Formed on 10 April 1941, the 3 Kokutai was originally a mix of bomber and fighters, but soon became all fighters. Roughly equivalent to a U.S. fighter Group, in top form the unit had about 45 planes. Pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy at that time were among the world's best, only the cream of the crop accepted from flying schools, the "newest" of who had 1000 flying hours. With its "sister" unit, Tainan Kokutai, these outfits were entirely land-based.
Along with the Tainan Air Group, the 3rd Air Group was among the most distinguished naval fighter units of the entire Pacific War. The group survived the war as perhaps the sole fighter unit that was always victorious, from the beginning of the war in the Philippines, through the air battles over the Dutch East Indies, and on into the attack on Darwin (Australia).
The 202/3 Kokutai was designed for land attack (bomber) operations and was attached to the 11th Air Fleet. In July of 1941, the unit advanced to Hanoi in northern French Indochina. Then in September of 1941, the 202/3 Kokutai was reorganized into the greatest fighter unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy. With hostilities between Japan and the United States imminent, the 202/3 Kokutai was expected to play a key role as a fighter unit in the battle for air control, together with the Tainan Air Group, in the southern area of operations.
In contrast to the fact that the air groups were traditionally composed of a number of different types of aircraft, the 202/3 Kokutai was constituted only of fighters, which was the first historically speaking. The squadron allowance was also increased to fifty-four (54) operational carrier fighters with eighteen (18) aircraft in reserve. Also had nine (9) land reconnaissance planes. The actual strength on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities was forty-five (45) Zero Model 21 fighters and twelve (12) Type 96 carrier fighters.
Experimentation by its dedicated leaders showed the ability of the A6M2 to use its designed-in very long range to reach the Philippine Islands, and still retain fuel for useful combat time. This saved the use of Aircraft Carriers and freed them up for other tasks. When the 3rd and Tainan Kokutais hit the Philippines from bases in Taiwan in December 1941, no missions the likes of this were seen until the advent of the Very Long Range P 51 missions in 1945. 3 Kokutai played a major part in the December 8th disaster visited upon the P40 squadrons on Luzon, catching many on landing, low on fuel. This was the unit involved in the storied tangle with Philippine A.F. P26's, the outcome being in no doubt. Quickly, opposition was subdued, and the planes moved south to newly captured bases, to attack the Dutch East Indies. With little or no early warning, it was the same story for the Allied air forces, usually caught at disadvantage by the Zero fighters, and quickly worn down.
After the conquest of the Indies, the 3rd Kokutai took part in the summer raids on Darwin, fighting the P40's of the 49th fighter group. This was the first outfit to give them trouble, honors being about even. When the invasion of Guadalcanal caused excessive losses to the units involved, 3rd Kokutai. was sent to Rabaul as reinforcement. Here they came up against the Wildcats of Joe Foss and the Marines, their tactics and teamwork causing problems for even these veterans. In a rearrangement in November, 3rd Kokutai became 202 Kokutai all Japanese Groups getting 3 digit numbers. Summer of 1943 was spent raiding Darwin again, escorting G4M bombers on long missions. This time the opponents were Spitfire Vic’s of the 1st RAAF wing. Once again they bested their enemies, the Spitfire pilots allowing themselves to be drawn into the circling combat that was the Zero's forte.
After this campaign, the 202 Kokutai was taken off operations for a time. Split up and distributed among the Central Pacific islands, gradually the units were chewed up and dispersed, disappearing into the maw of the now Allied meat-grinder. In their prime they were a top notch outfit. Many photos of these planes at their newly won bases were published in the Japanese papers, a symbol of the Empire at full flood.
Kaneyoshi "Kinsuke" Muto
Parallel to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked the Philippines. On 8 December 1941 Muto, flying with the 3rd Air Group, took part in the attacks on Iba Airfield and Clark Airfield to eliminate the immediate threat of American air power.
Muto fought further air battles in the Java Sea, in the Solomon Islands, and in New Guinea. He fought alongside Saburo- Sakai through mid-1944 on the island of Iwo Jima, surviving to be called by Sakai "the toughest fighter pilot in the Imperial Navy."
In December 1944, Muto was posted to the Japanese Home Islands to join Captain Minoru Genda in his 343rd Air Group formed to defend against Boeing B-29 Superfortress attacks. Muto has also been identified as a tactics instructor with the Yokosuka Air Group, based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in early 1945. There, Muto flew a powerful Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden, a type codenamed "George" by the Americans. At that time, he and his wife Kiyoki were expecting a child.
On 16 February 1945, Muto and at least nine fellow airmen scrambled to meet an incoming flight of enemy fighters. The Japanese fighters were a mixed group of Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, J2M Raidens, and Kawanishi Shidens such as the one Muto flew. The latter two types were heavily armed, each carrying four 20 mm Type 99 cannon. The enemy was a group of seven U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcats flying from the aircraft carrier Bennington. The Americans were well-trained but this was their first combat, and the Japanese veteran pilots shot down four without loss to themselves. Two of the Americans were killed in action and two were taken prisoner of war.
After the squadron of Japanese pilots landed at Yokosuka, newspaper reporters wrote about Muto alone, ignoring the others in his flight. Muto was said to have fought a dozen Hellcats alone, splashing four in the ocean and chasing the others away. They compared him to the legendary Samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, thrusting and attacking with a fighter aircraft rather than a sword. Muto's wife read these triumphant reports while recovering from the birth of their daughter. The story of Muto flying alone was the one related by Genda to Norman Polmar, U.S. Navy historian, and to Masatake Okumiya, Jiro Horikoshi and Martin Caidin, who co-authored the book Zero!
Muto continued to serve in combat, defending Japan against American forces such as in March 1945 when aircraft from Task Force 58 flew over Shikoku. In June he was posted to the 343rd Air Group, 301st Squadron commanded by veteran ace Naoshi Kanno. A recovered and preserved Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden, possibly flown by Muto
On 24 July 1945, over the Bungo Channel, Muto and other pilots scrambled to attack a larger group of American fighters which turned out be VF-49 Hellcats, part of Task Force 38 supporting the bombing of Kure. Greatly outnumbered, Muto was shot down and never seen again. Takashi Oshibuchi, the commander of the 701st Squadron, was also among the six veteran Japanese airmen who did not return from the violent action.