DESPERATE GAMBLE
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1997 by Eric Hammel



It is unclear what RAdm Sadayoshi Yamada and his staff and command officers had in mind when they approved the second 5th Air Attack Force mission of August 7. Nearly all the operational Tainan Air Group long-range Zeros had accompanied nearly all the operational 4th Air Group Bettys to the Tulagi area, and the Rabaul air command felt an attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft was imminent. But someone must have convinced Admiral Yamada-or perhaps he convinced himself-that he had not committed enough to the attack against the Allied invasion fleet around Tulagi.

Very shortly after the 4th Air Group Bettys finished taking off, nine of the newly arrived 2d Air Group's sixteen Aichi D3A Val dive-bombers were also launched from their base at Rabaul. But unlike the Bettys and long-range Zeros, this attack force had no hope whatsoever of returning from the mission. If it flew all the way to Tulagi, it would not even be able to return as far as the Buka strip. All of the Vals were to be sacrificed.

A seaplane tender and a Mavis flying boat were dispatched to pick up ditched pilots and crewmen in the Shortland Islands, off southern Bougainville, but no one could have had much faith in that plan. The Val was a carrier bomber with an operational range of approximately 275 miles-enough for a carrier bomber under most circumstances, but not even close for filling in as a land-based bomber under conditions that held sway on August 7, 1942, in the region under attack by the Allies. There was no provision in the airplane's design for an auxiliary fuel tank-no way to eke out significant extra miles. Moreover, the land-based Vals in the 2d Air Group's inventory carried only two wing-mounted 60-kilogram bombs, and not a 250-kilogram centerline bomb. If they attacked Allied ships off Tulagi, there was very little hope that their bombs would sink any, or even cause very much significant damage.

There was to be no fighter escort. The 2d Air Group's own Zero squadron was equipped with short-range Zero interceptors that could not fly even as far as the short-range Vals, and there seemed to be no point in dispatching an escort of only six Tainan Air Group long-range Zeros, which is all the veteran land-based fighter group had left on operational status at Lakunai Airdrome.

Nine 2d Air Group Vals under the command of the hikotaicho, Lt Fumito Inoue, began launching at 1030.

About the only outside Allied combat organization that could provide assistance to the Guadalcanal invasion force was MajGen George Kenney's Allied Air Forces, which had several groups of bombers and fighters based in New Guinea, mostly around Port Moresby. It was no mean feat for the embattled U.S. Army Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area to provide the needed assistance, but provide it did. B-26 medium bombers flown by the V Bomber Command's 22d Medium Bombardment Group attacked Lae during the day to keep Imperial Navy bombers and fighters from being shifted to Rabaul to take part in strikes against the invasion fleet at Guadalcanal. And at 1220, thirteen 19th Heavy Bombardment Group B-17 heavy bombers based in Australia and refueling at Port Moresby attacked Rabaul's Vunakanau Airdrome. Leading the strike was LtCol Richard Carmichael, the veteran commander of the 19th Bomb Group.

The attack on Vunakanau was not the least bit altruistic. Allied intelligence had surmised that 150 Imperial Navy fighters and bombers were based there, and that fifty additional aircraft were at Lakunai. It was as important to Allied commands in New Guinea as it was to Allied commands in the South Pacific that these forces be reduced.

One B-17 taking off from Port Moresby crashed before it could become airborne, and two B-17s returned to base with mechanical problems only minutes after taking off. One of the returning B-17s was piloted by Capt Harl Pease, who immediately transferred his crew to another heavy bomber, which was known to be in something less than top flight condition. Pease rejoined the rest of the strike force over Vunakanau, where the heavies were intercepted by fifteen 2d Air Group short-range Zeros and three Tainan Air Group long-range Zeros. Captain Pease's bombardier was able to release the bombs aboard his airplane, but the B-17 was set upon by several Zeros and eventually cut out of the pack. It lagged farther and farther behind the rest of the group, and finally it fell from the sky, apparently killing all aboard. Captain Pease was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

No Japanese aircraft were destroyed or even damaged on the ground, and no Zeros were downed despite claims for seven by the B-17 gunners. The Vunakanau runway, which did receive minor damage, was repaired long before Lt Renpei Egawa and LCdr Tadashi Nakajima returned with their 4th Air Group Bettys and Tainan Air Group Zeros. Shortly, the Allied Air Forces' General Kenney, who would become an excellent combat commander, heard via a decoded radio intercept that the 5th Air Attack Force had thirty Bettys operational at Vunakanau that evening. Deducting this number from the erroneous very high intelligence estimates that had precipitated the noon-hour Vunakanau strike led Kenney to announce that the 19th Heavy Bombardment Group B-17s had destroyed seventy-five Japanese bombers on the ground.

In point of fact, the number of Bettys available at Rabaul climbed by nine during the afternoon, when a chutai of the Misawa Air Group arrived from Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. It was the arrival of these Bettys that led to Admiral Yamada's report that led to General Kenney's erroneous deduction.

The level of energy and effort aboard the U.S. Navy carriers off Guadalcanal was frenetic following the end of the battle with the 4th Air Group Bettys and Tainan Air Group Zeros. Many fighters were launched from the three carriers, and search missions were dispatched to look for downed fighter pilots on Guadalcanal and in the sea near Santa Isabel. By 1400, forty-four Wildcats were over the carriers and eighteen were over the invasion fleet.

Also at 1400, a strange false alarm was rendered by the invasion fleet commander, RAdm Richmond Kelly Turner. Fighting-6's battle with the Bettys had not yet ended off Santa Isabel when Turner warned that an attack by Japanese dive-bombers was imminent. And then Task Force 61 transmitted a warning that twenty-five enemy bombers were attacking from 8,000 feet. There were no Japanese aircraft anywhere near Guadalcanal or the carriers at this time, but these warnings set everyone on edge, for the implication was that Japanese carriers were in the area-even though U.S. Fleet intelligence had correctly reported that all of Japan's carriers were in home waters.

The false alarm was not sprung by any of the Allied coastwatchers hiding out in the central or northern Solomons, for Lieutenant Inoue's 2d Air Group Val chutai was skirting the northern chain of islands at nearly 10,000 feet, far from the sight of any of the coastwatcher stations. This track brought the Vals to the northern side of Florida Island at 1430. They were beyond the range of U.S. Navy radars and U.S. Navy fighter patrols. When Inoue judged that his dive-bombers were opposite the invasion fleet, he signaled a turn to the south.

There were clouds over the northern flotilla of Task Force 62, but Inoue had a clear view of many ships to the south, off Guadalcanal. As the Val chutai neared these ships, Inoue motioned for the three-plane shotai under WO Gengo Ota to attack a force of cruisers and destroyers to the west while the remaining six Vals went after transports anchored off the invasion beach.

The first American to realize an attack was under way was Lt Scoop Vorse, who was leading a pair of other Fighting-6 Wildcats over the western anchorage off Guadalcanal. Vorse happened to look down from 11,000 feet in time to see Warrant Officer Ota's shotai rolling into its dive against the warships below. Vorse was amazed, a feeling he overcame in a split second and rolled straight into a dive of his own. His two wingmen saw him go, but they were unable to follow, and they did not see any targets in time to figure out what was going on. A little late off the mark-he was lucky to have been on the mark at all-Vorse was barely able to keep contact with the diving Vals. The best he could do for the moment was park well behind the tail of the rear Val and open fire from long range.

With all the fine, big targets ahead of him-cruisers galore-Warrant Officer Ota for some reason set his sights on the Mugford, an oldish destroyer holding station in the western antisubmarine screen. At 1447, according to the Mugford's log, a lookout spotted two fixed-gear airplanes diving out of a cloud astern of the ship and head right at him. The sailor shouted a warning, and then he saw two more airplanes dive out of the cloud. Though the Mugford's captain was uncertain as to what was going on, he instinctively ordered a sharp turn to starboard.

Ota and his wingman followed the destroyer into the turn and dropped their four 60-kilogram bombs. Ota's missed the ship to starboard, but one of PO2 Koji Takahashi's bombs struck the Mugford's aft superstructure and killed twenty-one crewmen. The third Val, commanded by PO2 Minoru Iwaoka and piloted by S1 Seiki Nakamoto, never made a move on the injured destroyer, or any other ship. Perhaps Scoop Vorse had killed Iwaoka or Nakamoto with his guns, which he had been firing all the way down; certainly his bullets struck the Val, for the airplane's descent was marked by a trail of smoke. Whatever occurred, the Val dived straight into the water without ever lining up on a ship or opening its dive brakes. Score one for Lt Scoop Vorse, who pulled out to chase Ota and Takahashi but could not find them.

The six 2d Air Group Vals led by Lt Fumito Inoue never did reach the Allied transports. As they crossed the channel between Florida and Guadalcanal at 10,000 feet, they were spotted by Lt Hayden Jensen, whose Fighting-5 section was part of a six-plane division led by Lt Dick Gray. Though the Vals were 3,000 feet above the Wildcats, and well to the west, Jensen happened to be looking right at them when they came into view. In fact, he caught sight of the Vals just as three of them-Warrant Officer Ota's shotai-split off to attack the warships farther to the west.

Rather than clutter the fighter channel, Jensen raced to the head of the fighter division and waggled his wings to signal an alarm. Then he put on full power and led the way toward the larger group of Vals. During the climb, one Wildcat dropped out when its pilot found that its guns were not working.

At about the time Gray's division, with Jensen in the lead, began climbing toward the six 2d Air Group Vals, Fighting-5's Lt Dave Richardson and Ens Charles Davy spotted the same enemy dive-bombers from their position at 13,000 feet and to the north. As Richardson arrowed down, he hoped he would arrive in time to meet the Vals before they commenced combat dives on any of the juicy targets in the channel. If the Vals did dive before Richardson and Davy reached them, there would be no way for these Wildcats to spoil the bombing attack.

Lieutenant Inoue probably spotted Dick Gray's five Wildcats as they climbed toward his Vals, and that apparently prompted him to switch targets. There was no way he could reach the transports before his slow dive-bombers were overtaken by the carrier fighters, so he opted to go after what he believed was a light cruiser that was much closer. In fact, it was another oldish destroyer, the Dewey, which was west of the transports, guarding against submarine attack.

The Vals had just reversed their heading to set up on the Dewey when Lieutenant Jensen arrived in range at the head of Gray's division. Attacking from the side on a slight climb, Jensen fired at the nearest Val, which staggered in flight as bullets clearly struck home. The wounded Val split off from the rest of the group and angled toward the water. Jensen stayed with it, firing all the way.

The Dewey and other ships opened fire at everything in the air. Huge puffs from time-fused 5-inch antiaircraft rounds and ribbons of tracer blossomed and snaked at all levels from quite a bit higher than the Japanese dive-bombers and U.S. Navy fighters to quite a bit lower. But the remainder of Gray's division pressed in. Lt(jg) Carlton Starkes and Lt Marion Dulfiho followed the Vals into their dive, firing all the way at whatever targets presented themselves. Ens Mark Bright had so much speed on that he overran the rear Val. Ignoring the danger from that dive-bomber's two 7.7mm cowl machine guns, he pressed his attack on the next-to-rear Val and was answered in kind by a stream of 7.7mm bullets from its observer-gunner. Undeterred, Bright stayed the course until flames blossomed from between the fixed landing gear and spread forward and back. Lieutenant Gray, who was trailing Bright, fired a burst into the rear Val, but he thought someone better look out for more attackers, so he pulled up short and went high. Lieutenant Richardson and Ensign Davy did not get there in time to beat the Vals into their dive, so they pulled out and, like Dick Gray, looked around for more attackers.

Lieutenant Inoue and PO3 Seiji Sato reached the drop point over the Dewey without being hit by antiaircraft fire or drawing any direct fire from the Wildcats. All four of their bombs missed. Seconds later, two Vals from the rear shotai reached the drop point, but their bombs also missed the twisting destroyer.

At this point, Mach Don Runyon arrived on the scene with the three other members of his Fighting-6 Wildcat division. Alerted by chatter on the fighter channel, Runyon knew where to go and what to do when he got there. He skirted the friendly fire from below and attacked the first Val that he could get into his gunsight. He must have scored hits, but the dive-bomber was really hammered by the leader of Runyon's second section, AP1 Howard Packard. The Val definitely crashed off Lunga, and Packard was given full credit, but it is certain that this airplane had suffered battle damage under the guns of Dulfiho, Starkes, and Runyon-and perhaps Jensen and Bright too.

Lieutenant Dulfiho spotted one of the rear shotai survivors as it completed its recovery off the Dewey. This Val broke to the south and attempted to evade by flying across Guadalcanal's mountainous interior. The veteran Wildcat pilot-his first combat had been a carrier raid in February-closed to only 50 yards off the Val's tail and opened fire. Unfortunately, at the crucial moment, Dulfiho's windshield was covered by oil thrown up by his own engine. He cracked the canopy and leaned out, resuming fire and attempting to adjust his aim on the fall of his tracer. But it was hopeless, and Dulfiho broke contact. By then, AP1 Packard was on the scent, and he went all out to catch up with the fleeing Val. But Don Runyon got there first, from ahead and below, and Packard's wingman, Ens Dutch Shoemaker, boxed it in from the side. All three Wildcats were firing when the Val flew into a ravine and blew up. Runyon was the division leader; he got the credit.

Lieutenant Inoue and one of his wingmen got clean away. However, the leader of the rear shotai, WO Seisuke Nakagaki, was fired on-and individually claimed-by both Ens Mark Bright and Mach Don Runyon as he flew clear of the Allied shipping. Then Nakagaki was caught by Ens Dutch Shoemaker and Runyon's wingman, Ens Harry March, as he neared Savo on a course toward the Shortland Islands. As Shoemaker set up for a high-side run, March roared up the Val's tail and fired despite a stream of bullets put out by Nakagaki's observer-gunner. March thought his bullets started a fire, but Lt Hayden Jensen, who was coming on fast, thought the stream of white smoke was from a nonfatal oil-line break. In any event, Jensen closed on the wounded Val and fired bursts into it from 350 yards and on down. His bullets definitely set Nakagaki's oft-wounded Val aflame, and the dive-bomber knifed into the water, for sure. Just about everyone involved was awarded a full official credit for this lone victory.

In all, the nine Fighting-5 and Fighting-6 Wildcat pilots who attacked Lieutenant Inoue's six Vals claimed thirteen full victories, and Lt Scoop Vorse claimed one of the three Vals that attacked the Mugford. Naval vessels firing at the Vals claimed two.

All four of the 2d Air Group survivors, who claimed a light cruiser damaged, reached the Shortland Islands at about 1700. Warrant Officer Ota and Petty Officer Takahashi set their Vals down in the water, as planned, and all four airmen in them swam to the waiting Mavis. Shortly, Lieutenant Inoue and his wingman ditched near the rendezvous with the seaplane tender. Inoue and his observer were rescued by the ship when it arrived on the scene, but the second pilot and his wingman simply disappeared.

In return for superficially damaging a U.S. Navy destroyer and killing twenty-one members of its crew-with one of eighteen 60-kilogram bombs carried 600 miles from Rabaul-the 2d Air Group lost all nine Vals and twelve of eighteen pilots and observers.