Severe weather in the Solomons causes the loss of seven Zeros. Two H6K5 Mavis flying boats are sent to rescue the downed pilots. For one of the Mavis, the rescue mission becomes dramatic when they face sharks, a surprise attack by a pair of Airacobras and a force landing back at base. Afterwards, their flying boat is written off and sank.
Six Zeros ditch due to bad weather
On January 25, 1943, eighteen A6M Zeros from the 252 Kokutai took off from Rabaul bound for Guadalcanal. On the way to the target, they encounter severe weather. Six were forced to ditch, their pilots were 1) Koichi Yoshida, 2) ????, 3) Mashouiro Chicanami, 4) Saichi Matsumoto, 5) Abichi Nishizawa and 6) ???? Sukahara. A seventh piloted by Takesuburo Ikeada went missing. The other eleven Zeros manage to land at Ballale Airfield.
Rescue mission by Mavis flyingboats
On January 26, 1943 the 851 Kokutai sortied two H6K5 Mavis from Shortland Seaplane Base to search for and rescue the downed pilots. The first H6K5 Mavis took off to search for the one of the pilots. They succeeded in finding his ditched Zero, but were unable to locate the pilot.
Another H6K5 Mavis piloted by Mashio Kira took off at 6:45am to search for a Zero pilot ditched off eastern Choisel Island. Aboard was radio operator Sachio Hirayama. Meanwhile, six A6M Zeros from the 252 Kokutai took off from Kahili Airfield at 6:30am to provide fighter escort including 1st Shotai: 1) Izu Isakamoto 2) Yohichi Hanatusa 3) Sonichi Kosaka plus the 2nd Shotai: 1) Tsuzu Kojima 2) Yokiyo Myayohi 3) Sahio Hiyama.
When the flying boat arrived in the area, they spotted the pilot on the beach waving. The Mavis landed and yelled for him to swim to the flying boat, but he refused because of sharks in the water. One of the escorting Zeros swooped down and strafed the sharks with his 20mm cannons. Crew members of the Mavis climbed up onto the wing of their plane and threw a buoy [life ring] towards the shore. The pilot was still nervous about the sharks and fired his Nambu pistol at a few before finally agreeing to grab the buoy. They pulled him towards the plane and got him aboard.
As the flyingboat began to take off, it was suddenly attacked by two P-39 Airacobras. Aboard the Mavis the guns were stowed and the crew cursed their carelessness for not having them ready to return fire. Several of them hurried to mount their heavy 20mm cannons. Just as the Mavis began to lift off, the P-39s attacked from very low, hitting the underside of the Mavis and damaging the mount for the rear 20mm cannon. One of the Mavis crew members was severely wounded in the right leg and later died. Looking out a side window, Hirayama saw the U. S. star insignia on one fighter as it pulled up past them.
The escorting Zeros had not noticed the low approach of the American fighters but dove down to intercepted the Airacobras, claiming one shot down while the other escaped. The Mavis returned to base where it sank upon landing due to damage inflicted by the American fighters, although some gear was salvaged from the flying boat, it was a total loss. The Zero pilot rescued was unharmed.
After escorting B-17s on a bombing mission against Ballale Island, P-39 piloted by McKulla and
P-39 piloted by 2nd Lt. William F. Fiedler Jr. were dispatched to Choisel to search for a man in a rubber boat, that was first spotted two days earlier by a RNZAF 3 Squadron Hudson.
They encountered an enemy four engine flying boat at 07-30S 157-40E [View location on Google Earth]. The Airacobras attacked and were in turn jumped by five Zeros. Fiedler claimed one "Zero Mark 2" (Hamp)
shot down south off Wagina Island to the east of Choisel Island.
Fiedler returned to Guadalcanal. He was the only American pilot to be credited with a total of five victories while flying the Airacobra.
The P-39 piloted by McCulla crashed into the sea. He was later rescued by USS Grouper SS-214 on February 10, 1943.
Interview with Sachio Hirayama, translation by Yoji Sakaida
P-39 Airacobra Aces of World War II, page 34
Thanks to Jim Sawruk and Edward Rogers for additional research into the Amercian side.