Iwakuni Kōkūtai, Iwakuni airbase, Japan, 1944
The markings of this training unit are the Katakana characters "I" and "Ha". The Iwakuni Kōkūtai was
established in July 1940 and was used to train pilots for naval units operating from land bases until
August 1944. It was then disbanded and re-established in March 1945. Fighter aces Akio Matsuba
(18 victories), Momoto Matsumura (13 v.) or veteran
of the aircraft carrier veteran Sōryū Ki-ichi Oda
(9 v.) passed through its ranks as instructors. Hiroshi
Shibagaki came through the unit as a student pilot,
achieving thirteen victories in Rabaul with Kōkūtai
201 and 204. Another successful graduate became
a Lt.(jg) Kagemitsu Matsu-o. In August 1943, he
was assigned to Rabaul to Kōkūtai 253 and, with
more than ten kills to his credit, became the only
Naval Reserve officer to achieve ace status.
Lt.(jg) Takeyoshi Ôno, Kōkūtai 251, Rabaul airbase, New Britain, May 1943
Originally manufactured with grey paint on all surfaces,
the machine carries a specific design of green camouflage applied in field conditions. The green paint was
probably applied with a mop or broom. Kōkūtai 251 was
renamed in November 1942 from the legendary Tainan
Kōkūtai fighter unit. However, due to heavy losses, it had
to be withdrawn to Japan at the end of the year. When
it prepared for another combat deployment to Rabaul
in the spring of 1943, only 11 of its original pilots remained. However, the Allied airmen were an even
tougher opponent than in 1942, and Kōkūtai 251 lost 17
aircraft during its first three combat sorties in May and
June. The commander of the 1st Chūtai was Lt.(jg) Ôno.
He was born in 1921 in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. He graduated from the 68th Naval Academy Class
in 1940 and after pilot training was assigned to Tainan
Kōkūtai. He achieved his first victory on 27 August 1942
at Buna in combat with a P-39 and added four more
victories by the end of 1942. By the time he returned
to Rabaul in May 1943, he had already been appointed
as Buntaichō and often led the entire unit in combat.
He achieved a total of eight victories, but was killed
in aerial combat at Rendova on June 30, 1943.
Kōkūtai 251, Rabaul airbase, New Britain, May 1943
For most naval fighter units that applied green paint
in field conditions, the method of painting was similar within the unit. The exception is Kōkūtai 251,
which used very varied patterns of green paint. The
unit designation code was U1, but this was repainted
on the machines at the time of deployment to Rabaul.
U1-109 was photographed on May 23, 1943 flying in
a formation of six Zeros during a patrol over New Britain. The photographs were taken by war correspondent Hajime Yoshida. The U1-109 flew as the wingman
of the first Shōtai leader, who was the controls of
U1-105, which is incorrectly attributed to Nishizawa.
Kōkūtai 251 lost a total of 34 pilots during its deployment to the Rabaul and Solomon Islands area from
May to the end of August 1943. In September 1943, its
status was therefore changed to a night fighter with
twin-engine Irving aircraft, and its remaining Zer
pilots were assigned to other units in Rabaul.