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|Pilot PO2c Sakuji Tanaka (MIA / KIA)
Crashed February 1, 1943
Built by Nakajima during the last week of December 1942. True serial number 544. This Zero was the 544th A6M2 Zero built by Nakajima. At the factory, painted overall gray at the with a black cowling and yellow identification stripe on the leading edge of the wings with a 75mm white border around the Hinomaru.
Delivered to the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) as A6M2 Model 21 Zero manufacture number 6544. During January 1943, assigned to Zuikaku as a replacement aircraft following the losses sustained during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands (Battle of the South Pacific). Tail code A1-1-129 was painted in red on both sides of the tail. This Zero never had the Zuikaku identifier of a white fuselage stripe with red edges applied to rear fuselage because it was a newer replacement aircraft.
On January 29, 1943 took off from Zuikaku as one of thirty-six Zeros led by Lt. Kenjiro Notomi and flown south to Rabaul then to Kahilli Airfield (Buin) on Bougainville to support "Operation Ke" the Japanese evacuation from Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal. Operating from Kahilli Airfield (Buin) Zuikaku Zeros participated in three aerial cover sorties over western Guadalcanal. During the operation, two Zuikaku pilots were lost on February 4, 1943.
On February 1, 1943 took off from Kahilli Airfield (Buin) on Bougainville piloted by PO2c Sakuji Tanaka in a formation of nineteen Zuikaku Zeros was led by Lt. Kenjiro Notomi. This Zero was flying in the 1st Chūtai, 3rd Shōtai as the number 2 aircraft (wingman). They joined another twenty-one A6M Zeros from the 582 Kokutai led by Lt. Saburo Shindo on a mission to escort eighteen D3A Vals from the 582 Kokutai attacking US Navy warships off Cape Esperance that might interfere with "Operation KE" the Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal.
Over the target area, the D3A Vals bombed and sank DD-469 De Haven. Roughly three miles west of Savo Island, intercepted by F4F Wildcats from VMF-112 and a dogfight unfolded as the Japanese withdrew to the northwest. During the air combat, this Zero was shot down by one of the Wildcats. When this Zero failed to return it was officially listed as Missing In Action (MIA). Also lost was A6M2 Zero piloted by Chiba (MIA).
In fact, this Zero crashed into a coconut palm plantation area of Pavuvu Island in the Russell Islands. Impacting coconut palm trees as it landed, the Zero was torn apart with the tail section and right wing surviving largely intact.
Sometime after the February 21, 1943 "Operation Cleanslate" U. S. Marine Corps (USMC) landing on the island, this crash site was located by American forces. Soon afterwards, this Zero crash site was investigated by Technical Air Intelligence Unit (TAIU) and a photograph was taken of the tail section and tip of the right wing. The tail section was largely intact with the tail number A1-1-129 painted in red. The ultimate fate of this Zero is unknown, likely scrapped or otherwise disappeared after the investigation.
In 2004, Zero (Reconstruction) "Blayd Zero" / "Dakota Blayd Zero" was painted in the markings of this aircraft.
PO2c Sakuji Tanaka completed his flight training in May 1942.
Note, some sources incorrectly list this Zero's tail code as AI-I-129.
Kodochosho, Zuikaku, February 1, 1943
Kodochosho, 582 Kokutai, February 1, 1943
Production figures of the Mitsubishi/Nakajima A6M Zero by Jim Long
Japanese Naval Air Force Fighter Units and Their Aces, 1932-1945 pages 48 (February 1, 1943)
Operation KE pages pages 184, 186, 188-190 (Zuikaku Zeros February 1, 1943), 229-230 (Zuikaku Zeros CAP February 4, 1943), 368 (index Shigemi)
A Brief History of the Blayd Zero and Its Markings by Ryan Toews June 15, 2014 pages 3-6, 9 (photo)
Fargo Air Museum - Legends of Aviation Historic Aircraft - Mitsubishi A6M2 Reisen Type Zero Carrier-Based Fighter Model 21 via Wayback Machine July 5, 2007
J-Aircraft "The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation Zero Restoration Project: Part 1 - How Uncle Paul Got A Zero!" by Jim Lansdale August 2, 2008 (photo)
Thanks to Ryan Toews and Jim Lansdale for additional information
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