31st May 1943 Part One
USAAF fighter pilots now have an airplane capable to defeat the cream of Japan’s naval aviation and one that can compare with the Navy’s ugly Corsair, though the Thunderbolt (as so christened by its crews) was also one ugly ‘son o’bitch’ as so colourfully put by 1LT Ward from Texas flying the P-47D2 (its official nomenclature) in the 341st Fighter Squadron from Lunga. The order to scramble had come early. Lunga was now a strong forward base and its radars now command the approaches from the Japanese bases to the North. With the taking of Tulagi and Tassafaronga and the build up of Rennell and Rossel Islands Admiral Nimitz had his eye on Russell Islands to further build another air base to accommodate the massive build up of strength coming in from the States. Bereft of carriers he needed bases that could not be sunk. The Southern Solomons provided them aplenty. Mutually supporting they could act a powerful counter measure to the enemy’s carriers and could provide cover for the USN’s still powerful and almost intact battle line.
The scramble order had come over the airwaves and both the 341st and VMF-214 were soon bolstering the aerial patrol over the transports unloading at Russell. 25 enemy fighters escorted 9 Betty bombers carrying torpedoes. The Corsairs had the high station and they immediately bounced the Zeroes rapidly shooting down two. The Thunderbolt claimed its first air-air kill three minutes into the action. The aforementioned 1LT Ward claimed an A6M3a after blowing out of the sky. The P-47 proved durable and rugged in combat, indeed Ward’s plane was seen to have received 15 hits from enemy machine guns on the tail section alone with no detrimental effect on performance.
Yet the operational bow was meant with sadness as despite the loss of 5 enemy bombers, two intrepid pilots sank their torpedoes into the transport vessel Peisander. She sank later in the day taking a large chunk of the vehicles of the 1st USN Naval Construction Regiment. A second raid later in the day (15 Zeroes and 6 Betties) was completely annihilated by the Corsairs and Thunderbolts. Over 30 enemy planes had been shot down for no loss to the P-47’s. A new and powerful weapon now bristled in the Allied arsenal.
Further good news also landed on Admiral Nimitz’s desk from Australia Command. General Blamey was pleased to report that the 1st Australian Division had ejected all Japanese troops from Buna. Allied troops were back on the Eastern shore of the Solomon Sea for the first time since 1941.