In the early morning of May 8, 1943, a B-17F named Fightin’ Swede departed Port Moresby’s Seven-Mile ‘drome for a solo armed reconnaissance mission of the northern New Guinea coast from Madang to Saidor. The mission was to locate Japanese merchant ships which were reportedly bringing supplies to the area. New Guinea weather was up to its usual trick, however, for an unstable air mass was producing heavy cloud and squalls along the coastal littoral. Flown by Major Robert Keatts, the bomber simply failed to return. It last reported by radio on the hour at 0900 that it was fifty miles north of Madang where it had located and was circling a Japanese convoy. A few days later Radio Tokyo broadcast that on that same day over New Guinea, a Japanese fighter pilot had deliberately rammed a Flying Fortress, bringing it down. This led to an assumption back at Port Moresby that the victim had been Fightin’ Swede.
As explained by Michael John Claringbould in his book Pacific Adversaries Volume One, Japanese and US Army Air Force (USAAF) records correspond neatly on the matter. Shortly after its final transmission, the Fortress was spotted by nine Ki-43 Hayabusa of the 11th Sentai led by Captain Takashi Ninomiyo, commander of No. 1 chutai. Takashi’s detachment was assigned to cover the approaching ships, and after sighting the Fortress a shotai of three fighters led by Lieutenant Kobayashi Junji broke off and initiated the first attack. By this stage of the war the 11th Sentai had lost most of its original Mark I Hayabusa inventory, having sustained almost non-stop combat in the theatre for some five months. Its inventory had since been bolstered by several Mark IIs as replacements, however its exhausted pilot cadre was due to return to Japan in five weeks’ time on Jun. 19, 1943. They would hand over their remaining Hayabusa to other Wewak-based units upon departure. This explains why the nine Hayabusa Takashi led were a hodgepodge of remnant Mark I and new Mark II Hayabusa drawn from different chutai.
Kobayashi’s trio made their first pass against the Fortress slightly high and from behind, after which they turned back for frontal passes. During these attacks, and apparently undamaged Fightin’ Swede headed for the cover of cloud. Japanese records state that, unwilling to let the B-17 escape, Sergeant Oda Tadao chose to deliberately collide with the Fortress during a head on pass. Both the B-17 and the fighter fell immediately after impact. Oda was subsequently glorified in the Japanese press for allegedly deliberately ramming the Fortress. The widespread publicity also promulgated his posthumous promotion to Lieutenant for his apparent fearlessness.
However, in war all might not be as it first appears. Suicide tactics had been actively discouraged by the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) since the start of the war. It is more likely that Oda simply misjudged the attack approach and hit the bomber.
In both 1941 and 1942 many Japanese Navy fighter pilots who encountered the Fortress for the first time had already noted how its large size made it difficult to judge closing speeds. Given a closing speed in excess of 350 mph for a frontal attack, a miscalculation was possible, as witnessed by numerous other combat collisions in New Guinea.
The Japanese account reports that Oda rammed the bomber at 0813 Japanese Standard Time (0913 local), and assuming this time is accurate, this means Fightin’ Swede had been airborne for approximately thirteen minutes after its last 0900 position report. A thirteen-minute time interval is sufficient to allow the bomber to make the New Guinea coast on a likely attempted return to Port Moresby. Regardless of the availability of cloud cover, Fightin’ Swede was unlikely to head deeper into Japanese territory by going farther out to sea, so it appears more likely it was heading home. If this were the case, the mid-air collision with Oda’s Hayabusa could have occurred over the coast or even slightly inland.
In early March 1944, Australian troops advancing towards Madang came across the wreckage of a Model II Hayabusa at Bau Plantation. The wreckage had an intact tail, offering the clear visual remains of 11th Sentai markings. The wreck was examined on Mar. 19, 1944 by the Allied Technical Air Intelligence Unit, including definitive markings. Bau Plantation lies directly on the return track Fightin’ Swede likely took that morning, had it been leading back to Seven-Mile and assuming it were proximate to the New Guinea coast when brought down. Furthermore, Oda’s is the only 11th Sentai Hayabusa recorded lost to combat near Madang. It therefore appears likely that the Hayabusa as examined was Oda’s Hayabusa.
The wreckage of Fightin’ Swede has never been found, possibly as it fell into the ocean, or it lies in an inaccessible and remote area.
Pacific Adversaries Volume One is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.
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