In late 1942, towards the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Japanese commenced building an airfield at Munda, roughly halfway between Guadalcanal and Rabaul. A smaller emergency strip at Vila was constructed on Kolombangara Island, only fifteen miles from Munda and easily recognised by its distinctive 5,000-foot conical volcanic mountain. As explained by Michael John Claringbould in his book Pacific Adversaries Volume One, eventually over 10,000 Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) troops would occupy these two locations, which they were ordered to defend to the last man.
Around noon on Jan. 31, 1943, a combined US Army Air Forces (USAAF), US Navy (USN) and US Marine Corps (USMC) fighter sweep over the area was launched from Guadalcanal. Such combined efforts were not unusual and, on this day comprised Grumman F4F Wildcats from VMF-112 and VMO-251 together with eight 67th FS P-39s, four 44th FS Warhawks, and a pair of 339th FS P-38 Lightnings: a truly eclectic mix of airpower even for this theatre!
In clear visibility, the American formation headed for the distinctive feature of Kolombangara at about 20,000 feet. Their mission was to engage any enemy aircraft they found in the vicinity of Munda or Vila. The fighters arrived overhead Vila where they were met by AAA but no aerial opposition. The small grassy airfield looked vacant, so they headed for nearby Munda.
At 1415 hours in the distance a solitary “Nagoya-type Zero” was seen at 13,000 feet just east of Munda. A pair of Airacobras made an overhead pass on this lone adversary which banked away and hid between cumulus cloud to avoid combat. It was actually a 1st Sentai Mark I Hayabusa (Nakajima Ki-43, Allied reporting name: Oscar) flown by Warrant Officer Shiromoto Nauharu, assigned to Captain Kanaya Yoshihiro’s No. 3 chutai which had taken up temporary residence at Munda from its new base at Ballale Islad only a few days prior.
On Jan. 29, 1943, Kanaya’s flyers had been joined by another complete chutai of Hayabusas led by Captain Fujita Juro, chutaicho of the 11th Sentai’s No. 3 chutai. Fujita had brought a disparate collective of eleven Hayabusa from Buka to familiarise the unit’s less experience, pilots with the Solomons area. They would also relieve Kanaya’s chutai who would shortly thereafter return to Ballale.
The Munda airfield had limited room for dispersal, and a relatively narrow and short runway. The two Hayabusa units were sharing these confined premises with a dozen Ki-48 Sokei light bombers of the 45th Sentai. Warned of the approaching Americans, the Ki-48s scrambled to evacuate Munda. In the confusion amid the limited dusty runway space, only one Hayabusa was able to launch — Shiromoto.
At twenty-five years of age, Shiromoto had been one of the youngest pilots to have participated In the Nomonhan Incident against the Soviets in 1939. He had also fought over Malaya and Singapore and arrived with the rest of the 1st Sentai at Rabaul on Jan. 9, 1943. Shiromoto later submitted that he headed towards and engaged a large enemy formation of twenty fighters, shot down two Lightings and caused another pair to collide while chasing them.
However, there were only two Lightnings overhead Munda that day and neither saw a Japanese fighter let alone engaged one. Other American pilots were side-tracked briefly by Shiromoto’s distant aerial behaviour, before they flew over Munda at altitude. Here their vision was obscured by low cloud which prevented them seeing the twenty or so Hayabusa dispersed around the airfield. Disinclined to subject themselves to AAA fire from an apparently unoccupied field, and with lo aerial adversaries in sight, the Americans headed home for Guadalcanal.
A bragging Shiromoto returned to Munda once the Americans had cleared off, where he impressed his comrades about how his aerial exploits had warded off a major American fighter incursion. Shiromoto’s creativity and alleged valour, with no Japanese witnesses, remains etched into Japanese lore to this day.
Meanwhile the escaping Sokei bombers arrived at Kahili airfield on the southern tip of Bougainville after fleeing Munda. A few hours later they returned to Munda where Australian Coastwatcher John Keenan watched their journey through binoculars as they droned across Vella Gulf at 1730 hours. He reported the twin-engine bombers as “transport planes bound for Vila”. Keenan was correct in one sense — the Sokei had taken advantage of their time in Kahili to bold supplies.
Following his imagined exploits on Jan. 31, 1943, Shiromoto completed a hardy campaign with the 11st Sentai in New Guinea before returning to Japan in September of that year. In 1945 he was captured in Korea by the Russians who punished him for his participation at Nomonhan by incarcerating him in Siberia until 1947.
Pacific Adversaries Volume One is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.
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