Two P-38 Pilots’ Deadly Jungle Encounter with a Japanese Flyer

By Henry Sakaida

     I should have been a police detective, but I cannot stand the sight of blood. However, I do enjoy solving real life mysteries. In 2002, I was working on my book Genda’s Blade with my coauthor in Japan, Koji Takaki, when he told me about a Japanese pilot named Noritsura Kodaka. He was a skilled pilot who flew at Rabaul (SE Pacific) and claimed 105 aerial victories in his career. Kodaka wrote his memoir which was published in Japan in 1969.


Japanese A6M Zeros at Rabaul


Petty Officer 2nd Class Teigo Ishida

     In his book, Kodaka wrote a fascinating incident involving his friend, and his encounter with two American pilots in the jungles of Rabaul. Ishida had parachuted from his burning Zero fighter during a dogfight at 800 meters and got hooked up in the tall trees. He suffered burns to his face. Using the cords of his parachute, he swung himself to a large branch and worked his way down.

     Ishida, as the story goes, was walking through the jungle when he was stunned to come face-to-face with two Americans! One of them pointed a pistol at him. Thinking quickly, Ishida smiled and approached them in a relieved gesture. The Americans, knowing that he was unarmed, also smiled and let their guards down.

     Suddenly, Ishida kicked the gun away from the American’s hand. He hit him in the face and a vicious hand-to-hand struggle ensued. He strangled one with a leather belt. Ishida was a 2nd degree Blackbelt in Judo. Not knowing if there were other Americans nearby, he fled the scene. Kodaka was eventually rescued by a Japanese Army patrol.


Teigo Ishida, standing 2nd from right. 202 Air Group, May 1943

     Kodaka wrote that the encounter may have taken place around 23 December 1943. My research shows that the date was actually 20 January 1944. According to the records of Air Group 204, Ishida was listed as crashing on this date.


Map of Warangoi Bay

     Who were the Americans? I needed to confirm if any American planes were lost on 20 January 1944. Two Americans on the ground could have been bomber crewmen. One B-25C (390th Bomb Squadron) was downed and so was a P-38 on this date. The B-25 carried a 6-man crew. While attacking Vunakanau Airfield, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed upside down according to eyewitnesses. A huge explosion and fireball followed. 

     The missing P-38 belonged to the 339th Fighter Squadron and was piloted by 2/Lt. Dwight M. Kelly. According to official records, “Plane was not seen after combat occurred.” He disappeared around 1330 near the big Warangoi River on a bomber escort mission.

     Here is where it gets interesting. On 18 January 1944, two days before Ishida parachuted down, another P-38 was lost. It belonged to the 44th Fighter Squadron and the pilot was Capt. Cotesworth B. Head Jr., the squadron leader. His plane was last seen making a water landing ten miles east of the mouth of the Warangoi River.


Lockheed P-38 Lightning


Captain Cotesworth Head Jr.

     Now for the analysis. I had originally thought that the two Americans whom Ishida encountered were bomber crewmen. The complete destruction of the B-25 eliminated this possibility. Thus, the two Americans had to be P-38 pilots.

     Capt. Head ditched his plane in the river and I believe he swam ashore. I surmise that he made contact with 2/Lt Kelly while wandering along the Warangoi River towards the sea. Downed pilots were instructed to follow a major river because of finding settlements and people. On 20 January, the pair likely witnessed another dogfight and saw a parachute. Thinking that he may have been an American, they searched for the pilot and found Ishida.

     Ishida was hospitalized after being rescued and left Rabaul on 5 February 1944 for Japan, along with Kodaka. They both served in Squadron 407, 343 Kokutai. Ishida was killed in combat on 16 April 1945 at Kikai/Amami Oshima near Okinawa; he claimed over nine victories. Kodaka survived the war and died in 1992. 

     On 27 April 2003, I was a guest speaker at the reunion of the 44th Fighter Squadron in Solvang, CA. There were two former P-38 pilots at the reunion who were on this mission when their squadron leader was lost. When I revealed the fate of Capt. Cotesworth Head Jr., they were stunned. In 2004, the sister of Capt. Head finally learned what had happened to her brother nearly 59 years earlier. She finally had closure. Her brother was credited with 12 victories.

 Books by Henry Sakaida:

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

Genda’s Blade


Aces of the Rising Sun 1937-1945

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