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Double Lucky? (part 10)

Up to this point the 77th had done reasonably well considering its primary opponents had been P-38s and P-47s whose maximum speed at high altitude was nearly 100 m.p.h. faster than the Type 1 fighter. It had lost a number of aircraft destroyed or badly damaged and one pilot killed but it had also inflicted losses on the enemy. Its inflated claims made the balance sheet look even more favorable. On the other hand its operational strength had been dramatically reduced and along with the other Japanese fighters its efforts had done nothing to deter the damaging American attacks on Wewak. Action beginning on the 12th of March swung the balance decidedly against the 77th.

Capt. Matsuo led seven Hayabusas up against the formations of American bombers (16 B-24s, 35 B-25s, and 36 A-20s) and fighters. Matsuo's hentai (flight) consisted of three fighters including the experienced W.O. Mitoma. 1Lt. Keizo Fujii of Matsuo's own 2nd chutai led a flight of four fighters (one fighter in this flight aborted with engine difficulties). The small formation's first reported contact was with ten P-47s. This was probably the 41st FS that claimed one OSCAR as well as a number of TONYS about the time Matsuo's formation made its initial enemy contact. Matsuo next confronted a formation of B-24s and despite the presence of an estimated 50 P-40s led his little band in repeated attacks on three squadrons of the 90th Bombardment Group (BG). One bomber was shot down reportedly the victim of ground fire and one squadron missed its target reportedly because of equipment malfunction. Just possibly the 77th had something to do with both events.

The P-40s were probably from the 7th and 8th FS. They were actually covering low level A-20s and B-25s but they encountered Japanese fighters at 8,000 to 12,000 feet. The only height of this encounter mentioned in the Japanese report is 3,500m (about 11,500 feet). The P-40s made numerous claims for OSCARS destroyed.

The results of this combat were disastrous. All six aircraft that engaged in combat were destroyed either by fighters or B-24 gunners. Both Matsuo and Fujii parachuted. Three pilots were killed and two wounded (Fujii later died of his wounds). Only Sgt. Wakichi Fukushima was uninjured and his damaged fighter burned on the ground after he landed. Two P-47s and a P-40 were claimed shot down. Claims for seven B-24s probably shot down are apparently more an indication of the tenacity of the attacks these pilots made than the results they achieved. To add to the disaster attacking bombers killed five men of the 77th on the ground.

The staff of the 4th Air Army sent out a report on the overall action the following day. The report gave losses as one destroyed and five failed to return. The report held out hope that "several of these made emergency landings" (i.e., that the pilots survived). Two others were "heavily damaged." These were all Type 1 fighters. The report then commented on "special characteristics" of the combat: "Because about 60 P-47s engaged in combat before the concentration of the main strength of the guard force had been completed, the fighting was difficult and only a few planes attacked the enemy. Even though this was the case, as we had no 'TA' shells, the results were insufficient." It is obvious that the "few planes" mentioned were the fighters of the 77th who also suffered the lion share of the losses. Japanese plans for the interception had gone awry.

The official Japanese communique made the situation at Wewak look quite different. On March 14th Dai Honyei announced: "Our units in New Guinea shot down 52 enemy planes (of which two are unconfirmed) in the interception of a total of 320 enemy planes which raided the Wewak sector on March 11 and 12. Six of our planes were lost...Damage caused on the ground was negligible." This official report is disingenuous on a number counts. It fails to mention that the "units" involved included both fighters and anti-aircraft artillery units (other Japanese news reports did make that clear, however). Damage on the ground was rather more than "negligible." Admitted aircraft losses included only those complete losses likely to be known to the enemy (this was a typical practice in Allied communiquis as well).

Maj. Matsumoto led six fighters up to oppose the next American mass attacks. They encountered a reported 60 enemy fighters and bombers. Despite the presence of escort fighters they managed to attack a formation of B-24s and claimed one definite and one as a probable. One fighter failed to return. Sgt. Masaichi Hashimoto, the pilot who had aborted on the previous disastrous mission, was the sole loss on this occasion. B-24 gunners claimed four kills. Another loss this day was Sgt. Major Kumagaya of the 33rd whose claim for a P-47 may well have been the final act in the drama of Neel Kearby's loss after the combat with the 77th over Dagua on the fifth of March.

In this attack on the thirteenth, 38 B-24s bombed from high level while 85 B-25 and A-20s attacked at lower levels (many on the deck). They were covered by about fifty P-40s and P-47s. The 4th Air Army opposed these with 44 fighters. Total Japanese claims were for ten fighters and bombers. Five Japanese fighters were lost. Even had Japanese claims been correct, continuing this type of exchange ratio would put the Japanese out of business in short order. This was unlike the Burma campaign of 1941-1942 in which, if the Japanese suffered undue losses, they could temporarily suspend offensive operations. The Americans were on the offensive. They could attack Wewak as often and as heavily as they pleased.

The Unit Narrative Combat Report of the 9th FS for this mission contains an interesting comment. Its 15 P-47s had been part of the fighter escort for the B-24s and the squadron had claimed one ZEKE definitely destroyed and one TONY probable. Three of its P-47s had been hit. The intelligence officer who authored the report appended this thought at the end: "While majority of pilots claimed that the enemy planes were predominately Zekes, I am of the opinion that the planes were Oscars..." Many intelligence officers knew the Japanese air order of battle in New Guinea and that no Japanese naval fighters (ZEKES) were operating there, however, seldom were aircraft identifications made by combat flyers challenged by ground officers.

On the 14th the Japanese estimated 27 B-24s, 96 medium light bombers (actually 24 B-24s and 72 twin-engine bombers), and 30 P-40s and P-47s attacked. The 14th FB responded with just 22 fighters. The 77th had orders to land at Hollandia after the interception. Maj. Matsumoto and Capt. Kuwabara led seven fighters off from But/East and managed to get through to the B-24s and claim one destroyed. B-24 gunners claimed one fighter destroyed and one probable.

Sixteen P-47s of the 9th FS reported encountering about six OSCARS, most were reported to be mottled green with one or more black or "blue black" (one pilot thought they were olive drab). The P-47s apparently caught the Japanese by surprise in their first attack. Capt. Wallace Jordan and 2Lt. Edward Howes were credited with victories, one reported to have crashed and another last seen diving vertically and on fire.

The 77th next suffered at the hands of the Thunderbolts of the 41st FS. The same squadron also encountered the 33rd FR. The returning P-47 pilots were credited with five OSCARS destroyed. The 33rd claimed three P-47s for the loss of two fighters. Two P-47s failed to return.

For the 77th this mission rivaled the disaster that had taken place two days earlier. Only Maj. Matsumoto and Sgt. Matsuyoshi Kobayashi landed safely at Hollandia. Capt. Kuwabara and his wingman Cpl. Sohoi Nagasaka were missing. Sgt. Hiroshi Aoyagi was slightly wounded and force landed at Wewak/Central. His wingman, Cpl. Hisashi Yamaguchi force landed his fighter in the sea near Hollandia. The third man in Maj. Matsumoto's flight, Sgt. Takemasa Watanabe, landed at But/East to make minor repairs to his aircraft and then took off for Hollandia. He never made it and was listed as missing.

Kuwabara's loss was keenly felt. He was credited with victories over Thai, British, and American volunteer flyers during the opening months of the war. He had been actively engaged since the Regiment arrived in New Guinea and had claimed two additional air victories. All told he was credited with some 14 victories. He was a capable leader of his squadron and had led the entire Regiment on operations, being elevated to Executive Officer in New Guinea. Although the Japanese did not know it, he had survived a surprise attack by Dick Bong and Tommy Lynch, quite an accomplishment in itself.

Despite the disaster Matsumoto led several pilots back to But/East in the afternoon. Without a break, the unit had to be ready for action the next day. Although one unit report indicates six fighters were available for action on the 15th, only three (Maj. Matsumoto, Sgt. Fukushima and Sgt. Kobayashi) scrambled to join twelve fighters of the 33rd on the day's interception. Over two hundred American fighters and bombers attacked Wewak and nearby Kairuru Island. On this day the Type 3 fighter units, 68th and 78th FRs, lost four fighters in combats with several American fighter units. Neither the 33rd or 77th suffered any loss and the little three plane formation of the 77th returned with claims for one P-47 destroyed and one probably destroyed. The only verified American fighter losses on this date were P-38s, however.

On the 16th the 77th received orders to pull back to Hollandia. Maj. Matsumoto led six fighters to Hollandia No. III (Sentani) airfield. However, the following day several of the unit's fighters were on their way back to But/East. On the morning of the 18th Capt. Tagashira led six fighters on an uneventful convoy escort mission. The convoy of small transports and escort vessels safely reached Wewak late in the day and hurriedly unloaded its cargo.

On the 18th-19th of March Wewak suffered a bombardment by Allied destroyers. The Japanese convoy successfully unloaded its cargo despite the uninvited visitors. The next morning the convoy was on its way from Wewak when the first Allied bombers appeared. Initial air attacks were against scheduled ground targets but when the convoy was sighted subsequent attacks were sent against the ships. Allied intelligence was fully aware of the convoy but had somehow failed to effectively attack it prior to reaching Wewak.

There were 28 Japanese fighters at Wewak to oppose Allied incursions. The 33rd (13) and 77th (5) flew Type 1 fighters and were joined by ten Type 3 fighters (78th Sentai). The Japanese responded to the initial attacks and opposed escorted B-24s. Several of the Japanese fighters got through to make attacks. The 33rd claimed two B-24s. No B-24 was lost but two were damaged. There were also inconclusive combats with Allied fighters. Records of the 77th mention neither claims nor losses. One Type 1 fighter of the 248th FR was shot down over Wewak on this day but that unit was not involved in the air defense mission. Perhaps the pilot was flying a repaired aircraft from Wewak to Hollandia. After the initial combats, scores of Allied bombers fell on the hapless convoy and sank most of the ships. The Japanese fighters apparently played little role in actually defending the convoy as they returned to base after the series of combats just mentioned. A number of American planes went down but these are ascribed to causes other than fighter action.

According to Lex McAuley (MacArthur's Eagles) 9th FS ace Capt. Ralph Wandrey encountered OSCARS landing at Dagua. He approached undetected and began raking the landing Japanese fighters with the eight .50 caliber guns of his Thunderbolt. He thought he destroyed five or six aircraft but had neither a wing man nor a functional gun camera to confirm his claims. Wandrey could only have encountered Type 1 fighters of the 33rd or 77th and their records fail to verify any loss. Possibly Wandrey's judgment was affected by the excitement of engaging a superior number of enemy fighters or he had some other reason for making his claims.

This was the last major interception over Wewak actually based there. The Japanese withdrawal to Hollandia was formalized when the full 4th Air Army headquarters moved there on March 25th. This was not a minor change. The 4th Air Army left the command of the 8th Area Army (Rabaul) and came under command of the 2nd Area Army that had responsibility for western New Guinea. The ground force, 18th Army, also left the jurisdiction of the 8th Area Army.

continued in part 11