In December 1944 a decrepit Japanese fishing boat docked at Tual in the Kai Islands south of the western end of Dutch New Guinea. The boat was part of a fleet of fishing vessels used in New Guinea by the Japanese military in 1943 and 1944 to provide coastal transportation after heavy losses had depleted Japan's regular transport craft. On board this particular fishing vessel was a group of Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) personnel. They were emaciated, wracked with malaria and other tropical diseases, and some were wearing second hand uniforms that had replaced tattered rags worn not long before. Their leader, Major Takefumi Kuroda [Japanese names are rendered in western order in this article], was the senior surviving JAAF officer from a group of JAAF personnel ordered to retreat from Hollandia eight months earlier. Major Kuroda, the commander of a Hiko Sentai (Flying Regiment, FR) that no longer existed, had successfully escaped from the jungles of New Guinea. This is the story of his unit, the 248 th Hiko Sentai.
THE 248th BEFORE KURODA
January 2 nd , 1944 – nothing seemed to be going right for Major Shin-ichi Muraoka commander of the 248 th Hiko Sentai. An early morning fighter sweep to Madang on New Guinea's north coast along with other fighter units of the JAAF 6 th Hiko Shidan (Flying Division, FD) had not brought the expected encounter with American strike aircraft. Upon returning to his base at Wewak, Muraoka learned that a large American force had landed at Saidor and threatened to cut off forward elements of the Japanese 18 th Army. A strike mission was hastily organized. Given the distance from Wewak to Saidor, Muraoka ordered the 248 th 's Type 1, model 2 Hayabusa ( Ki 43, Allied code name, OSCAR) fighters be equipped with a single external fuel tank rather than the two used for maximum range missions.
Thirty-four Type 1 and Type 3 (TONY) fighters joined nine Type 99 (LILY) light bombers for the mission. The small number of aircraft available for such an important mission was silent testimony to the hard fighting and heavy losses the Japanese had received at the hands of the much stronger U.S. Fifth Air Force in the preceding months.
A weather front between Wewak and Saidor delayed and disorganized the Japanese formation. When they finally reached clear skies in the vicinity of Karkar Island, Muraoka could see that the nine light bombers were flying good formation below him at 2000 meters (6600 feet). The fighters were not in such good shape. Hardly half the original number was still together at about 15,000 feet trailing a little behind the bombers. Few of the Type 3 fighters were to be seen.
In the distance to the southeast, Muraoka could see no warships or large transports. The delay in mounting the mission caused by the morning fighter sweep had allowed the main American task force to get away. The bombers would have only landing craft and shore installations as targets. There was no time to waste, however. Due to the delay caused by the storm the Japanese fighters were getting low on fuel.
Suddenly Muraoka saw them -- P-40's. Dropping his external tank, he led his headquarters flight against the first element of approaching P-40's.
1 st Lt. Duncan Myers, flying one of eleven P-40N's of the 7 th Fighter Squadron, passed over the nine bombers too high to immediately identify them as Japanese. Ground control had, however, alerted him to approaching Japanese planes so he searched for a possible fighter escort. As he turned right “three Japanese radial engine fighters popped up in front of me. I dropped my tank…I fired at a Zeke (sic), followed him through a circle to the left, and observed explosives hitting the cockpit area. He didn't smoke or burn, just plunged straight into the water…”
The 248 th Sentai pilots saw their leader plummet to his death. The Japanese pilots jousted with the Americans for several minutes as the bombers approached the target area. The ranks of the Japanese began to thin as pilots turned back, no doubt concerned about dwindling fuel and the weather front between them and their base. As the bombers withdrew from the target area, the Americans found them unescorted.
Lieutenant Myers and his wingman Major Seldon Wells each shot down a bomber. Myers watched his victim ditch close to the shoreline. The four crewmembers escaped and began swimming. Myers strafed them but only managed to kill one before his ammunition ran out.
The fight ended with two Japanese fighters and two bombers lost. One P-40N also went down. The bombers caused only minor damage and casualties. In this combat several P-40 pilots engaged in turning combat with the more maneuverable Japanese fighters. If the Japanese fighter gained in the turn, the P-40 pilot would tighten his turn, spin out, and use the spin as an evasive maneuver. Lieutenant Myers used this technique to avoid the second Japanese fighter he engaged.
FROM JAPAN TO NEW GUINEA
Shin-ichi Muraoka had commanded the 248 th less than three months at the time of his death. He was an experienced officer who had commanded a squadron ( chutai ) in China from mid-1938 to early 1940. Later he served on the staff of a Flying Brigade. In 1942 he had briefly commanded the 244 th Sentai. The 248 th 's original commander and the officer that molded the unit into shape was a real veteran, Major Yasuo Makino. He organized the unit in August 1942 at Ozuki, Japan, with a small cadre supplied by the 4 th Sentai . It soon moved to Ashiya and Gannosu in northern Kyushu where it carried out training and air defense duties. Initially equipped with the obsolescent Type 97 (NATE) fighter, early in 1943 the unit converted to the first version of the Type 1 fighter. It began to receive the model 2 version ( Ki 43-II) in July 1943.
The 248 th built up slowly at first. It had some veteran pilots and ground crew but many of its personnel came directly from training schools. Although preliminary flight training for JAAF pilots was being shortened in 1943, most of the 248 th 's pilots completed a full course of training. This plus additional training with the unit probably meant few pilots had to go into combat with less than 400 hours flying time. Pilot losses during training were light though a chutai commander (Capt. Nobuo Tokonaga) died in an accident caused by bad weather in February 1943.
On October 11 th , 1943, orders came for the 248 th to transfer to New Guinea beginning October 20 th . Newly assigned Major Muraoka had little time to become acquainted with his new command. The 248 th received a number of new Ki 43-II fighters and final arrangements for movement by air and sea transportation were made.
Pilots would fly their new Hayabusa fighters and would be accompanied by about thirty ground personnel flying in transports and bombers. The bulk of the ground staff, some 190 men, and equipment would go by ship. The air route from Japan would go by way of Taiwan, Manila, Davao, Menado, and Amboina to New Guinea. The 248 th reached Manila on the morning of October 23 rd and carried out maintenance and prepared for the final stages of its transfer. By October 31 st , thirty-two Type 1 fighters and their pilots had arrived at Wewak Central airfield. The fledgling 248 th and its new commander were in the combat zone.
The first few days in New Guinea brought only training flights and false alarm scrambles. The only excitement was an accident, which heavily damaged a fighter and injured its pilot. With only a few ground staff on hand, personnel from local airfield battalions were detailed to help service the 248 th 's aircraft but they were less than half the number of the unit's men that had yet to arrive.
NEW GUINEA ORDER OF BATTLE
The 248 th arrived at Wewak at a time when the air war over New Guinea was concentrated in a zone roughly running from Lae on the Huon Gulf to Wewak. Inland it stretched over the Markham and Ramu Valleys and extended eastward across the Vitiaz Straights to western New Britain. After the first week in November the U.S. Fifth Air Force no longer sent missions as far east as Rabaul. The Japanese Army Air Force was in the final process of withdrawing from Rabaul. Its residual presence there was primarily limited to maintenance units and a few reconnaissance and transport planes. Rabaul remained a focal point of aerial conflict for several months but its airspace was contested by the Japanese navy and Allied units operating from the Solomons.
During the first week of November 1943 the Japanese Army's 4 th Air Army (primarily the 6 th FD) in New Guinea numbered about one hundred fifty operational combat aircraft and was at a high point in numbers of available aircraft compared to recent or succeeding months. Most of these were based at the four airfields of the Wewak-But complex (called Wewak, Boram, But and Dagua by the Allies). Forward airfields at Alexishafen and Madang were in use as were rear area bases at Hollandia, Aitape and Wakde Island. Tuluvu (Cape Gloucester) on New Britain, Hyane (Momote) in the Admiralty Islands and a few other fields could support limited operations or emergency landings.
The 248 th FR's strength during this period was 30-32 operational fighters. Another recently arrived unit was the 26 th FR (27 Type 99 Assault planes). These two new units made up over one-third the operational strength of the entire Division. Allied intelligence was fairly accurate in assessing Japanese air strength in New Guinea at this time. Overestimation of Japanese air strength was more typical.
The Japanese order of battle (numbers are for operational aircraft in early November) included a long range reconnaissance regiment and two independent squadrons (7-10 Type 100 reconnaissance planes); three Type 1 fighter regiments (about 70 planes); one Type 3 fighter regiment (10-12 planes); an assault regiment and short range reconnaissance squadron (30 Type 99 assault planes and army reconnaissance planes); a twin-engine light bomber regiment (15 Type 99 light bombers); and, three heavy bomber regiments (6-8 Type 100 heavy bombers and 9 Type 97 heavy bombers). The relative strength of the Type 1 fighter contingent was due not only to the arrival of the 248 th but also the return of the 59 th FR to New Guinea after re-equipment at Manila.
The U.S. Fifth Air Force primarily based at Port Moresby and Dobodura but with substantial fighter strength at forward airfields in the Markham-Ramu Valleys was much stronger as November began. Six bomber groups had 370 aircraft assigned (about 300 serviceable on a given day). The primary assigned types were B-24s (118) and B-25s (204). There were 348 fighters assigned to five fighter groups (about 280 serviceable). These included 139 P-38s of various models, 91 P-47Ds, 71 P-40Ns, and 47 P-39s (models N and Q). In rear areas were 221 unassigned bombers and 263 unassigned fighters. The Fifth Air Force was supplemented by a strong contingent of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) that was nearly as strong as the 6 th FD. Part of the effort of the RAAF force was, however, directed against central New Britain and even included night raids on Rabaul outside the combat area of the 6 th FD. The Allied order of battle also included reconnaissance aircraft not mentioned above and a large fleet of transport aircraft (far outstripping the Japanese) that greatly facilitated operations. Small numbers of seaplanes and flying boats were also active on each side.
The Allies had greatly superior and more numerous radar stations than the Japanese. The Allied ground controlled interception system was far superior to the Japanese. At Allied forward bases in the Markham and Ramu valleys, however, this superior technology was sometimes limited in its effectiveness by the mountainous terrain.
Most Allied fighter aircraft were significantly superior to the Type 1 fighter in many performance categories. They had much more powerful engines; stronger armament; and, better protection for pilot, fuel and essential parts. The Allied fighters were generally faster than the Type 1 fighter in level flight and dive. The Type 1 fighter could out perform most of the Allied fighters in low and medium speed maneuvers and in some maneuvers it was unmatched. It could also out climb some of the Allied fighters under certain conditions. The performance characteristics of the Type 1 fighter and the Allied fighters tended to be, to use a modern term for such things, asymmetrical. Whether the 248 th could use the strong points of its fighter and the skill of its pilots to advantage was to be seen.
On November 6 th , the 248 th joined with the 13 th Sentai to escort Type 97 (SALLY) bombers in an attack on the American airbase at Nadzab in the Ramu Valley. The 59 th and 78 th Sentai were also involved. The bombing was successful and the bombers got away without being intercepted by American fighters. U.S. fighters were in the area but the Japanese were too high and far away for them to intercept. In addition to the bombing, flights of Hayabusas swept in to strafe the airstrips at Nadzab and Gusap. Four attacked at Nadzab and three at Gusap. The bombing and strafing at Nadzab destroyed two P-39's and damaged 23 others to some extent. At Gusap a C-47 was burned and two others damaged. The strafing Japanese fighters completed their attacks and got away several minutes before U.S. fighters arrived on the scene. Landing accidents caused when several 248 th fighters landed on Alexishafen's inadequately repaired runway marred this successful attack. The commander of the 3 rd chutai , 1 st Lt. Hideo Ota, was killed and 2 nd Lt. Yoshihari Mayekawa was injured.
Link to Part 2