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Double Lucky - part 3

The 5th Air Force now began a major new air effort against Wewak. The attacks were to serve a dual purpose. They were to drive the Japanese fighters out of Wewak once and for all as well as deceive the Japanese into believing Wewak or a location farther east was the next invasion target. The Allies had decided on a bold move. They intended to by-pass Japanese troop concentrations at Hansa Bay and Wewak. Their next invasion target, set for mid-April, was Hollandia so far in the Japanese rear that it was not heavily garrisoned with ground forces.

For this effort fighter squadrons received new orders. They were to accompany the bombers to the target area as usual. Once in the target area, however, they were not required to stick to the bombers but could provide area coverage. This gave the escorting fighters much greater flexibility in dealing with the Japanese fighters.

On the morning of March 11th when heavy American attacks (30 B-24s, 19 B-25s, and 35 A-20s) were launched against Wewak the 77th had 13 Hayabusas operational. The formation was led by Capt. Kuwabara (Maj. Matsumoto was on temporary duty at 14th FB headquarters). The 33rd FR had 18 fighters operational. They climbed to high altitude and observed waves of B-24s, B-25s and A-20s attacking, all escorted by fighters. At least a couple Japanese fighters aborted with technical malfunctions while awaiting an opening for attack. Finally, the Japanese sighted a squadron of P-47s separated from the mass of attacking aircraft. Maj. Hervey Carpenter and the pilots of the 340th FS observed 30-35 Japanese fighters (reportedly OSCARS, TOJOS, ZEKES and TONYS) at the same time. Both formations turned into each other. At 27,000 feet the Japanese had a slight altitude advantage over the highest of 16 P-47s.

There followed a wild dogfight during which the Japanese formation spread out. The Japanese fighters engaged in wild maneuvers but also tried to maintain mutual support. When possible they would dive to bring the P-47s down to a lower altitude "where the enemy could more effectively close their attack, utilizing their superior performance at said altitudes" (according to the 340th's Unit Narrative Combat Report). The P-47s tried to use dive and zoom tactics when possible as well as maintain mutual support. With a couple exceptions the Americans rated their opponents as "experienced and very aggressive." They were "the best" the pilots of the 340th had encountered in combat up to that time.

In the end the 340th claimed 11 OSCARS, and one each TOJO, ZEKE and TONY (certainly two and probably all three of latter being misidentifications). Three more OSCARS were claimed as probably destroyed. Three badly damaged P-47s limped back to emergency or crash landings at an advanced base.

The P-47s of the 35th FG clashed with both OSCARS and TONYS. Some of their combats were probably with Hayabusas of the 33rd and 77th. The 41st FS claimed five OSCARS destroyed. The 35th FG lost three P-47s but one of these was reported to be the victim of a TONY.

The 33rd reported two fighters moderately damaged and claimed six P-47s (one uncertain). The 77th had four aircraft heavily damaged and one partially damaged. It claimed two P-47s definitely shot down, one by Capt. Kuwabara. Despite all the claims apparently neither the 33rd nor the 77th lost a fighter shot down out-right. On the other hand it is possible none of their claims was actually shot down, i.e., crashed near the scene of combat. In addition to the three damaged Thunderbolts of the 340th, the 77th may have damaged Thunderbolts from other units.

After this combat the 77th returned to But/East. Eight fighters were available for further combat. The 33rd FR had orders to land at Hollandia rather than Wewak after this action but three Hayabusas of the 33rd landed at But/East and joined the 77th in its next sortie. The American raids continued and the fighters from But/East were up again at 1025 hours. There were apparently three fighters each from the 33rd and 77th in this interception. They engaged enemy fighters at 1050 hours (JST). This coincides with 1250 hours (time zone L) when thirteen P-47s of the 41st FS reported engaging 10-12 Japanese fighters including OSCARS and TONYS.

In this action the Japanese initiated the attack diving on the Americans at 16,000 feet from 18,000 feet. The P-47s dived away before climbing to engage in dive and zoom tactics. The Japanese attempted to close on the P-47s in order to make short range passes. Apparently they got close to a number of American pilots but their marksmanship was not up to par. The Japanese pilots were rated "very aggressive and eager while they had the advantageous position" (41st FS Narrative Combat Report) and "some seemed experienced while others were not."

The 41st FS claimed five OSCARS definite and one probable as well as one TONY. One P-47 was hit by a single 12.7mm bullet. Another P-47 was possibly damaged. It landed at an advanced airfield but then took off for its base. It was subsequently reported missing. The 77th's reports on this date are rather cryptic and in the case of this mission odd. Two different reports state three fighters flew this mission (W.O. Mitoma, Sgt. Major Hisakichi Ono and Sgt. Masashi Kumasaki) yet damage is reported to four fighters (two heavily and two partially). Perhaps there was a later mission and the reports have been garbled into a single report; possibly there were losses on the ground. Sgt. Major Harumi Takemori from the 33rd who flew on this mission reported two of the pilots from the 77th were wounded (presumably the wounds were minor as they are not mentioned in the 77th's own report). He also mentions a P-47 shot down. Whether this was one of the two claimed by the 77th or one exclusively claimed by pilots of the 33rd is unclear. Takemori mentions no loss or damage to aircraft of the 33rd.

Some of the pilots of the 77th may have been aloft an hour later when the 40th FS engaged OSCARS and TONYS claiming one OSCAR among its victims. This combat brought Capt. Robert Yaeger to ace status. The unit combat report records this incident: "The lead ship attacked was an OSCAR which appeared to be trying to escape the area. He was a skilled pilot and took daring evasive action by flying on the deck, sometimes below tree level. He too was boxed in and shot down."

Incident at Muc Wa

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.

The Only War We've Got

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.

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.

Taildragger Tales

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.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

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.

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.

the Glen Edwards diaries

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. [And I hasten to add that I'm not in total agreement with Mr Dunn's presentation, particularly when it comes to such terms as "Regiment" for Sentai or "Type 1" and "Oscar" for the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa -- Daniel Ford]

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

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