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Zero ace honours his foes
Panorama February 14, 1998

A Japanese pilot is paying tribute to four Australian airmen who fought off his pack of Zero fighters over Papua New Guinea in 1942, writes Bob Piper.

Japanese wartime fighter ace Saburo Sakai is planning to create his own special award for bravery to the captain and crew of an Australian bomber he helped shoot down over New Guinea in 1942. He feels it is something important to contribute as part of the healing and reconciliation process between our two countries.

Sakai, now 80, recently contacted the Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, Bronwyn Bishop, in Canberra, and provided a signed statement for a posthumous award to Pilot Officer Frank Cowan and his crew of Hudson A16-201. When this was denied by the Australian Government, because "no provision exists ... and there is no evidence", he decided to create his own special Japanese citation.

The opportunity for a major public-relations exercise and act of reconciliation between the two countries has, then, apparently been missed - especially unfortunate when it is remembered that Sakai's Zero aircraft is on display at the Australian War Memorial, he has been the subject of countless stories, books and a movie, and is a folk legend throughout Japan.

In July 1942 Sakai and his squadron of Zero fighters encountered a lone Hudson over the Buna beachhead. When attacked it amazingly turned and, with all guns blazing, scattered the astounded Japanese pilots.

In an unforgettable feat of skill and bravery the Hudson crew engaged in a dogfight until, overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, they were shot down in flames over the jungle. The episode is still vivid in Sakai's memory.

When Royal Australian Air Force Hudson A16-201 disappeared in mid-1942 all thought it and its crew had become just another victim of marauding Japanese fighters, anti-aircraft fire or the cloud-enshrouded peaks of Papua New Guinea.

The lone Lockheed bomber, belonging to 32 Squadron, then based at Port Moresby, was on one of the unit's many regular but dangerous armed patrols in the Buna area when it failed to return.

It is officially recorded as being despatched for "shadowing" duty, presumably ships, and departed at 1130 hours with no further contact after 1420 hours when it reported over the sea, 32km off Buna. Not even a brief radio message gave any clue to its final fate.

The following year, 1943, after the Buna-Dobadura area had been recaptured by the Allies, locals reported a crashed American aircraft and the remains of personnel on board. A United States team travelled inland, was guided to the wreckage and subsequently recovered the bodies of the four man crew. While in the area the party was told of yet another crashed aircraft even furher inland, near Popoga village. A second party was sent out.

This aircraft was also examined and found to be "terribly smashed". "Bits of the fuselage and unrecognisable pieces of the engine were scattered for hundreds of feet throughout the thick jungle" was how war correspondent Denis Warner described it in a 1945 newspaper article. Another set of remains was recovered and buried under four small white crosses marked "Killed in action, unknown". They occupied a lonely little corner in the American cemetery by the sea at Dobadura for more than two years.

In early 1945 authorities in Washington, having checked their records of missing airmen, decided that the four unknown airmen's graves at Dobadura were not American. A third investigation party was sent from Dobadura for a more careful inspection of the mystery crash. It reached the site on March 1, 1945.

In the months since the first party had investigated the wreckage there had been considerable tropical regrowth and much of the fragmented bomber was now covered by mould, leaves and new plants. Several days were spent in clearing this vegetation to discover any clue as to the aircraft's identity. At one stage it appeared that the names of the four unknown airmen back at Buna cemetery would for ever remain a mystery.

The party, exhausted, wet and hungry, was about to give up when one of the searchers discovered the battered but unmistakable sign of the RAAF - a blue and white roundel. The nationality of the bomber was now solved, but who were the crew aboard?

A heavy tropical downpour the next day, however, provided the next clue. An engine manufacturers plate came to light under a pile of rotting leaves. It still clearly bore the markings "Wright Cyclone GR 1820-205A Engine 59466". Air Force records revealed that this radial engine had been installed in Hudson A16-201. The mystery bomber and crew, by dogged persistence, had finally been identified. The four men on board at the time of its disappearance were: Pilot Officer Warren Frank Cowan (aged 31), captain; Pilot Officer D R Taylor, co-pilot; Sergeant R B Polack, gunner; Sergeant L E Sheard, gunner.

There is more to this saga, however, and that is the Japanese side of July 22, 1942, in the skies above Buna. Sakai, the principal Japanese fighter that shot our bomber down, has recorded in some detail the amazing events that led up to the loss of the Hudson and its crew.

It was over the beachhead at Buna that this story began. Several small transport ships stood offshore and unloaded. On patrol above were Sakai and five other Zeroes from the Tainan Squadron, then based at Lae. They were flying lazy wide circles in what appears to them to be an empty sky. Thick clouds at 2000m blanketed the peaceful scene.

Without warning a series of explosions rocked the beach area. Flame and smoke erupted skywards. The Japanese pilots above felt the distinct staccato of the concussions. Supply dumps inland from the beach had been hit and yet the Zeroes saw no other aircraft in the sky.

Either some Allied aircraft had deposited its bombs with amazing accuracy throughout the clouds, which seemed highly unlikely, or had dropped below the overcast, released its bombs, and then quickly slipped back into the protection of the clouds. All this happened before the bombs hit the ground and the Zero pilots could establish the source of the attack. One very agile Allied bomber had carried out the lightning-quick attack and disappeared.

Several minutes later Sakai, still scanning the skies, sighted a tiny black speck moving out of the edge of the overcast, far to the east. The race was on. Six Zeroes on maximum boost in pursuit. As they drew closer the fleeing aircraft was identified as their old arch-enemy, the twin-tailed Lockheed Hudson. These light bombers had already despatched a fair number of Zeroes in duels around Lae-Buna.

The climbing Zeroes narrowed the distance to only a kilometre when the Hudson crew detected their approach from below and behind. Cowan lowered his aircraft's nose and accelerated away down the coast towards Milne Bay, with the Zeroes in hot pursuit. Now, a Hudson at full throttle in a shallow dive was a fast and slippery aircraft at the best of times. The Japanese Zeroes were discovering this again that day, and to shorten the distance were forced to jettison their auxiliary fuel tanks and maintain their engines at full throttle.

At 600m the Zeroes had only made up a little leeway and Sakai, in frustration, fire his two machineguns and pair of cannons. His hope was that this would cause the Hudson to turn a little and so shorten the distance. About 600m was still too far for Sakai's guns to be effective.

Then another shock for the pursuing Japanese. Hudson 201 wheeled around in the tightest turn Sakai had ever seen for a twin-engine aircraft. The bomber's front machineguns spat flame, as did another pair in its back upper turret as it whipped back past the startled Zeroes. The Hudson's snap turn had been possible when the pilot pulled the throttle off momentarily on one side, enabling the other engine to "pivot" the bomber, virtually on its wingtip.

Nishizawa, one of the other Japanese aces in pursuit, sprayed his guns into empty air where the bomber should have been.

Sakai recounts the incident: "No sooner had I fired than the Hudson went up into a steep climbing turn to the right, rolled quickly, and roared back at full speed towards me. I was so surprised that for several seconds I sat motionless in the cockpit. The next second every forward firing gun in the Hudson opened up in a withering barrage.

"Our Zeroes scattered wildly. Rolling or diving in different directions. I caught a glimpse of Lieutenant Sasai. His jaw hung open in astonishment at the audacity of the enemy pilot ..."

The well-organized attack by the Zeroes broke up into a wild free-for-all. Not one of them managed to score a single strike against the elusive Hudson as it rolled and turned it violent manouevres and brilliant aerobatics, in a way that the makers of Japanese attackers never dreamed possible. All this time the bomber's upper gunner continued to fire back steadily, forcing the Zeroes to keep their distance.

Sakai made at least four passes and was forced to break off his attack each time by other pilots who zoomed in front of him at the last minute. "For nearly 10 minutes we pursued the Hudson, pouring a hail of lead and explosive shells at the amazing aircraft," he remembers. By this time the constant twisting and turning had taken the Hudson back towards Buna.

Finally an accurate burst of fire from one of the Zeroes caught the mid-upper gunner in his glasshouse turret. He was seen to throw up his arms and fall back. Most of the danger from the Hudson's defensive fire was now gone. Sakai closed in to 20m and triggered a long, accurate burst into the right wing. Seconds later flames leapt out and spread laterally across to the left wing. The bomber's fuel tanks had been hit.

For the two pilots and pair of gunners there was no escape. Too low to parachute, no power to climb and no clearing below. Only the tall trees and jungle canopy to descend into. The Hudson lost speed rapidly and glided towards the inevitable impact. Trees sheared off, the fuselage disintegrated and burst into flames and disappeared through the uppermost foliage. Only black smoke curled up above the trees to show the Zero pilots overhead the final resting place of the Hudson and its magnificent crew.

In recent years three military-aviation historians - David Vincent, of Adelaide, Henry Sakaida, in the US, and I - independently came to the same conclusion regarding Hudson 201 when studying Sakai's exploits against the Australian and American air forces in the New Guinea theatre of war.

A lone Hudson shot down on July 22, 1942. Were any others lost that day as well? No, there was only one; that of Cowan's from 32 Squadron. Fortunately and coincidentally the three of us have been co-researchers and writers over the years. When we compared notes we all came to the same conclusion. Another World War II mystery had now been solved by the comparison of World War II Japanese and Australian/American records.

Meanwhile, Henry Sakaida back in the US, contacted Sakai in Tokyo and told him of the details of the Australian side of the Hudson he shot down in 1942. Sakai lodged a signed statement of the events of that day in the hope that Cowan and his crew would be finally acknowledged for their bravery and some sort of posthumous award be made by the Australian Government.

Unfortunately, this is contrary to Australian military policy, possibly based on the reasonably logic that to award medals to some, after all these years, would be to perhaps open the way to many more.

After the war, Warren Cowan, Taylor, Polack and Sheard were buried in Lae War Cemetery in New Guinea [actually, the Bomana War Cemetery near Port Moresby]. Their story has now been told.

They are now honoured by both friend and former foe. May they rest in peace.

A copy of this contract was found in Warren Cowan's Casualty File at the National Archives of Australia (NAA: A705, 163/26/243) transcribed by Daniel Leahy.

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