Tunnel Hill is the name of a road cut that connect Rabaul to Talili Bay cutting through the ridge line near Observatory Ridge (Volcano Observatory), connecting Rabaul to Talili Bay.
Built by the German administration, the tunnel was known as the "Ratavul Tunnel" or "Ratavul Pass Road". Originally, the tunnel was dug by hand and shored up with timbers. After an earthquake, the tunnel collapsed. Later, it was dug out and expanded into a road cut. Stproill, the feature is known as 'Tunnel Hill'.
During the Japanese occupation of Rabaul, the Japanese dug tunnels into the sides of Tunnel Hill Road to shelter troops and equipment. One tunnel was used to detain Allied Prisoners Of War (POW) during early 1944 until the end of the Pacific War.
Tunnel Hill POW Camp
During early 1944, the prisoners from the Rabaul Prisoner Compound (Rabaul POW Prison) were transfered to this location which became known as "Tunnel Hill POW Camp" guarded by the Japanese Army 6th Kempei Tai (Military Police).
A tunnel dug into Observatory Road off Tunnel Hill Road was used to detain the Allied Prisoners Of War (POW). The prisoners were held in crowded conditions without medical supplies, little food and no facilities.
Tunnel Hill Massacre / Tunnel Hill Incident / Talili Bay Massacre
After the heavy bombing of Rabaul, thirty-one Allied prisoners were removed from Tunnel Hill and were never seen again by the prisoners who survived captivity. On March 4, 1944 and March 5, 1944 two group of prisoners were removed from Tunnel Hill POW Camp and walked to the edge of Talili Bay and executed. Afterwards, the victims were buried.
This war crime became known as the "Tunnel Hill Massacre" or "Tunnel Hill Incident" for the Tunnel Hill POW Camp. Also known as "Talili Bay Massacre" for the site of the executions at Talili Bay. All three of these names refer to the same execution.
The Allied Prisoners Of War (POWs) executed include:
- Major Ralph Cheli (Medal of Honor) B-25D 41-30117 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- 2nd Lt Thomas F. Doyle B-24D 41-24101 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- 2nd Lt Alston F. Sugden B-24D 41-24101 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- Sgt Raymond J. Farnell Jr. B-24D 41-24101 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- Sgt Michael H. Kicera, B-25D 41-30094 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- TSgt John M. Barron, B-25D 41-30094 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- SSgt William C. Harris, B-25D 41-30094 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- Major Frederick K. Koebig navigator B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- 1st Lt Anthony Kuhn bombardier B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- SSgt Lawson Stewart engineer B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- Cpl Vincent Wasilevski assistant engineer B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- SSgt Edward T. Constantin gunner B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- SSgt Romulus F. Mull gunner B-24D "Pretty Praire Special" 41-24186 remains recovered postwar
- Lt. Joseph W. Hill, P-40F 41-19838 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- Captain Alexander Rae Berry pilot TBF Avenger 06109 group burial Jefferson Barracks
- 1st Lt. Andrew J. Borders, Jr. P-40F 41-14107 executed March 3/4, 1944
- 1st Lt. John P. Cox P-38H 42-66892 executed March 3/4, 1944
- 2nd Lt. Herschel D. Evans B-25D 41-30561 executed March 3/4, 1944
- 1st Lt. Donald L. Stookey B-25D 41-30561 executed March 3/4, 1944
- 1st Lt. Walter T. Mayberry F4U 02351 executed March 3/4, 1944
- Pfc Paul F. McCleaf SBD-5 36230 executed March 3/4, 1944
- Sgt Fenwick PBY Catalina A24-43 group burial E, C, 5-11 at Bita Paka Cemetery
- 1st Lt Roger Hugh Brindos, F4U Corsair 17914remains recovered postwar Manila American Cemetery
- Murphy, Pocknee, Woolley and Kraehe.
Towards the end of the Pacific War, when the Japanese realized the Allies would occupy Rabaul, they exhumed the remains of the victims and cremated them, placing all the ashes into one box.
On September 2, 1945 when Japan officially surrendered only seven Allied prisoners survived captivity at Rabaul.
- 1st Lt. Jose L. Holguin navigator B-17E "Naughty But Nice" 41-2430 POW July 17, 43 to Sept 2, 45 survived
- John B. Kepchia, USN radio TBF Avenger 23987 POW May 21, 1944, survived
- 1st Lt. James A. McMurria, USAAF
- Captain John J. Murphy, Australian Army
- Lt(jg) Joseph G. Nason pilot SBD Dauntless 06524 POW Nov 1943 to Sept 2, 45 survived
- SSgt Escoe E. Palmer, USAAF
- 2nd Lt Alphonse D. Quinones, USAAF
At the end of the Pacific War, to cover up these executions and war crimes atrocity, the Japanese claimed that approximately forty Allied prisoners were killed by Allied bombing during an air raid while at Talili Bay after being evacuated from Tunnel Hill and their bodies were cremated. This was a lie to cover up their murder.
Also, the Japanese claimed other prisoners from Tunnel Hill embarked aboard the Kokai Maru bound for Japan, but ninety minutes later they were bombed by U. S. aircraft and all the prisoners (23 Americans and 5 Australians) were killed. This was another lie to cover up their murder.
For unknown reasons, the Allies did not prosecute these executions as a war crime. Many Allied reports list the either of the Japanese cover stories (killed in U. S. air raid on Talili Bay or killed aboard Kokai Maru) as the cause of death for these individuals, not the truth that they were deliberately executed by the Japanese Army 6th Kempei Tai (Military Police).
The cremated ashes the Japanese claimed were those killed at Talili Bay were divided the ashed proportionally based on the number of victims (23 Americans and 5 Australians): 3/4 of the ashes went to the Americans and 1/4 of the ashes went to the Australians.
The American ashes were transported aboard USAT Albert M. Boe as part of shipment SF-167-R to the United States. On March 21, 1950 the American ashes were buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery at group burial section 78 grave 980-934.
The recovered remains were transported to the United States and on March 21, 1950 buried at Jefferson Barracks in a group burial section 78, graves 930-934.
The Siege of Rabaul (1996) by Henry Sakaida pages 19 (footnote 12 - Tunnell Hill Massace), 42 (6th Kempei Tai), 88 (6th Kempei Tai C.O.), 93-96 (Rabaul's Military Prisoners)
M.I.A. Over Rabaul South Pacific (1996) by John B. Kepchia page 61
Thanks to surviving Prisoners Of War (POWs)
Jose L. Holguin, Joseph G. Nason and John B. Kepchia for additional information.
Thanks to Henry Sakaida for additional research and analysis.
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January 23, 2019