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Double Lucky? (part 2)

Pacific War - Initial Operations

The 77th FR left Lungchen, Manchuria, on 17 November 1941. Airfields to be used by 10th FB units in the transfer south included Mukden, Nanyuen, Nanking, Taihoku and Kagi (on Formosa), Canton (south China), Haikow and Sana (Hainan Island), and Tourane, Nha-trang, and Siem Reap (Indo-China). The 77th was at Nanyuen on 18-19 November. By December 3rd it was at Sana and arrived at Nha-trang the following day.

Leaving the 2nd chutai at Sana for air defense the 77th was pressed into action immediately upon arriving in Indo-China. It was temporarily subordinated to the 12th FB and along with that brigade's own units (1st and 11th FRs) furnished cover for the ships carrying the Japanese 25th Army on its way to invade Malaya. These operations proved uneventful for the 77th but fighters of the 1st FR shot down a British Catalina snooping the convoy on December 7th.

The Type 97 fighters of the 77th were painted a uniform pale gray-green over all surfaces. They sported national markings on the upper and lower surfaces of both wings. They bore the same arrow head (stylized sevens) markings that had first appeared on the tails of their Type 95 fighters. The arrow heads were still encased between narrow horizontal bands but it appears the background in some cases was standard pale green camouflage rather than a colored field.

The 10th FB seems to have been something of a step child in these early operations. In Manchuria it had been part of the 5th Flying Group but in Indo-China it came under the 3rd Flying Group. There had been a shuffling of units. The 77th FR and 31st FR continued to be part of the 10th FB but they were now brigaded with a heavy bomber unit (62nd FR) and a new reconnaissance unit (70th Chutai). Moreover, parts of all the units were made available to support other brigades that had been assigned main roles in the forth coming operation. The 10th FB had been assigned an independent role albeit a minor one. The Japanese 15th Army would advance on Malaya and Burma via Thailand. While resistance from Thai forces was not expected, it could not be ruled out. An element of the 10th FB was assigned to support the advance through Thailand if necessary. This assignment resulted in the 77th FR's first air combat of the Pacific War.

Elements of the 77th FR along with light bombers of the 31st FR were based at Siem Reap on December 8th. This airfield, not far from the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, was close to the Thai border. In the morning, before it was clear whether advancing Japanese troops were meeting resistance, the 10th FB was ordered to attack the airfield at "Aran Pradet" near Bangkok. Eleven Type 97 fighters and nine Type 97 light bombers (Ki 30) undertook the mission. In the course of this mission three Thai Hawk III fighters of the 43rd Fighter Squadron attempted to intercept the Japanese. All three were shot down. The victories were credited to Maj. Hirose, Lts. Yoshiro Kuwabara, and Tsuguo Kojima. Kuwabara had served briefly with the 77th in China before its transfer to Manchuria and taken command of the 3rd chutai when Maj. Hirose was elevated to executive officer of the Regiment the previous July. This was his first air victory. He was to become one of the unit's leading pilots.

By the early afternoon of the 8th it became clear that the Thai authorities had decided to welcome the Japanese as Allies and would not resist the Japanese advance through their country. A few days later the 77th arrived in strength at Bangkok. In addition to the main Japanese advance southward through Malaya, Japanese forces were also moving into the Kra Isthmus and the British territory of Burma. The 77th was destined not to join the campaign on the main front in Malaya. Thailand and Burma were to become its zone of operations.

On December 11th 27 Type 97 fighters flew 150 miles west from Don Maung airfield to attack the British airfield at Tavoy Burma. The strafing fighters destroyed a North American Yale advanced trainer used by the Burma Volunteer Air Force (BVAF) as a liaison aircraft. However, four of the Japanese fighters were hit by ground fire. W.O. Kikuji Kishida returned to Bangkok with mortal wounds.

Gradually the entire 10th FB was moved to Thailand for operations against Burma. Moreover, other units of the 3rd Flying Group supported the operations there when tactical or meteorological conditions over Malaya permitted. Operations over Burma meant the 77th was likely to encounter modern Brewster Buffalo fighters and Bristol Blenheim light bombers of the Royal Air Force. Japanese reconnaissance planes had also detected other fighters in Burma. Japanese intelligence knew these were Curtiss Tomahawks piloted by American volunteers hired by China but the possibility they might be used in Burma could not be ruled out. The Type 97 fighter had proved its superiority over the old Thai biplanes but how well it could match up against the Royal Air Force (RAF) and American Volunteer Group was unknown. Moreover, the fact that there were volunteer American pilots and Tomahawk fighters in Burma had not filtered down to front line units like the 77th.

Small formations of RAF Buffaloes flew missions from Mergui and Tavoy in the middle of December strafing Japanese troop movements and attacking forward airfields in Thailand. The 77th and Japanese bombers also flew a number of missions over lower Burma. On December 21st the 77th, operating from the forward base at Raheng (Tak), was joined by light bombers of the 31st FR in a repeat attack on Tavoy. This raid did little damage but it did cause an air raid alarm at Rangoon. British and American fighters at Rangoon waited expectantly for a Japanese attack.

First Burma Campaign

The Allied air force in Burma was not strong or well balanced. There were few bombers (most Blenheim IVs of RAF 60 Squadron had been temporarily in Malaya when the war erupted). There were some light aircraft of the BVAF and a few coastal patrol aircraft from the Indian Air Force. Only the fighter force was strong. A Royal Air Force squadron (No. 67) was equipped with Buffalo fighters and a squadron (the 3rd) of Tomahawk fighters of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) was also detailed for the defense of Burma.

The RAF fighter squadron had 27 pilots (including many New Zealanders) and a nominal strength of 16 aircraft; however, it held an additional 14 aircraft in reserve. The AVG squadron comprised 21 aircraft and 25 pilots. RAF No. 67 Squadron was relatively newly formed and pilot quality was uneven. It included a majority of pilots that had only received advanced combat training after arriving in Burma in October 1941 but it also included among its leaders veteran pilots with combat experience and air victories to their credit. The AVG pilots were all fully trained U.S. military pilots that had received additional combat training after arriving in Burma some months earlier. Moreover, the AVG had been trained by their commander, Claire Chennault, specifically in tactics to counter Japanese aircraft and tactical methods.

The Buffalo flown by the RAF in Burma and Malaya has been much maligned and characterized as an inferior fighter. It had been accepted by the U.S. Navy as its first monoplane carrier fighter and equipped several navy and marine squadrons. It was used successfully by the Finns against the Soviets. In Burma in an early 1942 trial combat against the Hawker Hurricane IIB, the Buffalo bested the tropicalized Hurricane in many respects. A test between a Buffalo and Hurricane in Britain in late 1940 had produced essentially similar results. An experienced pilot who flew both types in Singapore stated: "I didn't think the Hurricane was as good as the Buffalo." Whatever its actual merits it had many modern features including four machine guns, protected fuel tanks, and a nominal maximum speed over 300 m.p.h. (some accounts indicate the effective maximum speed was only about 290 m.p.h. but many other aircraft in operations probably did not meet advertised performance figures). Though not as fast in a dive as the Tomahawk, the Buffalo could dive faster than the Japanese fighters. The RAF Buffaloes in Burma were also being retro-fitted with pilot armor.

The Tomahawk flown by the AVG has sometimes been referred to as obsolescent. It was, however, in large scale use by the RAF in the Middle East, was the most numerous U.S. fighter in the Philippines and the best U.S. fighter in Hawaii. Its successor, the P-40E Kittyhawk, was just coming into service with the U.S. and British air forces in late 1941. The Tomahawk was the best American-built fighter available in significant numbers in December 1941. It featured two .50 caliber and four .30 caliber machine guns, protected fuel tanks and pilot armor. In contrast to the Buffalo, it was powered by a liquid cooled V-12 engine. Like the Buffalo its engine produced in excess of 1,000 horse power.

The Type 97 fighter flown by the 77th FR was a fighter from a different era designed to a different philosophy than the latest western fighters. Unlike the Buffalo and Tomahawk, it had fixed landing gear in streamlined fairings. It was lighter and had a less powerful engine (710 h.p., Ha-1b) than either the Buffalo or Tomahawk. It was armed with only two 7.7mm machine guns and most had no fuel tank or pilot protection. Some fighters of the 77th were fitted with 9mm pilot armor. It did have outstanding maneuverability and a good climb rate (5m22s to 16,400 feet). Its range, when equipped with droppable external fuel tanks (not always available), was good. Its nominal maximum speed of 285 m.p.h. was far slower than the maximum speed of the Tomahawk (over 340 m.p.h.) and slower than the Buffalo even under tropical conditions.

The 77th FR with about 30 operational fighters and not many more pilots was the only Japanese fighter unit based in Thailand during the first days of the Burma campaign. The unit's pilots included many veterans of China combat as well as more junior pilots that had joined the Regiment in Manchuria. While generally experienced, only a few pilots of the 77th had seen much air combat or actually gained air victories.

continued in part 3