by Henry Sakaida

Back around 1981, I was asked a favor by USMC fighter ace Ken Walsh, the Medal of Honor recipient. He was credited with 21 victories against the Japanese in WWII. The retired lieutenant colonel  had done me a great favor earlier. I had run out of gas in my ’75 Chevy El Camino on the freeway. What an idiot! I walked half mile to his home in Santa Ana, CA and the old gentleman was kind enough to retrieve a can of gas from his garage and drive me back to where my car was. This was the first time that I was rescued by a real hero! So I said, “Mr. Walsh, I owe you big time!”

ken walsh usmc ace

1/Lt Kenneth A. Walsh of VMF-124 in his F4U Corsair in May 1943. Within 3 months, he scored 20 victories. He received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt in February 1944.

I ran out of gas in my Chevy El Camino, in the background. Whenever I would see Ken Walsh later, he would always ask if I had enough gas in my car.

One day, Ken called me up and said he needed a favor. Sure! He wanted to find out about the details of a dogfight which occurred on 13 May 1943 over the Russell Islands. In this battle, he was credited with 3 victories and a probable, and became an ace. He said they were bushwhacked by Zeroes diving out of the sun; his commanding officer, Maj William Gise, was hit and went down. After the battle, Ken spent 3 hours looking for his skipper with no luck. After all these years, Ken wanted to know about the combat from the Japanese side and if I knew what became of his commander.

ken walsh usmc ace

Ken Walsh shows me the painting which depicted the dogfight for which he won the Medal of Honor. He had great respect for his Japanese opponents.

I was able to piece together the dogfight from both sides, thanks to one former Zero pilot who penned his memoir after the war. Ryoji Ohara was one of only two veteran aces of the 204 Kokutai still living at the time.

wwii ryoji ohara

Warrant Officer Ryoji Ohara in Japan in 1945.

“From the front, there appeared an enemy formation, about 60 planes,” wrote Ohara. “All of a sudden, each of our formation detected them; the battle commenced. Our CO, Lt Zenjiro Miyano, ordered the No.1 flight into a right rotation, offering covering protection. I looked down and saw a single Zero belching smoke with a F4U in pursuit.”

“I went out in front of Miyano and hand-signaled that I had discovered an enemy plane below. Miyano understood and indicated to me that I should go after the enemy. I signaled back ‘Go alone?’ Miyano gestured ‘Yes!’ Hesitation was not allowed. There was anxiety. I saluted and dived.”

“I attacked the F4U while friendly and enemy planes fought above. Was the F4U aware of my pending attack? He was very absorbed in the Zero out front. The Zero, trailing smoke, maneuvered left and right. As I closed in, I looked around and the coast was clear. ‘Yes, it’s OK!’ I put my gun sight on the enemy and squeezed the firing lever. My 20mm and 7.7mm bullets struck the target; fire and smoke erupted. ‘I’ve got it’ I shouted to myself.”

f4u corsair

F4U Corsair framed in the author’s Zero Type 98 gunsight. A Corsair could survive this attack due to armor protection and sheer ruggedness. The best angle for attack was from behind and above, shooting down into the cockpit. Depiction by the author.

“Suddenly, bullets ripped into the fuselage of my Zero! ‘Funny, where did he come from?’ I panicked. ‘Now, he’s on my tail!’”

Ohara broke off the attack. He became separated from his group and decided to hightail it home. After a while, he saw far in the distance, two planes stalking him and assumed that they were enemy. What he saw were actually two Zeroes heading for home over the vast expanse of ocean. Ohara wasn’t about to slow down and investigate! But there was a lone F4U stalking him! It was 1/Lt William Cannon of VMF-124.

Finding himself in a desperate situation and with no hope of survival, Ohara whipped his damaged Zero around and decided to take the enemy down with him. When he counter-attacked, he didn’t see his comrades. Fear and tunnel vision will do that. He put some lead into the F4U and fled. The action only lasted seconds.

In his combat action report, Cannon wrote: As the fight broke up, I saw a Zero heading home (note: This was Ohara). I followed him half way to New Georgia, already catching up with him. Before I caught him, I saw two more Zeroes about 1,000 feet below me. I tried to make an overhead, but did not have enough altitude; when I pulled out, they were above me and both of them did wing overs and shot my plane up. I dove away and saw that there were three 20mm holes in my right wing, one in the ammo pans, one in the guns and one in the wheel well.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Ohara knew that he could never reach his own base, so he crash landed his Zero on Kolombangara Island. He got out and inspected his plane; he counted 38 bullet holes in the rear fuselage and tail. As for his opponent, 1/Lt Cannon did manage to get home, but his wheels wouldn’t come down. He was instructed to make a water landing after letting his fuel tanks run dry. After a long while, he did so successfully.

Ohara managed to reach Kolombangara Island in his damaged fighter. The round island is about 9 miles across. It was occupied by the Japanese Army and there was a small airstrip on the south shore of the island. Ohara was later transported back to his own base.

The 204th Air Group was led by Lt Zenjiro Miyano. Out of 24 Zeroes, they lost 3 planes and 2 pilots were killed in this action. Marine Corp VMF-124 sortied 15 planes and entered combat over the Russells. The unit lost 3 planes. Lt Dale was shot in the foot and bailed out over Lunga Point while Cannon made a water landing at Tulagi. Maj William Gise was missing. A Japanese source states he that was taken prisoner!  At the time of my research, I did not know this. He is officially listed as MIA.

Ohara survived the war and claimed 48 victories; he became an airline pilot after the war and ran an airline pilot training school before retiring. As of this writing in 2017, I don’t know if he is still living or not. We had corresponded a few times by letter, but we had never met. Bill Cannon died shortly after the war of polio. And as for my old friend Ken Walsh, he passed away in July 1998 at age 81. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Ken Walsh and Zero pilot Saburo Sakai in 1987. This is a really great photo of Ken. I was lucky to get this photo because Ken didn’t like to get his photo taken.

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45

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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