Aircraft prepare to launch from Japanese carrier Shōkaku during Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, October 26, 1942. In the foreground, crewmen are getting ready Zero “EI-112”.
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
conducted over 200 reconnaissance and bombing sorties over Australia. Because of their long
range, the A6M2 Type 21 continued to be used in
these missions. Actual recorded losses were close to 1:10 in favor of the Zeros, with their frequent
opponents being Spitfires Mk.V. This result was
remarkably different compared to the air battles
in the Solomon Islands and Rabaul area.
The Japanese started building an air base on
Guadalcanal in July 1942, posing a serious threat to shipping between the US and Australia.
The Americans therefore landed on Guadalcanal
on August 7 and were soon able to begin air operations from the occupied Japanese airfield, and
from new ones they subsequently built.
In terms of fighter operations, for the first weeks
it was main responsibility of Tainan Kōkūtai.
During bomber escort flights to Guadalcanal and
convoys patrols, pilots flew from Rabaul, a 1065
km distance. The Japanese command gradually
deployed other fighter units in the area, primarily
the 2nd Kōkūtai, part of the 3rd Kōkūtai, the 6th
Kōkūtai and the Kanoya Kōkūtai. In September
1942, the Japanese managed to get the airfields
operational on the islands of Buka and Bougainville, which were closer to Guadalcanal.
In mid-1942, a new version of the Zero designated
the A6M3 Type 32 began arriving on the battlefield. It was equipped with the more powerful
Sakae 21 engine and had a shortened wingspan.
However, it was unsuitable for missions over
Guadalcanal due to its shorter range. In late 1942,
its production was discontinued and replaced by
the A6M3 Type 22 from early 1943. Thanks to the
modified design of the fuel tanks and wing, which
looked similar to the Model 21, the range of this
newer version was even extended by 160 km.
The Type 21 Zeros, however, continued to be the
important armament of IJN fighter units engaged
in the Salomon Islands, whether at ground bases
or on aircraft carriers.
Two naval engagements occurred during the Battle of Guadalcanal, with aircraft carriers deployed on both sides. The first was the Battle of the
Eastern Solomons on August 24 and 25. Simultaneously with the Japanese convoy heading for
Guadalcanal, a task force with the aircraft carriers Shōkaku, Zuikaku and Ryūjō headed for the
same area. The Japanese had no intelligence on
the location of the American carriers and therefore conducted a raid on Henderson Airfield on
Guadalcanal. Aircraft from the USS Saratoga succeeded in sinking the Ryūjō and the Japanese
later damaged the USS Enterprise. Some Zero
fighters from the remaining carriers then briefly
operated from ground bases.
During October 1942, the Japanese also deployed
the carriers Zuihō, Junyō and Hiyō in the Salomon
Islands in addition to Shōkaku and Zuikaku. During October 25 to 27, the Battle of the Santa Cruz
Islands occurred, in which only Hiyō did not participate. IJN carriers were confronted by the USS
Hornet and Enterprise. American naval aircraft
damaged the Zuihō and Shōkaku, but Hornet was
lost and Enterprise suffered damage. Although
the Japanese achieved a tactical victory, their
aircrew losses were higher than in the Battle of
the Coral Sea. Therefore, even the carriers that
were not damaged had to withdraw from the battlefield. The fighter unit of carrier Hiyō remained
in the area. For almost the next two years, this
was the last carrier engagement in the Pacific.
In early November 1942, the designation of naval air units with bases abroad was changed.
They were now designated by a three-digit code
that indicated, among other things, their purpose
and home naval district in Japan. If the first digit
was 2 or 3, it was the Kōkūtai, whose specialty
was exclusively fighter aircraft. The Tainan Kōkūtai became Kōkūtai 251, and similarly were designated Kōkūtai 201 (formerly Chitose Kōkūtai),
Kōkūtai 202 (formerly 3rd Kū.), Kōkūtai 204 (formerly 6th Kū.), Kōkūtai 252 (formerly Genzan Kū.),
and Kōkūtai 253 (formerly Kanoya Kū. Fighter
Squadron). The mixed purpose 2nd Kōkūtai was
designated Kōkūtai 582 and retained both the
single-engine bombers and the fighter unit. The
former Tainan Kōkūtai moved to Japan in mid-November to replace losses, to train reinforcements,
and to take over new equipment. Guadalcanal,
which the Japanese called “Ga Shima”, was a high
risk target during any long distance flight due to
unpredictable weather, possible engine failure,
fatigue, or nausea caused by tropical diseases.
At the same time, the Japanese faced an enemy
that was constantly improving its technology,
tactics, logistics, and infrastructure.
In late 1942, the Japanese attempted to open
an airfield on Munda Island, just 300 km from
Guadalcanal, but Allied air raids made using
this base very difficult. In late January 1943,
the evacuation of Japanese troops from Guadalcanal was completed. At that time, the fighter unit
of the carrier Zuikaku began operating from Bougainville and withdrew to Truk after two weeks.
A month later, a fighter unit from the carrier Zuihō was deployed in a similar way. This practice
proved successful for the Navy and was used in
the area for the following year.
The Japanese command decided in late March
1943 to achieve air supremacy in the New Guinea
and Solomon Islands area. Therefore, the Opera-