Great Story. Remember reading it years ago in Saki's book. Wild story. Back then I thought it was amazing. Now, having flown some and know a bit what an airplane can do, I think it's phenominal. Tossing a Hudson around like that (a military version of a civilian airliner) has got to stress the hell out of the airframe. He must've been on the verge of breaking up plenty of times. I've heard airplanes groan, creek and pop plenty when you start pulling Gs in them and imagine that thing must've sounded like a pinball machine.
And yet the guy kept 9 Zeros on their toes for 10 minutes. Phenominal.
Yep, one very brave and determined man. I remember watching that episode a few years back and it blew me away. Was also amazed at the fact that Sakai petitioned the Australian Govt. to award Cowan a medal, but the Govt. being what it is, obviously decided not to. Shame realy..
Here is a story some of you may not know either. This is a segment from a book manuscript I wrote-
A HARE RAISING TALE
Perhaps the most curious B-26 mission was that of the Heckling Hare on June 9, 1942. Piloted by Captain Walt Greer, the B-26 took off from Port Moresby to attack Lae, New Guinea. Lae was the stronghold of the finest Japanese Navy pilots in the world with the likes of Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Junichi Sasai, and Saburo Sakai. Aboard the Heckling Hare was a congressman named Lyndon Johnson, future President of the United States. He was there as an observer for Roosevelt with a commission of Commander.
Twelve Marauders took off for the 180-mile run to Lae. When they were observed and the alarm sounded Sakai and the others scrambled for their A6M2 Zeros. Sakai narrowly avoided collision with another fighter taking off. They climbed to chase a group of B-25 Mitchell decoys that did their job to lure the Zeros away from the B-26s intent on the bomb run. The Zero attacks were not coordinated and planes cluttered the sky.
Just then Sakai saw the dots of the B-26s. Too late he knew the plan and swung his plane around followed by seven Zeros. The B-26s, if they’d just ditched their bombs and kept going flat out they’d have probably out distanced the Zeros. But they turned back towards Lae and this turn allowed the Zeros to close in.
STRAYED SHEEP BEFORE A LION
Sakai masterfully waded into the B-26 formation performing maneuvers that the gunners could not track. The pilots in the bombers recognized his expertise and were awed by his movements.
Sakai dived in knowing that the B-26s had no belly guns and that they would spread out enough to keep a cross fire in their formation even so. He picks up the narrative in his own words. “So I came up sharply in a loop keeping the stick almost full back. At the top of the loop, flying inverted, I snapped the stick all the way back. Instantly the Zero broke from the curve of the loop and the nose jerked downward. Two of the rookies flying my wing had duplicated the maneuver.”
“As the nose fell down I kicked left rudder and brought the stick back to the left. The Zero came down in twisting dive to bring me into a perfect firing position from above. Not one gun was tracking me from the Marauders. At about 100 yards I opened fire with the nose machine guns. I was closing fast. At fifty yards I flicked the cannon switch and fired both 20 mm cannon. I was still closing at point blank range. I saw a continuing series of flashes as the cannon shells exploded steadily around the cockpit, along the wing between the cockpit and engine and the engine itself. Brilliant flame erupted from this area; the bomber seemed to stagger as the explosion tore through it. Pieces flew off and the Marauder fell from formation. It smashed into the ocean and exploded.”
This was the death of Wabash Cannonball piloted by Lt. Willis Bench witnessed by Greer in Heckling Hare.
The Hare’s right engine generator had failed in the heavily laden plane and it began to fall back. The generator powered the turret and manual control was difficult at best. Greer set prop pitches to manual to compensate for the power loss to get some use out of both. The second generator, with the additional load could give up at any time meaning complete loss of power.
The straggling B-26 was a prime target because, “I felt it was a strayed sheep before a lion,” said Sakai.
Sakai continues, ”The enemy pilot was no newcomer. As I rolled into position to open fire the bomber made a sharp turn to the left and skidded abruptly.
“The American was good! I watched the bullets and shells hitting the airplane, but my shots simply put holes in the wings and fuselage. There was no flame or smoke.”
Sakai expected Greer to dive straight down from the 14,000-foot altitude as was the usual evasion tactic but the B-26 twisted and turned instead as it descended.
“The bomber was weaving and skidding desperately; whoever was at the controls flew like he was in a fighter. Never for a second was it still. I snapped out several more bursts. Again I saw my bullets and shells hit but they had no effect!’
The other seven Zeros had caught up with Sakai now and were all firing at the B-26 but its maneuvers and defensive fire gave no good shots for them. Sakai was angry that the bomber had evaded him so well. He pulled ahead to get into a good position.
Sakai suddenly assessed the situation realizing it was ridiculous for eight Zeros to attack one plane when the other ten were getting away.
“I saw the other B-26s in their shallow dives. The devil with that single bomber! Let the other Zero handle him. I pushed the throttle to overboost and rushed toward the American planes.”
TAIL GUNNER SCORES
The Heckling Hare jettisoned its bombs as the seven Zeros milled around trying to get it in their sights. The .50 in the nose had jammed and the top turret was without power leaving the tail gunner, Harry Baren, as the main defense. He would cut off the gun sight and use the tracers to hose the Zeros, keeping them at bay.
The kill was never claimed in the wild action but Baren did get a Zero. Sakio Kikuchi ditched his lightly damaged Zero in the water but his recovered body showed hits from fifty calibers.
The big Texan, Lyndon Johnson, was said to be “cool as ice” during the whole attack in his radio compartment seat as holes appeared in the plane around him and wind whistled through them. He was quite actively observing the enemy planes’ runs and calling out their positions not hunkering down on the deck.
Radioman Lillis Walker left his beam gun to get to the radio and saw Johnson calm as could be as ordnance tore through the fuselage around him. He remarked to Walker, “Boy! It’s rough up here, isn’t it?” Walker nodded his agreement.
Then he asked, “You get scared up here?’ to which Walker replied, “I’m always scared up here!” The pair laughed about it.
THE FIGHT ENDS
Meanwhile Sakai had found another victim. Pierre Powell’s Shamrock would need overtime luck. Already beat up by other Zeros Sakai now came on.
“I managed to close the distance rapidly to the trailing Marauder in the first group. From about 100 yards I pumped all the 20 mm cannon shells still remaining in the Zero at the bomber. My aim was perfect as I watched the shells striking home exploding all across the plane.”
Sakai was amazed that the plane still flew saying he’d hit it with enough to bring down several planes normally. He got ahead once more and rolled into a firing pass.
“I squeezed out a long burst from the nose guns. This time I poured my fire into the cockpit area. Once again the strikes went right where I aimed.”
The ace instinctively scanned the sky to clear himself and saw Sakio Kikuchi’s Zero ditch but, “when I turned back my target was no longer in sight. I saw only three other bombers racing low over the water more than a mile away. There seems to be no question but the last Marauder had gone down…”
Saburo Sakai was awarded the kill after review of the action by Captain Saito, but Shamrock’s luck held and she made it home. Often in combat pilots tell of diverting their eyes to “check six” and finding no enemy plane where there was a couple seconds before. These are the mysteries and fortunes of aerial combat.
Nishizawa was upset that he had been unable to score any kills and vowed that he would crash is Zero head-on if, need be, to get a bomber. Walt Krell in Kansas City Comet never broke first in head-on attacks with Japanese fighters. But when Nishizawa bore in he had strange premonition and pushed the yoke violently down first. Nishizawa held down the triggers and poured fire into the B-26 then flashed over it. They kept going and the Zero never attempted to, or probably could not, catch up again. It was the final firing pass of the battle.
Several Marauders were heavily damaged and one was a write-off in a belly landing. Lyndon Johnson went right to the hospital to visit the wounded afterwards. He talked to the group’s pilots later and said, “You can have this place over here. You people need some stuff to fight with!” The response was a unanimous plea for “more fighters!”
More fighters came and the conflict played out to the conclusion we all know. Certainly the B-26 Marauders in the hands of skilled pilots were not to be trifled with by the Japanese, even the likes of the aces of Lae.