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”.


INFO Eduard

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

“Sasai Chūtai”.

Unit History

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

Tainan Kōkūtai.

The Tainan Kōkūtai was formed on October

1, 1941, taking the unit name from Tainan,

Taiwan, the city where it was based. The

October 2022