An experienced Japanese ace lost his life in a wild aerial battle over Wewak.
By the beginning of 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force was in dire straits in New Guinea, reduced to defending its battered air bases along the island’s north- ern littoral. At a time when it was being said “No one returns alive from New Guinea” in the Japanese Home Islands, the demoralized airmen sorely needed a role model to boost their morale. That burden fell upon Captain Shigeo Nango, who became known as “the one who maintains our New Guinea air battle.”
Tall and confident, 27-year-old Nango had been rapidly promoted due to his combat skills and winning personality. It also didn’t hurt that his elder brother was Lt. Cmdr. Mochifumi Nango, an Imperial Japanese Navy ace who had scored eight victories before dying in a collision with a Polikarpov I-15 over China in July 1938.
When Shigeo Nango first commenced his career with the 33rd Hiko Sentai (flying regiment) during the Nomohan “incident,” the 1939 border war with the Soviet Union, his commanding officer had confined him to training flights until he gained more experience. Since those early days, Nango had risen to become a squadron leader within the 59th Sentai during the 1942 Malaya campaign, and in August 1943 had been made the regiment’s executive officer. All the while he gained extensive combat experience, such as when he engaged Royal Australian Air Force Spitfires over Darwin on June 20 and 22, 1943. The following month his highly respected unit moved from Timor to Dagua airfield, in New Guinea. By early October the regiment had repaired to Manila for two months of well-earned leave.
The 59th returned to Dagua in late November, now equipped with 34 new Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusas. This meant most pilots were assigned a personal aircraft, which had not been the case for some time. Nango received Nakajima no. 6010, with blue (headquarters) stripes on the rear fuselage indicating his executive officer rank. Instead of following the convention of also painting the regimental motif—a single slanted stripe on the fin—headquarters blue, it was painted red, to highlight Nango’s previous position as commander of the 2nd Chutai (squadron).
In early 1944, the 59th’s commanding officer, Major Takeo Sato, approved a strike against Allied air bases in the Ramu Valley, where U.S. warplanes based at Gusap, Dumpu and Nadzab airfields had become a perpetual thorn in the side for the Japanese at Wewak, on New Guinea’s north coast. On the morning of January 15, Nango led a combined formation of Ki-43 Hayabusas and Kawasaki Ki-61 Hiens in a low-level strike. By Japanese standards, the low-level tactics were unorthodox, perhaps reflecting Nango’s aggressive nature. Many American planes were reportedly damaged that morning, though only one was destroyed: a Republic P-47D of the 35th Fighter Group.
That afternoon Nango’s group of Hayabusas again set out for the valley, where they surprised two flights of Curtiss P-40s. The Warhawks were flown by members of the 312th Bomb Group. Glen Cathcart, operations officer for the 388th Bomb Squadron, and his commanding officer, Major Bill Kemble, were climbing with their flights through 16,000 feet when a lone Oscar (as the Ki-43 was code-named by the Allies) streaked through their formations. Kemble, whose P-40N took hits in the encounter, managed to get back to Gusap, but ground-looped on landing. His plane had to be written off. Two other P-40Ns, flown by 2nd Lts. Billy Hollingshead and John Reisbig, were destroyed when they landed at Gusap.
With three fighters destroyed and another lost, group commander Colonel Bob Strauss was fuming by the time he reached Kemble, who was hauling himself out of the cockpit. Strauss curtly told the pilot that he should take more care of where he was going.
Incensed by the raid, the U.S. Fifth Air Force command decided to launch a retaliatory strike against Wewak’s fighter forces. Though bad weather plagued the Americans for much of the following week, plans for the raid quickly took shape. A large combined formation sortie was set for January 23. Consolidated B-24 Liberators would bomb from medium altitude, while North American B-25 Mitchells strafed on the deck. Both bomber formations would be protected by Warhawks and Lockheed P-38 Lightnings.
After some light morning drizzle, the sun broke out, with scattered clouds from 5,000 to 10,000 feet. When Nango’s Hayabusas launched to defend their turf, the ground crews, as was their custom, lined the grass runways and waved goodbye. Other Hayabusas from the 248th Sentai joined in the sortie, along with 68th Sentai Hiens.
The first wave of Liberators reached Boram aerodrome, just behind Wewak township, at 1100 hours. Ahead of them a formation of Lightnings distracted a group of Hien pilots as they took off. Warhawks from the 49th Group’s 7th Fighter Squadron cruised in four flights of four between 21,000 to 24,000 feet to the right of the Liberator formation. As they approached Wewak’s distinctive coastline, they could see the Lightnings already engaged in combat. A second wave of Liberators arrived over Wewak some 30 minutes later, escorted by 13 P-40Ns of the 49th’s 8th Fighter Squadron, led by the unit’s commanding officer, Bernie Makowskie. A complex engagement would evolve over the course of the next hour at different altitudes and locations, all around Wewak’s coastline.
The first Warhawks to arrive stayed close to the Liberators until they dropped their bombs. Suddenly the P-40s were forced to engage a group of Oscars intent on attacking the bombers. According to a letter later written by Major Sato to Nango’s family, Nango led this frontal assault. Those following him were bounced from above by the Warhawks. Thus the majority of Nango’s Hayabusas became focused on the 7th Squadron P-40s.
At some point in the ensuing melee, Nango went down. Seventh Squadron pilot 1st Lt. Bob DeHaven is popularly credited with the victory, but conflicting reports make this difficult to prove. The movements of Nango and his wingman, Sergeant Tanaka, the only two pilots lost from the 59th Sentai that day, were erratic and remain largely unknown. No Japanese eyewitnesses to Nango’s demise survived the war. According to Sato’s letter, Nango crashed about 30 kilometers east of Kairiru Island and some 30 kilometers out to sea, although how he knew this is unclear. If true, Nango strayed a long way from the main fight, indicating he engaged in protracted combat, likely with either the 8th Squadron Warhawks or the Lightnings.
Although American records from the engagement are coherent, they too are inconclusive. The 7th Squadron Warhawks, led by Captain Arland Stanton, were divided into four flights: White, Blue, Green and Red. Stanton ordered White Flight to stick with the Liberators, but the other three turned to meet the climbing Oscars head-on. DeHaven was in the rearmost P-40 echelon, and at the lowest altitude of all the Warhawks, when the Oscars bounced them from the rear. While DeHaven and wingman 2nd Lt. Marion Hawke climbed away, 2nd Lt. John Crowley and his wingman, 2nd Lt. Jack Suggs, both took hits as Oscars dived through their group. Suggs’ P-40, Paralysis VI, was badly hit, but he made it back to Gusap and belly-landed on the dirt runway. His airplane would be out of service for months. Hawke’s Warhawk had to be written off altogether after he landed wheels-up at Gusap.
Crowley was much worse off. He wound up low and slow over the coast, with an Oscar locked on his tail that drove him into the water. DeHaven saw what was happening and dived to assist Crowley, but arrived too late to save him. DeHaven closed on the Japanese fighter, flaming it and sending it into the water for his eighth victory. Given his proximity to the coast at that point, and assuming Sato’s account was accurate, it seems unlikely his victim was Nango.
Also at low level, Blue Flight leader 1st Lt. Jim Hagerstrom claimed three Oscars and a Tony (as the Allies called the Ki-61), while 2nd Lt. John Bodak, flying Ragged But Right, claimed two Oscars. From White Flight, 1st Lt. Lou Graton and 2nd Lts. George Smerchek and Carl Lambert each claimed one.
By this point the fighting was widely scattered. The Lightnings started encountering Hayabusas as well, some of which were assigned to the 248th Sentai. That regiment lost Sergeant Akiharu Saito and Lieutenant Nobuyoshi Totsuka, the 2nd Chutai commander, in the course of the combat.
Well away from the Warhawks, Lightning pilots “Screwy” Louis Schriber and Ken Ladd of the 8th Fighter Group’s 80th Squadron each claimed kills. The crowded sky ensured that combatants’ paths often crossed. When one Lightning collided with a Hien flown by Sgt. Maj. Yoshizo Kajita of the 68th Sentai, both aircraft fell into the sea near Boram.
The Lightning pilots of the 475th Fighter Group’s 433rd Squadron were busy. Their leader, Captain John Loisel, chased an Oscar heading west toward Dagua at 1,000 feet. When he closed in, the Japanese pilot barrel rolled to avoid his gunfire. A second burst flamed the enemy plane, which spun into the jungle below. First Lieutenant Perry Dahl claimed another Oscar in similar circumstances after clearing it from Loisel’s tail. Three P-38 pilots were lost, however, including 1st Lt. Donald Revenaugh and 2nd Lt. Carl Danforth, whose Lightnings crashed into the ocean. Fellow pilot 1st Lt. Cyril Homer reported that one of the downed Lightnings had a letter “H” on its nose, indicating it was Hills Angels, flown by 1st Lt. Jess Gidley. Thus the Lightning destroyed in the mid-air collision was flown by either Revenaugh or Danforth.
The 8th Squadron Warhawks entered the fray at 18,000 feet half an hour after the first shots were fired. They crossed paths with what they estimated to be 30 enemy fighters, likely a combined formation of 248th Sentai Ki-43-IIs and 68th Sentai Ki-61s.
Overclaiming was common on both sides throughout the war. Despite more extravagant claims, the Americans had downed six Oscars, with one Tony destroyed in the midair collision. The Japanese said they had downed 12 definite and six probable U.S. fighters. In reality, American losses totaled three Lightnings and one Warhawk.
Of course, casualty numbers alone don’t reflect the impact of losses experienced by either side. The loss of Nango, which further depressed Japanese morale, had a significant impact on all the New Guinea aerial units.
DeHaven’s wingman, Marion Hawke, returned to Gusap unscathed on January 23. He was killed a few weeks later in a freak ground accident. Lieutenant Kaneji Ikakura replaced Lieutenant Nobuyoshi Totsuka as commanding officer of the 248th Sentai’s 2nd Chutai after Totsuka was killed. Ikakura died in action over Hollandia on April 18, 1944.
Nango, posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel, was replaced by Captain Kenjiro Kobayashi, who led the 59th Sentai as its executive officer until March 1945, after which he was appointed commanding officer of the 55th Sentai in Japan. He survived the war.
The Allied forces kept pounding away at the bases along New Guinea’s northern shores. Within months the Japanese would be ordered to abandon Wewak’s airfields. The remnants of the 59th Sentai were sent back to Japan in February 1944 to regroup, and a year later the unit was transferred to Korea. It ended the war stationed at Mushiroda, Japan, under the command of Major Susumu Nishi.
For many members of the 59th, memories of their former executive officer lingered long after the war. At the time of his death, Shigeo Nango, a seasoned combat veteran with at least 15 victories, represented a dying breed— the experienced Japanese ace—that would soon verge on extinction.
Australia-based author Michael Claringbould would like to thank Jim Lansdale, Bob Alford, Rick Dunn, Osamu Tagaya and Nick Millman for sharing their expertise on the Japanese side of this story. For additional reading, try: Japanese Army Air Force Fighter Units and Their Aces, 1931-1945, by Ikuhiko Hata, Yasuho Izawa and Christopher Shores; and Japanese Army Air Force Aces 1937-45, by Henry Sakaida.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.