at least two “Zeroes” crashed in flames into the
sea. In fact, it was only Flyer1c Masao Watanabe,
who, due to the pilot error, crashed into sea surface and perished.
The remaining 14 Japanese shot down five Mitchells. The first to went down in flames was
crew of Capt. Lowery, followed by crews of Lt.
Shearer, Lt. Wilson, Lt. Rulison and finally the
machine of Lt. Hesselbarth. Lt. Talley made it
with his heavily damaged aircraft back to Port
Moresby, where he crash landed on the Seven
Mile Drome. He could talk about the luck that
they had surviving with his crew, his Mitchell,
was a write-off. Six victories were shared
among participating pilots after the fight, including Sakai.
A few days later, on 28 May, Sakai won another
victory over the bombers, this time against Marauders of 22nd Bomb Group. Sakai, in cooperation with other pilots of Jun-ichi Sasai's formation attacked near Lae five American aircraft, and
one of them crashed into the sea. Several of the
crew got out of sinking wreck, but soon, as Sakai could testify, the sharks took care of them.
It was a Martin B-26 Marauder serial number
40-1467, belonging to the crew of 1/Lt Spears R.
Lanford from 33rd Bomb Squadron (22nd BG).
The Zero pilots claimed one more shot down
Marauder as shared victory, but the crew made
it back to Port Moresby with one dead on board.
On the early morning of June 9, the 22nd Bomb
Group was scheduled for a combat flight under
the code name Tow Nine, but for some reason,
the order for take-off according to the timetable
did not come. The reason for the delay was the
arrival of some “big bosses”, one of them was no
other than the future US President Lyndon Bynes Johnson. Boeing B-17 with Johnson aboard
arrived about an hour after the planned mission
start. Johnson wanted to take part in the Tow
Nine mission. It is certainly not possible to say
that the arrival of VIPs would raise the enthusiasm among the 22nd BG members. Johnson
was to join the crew of the Marauder named
“Wabash Cannonball”, but soon he left to get his
camera. When he came back, he saw his place
was occupied by another VIP, Lt. Col. Francis R.
Stevens. So “Some important congressman”, as
Johnson was identified by pilots, joined another
Marauder’s crew , “Heckling Hare” with serial
number 40-1488 and Lt. Walter H. Greer at the
controls. Eleven machines took-off from Port
Moresby at 8.51 under the command of 1Lt. Walter A. Krella, who flew in his machine “Kansas
Lae was attacked before 10.00 am by Mitchells
and B-17s. Shortly thereafter, about two dozen
Zeroes of Tainan Kōkūtai went to the air. Just
a little later, at 10.02 the formation of Marauders
arrived over Lae. During the fight that followed,
the Japanese shot down the machine of command flight “Wabash Cannonball” (40-1508) piloted Lt. Willis G. Bench. Together with the eight
Lae airstrip on New Guinea was characteristic for its location at a seashore. US photo from air raid shows a narrow design of the
airfield. Saburō Sakai spent more than two months of intensive front line service on this airbase.
men of the crew also perished Lt. Col. Stevens.
The four other machines were lightly damaged
by the fire of the fighters and Lt. Pierre Powell
had to belly land his Marauder (40-1363) at Port
Moresby. This mission became subject of Martin
Caidin's book “The Mission” in 1964. According to
Caidin's account, Johnson's Marauder generator
malfunctioned during the fight and the machine
fell out of formation. The Bomber was then pursued by up to eight Zeroes and returned to the
base with heavy damage. The Japanese reported a total of four downed Marauders after the
fight including two by Sakai. However, unit diary
does indicate only four victories as shared for
Lyndon B. Johnson and Lt. Col. Samuel Anderson
were honored for the heroism shown during the
air battle with Silver Star award by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Lt. Col. Stevens received DSC
(Distinguished Service Cross) in memoriam.
Congressman and later President Johnson never forgot to display the Silver Star ribbon on
his jacket flap.
What about Johnson's diary? He says that on the
way to the target the generator quit, therefore
after 30 minutes he decided to turn back, so no
air battle, no war drama. As already mentioned,
Marauders arrived to target area at 10.02. But
according to logbook of Greer´s Marauder with
Johnson on board, the ship turned back halfway
to the target and landed safely back in Port Moresby at 10.08, in fact at the same time when
air battle was taking place far in the north. Let’s
believe that fictive version of Johnson´s participation was done by authorities and not due
to Johnson's dishonesty. After the war various
Americans were repeatedly asking Sakai why
could not shoot down the B-26 with Johnson on
It also seems that the shooting down of Marauder piloted by Lt. Bench is not as clear as it was
supposed to be. According to 2Lt. Dewey C. Flint
the Marauder crashed into the sea due to pilot
error, not battle damage.
Several times during the Pacific campaign, Sakai was surprised by the courage of the Allied
airmen who opposed him in the air. But perhaps
the most impressive encounter took place on
July 22, 1942. Nine Zeroes under the command
of Junichi Sasai took-off from Lae at 8:00 and
arrived at 8:40 at Buna where Japanese landing was ongoing. Sakai and others were quietly circling at altitude 2000 m, when he suddenly
heard the explosions from below. He looked at
the beach and saw smoke rising from craters
after bomb impacts. Someone attacked the Japanese landing!
“It was very weird,” recalls Sakai, “I was searching the sky, but I did not see anything. But
a few moments later I saw a descending point in
the distance. I thought it could be a B-25, B-26 or
Douglas A-20 and was as fast as my Zero!”
Sakai was the first to caught the bomber. It was
an Australian Lockheed Hudson. The Zero pilot
started to fire at the intruder and hoped to force
him to maneuver and shorten the distance be-