Morbid Fact Du Jour For January 4, 2017


Today’s Attacking Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

The Guadalcanal Campaign, also known as the Battle of Guadalcanal and code-named Operation Watchtower, originally applying only to an operation to take the island of Tulagi, by Allied forces, was a military campaign fought between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943 on and around the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater of World War II. It was the first major offensive by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan.  The Americans caught the Japanese off-guard and were able to capture an airfield (named Henderson Field by the Americans) that the Japanese were building on the island.  The airfield soon became the focus of months of fighting during the Guadalcanal Campaign, as it enabled U.S. airpower to hinder the Japanese attempts at resupplying their troops. The Japanese made several attempts to retake Henderson Field, resulting in continuous, almost daily air battles.

The following is a description of an air battle between Japanese ace Saburo Sakai and American pilot Pug Southerland in the first Japanese attempt to retake Henderson Field on August 7, 1942.

Saburo Sakai and the rest of the airplane attacking force were about fifty miles from Guadalcanal when he saw flashes of yellow flame piercing the tropical blue sky. Apparently the advance wave of attackers was already receiving a warm welcome. As he drew closer he looked down on the vast enemy fleet – more warships and transports than he had ever before seen together – and all of them showing white wakes, which meant they were already on the move, the standard tactic to make themselves more difficult targets. As the bombers entered a slow turn to prepare for their attack run, Sakai in his Zero fighter plane caught his first glimpse of the enemy fighter plane he would soon come to know well – the Grumman F4F, or Wildcat. Eight of them, in fact, painted blue-gray above and light gray below and looking chubby and awkward, fell on the bombers. As Sakai and the other fighter pilots roared to their defense, more Wildcats joined the fray, and soon several Bettys (the American nickname for the Japanese bombers) were in flames. Rattled, the bomber pilots released their payloads while still four miles up, targeting the ships just southeast of Savo Island. Not one scored a hit.

Japanese Flying Ace Saburo Sakai

While the Japanese bombers turned for home, the Zeros and Wildcats engaged in a series of acrobatic dogfights in which the Zero proved its superior maneuverability and the Wildcat its stubborn sturdiness. Sakai shortly spotted one Wildcat that appeared to be pursuing three Zeros (in fact the Wildcat pilot, whose plan was damaged, was simply trying to stay airborne until he could bail out over friendly territory.) He dove to the attack, firing a desperate burst. The Wildcat rolled away, turned tightly and then climbed under Sakai. (This was Sakai’s own favorite tactic – an attack from below – and he admired the American’s flying skill.)  There ensued a deadly aerial duet of lightning turns, sudden shifts in throttle and bone-crashing spirals until Sakai’s adversary seemed to give up the fight, flying level and making no attempt to evade further attack. The Japanese ace pumped round after round into the cockpit, yet amazingly the enemy pilot kept flying.

An American Wildcat chases a Japanese Zero

As Sakai closed in for the final kill, there occurred one of those moments when, in the heat of battle, the enemy suddenly becomes human. The Wildcat’s cockpit canopy had been blasted back and, as the two planes flew side by side, Sakai opened his cockpit window and stared at a big older man with a round face wearing a light khaki uniform. There was bloodstain on his right shoulder and another on his chest. Sakai himself later recalled what happened next: ‘But this was no way to kill a man! Not with him flying helplessly, his plane a wreck. I raised my left hand and shook my fist at him, shouting, uselessly, I knew, for him to fight instead of just flying along like a clay pigeon. The American looked startled; he raised his right hand and weakly waved.”

But then, as the American somehow pulled his plane into an upward loop, Sakai’s fighting instincts returned. One carefully aimed burst from his cannon and the Gramman’s engine exploded into smoke and flame. Then the plane rolled and the pilot bailed out. When the American’s parachute snapped open, Sakai could see that the man’s body hung lifelessly.

Sakai’s adversary in this extraordinary episode was Lieutenant James J. “Pug” Southerland from the Saratoga. Miraculously, he lived to tell the tale and fight again. Many of his comrades were not so lucky. Half of the eighteen Wildcats that engaged the enemy were lost. But the Japanese suffered more heavily, losing nine Vals, as well as five Bettys and two Zeros. In return they scored only one hit, on destroyer Mugford, whose afterdeck house and two stern 5-inch guns were destroyed.

Pug Southerland

Meanwhile Sakai’s own luck had run out. Mistaking a flight of Dauntless dive bombers for more Wildcats, he and another Zero attacked from the rear and below. Too late, he realized his mistake. The Dauntless with its rear machine gunner was much tougher game. Suddenly he was enveloped by enemy fire. The hit, when it came, felt as though someone had thrust a knife into each ear. The world suddenly turned red. Then he went blind.

[To be continued]

Culled from: The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *