Rabaul is a city on the northern tip of New Britain, an island just to the east of Papua New Guinea. It was originally founded (date unsure) on the inside lip of a collapsed caldera that opened to the sea, making for an excellent deep-water harbour. Directly to the east is the thin sliver of land known as New Ireland. South and east brings you to Bougainville and then the Solomon Islands. Head south and west and you'll arrive at Australia.

Rabaul first came to importance in the late 19th century as colonial powers began to exploit the PNG region. The Netherlands had claimed the western half of Papua New Guinea early on, while the eastern side lay unclaimed until the 1880s when the British colony of Queensland (Australia) annexed the south-eastern portion of the island. German interest was soon stirred, and on the 3rd of November, 1884, the German flag was first flown over Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (the northeastern part of New Guinea), the Bismarck Archipelago, and the German Solomon Islands. On April 1st, 1899, Germany formally took control of the region as a protectorate, known as German New Guinea. Rabaul was chosen to be the headquarters for German activity in the Pacific from this point onward. This situation did not last, as Australia and Japan took control of the remaining German holdings in the Pacific region following WW1. In 1914 Rabaul came to be the center of activity for the newly created Territory of New Guinea, under the administration of Australia. In 1937 the town was nearly destroyed by a volcanic eruption that created a new cone: Vulcan.

January 23rd, 1942 - Japanese forces attack Rabaul, wiping out the defenders (Australian marines: the 2/22nd Battalion or Lark Force which arrived in 1941 to defend the territory, and a civilian militia: the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles). Many survivors of the battle were herded on to the Japanese transport Montivideo Maru which was tragically sunk by the American submarine Sturgeon en route to the island of Hainan off the coast of China. 1,053 lives were lost, though the exact specifics of the ordeal are debated. In short time, Rabaul became the Japanese Naval Headquarters in the South Pacific. At the peak of the war, over 100,000 Japanese troops were stationed in the region, as well as many support personnel (you know what that means). American forces dropped in excess of 20,000 tons of bombs on the area, and more than forty ships were sunk in the harbour during the course of the war. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, was shot down after taking off from Rabaul on April 18, 1943, thanks to his itinerary being revealed by Allied codebreakers (an event mentioned in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon).

Due to the relentless pounding the Japanese were receiving (almost on a daily basis), they began to orchestrate the construction of an extensive tunnel network in the pumice hills around the city with the use of slave labourers, conscripted locals, and POWs. The extent of this undertaking was immense: over 500km of tunnels honeycomb those hills. The underground complex included 15 hospitals, one of which was a massive tunnel 4km long with room for 2,500 patients! Not only that, but the extensive network contained a machine shop, refectory, and living quarters for the majority of the Japanese contingent stationed at Rabaul, most of which was moved underground as the Allied bombing reached its peak. They even cut tunnels into the cliffs lining the harbour large enough to covertly hoist barges to and from the water's surface to evade Allied attention and to keep their subterranean forces stocked by submarine. Due to these nearly impenetrable defenses, Rabaul was bypassed by American forces as they swept the Pacific, left, as it is said, to "wither on the vine".

After the war it took two full years to transport all the Japanese back home. Rabaul was chosen as the site for the majority of war crimes trials in the South Pacific. 390 Japanese were put to trial, resulting in 266 convictions, and at least 87 executions by hanging or firing squad. Their graves were not marked. Rabaul then began the long and arduous task of reconstruction. PNG acheived independance in 1975. Rabaul prospered as a regional centre of trade, commerce, and tourism.

In 1994 the remote town of Rabaul once again undergoes a tremendous upheaval. The volcanic cones spread around the rim of the ancient sunken caldera on which Rabaul was built had been quiet for 51 years... but on the morning of September 19th, 1994, Vulcan and Tavurvur began erupting on the opposite side of the harbour from the town.

Pilot reports suggest that the resulting ash cloud reached anywhere from 15 to 30km into the atmosphere. Pictures were taken from the Space Shuttle Discovery within 24 hours. The cloud extended westward and ash fell across Rabaul, creating drifts two feet deep. Nearly all the buildings in town were destroyed after rains caused the ash on the rooftops to turn to mud, and eventually dry into a heavy substance nearly as hard as cement. This caused widespread structural collapse and pretty much levelled every structure in town.

In a tribute to the effectiveness of preparation, only five people perished in the event. Volcanologists and government officials had instituted a program of awareness and even practised eruption drills, which seems to have been a worthwhile strategy for those who lived inside a volcanic caldera. Earthquakes the night before the eruptions prompted authorities to evacuate the town of 50,000, and a great tragedy was for the most-part averted.

The eruptions subsided by December of that year, but Rabaul was not fit for habitability. The nearby town of Kokopo took on much of Rabaul's 53,000 residents and became known, perhaps only temporarily, as Rabaul Town. Slowly the original site of Rabaul was painstakingly rebuilt. The tunnels remain unaffected by the cataclysm, slowly becoming choked with vivacious vegetation. Tourists are returning to soak in the tropical heat and years of tumultuous history. And the volcanoes still loom on the horizon, an everpresent reminder of the powers that shape our world.

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