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Leyte - Raiden at Tacloban
(Mitsubishi J2M5 ‘Raiden’ at Tacloban Airfield)


“And Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, left her cave each morning, having been teased from it by promises of a celebration. Thus, she brings light to the world….”
— Japanese mythology



Tacloban

“Sakai-san!”

Flight-Lieutenant Yamashita ran to Ensign Sakai to introduce himself. Sakai saluted, then shook the younger man’s hand. “I had heard you were coming!”, said Yamashita. “It’s an honor to meet you!”

Saburo Sakai was a living-legend among pilots from every country, Allied or Axis. Nearly blind in one eye after being wounded in 1942, Sakai had convinced his superiors to let him fly again after a stint training pilots.

“Thank you,” said Sakai, smiling. “I don’t know what a one-eyed pilot can do, but I’ll do my best, sir.”

“It is I who should salute you, Sakai-san,” said Yamashita. Sakai waved off the demonstration from Yamashita. “You outrank me, sir. I observe formalities” he said. “Meantime – what do you think of her?”, he said, patting the side of the Raiden he’d flown in three ‘hops’ from Yokosuka.

“She’s” – Yamashita searched for the word – “HUGE!” The Japanese military had never commissioned nor produced a fighter this large and powerful before. Powered by a massive 14 cylinder radial engine and carrying four 20MM cannon in twin wing-mounts, the plane was a stubby and somewhat-ungainly looking-thing; clearly designed to climb, dive, and hit hard.

“They sacrificed maneuverability for speed and hitting-power, sir,” said Sakai. “She’s far different than the Zero. She has the new 20MM cannon – they’re a little slower-firing, but the punch they carry is the best anywhere. What they’ve asked me to do is to take five of your better pilots, and give them a quick course in shipbusting tactics.”

“I don’t follow, Sakai — ” Yamashita let his words trail off, hoping for an explanation.

“I’m being asked to set up a squadron which will attack American ships exclusively. Four more of these should arrive by nightfall.” Sakai handed his operational orders to Yamashita, then waited at attention.

“I see,” said Yamashita, reading Sakai’s orders. “Who came up with this idea?”, said Yamashita.

“It was Admiral Tanaka’s idea,” said Sakai. “Evidently he got the idea from the Americans. Ironic, don’t you think?” Sakai grinned again. His confidence was infectious.

Yamashita grinned in turn. “I have just the men. How long do we have?”

“Between these air-raids? Maybe a few days; no more than that. The Americans are going to hit this island hard. The air-raids prove it. Let’s get this girl undercover.”, he finished, patting the side of his Raiden again.

Yamashita motioned four of his ground-crew; they quickly took positions at wingtips and tail, wheeling the Raiden into a camouflaged revetment. Sakai and Yamashita walked back to the ready-area, where Sakai would meet his new pilots and begin his training. They didn’t have time to waste.

Tacloban airfield was a well-developed field for fighters, but couldn’t handle anything more than a medium-range aircraft, and bombers were out of the question. There were four other airfields in the Dulag valley, and Sakai recommended to Yamashita that he relocate the incoming fighters there.

“I’ve already had the Marines building revetments for them,” said Yamashita. “By the end of the week ,we should have nearly 1,000 aircraft here – just as long as we can keep the Americans from destroying them.” He added, grinning, “Having the name ‘Yamashita’ has its advantages.”

Sakai chuckled. “I imagine having the same last name as the overall field-commander in this district could only help.”

Sakai’s face clouded again, as he thought of something else. “Something we tried in Rabaul was dummy-aircraft”, said Sakai. “They kept the Allied pilots busy shooting up the dummies while our real aircraft were camouflaged. I’m betting we could build some more right here. The Americans could shoot them up just as they did at Rabaul. That’ll save quite a few of our real aircraft.”

“I’ll get my men on it. We’ve got building materials lying about, and one thing we do have is plenty of paint.”

As the week wore on, the Japanese ferried aircraft to the outlying airfields. Revetted away under camouflage, American carrier-pilots contented themselves with shooting up the mock-Zeroes; occasionally, the Americans would catch some aircraft after having just landed – but by week’s end, minus those destroyed in the air-raids, the Japanese had 800 aircraft under cover on Leyte Island.


I-53

Lieutenant-Commander Seihachi Toyomasu was in his cabin when the squawk box startled him out of a nap.

“Captain! Contact – bearing 5 degrees port relative!”

Toyomasu was off his bunk and out the door before the sound faded. “Make way!”, he shouted as he ducked and wove his way through the compartments and bulkhead-doorways toward the conning-tower.

Arriving at his command-station, he saw his radarman and executive-officer staring intently at the screen. “What do you have, sailor?”, said Toyomasu. “Looks like two – no, make that three – no; FIVE ships – all headed west!”,said the radarman.

Toyomasu’s exec said, “Captain, do we go to battle stations?”

“Not just yet,” said Toyomasu. “Kill the radar. Get this message off to Combined Fleet. Ensure you observe Admiral Tanaka’s code.” Toyomasu had been writing on a message-pad the entire time he’d been speaking. It was a verbal-code instituted by Admiral Tanaka prior to the fleet weighing-anchor from Brunei, and was intended to prevent the Americans from determining the fleet’s actions.

Higashi no kaze ame”, read the message. “East wind; rain”. This was the signal that the American invasion fleet was on its way. “Get this out immediately along with our position. Don’t lose a moment.”

“Now,” said Toyomasu. “You may go to battle stations; torpedo.”


Yamato

Tanaka was on the bridge. A petty-officer brought him a message from the radio room, and stood by for a response.

Tanaka slapped the paper and shouted, “Excellent!”

Admiral Morishita, also on Yamato’s bridge, said “What, Admiral? News?”

“News, all right! One of our submarine-screen has spotted the Americans.”

Turning, he continued, “Petty officer! Have the radio room send this message to Admiral Ozawa, immediately – ‘Climb Fujiyama’.”

“Now,” thought Tanaka, “Let’s see if our submarine-screen can prove their worth ahead of time. A bloody nose might shake the Americans’ resolve a bit.” Turning to Morishita, he said, “What news of Nishimura and the other fleet?”

“They split off three days ago, as you know. They’ll be arriving off Dinagat Island in Surigao Strait in 24 hours.”

Tanaka thought for a moment. “Radio Combined Fleet. Request aerial reconnaissance of Surigao. If there’s anything the naval air-arm can do from Leyte, tell them to do it.”

Tanaka stood by one of the bridge-observation windows and pulled his binoculars to his eyes out of habit. “If the Americans take the bait — ”


Tacloban

“Men,” said Saburo Sakai, “I can’t tell you any more. We’ve trained hard for four days. We’re not getting any more training – today, we go on a mission.” Sakai held up the wireless message. “We’re going on a raid today. Drop tanks are not necessary; we’ve got more than enough fuel to fly there and back.”

Sakai continued. “At the south end of Surigao Strait, naval reconnaissance aircraft have reported a large American patrol-torpedo boat installation. They’ve got upwards of forty of those devils under netting there, and if we don’t take them out, they can be used to ambush our fleet. I can’t tell you the details, but it’s absolutely necessary for us to take them out.”

One of Sakai’s pilots raised his hand.

“Yes, Saichi?”

“If we see other targets, what are your orders?”

“Report them immediately, and return to base. Your job is to destroy those PT’s and get back here in one piece.”

“Remember,” he added, “You have 800 rounds total – that’s 200 per cannon. Make every round count. Dismissed; and to your planes!”

Each of the Raidens coughed and sprang to life as the pilots pressed the start-switch; advancing the throttles, the aircraft left their revetment-areas and reached the airstrip. Advancing his throttle to the firewall, Sakai listened to his craft; she was heavy from the 500KG bomb which had been installed in place of the usual long-range drop-tank.

Climbing, he circled to pick up each of his squadron-mates; on a mission for the first time since 1942, he felt strangely peaceful.


(Next – Surigao)


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