What Happened When Japan's Ki-43 Fighters Intercepted Air Transport Command?

January 23, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIIndiaChinaCargo PlanesJapanAir Force

What Happened When Japan's Ki-43 Fighters Intercepted Air Transport Command?

Cargo pilots flying the treacherous route from India to China had to contend with Japanese fighters staged at the key town of Myitkyina.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Ki-43 was considered the Japanese Army’s best fighter in terms of maneuverability and speed, but it lacked an aerial punch.

Why was Myitkyina such an important objective in the reconquest of Burma in 1943 through 1944 for the Allies and especially among them, Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell?

After the inglorious Allied retreat through Burma in early 1942, with the ensuing capture of that entire country by Japanese forces, China was to become wholly isolated from resupply save for the dangerous air route over the Himalayas called The Hump. At a press conference, Stilwell made the now famous statement: “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.”

Supplies to China Cut Off

Coincidental with the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in June 1940 was the “voluntary closure” of the Burma Road by the British under Japanese coercion. This occurred after the Vichy government allowed the Japanese to occupy northern Indochina, effectively isolating China completely. The Burma Road ran from Lashio, south of Myitkyina, through the mountains to Kunming in China and up to Chunking. The road was constructed through the efforts of several hundred thousand Chinese laborers and wound through high mountain ranges and their low-lying valleys as well as across two rivers, the Mekong and Salween.

Although primitive from a civil engineering standpoint, the Burma Road was nonetheless one of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s last conduits for resupply since he had already lost the coast of eastern China to the Japanese. Thus, the British closure of the Burma Road severely impeded the flow of supplies to Chiang’s new capital.

The loss of Rangoon within two to three months of the start of hostilities and then the remainder of Burma severely impeded Allied operations in Asia. China was usually supplied first by ship at Rangoon, then by rail to Lashio, and finally by truck convoy over the Burma Road to Kunming. With Rangoon now under Japanese control, this supply chain was broken. Without military assistance, China would be forced to surrender, and Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) forces could be diverted to other Pacific war zones.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) at their Trident and Quadrant Conferences in Washington and Quebec, respectively, established a need for a land operation to capture northern Burma to improve the air route and establish overland communications with China with a target date of mid-February 1944. Another goal was to continue to build up and increase the air routes and air supplies to China and to develop air facilities with a view to keeping China in the war. Stated succinctly, all parties in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater were clamoring for more supplies and war matériel. However, it was apparent in 1942-1943 that an airlift alone would be inadequate for an enlarging force to go on the offensive in China, let alone to keep Chiang’s government supplied to the minimum degree necessary to remain in conflict with Japan.

Myitkyina: A Crucial Supply Center

To accomplish the aims of the CCS, the capture of Myitkyina in north Burma became of paramount importance. Myitkyina, at the junction of the Mogaung and Hukawng Valleys, lies at the southern tip of the Hump, which U.S. cargo planes of the Air Transport Command (ATC) had to fly over in their trek from air depots in India to their terminals at Yunnanyi and Kunming in southwestern China.

Due to the threat of Japanese fighters stationed at the Myitkyina airfield, these transport aircraft had to fly far to the north of the more direct line from Chabua, India, to Yunnanyi and Kunming, and then swing south to the Chinese air terminals. However, this safer detour increased fuel consumption and reduced the load among the transports.

Furthermore, the air route itself was narrow, and its saturation with transports sometime in the near future was predicted. This supply nightmare would persist as long as Myitkyina remained in Japanese hands as the base for elements of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force’s (IJAAF) 5th Air Division. With Myitkyina in Allied possession, the transport crews would be able to resume the more southerly air route and avoid the geographical hazards of the Himalayan peaks in addition to reaping the logistical benefits.

According to Stilwell biographer Barbara Tuchman, “The ATC burned one gallon of fuel for every gallon it delivered to China and had to deliver 18 tons of supplies to enable [General Claire] Chennault’s air force to drop one ton of bombs on the Japanese. A single cargo plane could carry approximately four to five tons and under optimum conditions could make one round trip per day. But rarely more that 60-70 percent of assigned planes was in operation at any one time, and weather and other failures reduced the flight. Losses over the route were heavy. In three years of operation the ATC was to lose 468 planes, an average of 13 a month. Sometimes the crew was able to parachute to safety and be guided out by Kachin rescue teams organized by OSS agents in Burma. Others died in the jungle or were captured by the Japanese or in some cases were caught in the tree tops and their corpses found hanging long afterwards, eaten by ants.“

Another important reason for Stilwell and his Sino-American forces to capture Myitkyina centered on the fact that since the autumn of 1942 U.S. Army engineers had been building a road south from Ledo in Assam, India, which was intended to cross northern Burma and ultimately link with the old Burma Road at Mong Yu, which lies between Bhamo and Lashio. The Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys, through which this Ledo Road was to be constructed, entered the Irrawaddy Valley within a few miles of Myitkyina.

The city of Myitkyina was key to the rail and road net of prewar Burma, so when the Ledo Road reached it, the engineering problem would become one of improving existing facilities rather than constructing new ones. Therefore, taking Myitkyina was the prerequisite for completing the Ledo Road’s juncture with the Burma Road, establishing a point where land communication could be reopened with China via an all-weather road with a gasoline pipeline.

According to official historians of the CBI, “One of the noteworthy aspects of the North Burma Campaign of 1943-1944 is that the logistical preparations, the planning, and the fighting proceeded simultaneously.”

Stilwell started his military advance with the Ledo Road’s construction following him and using his Chinese 38th Division as outpost protection for the American road engineers before getting official orders from the CCS. As the overseer for all Lend-Lease aid to China, Stilwell knew that aerial resupply would be insufficient, especially if the northern arc for the ATC planes was maintained to avoid Japanese fighters.

Upon receiving the directive from the CCS to advance into northern Burma, Stilwell also gained the approval from the Chinese to augment his offensive in the late autumn of 1943 with the Chinese 22nd Division which had been training in Ramgarh, India. This time point was to correspond with a little known IJAAF air assault from October 13-27, 1943, Operation Tsuzigiri, against the ATC, which added impetus to Stilwell’s ground campaign through the Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys with the ultimate prize being Myitkyina.

The Ki-43: Japanese Best Fighter Aircraft

In the autumn of 1943, the air defense of Burma was charged to the IJAAF’s 5th Air Division, which contained, among others, the 50th and 77th Fighter Sentai in its 4th Air Brigade and the 64th Fighter Sentai in the 7th Air Brigade. A Japanese sentai was the equivalent of a U.S. squadron, consisting of roughly 25 planes. The 5th Air Division had scores of forward airstrips and possessed a few counterbalancing advantages. Its rear areas were well out of reach of all but the heavy Allied bombers, of which there were too few to neutralize Japanese bases. Defense against Japanese fighters, initially the Nakajima Ki-27 Nate and later the Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar, was poor because the Japanese concealed their airfields from aerial photography and even from Kachin scouts by hiding their planes in holes in the ground covered with sod.

The Ki-43 was considered the Japanese Army’s best fighter in terms of maneuverability and speed, but it lacked an aerial punch, being lightly armed with only two 12.7mm machine guns. Also, it had no pilot armor, self-sealing gas tanks, or starter motor. The Ki-43 was developed in 1937 when the Japanese Army decided to produce a fighter with a retractable undercarriage to succeed the Ki-27.

This newer fighter went into service in June 1941 and proved successful despite its light armament. After encounters with more advanced Allied fighters, armor and self-sealing fuel tanks were added. The Ki-43 saw action across the Pacific and toward the war’s end was used in kamikaze attacks against Allied warships and bombers. The Ki-43 was deployed in greater numbers than any other Imperial Army fighter and was second only to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero in terms of sheer production numbers. Vital for its role as a Hump interceptor, it had a service ceiling of 36,750 feet but a limited range of 1,095 miles.