MURDER OR ACCIDENT? THE DEATH OF A JAPANESE FIGHTER PILOT

65 YEARS LATER, THE VERDICT IS IN

By Henry Sakaida

     For 65 years, the family of Japanese fighter pilot Jiro Funakoshi lived with belief that he was murdered by an American while he dangled helplessly in his parachute. 



    

fighter

Akihito Arima’s sketch depicting the dogfight over Kagoshima Bay

Akihito Arima, then 9 years old, witnessed this dogfight and made a sketch of it. It was forwarded to me by Japanese historian Toru Fukubayashi in 2005. Mr. Arima, then 74, has made more than 70 sketches of his war time memories for public exhibitions. 

     Something about this incident disturbed me. This “cold case murder” needed to be investigated. In 2005, I set to work. There’s nothing like solving an old murder mystery!

     The combat occurred on 2 June 1945 near Kanoya in southern Japan. The Japanese pilot belonged to the famed 343 Air Group, and his opponent was a pilot from VF/VBF-85 off the carrier Shangri-La. The Americans went in to attack the forward Kamikaze bases at Chiran, Kagoshima, and Izumi on Kyushu Island. There was no activity on those airfields, so the Americans grew restless and bored. They were not about to go back without shooting up something. 

fighter

F4U Corsairs of VF-85

     Little did they know that Capt Minoru Genda, CO of the 343rd, was hatching a surprise against them. Rather than hitting the enemy while they were having fun, his squadron would hit them as they headed home; they would be low on ammunition and fuel. Genda also believed that they would be tired and unsuspecting.

     Over-confidence would play a major role in the disaster to follow. Very few Japanese fighter planes were being encountered at this late stage in the war. VF/VBF-85 had only achieved 33 victories since their deployment in January 1945. Most of their victims were Kamikaze planes flown by inexperienced pilots who couldn’t dogfight. The Americans had trained hard for war and they wanted to see action before it ended.

     As the Corsairs were heading home, 21 Shiden-Kai “George” fighters arrived over Kanoya. Lt Keijioro Hayashi, the squadron leader, looked down and saw the formation of 16 F4Us flying south. What luck! He ordered his men to dive, and they ripped through the enemy formation with all guns blazing. The Americans were caught flat-footed and scattered like pigeons.

kaneyoshi muto

A Kawanishi N1K2-Ja Shiden Kai (“George”) prior to restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Two Corsairs went after CPO Jiro Funakoshi in a head-on attack, but no one scored. However, Lt(jg) William R. Clarke saw what was happening and jockeyed into position. “My attack was from slightly above in a starboard turn with apparent speed advantage,” recalled Clarke. “I opened fire with all six .50s calibers at about 350 yards and 30 degrees deflection. I was closing rapidly and while still firing bursts at about 100 yards from a 5:30 position, what I thought were parts of the enemy plane came off. I immediately broke sharply to starboard to avoid a collision with the parts of the aircraft. Upon breaking away, I lost sight of the aircraft.”



fighter

Lt(jg) William Clarke

     Never had an American squadron been so badly mauled this late in the war. Nine F4Us were lost in this action (5 pilots were missing and one was killed during takeoff). They claimed two destroyed, one probable, and two damaged.

     On the 343rd Air Group side, the Japanese claimed 18 victories and lost two pilots:  CPOs Eiji Mikami and Jiro Funakoshi.

     When Clarke returned to the carrier, his gun camera film was processed and shown. What he thought were aircraft parts weren’t! It was the pilot bailing out of his stricken fighter! Funakoshi had slid back the canopy and was about to exit when he was chewed up by machine gun bullets. His body was flung from the cockpit and his parachute opened when the static line pulled the silk from his pack.

     American pilots avoided shooting at enemy pilots who parachuted for fear of retaliation. Another reason was mistaken identity. In one tragic example, a Hellcat pilot shot at what he believed was his opponent in his chute. A destroyed picked up the corpse. It was one his squadron mates! The offender was immediately transferred out but no charges were filed. He must have led a tortured life until his dying days.



For Related Articles See:

4 thoughts on “MURDER OR ACCIDENT? THE DEATH OF A JAPANESE FIGHTER PILOT

  • Trever Burden says:

    Good god, that is a misfortune because I can understand how a pilot could’ve made a mistake like that. When you are going in like that and you see your bullets hitting something its easy to mistaken something for something else.

    A pilot going at that speed has a split second to fire and if he sees wreckage coming at him he has to make a split second move of the stick to get out of harms way.

  • Bill Getz says:

    The fog of war often occurs. I believe I told you about a real action where a P-51 fighter pilot accidentally shot a Luftwaffe pilot in a chute. I mentioned the incident as part of the story in my fiction novel, “Double Eagles.”

  • Webmaster says:

    Article is bias and inherently flawed. First, the article states the camera showed “Funakoshi had slid back the canopy and was about to exit when he was chewed up by machine gun bullets.” Sorry, in war when the enemy is in their aircraft they are fair game and it a disservice to even bring up the word “murder”–as the first word of the title uses. Whether or not his lifeless body departed afterward with wreckage makes no difference and is the same as going down with the aircraft, as in both cases they were killed in their combat aircraft while engaged. Second, Bill Clarke was credited with shooting down a “Jack” and an “Oscar” on the 2nd of June, 1945, with no mention of a “George.” Third, Bill Clarke was a pilot attached to VF-85; not VBF-85, and concluded the war with VF-85. Fourth, VF-85 lost (3) -1D Corsairs and VBF-85 lost (5) -1C Corsairs on June 2nd. Sources: “The Log of Fighting Squadron Eighty Five”; “History of Bomber Fighting Squadron Eighty Five” (both are a day by day war records); and U.S. Navy Aircraft Daily Losses, June 1945.

  • Webmaster says:

    After posting, I have some other thoughts for the above post. VF-85 and VBF-85 were two entirely separate squadrons, with their own individual command structure, administration, and maintenance. While they often flew together on a single mission to combine them into one squadron and then declare: “Never had an American squadron been so badly mauled this late in the war. Nine F4Us were lost in this action (5 pilots were missing and one was killed during takeoff).” Patently false. VF-85 lost 3 aircraft as follows: F4U-1C 82371 (mechanical failure on take off= accident, pilot killed); F4U-1C 82547 (tail hook snapped on landing= accident, aircraft written off, pilot ok); F4U 1C 82751 (damaged in the mentioned battle, returning to ship lost oil pressure and ditched, pilot not recovered). VBF-85 lost 5 as follows: FG-1D 76540 (damaged in mentioned battle, ditched, pilot got into raft–captured POW survived the war); FG-1G 76528 (pilot stayed orbiting the downed airman until he ran out of gas and also ditched–non combat loss–captured POW survived the war); FG-1D 76540 (ran out of fuel returning to ship, ditched next to destroyer and immediately picked up–non combat loss); F4U-1D 82298 (Not related to this incident as it was hit by flak on a separate detail attacking a Japanese sea plane base, shot down and pilot killed); F4U-1D 82789 (directly shot down by the above mentioned engagement pilot killed). 9 Corsairs were NOT lost in this action, and certainly not from a single squadron. 8 were written off in total: 2 from being shot down directly, 2 were ditched from damage received, 2 were shot down by unassociated aircraft fire, and 2 ran out of gas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Past and Present WWII History Posts