Color profiles: Janusz Światłoń, captions: Leszek A. Wieliczko, Tomasz Szlagor
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In the last year of the war, especially after the Americans had captured the Philippines and Iwo Jima, fighter units of the IJNAF (Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force) were assembled for what was to be their last assignment: defence of the Home Islands, Japan’s heartland. They were tasked with warding off raids carried out by both B-29 heavy bombers and US Navy carrier-borne aircraft, which were aimed at Japan’s main industrial and administrative centres, as well as the bases and facilities of the Imperial Navy. In spring and summer 1945 a large contingent of the available aircraft was transferred to southern Kyushu, from where it was to support the defence of Okinawa. Among the IJNAF units that played a key role in the battle for control of the skies over Japan, were the 203., 302., 332., 343., 352. Kokutai (air groups), together with the Yokosuka Kokutai.
At that time the workhorse of the IJNAF fighter arm was still the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (Zeke), mainly in the form of its A6M5 sub-variants. The Zeros were supported by a smaller number of Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack), Kawanishi N1K1-J Shiden and N1K2-J Shiden Kai (George) interceptors. The Zero and Raiden fighters were finished in standard IJNAF camouflage – solid dark green on the upper surfaces and fuselage sides, with light grey (or light grey-greenish, depending on the manufacturer) on the undersides. Moreover, the engine cowlings of the A6Ms were painted in black, whilst the J2Ms carried a black, anti-glare panel ahead of the windscreen. The Shiden and Shiden Kai fighters were painted in dark green on their upper surfaces and fuselage sides, whilst their undersurfaces were left in a natural metal finish (the fabric-covered elements – ailerons and elevators – were painted silver). The propeller blades, and often also the spinners, were painted brown; the blades carried a single, 50 mm yellow warning stripe, painted 50 mm from the blade tip.
The Japanese national insignia – red discs, signifying the Japanese rising sun icon, known as a hinomaru – were applied to the upper and lower wings, and on both sides of the fuselage. Usually, the hinomarus on the fuselage and upper wings were outlined with a white border, 75 mm wide (often overpainted by operational units). The wing leading edges, from the wingroot to the mid-wing position, were painted yellow as a quick aerial recognition marking.
No unit emblems were used in the IJNAF. The machines flown by senior airmen – mainly Buntaicho (leaders of flights – Buntai) and Hikotaicho (commanders of squadrons – Hikotai) – were often marked with one or two bands (respectively) painted around the rear fuselage, usually in white or yellow. Tactical markings consisted of a digit (or letter) designating a particular Kokutai hyphenated with a two, three- or (more rarely) four-digit individual aircraft number (in 343. Kokutai there was also an additional letter identifying a particular Hikotai). They were painted on the tailfins and rudders, usually in white or yellow. Individual aircraft numbers (sometimes just the last couple of digits) were often repeated on the landing gear covers, in black.
IJNAF pilots’ individual markings were extremely rare. Probably the best-documented ornamental markings are the stylised lightning bolts painted on the fuselages of several Raidens of 352. Kokutai. Victory markings, however, were commonly applied, albeit usually limited to aircraft flown by top-scoring pilots, who were allotted their own machines. A very popular motif used to mark an aerial victory was a sakura – a stylised, yellow-orange cherry blossom. Confirmed victories were marked with a yaezakura (blossoms of ten petals), whereas enemy aircraft counted only as ‘probables’ were shown as hitoezakura (blossoms of five petals). The victory markings were often painted on the tailfins or rear fuselages, occasionally on both sides.
A point of note is that 302. Kokutai’s machines carried the rank and name of a crew chief beneath the tactical markings (unlike most pilots, the ground crews were allotted a particular aircraft to care for). Similar inscriptions can be found on some aircraft of 343. Kokutai.
In the summer of 1945, as American forces began to focus on their ultimate target – Japan’s Home Islands – both sides anticipated a battle similar to the recent experiences of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and began to prepare for a drawn-out battle of attrition. With the prospect of an imminent seaborne invasion of Japan looming ahead, swarms of allied fighter-bombers were dispatched to ‘soften up’ the defences, scouring the islands for targets of opportunity. USAAF P-47 Thunderbolts, as well as US Navy F6F Hellcats and F4U Corsairs – all of them powered by that beast of an engine, the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial – were the natural candidates for the job.
The first American fighters to invade the airspace of Japan were US Navy squadrons attached to the Fast Carrier Task Force. Starting from mid-February 1945, they began to probe the enemy defences around Tokyo and central Honshu – notably, Kure naval base - which resulted in a series of furious air battles. Heavily laden with bombs and HVAR rockets, the Hellcats and Corsairs wreaked havoc at airbases, anchorages, roads and marshalling yards. In summer 1945, the Royal Navy joined in, with the Corsairs of HMS Formidable being the first British aircraft to fly over Japan’s mainland, on 17th July.