Australian War Memorial: CAC Wirraway – The Unlikely “Zero Killer”

The Aircraft Hall was one of the original display halls in the Australian War Memorial when it opened in 1941. Dark and somewhat crowded, it contains some absolute aviation treasures from Australia’s involvement in World War Two and the Korean War, including one very historic RAAF CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II advanced trainer/utility aircraft. The main theme of the hall is Air Power in the Pacific 1941-1953.

On December 26th, 1942 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer with crewman Sergeant J.L. (Les) Coulston of No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron were flying this CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II (serial number A20-103) on a reconnaissance flight over a Japanese ship wreck near Buna, New Guinea, when they spotted and dived on what was reported as a Japanese Zero/Zeke fighter 1,000 feet below. With machine guns blazing and against all odds he shot it down!

His five second burst of machine gun fire saw the Japanese aircraft plummet into the water and burst into flames – the victory was confirmed by 3 sources that day (the crew along with personnel from Australian Army 2/14th and 2/16th Battalions). Archer and Coulston completed their reconnaissance mission after this incident, and the body of the Japanese pilot was later recovered – it was discovered that he had been shot through the head when his fighter came under attack.

Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer and Sergeant J L (Les) Coulston, both from Melbourne, Vic, seated in No. 4 Squadron, RAAF, Wirraway A20-103 - January 8th, 1943
Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer and Sergeant J L (Les) Coulston, both from Melbourne, Vic, seated in No. 4 Squadron, RAAF, Wirraway A20-103 – January 8th, 1943 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
The Australian Army signal transcript advising the observation of an RAAF CAC Wirraway shooting down a "Zero" aircraft in the vicinity of Gona, New Guinea on December 26th, 1942 - this would turn out to be the Wirraway flown by J.S. Archer
The Australian Army signal transcript advising the observation of an RAAF CAC Wirraway shooting down a “Zero” aircraft in the vicinity of Gona, New Guinea on December 26th, 1942 – this would turn out to be the Wirraway flown by J.S. Archer (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)
RAAF Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer of No. 4 Squadron seated in Wirraway A20-103 on January 8th, 1943 in New Guinea
RAAF Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer of No. 4 Squadron seated in Wirraway A20-103 on January 8th, 1943 in New Guinea (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

Archer achieved the only known air to air victory in a CAC Wirraway. A post war investigation revealed that the aircraft shot down was actually a Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa (“Peregrine Falcon”) or Oscar as the Allies called it, of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force 11th Sentai, rather than an Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero/Zeke. The mistake is understandable as back then everything was probably reported as a Zero!

This was an amazing feat as the Wirraway advanced trainer was not intended to be a frontline combat aircraft but in those desperate early days all available aircraft were thrown into the fray! Armament was just 2 x forward firing 0.303 in. Vickers Mk V machine guns and one Vickers Mk 1, 0.303in GO machine gun in the rear cockpit (it could also carry a bomb payload of 454kg/1000lb).

Members of No. 4 (Wirraway) Squadron, RAAF with the Wirraway (A20-103) aircraft that Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer was flying when he shot down a Japanese Zero aircraft. Joe Booker is pointing to a Japanese flag that was painted on the nose of the aircraft to commemorate shooting down the Zero.
Members of No. 4 (Wirraway) Squadron, RAAF with the Wirraway (A20-103) aircraft that Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer was flying when he shot down a Japanese Oscar fighter aircraft (originally thought to be a Mitsubishi Zero). Joe Booker is pointing to a Japanese flag that was painted on the nose of the aircraft to commemorate shooting down the fighter. (photo source: Australian War Memorial)
Imperial Japanese Army Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa / Oscar
Imperial Japanese Army Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa / Oscar (Photo Source: Rod’s WarBirds – ijaafphotos.com)

Archer later said he just acted on impulse and was lucky to get a good shot in first. For his act of bravery, on January 19th, 1943 he was awarded the Silver Star for combat valour by none less than United States General Douglas MacArthur, Allied Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area! The citation stated “doing the impossible – shooting down a Zero and bringing home his observer to tell the tale“. He was personally presented the medal by Brigadier Ennis C. Whitehead, the Commanding General Allied Air Force in New Guinea.

BUNA, NEW GUINEA. C. 1943. RAAF Pilot Officer J. S. Archer is presented a US Silver Star medal by Brigadier Ennis C. Whitehead, the Commanding General Allied Air Force in New Guinea for shooting down a Japanese fighter aircraft in his CAC Wirraway aircraft on December 26th, 1942
BUNA, NEW GUINEA. C. 1943. RAAF Pilot Officer J. S. Archer is presented a US Silver Star medal by Brigadier Ennis C. Whitehead, the Commanding General Allied Air Force in New Guinea for shooting down a Japanese fighter aircraft in his CAC Wirraway aircraft on December 26th, 1942 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

In an amusing footnote from the pages of history, Archer was given six bottles of beer from the Australian High Command. Liquid gold for his heroic actions! Coulston, in the back of the Wirraway, was mentioned in despatches for his part in this unlikely aerial victory.

Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer and Sergeant J L (Les) Coulston, both of Melbourne, Victoria in from of CAC Wirraway (A20-103) of No. 4 Squadron, RAAF - January 9th, 1943
Pilot Officer John S (Jack) Archer and Sergeant J L (Les) Coulston, both of Melbourne, Victoria in from of CAC Wirraway (A20-103) of No. 4 Squadron, RAAF – January 9th, 1943 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

John S (Jack) Archer, enlisted in the RAAF on August 15th, 1941 and graduated from his flight training as a Pilot Officer on May 28th, 1942. He conducted 42 sorties and 19 air strikes with No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron between November 1942 and June 1943 – his commanders assessment of his abilities was “Above average and exceptional“. His wartime career spanned numerous units and included a stint with No. 75 Squadron from August 1944 to June 1945 flying Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighters out of various bases in New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies (Noemfoor Island, Morotai and Tarakan), harassing the last of the Japanese forces still based in the region, he conducted 20 sorties and 45 air strikes (171 hours of flying time) – his commanders assessment of his abilities was “Above average. He returned to Australia and continued his career with the RAAF until his discharge from service in March 1948.

The historical significance of the Wirraway (A20-103) flown by Archer on December 26th, 1942 was recognized and today it is displayed in the Australian War Memorial for future generations to learn the important role this aircraft played in World War Two. Unfortunately space is a bit tight in the hall and the aircraft is displayed without one wing and it does not stand on its undercarriage but don’t worry the AWM is bound to have the missing parts in storage!

CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer
CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial. This aircraft flown by RAAF Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer was the only known Wirraway to shoot down a Japanese aircraft in World War Two (Ki-42 Oscar fighter) – photo taken during my January 2016 visit to the museum
CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer
There is not enough space to display the CAC Wirraway complete, so it has one wing removed and does not stand on its undercarriage – Australian War Memorial January 2016
CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer
“Zero Killers” – 2 x forward firing 0.303 in. Vickers Mk V machine guns of the CAC Wirraway and some great nose art! Australian War Memorial January 2016
CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer Japanese 88 AA Gun
CAC Wirraway (A20-103) and a captured Japanese Type 88 Anti Aircraft gun captured at Buna, New Guinea – Australian War Memorial January 2016
CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer
CAC Wirraway (A20-103) is displayed with some panels removed to see the inner workings of the airframe – Australian War Memorial January 2016
CAC Wirraway (serial number A20-103) at the Australian War Memorial Zero Killer
CAC Wirraway (A20-103) – Australian War Memorial January 2016
Ki-43 Hayabusa / Oscar Australian War Memorial
Although not the Oscar shot down by Archer on December 26th, 1942 there is the wreckage of an Imperial Japanese Army Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa in the Australian War Memorial Aircraft Hall – It was discovered by an AWM team at an abandoned air field in 1985 and recovered with the help of the Australian Defence Forces and Papua New Guinea government. Photo taken during my visit to the AWM in January 2016

Wirraway A20-103 Operational History

CAC CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II was produced at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation factory at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne in 1940. Entering RAAF service with 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton on September 8, 1940 this aircraft flew with No. 4 Army Co-Operation Squadron from October 7th, 1940 to January 15th, 1943 – during this period it was based in Australia at Canberra (ACT), Camden (NSW) and Kingaroy (QLD); along with its service at Berry/Bomana in New Guinea. The squadron pilots completed 42 operational missions and 49 other flights.

CAC CA-5 Wirraway A20-103 of No. 4 Squadron RAAF, piloted by Flying Officer Peter Ash over Canberra, ACT in October 1941
CAC CA-5 Wirraway A20-103 of No. 4 Squadron RAAF, piloted by Flying Officer Peter Ash over Canberra, ACT in October 1941 (Photo Source: ADF Serials via Mike Mirkovic)
RAAF Sargeant Len Waters Circa 1944/45 first Australian Aboriginal fighter pilot WW2
RAAF Sargeant Len Waters Circa 1944/45

Wirraway (A20-103) went on to fly with 5 Service Flying Training School (5 SFTS) at Uranquinty, NSW. Here during March 1944, the aircraft was involved in another significant footstep in Australian history, when it was flown twice by one Sergeant Leonard ‘Len’ Waters, the first Australian Aboriginal to become a fighter pilot (he originally trained as an aircraft mechanic before switching to flight training in 1943).

Len Waters would go on to fly 95 operational sorties in Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk fighters with No. 78 Squadron in the Dutch East Indies during 1944/45 (he mostly flew ground attack missions as there was not much Japanese aircraft opposition by that stage of the war). Len left the RAAF in 1946 with the rank of Warrant Officer.

This time at 5 SFTS could well have been the end of this history making Wirraway, when it was struck by Wirraway A20-80 during a taxiing collision on April 16th, 1944! Luckily it was able to fly on!

The Wirraway then went on to serve with 3 Communications Unit, Mascot, NSW and saw out its post war days at the RAAF Point Cook Central Flying School (CFS) in Victoria. The aircraft was presented to the Australian War Memorial in 1959 for permanent preservation with a valuable 3,371 hours and 25 minutes of RAAF flying time on the clock.

References:

ADF Serials – CAC Wirraway A20-101 to A20-200

Australian War Memorial – CA-5 Wirraway Mk.II

Australian War Memorial – Leonard Waters

Indigenous Australia – Leonard Waters

National Archives of Australia – Service Record J.S. Archer

Trove – The Canberra Times (Monday January 25th 1943) – Silver Star To Pilot

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Australian War Memorial: CAC Wirraway – The Unlikely “Zero Killer”

  1. An astonishing victory in a Wirraway! It underscores the drama of the first years of the Pacific war. Half the problem for both Australia and New Zealand in 1942 was getting hardware sent out into what was largely viewed as a less crucial front by both Britain and the US at the time. I’ve looked into the letters from NZ’s Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, to Churchill asking for equipment – but not getting it. A minister, Walter Nash, was sent to Washington to see what could be done, but the issue tangled up with British-US diplomatic discussions. The upshot was that serious plans were laid to use Tiger Moths as fighters, in case of invasion, because this was the only aircraft that could be built in New Zealand at the time (the De Havilland factory was in Wellington).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can you imagine the chaos? Imperial Japanese Navy pilots would have had a field day! Yesterday was the anniversary of when PM Curtin basically told Churchill to shove it and rediverted our troops from the Middle East away from Rangoon where they would have been captured for sure and straight for Australia!

      Like

  2. This is a fascinating story, but part of it seems to be missing. When I read about it in the 60s it was said that Archer got into trouble “For firing at the KIng’s enemies without permission”! Good to hear about his gong though.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.