The Tide of War Changes
In late 1942 the
tide of the war turned against the Japanese and the Imperial Navy had
its hands full fighting not only US Navy, but also
Marine and Army aircraft. Among the navy pilots there was wonderment
about what the Army was (not) doing. One Army unit was at Rabaul,
the 76th Chutai
with Type 100 [Ki-46
reconnaissance planes but other than that the Army was not really
involved in this struggle. The Army and Navy General
several meetings and finally the 6th Air Division was established
in November 1942 with headquarters in Rabaul. First, the 12th Air Brigade
fighters was sent to the Southern Area (Rabaul, Solomons, New Guinea)
but due to high losses the unit was replaced by the 14th
Air Brigade consisting
of the 68th and 78th Sentais equipped with Kawasaki "Hien" (Ki-61
Tony) fighters. It was a new unit with new airplanes and high
expectations were placed on it.
Where Are Our Army Fighters?
The word at Rabaul was that the Ki-61
fighters would make short work of the American fighters and bombers. As
the Ki-61s were rather
new airplanes ground crew members had yet to be trained. Also,
the radios put into the Tonys were old radios from the Type 97 (Nate) fighters
the unit was equipped
with previously. However, they did not work well. Also, the new liquid-cooled
V-12 engines were unique to the Tony creating new challenges for ground
crews to service, who were previous only familiar with radials. Time
passed, and the 18th Army in New Guinea became quite impatient. "Where
are those Army planes?" is
what one heard at Army headquarters. The C.O of the 14th Air Brigade,
Colonel Takeo Tateyama decided to send the 68th Sentai ahead and made
preparations for them to
to Truk by Army aircraft carriers.
It is interesting to note, that the Japanese Army also had their own
small transport carriers.
Ki-61 Transported to Truk
On April 4th, 1943 they left Yokosuka
and arrived at Truk on April 10th. The planes were loaded off and stood
by waiting for orders. As enemy subs were expected to be in the area between
Truk and Rabaul the Fighters were ordered to fly there. The distance
1200km which was just inside the range of the Tonys. The trip would
take approx. three hours at an estimated air speed of 400km/h. Four months
trip was made by 60 Oscars under the guidance of a G4M Betty, and all
aircraft had arrived safely.
It had been done before
and all the pilots were positive that it could be done by them as well.
the plan was for the Tonys to tag along. On April 25, 30 Ki-61s took
off. However, due to engine trouble and bad weather they decided to turn
All except one fighter missing landed back on Truk. On April 27th they
were giving it a second try. 27 planes were divided in 2 groups and
accompanied by one Dinah each, winged their way towards Rabaul. The second
14 fighters and one Dinah arrived safely at Rabaul's Vunakanau
Airfield but as they were welcomed they were surprise that the first group
had not arrived yet.
What they later learned was this: The first
group was following the Dinah "pathfinder" when one after one
dropped out of formation with engine difficulties. The Dinah turned back
but lost sight of them.
The Tonys' compasses also started to act up and there was no way they
it to Rabaul. Only two planes made it back to Truk and one landed at Kavieng. Two Fighters went missing, and
8 made crash
landings the tiny Nuguria
Atoll, 300 km north of Rabaul.
Search For the Lost Squadron
the 8th Fleet send a vessel there all they found was only one of the
pilots [identity unknown] in bloodstained clothes. After this disaster,
the C.O of the 14th Air Brigade
the 78th Sentai to take a different route. After a 9,000 km trip from
Kyushu-Okinawa-Taiwan-Manila-Davao-Menado and New Guinea they finally
arrived in Rabaul in June 1943. It had taken them
two weeks. This incident was a big shock for the Army. Steps were taken
to train their pilots in long-distance trans ocean flying but time and
the war situation were against them.
The Tonys Today
What of these Tonys today, never before seen, they sleep in the waters off
John Douglas adds:
"Kevin Baldwin, who I told about the Nuguria Tonys, three
years ago. He has a dive boat, and went to Nuguria to find them a year or
two ago. He said that the planes seem to have landed outside the atoll in
deep water. They couldn't find any trace of them. The locals remembered the
incident. When I told him about one survivor. he agreed with me, but said
that the locals had killed the rest, leaving one survivor who was also beaten
up by the locals."