By Pierre Kosmidis
Text, photos and additional information by Dan Farnhham, used by permission
The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham PART 2 – Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita, the only man who has bombed the continental US and the story of the E14Y1 floatplanes found in a shipwreck
Explorer Dan Farnham continues his epic saga, documenting the WW2 Wrecks of Kwajalein Atoll for www.ww2wrecks.com
On this episode, Dan takes us to a paradise on earth, an uninhabited Paradise on earth, an idyllic place, reminding us of the typical “postcard type” holiday location.
Gegibu Island, 25 miles southwest of Roi in Kwajalein Atoll, saw a forgotten episode of the War in the Pacific unfolding right above it. Five Hellcats attacked and shot down a lone G4M “Betty”, which skidded at low angle at sea, ripping off her engines in the process and then crashing on the island, laying forgotten for decades.
Designed in 1937 by the Mitsubishi company in Nagoya, Japan, the Navy Type 1 Attack Bomber is the most famous Japanese bomber of World War II. It was the main twin-engine bomber used by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service during the war, and they flew in action all over the Pacific, from missions over Australia to missions over the Aleutian Islands off Alaska.
In the official short-designation system used by the Japanese Navy, it was given the designation G4M. The “G” was the project letter given to attack bombers, the ‘4’ designated it as the fourth type of attack bomber accepted into service with the Japanese Navy, and the ‘M’ meant it was manufactured by Mitsubishi. Numbers following the ‘M’ designated the major production versions, such as G4M1, G4M2, and G4M3.
Because it was a bomber, Allied Intelligence later gave the G4M a female name, and the name chosen for it was ‘Betty’.
A total of 2,435 G4M’s were built. It had a wingspan of just under 80 feet, and a length of 65.5 feet. It was powered by a pair of 1,530 horsepower ‘Kasei’ radial engines, and it was armed with five machine guns for self-defense. The G4M could carry a single 1,900-pound torpedo, or up to 1,800 pounds of bombs. It had a range of 2,300 miles and a maximum speed of 256 miles per hour.
The G4M first saw combat over mainland China on September 13, 1940 when 27 of them took off from airfields in Taipei, Omura, and Cheju to attack targets in Hankow. In the early months of the Pacific War, following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the exceptional range of the G4M gave it the ability to show up in totally unexpected places, drop its bombs, and then escape before fighters could get off the ground to intercept them.
Since the G4M had been designed for high speed and long range, weight-saving measures had been incorporated into the design, including dispensing with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection for the crew. However, this would come at a high price as the war progressed. In the first year of the Pacific War, when Allied fighter opposition was limited, the G4M could operate almost at will.
But as the war progressed and Allied fighter opposition increased, the G4M began to reveal its fatal flaws. With its lack of self-sealing fuel tanks, the G4M was so prone to catching fire when struck by gunfire that it began to gain a number of disparaging nicknames from Japanese flight crews and Allied pilots alike, such as “Type 1 Lighter”, “Flying Zippo”, and others.
In the G4M’s role of torpedo-bomber, the most notable action took place on December 10, 1941 near Malaya. Several G4M’s were involved in the sinking of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. This action marked the first time in history that capital ships were sunk exclusively by air attack while at sea.
Just about anyone who has read anything about the Pacific War, knows that Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto was killed when the G4M he was flying in was shot down over Bougainville on April 18, 1943, by U.S. Army Air Force P-38 ‘Lightning’ fighters. The wreckage of that G4M can still be seen today.
One of the last official flights of the G4M took place on August 19, 1945 when two de-militarized planes painted in overall white and with green crosses replacing the red hinomarus, were used to transport the Japanese surrender delegation to Manila to meet with General Douglas MacArthur.
In late January 1944, during Operation Flintlock at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, several G4M’s were shot down by U.S. carrier fighters. G4M’s belonging to the 752nd and 755th Kokutais were based at the airfield at Roi Island, at the north end of Kwajalein Atoll.
All of them were either shot down or destroyed on the ground during the attack and invasion of the atoll. Two of the G4M’s crashed inside the perimeter of the lagoon when they were shot down, and possibly a third as well. Of those three, only one has been found, and it is located on Gegibu Island, about 25 miles southwest of Roi.
The “Gegibu Betty” was shot down on January 29th as Operation Flintlock began. A division of four F6F-3 ‘Hellcat’ fighters from VF-6, flying from the USS Intrepid (CV-11), had just finished strafing the airfield on Roi Island when they heard over the radio that an enemy plane had been spotted southwest of Namur Island and was being pursued by another Hellcat. An excerpt from VF-6’s combat report continues the account of the engagement-
“The division dove immediately and saw a Betty about five miles southwest of Camouflage headed across the lagoon in a southwesterly direction at about 100 feet and being pursued by one Hellcat. All five planes began making runs mostly from the side and astern due to the high speed of the Betty which was believed to be about 200 feet and 210 knots.
The only evasive tactics employed by the Betty were speed and slow turns into and away from the attacking planes. After the planes had made several runs, Lieut. Bullard, with only one gun firing, pulled to within one hundred feet of the Betty on a stern attack and gave a long burst into the port wing root and engine. The Betty, previously smoking slightly, burst into flames around the wing roots and crashed on the lagoon shore of either Emery or Evan Island.”
All of the islands in Kwajalein Atoll were given codenames for Operation Flintlock- Roi Island was codenamed “Burlesque”, and “Camouflage” referred to neighboring Namur Island. Gegibu was the island referred to in the report as “either Emery or Evan Island”.
In mid-2009, I learned that aircraft wreckage had been found on Gegibu Island, when I was talking with Jack Jones, who lived and worked on Roi at the time. He told me that he had found a couple of engines on the reef next to the island, which he thought might be aircraft engines. He sent me some photos that he and his wife Kathy had taken of them.
Since my own reference collection on the G4M was scant at the time, I immediately enlisted some other knowledgeable people to assist me in the identification. Thanks to Jon Farrelly, Andy Ward, and Steve Naylor, the engines were soon identified as belonging to a G4M.
Jack and Kathy also took some pictures of aircraft wreckage on the shoreline next to the island, which are visible at low tide. The wreckage was also identified as belonging to a G4M. The engines and wreckage on the reef are only visible at low tide.
Jack told me that there was aircraft wreckage on the island itself, and suggested a trip to Gegibu to go ashore and take some photos, which I thought was a great idea. I talked to Kwajalein residents James Polan, Leonard Grandbois, and Bob Greene about it, and we coordinated with Jack and Kathy on the planning.
On January 1, 2011 James, Leonard, Bob and I headed up in James’ boat. It was about a 40-mile trip from Kwajalein Island to Nell Island, which is located southeast of Gegibu Island. We left shortly after daybreak and hugged the ocean side of the west reef on the way up, to get as much shelter from the winds as possible.
At that time of year, the “tradewinds” were in full force, and the wind speeds averaged between 15 and 20 miles per hour. This made for a rough ride, but James’ boat handled the choppy seas well.
We met up with Jack and Kathy at Nell Island, where they had their sailboat anchored for the weekend, then proceeded another 5 1/2 miles up the west reef to Gegibu Island. Due to the shallow reef off Gegibu, and no suitable place to anchor James’ boat close to shore, we anchored out a bit and piled into Jack and Kathy’s dingy in two groups.
Even then, we had to anchor off the island a bit and wade ashore to avoid the dingy getting torn up on the jagged coral of the reef. As we were wading in we passed the two engines, which were mostly submerged because it was high tide.
Once ashore, we were faced with thick, nearly impenetrable jungle. Gegibu is uninhabited. Working our way into the jungle, we soon came across aircraft wreckage just inside the tree line.
There were numerous pieces of wreckage in view, and a large lump in the terrain with wreckage poking out is likely part of the fuselage of the plane, almost completely covered by jungle growth. It appeared the plane had possibly hit the reef at a shallow angle, and skidded or tumbled the rest of the way onto the island, shedding the engines and other parts as it went.
We didn’t have the necessary tools to do any digging, and in any case we were not allowed to do so. Digging a site like that requires both a permit from the Republic of the Marshall Islands government, and also skilled personnel trained in such excavations. So we had to content ourselves with taking photos of what was in plain sight. There was enough visible wreckage to identify the pieces as belonging to a G4M.
After we had spent a few hours on the island, it was time to head for home. We headed back to Nell Island, said goodbye to Jack and Kathy, and started the long trip back to Kwajalein Island. We arrived home in the late afternoon, exhausted and sunbaked from the trip. But it had been well worth it.
After all, what better way to spend a New Year’s Day than going off to a remote, uninhabited jungle island and hunting for World War II plane wreckage? That trip remains among my best memories of the time I’ve spent out here at Kwajalein Atoll so far. And there are possibly two more G4M wrecks somewhere in the lagoon that still remain to be found.