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Jungle Encounter
by Henry Sakaida

Veteran Japanese Zero ace Noritsura “Tokkan” Kodaka, a pilot in the 204 Kokutai at Rabaul, wrote about his experiences, which was published in the 1960s in Japan. There was an incident in one of the chapters which aroused my curiosity and I was determined to find the truth.

In the book, Kodaka mentioned the story of his squadron buddy PO2/c Teigo Ishida, and his encounter with two American pilots in the jungles of Rabaul.  Ishida parachuted from his Zero during a big dogfight at around 800 meters and got hooked up on a tree. He had suffered burns to his face. Using the cords of his parachute, he swung himself to a large branch and worked his way down.

While walking through the overgrowth, Ishida was stunned to come face-to-face with two Americans! One of them had a pistol in his hand. Ishida smiled and approached them, as if he was going to shake hands. The Americans, knowing that he was unarmed, let their guards down, smiled, and closed. Suddenly, Ishida kicked the gun out of the American’s hand. He hit him between the eyes with his fist and a vicious hand-to-hand struggle ensued.

The details are unclear, but the Zero pilot strangled one opponent with a leather belt. Ishida was a 2nd Degree Judo Blackbelt. He probably killed both of them. He fled in the direction where he heard engine sounds and was rescued by an Army patrol. Undoubtedly, the patrol went looking for the two Americans, but according to my research, their names do not show up as prisoners.

Kodaka wrote that the date might have been around 23 December 1943. Rabaul, being in the tropics, has no seasons and very often, dates are really off in the veterans’ memories. I recall one Japanese veteran telling me about an incident and he was almost a year off! This kind of sleuthing just fascinates the hell out of me! Will wonders never cease? I just happened to have the records of the 204 Kokutai!

I determined that the date was actually 20 January 1944. On the 204 Air Group records, Ishida made a crash or emergency landing and was slightly injured. The term fujichaku is used in the report, and it could mean crash or emergency landing…or in some cases, parachuting.

In checking with American records, I checked the aircraft losses for this date. One B-25C "Skilla" 42-64570 was downed and so was a P-38. The B-25 carried a 6-man crew. While attacking Vunakanau Airfield, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

This is what happened to the B-25: "According to 1/Lt Willard Johnson of the 390th Bomb Squadron, “At approximately 1335L on 20 January 1944, after leaving target of Vunakanau Airdrome heading east, I witnessed Lt Swartzfager’s plane crash. I was to his right trailing him by 100 yards when part of his right rudder broke off. The plane then rolled over on its back, holding that position momentarily as if he had some control. The nose then went down and the plane went into an inverted spin and completed one complete turn before hitting the trees upside down. The plane exploded upon hitting the trees and burst into flames. I was then passing him but could look back and see the huge column of black smoke coming from the plane.”

The P-38J Lightning 42-67618 belonged to the 339th Fighter Squadron and was piloted by 2/Lt Dwight M. Kelly.  According to records: “Plane was not seen after combat occurred. The information received is not reasonably conclusive evidence of death.” He disappeared around 1330 near the Warangoi River on a bomber escort mission to Rabaul.

Click For EnlargementNow here is something interesting: On 18 January 1944, two days before Ishida’s encounter, another P-38J Lightning 42-67155 was lost. It belonged to the 44th Fighter Squadron and the pilot was Captain Cotesworth B. Head Jr., the squadron leader and ace. He was also on a bomber escort mission. The record states: “Plane last seen making water landing 10 miles east of mouth of Warangoi River.”

I had originally thought that the two Americans encountered in the jungle were part of 390th Bomb Squadron B-25 which went down on 20 January 1944.  I once saw a homemade video on TV news about a large water tanker plane losing its wings in midair and crashing inverted into a forest in a ball of fire. There were no survivors. You may have seen this clip. I decided that no one could have survived such a crash.

There were no losses of US Navy or Marine Corps aircraft during this period around the Rabaul area. The only losses were USAAF aircraft mentioned previously.

Note that Capt Cotesworth B. Head ditched his plane near the mouth of the Warangoi River. He probably swam ashore. Two days later,  2/Lt Dwight M. Kelly probably parachuted and was seen by Head, who went looking for him. I surmise that on 20 January, the two P-38 pilots found each other. Then, they saw a dogfight and a parachute (Ishida). Thinking that he may be an American, they went to look for him also, and found Ishida instead.

Ishida was hospitalized after being rescued and left Rabaul on 5 February 1944 for Japan, along with his buddy Tokkan Kodaka. They both served in Squadron 407 of the 343 Kokutai. Ishida was killed in aerial combat on 16 April 1945 at Kikai/Amami Oshima near Okinawa. Kodaka died about 10 years ago.

On Sunday night, April 27, 2003, I was the guest speaker at the reunion of the 44th Fighter Squadron at the Petersen Inn in Solvang, California. There were two former P-38 pilots at the reunion, who were on the mission led by Capt Cotesworth Head. When I revealed the fate of their squadron leader, they were stunned. In 2004, the sister of Cotesworth Head finally learned about my findings via an aviation writer who got my story from a pilot at the reunion! She finally had closure.

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