Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi in April, 1942 during the Indian Ocean Raid
as seen from an aircraft that has just taken off from her deck. The aircraft
on the flight deck preparing for takeoff are “Val” bombers.
(Photo: Kure Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons)
against Zeroes for the rest of the war.
Although the Japanese had feared for some time
that the Americans would try to attack targets directly in Japan, Doolittle‘s raid on April 18, 1942,
was a huge surprise. Akagi, Sōryū, and Hiryū
were just off Taiwan and headed for Japan. Nagumo changed course to the east on April 19 and
tried to chase the attackers. However, the USS
Enterprise and Hornet were already out of range.
The Japanese carriers gave up the search after
Coral Sea, Aleutians and Midway
The next target of the Japanese command was
the port of Port Moresby in the southeast of New
Guinea. It was to be a base for the planned landings in Australia. At the same time, the Japanese hoped that their invasion force would attract
American aircraft carriers and a decisive battle
would occur. The aircraft carrier Shōhō covered the landing on Tulagi Island off Guadalcanal
during May 3, 1942. She then joined the vessels
bound for Port Moresby. But on May 7 the carrier
was attacked and sunk by aircraft from the USS
Lexington and Yorktown.
Airmen from Shōkaku and Zuikaku were not able
to intervene in the battle until the following day.
They reported shooting down 64 Allied aircraft
and severely damaging both U.S. carriers in their
attack on the American task force. The Lexington
had to be sunk later. The American airmen damaged the Shōkaku, and during combat air patrol
the Japanese fighters reported 40 victories while
losing two Zeros throughout the day. Although the
Japanese achieved a tactical advantage in the
battle thanks to the sinking of the heavier carrier,
they had to cancel the landing at Port Moresby.
The Japanese planned for an early June campaign towards Hawaii, with the target of the forces under Admiral Yamamoto being the American
territory on the Aleutians and Midway Atoll. The
attack on the Aleutians is often mistakenly described as an operation to divert attention from
the attack on Midway. It was, however, one operation conducted in two directions with reserve
forces positioned about half the distance between
the two task forces. Six carriers participated in
the operation, and on board all of them, in addition to their own carrier air units, were Zeros,
ground personnel, and pilots of the land based
6th Kōkūtai. This unit was to be based at Midway
Atoll after its capture. The fighter pilots of the 6th
Kōkūtai participated in both the raids on the Aleutians and the fighting during the Battle of Midway.
Airmen from the carriers Ryūjō and Junyō conducted attacks against Dutch Harbor on the
Aleutians during June 3 and 4, 1942, and scored
several victories against amphibious aircraft and
P-40 fighters. However, one of the Zeros crashed
on Akutan Island and despite the efforts of the
Japanese, neither the machine nor the pilot could
be found. The lost airman was PO1c Todayoshi
Koga, whose Zero was found by the Americans
a month later and put into airworthy condition.
As planned, the Japanese established a floatplane base on the American island of Kiska.
Nagumo´s task force with core of fleet carriers
Akagi, Kaga, Sōryū and Hiryū launched raids on
Midway Atoll on June 4. The Americans, however,
were prepared for the attack by deciphering Japanese coded communications. They sailed into
battle with the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise,
Hornet and Yorktown, the latter urgently repaired
after the Battle of the Coral Sea. For the engagements of the first attack wave, the Japanese
fighters reported 35 shot down USMC airplanes
with the loss of one Zero, shot down by AA fire.
However, the Japanese had inaccurate data from
reconnaissance crews about enemy vessels. In
the critical part of the battle the Japanese aircraft
began to come back to their carriers to change
their armament in view of the change of targets
from carriers to land targets and back to carriers.
The Americans made a large number of attacks
on the Japanese fleet with Marine Corps, Army
Air Forces and Navy aircraft. Japanese fighters
made dozens of launches in defense of their carriers and claimed 90 victories with the loss of
13 of their own aircraft, but their efforts were in
vain. American attacks were so intensive that the
carriers Akagi, Kaga and Sōryū were eventually
fatally hit, just as they were replacing armament
in their hangars. Deficiencies in the design of Japanese carriers´ passive protection and insufficient damage control were fully exposed.
The last vessel able to intervene effectively in
the battle was the carrier Hiryū, which sent two
waves of bombers against the American carriers.
The raids damaged the USS Yorktown so badly
that she eventually had to be sunk. Each of the
bomber formations was accompanied by six Zeros, whose pilots claimed 18 American aircraft
while losing five machines.
The Americans eventually hit Hiryū, which was
defended by twelve fighters, who could not prevent fatal consequences. Although her propulsion
was not hit, the fires could not be brought under
control, and she sank on June 5.
The Japanese suffered a crushing defeat that
was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
In addition to the four carriers, they lost the one
cruiser and several other vessels were damaged.
More than 3,000 crewmen were killed. The loss
of 23 fighter pilots who died in combat or aboard
their ships was not critical. However, the loss of
bomber crews and many members of technical
personnel had a significant impact.
New Guinea and Australia
In early February 1942, the 4th Kōkūtai moved
into the newly captured Rabaul, using twin-engine bombers and A5M fighters. From the middle
of that month, its fighter squadron began taking
over the modern A6M2 fighters brought to Rabaul
by the aircraft carrier Shōhō. In early March, 4th
Kōkūtai Zeroes moved to Lae, New Guinea, and
began escorting bombers over Port Moresby
and to Horn Island in northern Australia. In early April, the fighter squadron of 4th Kōkūtai was
taken over by Tainan Kōkūtai, which moved into
the area. In mid-May, Tainan Kōkūtai took over
additional 15 Zero fighters and pilots from the 1st
and Chitose Kōkūtai. Their opponents were initially mainly Australian airmen and American bomber crews, but later American fighter units also
arrived in Port Moresby. Other fighter units with
Zeros also operated over eastern New Guinea during 1942. But the main battlefield from the middle
of the year became Guadalcanal. Fighting over
New Guinea intensified again at the end of 1942
and in 1943, during the Allied advance northward.
Northwestern Australia began to be the target
of frequent Japanese naval air raids from February 1942. Zeros appeared regularly over Australia
from early March, after 3. Kōkūtai (later redesignated the Kōkūtai 202) stationed at Kupang, Indonesia. Until the autumn of 1943, the Japanese
Aircraft are prepared for a morning sortie on the HIJMS Zuikaku on May 5, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Censor deleted tail markings from
the photo, however a patriotic donation text is visible on the fuselage of Zero standing on the right side.
(Photo: Kure Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons)