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Double Lucky? (part 5)

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.

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.

continued in part 6

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