By Allyn Vannoy
On February 23, 1942, one month after Rabaul had fallen to the Japanese, six B-17s of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, flying out of Townsville, Australia, launched the first Allied air strike against the new enemy stronghold on the northeastern tip of New Britain, just east of New Guinea. The campaign against Rabaul would prove to be one of longest of the war, lasting until August 1945. The skies over such places as St. George’s Channel, Blanche Bay, and Gazelle Peninsula would witness one of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the Pacific air war. The overriding objective of the Allied campaign was to capture or at least neutralize the key Japanese base, whose geographic position made it the hub of the enemy’s formidable air-base system at the southeastern corner of their recently won empire.
In early 1943, the Japanese prepared their new garrison to meet the anticipated Allied onslaught. The Eleventh Air Fleet at Rabaul mustered about 300 planes and 10,000 men, including approximately 1,500 air crewmen. Land-based naval air units in quiet sectors of the Pacific were heavily scavenged for additional planes and pilots. As a backup, two Japanese carrier air groups with another 300 planes were positioned at Truk, and flight operations at forward bases in the Solomons were sharply curtailed to conserve aircraft and crews. Defenders strengthened and expanded aircraft blast barriers and disposed antiaircraft guns in depth. When completed, Rabaul’s formidable ai
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