In the early days of the war in the Pacific, American Army and Navy flyers paid with their lives because our Intelligence services did not know in advance that the Japs' Zero fighter plane could out-climb and out-maneuver the best of ours in service at the time.
It is no military secret that the performance of the Zero, or "Navy Naught" as it is sometimes called, had American strategists worried and still is a matter of grave concern not only to the strategists but to the pilots who have to tackle them in the air.
However, in a carefully-guarded little room in the Navy Department building in Washington, where the combat reports of our pilots and all sorts of related air intelligence are given meticulous study, one of the analysts folded bony fingers which once had manipulated the controls of many a Navy battle plane and summed the situation up in one sentence.
"All we hope," he said, "is that the Japs will just keep on building Zeros."
There you have the Navy's attitude toward the menace of the fabulous Jap plane, flamboyantly dubbed the "wonder plane" by headline writers impressed by initial reports of its prowess. The Navy knows the Zero is tough but it also knows its many weak spots and feels secure in the knowledge that American flyers have held their own in the majority of contacts with the Zeros and that, when armed with the latest type of fighters already coming off the assembly lines, they will have unquestioned mastery.
Such optimism may sound like nothing but wishful thinking, but actual combat operations have proved otherwise. Perhaps the hardest part of the fight was won when American pilots realized and accepted the obvious fact that, with the planes they had at hand, they could not "dog-fight" the Zeros and hope to get away with it. Consequently, although they were hopelessly outnumbered when they roared into battle over the Philippines and later over Java and Australia, they developed tactics designed to overcome the Zero's advantages in climb and maneuverability.
Knowing that their early model Curtiss P-40s, with service ceilings of barely 20,000 feet, were outclassed by the Jap fighters which could climb to 35,000 feet, the American flyers strove to capitalize on the superior speed and firepower of their ships. When the opportunity offered, they would make one "pass" at the Zeros, try to get home a good burst from their chattering .50-caliber machine guns and then break off the contact. No aerobatics dog-fighting tactics for them. Just the old hit-and-run method, and with their speed of around 350 mph, they could easily get away from the 315 mph Zeros. More often than not, fortunately, the stratagem worked and American fighter squadrons were able consistently to knock down more Zeros than they lost of their own planes. The trouble in those heartbreaking early days was that the Japs were able to withstand their losses in planes and keep on coming whereas the United Nations ultimately were forced to give up because they lacked the shipping (and the time) to bring in replacements for their plane losses.
When reports of the startling performance of the Zeros first began to trickle in from the Southwest Pacific, many erroneous impressions about the plane gained currency. One of the most widespread was that the Japs had slipped one over on the occidental world by building a plane chiefly of plastics and plywood while we still were talking about doing it.
Most of the fallacies have been disproved by this time as a result of careful examination of the wreckage of Zeros shot down in various combat zones. Complete performance data, of course, will not be available to our engineers until at least one of the Zeros is flown and tested thoroughly by an American pilot. This may not be long in coming, however, for one of the planes was captured virtually intact in Alaska recently. It was promptly crated and sent on its way to Wright Field or another of our aeronautical laboratories.
In the meantime, let's piece together a picture of the plane from the facts already known.
There's nothing mysterious about the Zero, actually. To build it the Japs pulled nothing out of the hat. They merely sacrificed certain characteristics which we, the British and the Germans long ago decided were indispensable to military aircraft. Chief among these are armor protection for the pilot and self-sealing gasoline tanks.
The Zero it is called that because Jap planes are designated by the final digit of the year in which they go into service, which was 1940, in the case of the Zero (or the year 2600, in the Japanese calendar) is a single-seater, low-wing monoplane. Its fuselage is a good quality of duralumin, although thinner than that used for American planes. An interesting feature of the fuselage design is that the wings and fuselage are in one piece. This means that there is no interchangeability of damaged wings in the case of the Zero. If a wing-tip is damaged, for instance, there's no such thing as slapping a new wing into its place. The whole fuselage of the Zero must be discarded.
Use of the one-piece design has the advantage of weighing less than the demountable wing type and it also can be manufactured faster. The weight factor probably was controlling in the Japs' decision to use the one-piece type because it contributed directly to the attainment of the two characteristics at which they evidently were aiming climb and maneuverability.
Lieut Col Boyd (Buzz) Wagner, one of the leading American combat pilots in Australia, had this to say of the Zero:
"It's not a wonder plane, but it has the respect of all our pilots."
Colonel Wagner praised particularly the Zero's "beautiful landing gear," which folds completely up into the fuselage, and the fact that the latter is flush-riveted throughout, thus making for very few protuberances which would create wind resistance.
The fly in the ointment the hole in the Zero, so to speak is its structural weakness and lack of protection for the pilot and gas tanks. American flyers repeatedly have found that a burst of .50-caliber fire will break the back of any Zero if it hits just behind the wings. It causes the fuselage to crumple at that point. On the other hand, American fighter planes consistently get back to their bases or carriers even though riddled with Jap machine gun and cannon fire. In that connection, it is pretty generally agreed that the Zero's inferior firepower is another of its major weaknesses.
Instead of the heavier .50-caliber machine guns upon which American airmen place their greatest dependence, the Japs use two 20-mm cannon, mounted one in each wing, and a pair of 7.7-mm machine guns, mounted in grooves atop the engine cowling and synchronized to fire through the propeller. That system is a holdover from World War I and had been discarded by most other air forces a long time ago, primarily because synchronization of fire with the propeller necessarily slows down the rate of fire.
The cannon used in the Zero is probably the Swiss Oerlikon gun, which both we and the British belatedly decided to adopt after it was found that the Nazis were wrecking British planes with a similar weapon. An ironical thing about this particular gun is that it was offered to the United States Army and Navy as far back as 1927 but they weren't interested, so the salesman went on to Japan where he had better luck!
Like the US Navy's carrier-based fighter planes, the Zero is powered by a radial engine a twin-row, 14-cylinder job which is very similar to a well-known American engine. It is somewhat less powerful, however, probably turning up between 950 and 1.000 hp.
The plane weighs between 4,500 and 5,100 pounds loaded and at normal flying weight it can do about 315 mph at 10,000 feet altitude. It has a service ceiling, however, of about 36,000 feet.
"They can go up like an express elevator," one American pilot said, almost wistfully, "and can turn on a thin dime."
The Mitsubishi company, one of Japan's largest manufacturing concerns, is credited with the Zero's development.
Many an American pilot, out-maneuvered by the Zeros, has returned to his base angrily declaiming about what he could do to those so-and-so's if he just had a plane that would perform like theirs. When air intelligence officers try to find out from those same pilots, however, just what they would be willing to sacrifice from their own planes to attain those characteristics„ the answer is almost invariably "not a thing." They all want the security of the armored seats and head rests, the self-sealing gasoline tanks that preserve precious fuel supplies even after being riddled with as many as 100 machine gun bullets. They all want their good two-way radio sets and their all-important navigation instruments. Even the Japs recognized the need for the latter and their Zeros have good instrument panels nothing unnecessary but nothing vital left out.
Oh, yes, the Zero is a doughty fighter, one not to be sneered at, but just to document the Navy's contention that it is by no means invincible, consider the battle record of Fighting Squadron 3, attached to the US aircraft carrier Yorktown. In four separate actions, three on the same day, during the Coral Sea and Midway battles, Squadron 3 bagged a record total of 54 Jap planes and probably downed 18 others in what the Navy called "the most decisive series of individual aircraft actions in the war to date."
Of the total, at least 22 of the Jap planes destroyed were Zeros. On the other hand, only two of Squadron 3's planes were shot down. Two others were lost at sea after running out of gas.
In its first brush with the enemy in the Coral Sea battle, Squadron 3, its pilots flying the Grumman Wildcat, shot down a total of 28 Jap planes, of which 14 were Zeros. No US planes were shot down in that action but it was after that fight that two of the American planes were forced down at sea for lack of fuel.
A few weeks later, when the Japs launched their powerful invasion thrust at Midway Island, Squadron 3 took the air on three separate occasions on June 4. Under command of Lieut Comm John S Thach, they roared of the Yorktown's flight deck to escort a squadron of torpedo planes bound for the enemy's fleet. En route, they were attacked by a formation of 20 of the deadly Zeros but when the shooting ended, the score was: Eight Jap fighters (Zeros) positively shot down and several others probably destroyed, as against two US fighters lost.
Later in the battle, when the Japs were dive-bombing the Yorktown with 18 dive-bombers protected by a similar number of Zeros, fighter combat patrols from Squadron 3 intercepted the attack and broke it up so completely that only four of the enemy planes were able to drop bombs.
In the squadron's third action that day, another attack on the Yorktown by 18 torpedo planes, each with a Zero escort, was hit so hard that only five enemy planes broke through.
More specific details on the results of those individual air battles have not yet been released but the Navy said it was definitely known that on June 4, Squadron 3 shot down a total of 26 enemy planes and probably downed 11 others.
The fact that only two of its planes were destroyed in three separate engagements, each time against superior numbers, demonstrates rather conclusively that Squadron 3's pilots were more than a match for the vaunted Zeros. Most Navy men say the superior training given our pilots is largely responsible for such brilliant showings as Squadron 3 made against the enemy, even when the latter's weapons are superior in some respects.
Nor are victories over the Zeros confined to Navy flyers.
Correspondents attached to Gen Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Australia reported recently that in one month, Allied airmen in that theater shot down 61 Jap planes, all but seven of them being the highly touted Zeros. In the same period, the American, Australian and other United Nations flyers lost only five of their own fighters and eight bombers.
The 61 Jap planes listed as shot down do not include those "probably destroyed" or those destroyed on the ground in attacks on Jap airfields. Many of the former doubtless will never fly again because of their structural fragility.
In discussing this particular demonstration of Allied superiority over Jap airmen, a United Press correspondent attributed it to a number of factors:
He told of pilots at one base, for instance, experimenting with hooking a Flying Fortress engine on a Douglas A-24 single-engined scout plane and dive bomber. Although the result was an over-powered plane which was a nose-heavy "maverick," the flyers learned something from the experiment.
The encouraging thing about reports of Army and Navy victories in the air is that if the Allied flyers, using admittedly inferior planes Grumman Wildcats, Curtiss P-40's or Bell Airacobras can achieve such results, what can we expect when such new battleplanes as Republic's mighty P-47 Thunderbolt, with its 2,000-hp radial engine which enables it to outperform the Zero at top altitudes and at speeds in excess of 400 mph, reach our combat squadrons in large numbers?
With those and other equally good planes going into service, it is easy to understand the Navy analyst's meaning when he said:
"All we hope is that the Japs will just keep on building Zeros!"
This article was originally printed in the November, 1942, issue of Flying magazine, vol 31, no 5, pp 25-26, 90-91.
The original article includes 4 photos and an artist's rendering.
Photos are not credited.