The Last to Die
The war in the Pacific ended as it began, with a surprise attack by Japanese warplanes.
- By Stephen Harding
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
Jerry Viracola, via Chuck Varney
(Page 2 of 5)
Things didn’t go as well the next day, however, when Lieutenant Colonel Selmon Wells, flying Hobo Queen II, led three other B-32s to the Japanese capital. Although just 25 at the time, Wells was a seasoned commander who had flown more than a dozen combat missions aboard a Douglas A-20 Havoc. He told me in 1998 that, despite the absence of Japanese activity the day before, he was “uneasy” about the August 17 mission. “I’d been at war for nearly two years by then, and I knew the Japanese were tenacious fighters who had no problem pulling dirty tricks on their enemies,” Wells said. “I think I was subconsciously expecting something to happen.”
Though Wells could not have known it at the time, events in Tokyo were virtually ensuring that something would.
By August 13, it was obvious to die-hards within Japan’s government and military that Emperor Hirohito—shaken by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just days earlier—intended to accept the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender. Though an attempted coup against the emperor had been foiled by loyal troops on the night of August 14, hardliners in the military swore to fight on. On August 15, Hirohito addressed his country by radio, announcing his intention to “bear the unbearable” and surrender to the Allies, intensifying the anger and sense of dishonor many in Japan’s military felt.
Among those most capable of translating those feelings into action were the Japanese navy fighter pilots at Atsugi and Yokosuka airfields, outside Tokyo. At Atsugi, the 302nd Air Group was openly rebelling against Hirohito’s cease-fire order. And the Yokosuka Air Group included many pilots—such as aces Saburo Sakai and Sadamu Komachi—who felt Japan’s airspace should remain inviolate until a formal surrender document had actually been signed.
Both Atsugi and Yokosuka were home to some of Japan’s best fighter aircraft, including the Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero-Sen (known to the Allies as “Zeke”), the J2M3 Raiden (“Jack”), and the N1K2-J Shiden-Kai (“George”). The presence in the Tokyo area of such fighters, and of pilots skilled in attacking U.S. heavy bombers, practically guaranteed that Wells’ formation would receive a hostile response.
As the four B-32s made their way northeast along the coast of Kyushu on the August 17 mission, they were tracked by Japanese radar. Over Tokyo Bay, a few bursts of flak trailed the Dominators as they broke formation to begin their individual photo runs over different targets.
On the ground, pilots at Atsugi and Yokosuka had been warned of the approach of what were described as four B-24s. Aircraft lifted off from both airfields and raced to gain altitude, their pilots seeking to position themselves above the incoming bombers. While no one is certain as to which Japanese pilots took part in the attacks that day (in Saburo Sakai’s 1995 autobiography, for example, he says he participated, though other sources say he flew only on the 18th), there’s no doubt about what happened next.
Beginning at 10:30 a.m. and lasting for two hours, three of the B-32s were attacked by what their crews later described as Japanese army Ki.44 “Tojo” and Ki.61 “Tony” fighters (which looked somewhat like the Japanese navy’s “George” and “Jack,” respectively). The interceptors made multiple attacks, but the Dominators’ gunners largely kept them at bay with .50-caliber machine guns (each aircraft had 10). Though the B-32s suffered minor damage, no Americans were injured. Nor, apparently, were any of the Japanese: Though the B-32 gunners later claimed to have damaged one fighter and “probably destroyed” two others, surviving Japanese records list no losses for that day or the next.