“Wewak, on the northern coast of New Guniea, was the most heavily defended Japanese base on that island during the Southwest Pacific air campaign of World War II. At least seven fighter sentais (regiments) were based on the various surrounding fighter stations during 1943 and early 1944. Defenses were so strong, in fact, that Wewak was not assaulted on the ground by allied forces until May 1945, long after the rest of the northern coast of New Guinea had been secured. But it would be assaulted by air well before that.
The first great shock felt by Wewak came during August 1943, when waves of North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, brand-new Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts of the Fifth Air Force destroyed hundreds of Japanese aircraft on the ground and in the air. From August 17 until the beginning of September, the Wewak area including the surrounding airfields of Dagua and Borum-was pounded by bombers until it ceased to be an offensive base for the Japanese. Wewak did take defensive action, however, and sent large numbers of interceptors to counter Allied bombing raids and ever-increasing fighter sweeps.
By the latter part of 1943, the 80th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group had become one of the most proficient P-38 units in the Pacific. Major Ed “Porky” Cragg had assumed command of the squadron early in 1943 and is generally credited with nicknaming the unit “Headhunters.” He was a freewheeling sort of leader who inspired a buccaneer atmosphere in the squadron. Some of the men in the 80th felt he was too lax with basic flying discipline; the squadron’s aerial formations were sometimes less than precise. At any rate, there was no denying that Cragg was largely responsible for the renewed fighting spirit of the 80th Fighter Squadron after it converted from Bell P-39 Airacobras to P-38s at Charters Towers, then a Royal Australian Air Force training center, in February 1943.
Luckily, pilots like Captain Danny Roberts and Lieutenant Don “Fibber” McGee already had some combat experience. McGee had been an unwilling transfer from the 80th’s sister squadron, the 36th. He originally referred to the P-38 as a “flying bedstead,” but learned to appreciate the swift and heavily armed Lightning as the other pilots soon did.
By the middle of December 1943, the 80th would be credited with more than 100 aerial victories, including 12 in one mission to the formidable battleground over Rabaul on New Britain Island. Also during December, the first American troop landings were made in the Arawe area on the southern coast of New Britain. Opposition from the Japanese Army Air Forces (JAAF) came mainly from airfields in the Wewak area, prompting further strikes from the Fifth Air Force to suppress the threat from that area.
Starting on December 19, Allied air units began a series of attacks on the airfields around Wewak. The most savagely fought battle came on December 22, when P-38s of the 80th Fighter Squadron and 475th Fighter Group escorted B-25s of the 345th Bomb Group in a low-level raid. Unfortunately for them, a large number of Japanese Nakajima M-43 Hayabusas (peregrine falcons, code-named Oscars by the Allies) and Kawasald Ki.61 Hiens (swallows, called Tonys by the Allies) happened to be in the air at precisely the right time and place.
The 80th Fighter Squadron was to rendezvous with B-25s of the 499th and 500th squadrons of the 345th Bomb Group on that day. The 475th would cover the other bombers in the rear, in what was expected to be the most vigorously contested part of the bombing mission.
Porky Cragg awakened especially early on December 22 to check on some details of the operation at the 80th Squadron’s main base at Dobodura, on the northeast coast of New Guinea. He had never liked Wewak raids because of the hornets nest reactions they could often produce. Not that Cragg had a reputation for being overly cautious, but he did seem to take extra care that particular morning. (Some of his fellow pilots from his prewar Panama Canal days had been frustrated with him when he led a flight over the Central American waters without even checking a chart and nearly lost the entire formation before luckily finding the way home.) While 17 P-38s warmed their engines in the early morning of a humid New Guinea summer, the pilots were briefed and had the usual unappealing breakfast of whatever could be preserved in the jungle heat. Cragg led his squadron off at 7:20, just as the bright sun was rising over the horizon. Lieutenant Paul Murphey, a young Texan with two confirmed victories already to his credit, led Cragg’s second element, and Captain Jay I Robbins headed up the third flight.
Lieutenant Cornelius “Corky” Smith led the fourth and final flight of five P-38s. The extra plane apparently turned back shortly before the air battle, since squadron records specify that 16 P-38s entered the fight.
The 80th joined the B-25s, which had taken off from Port Moresby, over the Gusap area, about midway between Port Moresby and Wewak, at 8:30. At about the same time, Japanese radar would have been picking up the first signs of enemy air formations and transmitting the information to Wewak. The process was slow, and the Americans could reasonably hope for surprise.
En route to the target, the 80th Squadron P-38s and their bomber charges settled down to a relatively clear day along the northern New Guinea coast. The sky at the fighters’ covering altitude of approximately 10,000 feet was dotted with only a few scattered clouds. Unfortunately, there was a ring of broken gray sky punctuated by rain squalls that favored defending fighters around Wewak.
Even worse for the Americans, three transports of the Japanese 15th Resupply Convoy happened to be in Wewak Harbor and had been assigned a heavy fighter cover of Tonys and. Oscars during unloading operations. Major Akira Takatsuki, who had commanded the 78th Sentai since it came to the theater in April 1943, led the Tonys of that unit, while other Tonys of the 68th Sentai and Oscars of the 59th and 248th Sentais completed the Japanese air cover over Wewak.
Apparently, the Japanese fighters received the warning of approaching enemy aircraft at about 9:30. Because the Americans were coming in over the coast through low, broken cloud cover, it would be a simple matter to spread the intercepting fighters out in a fan on both sides of the coast and stalk the intruders.
Cragg must have had some appreciation of that possibility, and he scanned through the sunlight filtering down from gaps in the clouds. There was scattered rain to further obscure vision, and he wished he could take the entire raiding force to a better altitude.
Corky Smith was bringing up the rear of the 80th formation with his fourth flight. The rain and heavy clouds forced Smith down to an altitude of 7,000 feet, but visibility was still so bad that the four flights had to group close together to maintain visual contact. From the seaward side of the American formation, some of the Japanese interceptors saw Smith’s flight through the broken rain clouds. Even with their olive camouflage, the P-38s shimmered in the sky, which was alternately filled with showers and dancing sunlight. Four excited Tony pilots and a similar number of Oscar pilots quickly jockeyed for position and came down hard on the Americans.
Smith was just starting to climb to regain lost altitude when he looked around to see two Tonys hurtling through the rain to attack his flight. With the reflexes of a seasoned veteran, he called out the sighting to Jay Robbins, who was leading the third flight directly ahead, and turned into the Japanese. The maneuver was not quite quick enough for Smith’s wingman, Lieutenant John Stanifer, who suffered some hits before the Tonys broke away. Smith himself had some difficulty with the electrical switches that released his underwing fuel tanks and spent an arduous moment using the manual release. Fortunately, the Tonys had decided to curve away before another attack.
At the same time, Cragg was encountering a formation of 78th Sentai Tonys led by Major Takatsuki. The Tonys dived directly on the American escort, but Cragg was quick enough to draw a bead on Takatsuki and fire a burst from about 200 yards. The lead was off, however, and Cragg’s fire arced behind his target.
Takatsuki tried to loop his Tony as tightly as possible to get back on Cragg’s tail, reaching the top of the maneuver when the second flight of P-38s came into range. Either Lieutenant Bert Reed or Lieutenant Delbert Furgason fired a shot at the Tony, which was hanging almost motionless for the moment. Strange as the coincidence seems, Takatsuki jettisoned his canopy and tumbled out of the cockpit just as Cragg was turning his P-38 directly below.
While the Japanese parachute was deploying, Cragg was unable to avoid hitting it and ripped it to shreds with his right propeller. Horrified, he watched the body of the Japanese pilot tumble thousands of feet into the misty jungle below. Somewhat shaken but still in control, Cragg looked around to keep in touch with the air battle now raging. A section of the doomed pilot’s parachute was still wrapped around the P-38’s right wing as a macabre reminder of the incident.
Cragg turned back toward the Sepik River, where three more Tonys and an Oscar were coming at the P-38s head-on. The first Tony came barreling in and looked like nothing more than a silver coin balanced on a knife blade when Cragg opened fire at about 250 yards. As the Tony passed him, it was pouring out flames and black smoke, and when he looked back, Cragg saw it plunge straight down like a blazing torch.
Paul Murphey and his wingman, Lieutenant Bob “Swede” Hanson, took on the next Tony. Murphey waited tensely until the target came into range and then depressed the firing button on the P-38s control wheel. The Tony rolled over at the last second and went down with a flash of fire bursting from its engine and fuselage.
Corky Smith and John Stanifer had momentarily lost contact with the rest of the last 80th flight. Smith was anxious about his pilots, with good reason. In addition to the damage suffered by Stanifer’s fighter, Lieutenant Howard Donaldson had taken hits from a Tony that shot out one of his engines. He managed to pick up an escort for a time from two of the retiring P-38s, but then his other engine burst into flames. His escorting comrades could only watch helplessly while his plane went down on fire, to crash on a marshy plain about 35 miles southeast of Wewak.
Smith spotted six P-38s flying through the area and decided to join the string. Then he saw what they were after. Down on the water, just southeast of Wewak an Oscar was flying near the waves, with its jungle camouflage and red insignia marking it as a perfect target.
The Oscar was an amazingly maneuverable little fighter, as the first six P-38 pilots learned when they delved down and the Japanese plane turned neatly under them. Smith was a little cagier than the rest, and he hauled back the throttle and put his P-38’s nose straight down. He cut off the Oscar and got in behind it–Smith chased the unlucky Oscar toward shore until it flew over Brandi Plantation, south of Wewak. The two planes were just 500 feet off the ground when Smith fired a long burst that registered flashes all over the Oscar’s fuselage. Smith overflew the dying fighter, but Stanifer watched long enough to see it crash into the jungle.
Stanifer was low on fuel by then and radioed that he was leaving. Smith acknowledged Stanifer’s call, but decided to remain in the area to clear the bomber route of stray Japanese fighters and to try to find the other members of his flight.
One of the 80th pilots who did not return from the mission was Lieutenant Jennings Myers. He had scored four aerial victories over the Wewak area on previous missions and was observed shooting down a Tony during this mission for his fifth victory. Unfortunately, he became someone else’s victory before he could return to base and celebrate.
Major Meryl M. Smith of the 475th Fighter Group was returning from the mission with the 431st Squadron when he saw a P-38 in a long power glide flying north from over the land toward the ocean. He could see the right engine was feathered, but there was at least some power in the left engine that was still turning the propeller.
The P-38 then turned toward the east and flew near the shore, very low over the surf. Smith tried to call the pilot without success. The fighter in trouble had the green-and-white propeller spinners and tail tips of the 80th Fighter Squadron and was marked with a yellow letter “C” on the gondola nose. Smith later learned that the P-38 was flown by Myers.
After Myers had flown about two miles along the beach, he ditched his aircraft in the water about 50 yards from shore. It was a good crash landing, and the pilot appeared to be unhurt. As soon as the stricken P-38 settled into the water, Smith turned back and buzzed the crash site. The plane’s tail was sticking out of the water, and the pilot was wading ashore. Smith could see the man was wearing his orange life vest, but his parachute must still have been in the sinking fighter. Without the jungle kit that was attached to the parachute, the man would have a devil of a time getting back-not that it would be easy even with the kit.
Smith heard the call “Gardenia from Copper” over the radio. Copper was the 80th’s call sign, and Gardenia was the PBY flying boat rescue service. The Copper calls came in loud and clear, but there was no answer from Gardenia.
After about 15 minutes of flying over the area, Smith could not sight the pilot again. The downed P-38 had sunk completely, and the beach looked deserted. Myers had gone down in the Murik Lagoon region near the mouth of the Sepik River. The ground was marshy, with kunai grass and trees that sometimes reached as high as 150 feet.
Most of the surviving P-38s landed at Nadzab before heading to Port Moresby, across the mountains from Dobodura. The next day, the 80th Squadron moved permanently to Nadzab, which meant that they were nearly half as far away from Wewak. Stanifer and one other 80th pilot stayed overnight at Nadzab while their damaged fighters were repaired.
Cragg flew directly to Port Moresby, where the ground crews wondered at the shredded Japanese parachute fluttering from the wing of his P-38, marked on the nose with Porky II in yellow letters. Cragg would be bothered by the memory of the horrific incident for the rest of his short life.
Meryl Smith was also bothered by Jennings Myers’ crash landing, which he reported to Nadzab Operations as soon as he landed. Later, at his own base of Dobodura, he considered the fate of the pilot he had watched trudge alone into the friendless jungle and decided he had to do something. The next morning, Smith commandeered Lieutenant Charles Ratajski, a crusty young pilot of the 475th Group’s 432nd Fighter Squadron, as a wingman for a search flight back to the Murik Lagoon area. The two P-38s circled the swamps and shoreline for nearly an hour before they reluctantly gave up. Myers was never found.
Most of the damage done to the American raiders on the December 22 mission had been inflicted by the Tony interceptors. In addition to two P-38s lost and two others damaged from the 80th, another 431st Squadron fighter was so badly damaged in a crash landing at Dobodura that it was written off. The Tonys were also responsible for at least one B-25 shot down and others badly damaged. Throughout its service in New Guinea, the Tony would be a most troublesome opponent for the Americans.
American claims for the day amounted to 7 Tonys, 11 Oscars and an ancient Nakajima M-27 “Nate” that may actually have been an Oscar with its landing gear extended. The 80th accounted for six of those claims.
Actual Japanese losses amounted to four Tonys and four Oscars missing, with a similar number of badly damaged fighters returning to base. Two 68th Sentai Tony pilots, Akinori Motoyama and SgtMaj Iwao Tabata, successfully parachuted into the dense jungle and returned to base after considerable hardship. Chutai (flight) leader Motoyama died of his injuries sometime later.
For their part, the Japanese claimed seven B-25s and four P-38s shot down, and six other American aircraft probably shot down. It was a remarkably conservative total for such a heavily contested engagement. The Japanese were normally more sanguine than the Americans about the results of aerial engagements; sometimes even moderately damaged enemy aircraft were claimed as having been definitely destroyed by as many as a dozen victors.
The results of the bombing raid were considered to have been generally good, with numerous fires observed around the Wewak strip. At least three ships in the harbor were hit, and two of them were sunk. Those were the ships originally covered by the force of Oscars and Tonys that intercepted the American raid.
In terms of the extended campaign against Wewak, the raid was not as significant as the earlier ones in August that had eliminated the base complex as an offensive threat. However, the December raid did usher in a period of general decline for the Japanese base, and a series of further raids and fighter sweeps inflicted additional damage. By April 1944, the base was in the bypassed backwater of the war, too far behind Allied lines to either operate freely or be resupplied.
The 80th Fighter Squadron “Headhunters” who had participated in the raid would go on to various fates. Corky Smith ended his distinguished service with the squadron when he was ordered home in May 1944. His final victory total was 12 kills-11 Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, Tonys and Oscars and one Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinah reconnaissance aircraft. Delbert Furgason, who may have been the victor over the 78th Sentai commander, ended his tour and was sent home in August 1944. Paul Murphey stayed on until very near the end of the war, claiming a total of six Japanese aircraft.
Major “Porky” Cragg was less fortunate. The day after Christmas 1943, he was leading another mission to cover the Cape Gloucester, New Britain, landings. Just four days after the harrowing mission to Wewak, he was seen at low altitude in bad weather on the tail of his 15th and final victory when a Japanese fighter slipped in behind him and shot his plane into the sea. He was only 25 years old.”
– John Stanaway in “Lightnings Strike At Wewak,” Aviation History Magazine, January 1996