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Japanese operations at Wakde Airfield on Wakde Island
by Richard L. Dunn © 2005

Airfield Construction
The Japanese occupied Wakde Island in April 1942 after their successful campaign in the Netherlands East Indies. The Allies first noted an airfield being developed there in February 1943. By June a coral landing strip 5400 feet long and coral surfaced hard-stand aprons were observed. The Japanese Navy (3rd Fleet) published a survey of airfields in their Southwest Area in September 1943. At that time Wakde’s condition was described as “further construction being carried out.” Revetments and trenches were under construction. The runway was described as 1200 by 60 meters (4000x200 feet). Officers’ quarters and four barracks for enlisted men had a capacity of 1,000 men. There was a radio transmitting station. The airfield was capable of accommodating both large and small type aircraft.

Japanese Units
Allied photographic reconnaissance on 10 October 1943 noted that dispersal areas were still under construction but that fifteen twin engine aircraft were on the field. During that month Wakde became the base for the Type 100 model II heavy bombers (HELEN) of the 61st Flying Regiment. These were soon joined by transports (Type 97 heavy bombers) of the 101st Air Transport Unit. A detachment of the 20th Airfield Battalion arrived to service Wakde’s air garrison. A detachment of the 1st Air Route Department arrived to service transient aircraft moving through Wakde. Later Wakde also hosted a detachment of the 6th Navigational Aid Unit and 6th Mobile Air Repair Squad.

The 61st was commanded by Lt. Col. Takeshi Yagi. The 61st flew most of its combat missions from But airfield. During October and November 1943 the 61st seldom had more than half a dozen bombers operational. The stay of the air transport unit at Wakde was relatively brief but the 61st remained based there for several months. The 20th Airfield Battalion detachment was commanded by 1Lt. Shozo Kimoto of the battalion’s 1st Maintenance Company. The guard detachment was commanded by 2Lt. Koichi Igarashi.

When the 61st deployed forward to But for combat operations it was often paired with the 7th Flying Regiment. The two heavy bombers units were part of the 9th Flying Brigade. Operations in October and November included bombing missions and supply dropping operations in support of ground combat between Finschafen and Sio on New Guinea’s north coast. Attacks were also carried against Allied air bases in the Markham and Ramu Valleys [Nadzab]. In December American troops landed at Arawe and Cape Gloucester on New Britain. The Type 100 heavy bombers suffered badly during attacks mounted against these landings. For a time the 7th was withdrawn from combat leaving the weakened 61st Flying Regiment as the Japanese army’s sole heavy bomber unit in New Guinea.

Reinforcements Arrive
By mid-January 1944 reinforcements briefly brought the 61st up to a strength of 15 serviceable heavy bombers. Other reinforcement plans would soon greatly increase the number of aircraft at Wakde. The 8th Flying Brigade was ordered to transfer from Southeast Asia to New Guinea. This brigade included the 60th Flying Regiment (CO Maj. Mitsuo Oiwa) equipped with Type 97 model II (SALLY) heavy bombers. Wakde was designated as the forward operating base of the 60th. The 45th Flying Regiment (CO Lt. Col. Mitsuo Yasuoka) was the first Japanese army bomber unit to operate in New Guinea. By late 1943 it had been virtually decimated and was returned to Japan to reorganize. It too was ordered to Wakde.

On February 10th twenty-four Type 97 heavy bombers assembled at Singapore in preparation for their transfer to Galela on Halmahera Island and Wakde. On the same day pilots of the 45th arrived in Manila. There they were equipped with thirty Type 2 two-seat fighters (NICK). Previously the 45th had flown light bombers. Their new aircraft were to be used as fighter-bombers. They were equipped with a forward firing 37mm cannon (15 rounds) and a 20mm cannon (60 rounds) and a flexible 7.9mm machine gun firing to the rear. Pairs of 30, 50 and 100kg bombs could also be carried. By February 18th the first aircraft of the 60th arrived at Galela. Sixteen fighters of the 45th staged into Babo in western New Guinea on the following day. During the last few days of February the main strength of both units joined the 61st at Wakde.

The War Reaches Wakde
Up to this time few operations had been flown from Wakde. It was a rear area base. On February 29th American troops landed in the Admiralty Islands bringing Wakde much closer to the fighting. During March, Allied raids on Wewak intensified and it was all but abandoned as a base. In the second half of March the Japanese army’s 6th Flying Division fell back to Hollandia only 125 miles east of Wakde.

During early February the 61st had flown nightly patrol missions to Dampier Straight. In the latter half of the month it stopped patrolling and attempted to build up its strength in anticipation of possible attack missions. On the 1st of March a Type 97 bomber of the 60th flew the Dampier patrol. The mission was aborted due to bad weather east of Long Island. The 45th engaged in convoy escort patrols and carried out night flying exercises.

On the morning of March 3rd four Type 100 heavy bombers joined 14 light bombers and a strong fighter escort and sortied from Wewak to attack the landings in the Admiralty Islands. The mission was turned back by bad weather. Later that day heavy bombers of the 60th and 61st flew over Aitape in route to But accompanied by five Type 3 fighters (TONY) of the 78th Flying Regiment.

American P-38 aces Richard Bong and Thomas Lynch reported encountering four SALLYS and five TONYS claiming two SALLYS and two fighters. One Type 97 was lost as was the Type 100 heavy bomber flown by Sgt. Kosuke Ishikawa (aircraft commander 2Lt. Kazuo Sakai). The P-38 pilots also shot down two of the fighters.

Later a bomber of the 60th flying from But claimed hits on a medium transport at Hyane [Los Negros] in the Admiralties. According to U.S. reports this attack was ineffective.

The next attack mission came on the 8th when three Type 97 heavy bombers staged through Wewak to bomb ships and harbor installations at Gumbi [Saidor] claiming hits on the latter. Two LCTs and two bulldozers were slightly damaged and one man was killed. On the following day a Type 97 heavy bomber flying a patrol mission from Wewak reported escaping an attack by two enemy fighters.

On March 13th Allied air reconnaissance obtained good aerial photographs of Wakde. Forty-seven aircraft were spotted. These were identified as 38 medium bombers, six light bombers and three fighters. The medium bombers were identified as six probable HELENS and the remainder SALLYS although some of the medium bombers might be transports. Just prior to this observation the 45th had twelve serviceable Type 2 two-seat fighters, the 60th had 15 operational Type 97 heavy bombers and 61st had five operational Type 100 heavy bombers. A few days after this on March 16th the 61st lost a bomber in an accident. A heavy bomber took off because of a false raid warning and turned into a coconut grove before gaining altitude. The pilot W.O. Keizo Minami and the entire crew were killed. During the month aircraft at Wakde were occasionally dispersed to Kamiri Airfield on Noemfoor as protection against possible air attack.

Records of Aerial Activity
Records of the 20th Airfield Battalion show the numbers of aircraft they serviced during the month of March. This is of interest because the numbers probably approximate the number aircraft flights that took place from Wakde during the month. Type 2 two-seat fighters of the 45th were serviced 196 times on 28 days. The highest number serviced on a single day was fourteen. For the 60th the total was 169 on 29 days with a high of twelve. The 61st was active every day of the month with 158 aircraft serviced and a high of fourteen in a single day. The 20th also provided service to aircraft of other units (total/number of days/highest number per day) as follows: Type 100 heavy bomber (26/12/5), Type 97 heavy bombers (54/20/13), Type 100 recon (6/3/4), Type 99 Assault (14/9/5), Type 99 light bomber (24/7/8), Type 3 fighter (21/5/7), Type 1 fighter (67/10/47), MC transport (5/2/3), and others (3/3/1). The “heavy bombers” are probably aircraft of that type used as transports. These figures do not include aircraft serviced by the 1st Air Route Department.

Other records of the 20th Battalion also provide interesting insights into operations at Wakde. Although 135 300-liter barrels of 100 octane fuel were on hand none was distributed during the month. All 1,480 200-liter barrels of 91 octane fuel was distributed. In addition 1,176 barrels of 92 octane fuel was distributed leaving a stock of over 3,000 barrels. Ordnance distributed included eight 250kg bombs, 140 100kg bombs and 537 50kg bombs. A considerable amount of 20mm and machine gun ammunition was distributed but no 37mm ammunition was issued.

The 61st Flying Regiment was ordered to drop supplies to the Japanese garrison in the Admiralties with three bombers on March 29th. This plan was apparently abandoned when a report of an enemy invasion convoy was received. This proved to be a false alarm. On the 30th the airfield battalion was informed that in future aircraft at Hollandia would use Wakde as a dispersal field. On the following day orders for the withdrawal of the 45th and 61st were received. The 45th was to go to Moemi and the 61st to Galela.

During the last two days of March Hollandia received heavy air attacks that greatly depleted Japanese army air strength in New Guinea. This disrupted the Japanese aircraft supply route. One of the last reinforcement missions to Hollandia was planned for the 7th Flying Unit for March 29th to April 1st. This involved eight Type 3 model II fighters (nos. 772, 802, 814, 827, 861, 884, 890, and 901) escorted by a Type 97 heavy bomber (no. 6447). The outbound route was Clark-Davao-Galela on the 29th and Galela-Kamiri-Hollandia on the 30th. The escort bomber with ferry pilots on board was to fly to Wakde the same day before proceeding to Davao and Clark on the following day.

 

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Wakde Island location

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First US photo of the new
Japanese runway at Wakde

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Wakde June 13, 1943

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Wakde Oct 10, 1943

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Wrecked 'Sally' bomber

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Aircraft April 28, 1944

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Aircraft Ravetments

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Wakde March 31, 1944

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Ki-21 wreckage & bombing damage to palm trees

During the first days of April fighters operating from Hollandia often completed their missions by landing at Wakde. Only when the air over Hollandia was safe did they return to their base. For a short period Wakde became the terminus of the air supply route. On April 5th two Type 3 fighters (nos. 739 and 906) destined for the 68th Flying Regiment landed at Wakde as did three others (nos. 917, 993, and 995) destined for the 78th Flying Regiment. On the following day Wakde received a heavy air attack. More attacks followed and though casualties were generally light almost all of the installations were damaged. According to a 60th Flying Regiment flight crewman who was later captured, the 60th stayed at Wakde during the initial raids and by the time it withdrew to Biak in mid-April had lost all but five or six of its bombers.

American Liberation
Some of the aviation ground units were evacuated. Fortunate personnel of the 1st Air Route Department detachment were flown out in transports. Others were evacuated to Sarmi in landing craft. Other units were not so lucky and were incorporated into the island’s ground defense. The fact that turrets from disabled bombers were dismounted and emplaced as beach defenses suggests these troops brought ingenuity as well as their individual weapons to the defense of the island. Despite desperate fighting the defenders were soon overwhelmed and annihilated.

The Americans had carefully studied the island prior to landing there on May 18th. They had already developed engineering plans for putting the airfield into operation and several engineering units were part of the invasion force. In less than ten days the airfield was in operation as an American base.

Japanese Raids on Wakde
On June 6th the Japanese returned to Wakde as attackers. Three Type 1 [Betty] land attack bombers of the Japanese Navy’s 732 Kokutai took off from Wasile on the night of June 5th. Led by Ens. Isao Sunayama the three bombers encountered very heavy weather. One bomber became separated and dropped its bombs in the Biak area. Sunayama and the other bomber continued to Wakde and were rewarded by a break in the clouds that allowed them to sight the field.

The two bombers swooped down low over the field. Each bomber took one side of the runway along which American aircraft were parked. Releasing their bombs in a string over the parked aircraft, the Japanese flyers estimated they had destroyed dozens of American aircraft. Later reconnaissance photographs seemed to show 76 aircraft burned or damaged along the runway. The Japanese also claimed a success in an attack two days later but the June 6th attack stands out as a singularly successful Japanese effort at this stage of the Pacific War.

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Missions against Wakde
April 7 - July 10, 1944

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Ki-49 20mm gun as turret

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US Army 163rd RCT landing

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Wakde expanded by Americans

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Aftermath of June 6
Japanese Air Raid

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