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Double Lucky? (part 11)

In one month of combat over Wewak the 77th lost seven pilots killed in action, one died of wounds suffered in combat, and, one missing flying from Wewak to Hollandia after combat. Another pilot was killed in a flying accident at Hollandia. An additional five fighters had crashed, ditched or crash landed after combat, in some cases with their pilots wounded. Eight aircraft were listed as "heavily damaged" in combat and probably write-offs or abandoned at Wewak. One aircraft was destroyed on the ground. If all the "heavily damaged" aircraft were total losses, in one month at least 23 aircraft were permanently put out of action. Six other aircraft were "partially" or "slightly" damaged in combat and a seventh on the ground. Presumably some, if not all, of these were returned to service. It also possible there were other aircraft lost or damaged in accidents or from bombing that do not appear in the available records. Documented losses equate to approximately 100% of the fighters and 1/3 of the pilots that had arrived in New Guinea a month earlier.

At Hollandia No. III the 77th FR had been receiving replacement aircraft. The second batch of replacements was noted in 6th FD records about March 8th. Like the earlier (Feb. 29th) replacements it seems likely these aircraft took several days to pass through the maintenance and replacement process (nine days is indicated in the case of one batch). Replacements were: Ki 43-IIs Nos. 6557, 6583, 6614, 6622, 6633, 6663, and 6683 (7-9 March); 5501 (repaired, formerly 59th FR), 6427, 6444, 6623, and 6637 (13 March); 6692 and 6697 (15 March); 6648 and 6684 (18 March); 6734, 6750, 6752, and 6767 (24 March); and, 6742 and 6795 (30 March).

Despite this influx of aircraft, the 77th had only four fighters operational on 26 March. On that day American aerial photographs showed over 270 aircraft on Hollandia's airfields. The 4th Air Army's operational figures on that date totaled 127 aircraft of all types (not all based at Hollandia) including 54 fighters. This suggests many of the aircraft at Hollandia needed maintenance or repair, or, were newly arrived replacements not yet assigned to units

No doubt the Japanese hoped the withdrawal to Hollandia would bring them a respite. They needed relief from the ruinous wastage of aircraft that kept them from rebuilding their strength. Pilots were weary from constant operations, air attacks, and an inadequate diet. Should heavy American raids be directed at Hollandia there was at least the prospect that the bombers would not have fighter escort.

The 5th Air Force P-38 force lost considerable strength at the end of 1943 after a campaign against Rabaul. Several P-38 squadrons re-equipped with P-47s. In the 5th Air Force campaign against Wewak in earlier in 1944, P-47s and late model P-40Ns joined the P-38s in the long range escort role. Unknown to the Japanese, the 5th Air Force P-38 force had grown much stronger in February and March. New P-38J models arrived with fuel tanks in the wing leading edge that increased their range. The large 5th Air Force maintenance organization in Australia quickly modified many of the older P-38s to the new configuration. P-38s equipped with the new tanks had an effective radius of action of 650 miles and could easily reach Hollandia from available bases.

On March 23rd fighters of the 77th returned to But. The following morning they provided escort for two heavy bombers transporting the headquarters of the 8th FB to Hollandia. On March 25th two Type 1 fighters flew to But to pick up two men and transport them back to Hollandia. On the 26th the Regiment scrambled due to a false alarm. On the 27th it provided air cover for a small transport proceeding from Aitape to But. It had orders to hold aircraft in readiness to provide air cover during hours of darkness if necessary.

On March 29th the 77th sent four Hayabusas to escort light bombers to attack an aircraft carrier reported off Aitape (Tadji). No enemy vessels were encountered. It is unclear what vessels caused this alarm. The nearest American aircraft carriers were two escort carriers supporting the landing at Emirau Island several hundred miles from Aitape.

In the pre-dawn of the following day seven B-24s began the direct attack on Hollandia. Heavy attacks were mounted against Wewak and Aitape during the day. The key attack, against Hollandia itself, involved 70 B-24s escorted by three squadrons of 55 P-38s. Reports of American air activity were sent to Hollandia but lacking radar the actual attack took Hollandia nearly by complete surprise. The total operational fighter strength at Hollandia (less than 60 fighters) could barely match the number of American escort fighters and only part of the Japanese fighter strength managed to get aloft.

At 0830 on March 30th Capt. Tagashira led six fighters up based on a report of an unidentified formation west of Aitape at an uncertain height. They patrolled for about an hour when the attackers came into view. Undaunted by the mass formations of B-24s, Capt. Tagashira positioned his fighters to attack the bombers as other Japanese fighters frantically made efforts to get aloft.

By some American estimates as many as 30-40 Japanese fighters opposed this attack (other estimates were lower). However, from the perspective of the 80th FS most of the opposition fighters flew as "disorganized bunches" or even single aircraft and many "milled around with no apparent purpose." B-24s dropped 20 and 120-pound fragmentation bombs on the airfields and destroyed or damaged many aircraft on the ground including replacement aircraft that had yet to be assigned to units.

Capt. Tagashira managed to engage the B-24s before becoming embroiled with the fighter escort. Some pilots of the 80th FS saw an estimated seven OSCARS perform a split-s and engage the bombers. Only the 65th BS was subjected to attack. The 77th returned with claims of one B-24 and one P-38 shot down. Others were claimed as damaged. No B-24s or P-38s were lost. One P-38 took a .50 caliber (12.7mm) round in a fuel tank and perhaps a spray of leaking fuel led a Japanese pilot to believe fatal damage had been inflicted. The Regiment suffered two aircraft slightly damaged.

The 80th FS claimed seven victories but the other P-38 squadrons had little to show for their efforts. Most of the fighters from the other Hiko Sentais avoided combat and it seems few if any of them were actually shot down. Destruction on the ground was massive. By the strictest count seventy aircraft were destroyed but many more must have suffered damage in varying degrees of severity. By some counts over one hundred aircraft were lost in this single attack.

The raid was repeated the following day with 67 B-24s and 52 P-38s and almost identical results. This time Major Matsumoto was in the lead of six fighters. The Regiment claimed three P-38s shot down but only one was lost. One Type 1 fighter was heavily damaged and one each partially and slightly damaged. They probably engaged P-38s of the 431st and 432nd FS.

Unlike most of the Flying Regiments at Hollandia, the 77th had recorded no loss on the ground on the 30th. On the 31st, according to one source, twenty-two of its aircraft at the air depot were destroyed. Some of these were probably damaged aircraft but others may have been newly arrived replacements not yet issued to the Regiment.

On these two days about 130 Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground and others damaged. This disaster was greater than the losses at Wewak over several days in late August of the previous year. The number of aircraft lost was more than 1/3 of 4th Air Army losses on the ground from August 1943 to February 1944. According to one source only 47 Japanese fighters intercepted these two raids. Two were lost. Once again the absence of early warning radar and a lack of tractors to disperse aircraft contributed significantly to the disaster.

On April 1st the 77th was up on a false alarm scramble. After a brief respite, primarily an enforced one due to weather, the Americans were back two days later. This time B-25s and A-20s joined the B-24s and more than 200 bombers were involved. The Japanese responded with 39 fighters.

To oppose this April 3rd attack the 77th put up six fighters under Maj. Matsumoto and Capt. Matsuo, back after hospitalization and a stint of ground duty. One other fighter apparently took off but aborted. This day started with another false alarm scramble. Most of the Japanese fighters had landed when the B-24s appeared overhead. It seems likely the 77th remained airborne. P-38s and OSCARS clashed as the B-24s were approaching the target. Later OSCARS made a few ineffective passes at the bombers. Other Japanese fighter units were involved in the fray as well. A series of running fights between P-38s and Japanese fighters continued for nearly an hour. The Americans claimed 25 kills. The Japanese claimed 12 victories but suffered eleven losses.

The 77th lost one of its fighters and another was heavily damaged; one pilot killed and one seriously wounded. It claimed five P-38s and another uncertain. One P-38 was missing and others damaged but the 77th's share of this is difficult to determine.

All four long range P-38 squadrons were involved in this action and they, particularly the 80th FS and 432nd FS, were studded with aces. Dick Bong flew with the 432nd on this occasion and claimed an OSCAR as his 25th victory. Cyril Homer and Kenneth Ladd of the 80th became double aces in this combat as did John Loisel of the 432nd. Few of the pilots flying the mission for those squadrons were without previous air combat victories. Some of the few who were, claimed their first kills over Hollandia on this day. In many ways this was typical of what the Japanese faced over New Guinea at this time. They were outnumbered, facing experienced pilots flying high performance fighters.

As of April 6th the 77th had 12 fighters on hand. Six of these were operational, two needed minor repair, and four others needed more extensive (depot) repairs. Six other fighters were listed as Shutsu, not yet arrived or on hand. The Regiment had about sixteen pilots available for operations.

For more than a week after the April 3rd attack there were no additional escorted day attacks on Hollandia. The 77th was alerted for attack several times. It was selected to lead the Type 1 fighter force. One flight was equipped with TA bombs. On occasion they flew false alarm scrambles and landed at Wakde Island after their mission, returning to Hollandia later. Their missions included escorting the 18th Army commander to Hansa and then escorting him on the return flight.

continued in part 12