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The fighters of the Bushido Code

By Sakhal

Maybe the only thinking of many pilots of the Kuomintang or North Americans before crashing on the Chinese rice fields were for those who, months or weeks before, had affirmed that the Japanese fighters were only bad copies of the western models. Even more, that the very Japanese were gregarious little men lacking any initiative. During quite long time, the Allied pilots lived immerse in a totally false idea about what the conflict in the Far East was, which they considered, as its very name said, far, which would provide for easy downings, adventure, money and good gin. The dream, however, was soon broken when the fighters "Buffalo", and later the P-39 and P-40, started to fall by dozens, downed by some Japanese aviators that resulted to be much more fearsome than the propaganda had made to believe. And the worst was not that, as from an extreme pessimism it could seem, the Japanese had discovered the definitive and invulnerable combat aircraft (even if momentarily it seemed like that), but that it was a different conception of the combat and the pilotage that had nothing to do with what had been practiced in the West. For the Japanese, the air combat was only a matter of maneuverability, even if due to the aerodynamic finesse that they applied to their designs, their aircraft were also quite fast.

The truth is that among the engineers abounded the classicism, and a good proof of that was the beautiful silhouette of the Nakajima Ki-43 "Hayabusa", an elegant design by Hideo Itokawa destined to serve as interceptor fighter in the Imperial Army. During its development, Itokawa had to patiently convince the receivers of his future aircraft - who were even more conservative if possible - about the necessity of incorporating a retractile landing gear, which was not very easy, considering that the mentality of those pilots was still anchored in the open cockpits and the faired wheels. When, finally, it effectuated its first flight, in January 1939, it showed itself as an excellent fighter which followed the formula of everything that had been formerly designed in Japan, this is, extremely polished lines, a radial engine of about 1000-1100 horsepower and a rather low general weight. However, despite of its excellent flight characteristics, the "Hayabusa" suffered certain development problems, mainly regarding control, for some pilots complained about "heaviness" in the controls, which led Itokawa to widen the lift surface to keep the wing loading and hence the maneuverability, within certain limits. Later, he installed the so called "combat flaps", a Japanese innovation whose excellences would reach even the era of the "Phantom" on its variant F-4E.

In the simulated combats, and in the non-simulated ones that would come very soon, the "Hayabusa" showed itself as superior to everything in front of it... with the exception of the very new Mitsubishi "Zero", which engineer Jiro Horikoshi had just developed for the Imperial Navy and which had made its first flight the 1st April 1939. Both fighters had a similar external appearance, albeit the "Zero" was projected with a naval mentality and hence with criteria regarding operational range much wider than in a fighter based in land, as the "Hayabusa", even if the range of this one was also quite notable. For many historians and for the military analists of that time, it constituted a mystery the reason for the large diversity of parallel developments in the Imperial Japan, but the response was not simple unless deepening in the mysterious conception of the military industry in the country of the Rising Sun. The Army not only had its own industries, its own factories and its own engineers, but also its own exclusive and untransferable tools, and the same happened with the Navy, which often led to the nonsense of facing parallel problems with parallel solutions that led to practically identical aircraft product of specifications that were doubled and triplicated absurdly. Above all, because the premises of design were always the same that the Bushido Code marked: the predominace of agility, intelligence and dexterity over armor; fighting bare-chested, in a nutshell.

From that perspective, entering a "dogfight" against a well piloted "Zero" was like going towards a complete disaster, for it supposed to fight against the most maneuverable fighter in the world which, besides, was lightened by the absence of any armor to protect the pilot, who, generally, despised such protection means. The "Zero", below 290 kilometers/hour was absolutely invincible, for the finesse of its design, its aerodynamical penetration - slightly increased by the fact that it was lacquered instead of simply painted - and a low wing loading made this aircraft able torevolve within the boundaries of a kerchief. Which took some time to be known, until the first "Zero" was captured in the Aleutian Islands, were the manning problems at relatively high speeds; how the controls of the aircraft became harder and harder as the anemometer surpassed the 300 kilometers/hour, to the point that at 390 kilometers/hour it was almost impossible to try a well executed slow barrel roll... Obviously no weapon is definitive and the "Zero" would not constitute an exception to the rule, albeit in the first months of the conflict, a good number of months, it had become a true exterminating angel for the American fighters. In time, and above all when very powerful fighters as the "Hellcat", "Lightning" and "Mustang" were entering service, the motto that was imparted to the new crews that had to face the Japanese was always the same: to conserve speed, and in no case face the "Zero" at short distance accepting its game.

Indeed, if the speed was preserved this forced the "Zero" to fight without being able to exploit its supreme advantage, which was the maneuverability. Besides, the so light construction devised by Jiro Horikoshi was soon exploited by the very robust Grumman "Hellcat", which feeling prosecuted by the "Zero" did not doubt to start a violent dive to then exit it with a violent turn, extreme maneuver of a high loading factor that, if it was followed in the same terms by the Japanese aviators (increasingly younger and inexpert during the late part of the war) ended with the breaking of the wings in the air. This, however, took time to happen. In the moment of its introduction into combat, the "Zero" marked a true milestone in History: it meant the first time that a naval fighter resulted distinctly superior than a land-based one; and above all, the first time that a fighter could operate normally at almost 2000 kilometers from its base, a totally unheard thing considering that the Messerschmitt Bf 109E which escorted their bombers from France to England had sometimes to leave them to their fate because of lack of fuel. A situation that soon later would be reversed when the "Spitfire" escorted their bombers into Germany. Sometimes, when following the guidelines of Anglo-Saxon historians it seemed like no single-engined fighters existed that could operate at long distances until the apparition of the "Mustang" and the "Thunderbolt". And it was not like that. Jiro Horikoshi had achieved it before, by following the guidelines of the Bushido Code: agility rather than armor.

The fighters of the Bushido Code

The Mitsubishi "Zero" of Saburo Sakai

Surpassed only by the scores of their German and Finnish counterparts, the records of the four main fighter pilots of the Japanese Imperial Aeronaval Force were the result of the superiority of the fighters piloted by the Japanese in the Pacific during the first part of the Second World War. In the spearhead of that excellent class was the splendid Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero-Sen", which was the aircraft mainly piloted by Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Tetsuzo Iwamoto, Shoichi Sugita and Saburo Sakai. This latter wrote: "The Zero excited me as no other thing did before. It was the most sensitive aircraft that I ever piloted; the slightest pressure from the fingers caused an instant response." Born the 26th August 1916 within a humble family, Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Navy at the age of 16 as a simple mariner, but he presented himself to tasks related to aviation in 1937, when he achieved the rank of third-class officer. He entered combat for the first time during the campaign in China in 1938-39, destroying then a Polikarpov I-16 over Hankow. His following victory, also over China, did not happen until August 1941. Piloting a "Zero" at the beginning of the war in the Pacific, Sakai downed the first American aircraft that fell downed during the campaign in Philippines, when he destroyed a Boeing B-17D "Flying Fortress" piloted by Captain Collin Kelly from the 14th Bomber Squadron of the 19th Bomber Group, over Clark Field, the 8th December 1941.

Sakai was sent to fight in the air campaign unleashed over Java in the early 1942 and, before getting ill in March, he had reached a record of 13 victories, including two "Hurricane" and four "Buffalo". He returned to the operations theater three months later, being incorporated to the Tainan Kokutai in Lae, New Guinea. He was assigned to the small squadron led by Lieutenant Junishi Sasai, a small group of pilots that would become the unit with the absolute record of victories in the entire front of the Pacific; apart from Sasai (27 victories), the group included Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (87 victories), Toshio Ota (34 victories) and Toraichi Takatsuka (16 victories). Their opponents were almost all outdated models of American aircraft such as the Grumman F4F "Wildcat", Bell P-39 "Airacobra" and Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk", piloted by young inexpert aviators, and the Japanese simply swept them from the air space over New Guinea. The personal record of Sakai progressed fast, and in the early August he had reached already 57 victories, the highest record, for the time being, achieved by any pilot in the war in the Pacific.

The 8th August, the small squadron of Sakai departed for a long mission with full load of fuel to take part in the fight as support for the Japanese forces that engaged the American Marines in the landings at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. Joining the combat against the American bombers and fighters, Sakai put out of action two "Wildcat" and a Douglas SBD "Dauntless" before engaging a small squadron of Grumman TBF "Avenger". He downed two of them, but the defensive fire from the American bombers hit his "Zero", severely hurting Sakai in head and face. Despite the terrible pain and the loss of vision in an eye, the heroic pilot managed to return his damaged aircraft to Lae. He was immediately sent, discharged, to Japan, where he remained away from the front until 1944. From that moment he took part only in some operations due to the loss of an eye.

The fighters of the Bushido Code

Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" from the Tainan Kokutai of the Japanese Imperial Navy, piloted by first-class officer Saburo Sakai in July 1942. Wingspan: 12 meters; length: 9.06 meters; height: 3.05 meters; engine: Nakajima Sakae 12 of 940 horsepower; maximum speed: 535 kilometers/hour; service ceiling: 10000 meters; operational range: 1870 kilometers; armament: two Type 99 20 millimeters cannons and two Type 97 7.7-millimeter machine guns, plus two 60-kilogram bombs.

Categories: Aviation - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-07-11

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