USAAF and USN versus the KTAT

Most of the 24 imported Hayabusas were formed into a special interception squadron, FoongBin 16, headquartered at Don Muang. Their first encounter with U. S. aircraft came on December 31,1943, as a flight of B-24 Liberators from the China-based 308th Bomber Group raided Chaing Mai and Lampang without causing any damage because both target areas were altogether missed. No less ineffectual were KTAT efforts to engage them. Thai pilots needed better instruction in the fine points of interception. They were on the receiving end of a March 2, 1944, raid carried out by Curtiss P-40s of the 14th Air Force. A pair of Warhawks strafed the airfield at Kengtung, but only destroyed a single Vought Corsair between them. Events in the South Pacific theater distracted the Americans for the next three months.

Their first attack on Bangkok occurred June 5, but KTAT fighter pilots, prepared this time for the reappearance of the old Liberators, were unable to catch up with the 55 B-29s, which were 28 mph faster. The XXth Bomber Command’s ineffectual raid on the Thai capital represented the operational debut of this new and monstrous warplane. When the same number of Superfortresses returned to destroy Bang Sue’s marshalling yards on November 2, they were intercepted this time by seven Ki. 43s of Foong Bin 16 and twice as many Japanese Hayabusas. Flight Lieutenant Therdsak Worrasap scored accurate hits on one of the big bombers, which later crashed with the loss of all hands before reaching its base, but was himself shot down by the enemy’s defensive fire. He survived with severe burns, parachuting over Petchburi. Another B-29 was badly shot up by Pilot Officer Kamrop, who, like Worrasap, thereafter received his second Medal of Valor.

The KTAT and IJAAF pilots had pressed home 45 attacks against the combined firepower of 660 12.7-mm Browning Ms/AN machine-guns, losing two Thai and five Japanese fighters. Their interception spoiled the American bombardiers’ aim, and the marshalling yards suffered no hits.

On November 11, nine P-51 Mustangs and seven P-38 Lightnings sortied against a railway line between Chiang Mai and the Ban Dara bridge, damaging a locomotive, then turned their attention to Lampang airfield defended by just five serviceable Nakajima fighters. Out-numbered by more than three-to-one odds and almost totally outclassed by superior fighter planes, the Thai airmen fought like the peregrine falcons after which their aircraft had been named. A Lightning spun out of control under the guns of Pilot Officer Kamrob Plengkham, who then dove on a P-51 that disengaged from the battle after receiving several hits. Two more Mustangs were badly shot up by his comrades, and fled the scene of combat before one crashed in northern Thailand, the other inside China.

After making a forced landing, Flight Lieutenant Chalermkiats Ota sprinted from the wreckage of his Ki-43, as it was strafed by one of the Americans. They had nonetheless been prevented from destroying all but one of Lampang’s Hayabusas left parked in the open on the airfield. Although every KTAT pilot had been shot down and wounded, Chief Warrant Officer Nat Sunthorn was the only Thai fatality.

A week later, 10 B-24s raiding Bangkok were opposed by just three Hayabusas, which were mostly intimidated by the Liberators’ heavy defensive fire. Flight Sergeant 1st Class Wichien Buranalekha alone damaged a single B-24, which broke formation trailing smoke from its inner starboard engine, but successfully limped back to base.

Forty five more Superfortresses once more raided the Bang Sue marshalling yards on November 27. Although unopposed this time in the air, they yet again failed to hit their target and did not return until the following year, on January 3, 1945, to attack Bangkok’s Rama VI bridge. By then, attrition, unavailability of replacements, and lack of spare parts had so impacted the Royal Thai Air Force that it could only field five Nakajimas and three Curtiss Hawk biplanes, none of which was able to catch up with the much faster enemy bombers.

USAAF Mustangs reappeared on April 7, destroying seven fighters on the ground and killing as many personnel at the Don Muang airfield. Forty P-51s returned two days later, but were opposed by two Hayabusas. Both were promptly shot down, although their pilots survived to witness the further destruction of four more KTAT warplanes. The Royal Thai Air Force had been reduced to 14 Ki. 43s, 4 of which were still operational, plus 8 Nakajimas, and 6 of these were not in service.

These few, surviving fighters were all that opposed a British Navy task force of nine destroyers, a cruiser, and the aircraft carrier, HMS Ameer, gathering to attack Chalong Bay, Phuket, between July 24 and 25, 1945. Commanders of the Royal Thai Naval Air Service had wisely withdrawn most of their own, remaining seaplanes before the operation commenced. Accordingly, supporting U. S. Navy F6F Hellcats found just one Watanabe to destroy; two more were damaged. A dozen of the reliable floatplanes were still in flying condition, and had performed their coastal patrol duties effectively, spotting enemy submarines and chasing off Allied reconnaissance aircraft. Imperial Japanese Navy commanders had been impressed with Thai diligence, and donated three specimens of their best seaplane in 1942 to the 1st Naval Squadron, which was upgraded to a Naval Wing with bases at Sattahip and Chalong Bay.

The “Jake;’ as Allied pilots referred to it, was a vast improvement on the old Watanabes, with its 1,080-hp Mitsubishi Kinsei 43 radial engine. It was fast for a seaplane at 234 mph, and could do more than merely reconnoiter with its 551 pounds of bombs. An extended endurance over 1,300 miles rendered it suitable for long patrols above coastal waters, where USAAF long-range heavy-bombers attempted mine laying operations in early 1944. Appreciative Japanese officials presented three more Aichi E13A-ls to the Naval Wing in May, after a B-24 was shot down into the Gulf of Thailand. This aerial victory bespoke Thai skill and determination, because the Jake had no forward armament, and carried only a single, rearward-firing, 7.7-mm Type 92 machine-gun for its observer.

The very notion of this lightly armed seaplane taking on a faster heavy-bomber bristling with 10 .50-caliber machine guns, let alone destroying it, was extraordinary. Apparently, the Aichi’s Thai pilot made straight for the intruder, setting a head-on collision course. Just before impact, he dove underneath the big bomber and along the underside, allowing his observer to fire upward into its belly. A fireball consumed the Liberator from which only its wings twirled into the Gulf.

World War II came to an end for Thailand on August 15, 1945, with the surrender of the last, remaining Japanese troops to the Allies. Just four years earlier, a Victory Monument had been erected to Thai servicemen who fell in the war against the French. It still stands in the capital’s Ratchathewi district, on a traffic island at the center of one of Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

 

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