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HOME > JAPAN > FLYING TIGERS > 77TH SENTAI > NEW GUINEA

Double Lucky? (part 8)

The Regiment was divided into two main echelons but planned to fly in a single mass formation during the first stages of the movement. The first echelon was commanded by Maj. Matsumoto and consisted of fourteen fighters from all three squadrons and the headquarters flight and two transport planes. The second echelon was commanded by Capt. Kuwabara, who was named the Regiment's executive officer, and consisted of thirteen fighters and three transport planes. In addition Sgt. Major Kiyoshi Kobayakawa would lead three fighters in a delayed departure. The pilots for two of the fighters were in the hospital and the flight could not leave until they were released.

The Regiment numbered 24 serviceable fighters on January 31st. By the time it completed assembling at Singapore it had thirty fighters. It had received 6 fighters "repaired or replaced" so the additional fighters probably included some of the aircraft that had received minor damage during January as well as a few replacement aircraft acquired in Singapore.

The date for leaving Singapore was set as 14 February 1944. The route was Singapore-Palembang-Soerabaja (Java)-Makassar (Celebes I.)-Namlea (Buru I.)-Miti (Halmahera I.). At Miti the Regiment would assemble and receive final orders for its advance. There were layovers at some of these locations. The first twelve fighters reached Miti on the 20th and the assembly of the Regiment at Miti took about a week. The final flight to Hollandia was via Kamiri on Noemfoor I. Maj. Matsumoto arrived at Hollandia No. III airfield on February 25th. One of the aircraft landing at Noemfoor suffered a mishap but was expected to be repaired in a short period of time. A few of the Regiment's aircraft advanced to Wewak on the 26th.

The movement of the 77th FR to New Guinea was part of a significant reinforcement of the area. In addition to the 77th and the two Regiments of the 8th FB (33rd and 60th) already mentioned, a Regiment of Type 99 light bombers (75th FR) and a Regiment of Type 2 two-seat fighters equipped as fighter-bombers (45th FR) arrived. Among the units relieved was the 59th FR a Type 1 fighter unit that had served in New Guinea since the previous July. These reinforcements and the arrival of a number of replacement aircraft had an immediate impact on operational strength. As of the 22nd of February the 4th Air Army was down to eight Type 1 fighters and six Type 3 fighters. At the end of the month the number of operational Type 1 fighters had risen to 65 in the 33rd (24), 63rd (18), 77th (20), and 248th (3) Flying Regiments. The number of Type 3 fighters rose to 18 in the 68th (8) and 78th (10) Regiments. Total operational strength in the 4th Air Army was up to 170 aircraft of all types. This concentration of aircraft did not go unnoticed by American air reconnaissance. On February 27th they counted 277 aircraft on Hollandia's airfields and credited the Japanese with 132 fighters.

In the seven months since the formation of the 4th Air Army (August 1943-February 1944) it lost 710 aircraft. Only 225 of these had been lost in air combat operations. The majority (373) had been destroyed on the ground while 112 had been lost to other causes (primarily accidents). The New Guinea weather could be unpredictable and treacherous. Japanese airfields did not have the advantage of steel mats used to provide firm surfaces for American airfields. Even when repaired after air raid damage they often contained soft spots and uneven surfaces. The accident losses seem low considering the conditions under which the Japanese operated. The losses on the ground seem particularly high and were the repeated subject of admonitions from senior Japanese commanders. However, admonitions could not make up for the lack of tractors or manpower to adequately disperse aircraft or the lack of radar warning equipment at many bases.

Almost as soon as it arrived the 77th was in operations. On the 27th Capt. Matsuo led five fighters of his 2nd chutai on a patrol mission over But. The following day 1Lt. Miyamoto led five fighters of the 1st and 3rd chutais on a similar mission. These operations may have been in the nature of familiarization flights.

The 77th left Singapore under strength. Some of its fighters had been damaged or otherwise required maintenance and left behind on the ferry route. The Japanese were making strenuous efforts to get reinforcements to New Guinea. On February 29th, the first replacement fighters (Ki 43-II Nos. 6221, 6386, 6428, 6442 and 6453) arrived for the 77th. These were all late production Nakajima Hayabusas incorporating two 12mm armor plates behind the pilot and protected fuel tanks. These had all been delivered from Japan and required maintenance. It appears they first went to a 6th FD field repair unit to be checked out and were probably turned over to the 77th in the first few days of March.

Although the 4th Air Army was comparatively stronger than it had been, it was pitifully weak compared to the U.S. 5th Air Force. During February it began the withdrawal from Wewak, which had been its main airbase complex for many months. By late February several units were based on airfields at Hollandia or even farther west (the 4th Air Army established a rear headquarters at Hollandia in early March). Wewak remained an important forward operating base and was the focal point of Japanese fighter operations for much of March. Although Hollandia was farther from its potential attackers than Wewak, it had several disadvantages. It had three rather than four airfields on which to base aircraft and these were more closely situated and not as well developed as the Wewak airfields. Ground forces and anti-aircraft units were weaker at Hollandia. Finally, Hollandia had no radar. Occasional night raids by heavy bombers showed Hollandia was not immune to attack. The Japanese estimated it was beyond the range of American escort fighters, however.

With the arrival of reinforced fighter strength, the 77th FR and other fighter units were deployed forward to Wewak. All the fighters were subordinated to the 14th FB. Within the brigade, they were paired as "air attack units." The pairings were 68th and 78th FRs; 63rd and 248th FRs; and, 33rd and 77th FRs. The 77th flew its first major mission in New Guinea on March 1st.

The 6th FD used its new strength ambitiously on the first day of March. Based on a report that 21 B-24s were flying north toward Hansa Bay (about 100 miles from Wewak) it launched 68 fighters to intercept including 18 Hayabusas of the 77th. No enemy aircraft were encountered. One Type 3 fighter of the 68th FR was badly damaged and its pilot seriously injured in a take off accident.

Hardly ten minutes after returning to Wewak, radar indicated enemy aircraft approaching from the east only 60km (37 miles) away. Forty-two fighters were scrambled including 27 from the newly arrived 33rd and 77th Regiments. Once again no enemy aircraft were encountered. So ended the first day of operations for the 77th FR in New Guinea.

The following morning 12 Hayabusas of the 77th joined 14 of the 33rd on another interception attempt. This time there was contact. The Japanese reported intercepting 22 B-24s over Hansa. Though none was shot down, one was reported trailing smoke. The Japanese reported the B-24s dropped their bombs harmlessly in the bay and claimed they had thwarted an attack on Wewak. The B-24s, attacking targets at Hansa, reported they were intercepted by six to eight fighters and claimed one shot down.

On the 3rd Maj. Matsumoto and Sgt. Major Kobayashi scrambled from Wewak/Central based on a radar report but encountered nothing. The rest of the Regiment had moved to But. On the following morning intruding P-47s strafed grounded aircraft of the 77th and destroyed one and damaged another. One member of the ground crew was killed and one wounded. Twelve of the Regiment's fighters scrambled but failed to contact any enemy aircraft. Later in the day a flight of Type 1 fighters on patrol was involved in air action. Capt. Kuwabara and Sgt. Masashi Kumasaki engaged in an inconclusive combat. Sgt. Masaichi Hashimoto became separated from Kuwabara and was attacked by several P-47s. He received four .50 caliber hits in his wingtip. Hashimoto evaded further attacks and escaped by diving to low level. He may have been hit by Lt. William Strand, a future ace of the 40th FS, who claimed an OSCAR damaged.

The Americans had long made a practice of sending small formations of fighters over Wewak to engage in surprise attacks and pick off any unwary Japanese aircraft they might encounter. The most famous of these attacks occurred in October 1943 when Lt. Col. Neel Kearby of the 348th FG claimed six victories and was awarded the Medal of Honor. It appears he actually shot down the commander of the 14th FB, a squadron commander of the 68th FR, and damaged other Japanese aircraft.

On March 5th American intruder tactics would bring the pilots of the 77th FR into a confrontation with several American aces including the leading ace Capt. Richard Bong and Medal of Honor winner Kearby. In a morning mission Dick Bong accompanied by Lt. Col. Thomas Lynch (40+ combined victories) flew to Wewak in their P-38s. In the afternoon a trio of P-47 aces, Kearby plus Capts. Samuel Blair and William Dunham (35 combined victories) would invade Wewak airspace.

The first alert of the morning sent twelve of the Regiment's fighters aloft but soon proved to be a false alarm. A second alert followed at 0940. Maj. Matsumoto led the Regiment into the air, joined up with the 33rd FR, and patrolled over Wewak. One set of unit records state nine aircraft were scrambled but the 4th Air Army summary records 11 fighters of the 77th FR involved. By 1110 hours the main force of the 77th FR as well as other Japanese fighters that had scrambled landed. After the main force landed Capt. Kuwabara and two wingmen continued to patrol.

The Japanese trio was sighted by Lynch and Bong when they descended through the overcast. The Americans initiated the attack from higher altitude. "Capt. Kuwabara and W.O. Mitoma were surprised by two P-38s. 1Lt. Miyamoto counter-attacked. However, he received the enemy's concentrated fire and crashed into the sea north of East But at 1120 hrs." The Japanese report may inflate Lt. Miyamoto's action since Lynch claimed one OSCAR shot down in the initial surprise attack and this was likely Miyamoto, the only Japanese fighter shot down. The P-38s made additional passes but failed to inflict telling blows on Kuwabara or Mitoma.

continued in part 9