their area of operations in the Indian Ocean.

In July, Kōkūtai 331 was established with this

task. The main base was Sabang, north of Sumatra and the unit also used airfields in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where it primarily faced

the RAF. However, it also operated in Thailand and

Burma. For a short time, it was a mixed unit that

also used single-engine bombers.

In October 1943, Kōkūtai 381 was formed. Its main

task throughout the following year was the defense of the oil refineries in Borneo. With A6M2 Type

21 fighters, Kōkūtai 381 conducted about half of

its fighter sorties at night. Phosphorus air-to-air

bombs were often used during the interception

missions. The Kōkūtai 381 was gradually expanded to include other parts that used twin-engine

night fighters and single- and twin-engine bombers. Nevertheless, it retained its designation as

an interceptor unit.

Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands

Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of May 7, 1942. It was the first Japanese aircraft

carrier lost in combat.

(Photo: Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives)

tion “I-gō” was planned, in which raids were conducted between April 7 and 14 against Guadalcanal, Oro Bay, Port Moresby and Milne Bay. More

than 200 A6M2 and A6M3 aircraft were available

for fighter escort from Kōkūtai 204, 253, and 582

and from the fighter units of the carriers Zuikaku,

Zuihō, Junyō and Hiyō. The result of the action was

judged as a great success. However, both sides

actually suffered negligible losses. After the operation ended, on April 18, a bomber with Admiral

Isoroku Yamamoto on board was shot down over

Bougainville Island during an inspection tour. Based on decoded radio intercepts, American P-38

fighters were in the right place at the right time.

The commander of the Combined Fleet and one of

the architects of the attack on Pearl Harbor died

exactly one year after Doolittle‘s raid on Tokyo.

In May 1943, Kōkūtai 251 returned to Rabaul, just

in time to join the attacks on Allied forces fighting

their way from Guadalcanal farther northwest.

The Japanese made a tremendous effort to stop

the offensive, but their efforts were futile. The Japanese made their last raid on Guadalcanal on

June 16, 1943. Of the 24 dive bombers, 13 crews

were lost and the fighter escort of 70 Zeros had to

write off 15 aircraft. The Allies suffered minimal


Retreat and defense of Rabaul

In late June 1943, the Allies landed on New Georgia and captured Munda airfield. This was followed by the defensive battles of Vella Lavella in

August and Buin during September and October.

In this period Zero pilots met F6F Hellcat fighter

in combat for the first time. Kōkūtai 201 returned

to the battlefield from Japan and naval fighters

in the area were reinforced by the carrier-based

fighter units of HIJMS Junyō and Ryūhō. The Zero

pilots managed to keep their win-loss ratio at

a reasonable level in combat with enemy fighters. However, bomber crews were constantly

suffering high losses. It was a problem for which

the high command had no solution. The „Kate“ and

„Val“ bombers were already obsolete, and their

design provided little protection against heavily


INFO Eduard

armed Allied fighters.

At the end of October 1943, the last fighter units

withdrew from Bougainville to Rabaul. They began to face a systematic bombing campaign by

aviation units of Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy

as well as other Allied air forces. The core of the

defense of this strategic base was Kōkūtai 201,

204 and 253. At the time, they used A6M fighters

Type 22, 52 as well as good old 21. They were

briefly supported or resupplied by carrier units.

In November, for a short time, fighters arrived

from Zuihō, Shōkaku and Zuikaku. In late December 1943 they were followed briefly by Zero pilots

from Hiyō and Ryūhō. From the Japanese point of

view, during this period Rabaul could be likened

to a meat grinder. In early January Kōkūtai 201

had to be withdrawn. After less than a month exhausted Kōkūtai 204 moved from Rabaul too. Losses were replaced by fighters from the carriers

Jun´yō, Hiyō and Ryūhō, who together with Kōkūtai 253 held out for a month in defensive aerial

battles. In late February 1944, fighter units began

to withdraw from Rabaul to Truk. Although the

high command promised to turn the units back,

this never happened, and the Allies neutralized

the base until the end of the war. With the end of

the fighting over Rabaul, the Japanese naval air

force lost most of its seasoned fighter veterans.

China, India, and Indonesia

As Allied air raids against targets on the Chinese

mainland and Taiwan intensified, the Japanese

Navy decided to establish Kōkūtai 254. In October 1943, it began operations in Hong Kong, and

detachments later operated from other bases.

In February 1944, Kōkūtai 256 was formed in

Central China. Their opponents were primarily

American bombers. By the end of 1944, both units

were deployed in the defense of Taiwan and the

Philippines. Due to heavy casualties, their remaining parts were absorbed into another unit in

January 1945.

The Japanese Army Air Force had to focus on

fighting for northern New Guinea in 1943. Therefore, the Japanese Naval Air Force took over

In early 1943, Kōkūtai 201, which had withdrawn

from Rabaul, was stationed with its Zeros in the

Marshall Islands. After transfer to Japan, this area

was taken over in February 1943 by Kōkūtai 252.

It had bases primarily on the islands of Kwajalein,

Maloelap, Nauru, Roi, and Wake. The Unit mostly

encountered American four-engine bombers, but

in the fall of 1943, it went through heavy combats

with US Navy “Hellcats”. Therefore Kōkūtai 281

arrived in November as a reinforcement. During

the capture of the Marshall Islands in February

1944, Kōkūtai 281 was completely destroyed, and

its last pilots were killed in ground combat. Part

of Kōkūtai 252 was evacuated to Japan. At the beginning of 1944 Zero Type 21 began to be used also

as fighter-bomber. One of the first units to take

over the Zero for this purpose was the bomber

Kōkūtai 501. From January 1944, fighter-bomber

pilots were trained at Truk. Kōkūtai 201 and 204

also withdrew to this area from Rabaul. However,

after fighting with US Navy aircraft, the remnants

of these units flew to the Philippines in March or

were absorbed by other units. They were replaced

by several newly organized Kōkūtais. Some were

already to be armed with the new “George” and

“Jack” fighters, but all ended up using A6M Zeros,

primarily Type 52, partly also Type 21. Prior to the

Battle of the Marianas, Kōkūtai 261 was stationed

in the area of Saipan and Meleyon, Kōkūtai 263 on

Guam, Kōkūtai 343 on Tinian, Kōkūtai 202 on Moen

and Truk, and Kōkūtai 253 on Eten.

A major reorganization took place in the carrier

units. Within new organization they were divided

into three Kōkūtai units. The bombers, fighters,

fighter-bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft on

the HIJMS Taihō, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku fell under

Kōkūtai 601. Kōkūtai 652 operated from the decks

of HIJMS Jun‘yō, Hiyō, and Ryūjō, and Kōkūtai 653

airmen were assigned to the carriers Chiyoda,

Chitose, and Zuihō. Among the new specialties

of the carrier units were the fighter-bombers.

Their mission was to attack vessels that were

protecting enemy carriers. The purpose was to

damage or sink them and draw part of the AA

fire from bombers. For this purpose, seven of the

above vessels had on board squadrons of A6M2

Model 21 fighter-bombers.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea, which occurred

on June 19 and 20, 1944, was the largest carrier

engagement in history. A Japanese task force of

nine carriers faced fifteen American “flat tops”.

April 2022