Duel 87 - P-39,P-400 Airacobra vs A6M2,A6M3 Zero-sen. New Guinea 1942.pdf

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New Guinea 1942
New Guinea 1942
Design and Development
Technical Specifications
The Strategic Situation
The Combatants
Statistics and Analysis
Further Reading
Two Airacobras from the 8th FG
are scrambled from 7-Mile Drome
in mid-1942. Behind them, B-26
Marauders from the 22nd BG taxi
out prior to taking off.
The clash between the A6M Zero‑sen and the P‑39 Airacobra over New Guinea in 1942
marks an essential and instructive opening chapter to the limitations of air power in a
tropical and expansive environment. The engagements fought out over New Guinea’s
mountainous spine mostly ended in an evenly balanced stalemate, as much affected by
external factors as the quality of the pilots and aircraft
themselves. Although Airacobra pilots were officially
credited with 95 Zero‑sen victories, a comparison against
Japanese records shows an actual total of only 15 – a ratio
of 6.3 claims per actual kill. The Japanese ratio of claims
versus actual kills is similar, although harder to define due
to many credits being shared, which was something Allied
pilots did not do in New Guinea.
Throughout 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy Air
Force (IJNAF) units in‑theater lacked adequate Zero‑sen
replacements, yet senior officers in Rabaul failed to
convince their superiors in Tokyo that they did indeed
need more fighters. This unsatisfactory situation meant
that until August 1942 replacements averaged only
11 Zero‑sen per month – an insufficient number with
which to win the war. Although all IJNAF units
transmitted bi‑monthly reports on their attrition to the
General Staff and Aeronautical Department of the
Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), these frequently failed to
arrive due to other field demands. All units had a vested
interest in accurately reporting their losses in the hope
of gaining replacements. Thus, Japanese unit records from 1942 are detailed, in many
cases more so than their Allied counterparts. Against these reports, Tokyo‑based staff
officers would evaluate unit needs and then make monthly allocations, balancing
competing requests from other geographic areas.
There was a two‑month time lag between requesting replacements and actually
receiving them – another unsatisfactory situation. The last major A6M2 delivery to
Rabaul arrived aboard
Kasuga Maru
before the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.
After the defeat at Midway early the following month, the bulk of Zero‑sen production
was earmarked for carriers. As an interim measure, 24th Kokusentai in the Marshall
Islands was ordered to transfer 25 aircraft, with pilots, to Tainan Kokutai in two
echelons (May and September 1942) to make up for production shortages.
Whilst the initial deliveries of P‑39 Airacobras to units in New Guinea were equally
small, there was no doubt as to the substantive number that the US economy was
producing, and which would eventually find their way to the Southwest Pacific theater.
Neither side carried aeronautical charts, for these did not exist for New Guinea at the
time. Nonetheless, following the April/May 1942 losses of the equivalent of a squadron
of Airacobras to Queensland’s marginal weather during delivery, with hindsight it seems
incredulous that P‑39 pilots were dispatched on the first strike against Lae without maps
of any kind. Their Zero‑sen counterparts managed superbly with only rudimentary
maps, or none at all, the IJNAF aviators quickly familiarizing themselves with New
Guinea’s geography, which they negotiated skillfully and cautiously.
Reliable construction of runways and the maintenance of aircraft and equipment
in New Guinea’s brutal environment were essential for the successful prosecution of
this fledgling campaign. At Port Moresby the bulldozer and Marston matting proved
the quintessential combat tools. Engineers kept the town’s expansive airfield complex
open, rain or shine, raid or none. At Lae, the forward IJNAF Zero‑sen airfield, the
Japanese were reduced to repairing their frequently bombed runway with shovels. This
substandard state of affairs led to unnecessary losses of priceless fighters. Despite the
incessant bombing of Lae, the nearby Neuendettelsau Lutheran Mission airstrip built
This A6M3 Model 32 of the 2nd
Kokutai was force-landed and
abandoned at Buna by WO Kazuo
Tsunoda on August 26, 1942 after
he had tangled with Airacobras
from the 80th FS whilst taking off
from the airstrip. The Zero-sen
was hit ten times during the
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