This photo shows one of the first completed Nakajima A6M2-N seaplanes. This is the 13th aircraft produced, with serial number 913, completed on April 23, 1942. The picture was apparently given to Japanese troops to familiarize them with the new type of seaplane, as it was later captured by the Americans and published in the enemy aircraft identification manual in 1944. Photo: US Navy
Text: Jan Bobek
The Zero fighter became the symbol of the Japanese air power during WWII. The light and maneuverable fighter had the upper hand over Allied aircraft at early stages of the war in Pacific theatre, but gradually lost its advantage against newer opponents. During the war, other versions of the Zero came along, one of the most iconic being its floatplane version, known by the Allied codename Rufe.
During the 1920s and 1930s the Japanese aircraft industry was oriented towards the production of foreign aircraft built under licenses. However, the armed forces, especially the Navy, with regard to the specifics of the Chinese and Pacific battlefields, came up with requirements that foreign aircraft designs did not offer. Hence, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed the Type 96 naval fighter aircraft, better known as the A5M “Claude”. The head of the design team was a young Japanese engineer, Jirō Horikoshi. Despite an engine that lacked some power, he managed to design a light and fast fighter with a fixed landing gear, which had no comparison in the world regarding maximum speed. In October 1937, Mitsubishi and Nakajima were approached to develop prototype 12-shi Carrier-based Fighter. The requirements were so extreme, and in some cases contradictory, that the two design teams investigated whether they could be less stringent. Nakajima eventually withdrew from the project, while the criteria for the prototype were even raised based on experience on the Chinese battlefield. In the end, Horikoshi‘s team managed to meet the technical specifications, not only thanks to the aerodynamic design and a new type of light alloy used for the aircraft‘s skin, but also thanks to the Nakajima Sakae 11 engine. During the flight tests, the wing surface suffered cracking during overload, and aileron control during high-speed maneuvers had also to be addressed. The new fighter had a powerful armament of two cannons and two machine guns, extremely long range (over 1,800 km) and excellent maneuverability. The new fighter reached top speed of 533 km/h at an altitude of 4,550 m. However, it lacked armor and other protective features and had a structural speed limit of 600 km/h.
The new aircraft entered service in 1940 with the 940hp engine Sakae 12 and received the official designation Rei shiki Kanjō sentōki (Type 0 carrier fighter), with the “zero” being derived from the imperial year 2600 (1940). Japanese pilots usually abbreviated it as Rei-Sen. That was also the origin of the name Zero often used by Allied pilots instead of the official code name, derived from the male name Zeke. As part of the Navy’s system, the new aircraft was given the type designation A6M, where A6 meant that it was the sixth type of carrier fighter to enter service, and M stood for the Mitsubishi company name. Zero fighters, specifically the A6M2 Type 11, had been successfully deployed on the Chinese battlefield since the summer of 1940, but their existence eluded Western intelligence because no one wanted to believe reports from China that suggested the Japanese had a world-class fighter. Further modifications to its design were made during 1941, creating the A6M2 Type 21, which included several changes, the most visible of them being folding wingtips for easier handling on the decks. With the A6M2 Type 21 modified this way, Japan entered the war against the US and other Western nations. Mitsubishi needed to produce other aircraft in addition to the Zero, so the Nakajima company began licensed production in late 1941. Total of 740 A6M2 aircraft were produced by Mitsubishi by June 1942 with additional 800 delivered by Nakajima by February 1944. The gun armament was improved and variants with magazines for up to 150 rounds could be used on the Type 21. Such a Zero may have been designated as Type 21a.
Lieutenant Ri-ichirō Satō, leader of the Yokohama Kōkūtai’s fighter unit. He was killed in September 1942 in a ground combat with USMC troops. Photo: ©Izawa
Here comes the Rufe
Floatplanes are a very old idea. Fighters of this design had already been deployed in combat during the First World War. After the war, their priority gradually declined as the performance of these seaplanes fell gradually behind that of fixed landing gear machines. The Imperial Japanese Navy returned to the idea in 1933 during preparation for a new seaplane tender. IJN came up with a specification for a machine that was to protect a coastal base during its construction and was to be capable of reaching speeds of 200 knots. Kawanishi had been preparing a study of such a seaplane since 1934. It was to operate from a tender, or launch from a catapult, and be able to counter fighter aircraft. The prototype was not built, and preparations were halted in 1936. Subsequently, the concept of a two-seat machine was considered, but even this idea was abandoned.
In the late 1930s, the US Navy prepared a plan to build 2,000 flying boats. The Japanese decided to respond to this threat. Therefore, in September 1940, the IJN commissioned Kawanishi with the specification for the 15-Shi fast interceptor seaplane. Kawanishi had already been working on a fast floatplane reconnaissance aircraft (later designated the E15K Shiun) for several months, and the Navy hoped for synergy from this decision. However, at the same time, it feared certain delays because Kawanishi’s aircraft carried a number of innovative features.
Therefore, the IJN decided to convert the Mitsubishi A6M2, which was currently undergoing combat test deployment in China, to a fighter seaplane. Mitsubishi was fully occupied with the production of Zeros and other types of aircraft. Therefore, the IJN turned to Nakajima, which began licensed production of A6M2 fighters at its Koizumi plant in late 1941. The company had some free design and production capacity and was therefore awarded with works on the seaplane.
Wildcats aboard the USS Wasp prepare for an air strike against Tulagi and adjacent islands in the early morning hours of August 7, 1942. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Shinobu Mitsutake was appointed chief designer. His team tried to make the most of the A6M2 design. Some authors state that standard fighter seaplane was based on the A6M2 Type 11, which did not have folding wingtips. In fact, at least the first few dozen production machines had folding wingtips. On captured Rufes, this design feature is still documented on the 37th aircraft produced.
The designers added a metal central float to the fuselage. The pylon was mounted to the main wing spar and attached to the rear wing spar by a “V” shaped strut. The pylon, with incorporated the oil cooling system, was located roughly where the Zero had the auxiliary tank attached. The absence of the auxiliary tank was replaced by tanks in the float. The stabilizing floats were mounted on separate pylons. Hatches were added to the wing´s skin to allow access to the internal wing structure and pylons.
This elegant solution for mounting the central float was already used on the F1M Pete biplane and contributed to the high aerodynamic purity of Mitsutake’s design. The central float and its dynamic effects on the fuselage structure during take-off, high-G maneuvers, and landing, necessitated the need to reinforce the fuselage structure in the cockpit area by additional metal sheets.
This picture taken from Dauntless on August 7, 1942, shows smoke rising from burning fuel supplies on Tanambogo Island, where the Rufe seaplanes were based. To the right is Gavutu Island and to the left is Gaomi Island. Florida Islands can be seen in the background. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
On the first few dozen machines, a system for purging the fuel tanks was installed on top of the central float. The fittings of this system, which protruded from the float at the top, were protected by a hemispherical cover. The float was also fitted with a rudder.
The last significant change from the Zero was an increase in the vertical tail area for the stability of the machine. Testing of the prototype began on the day of the Japanese attack on Hawaii and continued intensively during early 1942. The prototype was converted from the land-based version of the Zero fighter, the A6M2 Type 11 c/n (6)69. The next nine A6M2-N aircraft were to be produced at Nakajima by conversion from Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 21 carrier fighters, which were to undergo repairs due to damage in combat. Among them were the machines c/n (5)159 and (3)312, which took part in the attack on Hawaii aboard the aircraft carrier Shōkaku. However, the converted seaplanes suffered from corrosion. Therefore, the conversions of A6M2-N Nos. 8 and 9 were not carried out and No. 10 was instead completely manufactured as a new machine.
The floatplane fighter did not exceed comparable seaplanes in performance. It did increase in weight due to the floats and design changes, but the Zero´s landing gear and tailhook weight was missing. The machine had excellent maneuverability and stability at medium and higher altitudes and retained reasonably good flight characteristics even at lower altitudes.
A close-up photo of Tanambogo Island after the attack of Wildcats shows the wreckage of two Rufe seaplanes, several beaching trolleys and a wooden seaplane ramp sloping into the water. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Its empty weight increased by approximately 14 % over the A6M2 Type 21 and its speed was reduced to 234 knots at 5,000 meters from the original 275 knots at 4,400 meters of the Type 21. The seaplane had a range of 962 nautical miles and a maximum flight time of 6 hours.
Armament consisted, as with the A6M2, of two 20 mm cannons in the wing and two 7.7 mm machine guns in the fuselage. The aircraft could carry two 30 kg or 60 kg bombs carried under the wing. However, unlike the Zero Type 21, seaplane was not equipped with a circular directional antenna at the rear of the cockpit and did not have a headrest behind the pilot's seat.
This fighter seaplane was first designated Rei-Shiki Ichi Gata Suijō Sentōki (Type 0 Mk.1 Seaplane Fighter). In July, the aircraft was accepted by the IJN and entered service under the designation Ni-Shiki Suijō Sentōki, or Type 2 Seaplane Fighter. It bore the abbreviated designation A6M2-N. Nakajima considered preparing another fighter seaplane, which was to reach a speed of 250 knots, but eventually abandoned its preparation.
Courtney Shands pictured in 1957 at the rank of Rear Admiral. As commander of VF-71, he was instrumental in the destruction of the Rufe aircraft from Yokohama Kōkūtai on Tanambogo Island on August 7, 1942. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Series production began in April 1942 and ended in July 1943, as production of the Kawanishi N1K Kyōfū (Rex) fighter seaplane began a month earlier. Nakajima produced a total of 258 A6M2-N seaplanes, with the highest number of machines (24) in a single month leaving the gates of the Koizumi plant in April 1943. As soon as the Allies observed this machine in aerial encounters, they assigned it the code name Rufe.
The first pre-production and production A6M2-N seaplanes were received in the spring of 1942 by the Japanese Navy's oldest unit, the Yokosuka Kōkūtai. Its main task was research and testing of new aircraft, weapons and technical equipment. It was also involved in training and, late in the war, was deployed in combat.
Yokohama Kōkūtai aircraft that USMC technicians took from Tulagi to NAS Alameda, USA. Photo: BUAER Newsletter
With the Rufe aircraft, the unit was joined by their previous flight pilot, Lt. Ki-ichirō Nishihata, who was in charge of training on these seaplanes. It would be difficult to find a more ideal officer for this task. Nishihata was a native of Fukuoka and graduated from the Etajima Naval Academy in its 59th class in November 1931. He successively held several command positions as Buntaichō. From late 1934 he served with Sasebo Kōkūtai, then commanded the seaplane carrier unit Kamikawa Maru. In late 1937 he became an instructor at Kasumigaura Kōkūtai and a year later became leader of the seaplane unit on the light cruiser Kinu. He apparently served on this ship until October 1941. Therefore, it is not surprising that his age and experience earned him the nicknames “foster parent” and “real parent” at Yokosuka Kōkūtai. His influence on the development of the A6M2-N seaplane, its acceptance into the Naval Air Force's armament, and the success of its deployment, was profound.
Nishihata attained the rank of corvette captain in November 1942 and by the end of the war was one of the commanding officers of Kōkūtai 302, armed with, among other aircraft, Raiden fighters. In September 1945 he was promoted to the rank of Commander.
Fire-damaged Rufe seaplane from Yokohama Kōkūtai being transported to NAS Alameda, USA. Photo: BUAER Newsletter
Seaplane tender Kimikawa Maru in Ominato Bay, Japan, pictured in April 1943. F1M Pete seaplanes are visible on the deck. This vessel delivered most of the Rufe seaplanes to the Aleutians during 1942 and 1943. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Anchorage at Tulagi
The first Rufes to engage enemy in the South Pacific belonged to the fighter Buntai, which was formed in May 1942 as part of the Yokohama Kōkūtai. The commander of the entire Kōkūtai was Capt. Shigetoshi Miyazaki. He was born in 1897 in Kōchi and graduated with distinction from the Naval Academy in 1918 in its 46th class. After training aboard the destroyer Tachikaze, he first served with the Yokosuka Kōkūtai and other aviation units, but from late 1924 he was assigned to the Japanese embassy in Paris. From June 1926 he was naval attaché to the League of Nations, and from April 1927 to May 1928 he was the Japanese plenipotentiary to the Geneva Naval Conference. After a series of command and training posts, he took command of the Yokohama Kōkūtai on 20 April 1942.
Leader (Buntaichō) of his fighter unit was Lt. Ri-ichirō Satō, who had previously served with the Yokosuka Kōkūtai. Twelve fighter seaplanes arrived to Rabaul in early June. The first patrol in the vicinity of Rabaul was performed on 5 June and five days later five Rufe pilots saw same number of B-17s from the 19th BG. However, there was no combat. During June, the seaplane pilots encountered the enemy machines several more times, but never got chance to shoot at them.
In early July, they moved to Tulagi Island off Guadalcanal and encountered enemy aircraft almost daily. The naval base for the Rufes became the nearby islet of Tanambogo, while the Mavis seaplanes moored at the islet of Gavutu. The garrison commander on these islands was Capt. Miyazaki. All marine and engineer units, as Japanese and Korean civilian personnel were under his command. But only a small portion of the 1,500 or so men he commanded were trained for ground combat.
The first victory was claimed on July 10 in a battle with two Liberators of the 435th BS. One of the Liberators was damaged, but the gunners reported that one of the floatplanes broke away from the fight with a smoking engine. The crew also managed to photograph one Rufe. A week later, B-17s from the same unit killed PO1c Hori who remained missing after the fight. Aboard the Flying Fortress were US Marine Corps officers who managed to take valuable photographs of the northern coast of Guadalcanal and the Tulagi area, despite being forced to retreat by other Rufe seaplanes.
The first aircraft shot down by Rufe pilots in the Aleutians was a B-17B (c/n 38-215) "Old Seventy". She is pictured in this photo from Alaska back when she was also used as a cargo machine. Photo: American Air Museum in Britain
The same fate befell the Sea.1c Matsui in combat with a B-17 of 11th Bombardment Group (Heavy) on July 23. Seven bombers of this unit encountered twelve Rufe seaplanes during 1 August, and the Japanese, with no losses of their own, severely damaged three of them. The 11th BG board gunners, however, reported two kills.
B-17s raided Tulagi also on August 4, 1942. Seven Rufes attacked the heavies over their target. The gunners of the 26th BS, 11th BG claimed one seaplane as downed, but one Rufe collided with a B-17E commanded by 1st Lt. Rush E. McDonald. All of his crew and the Japanese pilot Sea.1c Kobayashi perished.
During the Allied landing on Guadalcanal in the morning hours of August 7, Wildcats and Dauntless bombers from USS Wasp attacked the anchorage at Tulagi and surrounding islands, destroying all seven H6K Mavis flying boats and six Rufes in water and two on the island. One Rufe later apparently escaped and joined two colleagues at Shortland Island off Bougainville.
Under Miyazaki's leadership, Yokohama Kōkūtai personnel at Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, along with other units, engaged in ground combat. Miyazaki's last radio message was, “Enemy troop strength is overwhelming. We will defend to the last man. Pray for our success.” Improvising under harsh conditions, the defenders under Miyazaki's command performed superbly. In the first landing on August 7, they inflicted 10% casualties on the American troops, and the defenses on some islands persisted until noon on August 9.
Seaplane A6M2-N from Tōkō Kōkūtai moored off the shore in the Aleutians. Note the lighter colouring of the control surfaces. It is possible that some sort of waterproofing is stuck to the top of the wing to cover the edges of the cannon hatches. Photo: ©Izawa
Five Rufe pilots were killed on Tanambogo Island on August 8 in action against U.S. Marines. They succeeded in setting fire to a Stuart tank of 1st Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines. Of the three tankers, two were killed and one was wounded. Forty-two defenders were killed, including the executive officer of the Yokohama Kōkūtai, Lt. Cdr. Saburō Katsuta, who was last seen on the tank’s turret.
Lt. Satō escaped to Halavo Island with about forty men and was killed with thirteen of them in a battle with members of the 2nd Marines on September 19. Only one of his pilots was captured, it was Warrant Officer Yomichio Hirahashi.
Patrol flights continued from Shortland for several days in late August under the command of Ensign Kofuji, but on September 2, 1942, the Yokohama Kōkūtai fighter unit was disbanded and the personnel and remaining Rufe seaplanes were taken over by the Kamikawa Maru.
Commanding officer of Yokohama Kōkūtai Capt. Miyazaki was formally in command of the unit until October 1, 1942, when he was posthumously promoted to Rear Admiral. According to the testimony of one of Japanese prisoners, Miyazaki committed suicide by explosive in a dugout on August 8. One of his former colleagues in the Geneva Naval Conference negotiations, Rear Admiral William Ward Smith, commanded Cruiser Division 9 at the time with the cruisers USS Indianapolis and USS Louisville during the Battle of the Aleutians.
In this photo taken in August 1942, some of the fighter pilots of the 5th Kōkūtai are posing at the Kiska base. Rear row from the left: Sea2c Hachirō Narita, next to him stands the most successful fighter pilot in the Aleutian area, PO2c Gi-ichi Sasaki, PO2c Saishi Okawa and the last airman is probably leader of fighter unit Kushichirō Yamada. Front row from the left: Sea2c Minoru Minazawa and Sea2c Yoshio Suzuki. Sasaki and Okawa were killed during raids against Amchitka. The Rufe R-106 has a partially visible convex cowling located on top of the main float. An E16A Jake seaplane can be seen in the background. Photo: ©Izawa
Aleutians and Kurils
The first unit to engage the enemy with Rufes was Tōkō Kōkūtai. Formed in late 1940, it was deployed at the start of the war in the Pacific during the conquest of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. In June 1942, with six H6K Mavis flying boats, this unit was deployed in the capture of Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians. Protection for the invasion force was provided by floatplanes from the seaplane tenders Kamikawa Maru and Kimikawa Maru. The command soon recognized that to fight the Americans in the Aleutian area, fighter seaplanes needed to be deployed to protect the anchorages and bases under construction, as float-type observation aircraft were not ideal for this purpose. Moreover, both tenders got tasks in another part of the Pacific.
In early June a Rufe fighter unit was formed in Yokosuka under the command of Lt. Kushichirō Yamada. Six machines were transported to Kiska by seaplane tender Chiyoda, and the unit was integrated into Tōkō Kōkūtai. The planes were usually moored to buoys in shallow water and transported ashore for maintenance using bamboo structures. They usually patrolled in pairs and sometimes engaged with enemy aircraft several times a day. Very soon they started using 30kg bombs against heavy bombers. During anti-submarine patrols they probably used 60kg bombs. The weather in the area was often inclement with fog and low cloud. Therefore, even the four-engined aircraft often operated at relatively low altitude. Yamada's pilots first encountered enemy on July 7 and 8, 1942, during a Liberator raid on Kiska. First victory was achieved ten days later, one B-24 and one B-17 were claimed, but Americans lost only one Flying Fortress of the 28th Composite Bombardment Group. It was an old B-17B c/n 38-215 “Old Seventy” from the 36th BS, with seasoned veteran Major Jack Marks at the controls. The machine exploded at 2,000 feet in a dogfight with Rufe pilots near Rat Island. However, there is another version saying that the damaged bomber crashed into a mountain range.
A picture taken on November 7, 1942, shows several damaged Rufe seaplanes in Holz Bay, Attu Island. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
In early August, Yamada's fighter unit was detached from the Tōkō Kōkūtai and became the 5th Kōkūtai, whose number of aircraft was expanded to twelve fighter seaplanes. During August it was also reinforced with observation floatplanes.
The fighters of the 5th Kōkūtai scored their first victory on August 7, 1942. The warships under the command of Rear Adm. W. W. “Poco” Smith sailed from Kodiak to Kiska to shell the Japanese positions. The fog made combat activity considerably more difficult for both belligerents. In addition to the heavy cruisers USS Indianapolis and USS Louisville, the light cruisers USS Honolulu, USS St. Louis and USS Nashville and four destroyers were also part of the fleet.
Despite the fog in the area, the Americans managed to open fire at 19:55, simultaneously sending six SOC Seagull observation aircraft over the target.
The Japanese came into contact with the observation planes several times but had little chance to attack them successfully in the bad weather. The first to fire was Lt. Yamada with his wingman and they claimed a Seagull shot down. Later, Yamada got into a fight with the observation planes again, and with a PO2c Gi-ichi Sasaki, they scored two victories.
The Americans lost one Seagull and three were damaged. The crew of the downed Seagull apparently survived, but interestingly, the machine (Bu. No. 9945) belonged to the air unit of the battleship USS Indiana, which was not part of the fleet.
The crews of H6K Mavis attempted to blindly bomb the American vessels through low cloud cover, and one of the Rufe pilots attacked the destroyer USS Case in very adverse weather conditions. He was driven off by defensive fire from 5-inch and 20mm guns. Japanese gunners from shore batteries also attempted to engage the US ships, as the Rufes' pilots dropped phosphorus bombs over them , presumably to identify enemy´s position.
American troops landed on Adak Island on August 30 and built with incredible speed an airfield in the following weeks. For the Japanese on Attu and Kiska, this worsened the prospects of completing their own airfield.
An unequal battle occurred on September 15, 1942, when the submarine base at Kiska was attacked by fourteen heavy bombers from the 28th CBG, accompanied by fourteen Lightnings and the same number of Airacobras from XI. Fighter Command. This formation was engaged by four Rufe pilots, two of whom were killed. PO2c Gi-ichi Sasaki scored four victories over fighter aircraft in this engagement and claimed one as probably destroyed, but his machine turned over on landing. At the end of the day only one Rufe remained operational. In late September, the Kimikawa Maru arrived at the island, bringing six Rufes and two observation aircraft. In the following week the unit faced significant odds on several occasions including P-40s of No. 111 Sqn RCAF, and on October 4 was completely without fighter seaplanes. American and Canadian fighters often strafed the anti-aircraft gunner positions to reduce the risk to low-flying bombers that arrived over the target only minutes later.
At the beginning of November, the 5th Kōkūtai was redesignated Kōkūtai 452. In same period additional aircraft were supplied, but these were destroyed in the following days during a storm and in a strafing attack by Lightnings and Marauders. In late December, Kimikawa Maru again brought in new Rufe seaplanes. On the last day of 1942, Japanese fighters managed to shoot down a B-25 of 28th CBG, a P-38 of 343rd FG and destroyed a Catalina that was forced to land.
The Kōkūtai 452 was still operating in extremely difficult conditions. Planes were anchored in Arctic temperatures at the seashore or in shallow water, their only protection being a tarpaulin stretched across the forward half of the fuselage. Yet unit´s technicians managed to keep most of the seaplanes operational. Primarily they operated from Kiska Island, and spare planes were offloaded on Attu, where there was less danger from Allied aircraft.
This photograph is one of the images that fell into the hands of the Allied forces after the landing on the Aleutians. It probably dates from late 1942 and early 1943 and shows the airmen of Kōkūtai 452. Photo: Fold3
On January 24, 1943, a patrol of two Rufes discovered five cargo ships with escort cruisers, which were securing the landing on the island of Amchitka. Rufes attacked with 60kg bombs and continued their strafings in late January and during February. Their main target was the airfield, which the Americans were building on the island with their usual incredible speed. American air defenses managed to shoot down several of the Rufes. Sasaki, who became the only Rufe fighter ace in the area, did not return from one of these dangerous missions.
It occurred on the evening of February 18, 1942, the day after the first Curtiss P-40s from the 18th Fighter Squadron arrived at the newly completed airfield, which was named Fox Field because of its short runway. The Rufe pair was led by Warrant Officer Kunitsugu Nakamachi and PO1c Sasaki flew as his wingman. In the air, however, two quadruplets of Curtiss planes were waiting for them. The Japanese pair was attacked by the first flight, led by Major Clayton J. Larson. Hundreds of soldiers from the surrounding hills watched in amazement as the battle took place off the west coast of the island.
Nakamachi, still over the water, dropped his bombs and turned northwest back toward his own base, but he had little chance against the fast Curtiss planes that attacked from above. He was hit by Larson and his wingman 1st Lt. Beary. The burning Rufe crashed into the sea.
A determined Sasaki gave up the raid on the airfield just off the coast and also tried to break through to the northwest. American fighters made repeated runs on Sasaki. The experienced Japanese pilot combined tight 360-degree turns and steep descents. He even fired twice at Larson without result. His fight against the odds was like this over 35 miles stretch. However, Sasaki was eventually hit and crashed into the sea about 5 miles west of the northwestern tip of Amchitka. The victory was scored by Lt. Stone.
The last aerial engagement of Rufe seaplanes in the Aleutians occurred on March 17, 1943. In ten hours, the Americans made a total of five raids on Kiska from the Adak and Amchitka bases. They deployed 13 B-24s, 16 B-25s, 32 P-38s, and eight P-40s. The Japanese could only send seven Rufe fighters against them. Among them was Kiyomi Katsuki, who made a name for himself in the South Pacific as a Pete biplane pilot and later became a fighter ace. The formation faced ten Lightnings and claimed two victories, but the Americans recorded no losses.
This seaplane fighter unit, which changed designation three times during its operations, had shot down fifteen aircraft certainly and five probably since the summer of 1942. In less than eight months of its combat deployment, it operated against the enemy over sixty days, in many cases conducting multiple actions in a single day. It lost twelve fighter seaplanes and ten pilots in aerial combat. Its remaining 23 machines were written off in the Aleutians due to defects and weather conditions.
Pilots of the 11th Fighter Squadron at Umnak Air Force Base, Alaska, pose for a photographer while playing cards. They were among the opponents of the Rufe seaplanes. The unit's commander was John S. Chennault, the eldest son of Claire Lee Chennault, who led the legendary volunteer Flying Tigers in China. The P-40E's nose shows that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Photo: Fold3
At the end of March 1943, the remaining airmen of Kōkūtai 452 were evacuated by submarine to Japan. In May the unit was reorganized and received new Pete, Jake and Rufe seaplanes. Its fighter unit was commanded by Lt.(jg) Shunshi Araki. From July his unit was based on Lake Bettobu on the Kuril island of Shumshu, 11 km southwest of Kamchatka.
Their opponents were again the Liberator crews. Rufes engaged them for first time on July 19. In addition to the Rufe seaplanes, the sporadic fighting involved IJN observation aircraft as well as Army aviators with Ki-43 Oscars from the 54th Hikō Sentai.
The Kōkūtai 452 fighters achieved their last victories on September 12 in a battle with a formation of eight B-24s and twelve B-25s. They reported two B-24s shot down and one probable. However, Japanese Army fighters also joined the fight and the Americans suffered heavy losses. In addition to the two Liberators, they lost seven Mitchells and some crews made emergency landings in Soviet territory.
In early October 1943, the fighter Buntai of Kōkūtai 452 was disbanded and the unit continued to serve with reconnaissance aircraft in the Kuril Islands until the summer of 1944.
The original commander of this unit, Kushichirō Yamada, later served as the Hikōtaichō of Kōkūtai 302 at Atsugi Base and committed suicide on August 15, 1945. Araki ended his service in the same fighter unit as Yamada, and he too did not live to see the end of the war.
To be continued…
Shots of the wrecks of Rufe seaplanes after landing on Attu and Kiska islands in mid-1943. The hangar images were taken at the base on Attu. Photos: US Navy and Alaska State Library