Flying Tigers

Double Lucky?

The Campaigns of the 77th Hiko Sentai

Richard L. Dunn © 2005

Rudder of a 77th Sentai fighter
Rudder of a Nakajima fighter, showing one of the stylized arabic numerals of the 77th Hiko Sentai. (Photo by Jim Lansdale)

The 77th Hiko Sentai [the equivalent of a USAAF or RAF group, though with fewer aircraft] provides an interesting example of a Japanese fighter unit in World War II. It was engaged in active operations during the China Incident; participated in the initial operations in the Pacific War; fought over Burma in 1941-1942, and again in early 1944; served quiet periods in Manchuria, and, briefly, in the air defense of Japan and Sumatra; before its final campaign in New Guinea. Of particular interest, it was the first Japanese fighter unit to confront the famed Flying Tigers and fought its final campaign with the Type 1 fighter against some of America's top aces flying high performance P-38 and P-47 fighters. It flew three different types of fighters in combat. Through its ranks passed a number of pilots who would become notable either as members of the unit or in subsequent exploits. This study outlines the operational record of the 77th and provides insights on the campaigns in which it fought.

The China Incident

The 77th Flying Regiment was a product of the "China Incident" as Japan referred to its war with China beginning in 1937. In July 1937 on and off hostility and violence between China and Japan that had characterized their relationship in the 20th Century flared once again and this time led to Japanese mobilization for war. As part of this mobilization a provisional air expeditionary force was created. The 4th Hiko Rentai (Rentai is the formal term for a Japanese "Regiment", the distinction between Rentai and Sentai will be addressed later) at Tachiarai spun off a unit for the China force. The 8th Hiko Daitai (Battalion) was formed with two fighter chutai (companies) and ground support units essentially leaving the 4th without operational capability until reorganized a year later. The 4th FR was one of the early units of the Japanese Army Air Force with a history dating to December 1918. The newly formed 8th Daitai would become the 77th FR ("FR" was originally the actual Japanese abbreviation for Flying Regiment and though it was officially changed to "F" during World War II with the change to Sentai, FR retained currency and was predominantly used throughout the war; post war Japanese historians generally use the official F for Hiko Sentai which, while technically correct, is not as faithful to historical practice as FR).

On 24 July 1937 the newly formed unit transferred from Tachiarai, Japan, to Fengtian, Manchuria, under its commanding officer, Col. Makoto Sasa. Three days later it flew a sweep over the Peking area with its Type 95 (Ki 10) fighters. The Type 95 fighter was a fixed landing gear, biplane powered by the Ha-9 liquid cooled engine. Developed by Kawasaki, it was also produced by Nakajima. The primary mission of the 8th Daitai and other Japanese army air units in North China was support for ground operations. The Type 95 fighter could mount two under wing 30kg bombs in addition to its two fixed 7.7mm machine guns. With a maximum speed of about 245 m.p.h. (390+ k.p.h.), it was roughly comparable in speed to the Curtiss Hawk III and Boeing 281 (P-26) flown by Chinese forces. It had a service ceiling superior to both types. Later, when Soviet I-15 and I-16 fighters went into action the Type 95 fighter was at a disadvantage.

The 8th Daitai was based at Tianjin from late July flying ground support missions. During an attack on the Chinese airfield at Taiyuan on October 1st, the unit claimed its first air victories. Lt. Kiyoshi Nishikawa and Sgt. Hajime Kawada jointly claimed a Curtis Hawk. W.O. Masayoshi Ohtsubo claimed a light bomber. Two weeks later on the 15th, two more claims were registered. These seem to relate to a mission by three Hawk IIIs of the Chinese 28th and 31st Squadrons during which two of the aircraft were lost with their pilots killed. Another victory was recorded on October 31st.

Map of Asia

Rising Sun Over Burma

The 8th moved forward with advancing Japanese ground forces and flew from a number of different bases in the autumn of 1937. Support for ground operations remained the order of the day. Late in December 1937 the unit was ordered to transfer to the central China front. By this time the 8th was commanded by Col. Sojiro Takeda. Its chutai commanders were Capt. Katsuji Sugiura and Capt. Hiroshi Yoshioka (both became Flying Regiment commanders in the Pacific War; Yoshioka, CO of the 77th). On the 26th the battalion's executive officer, Maj. Takeo Tateyama, led the flight echelon of 24 Type 95 fighters to an airfield near Nanking. This move shifted the unit from the command of the Provisional Flying Group (Shudan) in north China to the 3rd Flying Brigade (Hikodan).

Soviet fighters and bombers had reinforced the Chinese on the central front in late 1937. Their performance proved superior to most of the Japanese aircraft in China. The introduction of the navy's Type 96 (A5M) fighter in late 1937 helped redress the balance. In the spring of 1938 small numbers of army Type 97 (Ki 27) fighters began to appear. These could also match the new Soviet equipment. The 8th Daitai continued to soldier on with its Type 95 fighters.

Despite its older fighters, the 8th managed to achieve some victories in its few air combats during the spring of 1938. On March 10th three SB-2s were claimed. This is remarkable since the SB-2 was considerably faster the Type 95 fighter. Lt. Nishikawa and Sgt. Masao Hideshima claimed another SB-2 on the 14th over Wuhu (a few months later Nishikawa died of disease). On this occasion the Russian crew was captured adding considerable credence to the claim. There were other combats on that date resulting in possible victories. According to some sources the high point of the Daitai's air combat came on 11 May 1938 when Capt. Sugiura led ten Type 95 fighters to Baxian and caught Chinese aircraft landing. Five air victories and five aircraft destroyed on the ground were claimed. This seems, however, to confuse two actions reported by the 3rd Flying Brigade. In one incident five aircraft were claimed over Pangfou and Wuhu on April 30th and the second involved five aircraft destroyed on the ground at "Pohsien" (presumably the former transliteration of Baxien) on May 11th.

The unit had been shifted to a number of bases in central China during spring and early summer sometimes as a body and occasionally in detachments. For a time it was based at Shanghai but repeatedly returned to Nanking and from late July was based at Anking. It was, perhaps, the realization that combat required great mobility on the part of air units that led to the birth of the 77th FR under that title.

On July 31st the 8th Hiko Daitai became the 77th Hiko Sentai. This was more than a change of name. In a reorganization that also occurred in some other units and presaged the primary organizational structure of Japanese air units in the Pacific War, the unit lost the bulk of its maintenance and airfield guard personnel. These were separately organized into the 41st Hikojo Daitai (Airfield Battalion). The flying unit was left with a small organic maintenance force (roughly U.S. first echelon maintenance) and became a highly mobile organization that could obtain maintenance and "house-keeping" support from whatever forces happened to be available where it was stationed. The Sentai was a "regiment" with no subordinate battalions. In the case of the 77th it contained only a headquarters and two flying companies including maintenance detachments. Initially the command of a full Colonel and theoretically equivalent to a Rentai, the Sentai would eventually become the command of a Lt. Col. or (more commonly in fighter units) a Major. One other point of terminology, a chutai equates to an army company/air force flight, the command of a captain. The term is commonly equated to an air force "squadron", however, and will be in this article. A chutai was typically part of a larger formation numbered as the 1st, 2nd or 3rd chutai of its Sentai but in some cases was an independent squadron (Dokoritsu Hikochutai) with its own number. The distinction between the two will be made in this article by using lower case for the sub-unit and upper case for the independent unit.

During its early days in China the 8th Daitai aircraft carried the tail markings of the 4th FR its alter ego. Painted grey over all with red national markings and in some cases with fuselage bands in chutai colors the unit's aircraft looked much like the earlier Type 92 fighters of the 4th FR. With the change in designation, the 77th FR adopted its own unique tail markings. This was a colored field on the fin and rudder between thin horizontal white or blue stripes. Within the field were two stylized arrow heads (sometimes referred to as "seagulls") looking something like sevens on the starboard side (equating to "77"). The fields were in chutai colors: blue for headquarters; white for 1st chutai (blue stripes and arrows); and, 2nd chutai, red.; when a 3rd chutai was established, yellow (blue stripes and arrows).

In the summer of 1938 while several Japanese fighter units in China received the newer monoplane Type 97 fighter, the renamed 77th FR continued to fly the Type 95 fighter. Fighting that summer was centered on Hankow. On August 21st the 77th registered its first and greatest success in China. Six Type 95 fighters under Capt. Shin-ichi Muraoka (later a Regimental commander; see the author's article on the 248th FR, under Research Articles at the website) strafed Hankow and encountered Chinese aircraft identified as I-16s and Avro trainers. The cover flight of Lt. Toyoki Eto and Sgt. Hajime Kawada was soon joined by the four strafers and claimed eight aircraft. Eto personally claimed two but went down in the Yangtze River, later returning to the unit. At least three of these claims can be verified. Two aircraft from a training unit were lost and the commander of the Chinese 24th Squadron was killed in the crash of his I-16. Other Chinese aircraft probably were downed with the pilots surviving.

For the most part the 77th encountered few enemy aircraft. Routine ground support missions continued. Even these routine missions were not without danger for the pilots occasionally encountered anti-aircraft artillery fire and often were subjected to small arms fire. On October 5th a pilot was killed when his fighter was hit by Chinese ground fire. The following day the 77th claimed its last air victories in China. Three fighters under Lt. Masaharu Okamoto intercepted eight SB-2s and claimed two destroyed. Less than a month later Okamoto was killed in a force landing of his fighter.

Flying Tigers

In December 1938 Maj. Hachiro Kawahara succeeded Col. Takeda in command of the Sentai. In mid-1939 a third chutai was added to the unit to bring it up to standard Sentai organizational strength. The unit stayed in China, still flying the Type 95 fighter, until October 1939 when it was transferred to Manchuria. Perhaps the 77th could count itself fortunate. It had contributed to ground operations in China with modest losses. Despite flying an aircraft that was inferior in performance to many of the enemy aircraft it encountered, it had scored a number of successes in air combat.

At Lungchen, Manchuria, the 77th FR was finally able to transition from its old biplane Type 95 fighters to the Type 97 fighter. In mid-1941 Kawahara was succeeded by Maj. Hiroshi Yoshioka. At this time the chutai commanders were Capts. Toyoki Eto, Mitsuhiro Matsuda, and, Yoshio Hirose.

While the 77th FR engaged in training and garrison duties in northern Manchuria, the international situation became increasingly unstable. War had already broken out in Europe. Japan and Russia engaged in combat in the Nomonham. United States/Japan relations deteriorated because of Japan's continued adventures in China. Japan, Germany and Italy formed a Tri-partite (Axis) Pact. An American "moral embargo" became a legal embargo after Japanese intervention in French Indo-China. Japan and Russia signed a non-aggression pact. Germany invaded Russia in mid-1941 diminishing a potentially serious threat to the Japan's northern flank. America, theoretically neutral, was in fact decidedly favoring Great Britain, China, and the Netherlands East Indies by supplying war material and laying plans for future joint operations. With further Japanese expansion in Indo-China the U.S. froze Japanese assets. The drift toward war in the Pacific rapidly gained momentum in late 1941.

In Manchuria and Korea the Japanese army maintained a large air force prepared to oppose the Soviet Union. In June 1941 this amounted to 830 aircraft in over 80 squadrons. The 77th FR was part of 5th Flying Group and directly subordinate to the 10th Flying Brigade (FB) where it was brigaded with a light bomber unit (31st FR) and a headquarters reconnaissance squadron. Once the German invasion of Russia got underway with initial great success, it became possible for the Japanese to consider reassigning a substantial portion of these forces and making them available for a "southern operation." In July and August 1941 the first transfers began. These moves involved mainly ground units (maintenance, airfield construction, meteorological units, etc.) that were initially shifted to Japan. It was not until early November 1941 that orders were issued to transfer a large number of flying units. These were all assigned to the Southern Army. The 77th FR was one of the units sent south late in November 1941.

Pacific War - Initial Operations

The 77th FR left Lungchen, Manchuria, on 17 November 1941. Airfields to be used by 10th FB units in the transfer south included Mukden, Nanyuen, Nanking, Taihoku and Kagi (on Formosa), Canton (south China), Haikow and Sana (Hainan Island), and Tourane, Nha-trang, and Siem Reap (Indo-China). The 77th was at Nanyuen on 18-19 November. By December 3rd it was at Sana and arrived at Nha-trang the following day.

Leaving the 2nd chutai at Sana for air defense the 77th was pressed into action immediately upon arriving in Indo-China. It was temporarily subordinated to the 12th FB and along with that brigade's own units (1st and 11th FRs) furnished cover for the ships carrying the Japanese 25th Army on its way to invade Malaya. These operations proved uneventful for the 77th but fighters of the 1st FR shot down a British Catalina snooping the convoy on December 7th.

The Type 97 fighters of the 77th were painted a uniform pale gray-green over all surfaces. They sported national markings on the upper and lower surfaces of both wings. They bore the same arrow head (stylized sevens) markings that had first appeared on the tails of their Type 95 fighters. The arrow heads were still encased between narrow horizontal bands but it appears the background in some cases was standard pale green camouflage rather than a colored field.

The 10th FB seems to have been something of a step child in these early operations. In Manchuria it had been part of the 5th Flying Group but in Indo-China it came under the 3rd Flying Group. There had been a shuffling of units. The 77th FR and 31st FR continued to be part of the 10th FB but they were now brigaded with a heavy bomber unit (62nd FR) and a new reconnaissance unit (70th Chutai). Moreover, parts of all the units were made available to support other brigades that had been assigned main roles in the forth coming operation. The 10th FB had been assigned an independent role albeit a minor one. The Japanese 15th Army would advance on Malaya and Burma via Thailand. While resistance from Thai forces was not expected, it could not be ruled out. An element of the 10th FB was assigned to support the advance through Thailand if necessary. This assignment resulted in the 77th FR's first air combat of the Pacific War.

Elements of the 77th FR along with light bombers of the 31st FR were based at Siem Reap on December 8th. This airfield, not far from the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, was close to the Thai border. In the morning, before it was clear whether advancing Japanese troops were meeting resistance, the 10th FB was ordered to attack the airfield at "Aran Pradet" near Bangkok. Eleven Type 97 fighters and nine Type 97 light bombers (Ki 30) undertook the mission. In the course of this mission three Thai Hawk III fighters of the 43rd Fighter Squadron attempted to intercept the Japanese. All three were shot down. The victories were credited to Maj. Hirose, Lts. Yoshiro Kuwabara, and Tsuguo Kojima. Kuwabara had served briefly with the 77th in China before its transfer to Manchuria and taken command of the 3rd chutai when Maj. Hirose was elevated to executive officer of the Regiment the previous July. This was his first air victory. He was to become one of the unit's leading pilots.

By the early afternoon of the 8th it became clear that the Thai authorities had decided to welcome the Japanese as Allies and would not resist the Japanese advance through their country. A few days later the 77th arrived in strength at Bangkok. In addition to the main Japanese advance southward through Malaya, Japanese forces were also moving into the Kra Isthmus and the British territory of Burma. The 77th was destined not to join the campaign on the main front in Malaya. Thailand and Burma were to become its zone of operations.

On December 11th 27 Type 97 fighters flew 150 miles west from Don Maung airfield to attack the British airfield at Tavoy Burma. The strafing fighters destroyed a North American Yale advanced trainer used by the Burma Volunteer Air Force (BVAF) as a liaison aircraft. However, four of the Japanese fighters were hit by ground fire. W.O. Kikuji Kishida returned to Bangkok with mortal wounds.

Gradually the entire 10th FB was moved to Thailand for operations against Burma. Moreover, other units of the 3rd Flying Group supported the operations there when tactical or meteorological conditions over Malaya permitted. Operations over Burma meant the 77th was likely to encounter modern Brewster Buffalo fighters and Bristol Blenheim light bombers of the Royal Air Force. Japanese reconnaissance planes had also detected other fighters in Burma. Japanese intelligence knew these were Curtiss Tomahawks piloted by American volunteers hired by China but the possibility they might be used in Burma could not be ruled out. The Type 97 fighter had proved its superiority over the old Thai biplanes but how well it could match up against the Royal Air Force (RAF) and American Volunteer Group was unknown. Moreover, the fact that there were volunteer American pilots and Tomahawk fighters in Burma had not filtered down to front line units like the 77th.

The Lady and the Tigers

Small formations of RAF Buffaloes flew missions from Mergui and Tavoy in the middle of December strafing Japanese troop movements and attacking forward airfields in Thailand. The 77th and Japanese bombers also flew a number of missions over lower Burma. On December 21st the 77th, operating from the forward base at Raheng (Tak), was joined by light bombers of the 31st FR in a repeat attack on Tavoy. This raid did little damage but it did cause an air raid alarm at Rangoon. British and American fighters at Rangoon waited expectantly for a Japanese attack.

First Burma Campaign

The Allied air force in Burma was not strong or well balanced. There were few bombers (most Blenheim IVs of RAF 60 Squadron had been temporarily in Malaya when the war erupted). There were some light aircraft of the BVAF and a few coastal patrol aircraft from the Indian Air Force. Only the fighter force was strong. A Royal Air Force squadron (No. 67) was equipped with Buffalo fighters and a squadron (the 3rd) of Tomahawk fighters of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) was also detailed for the defense of Burma.

The RAF fighter squadron had 27 pilots (including many New Zealanders) and a nominal strength of 16 aircraft; however, it held an additional 14 aircraft in reserve. The AVG squadron comprised 21 aircraft and 25 pilots. RAF No. 67 Squadron was relatively newly formed and pilot quality was uneven. It included a majority of pilots that had only received advanced combat training after arriving in Burma in October 1941 but it also included among its leaders veteran pilots with combat experience and air victories to their credit. The AVG pilots were all fully trained U.S. military pilots that had received additional combat training after arriving in Burma some months earlier. Moreover, the AVG had been trained by their commander, Claire Chennault, specifically in tactics to counter Japanese aircraft and tactical methods.

The Buffalo flown by the RAF in Burma and Malaya has been much maligned and characterized as an inferior fighter. It had been accepted by the U.S. Navy as its first monoplane carrier fighter and equipped several navy and marine squadrons. It was used successfully by the Finns against the Soviets. In Burma in an early 1942 trial combat against the Hawker Hurricane IIB, the Buffalo bested the tropicalized Hurricane in many respects. A test between a Buffalo and Hurricane in Britain in late 1940 had produced essentially similar results. An experienced pilot who flew both types in Singapore stated: "I didn't think the Hurricane was as good as the Buffalo." Whatever its actual merits it had many modern features including four machine guns, protected fuel tanks, and a nominal maximum speed over 300 m.p.h. (some accounts indicate the effective maximum speed was only about 290 m.p.h. but many other aircraft in operations probably did not meet advertised performance figures). Though not as fast in a dive as the Tomahawk, the Buffalo could dive faster than the Japanese fighters. The RAF Buffaloes in Burma were also being retro-fitted with pilot armor.

The Tomahawk flown by the AVG has sometimes been referred to as obsolescent. It was, however, in large scale use by the RAF in the Middle East, was the most numerous U.S. fighter in the Philippines and the best U.S. fighter in Hawaii. Its successor, the P-40E Kittyhawk, was just coming into service with the U.S. and British air forces in late 1941. The Tomahawk was the best American-built fighter available in significant numbers in December 1941. It featured two .50 caliber and four .30 caliber machine guns, protected fuel tanks and pilot armor. In contrast to the Buffalo, it was powered by a liquid cooled V-12 engine. Like the Buffalo its engine produced in excess of 1,000 horse power.

The Type 97 fighter flown by the 77th FR was a fighter from a different era designed to a different philosophy than the latest western fighters. Unlike the Buffalo and Tomahawk, it had fixed landing gear in streamlined fairings. It was lighter and had a less powerful engine (710 h.p., Ha-1b) than either the Buffalo or Tomahawk. It was armed with only two 7.7mm machine guns and most had no fuel tank or pilot protection. Some fighters of the 77th were fitted with 9mm pilot armor. It did have outstanding maneuverability and a good climb rate (5m22s to 16,400 feet). Its range, when equipped with droppable external fuel tanks (not always available), was good. Its nominal maximum speed of 285 m.p.h. was far slower than the maximum speed of the Tomahawk (over 340 m.p.h.) and slower than the Buffalo even under tropical conditions.

The 77th FR with about 30 operational fighters and not many more pilots was the only Japanese fighter unit based in Thailand during the first days of the Burma campaign. The unit's pilots included many veterans of China combat as well as more junior pilots that had joined the Regiment in Manchuria. While generally experienced, only a few pilots of the 77th had seen much air combat or actually gained air victories.

First Burma campaign: the Christmas raids

On December 23rd the 3rd Flying Group ordered an attack on Rangoon. Two regiments totaling 45 Type 97 heavy bombers (Ki 21-II) from the 7th FB (60th and 98th FRs) were to rendezvous at Bangkok and proceed to the target unescorted. Fifteen available Type 97 heavy bombers (Ki 21-I) of the 62nd FR were to rendezvous with the Type 97 light bombers of the 31st FR and fighters of the 77th FR over the forward base at Raheng and fly to Rangoon in a mass formation.

Plans soon began to go awry. The bombers of the 7th FB never joined forces and each sentai proceeded to their target, the Rangoon docks, independently. The 62nd FR left the rendezvous point at Raheng early and gradually pulled ahead of the other two units. Their target was the main military airfield near Rangoon, Mingaladon. The 27 light bombers of the 31st FR also headed for Mingaladon. Covered by thirty fighters of the 77th, the light bombers were the only Japanese bombers with an escort.

Warning of the approaching Japanese went to 67 Squadron first and they got fifteen Buffaloes up and climbed to about 20,000 feet in several sections. The AVG got ten fighters up in two flights and also climbed to altitude before encountering the Japanese. Two further pairs of Tomahawks got off a little later. The intercepting fighters first encountered the fifteen Type 97 model I bombers of the 62nd FR and this unit suffered heavily eventually losing five aircraft with the others damaged. Later the 98th FR was heavily assailed and lost two bombers with others shot up. The trailing 60th FR was also subjected to a few attacks but lost no aircraft.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

Throughout the action the RAF and American pilots were aware of the presence of a large formation of Japanese fighters. With the exception of one pilot that reported a single engine light bomber, the remaining pilots apparently thought the single engine aircraft of both the 31st FR and 77th FR were fighters. These "fighters" were intermittently engaged by the Buffaloes and Tomahawks. Meanwhile the single engine aircraft followed the 62nd FR to Mingaladon where they bombed and strafed with some success. Buildings and fuel storage dumps were destroyed and the runway cratered. Two Buffaloes, two Blenheims, and two light aircraft of the BVAF were destroyed on the ground (matching Japanese claims for six aircraft destroyed). One of these was claimed by strafing fighters of the 77th. Two Tomahawks received machine gun hits in their dispersal bays and another was wrecked when it washed out after hitting a bomb crater returning from the fight. In addition to material damage several RAF personnel had been killed or wounded as had a number of Burmese service personnel.

In "fighter" combats one Buffalo pilot claimed a fighter probably destroyed but received damage to his own aircraft. Several 77th FR fighters caught up with the twin-engine bombers and intervened to help out the 62nd FR. One Tomahawk pilot claimed one Japanese fighter destroyed and another as a probable before being shot down. A second Tomahawk was also the victim of the Japanese fighters. Several other Tomahawks and some of the Buffaloes returned with machine gun hits. Some were the result of fighter action, but in some cases, whether these were caused by fighters or the defensive fire from the bombers was not clear. The bombers claimed to have shot down a number of fighters. Total AVG losses were four Tomahawks.

As predicted by the commander of the AVG, Claire Chennault, the Allied fighter pilots that tried to turn with the Japanese fighters found themselves handily bested. A split-S followed by a near vertical dive proved an effective escape maneuver for the Americans. Several returning Allied pilots commented on the Japanese fighters swarming ineffectively below and behind the Japanese twin engine bombers not realizing they were seeing fighters covering light bombers and not just a disorganized gaggle of fighters. For their part the Japanese pilots were not impressed with the performance of the Allied fighters on this occasion.

The 77th FR claimed seven fighters ("Spitfires" and probable "Brewster" planes) as certain kills and four uncertain. Maj. Yoshio Hirose claimed two victories. Capt. Kaoru Kakimi (another headquarters pilot) claimed one victory. Lt. Kuwabara repeated his success of December 8th. Capt. Matsuda of the 2nd chutai was also successful. The exaggerated claims of the 77th suggest they were heavily involved in the action if not quite as successfully as they imagined.

All the Japanese fighters returned to their base. Some sources state that the 31st FR also returned without suffering any losses. The official Japanese communiqui admits the loss of two bombers in the dock attack and four aircraft in the airfield attack (this probably reflects the number of losses the Japanese thought were known to the Allies, i.e., that crashed in Allied territory). However, a Japanese press account relates the loss of a light bomber piloted by a Lt. Ikura. Whelan (The Flying Tigers) tends to confirm this, stating that members of the AVG visited the sight of a crashed Japanese bomber and found it had a single radial engine and one of the crew members was an officer (this was probably one of the Allied claims for a "fighter").

Though the 3rd Flying Group command considered the results of this raid disastrous, the 77th FR had actually done well. They had protected the light bombers under their immediate charge with but a single loss. Their intervention on behalf of the 62nd probably saved that unit from even worse losses. They had shot down and damaged enemy fighters without loss to themselves.

The 3rd Flying Group set a repeat attack for the 25th. The 7th FB was back with the 12th FR substituted for the 98th FR. They would be escorted by the 7th FB's fighter unit, the 64th FR flying their Type 1 (Ki 43) fighters. The Type 1 fighter was, like the Type 97 fighter, designed by Nakajima but was a more recent aircraft with a more powerful engine and retractable landing gear. It mounted only two machine guns but one of them was 12.7mm caliber. It was maneuverable, had a good climb rate, and was about 20 m.p.h. faster than the Type 97 fighter at military power. It could be operated at a higher power and speed for short periods.

The 7th FB contingent numbered over 60 heavy bombers and 25 Type 1 fighters. The 10th FB was back with 27 Type 97 light bombers, 32 Type 97 fighters, and just eight Type 97 model I heavy bombers. This time the 62nd FR, much chastened from their earlier experience, was prepared to stick close to the main formation after the rendezvous above Raheng. The 7th FB ran into bad luck. Entering Burma the lead bomber of the 12th FR with the Brigade commander, M/G Kenji Yamamoto, on board suffered engine trouble and began losing altitude. The bomber formation and the fighter escort followed it down. Eventually six of the bombers and part of the fighter escort aborted the mission. Those that regained altitude and continued were separated from the 60th FR, which continued the mission unescorted.

At Mingaladon the operations center had been wrecked in the raid on the 23rd but a patrol of three Tomahawks was already airborne when the Japanese approach was detected. Pilots were all on the alert so three additional Tomahawks joined the first trio and a second flight of seven Tomahawks also scrambled. Fourteen RAF fighters, two flights each of six Buffaloes and a separate section, also took off. The alert was not as timely as it might have been but there was adequate time for the Allied fighters to find the strung out Japanese formations.

The 60th FR actually flew past Rangoon and then circled around to attack from the northwest. The 10th FB formation was approaching Rangoon from the east when the unescorted 60th FR was sighted with American fighters about to attack. Maj. Yoshioka dispatched fighters to defend the unescorted heavy bombers. When seven AVG Tomahawks assaulted them they soon found themselves dodging the lithe Japanese fighters. Some of the Type 1 fighters may have joined in this action since American pilots identified some of the fighters as "Zeros" (Japanese navy Type Zero carrier fighters superficially resembling the army's Type 1 fighters). Other combats between the AVG and the 77th occurred at low level over Mingaladon airfield.

Most of the Buffaloes apparently climbed to intercept the 60th FR. While climbing they were jumped by Type 97 fighters of the 77th. Caught at a disadvantage the Buffaloes had little time to attack the bombers. Four were shot down with their pilots killed and two others were badly damaged. They claimed three Japanese fighters and partial credit for a bomber.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

The Japanese fighters and bombers made extravagant claims, thirty Allied planes shot down (including probables, "uncertain" in Japanese parlance). Eight plus four probables were claimed by the 77th. In addition to the Buffalo losses only two Tomahawks were lost and three damaged. Allied claims were also inflated, totaling 16 bombers and 12 fighters. Three bombers of the 12th FR were shot down outright, a fourth crashed in Thailand and others were damaged. Several bombers of the 60th were hit but none lost. The 64th FR lost two Type 1 fighters, its first combat losses of the Pacific War. In the 10th FB only the 77th suffered losses. Lt. Masashi Someya was killed, Sgt Maj. Kontetu Ri bailed out to become a prisoner and a third fighter crashed in Thailand.

These combats over Rangoon were covered in the world press and the AVG (later to become known as the Flying Tigers) was the focus of attention. These actions were considered great victories in what otherwise was a sea of Allied defeats. The Flying Tigers were lionized as heroes, covered not only in the press but soon to become the subject of books and even a motion picture.

From the Japanese perspective the losses suffered over Rangoon were a rebuff, especially as these raids were a diversion to a secondary theater from the main effort in Malaya. Still, the raids had caused material damage and greatly disrupted the labor situation at the port of Rangoon where thousands of tons of war supplies were awaiting shipment to China.

In this second raid on Rangoon the 77th had again given better than it had got (though it is unclear whether the RAF or AVG was responsible for its losses). It had intervened and probably saved a bomber formation (60th FR) from heavy losses. However, the Japanese fighter pilots returned with a new respect for the Allied fighters especially their superior speed and diving ability. After these raids the 77th remained the sole Japanese fighter unit available to carry the fight into Burma.

As 1941 drew to a close the AVG 3rd Squadron, some of its pilots tired and others rather shaken by their losses and damage, was replaced by the AVG 2nd Squadron reinforced by a flight of the 1st Squadron totaling 22 Tomahawks. In the initial combats the AVG pilots had not always fought in pairs or followed Chennault's other combat dictums. Some of the newly arrived pilots had already engaged the Japanese successfully over China and most were prepared to follow Chennault's tactics. The RAF 67 Squadron continued in place. Its aircraft losses were replaced with reserve Buffaloes but it received no pilot replacements. A number of Blenheims were then en route as were some army cooperation aircraft.

As the sole Japanese fighter unit in Thailand at this time, the 77th had to cover many bases. Its main strength moved north to Lampang leaving one squadron at Bangkok for defense of the bombers and maintenance units based there. One flight of fighters was maintained at the forward base at Raheng.

On January 2nd, a squadron of the 77th deployed from their base at Lampang to the forward operating base at Rahang. From there early the next morning Capt. Toyoki Eto led nine Type 97 fighters to attack the airfield at Moulmein. Lt. Kisaji Beppu claimed one aircraft burned and along with other pilots jointly claimed five others damaged. In fact two Audaxes and two Waipitis of No. 4 Coastal Defense Flight, Indian Air Force (IAF) were destroyed. If the two remaining Waipitis were damaged it was but slightly for they subsequently carried out anti-submarine patrols from Moulmein.

The nine fighters returned to Raheng and most had landed when three Tomahawks appeared. A flight of four Tomahawks had taken off but one had aborted. The three Tomahawks were flown by future aces, indeed stellar personalities. Leading was Jack Newkirk commander of the 2nd Squadron and later credited with ten combat victories. His deputy commander Jim Howard became an ace with the AVG and then won the Medal of Honor flying with the Eighth Air Force in Europe. The third pilot, Tex Hill, eventually became the commanding officer of the 23rd Fighter Group, the USAAF successor to the AVG.

Howard followed the mission's plan and went down to strafe what he took to be a formation of Japanese fighters preparing to take off (rather than just having landed). He claimed four fighters destroyed on the ground and also strafed personnel on the airfield during successive attacks. The other pilots sighted three Japanese fighters over the field and broke off their strafing runs. Howard was followed by a Type 97 fighter and when his engine received a hit and began to lose power, he assumed he had been hit by ground fire. Hill attacked the Japanese fighter chasing Howard. Newkirk claimed one that crashed landed and burst into flames. Hill fired at a fighter on Newkirk's tail. Newkirk claimed a second fighter and was credited with a Zero and an I-96 destroyed. Hill was also credited with a kill. Howard prepared to crash land his stricken fighter and no doubt was seen by the Japanese with his propeller stationary (they reported two Spitfires trailing smoke). At low level he managed to bring the engine to life and limped back to Rangoon.

One Type 97 fighter was lost with its pilot badly wounded. The other two landed safely with Lt. Beppu adding a probable to his earlier ground kill and Sgt. Maj. Matsunaga claiming one of the "Spitfires" (presumably Howard) destroyed. Howard returned with 7.7mm hits in his tail, fuselage, and armor plate in addition to his damaged engine. Newkirk had twenty-two holes in the tail of his Tomahawk. Back at Raheng one Type 97 fighter had been burned out and another badly damaged on the ground. A third fighter had suffered minor damage.

The following day Maj. Hirose led thirty-one Type 97 fighters on a sweep over Rangoon. Fourteen Tomahawks scrambled and possibly some Buffaloes as well. The AVG divided its force leaving eight fighters above the cloud cover and dropping six others below. The Japanese also divided their formation with Lt. Kuwabara's chutai breaking off to find targets to strafe. Undetected by either AVG formation, the main formation of Type 97 fighters managed to surprise the lower flight with an attack from above. The Tomahawks were at a serious tactical disadvantage and suffered accordingly. Three of the Tomahawks went down with their pilots suffering various degrees of injury. According to the official Japanese communiqui: "Powerful air units of the Army, raiding Mingaladon air base near Rangoon on January 4, shot down all of the six Spitfires engaged in air combat. All planes returned safely to the base." In fact the 77th claimed five victories one of which was uncertain. The AVG claimed one fighter but the communiqui was correct in stating that all the Japanese fighters returned to base.

A fighter sweep over Rangoon on the 5th did not bring any action. On the 7th the 77th escorted bombers to Moulmein where one biplane was strafed and destroyed. The following day the 3rd chutai was sent south to Singora to support operations in the lower Kra Isthmus leaving a weakened 77th in the north. The unit was further weakened when an AVG strafing attack destroyed four Type 97 fighters and damaged others on the ground at their forward base in Thailand. A repeat attack the following day destroyed one aircraft and damaged others. The 77th did not see significant action again until the 13th when grounded aircraft were strafed at Tavoy. Seven "small aircraft" were claimed. It is not clear what aircraft may have been their targets.

According to Winston Churchill (The Hinge of Fate): "There was a general belief that the Japanese would not begin a major campaign against Burma until at least their operations in Malaya had been successfully concluded. But this was not to be." On January 18th the Japanese 15th Army (33rd and 55th Divisions) entered lower Burma in force. After brushing aside initial light resistance they occupied Tavoy on the morning of the 19th. The 77th FR and the other units of the 10th FB provided air support.

Poland's Daughter

On the 19th six Blenheims, escorted by a pair each of Buffaloes and Tomahawks flew to the airfield at Tavoy to evacuate RAF ground staff. Seven Type 97 fighters led by Capt. Kakimi of headquarters flight had been escorting light bombers in the area and engaged the Allied planes. The Japanese shot up one Blenheim before the bombers escaped and then successively chased the Tomahawks which had become separated. A Buffalo jumped a Japanese fighter but the Japanese fighter quickly reversed the advantage and got on the Buffalo's tail. The Buffalo escaped into the abundant cloud cover. Capt. Kakimi was credited with two of the three victories claimed in this action but was transferred to another unit soon afterwards.

The 3rd chutai had been reunited with the main force of the Regiment to support the ground operations and on the 20th saw plenty of action. In the morning several 3rd chutai fighters strafed Moulmein and caught two Buffaloes taking off, shooting down both with their pilots killed. Later in the day eight of the squadron's fighters were escorting light bombers when they encountered six Blenheims escorted by six Tomahawks. Lt. Shigeru Suzuki was shot down and killed but was credited with destroying one fighter. Lt. Kuwabara claimed two victories and Lt. Hiroshi Shimoda one. The AVG pilots claimed three kills including two by Jack Newkirk. One P-40 was shot down with the pilot saved and another P-40 limped back to base badly damaged.

As the ground offensive got underway air reinforcements arrived. The 5th Flying Group headquarters which had been conducting air operations in the Philippines transferred to Thailand along with its 4th FB and took command of both brigades. The headquarters of the Group as well as the 4th FB and most of the bombers units (8th, 14th and 62nd FRs) were stationed at airfields near Bangkok. The headquarters of the 10th FB was at Lampang where the 77th was also based along with the Type 97 headquarters reconnaissance planes of the 70th squadron. The 31st FR was at Phitsanulok and two squadrons of the 50th FR were at Nakhorn Sawan. The arrival of the 50th with 31 Type 97 fighters more than doubled Japanese operational fighter strength for the 77th was down to 25 operational aircraft.

The influx of Japanese aircraft was timely since additional Allied aircraft were reaching Rangoon. Chennault sent eight Tomahawks but these merely replaced losses and restored AVG strength to that at the beginning of the month. The first three Hawker Hurricane IIBs arrived with several others then en route over India. Two army cooperation squadrons (one RAF and one IAF) with nineteen Westland Lysanders were also about to arrive. These high wing monoplanes looked somewhat antiquated but were roughly equivalent to the Japanese Type 97 light bomber and could (and did) attack airfields as well as ground troops. The two surviving Waipiti biplanes of the Indian Coastal Defense flight were withdrawn and replaced by several more modern Blenheim I bombers. 67 Squadron had gone through all its reserve Buffaloes (due to losses or conversion to photo recon aircraft), however, and had less than a dozen Buffaloes with little prospect for replenishment.

The Hurricane was new to Burma and like those earlier sent to Singapore was considered by many to be a significant advance over the Buffalo and the Japanese fighters. Air Vice-Marshall Stevenson the RAF commander, in his post-war assessment of the campaign, equated the performance of the Hurricane with the Tomahawk but suggested the Hurricane was superior above 20,000 feet (where combat seldom took place during the campaign). According to this assessment the best fighter of the campaign had appeared.

On January 23rd the 50th FR flew a fighter sweep to Rangoon that stirred up Buffaloes, Hurricanes and Tomahawks. The new unit claimed a number of victories (actually shooting down one Buffalo and badly damaging a Hurricane) but lost two fighters. They were followed a couple hours later (2 p.m. Tokyo time) by a dozen Type 97 light bombers escorted by 25 fighters of the 77th. Unfortunately the rendezvous between bombers and fighters was botched and when the 77th arrived over Rangoon they found the 31st FR under heavy attack. One bomber was shot down and three heavily damaged (probably write-offs) and others damaged to a lesser extent. The 77th then joined the fray and claimed eight Tomahawks and four probables without loss. Three Tomahawks actually went down with one pilot killed. Capt. Eto claimed three and Lt. Beppu added another to the 1st chutai score. The 2nd and 3rd chutais each claimed two fighters.

The 50th was heavily engaged the following day while 25 fighters of the 77th again escorted light bombers against Mingaladon, on this occasion only three. The bombers claimed hits on fuel dumps and the destruction of three aircraft on the ground but actually did little damage. The fighters of the 77th reported combat with Tomahawks claiming one shot down but probably had an inconclusive engagement with two Hurricanes.

Up to this point in the campaign the 77th had been fortunate. It had inflicted losses on the enemy, often against aircraft with higher performance, while suffering tolerable losses. Given its overly optimistic claims (an affliction on both sides) it seemed to be doing remarkably well. Still, its pilots must have understood they were up against a tough and determined enemy. Tougher times were ahead.

On the 28th it was the turn of the 77th to make a fighter sweep of Rangoon. They were supported by ten Type 97 fighters of the 50th but somehow the two formations failed to reach Rangoon together and the 27 fighters of the 77th were on their own. Sixteen Tomahawks and two Hurricanes responded to the challenge. This combat resulted in what was perhaps the most dramatic episode in the Regiment's operations over Rangoon.

The AVG claimed six kills. The 77th claimed seven in return but lost three pilots killed including Capt. Matsuda commander of the 2nd chutai. The 50th FR also reported being in combat, claiming eight victories without loss. One Tomahawk was lost and the fighter of the commander of the AVG's 1st Squadron (Robert Sandell) was hit in the engine and limped to a landing at Mingaladon. Lt. Kanekichi Yamamoto's engine was also hit and he headed for Mingaladon. There he apparently deliberately dived for Sandell's recently landed fighter. Yamamoto's fighter crashed near the Tomahawk ripping off its tail. The radial engine of Yamamoto's fighter tore off and bounced across the airfield nearly hitting Sandell who was walking away from his damaged fighter. The Japanese knew nothing of this at the time but learned of the incident later from Burmese witnesses and Yamamoto was revered as a hero. Sandell was later killed during a test flight of his Tomahawk after it had been repaired.

continued in part 2

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