The last air battles of World War II were fought in the skies above Germany and Japan using mainly obsolete and obsolete aircraft and, in some cases, even their pilots, the majority of whom had never seen combat. Technological and military factors had limited the use of these aircraft in previous wars and in fact, they had been largely ignored by the development of aircraft for almost two decades.
For the most part, the air war in Europe in 1944 was a stalemate. The Allies were able to take back the Saar and Rhineland, but they were unable to punch through the German front and push them back into the Reich. Once the Allies had breached the Siegfried Line, the battle became a far more even affair. Allied bombers were able to dominate the skies above Germany, and the Luftwaffe was unable to stop them. Below the clouds, the same was true for the air war in the Pacific.
It was a quiet morning on a spring morning in the Pacific Ocean when a Japanese kamikaze plane came screaming in the direction of the American ships in the area. The plane was a single-engine Kawasaki Ki-45 “Oscar,” with a crew of two. The pilot rode the plane like a man riding a bicycle, and his passenger was a samurai sword strapped to his lap.. Read more about what was the largest air battle in world war 2 and let us know what you think.
When Japan declared their surrender 75 years ago, there was confusion, but pilots on both sides continued to battle.
World War II was a worldwide inferno that cut beyond territory and time, as shown by the day the guns fell silent. Thousands of American pilots set out during the war and arrived after midnight in the Western Pacific on August 14, 1945. On August 15, almost simultaneously, Allied and Japanese fighter planes battled and killed one another, largely unaware that Tokyo had decided to surrender.
It has a lot to do with the difference in time zones.
Rumors and contradictory reports had been circulating over Washington, D.C. radio stations for many days: Japan was going to surrender; Japan was not surrendering. On the 10th, Tokyo tentatively accepted the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration, which called for Japan’s unconditional surrender in exchange for the emperor’s throne. Meanwhile, the Japanese war council was split on whether or not to surrender. The situation was still shaky and viscerally unsettling.
On August 6 and 9, the United States Twentieth Air Force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria. Millions of people expected Tokyo to surrender as the country reeled from the triphammer strikes. Days passed with a nagging sense of unease.
VBF-83 launches a Vought F4U-1D Corsair from the aircraft carrier USS Essex in August 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command
U.S. soldiers were bone tired after 45 months of warfare across the world’s largest ocean, having slogged their way westward from Hawaii to Honshu at an average pace of roughly three miles per day. In conquering first Italy, then Germany, and now perhaps Japan, more than 400,000 Americans perished in battle or from war-related causes throughout that period. Men were tense, suspicious, and drowsy. They couldn’t decide what to trust.
Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s strong XXI Bomber Command launched 750 B-29 bombers from the Mariana Islands, 1,500 miles south of Japan, in the afternoon of August 14 (Tokyo time). The Boeing firebirds, which were deployed in seven task groups, were to attack transit and oil targets with overhead periods between midnight and 3 a.m.
The 315th Bomb Wing’s 140 Superfortresses were the biggest force, commanded by Brig. Gen. Frank Armstrong, an exceptional airman and commander. He had commanded the first US strategic bombing operation in Europe, hitting transport targets in northern France, nearly precisely three years before. He’d traded his B-17 for a -29 and was now flying what would certainly be the war’s last heavy bomber mission—perfect bookends to a remarkable career.
It was the longest nonstop mission ever flown by XXI Bomber Command: 3,700 miles round trip to a refinery 300 miles north of Tokyo. Armstrong’s bombardiers buried the target with the wing’s new high-definition Eagle radar and returned home after more than eight hours on the road.
The 8,250 soldiers aboard LeMay’s bombers were keenly aware that they could be trapped in a time warp on the way back. Radio operators listened intently to Radio Saipan and other channels, hoping for confirmation that the war was over.
Every bomber returned to base that morning, a remarkable testament to LeMay’s leadership and his command’s professionalism. “Every soldier onboard our airplane was outwardly happy, but within everyone had conflicting emotions,” Frank Armstrong said. We didn’t want any more wars, but it was impossible not to think about those who had died before this day came. Waves of sorrow, irony, and thankfulness washed over me as a result of these thoughts. There was also an outburst of amazement. For almost four years, some of us had been in the business of murdering. How would we adjust to a tranquil life, and how much would we regret the carnage we had caused, despite the fact that it was absolutely necessary?”
The US State Department therefore determined that Emperor Hirohito could stay in power despite the unconditional surrender order from Potsdam. Unbeknownst to the Allies, this sparked a fierce feud, with Tokyo’s “big six” remaining split. The emperor himself intervened at that moment, declaring that Japan would “endure the intolerable” and surrender.
In the evening of the 14th, Washington time, President Harry Truman delivered the news. “The declaration of V-J Day must await the official signing of the surrender conditions by Japan,” he concluded.
The United Newsreel showed two million New Yorkers jammed into Times Square. “It’s all over, total victory,” the narrator intoned. “All night long the rejoicing continues. Never before in history has there been greater reason to be thankful for peace.”
Thus started a three-day celebration of joy and drunken revelry. The slaughter, however, continued off the coast of Japan.
The United States was returning to its roosts across the international date line, where LeMay’s bombers were returning to their roosts. On the morning of the 15th, the Third Fleet had already conducted two of three planned air attacks. Admiral William F. Halsey’s command had kept an eye on communications throughout the night, keeping the option of continuing operations or calling a halt open. When Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific headquarters couldn’t certify Tokyo’s surrender, he ordered Halsey to keep fighting until the dawn.
Task Force 38, the most formidable military force on any ocean, consisted of more than 90,000 troops on 106 ships, including Britain’s HMS Indefatigable, and 17 fast carriers. They had almost 1,300 fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo aircraft, which was more than other air forces could muster. Vice Admiral John S. McCain was a latecomer to aviation, but he possessed the necessary seniority to command Halsey’s ships, and his staff was capable. Captain John S. “Jimmy” Thach, McCain’s fleet air operations officer, was an excellent Navy fighter strategist who oversaw most of the task force.
Onboard the USS Hancock, Vice Admiral John S. McCain (left) and his air operations officer, Commander Jimmy Thach, sort out an issue. (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command) (Naval History and Heritage Command
Since 1942, or possibly before, several aviators had been fighting. Lt. Cmdr. Cleo J. Dobson, a survivor of the Enterprise’s unpleasant encounter over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led Fighter Squadron 86 (VF-86) from the USS Wasp. He yearned for a chance at a Japanese plane.
At 5:30 a.m., Strike Able, with 103 aircraft, began an attack on Tokyo’s airfields and other installations. Vought F4U-1D Corsairs made the initial enemy contact that morning off the coast of Essex. Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Hamil Reidy, a recently promoted Lt. Cmdr., grabbed onto a long, lean bogie near the task force at 5:40 p.m. He closed up on it, recognized it as a fast Nakajima C6N1 Myrt reconnaissance aircraft, and dropped it into the spume-strewn gray sea. Reidy’s 10th win gave him the distinction of being the last double ace in US Navy history.
Reidy was later praised for scoring the war’s last aerial victory. Lt. (j.g.) Edward Toaspern of Belleau Wood, a 21-year-old ace, cut his last notches after Reidy that morning when he destroyed two Mitsubishi A6M Zeros over land.
Bandits attempted to intercept Belleau Wood’s Air Group 24 approximately 25 miles off the coast of Inubosaki Lighthouse, a well-known coastal landmark. Six single-engine fighters were splashed by four Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, two of which were piloted by pilots who had never scored before.
A Mitsubishi A6M Zero gets shot down by a Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat carrying a drop tank. (From the National Archives)
The “flagship of the Texas Navy,” the San Jacinto, conducted its first overland attack near Mito, 45 miles northeast of Tokyo. VF-49 was attacked by an estimated 20 Japanese planes, who claimed seven kills and two probable destroyed without loss.
At 6:30 a.m., the first fighter-bombers began their dives when the fleet issued a cease-fire order, stating, “All Strike Able aircraft return to base immediately.” Do not go for the objective. The conflict is over!” The Third Fleet heard that Japan had accepted the Allies’ offer to keep the emperor and had decided to surrender.
However, rather than pulling out of their dives at medium altitude and out of range of anti-aircraft weapons, Ticonderoga’s Hellcats maintained their assault. Lieutenant (j.g.) John McNabb was known as “tail-end Charlie,” and his 500-pound bomb was most likely the last to fall on Japan.
Air discipline broke down in several units. At the pure pleasure of being alive, the pilots broke formation and performed exuberant aerobatics.
Among the inbound planes in Strike Baker was Essex’s Air Group 83. Ensign Donald McPherson, a Nebraska ace, said: “We VF-83 pilots were part of a large attack force that was approaching the Tokyo Bay area when we were informed by radio of the ‘cease fire.’ We were to proceed back over the ocean and to jettison our bombs and rockets. After following those orders we broke formation and ‘celebrated’ by doing all kinds of aerobatics! What great feeling to have ended the conflict victoriously!”
The aircraft of the third strike force turned off the engines on their carriers’ flight decks. While fighters waited by to bolster the combat air patrol, bombers were dropped below the hangar decks.
Meanwhile, at Task Force 38, an impromptu party began. Men either screamed and beat their shipmates’ backs or remained still, attempting to absorb the message. Sailors took turns pulling lanyards that blared steam whistles on dozens of ships. The Morse Code dot-dot-dash, V for victory, was blasted out by a large group of soldiers.
At 7 a.m., all offensive activities were suspended, although fleet defenses remained on high alert. And the killings went on.
After an F6F-5 Hellcat of fighter squadron VF-88 blew a tire upon landing on the carrier Yorktown, deck crewmen reposition it. (From the National Archives)
Whether out of ignorance or rage, a large number of Japanese pilots continued to fight the invaders. Yorktown’s VF-88, which was flying a combined operation with 24 Corsairs off Shangri-La and Wasp, took the worst of the damage. Lieutenant Howard M. Harrison’s twelve Hellcats were scattered as the weather worsened, with just six remaining intact after passing through a cloud front.
“Howdy” Harrison was a huge hit among his shipmates. He was regarded as the “friendliest, straightest person you could ever meet,” according to them.
When the cease-fire announcement was issued, Harrison was preparing to change course over Tokorozawa Airfield northwest of Tokyo when the ceiling caved in. From above and behind, an estimated 17 enemy aircraft—a motley bag of imperial army and naval types—dropped on the Grummans. It was an almost flawless “six o’clock” assault.
The attacks were from the Atsugi-based 302nd Kokutai (naval air group). They had scrambled eight Zeros, as well as four Mitsubishi J2M3 Jacks, large, tough fighters with four 20mm guns, under Lieutenant Yutaka Morioka, a veteran dive bomber pilot with four wins.
Morioka did a good job of setting up the bounce, hitting the Americans at an altitude of 8,000 feet. When Harrison saw the danger, he realized he had no option but to fight. His pilots slammed the throttles down, maneuvered for a head-on assault, and fired. The Yorktowners believed they dropped four bandits in that initial furious pass, but their formations were torn and the battle became a shambles.
Fighting 88 was a close-knit group. Lts. (j.g.) Maurice Proctor and Joseph Sahloff had offered to cover Harrison, who had ditched off Mito, the week before. They guided the rescue amphibian to Harrison’s little life raft, knowing that he would be lost if he wasn’t discovered.
Lieutenant Howard “Howdy” Harrison is hoisted by VF-88 pilots after being rescued from the Inland Sea. (Photo by Herb Wood)
Tracers raced through Proctor’s wings as he took up a defensive position off Sahloff’s damaged Grumman. Lt. (j.g.) Theodore Hansen blasted the Japanese off his tail as he turned hard to starboard. Proctor and Hansen reconnected over Sahloff and saw two additional Japanese aircraft on fire, but were unable to determine who had won.
Proctor was suddenly hemmed in by six robbers in front of him and one behind him. The assailants on his nose unexpectedly backed off, enabling him to confront the stalker behind him. He landed decisive strikes, causing the adversary to collapse in flames.
Proctor had enough of a head start by the time the hostile sextet returned to dive into some protected clouds. His aircraft was shot down by the Japanese, but he escaped through the storm and made it to the shore.
Proctor saw Sahloff’s damaged Hellcat spin out of control and fall into the water from that vantage point. Proctor, on the other hand, was unable to find the others, and when he radioed his shipmates for a meeting, only Hansen responded.
Hansen returned to the ship alone and sick to his stomach, certain that he was the last survivor. When Proctor was imprisoned a few minutes later, his spirits soared. Hansen claimed three wins and Proctor two at the debriefing of the hard-fought battle. Sahloff, Harrison, and Ensigns Wright Hobbs and Eugene Mandeberg were all given one win by the intelligence officer after they were killed in battle. Hobbs had just celebrated his 23rd birthday.
According to postwar Japanese statistics, the 302nd Kokutai lost one Zero and two Jacks during the conflict. Morioka was the sole verified victor, earning ace rank on the last day of battle.
Six Grumman Avengers escorted by eight Supermarine Seafires were jumped by possibly a dozen Zeros during a raid on a chemical facility by the Royal Navy’s Indefatigable that morning. Despite being built on the RAF’s legendary Spitfire, the Seafires were equipped with large drop tanks that restricted their performance. The British aviators had no option but to engage, with some unable to shed their external fuel.
Sub-Lt. Fred Hockley bailed out of his damaged aircraft after being hit in the first pass. Despite 20mm gun failures, his squadron claimed eight Zeros, while one Avenger landed safely in the sea.
The Americans were wary of any incoming aircraft because of ongoing Japanese investigations. When curious Corsairs approached, Royal Navy Sub-Lt. Victor Lowden dropped his wheels and flaps, banking sharply to reveal his Seafire’s unique elliptical wing with blue and white insignia.
In August 1945, a Supermarine Seafire lifts off from HMS Indefatigable as others prepare to launch. On the morning of August 15, the Royal Navy carrier, which was assigned to Task Force 38 of the US Third Fleet, experienced a lot of combat. (IWM A25082) (IWM A25082) (IWM A25082)
Meanwhile, Japanese bombers and kamikazes continued to pose a danger. That morning, a Corsair from Hancock splashed a Yokosuka D4Y Judy dive bomber bombing Indefatigable, barely avoiding two bombs.
In response, Halsey issued a well cited order: investigate suspected intrusions and fire down hostiles “in a friendly manner.”
Throughout the day, there were further attacks. When Wasp’s fighter skipper Cleo Dobson got a vector from a radar controller, the final victim crashed at 1:30 p.m. Lt. (j.g.) M.J. Morrison, his wingman, saw a lone bogey 8,000 feet below from 25,000 feet. Dobson was unable to detect it, so he relinquished command to the kid. He caught a glimpse of the dark-green invader, a single-engine bomber, as the two Hellcats dropped. Dobson commented, “Boy, he certainly made a splash.” “That was my first shot at a Jap in the air, and I’ll tell you, it was a thrilling experience.”
Ensign Clarence A. Moore of Belleau Wood won the race to the last shot a half-hour later. It was another Judy, the 34th American aerial win of the day and the war’s last kill.
Task Force 38 lost a dozen planes during the day, with four Hellcat pilots killed and a Corsair pilot temporarily detained.
At 12 p.m., Emperor Hirohito sent a message to the whole country. As a result, 70 million Japanese people were taught what the majority of the rest of the world already understood.
The news astounded many Japanese military personnel. Many others agreed with Navy Captain Minoru Genda, who had assisted in the planning of the Pearl Harbor assault. As long as imperial soldiers lived, he expected Japan to fight forever.
Others were angry rather than amazed.
Sub-Lt. Fred Hockley of the Royal Navy had bailed out of his Seafire that morning. He was arrested by civil authorities at the age of 22 and handed over to the army. That night, some hours after Hirohito’s broadcast, he was killed. Two senior commanders were eventually executed as war criminals.
Three hours after the emperor’s declaration, 17 B-29 crewmen were taken from their cells and killed in a dismal jail outside Fukuoka in protest of Hirohito’s surrender. Because to Douglas MacArthur’s postwar “big picture” mentality, the majority of the murderers avoided the gallows.
Meanwhile, a number of top Japanese navy officers committed suicide. The commander of the Fifth Air Fleet, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, believed he owed the Emperor a death and decided to conduct the war’s last kamikaze operation. He and the radioman crammed into the back seat of a Judy dive bomber. That afternoon, ten aircraft took off from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, but three were forced to return due to technical issues. Ugaki’s aircraft is believed to have crashed near Okinawa on an islet.
Vice Adm. Takijiro Onishi, a buddy of Ugaki’s, established the Special Attack Corps in the Philippines in late 1944. He came home to become Vice Chief of the Navy General Staff, but he was still seeking retribution for the hundreds of suicide aviators he had sent out. He attempted hara-kiri but failed miserably, and bled to death the following morning.
“I trust that history will remember that when hostilities concluded, the capital of the Japanese Empire had just been bombed, strafed, and rocketed by aircraft of the Third Fleet, and was going to be bombed, strafed, and launched again by planes of the Third Fleet,” Halsey wrote. Last but not least, I hope it will remember…the Able One strikers who did not return.”
The cease-fire was marred by violent repercussions. On the next two nights, Northrop P-61 Black Widows stationed on Okinawa intercepted and killed two Japanese aircraft flying in violation of the cease-fire. Both wins were not recognized since they happened during a period of peace.
On August 18, two 312th Bomb Group Consolidated B-32 Dominators were caught while on a photo mission over Honshu. The Japanese naval fighters, commanded by ace Saburo Sakai, damaged one of the bombers, injuring three crew members, but both bombers were able to return to Okinawa. Sergeant Anthony Marchione of Pottstown, Pa., however, died of his wounds, becoming the war’s last American fatality.
Thus came to an end World War II, a terrible war that had scorched four continents and taken the lives of an estimated 60 million people.
All were represented by a single fighter pilot. Lieutenant (j.g.) Richard L. Newhafer, a future author and filmmaker, expressed his delight by saying the good news gave him “all the optimism and unreasoning ecstasy that redemption can provide.”
Barrett Tillman is a frequent writer who has written over 900 articles and more than 40 books. Try Tillman’s Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942–1945 and U.S. Navy Fighter Squadrons in World War II; Ikuhiko Hata and Yasuho Izawa’s Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units of World War II; and Stephen Harding’s Last to Die.
This article first published in Aviation History’s September 2022 edition. Click here to subscribe!
Little known fact: the last air battles of the Second World War were not very important or significant. Very few people died in these battles, and despite the fact that most of them were technically lost by the Allies, no army commander would risk his troops in a futile operation. The main reason for this is that the remaining air forces of the Axis were formidable and had a major impact on the war. A failure to strike at those forces would have been a major blow to both sides.. Read more about aerial dogfights of world war ii and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the last air battle of ww2?
The last air battle of World War II was the Battle of Britain.
When was the last aerial dogfight?
The last aerial dogfight was in the year of 2045.
What was the last air-to-air kill?
The last air-to-air kill was on June 22nd, 2018.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- air warfare in ww2
- major battles of ww2 in europe
- aerial dogfights of world war ii
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- air war ww2