About half an hour later, half of the fighters returned to base with malfunctioning fuel pumps. Because there hadn’t been enough time to service the fighters properly, they hadn’t been able to draw fuel from their second tanks. The shock to those waiting at the airfield was considerable. But more was to come. Most of the airplanes that had taken off from Kasanbara had the same problem and had to return. Only 30 fighters were left to cover the entire mission.
To make things worse, a reconnaissance airplane flying ahead of the Thunder Gods radioed back that three groups of American ships were in the area, with three aircraft carriers in one group and two each in the others. Not only was the force much stronger than previously believed, each group was sure to have covering airplanes.
There had been no word over the radio at all from Nonaka. It had been agreed beforehand that he and his squadron would maintain complete radio silence throughout the mission, but now the waiting was almost unbearable.
Several members of the Fifth Naval Air Fleet staff wanted to scarp the mission and call Nonaka back. But Ugaki, waiting in the operations room, refused. “The Thunder Gods are right now face to face with the enemy,” he said. “I cannot bring those young boys back now after they have made up their minds to die. It would be too much for them to bear.”
It was then approaching 3 p.m., well after the time they mission should have reached the target area. Still there was no word from Nonaka. If the airplanes were still in the air, their fuel would soon be gone.
The air in the underground operations room was stale. The men sat around in silence, not trusting themselves to speak.
Just after dark, guards outside the tunnel reported the sound of an approaching airplane. A badly damaged Zero came in low from the bay and made a rough landing. It was followed by a second airplane. Both were pockmarked with bullet holes and streaked with oil. The pilots were exhausted, but between them they managed to tell what had happened to Nonaka’s squadron.
At about 2:20 p.m., when the squadron was some 50 to 60 miles from the U.S. fleet, it was suddenly attacked by about 50 American fighters. The 30 Japanese cover fighters fought back, but nine Bettys and two special-attack bombers were shot down in just over 10 minutes.
Unable to match the enemy in number or firepower, the 19 remaining fighters dispersed. Left unprotected, the mother airplanes jettisoned their unmanned Ohkas, dispersed, and began battling to save themselves. Within 10 minutes, the only airplanes surviving were Nonaka’s and three others. When one of the Zero pilots last saw them, the four were diving wing to wing toward the sea.
Altogether, 160 men had been lost, including the 15 Ohka pilots.