Buna 1942

Airacobras of the 80th FS at Fourteen Mile Drome, fourteen miles from Port Moresby in the fall of 1942. The pilot with the cigarette in his mouth is William Brown, who shot down two Zeros during the raid of August 26th, 1942. The other pilot in this shot is 2nd Lt. Charles R. Able, who also had some success during this raid, when he damaged another Zero, although this was not during the actual raid proper, but rather on the return trip to their home field. In any case, Able was one of four pilots that were ultimately forced to leave the formation due to damage to their own airplanes. In this case, it was due to the loss of a cockpit entry door. In the background, behind the plane coded `A’, is Airacobra coded `Y’, the subject of the ProfiPACK release of the P-400 kit. Noteworthy is the nonstandard black spinner and the kill mark ahead of the code `Y’. In the case of this Airacobra, the marking was applied to both sides of the nose.

80th FS, 8th FG, Port Moresby, New Guinea, Autumn 1942

Between the 25th and 29th of August, 1942, the Americans conducted four aerial raids against the Japanese airfield situated near the village of Buna, during which the attacking 80th and 41st FS Airacobras  were credited with the destruction of eleven Zeros in air combat, and another nine on the ground. The Americans conceded the loss of one Airacobra, without, however, the loss of the pilot. The successes of these raids significantly influenced the course of air combat over New Guinea for the next several months. This was also helped by the fact that the Japanese were compelled to withdraw their elite Tainan Kokutai from New Guinea to Rabaul at the end of August, 1942. The unit was replaced on New Guinea by the newly transferred 2nd Kokutai, which began combat ops from Buna on August 22nd, 1942, and the above mention raids severely limited their combat effectiveness, considering that the unit initially had around thirty A6M3 Model 32 Hamps at its disposal, more commonly known by the reporting name of Zero.

When pilots of the 80th FS strapped into their Airacobras on the morning of August 26, they had completed their first month of combat duty in the defense of Port Moresby, but without a single victory over a Japanese aircraft to the unit’s credit. This was partially due to the decrease in Japanese air force activity at the time. Even more significant factors were the relative inexperience of the pilots and the limited performance of the Airacobra at higher altitudes, from which the Japanese bomber assets tended to attack Port Moresby. Even on this rainy morning, there was really nothing to suggest that the cards were about to change in the 80th FS’s favor. From the group of ten Airacobras slated to fly the mission, almost half were pulled off the roster due to technical issues, including the unit CO, Capt. Philip Grasley. As a result, the planned mission would be flown by just six airplanes. The mission was taken over by Capt. William Brown, and maybe because of this turn of events, the unit took off on an incorrect heading. The first to realize the mistake was 2nd Lt. Daniel Roberts, flying Brown’s wing, and as the formation was increasingly heading off course, radio silence was broken in order to inform his CO of what had been happening. Brown promptly corrected the navigational error, and it was at this moment that the 80th FS fortunes would turn for the better. Thanks to the aforementioned problems, the formation of six Airacobras approached the Japanese base from an unexpected direction. Adding to the misfortune of the taking off Japanese, the timing of the attack couldn’t have been worse. Three Zeros began gaining altitude, while another three had just left the runway. The first encounter between the two sides led to Zero kills recorded by Capt. William Brown, 2nd Lt. Daniel Roberts, Lt. George T. Helveston and 2nd Lt. Gerald T. Rogers. Brown and Rogers each downed another after a quick turn back into the fight in a head on attack, while 2nd Lt. Leonidas S. Maters damaged a third, and Lt. Noel Lundy, bringing up the rear of the Airacobra group, also was involved. On the Japanese side, lost were Petty Officer 1st Class Takeichi Iwase and Petty Officer 3rd Class Taizo Ibara. Flight P/O 3c Kiyoshi Nakono was also lost, while Ensign Kazuo Tsonuda managed to force land his stricken aircraft, coded Q-102, on the airfield’s landing strip. Member of the Tainan Kokutai, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ichirobei Yamazaki, needed to be evacuated to Rabaul due to his injuries, and subsequently back to his native Japan. The only loss suffered by the Americans was Airacobra serialed BW112, flown by 2nd Lt. Gerald G. Rogers, who was forced to bail from his stricken aircraft and after parachuting into the ocean below, endured strafing attacks by Zeros trying to avenge their own losses. The journey back to his unit through the New Guinea jungle, with the help of sympathetic and supportive locals, lasted a seemingly never ending thirty days. After his return, he still managed to close out the kill tally of the first operational tour of the 80th FS, when he downed a Sally on January 17th, 1943.

As was mentioned above, 5th AF Airacobras conducted a total of four air raids against the field at Buna. The first came on August 25th, with a raid conducted by the 80th FS and 41st FS together. The 80th FS was tasked with providing top cover for their 41st FS colleagues, the latter of which managed to light up six Zeros parked on the field, with another 14 to 16 damaged. Over the course of the missions conducted between the 27th and 29th of August, Airacobras from the 41st FS  accounted for another five Zeros downed in air combat and another three on the ground. The 41st FS also added a Betty bomber destroyed to their credit. The sudden success of the unit was no doubt helped by pilot morale within it, despite flying the somewhat unappreciated Airacobra, and this was at least in part responsible for improving the type’s reputation in the skies over New Guinea.

Sources:

Logged information of 80th FS missions between January 1942 and January 1944

Attack and Conguer, The 8th FG in WWII, by J. C. Stanaway a L. J. Hickey

The 5th Fighter Command in WWII, by William Wolf

Airacobra vs Zero, Osprey Publishing, by Michael John Claringbould

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