14 MARCH 1942


In the late morning of 14 March 1942, coast watchers on the southern shores of New Guinea in the village of Kerema, just west of Port Moresby, radioed RAAF Thursday Island that they had seen a large formation of silver twin-engined planes and escort fighters at about 20,000 feet heading towards Cape York. There were eight Mitsubishi G4M1 heavy bombers escorted by twelve A6M2 Zeros of the 4th Kokutai in this bombing raid. A report on the bailout of Lt. Clarence Sandford stated that there were twelve Zeros and ten (not eight) Japanese bombers.

The eight G4M1's had taken off at about 0555 hrs from both Rabaul and Lae airfields, while the twelve Zeros had taken off at about 8.30am from Lae airfield.


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Mitsubishi G4M1 "Betty" bomber


The alert was passed on to the RAAF base at Horn Island where Captain Bob Morrissey, Commanding Officer of the 7th Pursuit Squadron, of the 49th Fighter Group, received the "scramble call". His pilots had just finished their morning patrols by 11.30am. He ordered them to "Take off together. Stay together. Don't wander from your wingman. Take off to the northwest and make a left climbing turn at full power. Form up on me."

9 Kittyhawks were scrambled at 1145 hours as follows:-

Capt. Bob Morrissey (Flight Leader)
2nd Lt. A.T. House
2nd Lt. Claude Burtnette
2nd Lt. Clarence Sanford

2nd Lt. Bill Reddington (Flight Leader)
2nd Lt. C.T. Johnson
Wilson Chapman
Hal Martin
Stephen Andrews

They took off at 15 second intervals. At 10,000 feet to the south of Horn Island they charged their guns, but Morrissey found that his gun switch was dead. He handed the Squadron over to Reddington and made a quick landing where RAAF ground staff cleared and recharged his guns. 30 minutes later he was in the air again and regrouped with his Squadron another 15 minutes later. Reddington then advised that his guns had also failed. He was ordered back to the airfield and 2nd Lt. Johnson was placed in charge of "B" Flight.

At this time bombs started to hit the western end of the airfield. An RAAF Hudson bomber was destroyed along with a fuel dump and some damage to the RAAF bivouac area. Several Zeros then started to strafe targets on the ground.

Hal Martin became separated from the other aircraft. He had set off alone before Morrissey returned, to intercept the Japanese raiders. At maximum range he opened fire on the three Japanese aircraft to the left of the formation. Finally when he had approached an optimum firing distance, he targeted the the big brown and green bomber at the far left and expended all his ammunition at this bomber. He rolled away to the left as the Japanese returned his fire. He then immediately headed back to Horn Island.

Morrissey had arrived on the scene to witness Martin firing at the Japanese bomber formation. However he was not aware at the time that it was Martin. At 1:00pm precisely, as Morrissey and his group were about to attack the formation of bombers, he spotted a group of 6 light grey Zeros coming in from their right. He ordered "A" flight to attack the Zeros.

A dog fight persisted for 10 minutes above the Torres Straits. Morrissey shot down a Zero in flames when he fired on it from 200 yards. The Kittyhawks of 2nd Lts. Burtnette and Andrews were both riddled by machine gun fire. They both returned to Horn Island.

2nd Lt. House fired at a Zero which rolled away sharply trailing smoke. He followed the Zero, but then his guns jammed due to the "G forces of his sharp turn. Another Zero started to attack Morrissey and House, despite his lack of guns, deliberately drove his right  wingtip into the Zeros cockpit. This tore away three feet of his wingtip. House witnessed the Zero spiral away towards the sea.


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2nd Lt. Wilson
"Chip" Chapman

2nd Lt's Johnson and Chapman both attacked a single Zero, which departed the scene trailing smoke. They were then both attacked by another Zero. Johnson was hit by a bullet that ricocheted through his cockpit and hit him in the right foot. Chapman was hit by a shell that exploded on the armour plate of his seat, cutting his left shoulder. They both dove down through the clouds and turned for Horn island. The other Kittyhawks likewise dove down through the clouds and headed back to base. The Japanese bombers lumbered back to Lae where the one at the left side of the formation reported damage caused by Hal Martin.


2nd Lt. House made a forced landing at Horn island with 3 feet of his wingtip missing. He made a hair raising 100 knot landing.

Back on the ground, Morrissey scolded Martin for leaving the formation but then praised him for his bravery for his single-handed attack on the Japanese formation.

Martin Japanese bomber
Morrissey Zero
Johnson Zero
House 2 Zeros


Japanese records indicate that only 2 A6M2 Zeros were lost in combat during this air raid.

An area search was started for 2nd Lt. Clarence Sanford, who was last seen being chased by an enemy aircraft. After being attacked by the Zeros, he wisely retreated in his oil spewing Kittyhawk. He became hopelessly disoriented in the haze above Torres Strait while trying to find the Cape York coastline. He actually flew over Horn Island and then continued to fly 400 miles across the Gulf of Carpentaria until he ran out of fuel just off Cape Arnhem in the Northern Territory. He parachuted out of his stricken aircraft and nearly drowned while trying to swim to nearby Bremer Island. He was found unconscious on the beach late that afternoon by some local aboriginals. They carried him to the Yirrkala missionary post on the mainland where it took 10 days for him to recover. The RAAF advised Morrissey on 15 March 1942 of Sanford's demise. He was then taken by motor launch to the RAAF hospital in Darwin. He never recovered fully from this incident. He was transferred south to the 7th Pursuit Squadron in early April 1942 and finally he returned to the United States, never to be seen again.


Bailout of 2nd Lt. Clarence Sandford


Japanese records indicate that all eight G4M1's arrived back at Rabaul and Lae airfields at about 1.00 pm and the 10 surviving Zeros arrived back at Lae at about 1:20 pm. The above report on Lt Sandford's bailout claims that 6 Zeros (not 2) were downed.



28 January 1997

Relic found

A Japanese fighter plane shot down in World War II in Torres Strait has been found relatively intact 55 years later.

The Mitsubishi Zero was discovered near Thursday Island.

Arthur Seekee, manager of a tourist resort on nearby Horn Island, said it appeared to be in good condition.

Mr. Seekee, who dived on the aircraft, said there was no evidence of human remains in the cockpit area.

The aircraft is believed to be one of two shot down by American P-4- Kittyhawks in 1942 during a Japanese raid on an airfield and military installations on Horn Island.



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This page first produced 1 November 1999

This page last updated 21 February 2020