248 th Hiko Sentai: A Japanese “Hard luck” Fighter Unit
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The American air bases in the Markham and Ramu Valleys were a deadly threat to the Japanese. They were well positioned to provide support to Australian and American ground forces but more importantly they were within easy fighter range of the main Japanese air bases in the Wewak area. The attack on November 6 th was the first of a series of attacks ordered by the 4 th Air Army to destroy American forward bases before they became too strong and overwhelmed the Japanese. All the Air Army's fighters were controlled by the 6 th Flying Division to accomplish this mission. The 248 th and the other Japanese fighter units would challenge the Americans over their own bases.

The following day the mission was repeated. Nine Type 97 bombers targeted Nadzab bombing from 6000-6500 meters (19,700 to 21,000 feet). The Type 1 fighters of the 13 th Sentai provided close escort while Muraoka led the 248 th as top cover. The Japanese plan called for a rendezvous near Alexishafen at 2000 meters (6600 feet) followed by a climb to altitude approaching the target. This mission did not go at all well. Mechanical problems with some of the 248 th 's aircraft delayed the scheduled rendezvous. While flying over the sea on the approach, the Japanese were spotted by four P-40Ns from the 8 th Fighter Squadron, which were flying a fighter sweep. Veteran flight leader Capt. Clyde Bennett led these four P-40s down from six o'clock high and caught a reported twenty Japanese fighters by complete surprise. The Americans claimed three victories in a single pass. Three P-40s zoomed away and returned to base without a scratch. One pilot sparred briefly with the Hayabusas and returned with fragments from an explosive bullet in his fuel tank. Two Japanese fighters appear to have been lost in this encounter, both were from the 248 th .

The Japanese tried to organize their formation as they gained altitude and crossed the Finnisterre Range to carry out the bombing attack. The Americans were well prepared and after the bombing attack three separate formations converged on the Japanese. Eight P-39Qs (40 th FS) and eight P-47Ds (36 th and 342 nd FS) hit the attackers, which were reported to consist of nine bombers and just ten or so fighters. The three American flights contacted the Japanese in rapid succession nearly simultaneously. While the Hayabusas were able to distract some of the fighters, many pressed their attacks on the bombers. Two bombers went down under these attacks. A Type 97 bomber ( Ki 21-II No. 6323) exploded in spectacular fashion. Its tail with a stylized yellow marking resembling a “4” and part of a wing landed on a hillside while most of the bomber ended up on another hillside on the opposite side of a valley. Three of the Hayabusas , which were lost, probably also fell near Nadzab and were swallowed up by the jungle without a trace. These were aircraft of the 13 th and 59 th S entai .

[“Type 97 heavy bomber of the 14 th Sentai under attack”]

The Japanese claimed a P-40 and five “F4Fs” shot down. Two P-39s were shot down and one P-40 and three P-47s damaged. The bombing damaged aircraft and installations on the ground but nothing like the sixty aircraft destroyed that the Japanese claimed. Five Japanese fighters were lost. The 248 th lost two pilots killed and two wounded. The bombers suffered heavily. In addition to two shot down outright, three landed at Madang with heavy damage and four ditched off the coast. The bombers that landed at Madang were bombed and destroyed by American bombers two days later. Shortly thereafter the 14 th Sentai, the bomber unit involved, was withdrawn from New Guinea.

On the ninth the 248 th could mount only eighteen fighters while providing support for other fighter units attacking the American bases. Penetrating to the vicinity of Lae the 248 th lost three pilots one of whom, Sgt. Major Hiroshi Yoshida, bailed out and became a prisoner of war. Yoshida reported he was shot down by two P-40s that shot off part of his right wing. He was probably the victim of 2 nd Lt. Carl Weaver of the 35 th FS. Twenty-seven P-40s and P-39s of the 35 th , 36 th and 40 th Fighter Squadrons claimed six OSCARS with only one P-40 crash-landed and two P-39s damaged.

[“Type 1 fighter, canopy open, under the gun”]

The 248 th suffered a further loss when one of its aircraft was shot down by P-38s of the 475 th Fighter Group escorting B-25 bombers over Alexishafen. The American ace Capt. Dan iel Roberts was lost on this day when his P-38 Lightning collided with that of his wingman trying to follow a Hayabusa, possibly a fighter from the 248 th , which was taking evasive action at low level near Alexishafen. Three P-38s were lost, all from the 433 rd FS. The P-38s of the 432 nd and 433 rd Fighter Squadrons claimed fourteen victories. In both combats the 59 th and 248 th Sentai lost eight pilots. A Type 3 fighter was also lost though the Americans claimed no TONYS. The Japanese fighters also damaged seven B-25s.

After these losses, Japanese offensive operations were suspended to allow for maintenance and training. When offensive operations resumed on the 15 th the 248 th again sent out eighteen fighters and lost four pilots killed or missing and another wounded. On this mission twenty-four P-40s of the 8 th and 35 th Fighter Squadrons caught the Japanese formation by surprise with the morning sun at their backs. In all, one Type 99 light bomber and six Hayabusas were shot down with others damaged. Two P-40s were lost, one from a collision with a Japanese fighter during a head-on pass and another was written off due to battle damage after crash landing at base. The American fighters accidentally attacked a B-25, which later crash-landed at base in a badly damaged condition with casualties among the crew.

On the 16 th of November twenty-seven P-38s of the 475 th Fighter Group flew a sweep over Wewak. Capt. Nobuyoshi Tozuka led twelve Hayabusas of the 248 th to intercept along with about a dozen fighters from the 13 th and 59 th Sentai . Five Japanese fighters were lost including one from the 248 th . Cpl. Takeshi Aihara bailed out when his fighter burst into flames. The 248 th may have encountered six P-38s of the 431 st FS, which was covering another P-38 squadron when “at about 11,000 feet we were jumped by 10/15 Oscars coming down at us out of the overcast. Our position and the excess speed of the E/A [enemy aircraft] diving from the clouds put us in a very bad tactical position. They rode right up our six plane string opening fire at 500 yards and holding until their speed carried them past us.” The six P-38s split up under the attack and the Japanese fighters chased two as far as the Sepik River. The Americans rated the Japanese pilots as “able, determined, eager and aggressive.” One of these P-38s failed to return and another damaged P-38 was destroyed in a crash landing. For the day three P-38s were lost. It is unclear how many should be credited to the 248 th .

After this and a number of other combats Capt. Tozuka recorded some of his impressions: “The P-38 climbs straight upward, but is easier to fight against than the P-40. The P-38 does not possess maneuverability. Enemy fighter planes are usually found to be superior to ours; seldom are ours superior to theirs. Surprise attacks by the enemy must always be expected, and efforts made to forestall them. The enemy (including the P-38) opens fire at a range of 1,000 meters. The enemy usually flies in formation; most of the time in a wing formation. However, they have a formation similar to that of the Japanese Army. As it is difficult to destroy enemy planes at a range greater than 50 or 100 meters, they should be attacked at close range.” Despite recognition that their aircraft was inferior in performance to those of the Americans, many of the 248 th 's pilots felt that if they could avoid surprise attacks they would not be shot down.

A few days after the interception mission on the 16 th came word that an American submarine had sunk the ship carrying the 248 th 's ground echelon. Of 191 men of the 248 th on board ship only five were rescued.

Over the next few days the 248 th flew convoy cover, had false alarm scrambles and flew an escort mission to Finschhafen. The escort mission on the 19 th brought an inconclusive encounter with Allied fighters (one P-38 was damaged). The other missions saw no action at all. Escort missions to support ground troops in the Sattelburg area were flown daily from the 22 nd to 24 th . These missions no doubt heartened the Japanese ground troops but they did little damage to the Australians. The mission on the 23 rd was intercepted by twelve P-39s. The 59 th FR lost one Hayabusa in this combat and one P-39 went down. All the 248 th 's fighters returned to base.

The 248 th scrambled fighters twice on the 25 th of November but did not engage in combat. On the same day 1 st Lt. Hitoshi Asano was wounded in a bombing attack at Alexishafen. Asano returned to Japan. The 248 th lost a real stalwart; Asano was a twenty-two-victory ace against the Russians in Nomonhan in 1939. Though he flew several sorties with the 248 th and twice engaged in combat, he claimed no victories in New Guinea. Asano suffered from an old wound in his hand that caused it to go numb at high altitude. His return to Japan to serve at the Akeno Flying School may have saved his life.

The pilots of the 248 th suffered no additional combat losses until the 26 th . That day Major Muraoka led about twenty fighters of the “Composite Fighter Unit” including fourteen from the 248 th to escort ten light bombers of the 208 th Sentai attacking Australian artillery positions along the Song River near Finschhafen. After the bombing twenty fighters (P-39s, P-40s and Australian Boomerangs) intercepted the withdrawing Japanese formation. The Americans claimed nine ZEKES and OSCARS. Four Hayabusas were lost including two from the 248 th . One P-39 and two Boomerangs went down. No Japanese bombers were lost or damaged. This bombing attack was more successful than earlier attacks and inflicted some casualties and damage among the Australians.

This combat tends to confirm intelligence reports that state that the Hayabusa's machine cannon, though having poor penetrative powers, had significant explosive effect. A Type 1 fighter that he identified as a ZEKE hit 1 st Lt. Roy Klanrud a P-40 pilot of the 35 th FS. According to Klanrud: “I knew I was badly shot up…I expected another attack which would have been fatal because my elevator and coolant was shot up by a 20mm cannon. Three bullets hit my armor plate and glanced off, clearing out the glass of the canopy on the left side.” More than one American fighter pilot hit by 12.7mm explosive rounds thought he had been hit by the larger 20mm round fired by the Japanese Navy's Zero fighter. A partial explanation for this phenomenon is suggested by findings of Britain's Ordnance Board that tested Japanese army 12.7mm ammunition. A 1944 report said: “The fuse of the H.E./I. [high explosive/incendiary] shell is probably too sensitive for optimum performance.” In tests in India the same type ammunition failed to ignite fuel in a partially filled petrol tin, it was thought because “the blast effect was such that any possibility of petrol or petrol vapour being set on fire was nullified because of this.” Another report concluded the super-sensitive fuse was likely to explode against an aircraft's wing or fuselage skin before penetrating to a fuel tank. Japanese armor piercing ammunition was found to be effective against certain types of Allied armor at least at close ranges on the order of 100 yards.

The month ended with a series of scrambles most of which did not result in contact with the enemy. A bombing raid on the 28 th destroyed or damaged four of the unit's fighters on the ground leaving just eight operational at the end of the month.

In a month of combat the 248 th lost thirteen pilots killed or missing, more than one third of its strength. Its operational strength had been reduced to that of a chutai or less. The bulk of its maintenance staff had been lost at sea. It had some seventy borrowed personnel to supplement its meager ground staff. In most other air forces this unit would have been pulled out of combat. This, however, was stark reality for the Japanese fighter force in New Guinea. The 248 th would have to keep going.

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