Fragment from “The Java Gold – Chapter 10: The Ordeal”
… Commander Takeo Shibata, commanding officer of the 3rd Naval Air Group, Imperial Japanese Navy, yawned as he sat behind his desk. He had been ready to go to bed when one of his large Kawanishi flying boats (later called ‘Mavis’ by the Americans) had returned rather late from a reconnaissance mission over Broome, a small settlement on Australia’s West Coast. Their mission report was deemed important enough to rouse the commander from his quarters.
Broome was the closest staging point for airplanes flying the 2000 kilometer route from and to Java. And the Kawanishi’s crew reported a surprising lot of activity on this small airfield. True, it consisted mainly of bombers and transports and so far they had seen no fighters. But he reckoned it would just be a matter of time before those would appear. However, the most important news was about Roebuck Bay. The reconnaissance crew reported a significant number of flying boats moored there.
Shibata put the report back on his desk and sipped his small cup of green tea while he thought deeply. If the Allies managed to develop Broome and Roebuck Bay into fully operational airbases they would be able to control the southern approaches to Java and harass Japanese naval forces. His orders were to put a stop to the nightly relief flights to Java, now that the invasion of that island was well under way. Darwin had already been taken out but Broome was an unexpected development. It had to be neutralized. But how could he accomplish this task without long-range bombers?
The Navy’s Mitsubishi G3M bombers were all engaged in the assault on Java and the Philippines. And his Kawanishi’s were primarily reconnaissance planes. Yes, they were able to carry a small bomb-load, but they were unsuitable for this type of attack.
So it had to be done by the small force he had in hand, his 18 Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero” fighters.
He rose and walked over to the large-scale map on the wall, showing the Timor Sea and the West Coast of Australia. His eyes narrowed as he lit a cigarette and gazed at the daunting distance between Kupang and Broome. His thoughts drifted back to the time when he had been chief naval test pilot. Those had been the grand days of his flying career. Taking up untried airplanes to find out what they were capable of. And what they were not capable of. Friends had died in crashes that sometimes remained unexplained. Somehow he had survived this murderous assignment and gone back to the fleet.
One of his tasks during those days had been to establish the long-range flight characteristics of the Mitsubishi A6M. And an idea began to form in his head. They could just make it with standard 80-gallon centerline drop tanks…
He had flown missions like this himself, in the older and more primitive prototype version of the Zero. The pilots would have to stick to the long-range flight profiles he had so painstakingly developed then….
He stubbed out his cigarette and walked to the door, calling for his adjutant.
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