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Double Lucky - Part 2

Maj. Yoshioka led twenty Type 97 fighters back to Rangoon the following day. They were opposed by eight Tomahawks and six Hurricanes. The American pilots were initially below the approaching Japanese formation but gradually gained altitude and when the Japanese jumped an isolated flight of Tomahawks others caught them by surprise from superior altitude. The Japanese were forced onto the defense and suffered badly. In the combats that followed four Japanese pilots went down. One of them, which one is uncertain, tried a suicide dive on Mingaladon. The pilot succeeded in crashing his fighter in a revetment occupied by a Blenheim but did little, if any, damage to the bomber. Allied losses are unclear but apparently two of the Tomahawks that returned to Mingaladon, one with a wounded pilot, were write-offs. Pilots of the 77th claimed five victories, two by Lt. Kuwabara. Total AVG and RAF claims were fourteen.

After these stinging losses the 77th did not see action again until February 4th (the Japanese official communiqui erroneously places this raid on the 3rd) when thirteen of its fighters escorted seventeen light bombers to Toungoo. An "enemy bomber" was claimed destroyed on the ground but none of RAF 113 Squadron's Blenhiems were hit. Six fighters were also claimed but only one Hurricane was damaged. The aircraft hit may have been wrecks on the field. Considerable damage was done to field installations. Soon after this attack the Blenheims abandoned Toungoo as a base; this only a short time after having moved there due to persistent night attacks on the Rangoon area bases.

On the 6th 25 Type 97 fighters, the 77th and a flight from the 50th, mounted another fighter sweep to Rangoon. Six Hurricanes and at least eight Tomahawks scrambled to meet them. Lts. Kuwabara and Beppu claimed victories in this fight but the 77th also lost one fighter and Maj. Hirose landed his damaged fighter at Moulmein. Somehow this rather ordinary fight became the "most spectacular of a long list of victories" for the AVG according to the New York Times. The Japanese communiqui summarizing war results in the "southern region and Hong Kong" to this date was more prosaic but claimed the Japanese army had destroyed 914 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground including 444 shot down with certainty.

The Allies were trying to reinforce the air strength in Burma but the air route from Africa across India and Burma was taking its toll and reinforcements and replacements were slow in coming. In early February the operational strength of the 5th Air Group was about twice as strong as the Allied force in Burma. Fighter strength was more closely matched with the 77th and 50th mustering only 43 operational fighters against Allied operational figures of 20 Tomahawks, 11 Hurricanes, and four Buffaloes. The Allies had several advantages, however. They had numerous all-weather airfields in Burma and these were well stocked with fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. The Japanese were hundreds of miles from their nearest depot and sometimes had to borrow supplies from the Thai Air Force to continue in operations. The British also had an early warning radar station at Rangoon.

On February 7th the 77th was again over Rangoon with 22 fighters. This time they met ten Hurricanes. Each side made several claims but the only loss was Lt. Beppu who was shot down. Lt. Shizusada Nakao landed his damaged fighter at Moulmein on the return trip to Thailand. This proved the last fighter combat over Rangoon for a couple weeks as action shifted to support of ground operations in which the Japanese were threatening to breach the British line along the Salween River.

Both sides were active in providing air support for their ground troops and the Japanese also attacked shipping in the Gulf of Martaban. These operations resulted in little air combat until the 21st. On that date 23 fighters of the 77th were escorting a dozen light bombers of their old partner the 31st FR when they met six Tomahawks escorting four Blenheims. The Japanese pilots initiated the attack. Lt. Kuwabara claimed a sure kill while other pilots claimed probables. The AVG claimed four victories plus additional probables. Some of the Tomahawks were damaged as was one Type 97 fighter but none was shot down. Two Blenheims were lost apparently victims of ground fire. Soon after this the British were in retreat from the Salween to a new line on the Sittang River. The British began evacuating personnel and supplies from Rangoon.

On February 25th the Japanese resumed their fighter sweep over Rangoon. Twenty-three Type 97 fighters of the 77th were joined by 21 from the 50th and three Ki 44s (these were service test aircraft; the type was later officially accepted and designated the Type 2 fighter) of the 47th Chutai. This proved to be a remarkable engagement for the Japanese met just six Hurricanes and three Tomahawks yet when the confused fighting was over the 77th claimed 11 certain victories while the 50th added three and the 47th two more. With probables added in the Japanese registered claims for more than twice the number of Allied fighters present and not all the Hurricanes had been engaged. Neither side actually lost any aircraft.

The Japanese fighters returned later in the day this time escorting a dozen Type 99 light bombers (Ki 48) of the 8th FR. Japanese bombs destroyed a Lysander on the ground and also put five Blenheims out of action. On this occasion Allied claims were nearly as outlandish as Japanese claims had been in the morning. A dozen Hurricanes and at least a dozen Tomahawks scrambled and made claims, mainly by the AVG, for 25 Japanese aircraft destroyed. The 77th made no claims and suffered no losses. The 50th lost two fighters and claimed one kill plus two probables. Allied losses were one Tomahawk due to operational reasons, and one Tomahawk crashed but repairable. Allied claims include one bomber. One source asserts no bombers were lost but the official communiqui reported the loss of three aircraft so it seems possible one bomber did go down.

The following morning the RAF and AVG took the war to the Japanese with separate attacks on Moulmein by both Hurricanes and Tomahawks. There were a number of confused combats and strafing attacks. The 77th lost one aircraft burned out, a second badly damaged, and three others damaged to a lesser extent. Maj. Yasuo Makino of the 50th FR was involved in these actions. He was wounded while flying an aircraft of the 77th to Moulmein.

Losses on the ground as well as in air combat and operations from rough forward operating bases had depleted the Japanese fighter force. By March 2nd the 77th numbered only 24 fighters with 14 operational. The 50th was down to eighteen fighters with a bare dozen operational. Their operations as well as the advance of the Japanese on the ground were having an affect, however, and Allied aircraft were pulling back to Magwe, Akyab and other rear bases leaving only small contingents near Rangoon.

On March 6th fourteen fighters of the 77th flew a sweep over the Rangoon area and came upon a dispersal field and a contingent of Hurricanes from RAF No. 17 Squadron. A brief air clash occurred and Hurricanes were strafed on the airfield. The Hurricanes claimed a victory and a possible. The 77th claimed two Hurricanes and others destroyed or damaged on the ground. One damaged Type 97 fighter force landed after this action and Hurricanes were hit on the ground including at least two damaged beyond repair. No. 17 squadron abandoned the airfield.

This was the climax of the 77th FR's first Burma campaign. Rangoon soon fell and equally as important so did the Netherlands East Indies. Fighters and bombers from that front quickly joined the 5th Air Group (soon to become the 5th Flying Division or Hikoshidan). The 77th FR was replenished and by March 20th had built up its strength to 35 Type 97 fighters. In the following days it flew escort missions during the raids on Magwe that crippled the remaining Allied air power in central Burma. After the Japanese occupied Magwe in April the 77th FR provided air defense for the base. Most of the air combat during this period fell to the Type 1 fighters of the 64th FR and the Type 97 fighters of the 1st and 11th FRs.

Rising Sun Over Burma

Hiatus

The 77th FR suffered heavy losses (12 pilots) but it stood up to the highly successful (legendary) Flying Tigers and competent RAF opposition. Indeed, it had on several occasions bested them; and, overall, destroyed more enemy aircraft than it lost. The 77th FR could count itself fortunate once again. By June 1942 it was on its way back to Manchuria.

The headquarters of the 77th was once again established at Lungchen in northern Manchuria in July 1942. It was initially brigaded with the 27th and 31st FRs under the 10th FB but it was soon released from the brigade and reported directly to the 4th Flying Division (FD). By the end of 1942 one squadron was also at Tungchiagchen. Later in 1943 the Regiment moved to Nunkiang. The war raged in the Pacific and in Burma and China. The Regiment was a garrison unit securing Japan's northern frontier and training new pilots.

In April 1943 Lt. Col. Yoshioka left the Regiment and was replaced by a new commander, Maj. Juichi Morimoto. Other command changes had already occurred. The 2nd chutai commander, Capt. Naosuke Kurakawa, was replaced by Capt. Yoshihide Matsuo in October 1942. Capt. Eto was replaced by Lt. Nakao as commander of the 1st chutai in May 1943. Capt. Kuwabara remained commander of the 3rd chutai.

Many experienced pilots of the 77th FR pilots moved on to other units. Junior pilots took their place. The unit flew its patrol missions and trained in its Type 97 fighters. During 1942 and early 1943 the fighter aircraft flown by the Allies in the Pacific, China and Burma were much like those the 77th had fought in Burma. Later versions of the P-40, improvements of the Tomahawk, were used in large numbers as well as the Bell P-39 with similar performance. The U.S. Navy's Grumman F4F-4, somewhat superior to the Brewster Buffalo, was widely used. This changed as 1943 approached its mid-point. New high performance fighters with maximum speeds near or exceeding 400 m.p.h., beginning with the P-38 in late 1942, made their appearance and gradually became predominate.

After Japan's successful first phase operations (December 1941-April 1942) many of the air units taken from Manchuria were returned. The 77th FR's transfer to Manchuria is one example. By late 1942 the demands of the Pacific war once again caused the Japanese to call upon the air strength in the north to reinforce the south. During 1943 Regiments and sometimes entire Brigades were sent to China or other theaters in the south.

In August 1943 the 77th FR gave up its aging Type 97 fighters and received a new aircraft - the Type 1 fighter model II (Ki 43-II). Names had been introduced for certain Japanese aircraft about this time and the Type 1 fighter was called the Hayabusa (Falcon). Late in 1942 codenames for Japanese aircraft had been introduced, initially in the Southwest Pacific; that for the Type 1 fighter was OSCAR. Also in August an event occurred that probably played a role in sending the 77th FR southward. In mid-August B-24s from Australia bombed the oil refineries at Balikpapen, Borneo for the first time. Balikpapen rivaled Palembang, Sumatra as Japan's chief source of oil from the former Netherlands East Indies.

Hardly a month after receiving its new equipment the 77th was alerted for movement in the near future. Its ultimate destination was Palembang on Sumatra where the 9th Flying Division (FD) was being formed to protect the Japanese oil interests. Some of the former Dutch wells and refineries in Sumatra and Borneo had been sabotaged in early 1942 but many of these had been repaired in the months since and by late 1943 were providing Japan with its petroleum life blood. There was oil production in Burma but it did little more than satisfy Japanese needs in that theater. Natural and synthetic oil production in Manchuria and Japan proper produced but a fraction of Japan's requirements. An invasion of Sumatra or effective Allied air attacks on the refineries could rapidly bring the Japanese war machine to a state of near collapse.

The 77th FR did not go directly to Sumatra. Interesting events that the author is unable to explain occurred along the way. First, Maj. Morimoto who had taken command of the Regiment in April was replaced by Maj. Kunio Matsumoto. The ground staff of 228 men, proceeding by rail and sea, left Nunkiang on the 26th of October and arrived at Fusan, Korea on the 31st. After a layover until the 6th of November they departed, arriving at Singapore on December 1st. They departed Singapore for Sumatra on the 6th. Immediately prior to leaving the Regiment's maintenance capability had been increased by the attachment of 60 officers and men from the 40th Airfield Battalion and by the addition of equipment and material equivalent to that of half an airfield maintenance company.

The air echelon of 61 men, pilots and supporting ground personnel, left Nunkiang on October 15th en route for Fukuoko (Gannosu) where they assumed air defense duties until early November. On November 4th they departed Japan and arrived at Gloembang airfield in Sumatra on the 14th.

The reasons for the relief of Maj. Morimoto just as the unit was headed for the combat zone are not known to the author. It may be that his physical condition or health made him unsuited for the assignment or it could be something else entirely. Like Morimoto, Matsumoto, the new commander of the 77th had seen combat in the China Incident as a fighter squadron commander and was a seasoned pilot with previous command assignments. It is interesting to note that the 248th FR which was transferred from Japan to New Guinea at this time also had a command change just days before it transferred.

The reason for the sojourn in Japan is also not readily apparent. It could be argued that the delay was necessary to synchronize the movements of the air and ground echelons but this seems implausible. The air echelon left Manchuria more than ten days before the ground echelon. Despite its detour to Japan, it arrived in Sumatra nearly three weeks ahead of the ground echelon. This is hardly synchronization.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

Perhaps the 77th was called to Japan to fill a hole in the air defense scheme (the 248th FR had just been transferred) but their presence there for little more than two weeks casts doubt on that explanation. It seems plausible to the author that one reason the 77th went to Japan was to re-equip. The Type 1 fighters they received in Manchuria may have been hand-me-downs from other units possibly including model I versions (the Adjutant of the 77th was later captured and in his POW interrogation made a brief reference to the unit being partially equipped with model I versions, however, he did not join the unit until it reached Sumatra and would not have had first hand knowledge of its equipment in Japan). If they received new equipment while they were in Japan they were fortunate. Since July 1943, Type 1 fighters produced by Nakajima had been equipped with self-sealing fuel tanks greatly improved over earlier largely ineffective attempts at fuel tank protection. The tanks were introduced on Tachikawa produced Hayabusas coming off the production line beginning in August. Nakajima produced machines also had 12mm armor plate behind the pilot seat and those produced beginning in September had improved armor. It seems possible the 77th went to Sumatra partially or fully equipped with these improved versions of the Type 1 fighter.

By the time the fighters arrived in Sumatra (possibly from the time Maj. Matsumoto took command) they sported the Regiment's new tail marking. This was a horizontal line across the fin and rudder with a short flashing part way up the leading edge of the fin that looked something like a "7" reclining on its long axis. It was painted in chutai colors of white, red and yellow, respectively, for 1st to 3rd chutais. This change in marking may also support the notion that Regiment received new aircraft without any markings and applied new ones. The change in markings may have been a subtle way for the new commander to assert that he was in charge.

The Type 1 model II fighter seems outclassed by late 1943 world fighter standards. Its nominal maximum speed of 320 m.p.h. at 20,000 feet seems particularly slow compared to Allied fighters. Even the somewhat higher speed Japanese pilots obtained by operating their aircraft at something akin to Allied "war emergency power" falls far short of the best Allied fighters. The fighter did, however, have its virtues. It excelled in turning maneuvers. It had an excellent climb rate and angle of climb. It had good range. It was equipped with only two 12.7 mm machine guns ("machine cannon" in Japanese parlance) and these had a trajectory inferior to their Allied counter-parts. However, by 1943 the Japanese had developed very good armor piercing and explosive shells for these weapons. At long range inflicting serious damage proved to be a problem. At close range the story was different. As noted above, the aircraft was belatedly equipped with fuel tank and pilot protection.

The 77th FR arrived in Sumatra in November 1943. There it found that the 9th FD controlled a considerable anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) force and a not inconsiderable air force. Under the 9th FD were two regional defense units, the Palembang and Pangkalanbrandan Defense Units, which controlled strong AAA forces, airfield units, guard units, an intelligence service, and a few air units. The air units were the 21st FR with two chutais of Type 2 two-seat fighters (Ki 45) and the 24th and 71st Squadrons equipped with Type 1 fighters. The 9th FD also controlled the 8th FB composed of the 33rd FR (Type 1 fighters) and the 58th and 60th FRs (Type 97 heavy bombers). The 77th FR reported directly to the Flying Division.

On December 9th the 77th scrambled its fighters upon the report that a large type enemy aircraft was approaching at an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters). The fighters did not encounter an enemy aircraft. Whatever caused the alarm, most probably it was not an Allied aircraft.

Despite the fears of the Japanese High Command, the Allies did not raid Palembang and failed to launch additional attacks against Balikpapen. Allied invasion operations in the Mediterranean had priority for landing craft and the large Allied ground forces in India were soon determined to be incapable of attacking Sumatra or even the islands on the approaches to Sumatra until they received naval reinforcements. Late in 1943 the Japanese began to consider using the large but essentially passive air force in Sumatra for other missions. The 21st and 33rd FRs received orders for temporary duty in Burma.

Thailand and Burma again

It is interesting to look at a snap shot of pilot ability in the 77th FR at this juncture. Data come from reports dated November 30, 1943. Flying time was measured in A, B, and C categories meaning in excess of 1,000 hours; 300-1,000 hours; and, less than 300 hours. Likewise, ability was categorized in the same fashion. A meant fully qualified for combat duty; B, will qualify with less than one month's additional training (the Regiment's Adjutant characterized this as meaning qualified but additional training desirable); or, C, needs an additional month or more of training.

All 32 pilots in the 77th were characterized as in good health (poor health was another reason to categorize a pilot's ability as C). Of seven commissioned officer pilots, all were rated A in ability though two were B as far as flying hours. There was one Warrant Officer rated B in flying hours but A in ability. There were three Sgt. Majors. Interestingly the senior of the three was rated B both in flying hours and ability while the other two were rated A in both categories. Of eight Sergeants, all were rated B in flying hours but four were rated A in ability. Of seven Corporals all were rated B in ability but one was C in flying hours. Finally there were six pilots in the rank of Leading Private. All were rated C in both categories. While hardly an exact reference point these data suggest several of the pilots of the 77th were more or less in the final stages of advanced training rather than fully qualified combat pilots and others may have been minimally qualified. Still, some American and British Commonwealth pilots had been thrust into combat with less than 300 hours flying time only a year or so earlier.

Another document gives a somewhat different meaning to the A, B and C ability categories. Characterizing them, respectively, as excellent fliers, qualified combat fliers, and, requiring more training. This report indicates the headquarters flight had one officer and one NCO pilot each of A ability. All the other officers (3 in 1st squadron, two each in the other two) were rated A. Among NCOs, one in the 1st squadron and two each in the other squadrons were rated A. Four NCOs in each squadron are rated B. Among "other ranks" two pilots in each squadron were rated C.

During December 1943 the total strength of the Regiment was 288 officers and men. The air echelon had been in Sumatra little over a month and the ground staff even less when part of the 77th was on the move again. On December 24th the 1st chutai was ordered to transfer to Don Maung airfield near Bangkok, Thailand, and come under the command of the 5th FD.

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

In addition to pilots and aircraft, ground support personnel were to form part of the expeditionary force. Their mission was to bolster the air defense of Thailand. Attached to the order sending the unit to Bangkok was a document titled "Cooperative Plan between Japan and Thailand Air Army fighter forces for the Air Defense of Thailand." The plan called for joint operations. In a day attack Thai fighters would assemble at 4,000 meters, Japanese fighters at 7,000 meters. For night attacks fighters would fly from Don Maung to Bangkok and circle with their wing lights on until an enemy bomber was picked up in the searchlights. There were sound detectors but no radar. Once fighters engaged, the anti-aircraft guns were to cease firing. There were some additional details but the foregoing summarizes the essence of the "plan."

The 1st chutai transferred to Bangkok because, according the 5th FD's operations order, "the enemy air attack against Thailand has intensified greatly." This was apparently a reaction to two relatively strong joint raids by US B-24s and RAF Liberators on the 19th and 23rd of December. These were night raids. Though lacking specialized night fighting equipment, the Type 1 fighter had been occasionally pressed into service as a night fighter with some, albeit limited, success. Bangkok had gained strategic importance due to the recent completion of the Thai-Burma railroad (of "River Kwai" fame). Bangkok was the southern terminus of the newly opened railway and most important port in Thailand.

The 1st chutai transferred to Bangkok and almost immediately suffered the loss of its commanding officer Capt. Shizusada Nakao. Nakao died on the 28th of December "while patrolling over Bangkok." Almost certainly his death was not combat related as after the 23rd it was over two weeks before Bangkok suffered another Allied air attack. Nakao was succeeded by Lt. Hiroshi Tagashira (his name appears as "Tazu" in some documents).

Nakao's was not the Regiment's only casualty in December 1943. During the month two enlisted men died of typhoid fever. As of the 31st the Regiment had twenty-two men hospitalized. During January a medical officer was detailed to be in charge of the supply of medical equipment and the prevention of disease in the 77th FR.

B-24s returned to the Bangkok area on 9/10th January when seven of them mined the river approaches to Bangkok. There were two other raids in the following week. The 77th was able to do little against these raids and could claim no success. The most active pilots were Lt. Tagashira who logged 3 hours and 30 minutes of night flying time during the month; W.O. Kiochi Mitoma with 1 hour, 30 minutes; and, Cpl. Zenkichi Arao with 1 hour, 5 minutes. A few other squadron pilots logged 30 minutes or less night flying time and some none at all.

After three weeks the rest of the Regiment joined the 1st chutai in Thailand and deployed to forward bases. With the 77th moving forward to Thailand, the 21st and 33rd FRs were relieved from duty with the 5th FD and returned to Palembang. The 1st and 3rd chutais of the 77th deployed to Maymyo in Burma. The 2nd chutai deployed to Chieng-Mai in northern Thailand. The transfer did not go entirely smoothly. En route to Chieng-Mai, Lt. Masanori Kato, who had only recently joined the unit, crashed his fighter at Lampang. His fighter was "badly damaged" (a write-off) and Kato was badly injured. He died in a Bangkok hospital a week later. By the 15th the squadrons were at their assigned bases.

In January 1944 the 5th Flying Division was heavily outnumbered. Moreover, the Allies had recently added P-38s, P-51As, and Spitfires to the P-40s and Hurricanes that opposed the Japanese in 1942 and most of 1943. Ground operations were under way or threatening on four widely separated fronts each of which could be supported by a substantial Allied air force. Allied medium and long range bombers attacked the Japanese line of communications and rear bases. Finally, the Americans had created an air bridge of transports to supply China and thus maintain active resistance there. The 5th Flying Division had to shuffle its forces to contest potential Allied air superiority on all these fronts as well as defend its own bases and strategic points.

Most of the 77th FR's operations in Thailand and Burma were devoted to air defense and resulted in virtually no combat. A challenge to the air bridge to China, however, brought about its one significant action in the region. Due to their limited strength, the Japanese could not maintain constant pressure on the India-China air transport route but they did attack it on selected occasions. Using visual observation and communications intelligence, primarily from the anti-aircraft observation organization at Sumprabum, the Japanese planned intermittent attacks on the American transports.

The 4th FB ordered attacks on the transport route. The 2nd chutai joined the rest of the Regiment at Maymyo on the 17th. The attack was mounted in two waves on the 18th. The first was by 17 Type 1 fighters of the 50th FR. They shot down three C-47s on a supply dropping mission and engaged their escorting fighters claiming one P-38 (possibly an F-5 of 9th Photo Squadron) and one P-40. One of these claims was a probable. They actually engaged eight P-51As escorting the transports and, as discussed below in the case of the 77th FR, possibly P-40s.

An hour later the second wave of 22 Type 1 fighters (23 took off so apparently one aborted) of the 77th was sent against the transports. They shot down two C-46s (#41-24660 and 41-24754) of the air transport command. They also encountered four P-40s of the 89th Fighter Squadron (FS) flying a forward patrol mission. The P-40s attacked in two elements of two. The first element made several sightings of small formations of Japanese fighters and had some inconclusive contacts before claiming one OSCAR damaged. One pilot "encountered four other Jap ships at 3,000 feet in what appeared to be a dogfight. One of these ships may have been a P-40 but it is unidentified." He fired at a Japanese fighter and drove it off the P-40's tail.

The second element of P-40s had an engagement in which a Japanese fighter (identified as a possible TOJO) was claimed damaged and then another in which an OSCAR was claimed destroyed after being seen to crash and burn. One fighter of the 3rd chutai was missing after this combat. The successful American pilot was 2Lt. Fred S. Evans. Another Hayabusa returned badly damaged with a seriously wounded pilot and two other fighters returned with minor damage.

A Vision So Noble

The 89th FS flew other patrol missions on this day and scrambled eight P-40s in response to this action. None of them was engaged. This leaves open the question what was the "unidentified" P-40 seen in an apparent dogfight with the 77th and what P-40 might the 50th FR have claimed? As it happens five P-40Ns from the 23rd Fighter Group (FG) were being ferried from India to China on this day. All five were lost with three pilots killed. Their loss has been attributed to bad weather but it seems possible one or more of them might have stumbled into the combats occurring along their route to China on this occasion.

The Regiment apparently did not see additional combat. It flew a number of missions escorting VIPS, a staff officer of the 4th FB on the 19th; Lt. Gen. Kawanabe, the Inspector General of Communications, on the 24th and again on the 29th ; and, escort for another VIP on the same day. During a mission over the Hukwang Valley from Maymyo to Bhamo and back on the 28th one Hayabusa was badly damaged at Bhamo due to a defect with the landing gear. The same day the 77th flew another VIP escort mission. Most of its missions were defensive patrols. For the month one aircraft and pilot were listed as missing, an obvious reference to the combat on the 18th. An officer of the 2nd Squadron was listed as killed (Kato). Regarding aircraft, in addition to one fighter missing, four were listed as heavily damaged, and four suffered minor damage.

Details available for the 2nd Squadron for January may be illustrative of the other Squadrons. The squadron suffered a single personnel casualty mentioned above. Two of its aircraft were "completely wrecked" and one "partly damaged." It flew 42 combat sorties amounting to 40 hours and 35 minutes of flying. It expended 1,300 rounds of ammunition. After the attack on the 18th the squadron returned to Chieng-Mai but six fighters deployed to Maymyo again between the 25th and 29th.

As January 1944 came to an end the ground echelon of the 77th was finally arriving at key points in Burma and Thailand. It appeared the Regiment would soon be able to participate in the Burma operations with full vigor. Then on February 1st a change of orders came. The Regiment was to go to an entirely different theater of operations. Its last missions in Burma were patrol missions over the Maymyo area flown by a total of nine fighters at midday and later in the afternoon of February 2nd.

The squadrons at Maymyo departed on February 5th. A substantial portion of the ground echelon, so laboriously transported to Burma and Thailand, was left behind. Over a hundred men were reassigned to maintenance organizations at Rangoon or Bangkok. Forty other personnel were in hospital. The Regiment headed for its assembly point, Singapore.

The Last Campaign

The bulk of the Regiment assembled at Chieng-Mai on February 5th and moved to Singapore where the air echelon and the reduced ground staff that was to accompany the Regiment arrived by February 10th. They discovered their destination was Hollandia in western New Guinea. The 4th Air Army and its 6th FD in New Guinea were in dire straights. The Regiment's officers were informed that as of the 10th of February the entire 4th Air Army numbered just sixty operational aircraft. Its fighter force included 21 operational Type 1 fighters (59th, 63rd, and 248th FRs) and eight Type 3 fighters (68th and 78th FRs).

For purposes of the transfer to New Guinea the 77th was placed under the command of the 8th FB. That brigade and two of its Regiments, the 33rd FR (Type 1 fighters) and 60th FR (Type 97 heavy bombers), were also going to New Guinea. Five transport planes of the 3rd squadron of the 1st Raiding Group supported the Regiment's movement. Each transport carried 13 passengers and several hundred pounds of equipment.

The Regiment was divided into two main echelons but planned to fly in a single mass formation during the first stages of the movement. The first echelon was commanded by Maj. Matsumoto and consisted of fourteen fighters from all three squadrons and the headquarters flight and two transport planes. The second echelon was commanded by Capt. Kuwabara, who was named the Regiment's executive officer, and consisted of thirteen fighters and three transport planes. In addition Sgt. Major Kiyoshi Kobayakawa would lead three fighters in a delayed departure. The pilots for two of the fighters were in the hospital and the flight could not leave until they were released.

The Regiment numbered 24 serviceable fighters on January 31st. By the time it completed assembling at Singapore it had thirty fighters. It had received 6 fighters "repaired or replaced" so the additional fighters probably included some of the aircraft that had received minor damage during January as well as a few replacement aircraft acquired in Singapore.

The date for leaving Singapore was set as 14 February 1944. The route was Singapore-Palembang-Soerabaja (Java)-Makassar (Celebes I.)-Namlea (Buru I.)-Miti (Halmahera I.). At Miti the Regiment would assemble and receive final orders for its advance. There were layovers at some of these locations. The first twelve fighters reached Miti on the 20th and the assembly of the Regiment at Miti took about a week. The final flight to Hollandia was via Kamiri on Noemfoor I. Maj. Matsumoto arrived at Hollandia No. III airfield on February 25th. One of the aircraft landing at Noemfoor suffered a mishap but was expected to be repaired in a short period of time. A few of the Regiment's aircraft advanced to Wewak on the 26th.

The movement of the 77th FR to New Guinea was part of a significant reinforcement of the area. In addition to the 77th and the two Regiments of the 8th FB (33rd and 60th) already mentioned, a Regiment of Type 99 light bombers (75th FR) and a Regiment of Type 2 two-seat fighters equipped as fighter-bombers (45th FR) arrived. Among the units relieved was the 59th FR a Type 1 fighter unit that had served in New Guinea since the previous July. These reinforcements and the arrival of a number of replacement aircraft had an immediate impact on operational strength. As of the 22nd of February the 4th Air Army was down to eight Type 1 fighters and six Type 3 fighters. At the end of the month the number of operational Type 1 fighters had risen to 65 in the 33rd (24), 63rd (18), 77th (20), and 248th (3) Flying Regiments. The number of Type 3 fighters rose to 18 in the 68th (8) and 78th (10) Regiments. Total operational strength in the 4th Air Army was up to 170 aircraft of all types. This concentration of aircraft did not go unnoticed by American air reconnaissance. On February 27th they counted 277 aircraft on Hollandia's airfields and credited the Japanese with 132 fighters.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

In the seven months since the formation of the 4th Air Army (August 1943-February 1944) it lost 710 aircraft. Only 225 of these had been lost in air combat operations. The majority (373) had been destroyed on the ground while 112 had been lost to other causes (primarily accidents). The New Guinea weather could be unpredictable and treacherous. Japanese airfields did not have the advantage of steel mats used to provide firm surfaces for American airfields. Even when repaired after air raid damage they often contained soft spots and uneven surfaces. The accident losses seem low considering the conditions under which the Japanese operated. The losses on the ground seem particularly high and were the repeated subject of admonitions from senior Japanese commanders. However, admonitions could not make up for the lack of tractors or manpower to adequately disperse aircraft or the lack of radar warning equipment at many bases.

Almost as soon as it arrived the 77th was in operations. On the 27th Capt. Matsuo led five fighters of his 2nd chutai on a patrol mission over But. The following day 1Lt. Miyamoto led five fighters of the 1st and 3rd chutais on a similar mission. These operations may have been in the nature of familiarization flights.

The 77th left Singapore under strength. Some of its fighters had been damaged or otherwise required maintenance and left behind on the ferry route. The Japanese were making strenuous efforts to get reinforcements to New Guinea. On February 29th, the first replacement fighters (Ki 43-II Nos. 6221, 6386, 6428, 6442 and 6453) arrived for the 77th. These were all late production Nakajima Hayabusas incorporating two 12mm armor plates behind the pilot and protected fuel tanks. These had all been delivered from Japan and required maintenance. It appears they first went to a 6th FD field repair unit to be checked out and were probably turned over to the 77th in the first few days of March.

Although the 4th Air Army was comparatively stronger than it had been, it was pitifully weak compared to the U.S. 5th Air Force. During February it began the withdrawal from Wewak, which had been its main airbase complex for many months. By late February several units were based on airfields at Hollandia or even farther west (the 4th Air Army established a rear headquarters at Hollandia in early March). Wewak remained an important forward operating base and was the focal point of Japanese fighter operations for much of March. Although Hollandia was farther from its potential attackers than Wewak, it had several disadvantages. It had three rather than four airfields on which to base aircraft and these were more closely situated and not as well developed as the Wewak airfields. Ground forces and anti-aircraft units were weaker at Hollandia. Finally, Hollandia had no radar. Occasional night raids by heavy bombers showed Hollandia was not immune to attack. The Japanese estimated it was beyond the range of American escort fighters, however.

With the arrival of reinforced fighter strength, the 77th FR and other fighter units were deployed forward to Wewak. All the fighters were subordinated to the 14th FB. Within the brigade, they were paired as "air attack units." The pairings were 68th and 78th FRs; 63rd and 248th FRs; and, 33rd and 77th FRs. The 77th flew its first major mission in New Guinea on March 1st.

The 6th FD used its new strength ambitiously on the first day of March. Based on a report that 21 B-24s were flying north toward Hansa Bay (about 100 miles from Wewak) it launched 68 fighters to intercept including 18 Hayabusas of the 77th. No enemy aircraft were encountered. One Type 3 fighter of the 68th FR was badly damaged and its pilot seriously injured in a take off accident.

Hardly ten minutes after returning to Wewak, radar indicated enemy aircraft approaching from the east only 60km (37 miles) away. Forty-two fighters were scrambled including 27 from the newly arrived 33rd and 77th Regiments. Once again no enemy aircraft were encountered. So ended the first day of operations for the 77th FR in New Guinea.

The following morning 12 Hayabusas of the 77th joined 14 of the 33rd on another interception attempt. This time there was contact. The Japanese reported intercepting 22 B-24s over Hansa. Though none was shot down, one was reported trailing smoke. The Japanese reported the B-24s dropped their bombs harmlessly in the bay and claimed they had thwarted an attack on Wewak. The B-24s, attacking targets at Hansa, reported they were intercepted by six to eight fighters and claimed one shot down.

On the 3rd Maj. Matsumoto and Sgt. Major Kobayashi scrambled from Wewak/Central based on a radar report but encountered nothing. The rest of the Regiment had moved to But. On the following morning intruding P-47s strafed grounded aircraft of the 77th and destroyed one and damaged another. One member of the ground crew was killed and one wounded. Twelve of the Regiment's fighters scrambled but failed to contact any enemy aircraft. Later in the day a flight of Type 1 fighters on patrol was involved in air action. Capt. Kuwabara and Sgt. Masashi Kumasaki engaged in an inconclusive combat. Sgt. Masaichi Hashimoto became separated from Kuwabara and was attacked by several P-47s. He received four .50 caliber hits in his wingtip. Hashimoto evaded further attacks and escaped by diving to low level. He may have been hit by Lt. William Strand, a future ace of the 40th FS, who claimed an OSCAR damaged.

The Americans had long made a practice of sending small formations of fighters over Wewak to engage in surprise attacks and pick off any unwary Japanese aircraft they might encounter. The most famous of these attacks occurred in October 1943 when Lt. Col. Neel Kearby of the 348th FG claimed six victories and was awarded the Medal of Honor. It appears he actually shot down the commander of the 14th FB, a squadron commander of the 68th FR, and damaged other Japanese aircraft.

The High Country
Illuminator

On March 5th American intruder tactics would bring the pilots of the 77th FR into a confrontation with several American aces including the leading ace Capt. Richard Bong and Medal of Honor winner Kearby. In a morning mission Dick Bong accompanied by Lt. Col. Thomas Lynch (40+ combined victories) flew to Wewak in their P-38s. In the afternoon a trio of P-47 aces, Kearby plus Capts. Samuel Blair and William Dunham (35 combined victories) would invade Wewak airspace.

The first alert of the morning sent twelve of the Regiment's fighters aloft but soon proved to be a false alarm. A second alert followed at 0940. Maj. Matsumoto led the Regiment into the air, joined up with the 33rd FR, and patrolled over Wewak. One set of unit records state nine aircraft were scrambled but the 4th Air Army summary records 11 fighters of the 77th FR involved. By 1110 hours the main force of the 77th FR as well as other Japanese fighters that had scrambled landed. After the main force landed Capt. Kuwabara and two wingmen continued to patrol.

The Japanese trio was sighted by Lynch and Bong when they descended through the overcast. The Americans initiated the attack from higher altitude. "Capt. Kuwabara and W.O. Mitoma were surprised by two P-38s. 1Lt. Miyamoto counter-attacked. However, he received the enemy's concentrated fire and crashed into the sea north of East But at 1120 hrs." The Japanese report may inflate Lt. Miyamoto's action since Lynch claimed one OSCAR shot down in the initial surprise attack and this was likely Miyamoto, the only Japanese fighter shot down. The P-38s made additional passes but failed to inflict telling blows on Kuwabara or Mitoma.

The combat gradually descended to low level where the Type 1 fighter's agility might give it a significant advantage over the P-38. Lynch and Bong broke off the combat with their superior speed and climbed to gain altitude. Just below the cloud base at 6,000 feet they sighted their opponents below and initiated additional attacks. In one of these Lynch and a Type 1 fighter crossed swords in a head on pass. Lynch reported a piece of the OSCAR broke off and hit his own fighter. The two aces left the area. Lynch claimed a victory and a damaged, Bong a probable victory and a damaged.

Capt. Kuwabara landed at 1145. 1Lt. Hakao Miyamoto was dead. The Hayusabas of Kuwahara and W.O. Koichi Mitoma were both listed as "partially damaged." Kuwabara and Mitoma may not have considered themselves lucky after this encounter but perhaps they should have. Surviving a surprise attack by the two top P-38 aces in the U.S. Army Air Forces and then fighting them to a draw was hardly a sure bet.

The third scramble for the day came four hours later. The three American P-47s arrived over Wewak at 22,000 feet to find a fat target, four Type 99 light bombers of the 208th FR flying over the sea near But/East (Dagua) at low level. The P-47s dove to the attack and shot down three of the bombers, one of which fell into the sea. Five Type 1 fighters of the 77th were up from But/East (the 4th Air Army summary inaccurately identifies these as aircraft of the 33rd FR). Maj. Matsumoto and W.O. Mitoma were the flight leaders. The result of the combat from the Japanese perspective was two P-47s claimed as shot down and one Hayabusa heavily damaged. The P-47s were claimed by W.O. Mitoma and Sgt. Hiroshi Aoyagi, one of Maj. Matsumoto's wingmen.

The Japanese fighters joined the combat and Kearby gave battle violating his own combat dictums about avoiding turning combats with Japanese fighters at low level. A Japanese fighter got on Kearby's tail and Dunham saw the OSCAR firing. Dunham attacked the Japanese fighter and reported that it crashed in flames. Blair reported he saw another radial engine fighter crash as well. The two P-47s left the area without Kearby; fairly certain one of the fires they observed on the ground was Kearby's fighter. In addition to the bombers (identified as NELLS) the Americans reported they were engaged by four OSCARS and sighted eight TONYS preparing to take off from Dagua as they flew over the strip. Apparently other Japanese fighters took off but there were no further combats, at least not over Dagua.

It seems possible either Mitoma or Aoyagi was the pilot Dunham saw attacking Kearby. Moreover with two P-47s claimed perhaps one of these pilots carried out additional attacks on Kearby after Dunham left the area. Absent more detail in the Japanese records this remains speculation. It is almost certain one or both of these pilots inflicted damage on Kearby'sThunderbolt.

Contrary to Dunham's surmise that Kearby crashed at Dagua, the wreckage of his fighter was found after the war over 100 miles from Wewak. Natives had observed it crash in flames and the pilot bail out but die upon hitting jungle trees. The key to his ultimate demise may lay in the records of the 33rd FR rather than the 77th. Detailed combat reports of the 33rd FR available to the author do not start until March 8th but they contain brief comments in an obvious reference to an occurrence a few days before the 8th (there were no combats over Wewak on the 6th or 7th of March). "The other day" the March 8th report states "Sgt-Maj Kumagaya of 3 Squadron sighted one P-47 at 4,500 m...and pursued it. He definitely shot it down with one burst."

The account of a lone P-47 shot down a few days before the 8th fits with Kearby's loss. The fact that the Type 1 fighter could overtake the P-47 and shoot it down with one burst suggests the rugged Thunderbolt may have already been crippled at the time of the attack. Moreover, the altitude of the combat fits with Kearby flying over mountainous terrain en route to base and is inconsistent with the low level combat over Dagua. It seems plausible that while pilots of the 77th shot up Kearby over Dagua, it was Sgt. Major Shironushi Kumagaya of the 33rd FR that delivered the coup de gras.

Losses did not only come in combat. On March 6th a Type 3 fighter of the 68th FR "plunged into the earth" apparently carrying Sgt. Manju Kawano to his death. Lack of oxygen was determined to be the probable cause of the crash. The following night raiding B-24s damaged ten of the 4th Air Army's recently reinforced fighters on the ground. It is uncertain whether any of these were aircraft of the 77th. The next day seven Type 3 fighters were destroyed on the ground. The 77th was not immune to accidents. Sgt. Major Masaru Saito reportedly died as a result of an accident at Hollandia on March 22nd.

March 8th was a day of heavy combats along the New Guinea coast from Hansa to Wewak. The 33rd FR claimed seven B-24 destroyed using hollow charge bombs (clusters of 40mm bomblets called TA by the Japanese) as well as conventional attacks. One B-24 went down and four others were damaged. The 77th scrambled only five fighters (six according to the 4th Air Army summary) in two missions and claimed one B-25 probably destroyed (they were temporarily operating from Wewak/Central due to an inadequate fuel supply at But).

continued in part 3

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