ZERO ACE SADAMU KOMACHI NEEDED CLOSURE

By Henry Sakaida

I received the strangest request over a cup of coffee in a Tokyo café back in 1975 when I was a starving college student. I was visiting Japan and was being hosted by a former Zero fighter pilot named Masahiro Mitsuda. He told me that he had a colleague who was anxious to meet me. I had met Mr. Mitsuda in 1971 at Miramar Naval Air Station golf course in California. The American Fighter Aces Association had invited members of the Japan Fighter Pilots Association for a reunion. Colonel Raymond F. Toliver, aviation historian and mentor, had invited me to attend since I was interested in the Zero pilots. Mitsuda spoke excellent English and we became fast friends.

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

Masajiro Mitsuda, left, with Sadamu Komachi at our coffee shop meeting. Mitsuda was a carrier fighter pilot and claimed 3 victories. He introduced me to his colleague in 1975.



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Sadamu Komachi, Mitsuda told me, was a former Zero pilot who had over 40 aerial victories and was famous dare devil pilot in the Imperial Navy. He told me that after the war, his friend went underground until the US Occupation Forces left Japan. Komachi and his comrades shot down a B-32 Dominator bomber over Tokyo on 17 August 1945, just two days after the surrender announcement. Thinking he would be executed as a war criminal, he hid and engaged in the black market to survive. I’ll write about this interesting story later.

Imagine my surprise when I met former Warrant Officer Sadamu Komachi. At 6 feet tall, he towered over me. “I almost didn’t become a pilot because I was too big fit into the cockpit!” he joked. When I told him that I heard that he had shot down 40 American planes, he laughed and said, “Nah…maybe half!” Komachi was now president of a construction company. He found it strange that a young American of Japanese descent was very interested in the stories of Zero pilots. The children of Japanese veterans had absolutely no interest in their fathers’ old war stories.

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

Petty Officer Sadamu Komachi in 1941 around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. He served aboard the carrier Shokaku and took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, Indian Ocean, the Solomons, Marianas, and the home defense.

“Before you go, I want to ask you a favor,” Komachi said. “I was involved in a dogfight with a Grumman over Guam Island on 17 June 1944, and was shot down in a head-on encounter. I would like to find the American who shot me down! If he survived during the severe battle and is still well, I would like to hug him heartedly to congratulate him and our luck, and to speak with him!”

Crazy, but intriguing! Komachi assured me that there was no animosity. He said he needed closure. There were too many unanswered questions in his mind. He stated that once in a while, he would have nightmares  where he would find himself burning in his cockpit, unable to get out.

A couple of weeks after I returned home, I received a detailed letter from Komachi, which was translated into English. “I guess he was serious about this after all!” I thought. I started my research; this was my very first “cold case.”

“On that day, 17 of June 1944, we departed the airfield at Truk Island and were flying in a 15-plane formation to attack the U.S. Fleet which were offshore of Saipan. At the time, Guam Island was still a Japanese base. We intended to land at the base for refueling and then fly again to Saipan. We were critically low on fuel after flying 600 miles and it was imperative that we land immediately.”



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sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

This photo was taken about 2 months before Komachi was shot down. It shows his flying mates who also flew on the 19 June 1944 mission. Komachi is top right.

The Japanese Zero formation was led by LCdr Harutoshi Okamoto. He was leading the last remaining Zero fighters of the 253 Air Group. Komachi was flying as one of Okamoto’s two wingmen. They were flying on fumes when Orote Airfield on Guam was sighted. Without taking precautions, he ordered his men to start landing.

“I lowered my wheels, my flap was opened, and I put my guns on safety,” continued Komachi. “At the fourth circling coming on the end of the airfield, my plane and the 2nd plane in front of me (which was almost touching down), were attacked by F6F all of a sudden!”

F6F Grumman Hellcat. With a powerful engine and six .50 caliber machine guns, it totally outclassed the Zero fighter.

“Fortunately it didn’t hit us, however, when I retracted my wheels and closed my flaps in order to fight, I saw the F6F which did a half roll facing just in front. My plane was flying at an altitude of more or less 100 meters. It looked like the altitude of the American was 70 – 80 meters. From that position, he shot up my plane, and hit my fuel tank. Flames roared up through the floor and enveloped me! I thrashed about wildly. My plane was covered in flames and dropped into the sea. I got burnt in the face, hands, and legs. I thought this was the end!”

Sadamu Komachi made this diagram showing the combat as he remembered. You really don’t need to know Japanese in order to interpret this.

My preliminary research indicated a major discrepancy concerning the date of the combat. Komachi insisted that the date was 17 June 1944 over Guam. However, there was nothing in the US Navy aircraft action reports to confirm this. Instead, American records pointed to 19 June 1944, which was the start of the Battle of the Philippine Sea. To our pilots, it was known famously as the “Great Mariana Turkey Shoot.” Hundreds of Japanese aircraft were shot down while attacking the American task force. At least six US Naval air groups were involved in combat over Guam that day. Judging by their claims, it was a turkey massacre!

For the first ten years, I gathered US aircraft action reports and tracked down our former US Navy pilots involved in combat that day. I had a few false leads, but became acquainted with several helpful veterans and WWII historians. Everyone wanted to help. I insisted to Komachi that he was wrong about the date but nothing could change his mind. More years passed.

Finally after having read too many aircraft action reports, I narrowed my search to VF-15. I thought I found the guilty party, LCdr James Francis Rigg, who claimed a Zero probable, a Val divebomber, and 4 more Val probables. He sent back a diagram indicating his head-on encounter with a Zero took place around 1,500 feet. Nope, it wasn’t him.  Komachi’s combat took place around a hundred meters (300 feet). The only other person to engage a Zero in a head-on encounter at  low altitude was Ensign Wendell Twelves.



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Wendell Twelves scored 13 victories during the war, and placed a direct hit on the carrier Zuikaku with a 500 Ib. bomb, on 25 October 1944. The Zuikaku was one of 6 carriers which participated in the Pearl Harbor attack. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the major carrier was hit with 7 torpedoes and 9 bombs. For his actions, Ens Twelves received the Navy Cross.

Please read Wendell Twelves’ personal letter to me, describing what he remembered. Then read Komachi’s recollection. By getting both sides of the story, together with maps and diagrams, we finally found out what really happened. It took me 15 years to solve the mystery, but it was fun and worth it!

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

Chief Petty Officer Komachi was Ensign Twelves’ first or second victory. Komachi was  24 and Twelves was 23 years old when they met in combat.

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

sadamu komachi zero ace wwii navy pilot

Ens Wendell Van Twelves hailed from Spanish Fork, Utah. He learned to fly at Brigham Young University through their civilian pilot training program. Only after 6 hours of instruction, he soloed and received his pilot’s certificate! He transferred to Utah State University where he was talked into joining the Navy by a recruiter. He received his wings in 1943 and joined VF-15, the highest scoring air group of the Pacific War. He served during the Korean War as an intelligence officer and retired from the service in 1956. He and his wife LaRhea made their home in Springville, Utah.

As for Komachi’s insistence that the combat took place on 17 June 1944, I explained to him AGAIN  that he was wrong. Even the records of the 253 Air Group states that this action took place on 19 June 1944 and that his group of Zeroes were attacked over the airfield by Hellcats. Finally, Sadamu Komachi accepted my findings and was looking forward to meeting Wendell Twleves. Unfortunately, just before the meeting, Twelves went in for heart surgery and died unexpectedly from complications on 20 November 1991 at age 70. Mr.Komachi is now deceased.



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For Further Reading See:

Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II



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