THE SECOND MONTH OF COMBAT
The rough handling the 248 th received during November leavened it into a hardened combat unit. During December the 248 th would fly nearly 500 sorties from Wewak-Central and claim fourteen victories for the loss of three pilots killed or missing. Detachments were sent to Hollandia during December for training and convoy escort operations. A few additional sorties were flown from that base but no combat resulted.
On the first of December forty-six B-24s and their fighter escort of thirty-two P-47Ds came to attack Wewak. The Japanese had nearly twenty Type 3 fighters and about thirty Type 1 fighters operational and most of these scrambled. The American sighted about forty Japanese fighters in two formations. They identified the Type 1 fighters mainly as ZEKES and HAMPS.
The American fighters apparently kept the Japanese fighters away from the leading American bombers. Only one B-24 of the 43 rd Bomb Group was hit by a fighter. The twenty-two B-24s of the 90 th Bomb Group in the trailing formation came under heavy attacks from low on the front quarter. These attacks were driven home to close range by pilots that were described as skilled and aggressive in many American combat reports. In one instance recorded by the bomber crews the leader of one group of Japanese fighters flew right through the bomber formation. This could well have been 1 st Lt. Tozuka of the 248 th .
Three of the big B-24s went down under these attacks. One of these bombers may also have been hit by anti-aircraft fire. Two of these bombers fell victim to attacks by fighters reported as ZEKES, HAMPS and OSCARS. One bomber reportedly fell to a TONY.
After successfully screening the bomber spearhead the P-47s seem to have been diverted by the Type 3 fighters allowing the Type 1 fighters including the 248 th a relatively free hand with the bombers. The Japanese pilots claimed five bombers and two fighters destroyed. Anti-aircraft gunners claimed two additional aircraft. U.S. fighters claimed five victories (one ZEKE and four TONYS) without loss. The B-24s claimed six victories against their assailants.
In this interception 1 st Lt. Nobuyoshi Tozuka, 2 nd chutai leader, led eight Hayabusas of the 248 th to an outstanding success. The 248 th claimed four B-24s. Two were credited to Tozuka who was promoted to Captain soon after. The 248 th suffered no losses in air combat.
The 248 th was not so lucky on the ground. The bombing destroyed its barracks along with those of the 68 th FR and 81 st FCs. Worse yet it lost one pilot killed and four fighters destroyed during the bombing.
After this raid the 248 th air echelon temporarily transferred to Hollandia to engage in several days of training. This was accomplished despite some uncooperative weather. Training included buntai versus shotai (2x4) air combat training, shotai versus shotai , and c hutai training (4x8), as well as night flying exercises. While at Hollandia the Regiment also provided a stand-by section as convoy cover for a couple days. By December 10 th they were back at Wewak.
On December 12 th the 59 th Sentai flew as part of the 248 th 's formation. The Hayabusas provided close escort for nine Type 100 heavy bombers in an attack on Gusap. Type 3 fighters were to provide top cover. Apparently the planned escort was twenty-four Type 1 fighters and twenty Type 3 fighters. Things did not go according to plan and the top cover became separated and some of the Type 1 fighters also failed to complete the mission.
[ “P-40s taking of from Gusap”]
The bombers effectively hit Gusap from 4,000 meters altitude and then eight P-40Ns of the 7 th Fighter Squadron followed by four P-47Ds from the 9 th Squadron intercepted. Eight P-39s of the 40 th Fighter Squadron saw the action but failed to get close enough to engage. The Warhawks and Thunderbolts reported encountering 15 OSCARS and nine bombers. The P-40s claimed two BETTY bombers and one OSCAR definitely destroyed. One bomber (Type 100 heavy bomber no. 3295 of 7 th FR) went down and others returned shot up with dead and wounded crewmen on board. The P-39s saw an unidentified aircraft falling in flames. This was No. 3295. It was the only aircraft they observed falling. In all five P-40s were damaged by the fighters or bombers' gunners and two crash-landed. One Warhawk shot up by fighters and another hit by a bomber, limped back to base but were write-offs. The P-47s got in at the end of the action and claimed an OSCAR. No Japanese fighters were lost. The reports of some of American fighter pilots state: “The enemy pilots appeared experienced and willing to fight.”
[ “Type 100 heavy bomber under attack”]
The 248 th was in the thick of this flight. Without top cover the Hayabusa formation may have loosened its coverage and tried to fill both the top cover and close escort role. American fighters hit the bombers before the 248 th could intervene. Eventually the 248 th and bomber gunners drove them away. 1 st Lt. Joseph O'Conner had his P-40N riddled by an OSCAR. He safely returned to base but his fighter was a complete loss. The 248 th claimed two P-40's as victories though one was recorded as uncertain. It seems highly likely that O'Conner was the certain victory claimed by the 248 th .
On December 15 th eleven Type 100 heavy bombers of the 9 th FB escorted by twenty-two Type 1 fighters of the 59 th and 248 th plus the same number of Type 3 fighters attempted to strike the American invasion fleet at Arawe, New Britain . Due to murky weather they struck a target of opportunity, boats in Langemak Bay , instead. In a brief combat with a flight of P-38s neither side suffered loss.
In the early afternoon of December 16 th the Japanese Army made its second attempt to bomb Arawe. This time the operations orders called for seven Type 100 heavy bombers to be escorted by the same fighters units as on the previous day. Capt. Shigeo Fukuda of the 7 th FR led the bombers. Sixteen Type 1 fighters flew close cover and eighteen Type 3 fighters flew top cover. Only six of the bombers got to New Britain where they were intercepted by a total of twenty-five P-38Hs of the 431 st and 432 nd FS. Combat started east of Umboi Island at about 13,000 feet and ranged south to and over New Britain in the vicinity of Borgen Bay . All the bombers failed to return of which one made a forced landing at the Cape Gloucester (Tuluvu) airfield.
Maj. Shinichi Muraoka the 248 th 's Regimental commander led his nine fighters as the close escort on the right flank of the bombers. In combat with P-38s the 248 th claimed three destroyed for three pilots missing in action. 1 st Lt. Hisomatsu Ejiri and 1 st Lt. Shoji Fueki of the 2 nd chutai were never found but Sgt. Maj. Yasuo Saito of the 3 rd chutai landed his Hayabusa (No. 5951) at the Navy's Gavuvu airfield and was able to fly it back to Wewak two days later. A total of five Japanese fighters were initially listed as lost.
The Americans claimed seven bombers that they identified as Bettys. They only claimed two fighters – a TONY and a ZEKE – destroyed. Ace Capt. Thomas B. McGuire of the 431 st FS claimed a ZEKE damaged and two pilots of the 432 nd claimed two Zeros damaged near Cape Gloucester . If, as seems quite possible Sgt. Maj. Saito was one of the damage claims near Cape Gloucester , then it appears that the other two damage claims were in fact victories. Possibly McGuire and one of the two 432 nd pilots actually scored a victory rather than a damaged although over an OSCAR rather than a ZEKE or Zero.
The following day the Japanese fighters flew a fighter sweep to the Arawe area. The 248 th did not engage in combat.
On the 18 th of December four Hayabusas of the 248 th joined with the 59 th Sentai and flew a fighter sweep to Arawe, New Britain , along with Type 3 fighters. The U.S. Army Air Force reference history described the combat: “[E]nemy pilots displayed considerable skill and aggressiveness. This was especially true on 18 December when 16 P-38s, 433 rd Fighter Sq., jumped 10 to 15 ZEKES (sic), OSCARS, and TONYS at midday . The P-38s dove through the enemy fighters and were in turn jumped by about 15 fighters, which had been hiding in cumulous clouds. Definitely on the defensive and outmaneuvered, the P-38s destroyed only three of the enemy while losing two P-38s…” The 248 th claimed one P-38 without loss. The Japanese lost a single Type 3 fighter.
A lapse in attacks on New Britain followed this mission. The Japanese bombers were recovering their operational strength and the fighters had other duties. The Japanese fighters, including the 248 th , were assigned to escort a convoy approaching Wewak. Orders specified that the 248 th was to provide a flight to initiate convoy cover on December 21 st . The flight was to fly on a course of 325 degrees to a distance of 200 km (about 125 miles) and provide cover from 0600 to 0700. One section was to fly at 3000m or below and another section at 1000m, (3,300 feet) or below. The 248 th was also to provide cover from 1150 to 1300 hours when the convoy would be about 125 km distant. On the 22 nd the convoy would be in port and a flight from the 248 th would again fly the dawn patrol from 0550 to 0730. The 248 th also was assigned the longest mission of the day. It was to provide cover from 1000 to 1300 hours with its entire strength (part of that period also being overlapped by the patrol assignments of other units).
Thirty-six B-25s and four squadrons of P-38s raided Wewak on the 22 nd between the 248 th 's two shifts. Four fighters of the 248 th joined with some thirty other Japanese fighters to oppose this attack. The 248 th claimed a B-25 and a P-38. As a result of combat two P-38s and a B-25 were shot down or failed to return. Four other B-25s and one P-38 were damaged and crash-landed in friendly territory. Four Japanese fighter pilots were killed or wounded in this attack.
[“Type 1 fighter and B-25 in low level combat near Madang”]
On December 26 th the American invasion forces landed at Cape Gloucester . The 6 th Flying Division could mount only a paltry effort. After several aircraft turned back five Type 100 heavy bombers escorted by ten Type 3 fighters and eighteen Type 1 fighters from the 59 th and 248 th attacked. This raid was poorly executed. The bombers failed to rendezvous on time and part of the escort never joined the main force. As on the 16 th all the Japanese bombers were lost. Major Muraoka was dismayed by the botched escort mission and later wrote lessons learned from this battle which included a description of the combat:
“When we met some P-47s on the way, we were immediately surrounded and separated from the bomber formation…They attacked us from above with three or four times our number, however…we suffered no losses…All in all, we were not losers (even the fighter which failed to drop one of its fuel tanks survived). I am of the firm opinion that even P-47s can be shot down if advantage is taken of their mistakes. Four enemy P-47s really only amount to one or two planes.”
“Due to the excellent handling by our pilots we escaped damage during combat. We had only to prevent the enemy making surprise passes. Against these surprise passes the protective armor and top covering are urgently necessary.”
Major Muraoka went on to comment on the efficient American radar and communications, needed improvements in Japanese tactics, and the need for a young and vigorous Brigade commander to lead fighter combat.
In this its last battle of 1943 the 248 th encountered sixteen P-47Ds of the 36 th Fighter Squadron and with eight Hayabusas shot down two without loss. In other combat five bombers and two Type 3 fighters failed to return.
On the following two days all the Japanese fighters were detailed to protect a convoy entering Wewak harbor. The 248 th flew a total of seventeen sorties on these days without encountering any enemy opposition.
THE END IN NEW GUINEA – KURODA TAKES OVER
A week after successfully confronting high performance P-47s Major Muraoka was gone, the victim of a lower-powered, but perhaps underrated, P-40. With no other senior officer available to take command, the Army ordered in a new commanding officer from the homeland. He was Major Takefumi Kuroda, a fine officer then commanding the 4 th Sentai . He arrived three weeks after Muraoka's death to become the 248 th 's third and last commanding officer.
The 248 th had received four replacement fighters at the end of December 1943 but Major Kuroda found that he commanded a sentai with the operational strength of a chutai . Kuroda led his weakened unit in defense of their base at Wewak. At this time Japanese ground forces withdrew toward Madang. There were occasional ground support missions and even some attacks on American air bases but more and more the 4 th Air Army found itself on the defensive.
On January 15 th before Kuroda's arrival, Capt. Shigeo Kojima led eight Hayabusas of the 248 th in a successful attack on airfields in the Ramu Valley . Flying with twelve Type 3 fighters, the 248 th strafed and damaged several aircraft at Gusap and then covered the Type 3 fighters in their attack on Nadzab. Eleven Hayabusas of the 59 th operating independently were in the same area. Two Hayabusas of the 59 th led by Capt. Shigeo Nango surprised four patrolling P-40s, badly shooting up all four. One was shot down with the pilot killed and two were destroyed in crash landings. For the day the Japanese claimed four P-40s and two C-47s (by W.O. Takashi Noguchi, 68 th FR) as air victories. Thirty-four planes were claimed as “damaged or set afire” in the official communiqué. The thirteen (seven medium and six small size aircraft) claimed destroyed at Gusap (Japanese name Marawasa) were credited to the 248 th . Damage at Gusap included an A-20 and two P-47s totally destroyed. One of Kojima's fighters was damaged but all the Japanese pilots returned to base.
The following day Major Kiyoshi Kimura of the 68 th Sentai led the Japanese fighter force. The 248 th under Capt. Tozuka flew as part of the 59 th 's formation led by Capt. Shigeo Nango, one of the most successful Japanese fighter pilots in New Guinea . The Japanese flew to the Madang area to challenge American strike aircraft. The mission proved disastrous. No pilots were lost from Nango's formation but the other Japanese units suffered heavily. The 68 th and newly arrived 63 rd Sentai suffered the loss of seven pilots including Major Kimura and W.O. Noguchi. It seems in total ten Japanese fighters were shot down. Most of these fell victim to fifteen P-40Ns of the 35 th FS, which claimed nineteen victories. Some may have fallen when a few of the Japanese fighters attacked two formations of B-25s that claimed to have destroyed three ZEKES (including fighters reportedly seen to crash into the sea from low level). Finally the Japanese fighters engaged in a 25-minute combat with sixteen P-38s. For the day the Japanese claimed seven bombers, three P-38s and three P-40s. Only one B-25 was lost and a few others damaged. Three P-40s and three P-38s were damaged.
On the 18 th four squadrons of P-38s and two squadrons of P-47s challenged the Japanese fighters over Wewak. Fifty-six Japanese fighters intercepted. Twenty-one Type 3 fighters of the 68th and 78 th were joined by thirty-five Type 1 fighters of the 59 th , 63 rd and 248 th . The 248 th scrambled ten fighters under Capt. Shigeo Kojima that day. Wild dogfights took place. One P-38 pilot wrote: “The enemy pilots apparently were experienced as they would lead our planes to tree-top level and turn sharply…The enemy consistently dived to the deck and disappeared throughout the entire combat. We could not pursue because of our lesser maneuverability and the extremely low altitude.” Another P-38 pilot rated the Japanese as “experienced, determined and aggressive.” In this combat the Americans claimed fourteen confirmed victories and the Japanese claimed thirteen. The U.S. actually lost three and the Japanese four. The 248 th suffered only one loss but it was heavy blow. Their air leader, Capt. Kojima, was shot down and killed in this action.
The 23 rd brought another vicious air battle over Wewak. Four squadrons of P-38s, two squadrons of P-40s and two squadrons of P-47s escorted thirty-five B-24s. Fifty-one Japanese fighters opposed them including eight from the 248 th . The Japanese claimed eight P-38s, three P-40s and a B-24 while losing six aircraft. The 248 th claimed 2 P-38s, a P-40 and a B-24. The B-24 and one P-38 were credited to 1 st Lt. Keiji Koga. The 248 th lost two pilots including Capt. Tozuka and Sgt. Major Aikiharu Saito. Capt. Nango of the 59 th was killed in this action. Four P-38s and one P-40 were actually lost and though several B-24s sustained hits none was shot down.
As of January 31 st the 248 th had thirteen fighters of which nine were serviceable and four undergoing maintenance. Its fifteen available pilots included five officers and ten warrant officers or NCOs. At this time only 51% of the 6 th FD's pilots were operationally available. Fifteen per cent were medically excused, 18 ½ % were not yet qualified, and 16 ½ % were unavailable for other reasons (most likely on detached service or engaged in ferrying replacement aircraft). The 248 th changed bases during January and was based at Wewak-East (Boram to the Allies) at the end of the month.
During six months of combat the 248 th received about thirty-five replacement fighters. In February seventeen replacement pilots were received to take the place of casualties, seriously ill pilots and transferees. Five came from the 59 th Sentai, which left New Guinea , and the remainder came from training school in Japan . These replacements were needed. In addition to heavy losses in their first month of combat the 248 th lost an additional ten pilots killed from December 1943 to February 1944. January was a particularly bad month for in addition to Major Muraoka two of the five pilots killed were chutai commanders.
The Hayabusas of the 248 th bore very distinctive tail markings. Seven narrow “boomerang” or fat “V” shaped devices were arranged on the tail in three slanting rows of one, two and four. The two tips of each “boomerang” symbolized the number two thus the arrangement stood for 2-4-8 . Originally the colors of these markings had been white, blue, yellow and red for Headquarters flight, 1 st , 2 nd , and 3 rd c hutai , respectively. However, when Major Kuroda arrived the Headquarters flight and 1 st chutai exchanged colors. This was reportedly because Major Kuroda preferred blue but it may also have been his way of making it clear that a new commander had arrived and was in charge.
[“Rendition of 248 th colors” (With permission of Grub Street, see photo credits)]
Most of the 248 th 's Hayabusas were late production models with serial numbers of 5900 or above. These aircraft incorporated improved fuel tank protection and two 12mm armor plates protecting the head and back of the pilot. The fuel tank protection, nearly as reliable as that on American fighters, was a great improvement over an earlier version, which was virtually worthless. The armor plate could withstand U.S. 50 caliber (12.7mm) fire even at close range. A few of the Hayabusas brought to New Guinea by the 248 th were older versions ( Ki 43 No. 5374 produced in April 1943 is the oldest for which we have a record) which lacked effective armor and had old style fuel tanks but it seems very few if any of these was still in service in 1944. Finally, though the Type 1 fighter model 2 that equipped the 248 th mounted only two 12.7mm “machine cannon”, these guns were far more reliable than the early 12.7mm machine gun which had made up part of the armament of the original model of the Hayabusa . This weapon did not have the range or trajectory of its American counter-part but most Japanese pilots were pleased with these weapons and especially liked the effect of the explosive round, which was reportedly nearly as great as the 20mm round of a Hispano cannon.
February 3 rd brought another interception over Wewak. 1 st Lt. Koga led eight Hayabusas of the 248 th and joined with Japanese fighters from other units to challenge the attackers. Originally reported at ten B-24s, the thirty-one Japanese fighters found themselves confronting over a hundred American fighters and bombers. During the first phase of the raid little damage was done by either side. About an hour after taking off Koga was flying at 1,500 feet over But with two flight companions when low level B-25s struck. Eight P-40s of the escort jumped the Japanese flight and Koga's fighter was hit. Koga dove and attempted to evade but 1 st Lt. Roger Farrell of the 7 th FS got hits in Koga's right wing fuel tank. Koga's flaming fighter crashed into the sea a mile or so from shore.
Japanese fighters had orders to land at But airfield west of Wewak. They were immediately attacked on the ground by low flying B-25s. The 248 th lost seven fighters on the ground. About fifty Japanese aircraft were destroyed or damaged to some degree. After this stinging loss the Japanese retaliated by sending a few fighters to attack the American airfields. 1 st Lt. Hachiro Murakami of the 248 th single-handedly attacked Nadzab setting two fires but could not confirm his success in the dim twilight.
The 4 th Air Army interceptions over Wewak became less frequent. Cover always had to be provided for convoys but during raids when a late warning was received or the situation was otherwise particularly disadvantageous fighters were sometimes scrambled and sent to a rear area base rather than attempt an interception. Thus American attacks on Wewak airfields, which came almost on a daily basis, were not always intercepted. Base airfields for the Japanese fighter units were gradually shifted westward from Wewak, primarily to Hollandia, though Wewak and other forward airfields continued to be frequently employed.
In mid-February an important convoy was headed to Wewak. The fighter units were ordered to fly the unusual duty of anti-submarine patrol for the convoy before reverting to their normal air escort duties as the convoy came closer to Wewak.
[ Wewak-East/Boram under attack”]
On February 15 th nineteen Japanese fighters scrambled to meet thirty-two P-40s and P-47s of the 8 th and 40 th Fighter Squadrons over Wewak. Corporal Yukiharu Ando of the 248 th flew on this mission. He had first seen combat during the early actions in November 1943 and had been particularly active during recent operations. Three Japanese pilots were lost this date but Ando's death was the most spectacular (Japanese records indicate he was “lost at sea” the only such reference to a pilot lost in this action).
The P-40s sighted twelve of the Japanese fighters and attacked first. 1 st Lt. Robert Aschenbrenner fired on Ando who dove down to wave top level to avoid his attack. Lieutenants Glasscock, Polhamus, and Reynolds then successively attacked Ando. Ando's Hayabusa hit the sea and sent up a spray of foam. He was claimed destroyed by 1 st Lt. James Reynolds. However, Ando's airplane actually bounced off the surface of the sea! Ando's surprise at having survived his crash was interrupted by further attacks. Major Robert McHale, the P-40 Squadron leader, fired on Ando but missed. Finally, 1 st Lt. Harold Sawyer got in a fatal burst that sent Ando into the sea for the second and last time.
After this raid the Japanese fighter units withdrew all their flyable aircraft to rear bases to carry out maintenance and recover their operational strength. The 248 th went to Aitape (called Tadji by the Allies) and the other units went to Hollandia or Wakde.
The 59 th FR left New Guinea during February and the 248 th FR became the senior Type 1 fighter unit in the area. The 63 rd FR had arrived during January 1944. At the end of February two additional Type 1 fighter units, the 33 rd and 77 th FRs, arrived as reinforcements.
[“Four-view of a Type 1 fighter of the 59 th ”]
The 248 th was not in action again until February 29 th when it put up two of the thirty-three 6 th FD fighters providing cover for a convoy to Hollandia during the day. The only aerial encounter resulted from two Lightnings flying a photographic mission to Aitape. Seven Japanese fighters intercepted and claimed one P-38. F-5 no. 41-30252 failed to return.
March started out with a busy day for the 248 th . The Regiment had a detachment at Wewak and put up three Type 1 fighters for a dawn patrol from 0600 to 0800 on the first. Twice during the day the 248 th scrambled its fighters (two on one occasion, three on another) along with those of other units but failed to encounter enemy planes. On the following day the 248 th sent three of the twenty-one Japanese fighters that flew a sweep over the Admiralty Islands . Here they encountered U.S. aircraft and engaged in combat primarily with P-47Ds of the 341 st FS. The American pilots claimed several ZEKES and HAMPS but no Type 1 fighters were lost. The Japanese claimed a bomber and two P-47s but none went down. On the fourth two fighters of the 248 th were part of a Japanese formation en route to attack a U.S. airfield in the Ramu Valley when a large formation of P-47s was encountered and an inconclusive combat followed.
During one of the many American hit and run raids, on March 5 th , Sgt. Major Shironushi Kumagaya scored the 33 rd FR's first victory in New Guinea when he shot down the Thunderbolt flown by the American ace Col. Neel Kearby partially avenging the destruction of three Type 99 light bombers by the Thunderbolts. On this date the 248 th had fourteen fighters of which seven were serviceable. It had sixteen healthy pilots to fly these including nine officers and seven NCOs. Two days later all its aircraft were temporarily out of action.
On the 19 th one of the marauding Thunderbolt sweeps caught a Hayabusa of the 248 th over Wewak. 1 st Lt.
Robert Sutcliffe of the 342 nd FS shot it down. Details of this combat from the Japanese side are sparse but it does tend to confirm the belief held by some Japanese pilots that if they could avoid being taken by surprise they would not be shot down. The Thunderbolt squadron arrived over Wewak at 20,000 feet and Sutcliffe sighted about 16 Japanese fighters and a bomber at about 7,000 feet. Unable to contact his squadron leader by radio he led his flight of four P-47s down on an isolated Japanese flight of four OSCARS at about 3,000 feet. He flamed an OSCAR on his first pass closing to 20 yards range. Apparently this “first Oscar did not see [Sutcliffe] coming.” With a speed of over 400 m.p.h. Sutcliffe and his wingman zoomed up for a second pass covered by the second element of two P-47s. On this pass “the three ships executed a well-planned maneuver… The leader pulled into a tight loop, and the wingmen began chandelles to the right and left, respectively. I saw what was coming and did not attempt to follow. Had I followed any one of the three, both of the other two would have been in excellent position to catch me in a cross-fire. This maneuver is a very tempting trap.” Neither the Japanese nor the Americans suffered any other losses on this day and Sutcliffe returned to base with his fourth confirmed victory. I have been unable to confirm the name of the Japanese pilot lost in this attack.
The Japanese repeatedly suffered heavy losses on the ground. With limited fighter strength available fighters were consolidated under the 14 th Flying Brigade. The 14 th FB paired Flying Regiments to fly as joint units. Effective March 9 th the 63 rd Sentai and 248 th teamed together to fly as a single force (2 nd Attack Force) in order to field a c hutai- strength formation. The 63 rd and 248 th had been based together on Hollandia No. 3 Airfield (called Cyclops by the Allies) since late February. Major Magoji Hara of the 63 rd was appointed commander and usually flew as leader of the joint formation. With seldom more than a shotai available to fly in combat Major Kuroda only rarely led the 248 th.
[ “Hollandia area”]
On March 26 th the 63 rd had just eight operational Ki 43s and the 248 th had only four. On that date the entire strength of the 4 th Air Army in New Guinea was 127 operational aircraft of which 54 were fighters. During the same week American aerial photographs showed 274 aircraft on Hollandia's airfields of which 132 were fighters. This suggests a serviceability rate of only about 40 per cent for the Japanese fighter units.
On March 27 th the 4 th Air Army's chief of ordnance gave a speech to an assembly of ordnance officers at Hollandia. This speech pointed out the dismal record of the 4 th Air Army in the loss of ordnance and supplies from air attacks, particularly the loss of aircraft (with typical Japanese tact and politeness these losses were referred to as “regrettable”). In seven months from August 1943 through February 1944 the 4 th Air Army had lost 710 aircraft but only 225 (30%) had been lost on combat operations. Four hundred eighty-five had been lost on the ground or in accidents, most (373) through air attacks. Severe air attacks on Hollandia were predicted. Dispersion and camouflage were essential if continued disastrous losses were to be avoided.
By the end of March the 4 th Air Army had all but abandoned Wewak. Most of its strength was concentrated at Hollandia. Despite orders from 4 th Air Army Headquarters, aircraft were poorly dispersed. Lack of tractors and camouflaged revetments made it difficult for the Japanese to protect their aircraft and also have them available for operations. Hollandia also lacked an operational radar system. On March 30 th , 1944 , the Americans struck their first heavy blow at Hollandia with seventy B-24s and fifty-five P-38s. Another attack followed on the 31 st . Taken by surprise the Japanese fighters offered little resistance on the 30 th and not much more on the 31 st . On that day eight fighters from the 248 th scrambled with thirty-nine others but only one P-38 was shot down. Over one hundred Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground during these two days. On April 3 rd Hollandia suffered another damaging attack. Sixty-five B-24s were joined by seventy-two B-25s and ninety-seven A-20s in this attack. Two escorting P-38s were shot down. The 248 th put up eight of the 47 interceptors. Several Japanese fighters went down in each of these attacks but the 248 th avoided losses.
The fighters of the 6 th FD were in the process of being overwhelmed but they were sent to seek out combat. On April 7 th nine Type 1 fighters left Hollandia to seek combat over Tanahmerah airfield. They found no targets in the air or on the ground. All nine returned safely by 1530.
[ “Hollandia topography. A U.S. C-47 taxies behind remains of a 63 rd Sentai Type 1 fighter”]
Despite heavy air combat, repeated bombings and tropical diseases the pilots of the 248 th and other Japanese fighter units continued to fly and fight. On April 11 th , the Japanese fighters staged a “last hurrah”. Sixteen Type 1 and eight Type 3 fighters sortied to the Wewak area from Hollandia. There they encountered nearly a hundred attacking American aircraft – A-20s, B-25s, B-24s, P-38s and P-47s. It was the last great victory of the JAAF in New Guinea . They claimed twelve P-47s definitely destroyed and an additional five P-47s and a B-25 uncertain. The reality was rather less impressive but still six Type 3 fighters of the 68 th FR and four Hayabusas of the 77 th Sentai took on sixteen P-47s of the 311 th FS (the Americans reported seven OSCARS) and shot down three without loss. Several other American aircraft were damaged. A squadron of P-38s jumped a single Type 3 fighter. Five of the P-38s engaged in a lengthy low altitude dogfight before finally downing the lone fighter (Cpl. Nakagawa of 78 th FR). It was the only Japanese pilot loss. Three Type 3 fighters of the 68 th were seriously damaged during the day's combat. The pilot of one eventually abandoned his aircraft and parachuted to safety. The three 248 th pilots involved returned unable to report any success and with one aircraft damaged by bullet hits.
On the following day American fighters claimed their last victories over Hollandia. The 80 th Fighter Squadron and ranking ace Capt. Richard Bong flew a sweep over Hollandia and claimed nine victories including seven OSCARS of which three were credited to Bong who as a result became the recognized all-time leading American ace. The 77 th Hiko Sentai lost two Type 1 fighters including its Regimental commander and the 68 th Hiko Sentai lost one Type 3 fighter. The 248 th had only one fighter up and it did not engage in combat.
The 248 th operated in the Allied Southwest Pacific Area for six months during a period when Bong , America 's top ace, was in action and during most of that time Thomas McGuire, who was to become America 's second leading fighter ace, was also active. In analyzing the record of these two flyers and the activities of the 248 th , it appears that with one possible exception (on December 16 th ) no pilot of the 248 th fell to these brilliant aces despite the fact that they often operated in the same area on the same day.
As of the 15 th of April the 248 th had four fighters serviceable and two others under going maintenance. The 248 th 's last air combat loss came three days later when two Hayabusas scrambled upon the report of approaching enemy aircraft. Capt. Kenji Ikakura, 2 nd c hutai commander, was reported as having fallen in combat though the Allied unit has not been identified nor do Allied intelligence summaries record any action seemingly associated with this loss. It is possible that Ikakura fell victim to New Guinea's unpredictable weather which just a few days before had claimed many American aircraft.
The end was fast approaching in the form of a massive Allied invasion fleet on its way to Hollandia. On April 20 th the 6 th Flying Division at Hollandia numbered just 32 operational aircraft. Twenty-three were fighters including six Hayabusas of the 248 th . Also in New Guinea , mainly at Hollandia, were 150 fighter pilots of whom about fifty were sick or wounded.
In nearly six months of combat under brutal conditions the 248 th Sentai lost twenty-four pilots killed and, according to one source, claimed 97 enemy planes “shot down and damaged” (this figure probably includes all air victories, certain and uncertain, as well as claims for aircraft destroyed or damaged on the ground). The 248 th had no aces to rival Bong or McGuire nor do any 248 th pilots show up on published lists of Japanese aces. Within the unit Warrant Officer Hajime Nishihara was considered the top ace and credited with ten victories. His rival and fellow ace was Warrant Officer Shotaro Ogawa, one of the few pilots to survive a full tour with the 248 th in New Guinea .
With the invasion fleet offshore some JAAF personnel were mobilized as ground troops. When the invasion came on the 22 nd the 4 th Air Army Headquarters on Halmahera Island ordered some 400 aviation personnel of the 6 th FD including about 100 fighter pilots to evacuate Hollandia and travel overland to Sarmi from where it was hoped they could be rescued. In this party were Major Kuroda and the surviving pilots and some ground staff of the 248 th . At midnight on April 23 rd these men trudged off into the New Guinea jungle.
[(“Ki 43 0f the 248 th partially stripped of camouflage – Hollandia (Australian War Memorial)”]
THE FINAL JOURNEY
The 6 th FD contingent walking through New Guinea 's mountainous jungles reached Japoi on April 30 th . This was barely 25 kilometers west of Lake Sentani (a principal feature in the Hollandia district). The contingent then had provisions for about ten days. Their trek to Sarmi would take three more weeks. Many of these men had left Hollandia in less than the best of health and many died during this part of their journey. The 6 th FD divisional orders for May 6 th , rather than directing air operations, pointed out difficult river crossings, specified the order of march, rear guard, and made reference to the scarcity of rations and the need for the march echelons to gather sago as rations.
[“Spoils of war. A refurbished Ki 43 at Hollandia”]
The 4 th Air Army Headquarters was shocked to discover that Sarmi had been neutralized as an airfield – no transport planes could land there. Motorized landing craft could not operate from Sarmi due to the activities of American aircraft and PT boats. In desperation the 4 th Air Army requested that a submarine be provided to transport its valuable flight crews from Sarmi. None could be provided. A handful of fighter pilots isolated at Wewak were rescued from there by transport plane early in May before the airfields were finally put out of action. None of those lucky pilots was from the 248 th .
Before these men marching from Hollandia could reach Sarmi the Americans landed on the New Guinea coast near Wakde Island and threatened to occupy Sarmi. The Japanese survivors arrived in the vicinity of Sarmi on May 25 th . Far from being the termination of their hardships they now found they had to continue their journey on foot along the coast of New Guinea . The contingent was dwindling fast. Disease, lack of food, and the hard traveling took its toll. By the end of August twelve of the 248 th 's group of less then twenty pilots had died.
Weeks of travel brought them to the eastern end of Geelvink Bay . Here, after much delay, Kuroda and a group of fighter pilots were able to find a motorized landing craft (MLC) and start a journey along the coast of Geelvink Bay. In company with a second MLC they set off in late August. Due to allied air and PT boat patrols they frequently had to take cover by day and by night as well. Progress was painfully slow. Breakdowns and uncharted waters added to the delays.
Outside of Kuroda's party little was left of the 248 th . As of April 25 th three Ki 43s of the 248 th were at Menado in the Celebes . Only one was serviceable. Remnants of the 6 th FD not destroyed at Hollandia assembled at various bases in the Dutch East Indies . As of the end of May a report on ground crewmen of the 248 th gave their “present number” as “none”. In June it was decided to transfer personnel from the 248 th to the 13 th FR. We know that pilots Capt. Yutaka Katsuki and 1 st Lt. Hachiro Murakami were transferred. They may have been the only ones.
By September 23 rd the surviving pilots in New Guinea had reached a point only 10 km from the Japanese base at Windensi. They started the final leg of their journey only to run aground. US Navy PT boats found the two MLCs and subjected them to heavy fire. Only a few Japanese managed to swim ashore, among them were Kuroda and a few men from the 248 th and 63 rd Sentai. The few remaining survivors of the JAAF contingent reached the Japanese outpost at Yidore on September 30 th . But they were still far from deliverance from the hell of New Guinea . A few pilots died near the end of their journey. In six months after the Hollandia invasion some ninety fighter pilots died.
The trek went on. Eventually they reached the major Japanese base at Babo. Later still they arrived at Kokas. From here they boarded the fishing boat that took them to Tual. From Tual their survival was notified to Japan by radio. Eventually a transport plane was sent to retrieve Kuroda and a few other surviving pilots (two others, including Ogawa, from the 248 th ) back to Japan . Kuroda convalesced from malaria until July 1945. In the last month of the war he returned to active service and was appointed commander of the 18 th Hiko Sentai.
The 248 th 's last commanding officer survived the war and died in peaceful times – in 1987.
Copyright: Richard L. Dunn, 2002, 2004
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the many folks who visit the j-aircraft site and provide helpful comments. In this case particular thanks go to Osamu Tagaya and Lex McAuley. Thanks to Grub Street London for permission to use imagery from “Japanese Army Air Force Fighter Units and Their Aces” by I. Hata, Y. Izawa and C. Shores. Thanks to David Llewellyn James for permission to use the rendition posted at “angelfire.com/fm/compass/Oscar.htm.” My appreciation goes to the Australian War Memorial for images on their on-line database. Finally, I wish to express my thanks for the tremendous effort that Allied intelligence agencies devoted to capturing and translating Japanese operational records during World War II. Without a substantial volume of translated original source material an article like this could never have been written.