Eagles of the Southern Sky
The Tainan Air Group in WWII; Volume One: New Guinea
Authors: Luca Ruffato and Michael J. Claringbould
Associate Editors: Lawrence Hickey, Gordon Birkett, Ed Dekiep, Steve Birdsall
Item: ISBN 978-0-473-21763-1
Over four decades my interest in the air conflict of World War Two has ebbed and flowed, yet it continues to gain strength. While books such as Thunderbolt, Horrido!, The First and the Last
, and Fly For Your Life
still yield their pages to my eyes, I keep returning to the stage played out in Samurai!, The Ragged Rugged Warriors,
and Flying Buccaneers
The air war over the south western Pacific islands in the early days of the Great Pacific War has given wing to legends. One of the legendary groups was the Tainan kaigun kōkūtai
(Tainan Naval Air Group, or “NAG”) of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Instrumental in the conquest of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies, Tainan kōkūtai
arrived in New Guinea at the top of their game, clashing for eight months against rag-tag Allied units that held the line while struggling to catch up. Tainan kōkūtai
has inspired books, art, and models, as do the men and aircraft of the opposing Allies.
Compiling vast amounts of research and resources from many of the preeminent researchers of the Pacific air war, this book purports to be the definitive history of the Tainan kōkūtai
Overview for academics, historians and modelers
For one as verbose as I, an entire review on the people and resources that collaborated to create Eagles of the Southern Sky
could be written. I will cut to the chase and tell you that many contributing editors are well known authors and researchers. Additionally, this book lists in its credentials Pacific Air War History Associates
. PAWHA is an international organization of researchers and authors who collaborate with each other on their niche expertise in all areas of the Pacific war.
With such an ocean of resources to draw from, it’s not surprising that this book is full of unique photographs, with artwork based on input from many experts. Drawing from that expertise and their own, the authors note that they use terms and words as close to the original usage as possible, from both English and Japanese sources, even to the extent of using what are considered misspellings today. One exception is referring to the Tainan kōkūtai
simply as ’Tainan’
. I will do the same.
Authors Luca Ruffato and Michael J. Claringbould set the tone of this book with their forewords. They explain what inspired them, from their childhoods on, to pen this title. I believe most of you reading this will identify with them, as I certainly do. While Mr. Ruffato has yet to visit New Guinea, Mr. Claringbould has spent much of his personal and professional life in the area.
Whether you are interested in stick-and-rudder dogfights or more erudite pursuits, this book will be absorbing. The book has an extensive list of abbreviations, terms, and technical terms. These explain and translate Japanese words and concepts into to English and display the associated kanji
alphabet: Aircraft Category Designations; Specific Aircraft Abbreviations; Administrative & Operational Terminology; tactical aerial formation terms.
It was challenge for me to cull this review into a concise presentation. This book is a full size format in which each page contains probably the equivalent of two pages of most formats familiar to modelers and military enthusiasts. When I first cracked the covers I was overwhelmed with the volume of text, illustrations, photography, maps, and stories. Many of the photographs are recently discovered or provided by private collections, as are many stories. I flipped from chapter to chapter and from page to page trying to take it all in. I am surprised to learn that A6M reisen
were not the only aircraft assigned to Tainan kōkūtai
. Through this book the records of aircraft types that clashed are expanded. Who knew B-26s faced fixed-gear A5M (“Claude”) fighters over Rabual; that RAAF P-40s and Hudson bombers had the first kills – and losses – against Tainan kōkūtai
; what an Avro X Trimotor looked like; the role played by impressed Douglas DC-5s; that an intact Tainan reisen
may still rest in a swamp north of Lae?
The book is organized as day to day accounts of Tainan
activities, as well as those of their opponents. The level of detail is extraordinary. Not only did the authors glean this account from venerable sources such as Samurai!
, they also use many personal and official sources previously unavailable over the years. One of these treasures is the kōdōchōsho
, the Imperial Navy’s standard tabular report, of Tainan
NAG. With such source material the authors and contributors have woven together this spectacular, comprehensive, critical recount of the events of Tainan’s
deployment to the South West Pacific Area.
To those of you who have read and revere Samurai!
, the memoirs of Sakai Saburō
(Japanese names are stated surname first, then the person’s given name), be warned. The authors disclose an anomaly of Samurai!
. Written by Martin Caidin from a manuscript assembled by Fred Saitō
from post-war interviews with Sakai
, it seems that either or both Saitō
and Caidin made unknown editorial alterations. The Japanese edition of Samurai!
contains information not found in English translations, and vice versa
. While personally disturbing, the fact that vast amounts of information has surfaced since the end of the Cold War, with interested historians qualified to understand it, have made these revelations common.
This book reveals both combat missions and living conditions. As for the flying and fighting aspect of the book, events of each day are recounted to the extent known. Identifying not only the units involved, participants are named, pilots frequently matched to pilots, as are individual aircraft, with times and locales. This creates highly detailed stories of air combat and more, such as the story about the search for a downed reisen
, including the unit identity of Australian troops sent to search for the crash. Yet another is war correspondent Pat Robinson’s memoir describing an arduous journey to the crash site of Flyer1c Kawanishi Haruo
V-104, complete with grisly detail of what was found, and the burial with full military honors. Stories like those are intertwined with recounts of the aerial combat stories that precipitated the crash sites. An example of this meticulous content is from page 98;
DEMISE OF FLYER1c KAWANISHI HARUO
The following day, 2 May 1942, two operationally questionable Kittyhawks were flown to Australia for repairs. Taking off at seven o'clock, they fortunately avoided an enemy raid by just fifteen minutes. Half an hour previous, the Sasai Chūtai had been airborne Lae:
1 Shōtai: Lt(jg) Sasai Jun'ichi, FPOlc Nishizawa Hiroyoshi,
Flyerlc Kawanishi Haruo
2 Shōtai: WO Handa Watari, FPOlc Ōta Toshio, FPO2c Yonekawa
3 Shōtai: FPOlc Sakai Saburō, FPO3c Honda Toshiaki, Flyerlc
Shortly after takeoff, WO Handa Watari aborted due to mechanical trouble. At 0725 hours the remaining eight Japanese fighters approached Port Moresby. Five minutes later they sighted a B-17 and one B-25 sixteen miles from Port Moresby. Three RAAF No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawks now joined seven Airacobras in an attempt to intercept the Tainan intruders. Kittyhawk A29-11, flown by Alan Whetters, became separated from the Allied formation. At 0745 hours he spotted a shōtai of enemy fighters in V formation, 2,000 feet below. He made a port beam attack on one Zero, which turned and climbed. Crawford and D.W. Munro, separate from Whetters, also sighted the reisen. The two Australians were flying at 9,000 feet, with the enemy gaggle at the same level. Crawford reported, "They sighted us when they were about four miles away from us and immediately turned toward us. We turned because they looked like P-39s. They continued to follow us until they went into echelon, and we were then attacked by them from astern and above. My number two (Sgt Munro in A29-48) was shot down and I saw him spinning and burning slightly. When I finished my dive I saw an A/C burning 340 degrees from the drome. I then went out to sea and about 0750 hours saw a large splash about 5-10 miles, about 170 degrees from Moresby. The splash was not as high as a bomb but of greater width - a large definite splash. I did not see an A/C diving near the splash but the splash could have been an A/C."
The Japanese meanwhile returned to Lae at 0910 hours , where they reported to have encountered fifteen enemy, claiming eight P-40s for the loss of only one of their own….claims divided thus: Lt(jg) Sasai Jun 'ichi (none – expended one hundred rounds of ammunition); FPOlc Nishizawa Hiroyoshi (two - 440 rounds); FPOlc Ota Toshio (one - 410 rounds)… . The Japanese loss was Flyer1c Kawanishi Haruo who back at Port Moresby was credited to Airacobra pilot Don McGee, his second consecutive kill in two days.
The depth and comprehensiveness of this story could lead one to wonder if one is not reading a novel instead of a historical recount. Such are the five pages explaining the complex operations of 30 April 1942, including the naming of many of the pilots and aircrew. The day’s battles started at 0640 hours when 19th BS B-26s awoke the Tainan
at Lae, heralding the dawn with bombs and machine gun fire. At that same moment, Japanese bombers launched from Rabual to pick up their Tainan
escorts over Lae two hours later; off they went to Horn island, Australia, where the reisen
harried fleeing B-26s and strafed the aerodrome while the bombers showered the area with eighty 60 kg bombs. The account of S/Sgt Catello in the assailed Marauder is riveting. The fighters and bombers recovered back at Lae at 1315 hours. Fifteen minutes earlier began the first offensive P-39 action of the war when America’s first ace, Lt-Colonel ‘Buzz’ Wagner, lead the 8th FG on their first mission. With the flight was 1Lt Meng who was first to engage Japanese with the P-39 in the South West Pacific Area. The Airacobras hit Lae at 1437 hours and did great damage, rampaging on to Salamaua. There they were engaged in a dogfight with scrambled Tainan reisens
. Pilot descriptions of dogfighting Zeros over the water with P-39s are fascinating. The fate of the downed pilots, known and unknown, are side stories in themselves.
America had great expectations for the innovative P-39 Airacobra. Unfortunately, the P-39 was tricky to fly and little match for Tainan
, who’s reisen
was arguably the best air superiority fighter in the world at the time. The difficulty of inexperienced Allied airmen flying inferior aircraft against elite Tainan
pilots is demonstrated in many accounts. Yet this book presents thrilling courage and skill, such was demonstrated by P-39 pilot Don McGee. In a lengthy excerpt from his memoir we read that when returning to land after patrol, low and slow with only some 10 minutes of fuel remaining, he was alerted that his airfield was under attack by Tainan reisens;
Then I gulped and checked my gas…when I saw a single Zero… I had a debate with myself there, the gist of which was, ‘It’s not smart to jump into a fight with no gas. I’m down low at low airspeed. I can’t out-turn a Zero. They left me off the mission yesterday. Piss on it, I’m goin’ in!’
McGee then described how to stall and recover a tumbling P-39 over the trees while bracketed by tracers;
I followed the Zero, but suddenly I realized that we were only about 150 feet off the ground! I pulled out at just about the level of the trees and saw…the Zero hit the ground.
Then all hell broke loose. A mess of red balls…I automatically broke hard left, fled too hard, snap-stalled as I tightened the turn, popped the stick… . As I racked my plane around to the right, I snap-stalled again, spun, and veered just about at treetop level.
Although McGee collected many cannon and bullet hits from the three pursuing reisen
, he survived his whirling retreat and landed.
Interesting patterns are mentioned. When Flt Lt Leslie Jackson lead RAAF No. 75 Sqn P-40s into the fray on 5 April 1942 over Port Moresby, his first (verified) kill was the first Tainan
pilot loss in the SWPA, FPO2c Yoshi’e Takurō
was the first RAAF kill in the Pacific and the first fighter downed by No. 75 Sqn.
Poignant stories already told return in this book, some now in greater detail. The epic solo dogfight of bomber Pilot Officer Warren Cowan and crew against six Tainan reisen
is revised, including the lobbying by Sakai
in 1998 to have Australia award Cowan for bravery. Another incident examined in detail is the fraud of an award given to future President Lyndon Johnson, who was to fly a mission in B-26s, only to turn back due to mechanical trouble. The heroic last flight of Harl Pease sheds new information upon his fate. Equally poignant are the recent discoveries of downed aircrew. The authors bring many of these solved mysteries to light, bringing finality to their families. One story is the case of an Australian father who learned the facts of his son’s demise until some 40 years later on his deathbed.
Eagles of the Southern Sky
is brought to us through 352 pages in 14 chapters and 21 subsections:
NOTES ON THE TEXT
ABBREVIATIONS & TERMS
1. BEFORE THE TAINAN
3. FIRST MOVES
4. ALLIED RETALIATION
5. TIT FOR TAT
6. GOODBYE KITTYHAWK
7. THE GRIND OF MAY
8. CONFRONTATION OF FORCES
10. NEMESIS CALLED FORTRESS
11. TENTACLES OVER MILNE BAY
12. LAST MOVES
MARCH/APRIL 1942 VOYAGE OF KOMAKI MARU AIRCRAFT COLOR CODINGS & PROFILES
1942 AUSTRALIAN MILITARY MAP OF LAE AND SALAMAUA ENVIRONS
PORT MORESBY & ENVIRONS 1942
PLACE NAMES IN PAPUA & NEW GUINEA 1942
TAINAN LOSSES IN NEW GUINEA (April - November 1942)
TAINAN NEW GUINEA OPERATIONS
ROUTE LAE TO PORT MORESBY & LAE AIRFIELD LAYOUT
PORT MORESBY AIRFIELDS, AERIAL PHOTOGRAPH
VOYAGE OF U.S.NAVY MARCH 1942 RAID AGAINST LAE
MODEL 21 ZERO FIGHTER DETAILS APPENDICES
MANUFACTURER'S DATA STENCIL EXPLAINED
PROFILES - TAINAN FIGHTERS
TAINAN COLOR CODINGS
PROFILES - JAPANESE OTHER
PROFILES - ALLIED AIRCRAFT
CREW ROSTER (FIGHTER AND RECONNAISSANCE DETACHMENTS)
OPERATIONAL STATISTICS (JAPANESE SOURCES)
(ACTUAL) LOSSES BY DATE (CROSS-REFERENCED COMPLETE SOURCES)
EARLY ZERO PAINT SCHEME
PROFILES EXPLIQUE - TAINAN FIGHTERS
PROFILES EXPLIQUE - JAPANESE OTHER
PROFILES EXPLIQUE - ALLIED AIRCRAFT
CONFIRMED AERIAL VICTORIES RABAUL/ NEW GUINEA
Finally, all sources are thoroughly documented by primary, secondary, and photographic sources.
Photographs, Artwork and graphics
I did not even try to count the scores of black-and-white photographs filling this book. It does have 95 full color aircraft profiles, in addition to more than a dozen full color maps, plus Tainan Kōkūtai
fuselage and tail color codings. One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the original aircraft and combat artwork: 22 color scenes which incorporate original artwork featuring aircraft illustrated over actual images of New Guinea terrain! Additional information for the modeler, historian and aircraft restoration technician is an Oxiodation & Thermal Ageing Model
. Created by color specialist and author Nick Millman, this color plate illustrates the variations of amber colored paint (Ame-iro toryō) applied to early reisen
The photographic support is fascinating. Many photographs recently obtained from private collections populate the book: numerous in-flight and ground shots of Allied and Japanese fighters and bombers, airfields, facilities, people and places. Years ago Mr. Claringbould was able to survey hundreds of original unpublished photographs in the Papua New Guinea Museum of Modern History in Port Moresby. Particular photos that stood out to me are:
1. A6M2 of buntaichō Lt Yamashita Jōji making a very close run against the B-17E piloted by Capt Fred Eaton; photographed from the waist gunner’s window, the reisen is close enough to make out some of the aircraft and unit markings.
2. Several shots of Reisen escorting bombers; close or clear enough to make out aircraft and unit markings.
3. Enroute to Port Moresby a Japanese bomber crew’s good luck charm doll swinging from the canopy framing.
4. Gunsight view from an A-24 Banshee during its vertical dive towards Lae (a bomb is exploding from a previous plane.)
5. In-flight view over the shoulder of a G4M1 tail gunner.
6. Bombs exploding around S.S. Macdhui at Port Moresby.
7. Inside the Lae maintenance hangar.
Those scenes are a wealth of inspiration for modelers, artists, and historians.
The color maps are useful and not jumbled with captions. The marvelous color scenes are inspirationally impressive even without the authentic background scenery. A couple appear to have uncoordinated shadows applied to different aircraft; this may bother the viewer without the viewer consciously knowing why.
Nine pages of tables list each confirmed kill by Tainan
over Rabual and New Guinea. These include: date; aircraft and serial number; to who credited; number of casualties; pilot/comments.
I found Eagles of the Southern Sky, The Tainan Air Group in WWII; Volume One: New Guinea
to be an extraordinary critical history of the Tainan kōkūtai
! Again, it was difficult for me to cull this tome into a concise overview. When I first opened the book I was overwhelmed with the text, illustrations, photography, maps, and stories.
The clarity and ease of reading this comprehensive book makes it highly enjoyable. I appreciate the depth of this story, whether familiar from previous books, new information, or even ‘setting the record straight.’ Whether you seek “There I was” dogfight stories, academic qualification, historical education, modeling and artistic inspiration, this book should satisfy you. The quality and scope of the photographs and artwork alone should sell this book.
Criticism is inconsequential: a couple of minor typos, and the questionable airframe shadows in a couple of color battle scenes.
I admit to be completely enthusiastic about this book and I heartily recommend it to any modeler, historian, educator, and enthusiast with an interest in the Tainan kōkūtai
, the South West Pacific war, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force, USAAF, RAAF, Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 Carrier Fighter series, early Allied aircraft, Sakai Saburō,
et al. A book as all-encompassing as Eagles of the Southern Sky
is certain to be a favorite source for you.
Please remember, when contacting retailers or manufacturers, to mention that you saw their products highlighted here – on AEROSCALE.