunnels, barges were in tunnels, H.Q. were in tunnels, troops were in tunnels: short U-turn air raid tunnels, long winding tunnels, many-storeyed tunnels (at Malagunan they are at four levels in the hills): all adding up to a total of 55O to 800 kms of tunnel, claimed to be longer than the famous catacombs of Rome.

Some are concrete lined, some were supported with palm trunks, others are hewn from the pumice and coral. Some today have fallen in because of the gurias, many are filled with thousands of bats and bat dung; some have ancient ammunition that no one wants to handle; one by the main road near Vulcan has five supply barges stored in line; most have been swept clean of what they held; occasional ones are found as they were left at war's end. At least one was blown up with the Japanese still inside it, refusing to emerge to surrender. Years before the Japanese, the Germans had built a tunnel through the hills to the north coasT it was later dug out into an open road but was known as Tunnel Hill road. Gaping Japanese tunnels on Tunnel Hill road were the HQ of the dreaded Kempeitai, the secret police. Here Peter To Rot was questioned, the brave Tolai catechist who was put to death by the Japanese for continuing doggedly in catechist's work that they forbade. He was imprisoned in another tunnel system at Rakunai, a few miles from Rabaul, then put to death apparently by an injection administered by two doctors.

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A single Jig tree near Rabaul, with the Author.

The hills and cliffs around Rabaul lent themselves to tunneling. Close to Tavuilu near Vulcan were several naval hospitals. One of these consisted of large shafts driven through a mountainside with l6 connecting shafts: these were the wards and here the patients lay in semi-darkness, with light supplied by wicks burning in coconut holders containing coconut oil, held in wire brackets on the wall. There was also electricity but as fuel grew scarce or generators failed, the coconut oil was the fall back. The metal wall spikes and smoke-marked walls are there still, along with the niches in the walls that acted as places to store personal belongings. There was also a machine for helping to circulate air through the tunnels and make conditions a little better for the sick men held there.

Nearby is a second naval hospital, and it has an interesting story. One of our Japanese missionaries asked us to host a Japanese university lecturer, Sam Nagara, who wished to visit the naval hospital tunnels where his uncle surgeon Captain Tetsuya Hatona, now dead, had been in charge during the war. Sam had been a small boy of eleven years in Hiroshima when the bomb fell in 1945. But he had been pressed into digging tunnels for the defence of Japan and had been ill.

"Don't go to school today, son" his mother had said - "you are not well enough." He stayed home, and that very day his school and friends were destroyed by the atomic bomb. After the war he won a scholarship to Hawaii, married an American Japanese girl and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, lecturing at the University of Michigan.

We had no idea of the whereabouts of his uncle's hospital tunnels, but his uncle had written a book called "Cave Hospital" about his life in Rabaul with the 8th Naval Hospital unit. In it he had a few snapshots and several maps that he had smuggled out in his belt at the surrender, and local students were able to identify the tunnels from the maps. Everything was now wildly overgrown and most of the tunnel area at this point had fallen in or been blown up, but one giant tree drawn on the map by Captain Hatona was there still, above a main tunnel entrance, only it was forty years later. We found a few relics to send back to Sam's aunt, a roof spike for a lamp from a cement-lined administration room, a few nails, and we took a number of photographs to send her also.

Later, when Capt. Hatona's book was translated, it made interesting reading: it told of the departure from Kure in November 1943 for the South Seas, the early confidence, the meeting with tropical diseases dengue, malaria, dysentery; the gradual turning of the tide of war; the decision to put the hospital into tunnels in the hills in May 1944, the increasing tempo of the bombing, the dwindling of food supplies and the efforts to grow sweet potatoes, beans and tapioca and make potato wine, and soap from coconut oil (even the surgeon spent much of his time working in the gardens, which were sometimes raided by other hungry units); there is his growing depression and foreboding as the war got worse and worse, then it was all over after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Here is the entry for July l5th, 1945:

8.l0am. Formations of medium bombers and bombing. In the middle of the native village above the tunnels, more than twenty 25Olb bombs were dropped. The hospital patients' bus received a direct hit and one truck was destroyed. Apart from this, Yokohachi Special Unit's Truck was damaged but fortunately no-one was hurt. However, the native village has become unrecognizable. The native huts were all partially or completely destroyed. About 17 dead were brought out, after being buried alive in air raid shelters etc. Mothers were digging in the ground, children were crying - it was really pathetic. I thought of the pitiful situations in the bombing at home (in Japan).

The evening meal celebrated the Lantern Festival, and when rice cakes covered with bean jelly were put out, all the soldiers were very happy. When the bombing broke off, a fairweather moon could be seen shining over the coconuts as they swayed in the breeze.

It was not possible to live completely in the tunnels, so small out-houses, shelters, cookhouses, "factories" were built outside for conviviality and work in order to escape from tunnel life.

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Japanese submarine base. Rabaul.

This fashion also was followed by the missionaries in the prison camp at Ramale valley 8 kms into the hills near Vunapope. Here some 350 fathers, brothers, sisters and local people were kept 18 months through the worst bombings of l944 and 1945 when the main mission station at Vunapope, Japanese occupied, was completely destroyed. The old tunnels at Ramale still remain, with their ten entrances. Water is feet deep in some of them. The outside huts have long since perished; but down in the valley still runs the cold sweet unfailing water that made life possible in this jungle camp.

Close to Vunapope at Ulagunan is a correspondence school for secondary students, Holy Spirit School. One morning in 1979 a student went down to the creek to work and to his amazement he saw a man whom he thought was a Japanese. He ran back in fright to get other students. The grouP came back and the man was still there: but when the group came, he turned and ran into the maze of tunnels honeycombing the area. The boys told their story (one was a student later at Chanel seminary) and traces were found in the tunnels where several people had been living but no-one was found even though a TV crew came from Japan and messages were cried out with loudspeakers in JaPanese. Peraps it was no Japanese at all; however, there were memories of the soldiers who had long refused to surrender but gave up at last in Guam and the Philippines. But here the tunnels still hold their secret, kilometres of tunnel on several levels, with many entrances, an elaborate concreted main entrance; and the sole inhabitants today are thousands of bats who swish or squeak by, leaving only the draught from their flight and the flutter of beating wings.

In many places today the tunnel entrances are blocked by soil or timber to prevent piccaninies wandering into them and becoming lost or encountering tunnel bats and snakes; though an occasional strong guria opens up old entrances; and their stories are being forgotten, or can only be conjectured as at Submarine Bay near Rabaul where deep tunnels in the coral cliffs and the remains of a small mobile crane corroborate the story that this was where submarines were vicutalled; if attacked, batteries of guns in the cliff tunnels above would protect them or they would sink into the depths where the shelf of rock dropped a sheer 600 feet.

Perhaps a later age will search for tunnel relics and history. In the 198O's the Japanese Naval Radio Base was discovered in a tunnel behind Rabaul. In 1980 one keen searcher found a sealed tunnel with a staff car well preserved in it, and another one with spare aeroplane parts. The tide of history has rolled on but the flotsam and jetsam of war and time still make Rabaul an intensely interesting place as well as one of the most beautiful areas in all PNG.


From "ANNALS AUSTRALASIA"   October 1985