Eight B-29s of the 45th Bomb Squadron launched a strike in November 1944 from our advanced base at Hsinching, China, against a Nippon Air Depot at Mukden, Manchuria. While on the bomb run at 24,000 feet altitude, the planes were untouched by meager bursts of flak and half-hearted passes by a few Zero fighters. The sky was clear and all aircraft were leaving thick contrails behind them. West of the target, and above our altitude, I could see a short contrail behind a plane so far away that I could not identify it.
When the B-29's bombs exploded on the ground, our aircraft cameras took strike photos and the formation turned left toward the withdrawal course of 225 degrees. About halfway through the turn, my Bombardier called out, "Fighter at ten o'clock high. Estimate 5,000 yards!" I could make out a tiny dot whose contrail was turning toward our formation. As the formation leveled out, the dot grew rapidly until I recognized it to be a fixed-gear fighter we called Nate. Nate was a Nakajima 97, a pre-Pearl Harbor fighter used over China in the thirties. It was closing rapidly from above our formation, and was in a very steep turn to get into position for a frontal pass.
When the Nate came within B-29 gunfire range, tracer bullets from every bomber's upper turrets converged on it. The fighter's nose dropped and its bank steepened, and just when it was close enough for me to see the Pilot's head through an open canopy, pieces of wing, cowling, landing gear, and other debris were ripped loose by the hail of bullets. The antique plane tumbled beneath the formation leader, and then Tail Gunners took a turn by shooting at the Nate's fast-receding remains.
After the eight bombers landed at Hsinching, all crew members attended a mission debriefing. Conversation centered on the Nate fighter plane as each crew waited for its turn to make its combat report to a Group Intelligence Officer. When the eight reports were completed, an officer took them to our Group Operations Section. The official mission summary contained an amazing statistic. Only one enemy aircraft was sighted and 17 crew members claimed they shot it down! Eight Bombardiers, eight Upper Gunners, and one Tail Gunner staked a claim that they had destroyed a Nakajima 97 Japanese fighter on the mission. That figures out to be 17 claims for one kill.
Each time a B-29 crew member was given credit for destroying a Japanese fighter aircraft, his Crew Chief had a rising sun symbol painted on the nose section of their plane. For several days after the Mukden mission, my crew razzed our Bombardier and Upper Gunner by asking them to help our Crew Chief find a painter who could design a symbol that represented 1/17th of a rising sun.
The reader probably has already surmised that no symbol was painted on any B-29 in memory of the ancient Nate and its Japanese Pilot. Members of our squadron often talked about the incident, and we posed many questions about the Pilot and his plane. Was he a flying cadet in training and thus had no combat experience? Could he have been disgruntled and decided to end all the misery he suffered in the military? Did his engine conk out due to icing? Was he simply operating above the recommended ceiling limit of his plane? None of these possibilities met with general acceptance in our squadron. Then someone came up with a theory that was accepted -- the Pilot of the Nate aircraft intended to ram into the formation leader.
That theory gained credibility after we moved our B-29s from India to Tinian, Mariana Islands, in the spring of 1945. We learned that XXI Bomber Command B-29 units operating from Pacific bases against Tokyo were suffering losses when Kamikaze Pilots rammed into B-29 Superforts flying daylight missions. Perhaps the eight planes on our Mukden mission were fortunate that the Nate Pilot who was attempting a frontal pass was shot down before he could fly into our formation.
When I attended the first reunion of 40th Bomb Group Association members in October 1980 in New Orleans, I did not hear anyone mention the Nakajima 97 incident. If one of the 17 original claimants was there, he did not brag to me about his skill in shooting down 1/17th of a Japanese airplane.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *