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Double Lucky? (part 7)

The 1st chutai transferred to Bangkok because, according the 5th FD's operations order, "the enemy air attack against Thailand has intensified greatly." This was apparently a reaction to two relatively strong joint raids by US B-24s and RAF Liberators on the 19th and 23rd of December. These were night raids. Though lacking specialized night fighting equipment, the Type 1 fighter had been occasionally pressed into service as a night fighter with some, albeit limited, success. Bangkok had gained strategic importance due to the recent completion of the Thai-Burma railroad (of "River Kwai" fame). Bangkok was the southern terminus of the newly opened railway and most important port in Thailand.

The 1st chutai transferred to Bangkok and almost immediately suffered the loss of its commanding officer Capt. Shizusada Nakao. Nakao died on the 28th of December "while patrolling over Bangkok." Almost certainly his death was not combat related as after the 23rd it was over two weeks before Bangkok suffered another Allied air attack. Nakao was succeeded by Lt. Hiroshi Tagashira (his name appears as "Tazu" in some documents).

Nakao's was not the Regiment's only casualty in December 1943. During the month two enlisted men died of typhoid fever. As of the 31st the Regiment had twenty-two men hospitalized. During January a medical officer was detailed to be in charge of the supply of medical equipment and the prevention of disease in the 77th FR.

B-24s returned to the Bangkok area on 9/10th January when seven of them mined the river approaches to Bangkok. There were two other raids in the following week. The 77th was able to do little against these raids and could claim no success. The most active pilots were Lt. Tagashira who logged 3 hours and 30 minutes of night flying time during the month; W.O. Kiochi Mitoma with 1 hour, 30 minutes; and, Cpl. Zenkichi Arao with 1 hour, 5 minutes. A few other squadron pilots logged 30 minutes or less night flying time and some none at all.

After three weeks the rest of the Regiment joined the 1st chutai in Thailand and deployed to forward bases. With the 77th moving forward to Thailand, the 21st and 33rd FRs were relieved from duty with the 5th FD and returned to Palembang. The 1st and 3rd chutais of the 77th deployed to Maymyo in Burma. The 2nd chutai deployed to Chieng-Mai in northern Thailand. The transfer did not go entirely smoothly. En route to Chieng-Mai, Lt. Masanori Kato, who had only recently joined the unit, crashed his fighter at Lampang. His fighter was "badly damaged" (a write-off) and Kato was badly injured. He died in a Bangkok hospital a week later. By the 15th the squadrons were at their assigned bases.

In January 1944 the 5th Flying Division was heavily outnumbered. Moreover, the Allies had recently added P-38s, P-51As, and Spitfires to the P-40s and Hurricanes that opposed the Japanese in 1942 and most of 1943. Ground operations were under way or threatening on four widely separated fronts each of which could be supported by a substantial Allied air force. Allied medium and long range bombers attacked the Japanese line of communications and rear bases. Finally, the Americans had created an air bridge of transports to supply China and thus maintain active resistance there. The 5th Flying Division had to shuffle its forces to contest potential Allied air superiority on all these fronts as well as defend its own bases and strategic points.

Most of the 77th FR's operations in Thailand and Burma were devoted to air defense and resulted in virtually no combat. A challenge to the air bridge to China, however, brought about its one significant action in the region. Due to their limited strength, the Japanese could not maintain constant pressure on the India-China air transport route but they did attack it on selected occasions. Using visual observation and communications intelligence, primarily from the anti-aircraft observation organization at Sumprabum, the Japanese planned intermittent attacks on the American transports.

The 4th FB ordered attacks on the transport route. The 2nd chutai joined the rest of the Regiment at Maymyo on the 17th. The attack was mounted in two waves on the 18th. The first was by 17 Type 1 fighters of the 50th FR. They shot down three C-47s on a supply dropping mission and engaged their escorting fighters claiming one P-38 (possibly an F-5 of 9th Photo Squadron) and one P-40. One of these claims was a probable. They actually engaged eight P-51As escorting the transports and, as discussed below in the case of the 77th FR, possibly P-40s.

An hour later the second wave of 22 Type 1 fighters (23 took off so apparently one aborted) of the 77th was sent against the transports. They shot down two C-46s (#41-24660 and 41-24754) of the air transport command. They also encountered four P-40s of the 89th Fighter Squadron (FS) flying a forward patrol mission. The P-40s attacked in two elements of two. The first element made several sightings of small formations of Japanese fighters and had some inconclusive contacts before claiming one OSCAR damaged. One pilot "encountered four other Jap ships at 3,000 feet in what appeared to be a dogfight. One of these ships may have been a P-40 but it is unidentified." He fired at a Japanese fighter and drove it off the P-40's tail.

The second element of P-40s had an engagement in which a Japanese fighter (identified as a possible TOJO) was claimed damaged and then another in which an OSCAR was claimed destroyed after being seen to crash and burn. One fighter of the 3rd chutai was missing after this combat. The successful American pilot was 2Lt. Fred S. Evans. Another Hayabusa returned badly damaged with a seriously wounded pilot and two other fighters returned with minor damage.

The 89th FS flew other patrol missions on this day and scrambled eight P-40s in response to this action. None of them was engaged. This leaves open the question what was the "unidentified" P-40 seen in an apparent dogfight with the 77th and what P-40 might the 50th FR have claimed? As it happens five P-40Ns from the 23rd Fighter Group (FG) were being ferried from India to China on this day. All five were lost with three pilots killed. Their loss has been attributed to bad weather but it seems possible one or more of them might have stumbled into the combats occurring along their route to China on this occasion.

The Regiment apparently did not see additional combat. It flew a number of missions escorting VIPS, a staff officer of the 4th FB on the 19th; Lt. Gen. Kawanabe, the Inspector General of Communications, on the 24th and again on the 29th ; and, escort for another VIP on the same day. During a mission over the Hukwang Valley from Maymyo to Bhamo and back on the 28th one Hayabusa was badly damaged at Bhamo due to a defect with the landing gear. The same day the 77th flew another VIP escort mission. Most of its missions were defensive patrols. For the month one aircraft and pilot were listed as missing, an obvious reference to the combat on the 18th. An officer of the 2nd Squadron was listed as killed (Kato). Regarding aircraft, in addition to one fighter missing, four were listed as heavily damaged, and four suffered minor damage.

Details available for the 2nd Squadron for January may be illustrative of the other Squadrons. The squadron suffered a single personnel casualty mentioned above. Two of its aircraft were "completely wrecked" and one "partly damaged." It flew 42 combat sorties amounting to 40 hours and 35 minutes of flying. It expended 1,300 rounds of ammunition. After the attack on the 18th the squadron returned to Chieng-Mai but six fighters deployed to Maymyo again between the 25th and 29th.

As January 1944 came to an end the ground echelon of the 77th was finally arriving at key points in Burma and Thailand. It appeared the Regiment would soon be able to participate in the Burma operations with full vigor. Then on February 1st a change of orders came. The Regiment was to go to an entirely different theater of operations. Its last missions in Burma were patrol missions over the Maymyo area flown by a total of nine fighters at midday and later in the afternoon of February 2nd.

The squadrons at Maymyo departed on February 5th. A substantial portion of the ground echelon, so laboriously transported to Burma and Thailand, was left behind. Over a hundred men were reassigned to maintenance organizations at Rangoon or Bangkok. Forty other personnel were in hospital. The Regiment headed for its assembly point, Singapore.

The Last Campaign

The bulk of the Regiment assembled at Chieng-Mai on February 5th and moved to Singapore where the air echelon and the reduced ground staff that was to accompany the Regiment arrived by February 10th. They discovered their destination was Hollandia in western New Guinea. The 4th Air Army and its 6th FD in New Guinea were in dire straights. The Regiment's officers were informed that as of the 10th of February the entire 4th Air Army numbered just sixty operational aircraft. Its fighter force included 21 operational Type 1 fighters (59th, 63rd, and 248th FRs) and eight Type 3 fighters (68th and 78th FRs).

For purposes of the transfer to New Guinea the 77th was placed under the command of the 8th FB. That brigade and two of its Regiments, the 33rd FR (Type 1 fighters) and 60th FR (Type 97 heavy bombers), were also going to New Guinea. Five transport planes of the 3rd squadron of the 1st Raiding Group supported the Regiment's movement. Each transport carried 13 passengers and several hundred pounds of equipment.

continued in part 8