Tainan Kōkūtai Markings
The Tainan Kōkūtai was one of the most successful and well
known of all the land-based Japanese Naval Fighter Groups.
This unit had among its ranks some of the highest scoring Japanese pilots of the Second World War. Their names will be familiar to many modelers and those interested in the history of the
Pacific side of the war, for example: Sakai Saburō, Sasai Jun’ichi,
Ōta Toshio, Nishizawa Hiroyoshi and many more.
Despite this, the markings of this unit have
been consistently misunderstood and misrepresented in nearly all illustrations and
model decals that have ever been made.
Even in the Japanese film, “The Eternal Zero”, which went to great lengths to
accurately portray these aircraft in Tainan
Kōkūtai markings and recreated settings
for Lakunai Airfield, Rabaul, they did not
get everything correct. Once incorrect information makes it into print, it becomes
almost impossible to correct. So, it’s important that previously accepted “facts” are
re-examined to verify that these are not in
error, and to avoid perpetuating this incorrect information in new publications.
Actually, these errors are somewhat
understandable. During the short existence of Tainan Kōkūtai, there were multiple
reorganizations, changes in personnel and
equipment, and a merger with another unit.
With all these complicated changes, it is no
wonder that there is so much confusion.
The intent of this article is to explain the
current state of decades of research into
the markings of the Tainan Kōkūtai. This
will allow readers to understand the meaning of the quantity and color of the fuselage bands and tail stripes used in this
marking system, as well as the tail code
ranges associated with these colors.
Notes On Terminology And Unit Structure
Some readers may be unfamiliar with some
of the terminology used in this article. The
following may be of some help with this.
The aircraft types used will be referred to
in the remainder of the article by using the
names that their Japanese pilots called
九六式艦上戦闘機 = Kyū Roku-Shiki Kanjō
Sentōki = Type 96 Carrier Fighter
This was the Mitsubishi A5M, code name
“Claude”. Japanese pilots referred to these
using the abbreviation for “Carrier Fighter”,
calling them “Kansen”.
零式艦上戦闘機 = Rei-Shiki Kanjō Sentōki
= Type 0 Carrier Fighter
This was the Mitsubishi A6M, code name
“Zeke” or often just “Zero”. Japanese pilots
referred to these using the abbreviation for
“Zero Fighter”, calling them “Reisen”.
Kōkūtai translates as Air Group. The top
flying leadership position in the Kōkūtai
was the Hikōtaichō. The Hikōtaichō usually had the rank of LtCdr (Lieutenant Commander) or Lt (Lieutenant). The Hikōtaichō
flew as the leader of the mission, which
usually consisted of aircraft from two or
three Chūtai, as well as leading his own
The Chūtai is a unit of nine aircraft. The
leader of the Chūtai was the Buntaichō. These pilots usually had the rank of
Lt (Lieutenant) or LtJG (Lieutenant Junior
Grade). If the Hikōtaichō was not flying
on a mission, the highest ranking Buntaichō took on the role of mission leader. The
Kōkūtai was usually made up of five or six
Chūtai. Note that when determining the
highest ranking officer, there was a seniority component based on graduating class
from the Etajima IJN Naval Academy that
must be taken into account. Two officers
might have the same rank, but the one from
the earliest graduating class was considered as the higher ranking officer.
The Shōtai is a unit of three aircraft. The
leader of the Shōtai was the Shōtaichō, who usually had the rank of FPO1c
(Flight Petty Officer 1st Class) or higher.
The Chūtai was made up of three Shōtai.
The wingmen to the Shōtaichō flew in
a “V” formation with the Shōtaichō in the
lead, and doing slow rolls to search all
around for enemy aircraft.
The description above generally applies
for the all-fighter units, although there
are instances where the Chūtai could have
fifteen+ aircraft, or a Kōkūtai could have
more than six Chūtai. Also, after combat
or operational losses, a Shōtai might fly
Text: Ed DeKiep
Photo: author’s collection
a mission with only two aircraft, or a Chūtai
might fly a mission with only one or two
The Kōdōchōsho was the detailed record of
the missions flown by a unit. This shows
where the mission originated, what the
destination was, and where the mission
ended. The times for each stage of the mission are listed, using Tokyo rather than
local time. All of the persons who flew the
mission were listed, grouped together with
the Chūtai and Shōtai structure shown,
and the leaders clearly identified. The results of the mission were shown, with losses (and manner of demise if known) and
claims, right down to the type and quantity
of ordnance expended. Most of these records survived the war and are available at
the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (jacar.go.jp) These records are key
when comparing to Allied mission records
to verify claims.
One point about the Kōdōchōsho that
has been often misinterpreted is that the
Chūtai and Shōtai structure was numbered in the Kōdōchōsho. These numbers
applied only for each mission. For example, a Chūtai that was numbered as 2 in one
mission might be numbered as 1 in the mission the following day. The Chūtai of the
highest ranking Buntaichō (mission leader)
was always listed as the number 1 Chūtai.
But the Japanese did not refer to these
Chūtai using numbers. Instead they used
the name of the Buntaichō, for example the
The 12th Kōkūtai was formed on July 11,
1937 following the China Incident. It was
a land-based unit equipped with carrier
fighters, carrier bombers, and carrier
attack aircraft. During the summer of 1940,
the unit was equipped with the new Reisen (Zero Fighter, A6M) Model 11. The long
range of the Reisen allowed the fighters to
perform bomber escort and fighter sweep
missions deep into China. By the time this
unit was reorganized on September 15,
1941, it had developed a highly experienced
cadre of fighter pilots. Many of these pilots
were reassigned to form two new land-based all-fighter units, the 3rd Kōkūtai and
The Tainan Kōkūtai was formed on October
1, 1941, taking the unit name from Tainan,
Taiwan, the city where it was based. The