Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here

Double Lucky? (part 1)

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

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 j-aircraft.com 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.

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.

continued in part 2

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford