No. 32 Squadron (RAAF)

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About This Unit

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No. 32 Squadron formed at Port Moresby on 21 February 1942. It was established as an armed  reconnaissance / bomber unit, equipped with Lockheed Hudson aircraft, and was raised by aggregating elements of other RAAF Hudson squadrons deployed from their home bases for combat operations against Japanese forces.  Many of these units had suffered high casualties of men and aircraft.  

No. 32 Squadron's first mission took place the day it was formed, when aircraft were launched to search for a reported enemy submarine. A few days later, the squadron undertook the first of many bombing raids on the Japanese air base at Gasmata. After only a few weeks of operations, due to enemy raids on Port Moresby's Seven Mile airfield, (outlined in an excellent TV documetnary called "Forty Four Days" - see No. 77 Squadron entry.

32 Squadron was withdrawn to Horn Island, off Cape York in Queensland.  It  staged through Seven Mile on its missions, aircraft refuelling there en route to their targets. In March 1942, one of the squadron's Hudsons was the first to spot the Japanese convoy transporting the forces for the invasion of the New Guinea mainland. Later the same month, the squadron engaged Japanese forces landing at Lae and Salamaua.  In July 1942, No. 32 Squadron was active in the Gona area and during the lead-up to the Battle of Milne Bay and the start of the Kokoda campaign.

It was on one of these missions that the events described in the attached story took place.  Most airctaft lost on their own rarely give up the story of their final moments but in this case the enemy pilots recorded what happened.  The skill and fighting spirit of a lone, outnumbered crew from No. 32 Squadron so impressed one of the pilots, Saburō Sakai (later one of the highest-scoring Japanese aces of the war), that he wrote to the Australian Government years after the war recommending that the pilot, Pilot Officer Warren Cowan be "posthumously awarded your country's highest military decoration". The suggestion was rejected on the grounds that all such recommendations had been closed at the war's end, 52 years earlier.

No. 32 Squadron re-deployed south later in 1942, to Sydney from whence it conducted anti-submarine patrols, initially from RAAF Base Richmond and then an airfield near Camden. In March 1943, the Hudsons were replaced by locally built versions of the Bristol Beaufort which it used for the rest of the war. The squadron was disbanded in November 1945.

It was re-established as a Training and Transport Squadron based out of East Sale in Victoria in 1989.



"Outgunned and Outclassed" - adapted from an article by Michael John Claringbold

Pilot Officer Warren Cowan, 31 years old from Angaston SA, was killed in action on 22 July 1942, along with his crew, Navigator, Pilot Officer David Taylor, 33, from Hobart Tasmania and gunners Sergeants Russell Polack, 24 of Summer Hill NSW and Laurie Sheard, 20, of Nuriootpa, SA. They were the crew of a Lockheed Hudson Mk IIIA, tail number A16-201 on a solo armed reconnaissance mission. They died in a forlorn and lonely air combat against six Mitsubishi Zeros over New Guinea's northern beaches near Buna, the site of Japanese amphibious landings that were a prelude to the Kokoda campaign. What distinguishes this action from many like it in the early stages of Australia's war in the SW Pacific, is that an accurate account of what happened came from the other side.

They gave a distinguished account of themselves, so much so that 55 years after the incident, one of the Japanese pilots, none other than top Japanese 'Ace' of the war, Saburo Sakai, who was one of the pilots involved in the destruction of this aircraft, lobbied the Australian Government to present Cowan with a posthumous award for his actions that day.

Warren Cowan and his crew were on an armed reconnaissance mission launched from Port Moresby's Seven Mile Drome at 1130hrs, in response to the Japanese landings in the Buna Gona area. The aircraft they were flying had been assembled in Australia just three months before and delivered to No. 32 Squadron on 25 April 1942. They were looking for the destroyer escorts and the departing convoy heading back to Rabaul. Two hours after leaving Port Moresby, they reported they were 20 miles out to sea having flown over the north coast near Gona. Unreported by them but recorded by Japanese records it is fair to assume they did not locate the convoy and dropped their bomb load on Japanese positions at Buna on the return journey.

Unfortunately they flew into the Japanese air defence net cast over the landing area. A total of 18 Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros belonging to a detachment of the Tainan Naval Air Group were rostered in three 'Chutai' (squadrons) of six aircraft, organised in two flights of three aircraft each, to patrol the landing area from their base at Lae further up the coast. The pilots were all combat experienced and had most recently been engaged in raids on Port Moresby. Saburo Sakai was the flight leader of the second flight, of the third Chutai, each aircraft marked with blue stripes around the rear fuselage. The other Chutai were marked yellow and red respectively. Sasai Jun'ichi was No 1 Flight Commander, Ota Toshio and Endo Masuaki were his wingmen. Flying with Sakai were Yonekawa Masayoshi and Mogi Yoshio.

Like Cowan, the Zeros failed to locate the convoy, but they did spot Cowan's Hudson, and his crew spotted them as was evident from his actions, which was basically to undertake a smooth descent to build up as much speed as it could towards Milne Bay.

The Zeros jettisoned their drop tanks and gave chase, sacrificing the increased range afforded by the lost fuel in exchange for speed to catch their quarry. Now it was just a matter of time, if Cowan adhered to the expected tactic of throttles to the firewall and attempting to gain maximum speed - which would not be enough to outpace the Zeros.

He didn't. In a move that startled his pursuers, perhaps realising that his expected course of action was forlorn, Cowan stood the Hudson on its wingtip in a very steep turn presumably assisted by the application of 'asymmetric power', and turned to face his attackers as perhaps his only remotely viable option. He fired his nose guns as he sped through the Japanese formation which broke up as he did so. The Japanese pilots were not carrying radios due to technical difficulties with their sets and the Zero airframe and engine. They were however, disciplined and experienced pilots and they regained their formation and tried to position themselves to attack despite defensive fire from the Hudson's dorsal turret. According to Sakai, it was ten minutes or so, an age in aerial dogfighting, before the Zeros could land hits on the Hudson thanks to Cowan's desperate maneuvering to evade them. Eventually the Zeros successively took out the Hudson's dorsal turret then set fire to the port engine, moments before it rolled into the jungle below and exploded, near the village of Popogo.

Cowan's actions impressed the Japanese pilots, but most ultimately became casualties themselves. Sasai Jun'ichi, the No 1 Flight Commander was lost just a month later in air combat with US Wildcat fighters over Guadalcanal. Sakai lost the sight in one eye but returned to flying late in the war as Japan's circumstances became dire.

In 1997, 55 years after the event, the only surviving participant in this action, Saburo Sakai, wrote to the Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs, Hon Danna Vale, requesting that Cowan's bravery be recognised. The Minister thanked him for his submission but advised that, regrettably, the request could not be legally honoured becasue the 'End of War' list had closed in 1945 thus closing off the avenue for a posthumous award.

This set of circumstances however makes for a unique anecdote in the history of the struggle in which Australia found itself in those dark days of 1942.

As a footnote, the wreck of the Hudson and the remains of the crew were discovered in 1943 by a USAAF search team who had been told of the wreck by villagers while they were recovering the remains of the crew of a C-47 Dakota crew that had crashed near Popondetta. The Hudson wreck was near the village of Popoga. It was realised it was not American and a later team including Australians recovered the remains of the crew in early 1945, which were subsequently interred in the Lae War cemetery although they are now in the Port Moresby Bomana War Cemetery (CWGC records).

Compiled by Steve Larkins Dec 2016 from the source cited below:


'Outgunned and Outclassed' an article by Michael John Claringbold as published in 'Flightpath ' magazine Vol 28 No.2 Nov 2016-Jan 2017 Yaffa Media Pty Ltd Sydney

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