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Double Lucky? (part 4)

As 1941 drew to a close the AVG 3rd Squadron, some of its pilots tired and others rather shaken by their losses and damage, was replaced by the AVG 2nd Squadron reinforced by a flight of the 1st Squadron totaling 22 Tomahawks. In the initial combats the AVG pilots had not always fought in pairs or followed Chennault's other combat dictums. Some of the newly arrived pilots had already engaged the Japanese successfully over China and most were prepared to follow Chennault's tactics. The RAF 67 Squadron continued in place. Its aircraft losses were replaced with reserve Buffaloes but it received no pilot replacements. A number of Blenheims were then en route as were some army cooperation aircraft.

As the sole Japanese fighter unit in Thailand at this time, the 77th had to cover many bases. Its main strength moved north to Lampang leaving one squadron at Bangkok for defense of the bombers and maintenance units based there. One flight of fighters was maintained at the forward base at Raheng.

On January 2nd, a squadron of the 77th deployed from their base at Lampang to the forward operating base at Rahang. From there early the next morning Capt. Toyoki Eto led nine Type 97 fighters to attack the airfield at Moulmein. Lt. Kisaji Beppu claimed one aircraft burned and along with other pilots jointly claimed five others damaged. In fact two Audaxes and two Waipitis of No. 4 Coastal Defense Flight, Indian Air Force (IAF) were destroyed. If the two remaining Waipitis were damaged it was but slightly for they subsequently carried out anti-submarine patrols from Moulmein.

The nine fighters returned to Raheng and most had landed when three Tomahawks appeared. A flight of four Tomahawks had taken off but one had aborted. The three Tomahawks were flown by future aces, indeed stellar personalities. Leading was Jack Newkirk commander of the 2nd Squadron and later credited with ten combat victories. His deputy commander Jim Howard became an ace with the AVG and then won the Medal of Honor flying with the Eighth Air Force in Europe. The third pilot, Tex Hill, eventually became the commanding officer of the 23rd Fighter Group, the USAAF successor to the AVG.

Howard followed the mission's plan and went down to strafe what he took to be a formation of Japanese fighters preparing to take off (rather than just having landed). He claimed four fighters destroyed on the ground and also strafed personnel on the airfield during successive attacks. The other pilots sighted three Japanese fighters over the field and broke off their strafing runs. Howard was followed by a Type 97 fighter and when his engine received a hit and began to lose power, he assumed he had been hit by ground fire. Hill attacked the Japanese fighter chasing Howard. Newkirk claimed one that crashed landed and burst into flames. Hill fired at a fighter on Newkirk's tail. Newkirk claimed a second fighter and was credited with a Zero and an I-96 destroyed. Hill was also credited with a kill. Howard prepared to crash land his stricken fighter and no doubt was seen by the Japanese with his propeller stationary (they reported two Spitfires trailing smoke). At low level he managed to bring the engine to life and limped back to Rangoon.

One Type 97 fighter was lost with its pilot badly wounded. The other two landed safely with Lt. Beppu adding a probable to his earlier ground kill and Sgt. Maj. Matsunaga claiming one of the "Spitfires" (presumably Howard) destroyed. Howard returned with 7.7mm hits in his tail, fuselage, and armor plate in addition to his damaged engine. Newkirk had twenty-two holes in the tail of his Tomahawk. Back at Raheng one Type 97 fighter had been burned out and another badly damaged on the ground. A third fighter had suffered minor damage.

The following day Maj. Hirose led thirty-one Type 97 fighters on a sweep over Rangoon. Fourteen Tomahawks scrambled and possibly some Buffaloes as well. The AVG divided its force leaving eight fighters above the cloud cover and dropping six others below. The Japanese also divided their formation with Lt. Kuwabara's chutai breaking off to find targets to strafe. Undetected by either AVG formation, the main formation of Type 97 fighters managed to surprise the lower flight with an attack from above. The Tomahawks were at a serious tactical disadvantage and suffered accordingly. Three of the Tomahawks went down with their pilots suffering various degrees of injury. According to the official Japanese communiqui: "Powerful air units of the Army, raiding Mingaladon air base near Rangoon on January 4, shot down all of the six Spitfires engaged in air combat. All planes returned safely to the base." In fact the 77th claimed five victories one of which was uncertain. The AVG claimed one fighter but the communiqui was correct in stating that all the Japanese fighters returned to base.

A fighter sweep over Rangoon on the 5th did not bring any action. On the 7th the 77th escorted bombers to Moulmein where one biplane was strafed and destroyed. The following day the 3rd chutai was sent south to Singora to support operations in the lower Kra Isthmus leaving a weakened 77th in the north. The unit was further weakened when an AVG strafing attack destroyed four Type 97 fighters and damaged others on the ground at their forward base in Thailand. A repeat attack the following day destroyed one aircraft and damaged others. The 77th did not see significant action again until the 13th when grounded aircraft were strafed at Tavoy. Seven "small aircraft" were claimed. It is not clear what aircraft may have been their targets.

According to Winston Churchill (The Hinge of Fate): "There was a general belief that the Japanese would not begin a major campaign against Burma until at least their operations in Malaya had been successfully concluded. But this was not to be." On January 18th the Japanese 15th Army (33rd and 55th Divisions) entered lower Burma in force. After brushing aside initial light resistance they occupied Tavoy on the morning of the 19th. The 77th FR and the other units of the 10th FB provided air support.

On the 19th six Blenheims, escorted by a pair each of Buffaloes and Tomahawks flew to the airfield at Tavoy to evacuate RAF ground staff. Seven Type 97 fighters led by Capt. Kakimi of headquarters flight had been escorting light bombers in the area and engaged the Allied planes. The Japanese shot up one Blenheim before the bombers escaped and then successively chased the Tomahawks which had become separated. A Buffalo jumped a Japanese fighter but the Japanese fighter quickly reversed the advantage and got on the Buffalo's tail. The Buffalo escaped into the abundant cloud cover. Capt. Kakimi was credited with two of the three victories claimed in this action but was transferred to another unit soon afterwards.

The 3rd chutai had been reunited with the main force of the Regiment to support the ground operations and on the 20th saw plenty of action. In the morning several 3rd chutai fighters strafed Moulmein and caught two Buffaloes taking off, shooting down both with their pilots killed. Later in the day eight of the squadron's fighters were escorting light bombers when they encountered six Blenheims escorted by six Tomahawks. Lt. Shigeru Suzuki was shot down and killed but was credited with destroying one fighter. Lt. Kuwabara claimed two victories and Lt. Hiroshi Shimoda one. The AVG pilots claimed three kills including two by Jack Newkirk. One P-40 was shot down with the pilot saved and another P-40 limped back to base badly damaged.

As the ground offensive got underway air reinforcements arrived. The 5th Flying Group headquarters which had been conducting air operations in the Philippines transferred to Thailand along with its 4th FB and took command of both brigades. The headquarters of the Group as well as the 4th FB and most of the bombers units (8th, 14th and 62nd FRs) were stationed at airfields near Bangkok. The headquarters of the 10th FB was at Lampang where the 77th was also based along with the Type 97 headquarters reconnaissance planes of the 70th squadron. The 31st FR was at Phitsanulok and two squadrons of the 50th FR were at Nakhorn Sawan. The arrival of the 50th with 31 Type 97 fighters more than doubled Japanese operational fighter strength for the 77th was down to 25 operational aircraft.

The influx of Japanese aircraft was timely since additional Allied aircraft were reaching Rangoon. Chennault sent eight Tomahawks but these merely replaced losses and restored AVG strength to that at the beginning of the month. The first three Hawker Hurricane IIBs arrived with several others then en route over India. Two army cooperation squadrons (one RAF and one IAF) with nineteen Westland Lysanders were also about to arrive. These high wing monoplanes looked somewhat antiquated but were roughly equivalent to the Japanese Type 97 light bomber and could (and did) attack airfields as well as ground troops. The two surviving Waipiti biplanes of the Indian Coastal Defense flight were withdrawn and replaced by several more modern Blenheim I bombers. 67 Squadron had gone through all its reserve Buffaloes (due to losses or conversion to photo recon aircraft), however, and had less than a dozen Buffaloes with little prospect for replenishment.

The Hurricane was new to Burma and like those earlier sent to Singapore was considered by many to be a significant advance over the Buffalo and the Japanese fighters. Air Vice-Marshall Stevenson the RAF commander, in his post-war assessment of the campaign, equated the performance of the Hurricane with the Tomahawk but suggested the Hurricane was superior above 20,000 feet (where combat seldom took place during the campaign). According to this assessment the best fighter of the campaign had appeared.

On January 23rd the 50th FR flew a fighter sweep to Rangoon that stirred up Buffaloes, Hurricanes and Tomahawks. The new unit claimed a number of victories (actually shooting down one Buffalo and badly damaging a Hurricane) but lost two fighters. They were followed a couple hours later (2 p.m. Tokyo time) by a dozen Type 97 light bombers escorted by 25 fighters of the 77th. Unfortunately the rendezvous between bombers and fighters was botched and when the 77th arrived over Rangoon they found the 31st FR under heavy attack. One bomber was shot down and three heavily damaged (probably write-offs) and others damaged to a lesser extent. The 77th then joined the fray and claimed eight Tomahawks and four probables without loss. Three Tomahawks actually went down with one pilot killed. Capt. Eto claimed three and Lt. Beppu added another to the 1st chutai score. The 2nd and 3rd chutais each claimed two fighters.

The 50th was heavily engaged the following day while 25 fighters of the 77th again escorted light bombers against Mingaladon, on this occasion only three. The bombers claimed hits on fuel dumps and the destruction of three aircraft on the ground but actually did little damage. The fighters of the 77th reported combat with Tomahawks claiming one shot down but probably had an inconclusive engagement with two Hurricanes.

Up to this point in the campaign the 77th had been fortunate. It had inflicted losses on the enemy, often against aircraft with higher performance, while suffering tolerable losses. Given its overly optimistic claims (an affliction on both sides) it seemed to be doing remarkably well. Still, its pilots must have understood they were up against a tough and determined enemy. Tougher times were ahead.

On the 28th it was the turn of the 77th to make a fighter sweep of Rangoon. They were supported by ten Type 97 fighters of the 50th but somehow the two formations failed to reach Rangoon together and the 27 fighters of the 77th were on their own. Sixteen Tomahawks and two Hurricanes responded to the challenge. This combat resulted in what was perhaps the most dramatic episode in the Regiment's operations over Rangoon.

The AVG claimed six kills. The 77th claimed seven in return but lost three pilots killed including Capt. Matsuda commander of the 2nd chutai. The 50th FR also reported being in combat, claiming eight victories without loss. One Tomahawk was lost and the fighter of the commander of the AVG's 1st Squadron (Robert Sandell) was hit in the engine and limped to a landing at Mingaladon. Lt. Kanekichi Yamamoto's engine was also hit and he headed for Mingaladon. There he apparently deliberately dived for Sandell's recently landed fighter. Yamamoto's fighter crashed near the Tomahawk ripping off its tail. The radial engine of Yamamoto's fighter tore off and bounced across the airfield nearly hitting Sandell who was walking away from his damaged fighter. The Japanese knew nothing of this at the time but learned of the incident later from Burmese witnesses and Yamamoto was revered as a hero. Sandell was later killed during a test flight of his Tomahawk after it had been repaired.

continued in part 5