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Tainan Kōkūtai (Tainan Air Group) / 251 Kōkūtai (251 Air Group)
Imperial Japanese Navy Kokutai

Background
The Tainan Kōkūtai (Tainan Air Group) was formed at Taiwan Airfield on Formosa (Taiwan).

Wartime History
On December 8, 1941 A6M2 Zeros of the Tainan Kokutai participated in escort bombers and conducting fighter sweeps over Clark Field on Luzon in the Philippines. On December 9, 1941 flew missions over Luzon despite bad weather. On December 10, 1941 Tainan pilots including Saburo Sakai intercepted and shot down B-17C 40-2045 piloted by Captain Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr. over Luzon.

During late December 1941, a detachment operated from Legaspi Airfield. On January 16, 1942 transfered to Tarakan Airfield.

Operations from Rabaul and Lae
On April 1, 1942 all 4th Kokutai Zero pilots at Rabaul were transfered the Tainan Kokutai operating at Lakunai Airfield.

During April 1942, the Tainan Kokutai moved to Lae Airfield on New Guinea and began flying fighter sweeps and bomber escort missions over Port Moresby. When Allied aircraft began attacking their base, they also flew combat air patrols (CAP) to protect the Lae Airfield area and intercept attacking enemy planes.

During August 1942 Tainan Kokutai began to equipped with new early model A6M3 Model 22 Zero (Hamp) at Rabaul and then were flown to forward operating bases at Lae Airfield and Buna Airfield. Quickly, pilots learned the new A6M3 had had less range, so the earlier A6M2 Model 21 Zeros were retained and preferred by many pilots for longer range missions.

On August 14, 1942 three A6M3 Model 32 Zeros from the Tainan Kokutai, 2nd Shotai: Lt(jg) Takeyoshi Ono, FPO1c Sadao Yamashita, FPO3c Masami Arai landed at Buna Airfield. At 7:35 they intercepted and shot down B-17E "Chief Seattle" 41-2656. During the attack, Lt(jg) Takeyoshi Ono's Zero was damaged by defensive fire from the bomber.

On August 22 1942 another detachment from the Tainan Kokutai from Lakunai Airfield arrived at Buna Airfield.

By early September, the Tainan Kokutai withdrew from Buna Airfield due to losses and Allied bombing raids and abandoned several aircraft that were captured by Allied forces in late December 1942 including two transports: G6M1-L2 Betty 209 and G6M1-L2 Betty 613 plus at least three fighters: A6M3 Zero 3018, A6M3 Zero 3028 and A6M3 Zero 3032. Afterwards, some of the Zero wrecks were transported to Eagle Farm Airfield and used in the construction of a A6M3 Hamp (Hybrid) that was flight tested by the Allies.

Missions against Guadalcanal
On August 7, 1942 U. S. forces conducted amphibious landings at Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. In retaliation, Tainan Kokutai A6M2 Zeros took off from Lakunai Airfield near Rabaul on escorting G4M1 Betty bombers from the 4th Kokutai attacking ships in Iron Bottom Sound. During the mission, A6M2 Zero V-108 piloted by Saburo Sakai shot down F4F Wildcat 5192 piloted by James "Pug" Southerland, the first American aircraft shot down over Guadalcanal. Afterwards, his Zero was damaged and he was wounded while attacking SBD Dauntless dive bombers but managed to return to base safely.


251 Kōkūtai (251 Air Group)
On November 1, 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) renamed Air Groups with three digit identifiers and the Tainan Kokutai was redesignated the 251 Kokutai (251 Air Group).

Night Fighter operations over Rabaul and southern Bougainville
During early June 1942, received their first three J1N1 Gekko / Irving reconnaissance aircraft from the 3rd Kokutai. These three aircraft were assigned tail codes V-1, V-2 and V-3. These were later reinforced with two pre-production J1N1 Gekko / Irving aircraft.

During May 1943 the 251 Kokutai received two J1N1 Gekko (Irving). These aircraft were field modified as night fighters armed with upward and downward firing 20mm cannons at Lakunai Airfield. These aircraft were flown by Shigetoshi Kudo and Satoru Ono.

On May 21, 1943 J1N1 Irving piloted by Shigetoshi Kudo was the first to test the aircraft in combat and score confirmed victories. Over Rabaul, he shot down B-17E "Honi Kuu Okole" 41-9244 and B-17E 41-9011 firing only 178 rounds of ammunition. Next on June 26, 1943 Kudo shot down B-17E "Naughty But Nice" 41-2430 and B-17F "Taxpayers Pride" 41-24448. Then on June 30, 1943 shot down B-17F "Pluto" 41-24543 and possibly B-24D 42-40254.

Click For EnlargementDuring June 1943 to July 1943, several J1N1 Irvings from 251 Kokutai operated from Ballale Airfield. On June 17, 1943 J1N1 Irving piloted by Satoru Ono shot down PB4Y 31952. On July 7, 1943 Kudo shot down Hudson NZ2033 from above. Back at Rabaul, Shigetoshi Kudo was presented a ceremonial sword by Admiral Jinichi Kusaka for his service and was credited with nine victories and nicknamed "King of the Night".

Tail Code and Markings
Tainan Kokutai A6M2 / A6M3 Zeros had tail code "V-1XX" (three digits in 100's range).
Tainan Kokutai / 251 Kokutai J1N2 Gekko/Irvings had tail code "V-X (one digit).

Tainan Kokutai / 251 Kokutai Personnel (Partial List)

Saburo Sakai  pilot A6M2 Zero
Takeyoshi Ono  pilot A6M3 Zero
Sadao Yamashita  pilot A6M3 Zero
Masami Arai  pilot A6M3 Zero
Shigetoshi Kudo  pilot J1N1 Gekko
Satoru Ono  pilot J1N1 Gekko
Akira Sugawara  observer J1N1 Gekko

References
Ôzora no samurai (1957) by Saburo Sakai
Samuari! (1957) by Saburo Sakai
Moonlight Interceptor details the Tainan Kokutai J1N1 Gekko / Irving operations including pilots Shigetoshi Kudo and Satoru Ono.
Naval Night Fighters by Yoji Watanabe 28-45
Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45 by Henry Sakaida page 49-50
The Siege of Rabaul by Henry Sakaida page 38-41
Thanks to Henry Sakaida, Osamu Tagaya and Edward Rogers for additional information

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