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Double Lucky? (part 6)

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.

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.

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."

continued in part 7