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Double Lucky? (part 9)

The combat gradually descended to low level where the Type 1 fighter's agility might give it a significant advantage over the P-38. Lynch and Bong broke off the combat with their superior speed and climbed to gain altitude. Just below the cloud base at 6,000 feet they sighted their opponents below and initiated additional attacks. In one of these Lynch and a Type 1 fighter crossed swords in a head on pass. Lynch reported a piece of the OSCAR broke off and hit his own fighter. The two aces left the area. Lynch claimed a victory and a damaged, Bong a probable victory and a damaged.

Capt. Kuwabara landed at 1145. 1Lt. Hakao Miyamoto was dead. The Hayusabas of Kuwahara and W.O. Koichi Mitoma were both listed as "partially damaged." Kuwabara and Mitoma may not have considered themselves lucky after this encounter but perhaps they should have. Surviving a surprise attack by the two top P-38 aces in the U.S. Army Air Forces and then fighting them to a draw was hardly a sure bet.

The third scramble for the day came four hours later. The three American P-47s arrived over Wewak at 22,000 feet to find a fat target, four Type 99 light bombers of the 208th FR flying over the sea near But/East (Dagua) at low level. The P-47s dove to the attack and shot down three of the bombers, one of which fell into the sea. Five Type 1 fighters of the 77th were up from But/East (the 4th Air Army summary inaccurately identifies these as aircraft of the 33rd FR). Maj. Matsumoto and W.O. Mitoma were the flight leaders. The result of the combat from the Japanese perspective was two P-47s claimed as shot down and one Hayabusa heavily damaged. The P-47s were claimed by W.O. Mitoma and Sgt. Hiroshi Aoyagi, one of Maj. Matsumoto's wingmen.

The Japanese fighters joined the combat and Kearby gave battle violating his own combat dictums about avoiding turning combats with Japanese fighters at low level. A Japanese fighter got on Kearby's tail and Dunham saw the OSCAR firing. Dunham attacked the Japanese fighter and reported that it crashed in flames. Blair reported he saw another radial engine fighter crash as well. The two P-47s left the area without Kearby; fairly certain one of the fires they observed on the ground was Kearby's fighter. In addition to the bombers (identified as NELLS) the Americans reported they were engaged by four OSCARS and sighted eight TONYS preparing to take off from Dagua as they flew over the strip. Apparently other Japanese fighters took off but there were no further combats, at least not over Dagua.

It seems possible either Mitoma or Aoyagi was the pilot Dunham saw attacking Kearby. Moreover with two P-47s claimed perhaps one of these pilots carried out additional attacks on Kearby after Dunham left the area. Absent more detail in the Japanese records this remains speculation. It is almost certain one or both of these pilots inflicted damage on Kearby'sThunderbolt.

Contrary to Dunham's surmise that Kearby crashed at Dagua, the wreckage of his fighter was found after the war over 100 miles from Wewak. Natives had observed it crash in flames and the pilot bail out but die upon hitting jungle trees. The key to his ultimate demise may lay in the records of the 33rd FR rather than the 77th. Detailed combat reports of the 33rd FR available to the author do not start until March 8th but they contain brief comments in an obvious reference to an occurrence a few days before the 8th (there were no combats over Wewak on the 6th or 7th of March). "The other day" the March 8th report states "Sgt-Maj Kumagaya of 3 Squadron sighted one P-47 at 4,500 m...and pursued it. He definitely shot it down with one burst."

The account of a lone P-47 shot down a few days before the 8th fits with Kearby's loss. The fact that the Type 1 fighter could overtake the P-47 and shoot it down with one burst suggests the rugged Thunderbolt may have already been crippled at the time of the attack. Moreover, the altitude of the combat fits with Kearby flying over mountainous terrain en route to base and is inconsistent with the low level combat over Dagua. It seems plausible that while pilots of the 77th shot up Kearby over Dagua, it was Sgt. Major Shironushi Kumagaya of the 33rd FR that delivered the coup de gras.

Losses did not only come in combat. On March 6th a Type 3 fighter of the 68th FR "plunged into the earth" apparently carrying Sgt. Manju Kawano to his death. Lack of oxygen was determined to be the probable cause of the crash. The following night raiding B-24s damaged ten of the 4th Air Army's recently reinforced fighters on the ground. It is uncertain whether any of these were aircraft of the 77th. The next day seven Type 3 fighters were destroyed on the ground. The 77th was not immune to accidents. Sgt. Major Masaru Saito reportedly died as a result of an accident at Hollandia on March 22nd.

March 8th was a day of heavy combats along the New Guinea coast from Hansa to Wewak. The 33rd FR claimed seven B-24 destroyed using hollow charge bombs (clusters of 40mm bomblets called TA by the Japanese) as well as conventional attacks. One B-24 went down and four others were damaged. The 77th scrambled only five fighters (six according to the 4th Air Army summary) in two missions and claimed one B-25 probably destroyed (they were temporarily operating from Wewak/Central due to an inadequate fuel supply at But).

The 5th Air Force now began a major new air effort against Wewak. The attacks were to serve a dual purpose. They were to drive the Japanese fighters out of Wewak once and for all as well as deceive the Japanese into believing Wewak or a location farther east was the next invasion target. The Allies had decided on a bold move. They intended to by-pass Japanese troop concentrations at Hansa Bay and Wewak. Their next invasion target, set for mid-April, was Hollandia so far in the Japanese rear that it was not heavily garrisoned with ground forces.

For this effort fighter squadrons received new orders. They were to accompany the bombers to the target area as usual. Once in the target area, however, they were not required to stick to the bombers but could provide area coverage. This gave the escorting fighters much greater flexibility in dealing with the Japanese fighters.

On the morning of March 11th when heavy American attacks (30 B-24s, 19 B-25s, and 35 A-20s) were launched against Wewak the 77th had 13 Hayabusas operational. The formation was led by Capt. Kuwabara (Maj. Matsumoto was on temporary duty at 14th FB headquarters). The 33rd FR had 18 fighters operational. They climbed to high altitude and observed waves of B-24s, B-25s and A-20s attacking, all escorted by fighters. At least a couple Japanese fighters aborted with technical malfunctions while awaiting an opening for attack. Finally, the Japanese sighted a squadron of P-47s separated from the mass of attacking aircraft. Maj. Hervey Carpenter and the pilots of the 340th FS observed 30-35 Japanese fighters (reportedly OSCARS, TOJOS, ZEKES and TONYS) at the same time. Both formations turned into each other. At 27,000 feet the Japanese had a slight altitude advantage over the highest of 16 P-47s.

There followed a wild dogfight during which the Japanese formation spread out. The Japanese fighters engaged in wild maneuvers but also tried to maintain mutual support. When possible they would dive to bring the P-47s down to a lower altitude "where the enemy could more effectively close their attack, utilizing their superior performance at said altitudes" (according to the 340th's Unit Narrative Combat Report). The P-47s tried to use dive and zoom tactics when possible as well as maintain mutual support. With a couple exceptions the Americans rated their opponents as "experienced and very aggressive." They were "the best" the pilots of the 340th had encountered in combat up to that time.

In the end the 340th claimed 11 OSCARS, and one each TOJO, ZEKE and TONY (certainly two and probably all three of latter being misidentifications). Three more OSCARS were claimed as probably destroyed. Three badly damaged P-47s limped back to emergency or crash landings at an advanced base.

The P-47s of the 35th FG clashed with both OSCARS and TONYS. Some of their combats were probably with Hayabusas of the 33rd and 77th. The 41st FS claimed five OSCARS destroyed. The 35th FG lost three P-47s but one of these was reported to be the victim of a TONY.

The 33rd reported two fighters moderately damaged and claimed six P-47s (one uncertain). The 77th had four aircraft heavily damaged and one partially damaged. It claimed two P-47s definitely shot down, one by Capt. Kuwabara. Despite all the claims apparently neither the 33rd nor the 77th lost a fighter shot down out-right. On the other hand it is possible none of their claims was actually shot down, i.e., crashed near the scene of combat. In addition to the three damaged Thunderbolts of the 340th, the 77th may have damaged Thunderbolts from other units.

After this combat the 77th returned to But/East. Eight fighters were available for further combat. The 33rd FR had orders to land at Hollandia rather than Wewak after this action but three Hayabusas of the 33rd landed at But/East and joined the 77th in its next sortie. The American raids continued and the fighters from But/East were up again at 1025 hours. There were apparently three fighters each from the 33rd and 77th in this interception. They engaged enemy fighters at 1050 hours (JST). This coincides with 1250 hours (time zone L) when thirteen P-47s of the 41st FS reported engaging 10-12 Japanese fighters including OSCARS and TONYS.

In this action the Japanese initiated the attack diving on the Americans at 16,000 feet from 18,000 feet. The P-47s dived away before climbing to engage in dive and zoom tactics. The Japanese attempted to close on the P-47s in order to make short range passes. Apparently they got close to a number of American pilots but their marksmanship was not up to par. The Japanese pilots were rated "very aggressive and eager while they had the advantageous position" (41st FS Narrative Combat Report) and "some seemed experienced while others were not."

The 41st FS claimed five OSCARS definite and one probable as well as one TONY. One P-47 was hit by a single 12.7mm bullet. Another P-47 was possibly damaged. It landed at an advanced airfield but then took off for its base. It was subsequently reported missing. The 77th's reports on this date are rather cryptic and in the case of this mission odd. Two different reports state three fighters flew this mission (W.O. Mitoma, Sgt. Major Hisakichi Ono and Sgt. Masashi Kumasaki) yet damage is reported to four fighters (two heavily and two partially). Perhaps there was a later mission and the reports have been garbled into a single report; possibly there were losses on the ground. Sgt. Major Harumi Takemori from the 33rd who flew on this mission reported two of the pilots from the 77th were wounded (presumably the wounds were minor as they are not mentioned in the 77th's own report). He also mentions a P-47 shot down. Whether this was one of the two claimed by the 77th or one exclusively claimed by pilots of the 33rd is unclear. Takemori mentions no loss or damage to aircraft of the 33rd.

Some of the pilots of the 77th may have been aloft an hour later when the 40th FS engaged OSCARS and TONYS claiming one OSCAR among its victims. This combat brought Capt. Robert Yaeger to ace status. The unit combat report records this incident: "The lead ship attacked was an OSCAR which appeared to be trying to escape the area. He was a skilled pilot and took daring evasive action by flying on the deck, sometimes below tree level. He too was boxed in and shot down."

continued in part 10