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    Vunakanau Airfield (Rabaul West, West Airfield, Rabaul Upper, Rabaul No. 2) ENB PNG
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43rd BG January 5, 1943

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5th AF c1943

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5th AF c1943

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8th PRS May 1943

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September 11, 1943

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345th BG Oct 12, 1943

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RNZAF September 1945

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Justin Taylan 2000

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Justin Taylan 2006
Location
Lat 152° 8' Long 4° 19'  Vunakanau Airfield was located at Vunakanau on the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain. To the northeast approximately ten miles away is Rabaul. Known as "Vunakanau Drome". Known to the Japanese as "Rabaul West", "West Airfield, "Rabaul Upper Airfield" or "Rabaul No. 2". Between 1884 until September 1914 part of Deutsch Neu Guinea (German New Guinea). Prewar and during the Pacific War part of the Territory of New Guinea. Today located in East New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Construction
Built prewar by the Australian administration as a single unpaved runway with a single building.

World War II Pacific Theatre History
During early 1942, Vunakanau Airfield was used by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) by No. 24 Squadron equipped with ten Wirraways and four Hudsons with some based at Lakunai Airfield.

Australian units based at Vunakanau
24 Squadron (10 x Wirraway, 4 x Hudson)

On January 6, 1942 Japanese flyingboats bomb Vunakanau Airfield for the first time with several other raids afterwards. On January 20, 1942 eight Wirraways attempted to intercept over a hundred Japanese aircraft attacking Rabaul. All eight Wirraways were shot down or damaged and written off afterwards. Before Vunakanau Airfield fell to the Japanese, No. 24 Squadron commanding officer (C. O.) Squadron Leader John M. Lerew, sent the radio message "Nos Morituri Te Salutamus" (Latin: "We who are about to die salute you") to RAAF headquarters at Melbourne.

Japanese missions against Vunakanau Airfield
January 6-20, 1942
On January 22, 1942 the last Hudson loaded with wounded took off from Vunakanau bound for Port Moresby. Afterwards, Vunakanau Airfield was abandoned with several damaged Wirraways left in the vicinity.

During late January 1942, Vunakanau Airfield was occupied by the Japanese after capturing the Rabaul area. Immediately, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began to repair and expand the runway for use as a base for bombers and fighters. During 1942-1943, Vunakanau Airfield was expanded and improvied by the Japanese. As of November 10, 1943 Vunakanau Airfield had two parallel runways 5,100' in length with taxiways and revetments on both sides, including 64 bomber and 81 fighter revetments. Allied intelligence noted defenses including 15 heavy anti-aircraft guns, 14 medium anti-aircraft guns and 12 light machine guns plus three searchlight batteries.

Between February 14, 1942 to February 17, 1942 Type 1 / G4M1 Betty bombers from the 4th Kokutai arrived as the first bombers based at Vunakanau Airfield.

Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) units based at Vunakanau
4th Kokutai (G4M1) Feb 14-18, 1942 - ?
Misawa Kokutai (9 x G4M1) Aug 7, 1942 - Oct 1942
705 Kokutai (G4M1 formerly Misawa) Jan 1943 - April 1943
702 Kokutai (G4M1 Betty) Kisarazu via Tinian early May 1943 - December 11, 1943 disbanded crews to 751 Ku
751 Kokutai (G4M Betty) Oct 11,  42 - May 1943
Tainan Kokutai (A6M Zero) April 1942 - November 1942 also Lakunai
251 Kokutai (formerly Tainan Kokutai A6M Zero / J1N1 Irving) November 1942–middle 1943
Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) units based at Vunakanau
1st Hiko Sentai (Ki-43 Oscar) January - August 1943
11th Hiko Sentai (Ki-43 Oscar) December 18, 1942–June 1943 Wewak
13th Hiko Sentai (Ki-45 Nick) May - September 1943
68th Hiko Sentai (Ki-61 Tony) April - July 1943 to Wewak
78th Hiko Sentai (Ki-61 Tony) June - July 1943 to Wewak

In late January 1942, Allied aircraft began bombing Vunakanau Airfield targeting the runway and parked aircraft. By late 1943, Vunakanau Airfield was within range of Allied fighter aircraft that began escorting bombers on low level strikes and strafing targets in the area. Despite heavy bombing, the Japanese managed to keep the runway servicable until the end of the Pacific War.

Allied missions against Vunakanau Airfield
January 22, 1942–June 16, 1944

Starting on February 20, 1944 at dawn the last flyable aircraft at Vunakanau Airfield were withdrawn northward to Truk. By February 25, 1944 the withdrawal was completed and this date effectively marked the end of the air war over Rabaul. Afterwards, anti-aircraft defenses remained active in the vicinity and continued to fire at Allied aircraft.

Afterwards, several Japanese aircraft left at Vunakanau Airfield were repaired to flyable status and assigned to the 105th Naval Base Air Unit and became part of the so called "Rabaul Air Force" that remained operational and continued to fly reconnaissance and a limited number of strike missions.

In late 1944, Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircraft continued to fly combat missions against Vunakanau Airfield until the end of the Pacific War.

In early September 1945 after the official surrender of Japan, the remaining Japanese aircraft were painted in surrender markings overall white with green crosses and assembled at Vunakanau Airfield. The Japanese requested permission to surrender the flyable aircraft to the nearest Air Force.

On September 18, 1945 four Japanese aircraft painted in surrender markings overall white with green crosses took off from Vunakanau Airfield including Ki-46-II Dinah 2783, A6M5 Zero 4043, A6M5 Zero 4379 and A6M5 Zero 4444 each piloted by a Japanese pilots and flew to Jacquinot Bay Airfield. During the flight, they were escorted by Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Corsairs. After landing, the pilots saluted made a report and were flown aboard a RNZAF PBY Catalina back to Rabaul where they became Japanese Prisoners Of War (POW).

Postwar
Vunakanau Airfield was repaired and continued to be used as an airfield. Until 1983, one of the two former runways remained in use until Tokua Airfield was completed. Since then, both runways are disused.

Today
The the former runways are overgrown but still visible. Today, walking trails and roads follow the former runway and taxiways. During the 1980s, much of the remaining wreckage was transported to the Kokopo Museum for display.

Catholic Mission
During the 1970s, behind the Catholic Mission at Malmaluan was discovered an underground radio bunker with radios racks.

A6M? Zero Tail Number 322
Tail section with tail number 322.

Ki-43-I Oscar Manufacture Number 750
Located November 1945, captured as war prize

CAC Wirraway
Located in the vicinity, recovered to the Kokopo Museum

References
WW2 Nominal Roll - John M. Lerew
Memories Of New Guinea by Harry Morris

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Last Updated
January 4, 2021

 

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May 24, 1943

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