The Raid on Clark Field: How the U.S. Air Force Intercepted a Kamikaze Attack

The Raid on Clark Field: How the U.S. Air Force Intercepted a Kamikaze Attack

In January 1945, planes of the U.S. Fifth Air Force smashed Japanese kamikazes at Clark Field in the Philippines before they could attack U.S. Navy ships.

 Here's What You Need to Remember: Japanese suicide missions dropped off appreciably after January 7, and the U.S. Navy Lingayen Gulf invasion force received only sporadic attacks. The raid unquestionably saved hundreds, possibly thousands, of American lives.

General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander Southwest Pacific Area, kept his promise to return to the Philippine Islands when his Sixth Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger landed at Leyte in October 1944.

The Imperial Japanese response was swift. In the largest naval actions of the Pacific War the Imperial Japanese Navy fought and lost a series of bruising naval battles to Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet and Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf during the same month. Even though the Imperial Japanese Navy had been thoroughly defeated, the Imperial General Headquarters still had over 410,000 soldiers in the Philippines under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita in the Japanese 14th Area Army and General Shigeyaku Suzuki’s 35th Area Army.

The Japanese also had considerable airpower in the Philippines with the 4th Air Army under Lt. Gen. Kyoji Tominga, the Imperial Japanese Navy 2nd Air Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, and the 1st Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Takajiro Onishi. These Japanese air forces were primarily stationed on Luzon at the Clark Air Field complex and launched relentless conventional and kamikaze attacks on the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleets.

From October to the end of 1944, a total of 79 U.S. Navy warships, merchantmen, and amphibious vessels were sunk or damaged by land-based conventional and kamikaze attacks. Among the damaged warships were the aircraft carriers Intrepid, Franklin, Belleau Wood, Cabot, and Essex. The light carrier Princeton was sunk by a conventional land-based Japanese bomber attack.

Clark Field: A Crucial Japanese Airbase in the Philippines

General MacArthur ordered Fifth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney to launch major land-based air raids against Luzon as soon as his planes were established on Leyte. The stage was being set for one of the largest medium- and light-bomber attacks of the Pacific War.

The target for the attack was Clark Field, operated by the Japanese since their conquest of the Philippines in 1942. The Japanese Navy units known to have been at Clark consisted of the 261st, 761st, 762nd, 752nd, and 901st Kokutai equipped with Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers, and the 201st Kokutai equipped with Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero fighters.

Known Japanese 4th Air Army units at Clark included the 60th Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-21 Sally bombers, the 208th Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-48 Lilly bombers, the 26th Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-43 Oscar fighters, the 13th Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-45 Nick fighters, the 19th Sentai Equipped with Kawasaki Ki-61 Tony fighters, the 22nd Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-44 Tojo fighter, the 62nd Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-49 Helen bombers, and the 15th Sentai equipped with Kawasaki Ki-46 Dinah reconnaissance aircraft.

Clark airbase facilities consisted of six airstrips, Clark runways 1-6, and the five runways at Angeles City adjacent to Clark airbase. The antiaircraft defenses surrounding Clark were some of the most formidable in the Pacific Theater and as potentially hazardous as any heavily defended target in the European Theater. The Japanese defenses included 74 heavy antiaircraft guns of the 75mm Model 88, 237 medium guns of mixed types including Model 96 dual and triple 25mm, Type 40 40mm, Model 98 20mm, and Model 93 13mm twinbarreled AA weapons. The 174 light guns were dominated by Model 92 7.7mm machine guns.

These 485 guns were dispersed around the complex and manned by over 1,200 Japanese Army and Navy gunners. The Japanese also used combat air patrols of fighters to defend the airfields. In addition, 16 Japanese Army and Navy ground radars were present and still active with the potential of providing advanced warning to the Japanese defenders.

The Japanese also used ground-based visual observers to provide information on Allied aircraft passing nearby. They dispersed and heavily camouflaged their aircraft and constructed decoy aircraft and gun positions to protect their vital resources from air attack.

The Plan of Attack

The Fifth Air Force moved bomber and fighter units to Leyte and Mindoro as soon as their bases were ready for operations. Aircraft from Tanauan and Tacloban airfields on Leyte and San Jose airfield on Mindoro were slated to launch airstrikes against Clark, beginning on January 7, 1945.

The actual planning for the first mission was accomplished by the staff of the 310th Bomb Wing. From Tanauan airfield 48 Douglas A-20G Havoc aircraft of the 312th Bomb Group, commanded by Colonel Robert Strauss, would take off. The 312th was represented by 12 aircraft each from the 386th, 387th, 388th, and 389th Squadrons. The 312th had unique unit markings, each bomber emblazoned with a skull and crossbones on the nose, through which the machine guns fired.

From Tacloban, 40 North American B-25J-11 aircraft of the 345th Bomb Group, commanded by Colonel Chester Coltharp, would join the 312th. The 345th squadrons represented in the raid included the 498th, 499th, 500th, and 501st with 10 aircraft each. Coltharp was the strike leader for the mission. The 345th also had colorful aircraft markings. Known as the Air Apaches, their planes had an American Indian chief logo on the rudders. In addition, various aircraft had bat’s head images or hawk’s head images painted on the noses with additional personal markings.

The combined formation would fly northwest over the Visayan Sea until they were off the southwest coast of Mindoro, where 48 A-20G aircraft of the 417th Bomb Group, commanded by Lt. Col. Milton W. Johnson and consisting of 12 aircraft each from the 672nd, 673rd, 674th, and 675th Squadrons, would join the effort. The formation would be escorted by 24 Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters of the 8th Fighter Group, which would depart from San Jose and join up with the formation.

The formation would split into two waves on the run into the target. The first wave would consist of 24 A-20Gs of the 312th Bomb Group’s 388th and 389th Squadrons and all 40 B-25J aircraft of the 345th Bomb Group. The 312th aircraft were on the right side of the first wave formation with the 345th to their left. The second wave would consist of 24 A-20G aircraft of the 312th, 386th, and 387th Squadrons and the 48 A-20Gs of the 417th Bomb Group. The 312th was also on the right side of this formation with the 417th on the left.

The first wave would attack Clark flying northwest to southeast. The second attack wave would fly from northeast to southwest. The two waves would create a large X pattern over the target. The mission planners’ hope was that this would help the attackers locate and destroy all the dispersed and camouflaged aircraft hidden close to the airstrips.

23-Pound Parafrags

The primary weapons for the mission would be thousands of 23-pound AM 40 parachute fragmentation bombs, otherwise known as parafrags. The mission planners also hoped that by flying up the west coast of Luzon the attackers would reduce the potential for detection from Japanese radar sites and confuse Japanese ground observers as to the mission’s true target. With three bomb groups attacking Clark from the north, it was hoped that an element of surprise could be achieved, catching the Japanese antiaircraft gunners flat-footed, reducing losses. Radio silence was to be maintained to prevent detection by Japanese listening posts.

Each of the three bomb groups came to the raid with different motivations. The 345th Bomb Group had lost over 200 dead, wounded, and missing ground personnel in a kamikaze attack on the Liberty Ship SS Thomas Nelson and lost an additional 22 dead and 40 wounded in a second kamikaze attack on the Liberty Ship SS Morrison R. Waite on November 12, 1944. The 417th Bomb Group had endured frequent air attack and had lost a number of aircraft on the ground. The unit also had lost its popular commander, Colonel Howard S. Ellmore, killed when his A-20G struck the superstructure of a Japanese merchant ship and crashed during a low-level attack on January 2, 1945. The January 7 raid would be the first group-size raid led by Ellmore’s replacement, Lt. Col. Johnson.

The 312th Bomb Group was the most recent of the three to arrive in the Philippines. An experienced group, the 312th’s flying element had just arrived days before this planned raid, eager to get in the fight.

Challenges of the Raid

The Japanese were not idle during this period. They were desperately trying to find ways to get aerial reinforcements to the Luzon bases and were to trying figure out ways to strike back at the growing American airpower in the region. Despite heroic efforts and ghastly sacrifices, nothing seemed to be slowing down the American airpower buildup despite the losses the Japanese inflicted. The Japanese knew that if land-based American airpower built up enough, Japanese air operations would be finished in the Philippines.

All the American aircrews were briefed on the mission on the night of January 6. The ground crews spent most of the night ensuring that the bombers were ready for the morning’s important mission. The aircrews were awakened at 4 am for breakfast and preflight checks. The 312th Bomb Group’s A-20Gs took off at 6:50 am into a bright, clear sky over Leyte. During the takeoff a 388th Squadron A-20G piloted by 2nd Lt. Eugene M. Bussard with gunner Sergeant Harvey Walker made one turn from Tanauan and crashed into the bay. Both airmen were killed. The cause of the crash was never determined but was presumed to be some type of mechanical failure.