By Henry Sakaida

“He was a pilot of extraordinary ability, a real hero!” recalled former Zero pilot Saburo Sakai in 1996. “He taught us a lesson we would never forget!” Such were the sentiments of a hardcore veteran Japanese pilot who helped shoot down the man he greatly admired.


Pilot Officer Warren F. Cowan


Sgt Russell Bradburn Polack


Sgt Lauri Edwin Sheard

Warren Frank Cowan was an Australian bomber pilot and a family man with a wife (Betty), who was expecting their second child, and a 15 month old son named Blair.  When he failed to return from his mission of 22 July 1942, he was written off as a statistic. No one knew what had happened to him. The Australians  never knew the magnitude of his final combat back then, but one enemy pilot did.

On 22 July 1942, a lone Lockheed Hudson (A16-201) of 32 Squadron RAAF, departed Port Moresby at 1130 local time. At the controls were Pilot Officer Warren F. Cowan, with PO David R. Taylor acting as co-pilot. Sergeants Russell B. Polack and Lauri E. Sheard rounded out the crew as gunners. Their mission was to shadow Japanese ships and attack targets of opportunity.

The Hudson was a twin-engined patrol and light bomber, derived from Lockheed’s 11-seat commercial passenger plane. Ungainly in appearance, the business end of this aircraft consisted of two .303 caliber machine guns in the nose, and another pair in the power-operated dorsal current towards the tail. Maximum bomb load was 1,600 pounds, which reduced its maximum speed to 250 mph.


RAAF Hudsons over Milne Bay, New Guinea

On the Japanese Naval airfield at Lae, New Guinea, Lt(jg) Junichi Sasai received orders to sortie his men for an air cover operation over Buna. Their troops had landed on the beach and were bringing supplies ashore. Six Zeroes took off around 1400 hours and arrived over the area 45 minutes later and began circling. The 1st flight consisted of Lt(jg) Junichi Sasai with his two wingmen  PO1/c Toshio Ota and  PO3/c Masuaki Endo. The 2nd flight consisted of  PO1/c Saburo Sakai, with PO2/c Masatoshi Yonekawa and  PO3/c Yoshio Mogi.


Tainan Air Group pilots in June 1942. The men who participated in the 22 July 1942 combat against Cowan are: 2nd row, left to right: Toshio Ota, then Saburo Sakai, and Masayoshi Yonekawa. 3rd row, 4th from left: Masuaki Endo.

Sakai was disgusted with what he saw below. “Buna was a shock to me on my first patrol. I had seen many landing operations before from the air, but never had I witnessed such a pathetic attempt to supply a full infantry division.  Soldiers milled around on the beach, carrying cases of supplies into the jungle by hand. Only two small transports with a single small sub chaser as their escort stood off the beach unloading new supplies!” If Sakai was disgusted, Cowan was delighted. It was a target of opportunity the Aussie could not resist.

“Without warning, a series of tremendous explosions rocked the beach area,” recounted Sakai. “Columns of flame and smoke erupted into the sky!” There was mass confusion on the beach. The Japanese pilots scanned the sky and saw nothing. Frank Cowan had scored a bullseye!

Then they saw it. A tiny speck in the horizon diving away. The Japanese opened full throttle and raced after the intruder. With no bomb load, the Hudson nosed down and raced along the coast at a tremendous clip.  Sakai was shocked to see that the Hudson’s speed matched his own. Little by little, the Zeroes closed the distance. At about 600 meters, Sakai fired his guns, hoping to force his opponent into a turn.

“No sooner had I fired when the Hudson went up in a steep climbing turn to the right, rolled quickly, and roared back with full speed directly at me!,” described Sakai. “I was surprised for several moments as I sat motionless in the cockpit. The next second, every forward-firing gun in the Hudson opened up with a withering barrage.” Sakai yanked his fighter out of the line of fire. The six Zeroes scattered like pigeons as Cowan plowed through their formation.

With Cowan flying like a madman, his gunners sprayed the Zeroes without letup.  The sheer audacity of the lone bomber, now attacking the attackers, enraged the pilots and all discipline went to hell. Now, it was every man for himself as they threw themselves at the bomber. Sakai feared colliding with his comrades. Cowan kicked and shoved his plane into violent maneuvers, making repeated attacks. By pulling the power off one engine and opening up the other at the same time, he was able to execute the high speed turns which so confounded the enemy.

“Finally, a heavy burst caught the rear turret; I saw the gunner throw his hands up and collapse,” explained Sakai. “Without the interfering stream of bullets from the turret, I closed to 50 meters and started shooting.”

Suddenly, white gasoline vapor spewed out from Hudson’s left wing. The Hudson was now crippled! Sakai now directed his fire into the left wing, closing the distance to 30 meters. Everyone, it seemed, got their licks in. The bomber was now a burning torch and headed down into the jungle. Cowan was apparently trying to make a controlled crash landing. It all ended in a giant fireball.

When the Zeroes returned to base, the pilots were sullen. Not only had they failed to protect the resupplying effort at Buna, but they had been outflown and humiliated by a lone bomber. Word spread quickly. Not one pilot who flew against that Hudson felt victorious. “We had to marvel at the skill and bravery of that pilot!” Sakai remembered. “It didn’t matter that he was the enemy.”

The wreckage of A16-201 was found shortly after the end of the war, strewn over a large area near Popoga Village, Buna. The remains of the crew were recovered.

Since 1984, Robert Piper, a distinguished Australian historian and historical officer in the RAAF, worked tirelessly to bring recognition where it was rightfully due. Reading various citations for the Victoria Cross, Cowan would fit right in. If he had been an American, Cowan would have met the requirements for the Medal of Honor.

On 7 February 1997, Sakai wrote a testimonial letter on behalf of Cowan and his crew, to Ian McLachlan, the Australian Minister of Defense. In a very disappointing and shameful  response dated 6 May 1997, Minister McLachlan wrote: “I am informed by Air Force Headquarters that no provision exists to seek approval for a posthumous awards for war time service which occurred over 50 years ago. I am also advised that there is no evidence that Pilot Officer Cowan was nominated for an award for heroism as a result of his service in New Guinea. Under these circumstances, I regret that it is not possible to accede to your request.”

If you wish to know more, please google: Australian Story – 1/7/2002: Enemy Lines – ABC This story was broadcast on Australian TV and you may read the interviews with the various people involved in this story.





The Canberra Times, Monday, March 9, 1998

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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