Aviation's War Communique No 2

Japan's superiority in the air rests mainly on numbers. One lesson learned is the difficulty in recognizing enemy aircraft and our own under war conditions.

Main theater of action in the world war is still in Russia, although winter cold slowed both Russian and German air forces. The United States hardly remembers that we are at war with Germany, because of excitement over initial setbacks against the Japanese.

The public is dismayed over apparent Jap air strength, and the question most often asked of Aviation's editors is: Why didn't the Army and Navy know that the Japs had all those planes? Why were people allowed to believe that Japan would be a pushover?

There is no single answer, but there are several. The Army is sometimes wrong, like other people. The Army's Intelligence Division insisted that the Russian army couldn't last more than a few weeks against the Germans. It was wrong. Army never said, officially, that the Japs would be easy. Officers did, privately. And editors, and columnists did. And the public added its own wishes to complete whatever distortion of fact there was.

However, the distortion is not as bad as it seems to some. The Japs have control of the air in the Philippines, and near control in the Malay Peninsula, but that is because they are unopposed.

The British do not yet have enough airplanes in the East to drive the enemy out. The United States is far superior to the Japs in carrier-based planes, but the Navy balance of power is such, at this time, that the carriers cannot run the risk of getting close enough to shoot their planes at the enemy in the Philippines in support of General MacArthur. The Japs have established air bases there, and they have the advantage of nearby bases of their own in Hong Kong and the island of Formosa, both about 600 miles distant.

The Navy's unfavorable balance against Japan is brought about, of course, by war in the Atlantic against Germany. What the balance of aircraft carriers is cannot be told. The United States has seven carriers, each carrying about 80 planes to the Jap's 40 each. Japan has been converting various ships to carriers, and no doubt now has more than the seven or eight commonly supposed. One thing you can assume for sure there is a full steam carrier-building and -converting race on between the two countries.

It looks like a carrier war in the air in the Pacific, when both sides settle down to death grips. But it will be interesting to watch, as the fight goes on, whether land-based craft will steal the show. There's lots of water and long distances. But long range bombers can handle many of the trips.

Getting back to the comparative hitting power of the US and the Japs, there is no doubt as to the superiority of American and British planes. And as to capacity to build planes, the Allies can achieve a rate, in 1942, far in excess of Japan.

With a production rate of 5000 to 8000 a month during 1942, the Allies would have a tremendous advantage over Japan, whose production will be 500 a month at the outside. But the picture is not so bright as that. British and American planes must be distributed to fighting spots all over the world. You can assume only that allocations to the East will be superior to Japan in 1942. Japan has the advantage of being able to keep all her planes from either of her allies, who have none to spare, and no way to get them there.

What happens when Jap and American planes meet is well shown in fighting over the Burma road, which is patrolled by Americans in early models of the Curtis P-40. The Japs appear to be no match for the Americans at all.

Just what equipment the Japs have apparently is not yet entirely known to the Army and Navy. Both have issued silhouettes to help Naval and Air forces to recognize them, but the record does not seem to be complete. From a fairly diligent collection of silhouettes, photographs, reports from Chinese generals, and the like, it appears that Japan has a complete line of fighters, scouts, light bombers, dive bombers, medium bombers, and two or three types of transports. Apparently the Army and Navy both use the same types, in some cases. Most of the types are air-cooled, but two or three liquid-cooled designs are discernible.

The Japanese appear to have four or five biplanes, among the light combat planes, which might indicate designs several years old. Whereas the United States is tending toward high- and mid-wing design the last few years, the Japs have stuck pretty much to low-wing. They have quite a number of types with fixed landing gear, indicating old design, but they also have several clean, up-to-the-minute looking ships.

Eye witnesses at Pearl Harbor say they saw Messerschmitt 109s, and the Navy officially said that some four-motored bombers appeared. It still is supposed that these were Focke-Wulfs. The Japanese no doubt built the Messerschmitts, if they have them, and they may have built the Focke-Wulfs. It is known that they intended to try four-engined planes, for they bought the big DC-4 several years ago with that obvious intent.

Wallace Carroll, and newspaper men who visited Honolulu just after the initial attack, wrote that the Japs have good air-cooled engines, built under foreign patents, and that some of the planes have belly tanks of reserve fuel, which can be dumped if and when they are attacked. Sources in Pearl Harbor told him that one of the Jap planes had an extremely long range. One of this type was shot down in China in the Spring of 1941, and was discovered to have two 20-mm cannon, and two machine guns, more armament than American planes had at that time.

The size of Japanese air offensives in time will give some clue to the air force at their command. For instance, on several different days, around 60 planes came over the American fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Once a force of 80 flew over the Burma Road. This is the force that was attacked by three Americans in P-40s with such amazing results.

Urging his command to emulate the fearless Captain Colin P.Kelly, who sank a battleship, General Henry H Arnold, Chief of the Air Forces, stated that AAF has been called upon "to meet so many different missions, in so many different theaters of war, with such an extreme disparity of equipment…." This was the nearest we got to a factual, official, statement on the number of American planes involved.

In this same statement, Gen Arnold said Kelly and his crew "proved that the most powerful naval vessels afloat cannot operate with impunity within the range of our bombers…."

One lesson bitterly learned in this war, it is becoming known, is the difficulty of knowing by sight all types of enemy aircraft, to avoid shooting friends and to avoid letting the enemy pass unmolested. Stories of dreadful mistakes are cropping up all the time — being admitted privately by war officials.

Japs Take Chances

There is nothing new on ability of the Japs as pilots, except that they have displayed good marksmanship. This seems partly due to the fact that they are willing to take chances by going low. In Manila they barely skimmed the housetops, although that was no trick, since the place was hors de combat. Most of the American pilots were liquidated there, early in the attack.

Air work placed an important part in the magnificent defense of Wake Island by the Marines. It is reported they had 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats at the start, and that most of them were out of commission or destroyed during the last long pull.

We have no detailed reports as yet, but indications are that cold on the Russian front slowed air operations down like molasses in January. It is one thing to put heaters on engines and start them on your nice comfortable field, and quite another to get going on the howling tundras. It must be particularly difficult for the Germans who have to use ersatz gas and oil, both of which, we are informed, misbehave badly at low temperatures.

Air operations continue to point up the world war. This is enjoyed only by the air arms. Hardshell officers, in both Army and Navy, have to go through the agony of changing their convictions or being court-martialed. It makes the Administration trouble, because Congressmen and editors and columnists keep hollering for a separate air command. Strategically it embarrasses commanders on land, and especially on sea, on both sides, because they fail in their objectives while keeping clear of airplanes. On the other hand all governments and military authorities have trouble keeping people from believing that airplanes alone can win wars.

On the South American front, Brazil pinned the last Axis airline to the ground; only Argentina and Chile still communed with the Germans, and that seemed to be weakening. Meanwhile, the Administration, with Grant Mason added to its anti-Axis staff, went to the Rio conference, determined to promote a Pan American air system that will squeeze out any Old Worlders, and more important, build trade in this hemisphere.

In Washington, the big and small fry buzzed for weeks about the President's call for 60,000 airplanes this year, and 125,000 next year. Everybody had his own ideas, except on two points: all agreed it would be easier to make the second year's assignment than the first; and they all agreed that it was just a matter of time, and not much of that, as history goes.

In the matter of airplane design policy, you can find out a thing or two, if you look diligently, but you can't print it without getting into trouble. In general, the Services are actually standardizing on types of planes now. There are 15, more or less, major types destined for heavy production. Watch the news reports day by day and you will see a couple or three airplanes drop out of the picture.

Air Transport Problems

Air transport received fair assurance that the Administration does not intend to take it over, but it has many troubles ahead; shifting planes to special defense missions; lending planes to the Army; searching passengers and their luggage; detouring important military and industrial works; trying to get rate increases for higher costs; turning away old customers for upstart bigwigs who will disappear with peace; rigging up some kind of seat priorities system.

And last, but not least, because the Civil Air Patrol will be bigger, they say, than the Army and Navy air forces combined, private aviation got a job. Practically everybody with airplanes, or just a flare for them, can get into CAP, and maybe a uniform.

This article was originally published in the February, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 2 pp 78-79, 305.
The original article includes a photo of a Grumman Wildcat and a pair of maps showing the Pacific Theater and the South China Sea region.
Photo not credited; maps credited to Aviation.