Why the U.S. Air Force Could Not Touch Japan’s World War II Zero Fighter

July 3, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Imperial JapanWorld War IIPearl HarborWarZero Fighter

Why the U.S. Air Force Could Not Touch Japan’s World War II Zero Fighter

Reports of its exceptional performance and handling capabilities had been streaming in but were ignored by intelligence experts, who refused to believe that Japan could design or produce an aircraft even approaching American or European standards.

Here's What You Need to Remember: What the Americans found astonished them. The Zero was flight-tested against the most modern aircraft then in the U.S. inventory, namely the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Bell P-39 Airacobra, North American P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk, Grumman F4F Wildcat, and Chance Vought F4U Corsair. The Zero bested them all in range and maneuverability, but also betrayed its weaknesses.

The psychological and military shock that the Allies experienced when they first encountered Mitsubishi’s legendary A6M2 Zero fighter plane at the beginning of the Pacific War may be difficult to understand today. The Zero, while being a revolutionary design in itself, had in fact been flying and fighting in China for nearly two full years before the Western air forces encountered it in open combat in late 1941 and early 1942.

‘Made in Japan’ Can’t Be Any Good, Can It?

Reports of its exceptional performance and handling capabilities had been streaming in but were ignored by intelligence experts, who refused to believe that Japan could design or produce an aircraft even approaching American or European standards. It was not until a nearly intact example of the machine was recovered in the Aleutian Islands during the Midway campaign that aircraft designers and military experts were able to study the Zero closely and put it through a series of tests against the best designs the Allies had to offer.

With an example of the aircraft to study, Allied engineers began to discover the Zero’s strengths and weaknesses and to build newer, more modern aircraft capable of meeting and defeating it in aerial combat. It is not generally known that the Zero found in the Aleutians was not the first aircraft of this type to fall into Allied hands. The United States also had access to another Zero, which was obtained even before the raid on Pearl Harbor took place. The restorations of the two Zeros took place almost simultaneously and did much to contribute to the demise of the myth of invincibility that surrounded this remarkable airplane.

Firsts of Many Kinds for the “Zeke”

The Zero was the first all-metal, low-wing monoplane with an enclosed cockpit produced by any world power outside of the United States or Europe. It first flew on April 1, 1939. A product of Mitsubishi’s legendary designer Jiro Horikoshi, the Zero possessed unparalleled advantages of speed, maneuverability, handling, simplicity of design, and a then unheard of range of over 1,900 miles. It achieved this by sacrificing some features that were considered basic to American and European aircraft of the war, namely self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection for the pilot. This resulted in a low horsepower-to-weight ratio that made the new aircraft not only nimble but one of the lightest combat aircraft ever produced.

For a time, the Zero, or Zeke as it was known to the Allies, reigned supreme in the Pacific and ranged across the length and breadth of the world’s largest ocean. However, although it served throughout the war, its period of dominance was relatively brief. By mid-1942 such new designs as the American Chance Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat made the odds for a skilled American pilot more than even. The Zero was produced in greater numbers than any other Japanese aircraft, and modified versions of the design continued to see service until 1945.

Zero Out-Matches All Comers Over China

After a period of ground testing and evaluation, the Zero first saw service in China in July 1940, flying with the 12th Kokutai, or air wing, stationed there. Gradually replacing older, more obsolete aircraft, the Zero quickly racked up an impressive kill ratio against outdated Russian, American, and Chinese designs, many of which were antiquated biplanes. Piloted by experienced, battle-tested pilots, the aircraft soon came to dominate the skies over China.

Chinese pilots came to regard the Zero as invincible, treating it with such caution that the mere appearance of these aircraft would usually cause the Chinese to flee before an encounter could even take place. During the latter half of 1940, the Zero gained complete air superiority for Japan, destroying 59 Chinese planes in the air and another 101 on the ground without losing a single fighter to enemy fire.

In the opening months of 1941, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers, began encountering the Zero in dogfights. The American pilots, flying the nearly outdated Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, proved to be much tougher opponents than the Japanese had previously encountered. The Americans gradually learned that the Japanese pilots, though well trained, were not unbeatable. Reports of the Zero’s exceptional performance began to filter up to the AVG’s commander, Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault. When they were passed on to Washington, the reports were generally dismissed as exaggerated or impossible.

Western Arrogance Hinders American Pilots

Why this myopic mind-set? It largely stemmed from a belief that the Japanese were incapable of producing any aircraft more advanced than those of the Western powers. Japan, many believed, was simply producing poor copies of outdated American or European aircraft. An article titled “Japan Is Not an Airpower” appeared in the January 1941 issue of Flying & Popular Aviation magazine. It stated, “Japan’s military planes are so few and poor in comparison with other powers … largely because civil aviation there is in an extraordinarily low state of development. The experience of the Japanese people with mechanical gadgets is definitely limited. They have not yet gotten beyond merely imitating what others have done. At that they are the world’s finest, but imitativeness is little help in aeronautics … anything the Japanese obtain via the imitation route is bound to be three years old. With planes being the most complicated and highly developed type of machinery in existence, a certain amount of native ingenuity is required to make them work…. Japanese industry is not well adapted to the high degree of precision required in planes.”

The article then goes on to boldly state, “Someday, perhaps, the Japanese will have accumulated enough experience in a mechanical way to catch up, but that day will not come soon. Japan turns out a nation of blind patriots but gives only limited schooling in the mechanical arts. The general level of education in Japan is low. Their equipment is deficient. It takes a good educational system to turn out a nation of mechanics. Blind patriotism is undoubtedly pleasing to Japan’s rulers, but it doesn’t cut any ice with a 1,000 horsepower motor. Motors just don’t understand noble sentiments.”

Pearl Harbor Provides Rude Wakeup Call

In conclusion, the author stated that in numbers and quality Japan was a sixth-rate air power and that it would “not be adequate in the event of an encounter with a possible major opponent, such as the US or USSR.” However, a rude shock was in store. When this article appeared on newsstands across America, Pearl Harbor was but 10 months away.

The first inkling that the Japanese were able to come up with a first-rate, totally original design literally fell into American laps on November 26, 1941, the same day the Japanese carrier task force left home waters bound for Pearl Harbor. Two Japanese naval pilots, belonging to the 22nd Air Flotilla, flying from their base on Taiwan and bound for a new posting in Saigon, French Indochina, became separated from the rest of their squadron of 33 planes due to dense, low-lying fog. Short on fuel and unable to communicate with each other because their radios had been removed as a weight-saving measure to increase the flying range of their aircraft, they continued flying along their last compass heading.

Fateful Emergency Landing Delivers Pristine Zero to Allies

Before long the clouds parted and a beach adjacent to a small coastal village appeared below, and the relieved pilots circled and prepared to land. Flying Petty Officer First Class Shimezoh Inoue, a native of Fukuoka Prefecture, was piloting a Zero with serial number 3372 and marked V-172. His wingman, Flying Petty Officer Second Class Taka-aki Shimohigashi, from Kure in the Hiroshima Prefecture, flew a Zero with an unknown serial number marked V-174. The airmen had been scheduled to fly a southwesterly course to Hainan Island and then on to Saigon. They did not realize that they had crossed the straits separating Hainan from the Chinese mainland and had somehow ended up over the Liuchow Peninsula, near the town of Teitsan.

As they approached the beach, the fog cleared and both pilots brought their aircraft down. Inoue landed successfully, but Shimohigashi’s Zero was extensively damaged during the beach landing. The planes came to rest alongside each other, and the two men climbed from their cockpits to be met by a group of schoolchildren. They asked to be taken to a telephone so they could contact their base and were led to a local schoolhouse.

They were never seen again. Interviews with eyewitnesses after the war revealed that the pilots were then captured and that the local Chinese militia, perhaps recognizing the importance of their prize and wishing to preserve secrecy, summarily executed them. The undamaged Zero, Inoue’s, was pulled off the beach while Shimohigashi’s badly damaged aircraft was crudely hacked to pieces and moved piecemeal to remove it from view as quickly as possible. This was to prevent the Japanese from knowing about the capture of the two Zeros.