PAPUA NEW GUINEA � Because it has one of the finest natural harbors in the Pacific, Rabaul was chosen by the Japanese as its operations center for controlling the South Pacific.
Because of its central location, it could strike in any direction, including Australia. In fact, it was from the Australians that the Japanese took the island, known as New Britain.
The Japanese immediately began fortifying the portion of the island around Rabaul with five airfields, a seaplane and submarine base, a naval anchorage to hold over 100 vessels, support facilities and 200,000 troops.
It was so well fortified, Allied commanders decided not to invade either Rabaul or Truk, which was even a bigger supply depot, but not as valuable for operational purposes.
Gen. MacArthur wanted to take Rabaul to use as a staging area to retake the Philippines. But instead, we bombed it practically out of existence. Admiral �Bull� Halsey, whom our troops worshipped for his toughness, vowed to �change the name of Rabaul to rubble.� And that we did, beginning in October 1943.
By that time, enemy air power no longer was much worry. Japan couldn�t produce planes or train pilots as quickly as we could. So it dug tunnels. Using prisoners and natives as slave labor, it honeycombed the hills with hundreds of miles of tunnels that held hospitals, repair facilities and barracks.
Reminders of World War II are everywhere. Rabaul evidently doesn�t have much of a cleanup crew, so war relics litter the island. Many of them remain where they were abandoned 60 years ago.
Often that is in someone�s yard. Many driveways and sidewalks are lined with shell casings of all sizes, and sometimes even live shells. With the growing popularity of memorabilia from the war, many locals are trying to make money from their collections.
There is much poverty in the country, which is now an independent nation, although middle-class homes are much more evident than on Guadalcanal. And as with Guadalcanal, civil unrest sometimes closes the island to tourists.
The people are very dark-skinned, with African features and fuzzy hair, which soetimes is blonde. Anthropologists are still trying to figure where the blonde came from. It has been present since long before the war. And it doesn�t seem to have anything to do with diet or environment. Evidently it is genetic.
Handicrafts are abundant and very reasonable. The natives gather at every stop along our tours with shells, beads, woven baskets and mats. But most impressive are the masks and effigies. Christian missionary work is very evident, but ancient beliefs also remain.
But none of this is what today�s tourist remembers about Rabaul. The large harbor is ringed with small volcanoes. The harbor, itself, was created by a major explosion, only 1,400 years ago, that blew out one side of a caldera, letting the ocean pour in.
Some of the harbor�s volcanoes are still active. A 1994 eruption left downtown Rabaul buried under more than six feet of ash. The port area was restored, but it is necessary to drive through several miles of roads and abandoned buildings covered with ash in order to get out of the devastated area.
When our ship pulled into the harbor, the first volcano we passed put on a show that would make any tourist board proud. It continued to huff and puff all day, but nothing was as spectacular as the huge plume of black smoke the volcano belched just as we passed it. It was as if someone with the local Chamber of Commerce threw a switch.
We now begin our long trek back north on this slow boat to China. We�ll retrace the path that Gen. MacArthur and Adm. Halsey took to free the Philippines and then move north through Guam and Saipan to the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
My only regret is that we can�t visit the Philippines. But it is one of those countries now declared unsafe.