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Double Lucky? (part 12)

The next combat for the 14th FB fighters was not an interception over Hollandia. The Japanese actually sought out combat, first sending nine fighters down the coast toward Wewak on April 7th. The 77th was not involved and details are sketchy but a P-40 was lost near Wewak that day. The Japanese then planned a full strength fighter sweep over Wewak to confront the American formations that were continuing to pound that area. On April 11th 16 Type 1 fighters and eight Type 3 fighters intruded into the Wewak area. In this combat the Japanese fighters claimed no fewer than 12 P-47s! Maj. Matsumoto led three fighters of the 77th as part of this force. There were a variety of American aircraft over Wewak but the 77th reported encountering 12 B-24s and 16 P-47s. The 311th FS had several encounters with Japanese fighters. They lost three Thunderbolts. The 77th claimed three P-47s. The Japanese lost a single Type 3 fighter and this only after an extended solo combat with five P-40Ns of the 8th FS.

The following day the Americans again raided Hollandia in force. April 12th was historic. It saw the last major combat over Hollandia and was another day of aces. The 80th FS, with Dick Bong flying with them, claimed all nine American fighter victories. Bong claimed three OSCARS to become America's all time leading ace. Jay Robbins added two TONYS to bring his score to seventeen. C.R. Smith claimed an OSCAR to become a double ace. Burnell Adams claimed an OSCAR and a TONY to become an ace with six victories. Adams had scored his first victory flying a P-70 at night. Another pilot broke into the scoring column claiming an OSCAR for his first victory. There were several additional claims for fighters probably destroyed or damaged. Japanese records, however, substantiate only a fraction of these claims.

The Japanese sent up 27 fighters against a reported 148 enemy aircraft including 50 P-38s. The Japanese claimed 1 B-24 (ground defenses) and six P-38s of which two were uncertain. The claims of the 77th show it was in the thick of the combat claiming three P-38s definitely shot down and others probably destroyed. Unfortunately the 77th also suffered heavily. Both Maj. Matsumoto and Sgt. Wakichi Fukushima were killed. One fighter returned with minor damage. The 4th Air Army report on this battle also lists a chutai leader of the 68th FR as missing. Capt. Toshio Takenawa apparently survived. According to one source he died on the retreat from Hollandia in July 1944. Other than the three pilots listed as missing the 4th Air Army report says other damage was "slight."

One B-24 was lost to a combination of ground fire and fighter attack. No P-38s were lost. The Japanese fighters were obviously unduly optimistic about the outcomes of their encounters. The Japanese did not have set rules for confirming kills. A pilot's report of combat and his commander's assessment of that report were generally all that were required. A definite victory could be assessed based on the pilot's belief that he had inflicted enough damage to assure the enemy could not return to base. Observation of an actual crash was not required.

Some commentators have expressed disbelief in Japanese reports of their losses in light of American standards for confirming victories. First, some assume that gun cameras were in general use. The availability of gun camera film was often the exception rather than the rule. Vibration from an aircraft's own guns often made film useless (particularly common in the P-38) and the tropical environment often ruined film. Moreover, claims were almost always verified immediately after the mission while gun camera film was not available until days later. Camera evidence often proved inconclusive. Finally, the requirement to have a witness see the claimed aircraft crash, burn or break up in flight was not always strictly followed. A pilot might fire on an enemy aircraft and believe he saw evidence of hits or damage; his witness might see an aircraft crash and believe it to be the aircraft claimant fired upon. This often sufficed for verification even if neither pilot had actually observed the aircraft continuously from damage to crash. This happened in the case of at least one of Bong's claims on this date. In other cases, smoke rising from the jungle or "disturbances on the water" were taken as adequate evidence of a crash. The system left plenty of room for mistakes to be made and they obviously were.

Pilots of the 77th learned that their time in New Guinea was about over. They, along with the pilots of the 33rd FR, were to turn over their remaining aircraft to the 63rd and 248th FRs and prepare to leave New Guinea. In the meantime there were a few additional missions to fly. One was odd to say the least. On the 17th a 6th FD order sent Sgt. Kumasaki to Wewak/East (Boram) airfield from where he flew a maritime reconnaissance mission beginning at 0310 hours! Not surprisingly he failed to sight any vessels.

The pilots of the 77th were still at Hollandia on April 22nd when an Allied fleet appeared off-shore and began landing thousands of troops. Carrier aircraft added to the destruction the 5th Air Force had inflicted on Hollandia. The 6th FD ordered aircrew personnel to evacuate Hollandia and travel overland to Sarmi on the New Guinea coast where it was hoped to rescue them. About one hundred fighter pilots were involved in this trek, a march through jungle, across rivers and mountains. They began with insufficient food for the entire trip and not all were healthy.

By the end of April the pilots and other evacuees had traveled barely 25km west of Sentani Lake. Soon they were required to live off the land. All were tired and many fell ill. When they got to the vicinity of Sarmi late in May, they found the Americans had already landed nearby. Evacuation from Sarmi was impossible. Their only recourse was to continue west through the jungle. Soon pilots were falling victim to disease and malnutrition.

Months later a handful of fortunate pilots from other units that crossed Geelvink Bay in a motorized landing craft were rescued and eventually flown back to Japan. The rest of the pilots died in the jungle. The 77th lost sixteen pilots including Capts. Matsuo and Tagashira. Other officers that died in New Guinea were Lts. Nakajima, Yanagiya, Ito, Ono, and, Takagi. Enlisted pilots lost included Sgts. Hiroshi Aoyagi (who engaged Kearby), Fujiwara, Hanazawa, Kobayashi, Kumasaki, and Watanabe.

Back in Singapore the "remaining unit" of the 77th lost all contact with the formation in New Guinea after April 22nd. The cadre of the 77th at Singapore received a number of personnel and a new Regimental commanding officer, Maj. Choichira Yoshida. By July when it became clear that no one was coming back from New Guinea all hope of re-building the 77th at Singapore was abandoned. Personnel were dispersed to other units. Yoshida was appointed commander of the 105th Hiko Sentai in Formosa. The 77th FR had passed into history.

The unexpected invasion of Hollandia and the hurried overland evacuation of its air units meant that the Japanese abandoned many documents related to aircraft and air operations. Many of the documents were never translated by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service (ATIS) and others were translated only partially or as abstracts. Still these documents allow the story of the 77th to be told in greater detail than has previously been possible. In addition translations of intercepted radio messages supplement the trove of captured documents.

The Hollandia airfields were littered with hundreds of wrecked Japanese aircraft. So extensive was the destruction rained on Hollandia from the air that nary an intact aircraft was to be found. One Type 1 model II fighter was found nearly intact. It was painstakingly restored to flying condition by maintenance personnel of the 8th FS. It was flown in mock combat at low level against a P-40N. The Japanese fighter repeatedly got on the tail of the P-40 through a variety of various mock combat scenarios. The Type 1 fighter was turned over the American technical intelligence personnel for detailed technical evaluation and testing in Australia. The fighter was shipped to Australia just as the 77th FR was being disbanded.

Source Notes

Numerous published sources were consulted. As might be expected Hata, Izawa & Shores, Japanese Army Air Units and Their Aces; Ford, Flying Tigers; and Shores, Cull & Izawa, Bloody Shambles were particularly helpful. Readers familiar with those works will note, however, that this article is not in total agreement with all the material in those works as it pertains to matters addressed here.

Several numbers of the Japanese Monograph series produced under the auspices of Allied occupation forces in Japan and subsequently the U.S. Army's Chief of Military History, particularly with regard to operations in China and Manchuria, provided information not otherwise available. Translated/paraphrased material from the official Japanese history of the Burma campaign (available in Rising Sun Over Burma) was helpful. Translations of articles on Soviet fighters and bombers in China by A. Demin published in Aviatsiia i Kosmo'avatika (G. Mellinger, trans.) available on the j-aircraft website were consulted; as were profiles of "Chinese biplane fighter aces" posted at Haakon's Aviation website.

Allied intelligence summaries and unit combat reports from both the China Burma India (CBI) and Southwest Pacific (SWPA) theaters were key to relating Allied activities to those of the 77th. Published official histories; USAAF monographs; and, official communiquis, both Allied and Japanese, were also consulted.

The story of the 77th Hiko Sentai simply could not be told in the detail presented here without the translated reports, operations orders, intelligence summaries and similar materials preserved in the ATIS (Allied Translator and Interpreter Service, SWPA Hq.) collection of translated Japanese documents. Other ATIS material including personal diaries and a POW interrogation report provided additional insights. Translations of intercepted radio messages and additional captured documents in other collections were also consulted.

— Richard L. Dunn