the two-seaters A6M2-K and A6M5-K, produced
from January 1943 and May 1944 respectively.
Beginning of the Pacific War
Thanks to the experience gained during the war
in China, Japan was able to prepare for a large-scale attack in Indochina, the Philippines and
against the American fleet at Hawaii. One of the
objectives of the southward campaign was even
to land in Australia.
The core of the Striking Force, which was to
attack Pearl Harbor, were six aircraft carriers
divided into three divisions: 1st Kōkū Sentai with
the Akagi and the Kaga, 2nd Kōkū Sentai with the
Soryū and the Hiryū and 5th Kōkū Sentai with the
Shókaku and the Zuikaku. They belonged to the
so-called Kidō Butai (Mobile Force) commanded
by Vice-Admiral Chūichi Nagumo. He was also
the commander of the 1st Kōkū Kantai (Air Fleet),
under which the air units aboard the six aircraft
carriers were organized. Such a large carrier
group had never been deployed in combat in
the history of naval operations. Two of the ships,
Shōkaku and Zuikaku, were completed just a few
In total 350 machines, out of the 414 available,
attacked Hawaii. In the first wave only three Zeros, one D3A and five B5N bombers were lost. In
the second wave, six Zeros and fourteen D3As
were lost. A total of 74 aircraft returned with
damage. Hundreds of American aircraft were destroyed in the raid, but the Japanese left many
fuel storage facilities virtually untouched. Of the
79 fighter pilots who took part in both attack waves, only 17 lived to see the end of the war.
The newly organized 3rd and Tainan Kōkūtai
with bases in Taiwan were designated to attack
the Philippines and Indonesia with A6M2 fighters. Their core was made up of veterans of the
disbanded 12th Kōkūtai, which had undergone
deployment with the Zeros in China. For the Malayan campaign, a fighter unit was temporarily
formed in French Indochina within the 22nd Kōkū-sentai (Air Flotilla), which borrowed airplanes
and also personnel from the 3rd Kōkūtai and Tainan Kōkūtai. In this context, the first undamaged
Zero fell into enemy hands in November 1941.
During raids on the Philippines on December 8
and 10, 1941, the Japanese naval air force claimed the destruction of about 140 aircraft on
the ground and the shooting down of nearly 70
The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi pictured underway in the summer of 1941.
(Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
machines in the air. The actual losses of the U.S.
and Philippine Air Forces, though less, were still
severe. The Zero pilots first encountered four-engine B-17 bombers, which they found very difficult to fight. Thanks to rapid advance of ground
forces, both Kōkūtai units operating Zeroes had
bases in the Philippines in late December, and as
a result they engaged Dutch airmen over Borneo
for the first time.
During the Malaysia campaign in mid-December
Zero pilots of 22nd Kōkū-sentai joined the fight
for Singapore and by the end of the campaign
they had 40 victories for the loss of two planes.
Later, fighter squadron of 22nd Kōkū-Sentai
briefly operated in Java, Burma, the Indian Ocean
area as well as Thailand. Eventually it was taken
over by Kanoya Kōkūtai. During February 1942,
intense fighting over Java was experienced primarily by the 3rd and Tainan Kōkūtai. Their airmen claimed over 100 victories with the actual
loss of only about 10 of their own. At the end of
the month, some fighters participated in escorting the bombers that sank the former aircraft
carrier USS Langley, converted to a seaplane
tender. Zero pilots strafed the deck with dozens
of new P-40E fighters stored enroute to Java.
In the early months of the Pacific War, the Americans and their allies realized how much they had
underestimated their Japanese adversaries. One
of the main symbols of this sobering realization
The second wave of attack aircraft launches from the board of HIJMS Akagi against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
(Photo: Mike Wegner via Ron Werneth)
was the Zero fighter, which had developed a reputation as a nearly invincible adversary early
in the war.
Aircraft carrier operations till the spring of 1942
While the carriers were returning from the
attack on Pearl Harbor, news reached Nagumo
that the landing at Wake Atoll had been repulsed
and a second attempt required carrier support.
The Sōryū and Hiryū air units therefore conducted raids on the island on December 21 to 23, 1941.
This was the first time that Wildcats and Zeros
were engaged in combat.
During the January 20 to 22, 1942 carriers Akagi
and Kaga got into action again, this time in raids
on Rabaul and the New Guinea airfields. They
met essentially only valiant resistance of few
Australian crews with Wirraway aircraft. There
was growing discontent among Japanese carrier
aviation commanders. Unable to get into engagements with American carriers, Nagumo‘s airmen
felt they were being deployed against targets
with low significance.
Air units from the ships Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and
Sōryū attacked Darwin Harbour on February 19
and, with the loss of four aircraft, caused what
is known as Australia‘s Pearl Harbor. After an
emergency landing, Seaman 1st Class Hajime
Toyoshima of the aircraft carrier Hiryū was captured. He became the first living Zero pilot to end
up in enemy hands, although his machine was
not in a repairable condition after the crash.
Returning to north, aviators from the ships Akagi
and Kaga covered the landing at Tjilatjap, Java,
on March 5, sinking eight vessels in the process.
Kaga then returned to Japan due to minor hull
At the end of March, a task force which core
consisted of Akagi, Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Sōryū,
and Hiryū sailed for Ceylon. During April 5 to
9, Japanese airmen claimed shooting down
of nearly a hundred RAF aircraft, the destruction
of a number of ground targets and the sinking of
many vessels, including the aircraft carrier HMS
Hermes. In doing so, they faced veterans from
Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries. One year ago, some of the Allied airmen
had participated in the fight against the German
battleship Bismarck. British fighter pilots with
Hurricanes were able to use hit-and-run tactics
with partial success. This approach, already used
by other Allied airmen became winning strategy