Originally designed as a three-seat, daylight escort fighter plane by the Nakajima Aeroplane Company, Ltd., and flown in 1941, the IRVING was modified as a night fighter in May of 1943 and shot down two American B-17 bombers to prove its capability. The Gekko (meaning moonlight) was redesigned to hold only two crewmen so that an upward firing gun could be mounted where the observer once sat. Nearly five hundred J1N1 aircraft, including prototypes, escort, reconnaissance, and night fighters were built during World War II. A sizeable number were also used as Kamikaze aircraft in the Pacific. The few that survived the war were scrapped by the Allies.
This J1N1 is the last remaining in the world. It was transported from Japan to the U.S. where it was flight tested by the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1946. The Gekko then flew to storage at Park Ridge, IL, and was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. The restoration of this aircraft, completed in 1983, took more than four years and 17,000 man-hours to accomplish.
Nakajima Hikoki K. K. J1N1-S Gekkos were the first Japanese aircraft designed and built specifically to intercept and destroy other aircraft at night and in poor weather. Gekkos achieved some notable successes during three years of service with the Japanese Navy. This design took shape in 1938 not as a night interceptor, but as a long-range fighter that could protect bombers. During the war with China, Japanese naval pilots complained of excessive bomber losses to Chinese fighters based beyond the range of Japanese fighters. The navy issued specifications to both Mitsubishi and Nakajima for a 3-seat, twin-engined escort fighter. The aircraft's speed must be at least 518 kph (322 mph) and it had to have a normal range of 2,410 km (1,496 miles) and a maximum range of 3,706 km (2,302 miles). Armament must include forward-firing cannon and machine guns plus a flexible gun to defend against tail attacks. The most important specification ultimately defeated the whole concept. The aircraft had to maneuver well enough to successfully engage single-engine fighters.
The Nakajima design, called the J1N1 and crafted by engineer Katsuji Nakamura, most readily met the navy's requirements and a prototype was flight-tested in May 1941. In the two years since the navy's original demand, Mitsubishi had developed and placed into service the Zero fighter (also in the NASM collection) and this superlative airplane had solved the bomber escort problem. Nakajima nonetheless forged ahead and flew a J1N1 prototype May 2. A year-and-a-half of flight tests proved beyond doubt that this aircraft was inferior to single-engine fighters. Except for range and takeoff distance, the type failed to meet any requirements in the 1938 specifications. The Germans also foolishly clung to the escort fighter concept. Early in the war, Germany placed in service a multi-engine, multi-seat escort fighter similar to the J1N1, the Messerschmitt Bf-110. It too failed disastrously in 1940 during the Battle of Britain when opposed by single-engine, single-seat Hurricane and Spitfire fighters. Like Nakajima, Messerschmitt salvaged this design when they transformed it into a successful night fighter.
The Japanese Navy took an interim step, however, before testing the J1N1 in night operations. The navy authorized Nakajima engineers to convert the design into a high-speed, long-range, naval reconnaissance aircraft based on land. Sweeping changes to the airframe, engines, and armament made the aircraft more reliable and suitable for the new mission. Between April 1942 and March 1943, Nakajima delivered just fifty-four of the new model, the J1N1-C, including four prototypes. U. S. forces first encountered the aircraft during early operations in the Solomon Islands and codenamed it the IRVING. The J1N1-Cs served in limited numbers and flew primarily from the great Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. The base was a regular target for night-flying U. S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses (see NASM collection). Sometime in the spring of 1943, Commander Yasuna Kozono ordered a J1N1-C modified for night interceptor work. Maintenance crews cleaned out the observer's position behind the pilot and mounted two 20 mm cannon fixed to fire above and to the front of the new night fighter at a 30-degree angle. Two more cannons were mounted in similar fashion but fired downward. The experimental airplane was designated the J1N1-C KAI.
On the night of May 21, the modified IRVING intercepted and shot down a pair to B-17 bombers. This immediate success caught the attention of the Naval Staff and they ordered Nakajima to begin full-scale production. The new interceptor was named the J1N1-S Gekko (Moonlight). At this time, no one in Allied intelligence circles expected the Japanese to field an effective night fighter and months passed before anyone discovered what lay behind a string of regular and mysterious losses of both B-17s and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers.
Nakajima concentrated on producing the Gekko version of the J1N for the remainder of the war.
In the summer of 1944, U. S. Marine and U. S. Army infantry divisions captured the Mariana Islands during several months of vicious combat. This important victory provided air fields from which to attack all the important Japanese cities and industrial targets in the home islands. U. S. Army Air Forces crews flying Boeing B-29 Superfortresses began flying daylight, precision bombing raids against Japan in November. In January, tactics changed to night, low-altitude attacks and the Gekko was one of many types of Japanese night fighters pressed into defending the homeland. There were some spectacular missions flown by IRVING crews but overall, Japan's night interceptors achieved limited results. The B-29 cruised approximately 80 kph (50 mph) faster than either the B-17 or B-24. Gekko crews usually could rarely make more than a single pass at the fast Superfortresses. Lt. Sachio Endo was credited with destroying eight B-29s and damaging another eight before he fell to the gun crews of a B-29. Another Gekko crew shot down five B-29s in one night but these combat successes were rare. Japan's night fighter forces were no match for the overwhelming number of B-29s with their great speed and defensive firepower. Escorting Allied fighter aircraft also took their toll. Many IRVINGs were shot down, destroyed on the ground, or expended during Tokko missions. Tokko is the Japanese term for Special Purpose Attackers, known in the West as kamikaze attacks. By war's end, Nakajima had built 486 Gekkos. Although the IRVING night fighter was an able night fighter, there were never enough to significantly impact the air war.
The NASM J1N1-S Gekko is the only one remaining today. Following the occupation of the home islands, U. S. forces gathered 145 interesting Japanese aircraft and sent them to the United States aboard three aircraft carriers. Four IRVINGs were in this group: three captured at Atsugi and one from Yokosuka. Serial Number 7334, the aircraft from Yokosuka, was given Foreign Equipment number FE 3031 (later changed to T2-N700). It eventually joined the Smithsonian's growing collection but the other three IRVINGs were scrapped.
Records show that after arriving aboard the "USS Barnes," air intelligence officials assigned '7334 to Langley Field, Virginia, on December 8, 1945. The airplane moved on to the Air Materiel depot at Middletown, Pennsylvania, on January 23, 1946. The Maintenance Division at Middletown prepared the Gekko for flight tests, overhauling the engines and replacing the oxygen system, radios, and some flight instruments with American equipment. Mechanics completed this work by April 9. The Navy transferred '7334 to the Army in early June, and an army pilot flew the Gekko on June 15, 1946, for about 35 minutes. At least one other test flight took place before the Army Air Forces flew the fighter to Park Ridge, Illinois, for museum storage.
The collection of museum aircraft at Park Ridge numbered more than 60 airplanes when the war in Korea forced the United States Air Force to move it to the site we now call the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The IRVING was dumped outside in a large shipping crate until buildings became available in 1974. In 1979, NASM staff selected IRVING for restoration. Only the second Japanese airplane to receive the skilled attentions of NASM restoration craftsmen, this rare airframe was actively corroding in many places. It was only the second Japanese aircraft restored by NASM, after the Mitsubishi Zero completed in 1976. At that time, it was the largest and most complex aircraft restoration project NASM had undertaken. Work started on September 7, 1979, and ended December 14, 1983, following 17,000 hours of meticulous, dedicated labor. It stands today as the sole remaining example of Japan's night-fighting Gekkos.