September 02, 2013

Twilight of the Zero

NHK recently ran a two-part documentary about the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, featuring interviews with Zero pilots. One point made very emphatically was how quickly the Zero's air superiority ended after Pearl Harbor.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Thanks to a Zero recovered nearly intact from the Aleutians, the Navy figured out (as Chennault had years earlier with the P-40) that the slower F4F Wildcat could easily outdive a Zero.

A Zero attempting to outdive a Wildcat, observed one Zero pilot, would "fall apart."

F4F pilots were explicitly instructed "not to dogfight." Instead, they employed a "boom and zoom" tactic called the "Thach Weave," which erased the Zero's once unapproachable 12:1 kill ratio and increased the F4F's to 6:1.

By Guadalcanal, Grumman F4Fs were picking away at Zero squadrons. Japanese air crews never recovered from this loss of talent. The Zero was a complex aircraft to manufacture and training pilots took time they didn't have.

Consequently, as early as the Solomon Islands campaign, which relied heavily on the Zero's extended cruising range (made possible in part by the lack of armor), "Most rookie Zero pilots didn't survive their first sortie."

As Hayao Miyazaki observes, "Structurally, the Zero was not designed for mass production."

By comparison, Grumman's fighters were designed to be relatively easy to build and maintain. The U.S. Navy converted old excursion steamers into freshwater aircraft carriers on the Great Lakes for training purposes.

The successor to the F4F, the F6F Hellcat, more than doubled the kill ration to 13:1. Zero pilots were amazed at how fast and rugged the F6F was. The Zero, by comparison, was a "cotton ball soaked in gasoline."

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

With its superior maneuverability, the Zero still had the edge in dogfights, so Hellcat pilots avoided dogfights and simply opened up the throttle. The more powerful F6F could out-dive and out-climb (at altitude) the Zero.

Unlike the Hellcat and the P-51 Mustang, the Zero's engine was never upgraded to counter new threats.

During the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, in what came to be called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the F6F racked up a staggering 40:1 kill ratio against all Japanese aircraft.

Japan was subsequently left with a carrier fleet that had no carrier aircraft and no pilots who could fly them in any case.

So the Zero was relegated to land-based kamikaze attacks. These inflicted the heaviest losses suffered by the U.S. Navy. However, the sinking of fewer than 50 ships in total had no material effect on the outcome of the war.

Except, ironically, to convince American military commanders, up to and including the president, that only the most extreme measures would convince the Japanese to surrender.

Interspersed throughout the NHK documentary was the dramatization of the life of a real Zero pilot. When he was KIA, the government had a memorial installed in front of his parents' house that paid tribute to his sacrifice.

No sooner had the war ended but the neighbors converged on the house, dug up the memorial, and unceremoniously threw it away.

Along with renowned Zero ace Saburo Sakai, the only question left on their minds was, "Who gave the orders for that stupid war?" The extraordinary fanaticism that fueled the conflict had surprisingly shallow roots.

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When quality came to Japan
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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# posted by Blogger Joe
9/02/2013 5:35 PM   
Turns out that "boom and zoom" was almost always the best air-to-air tactic. Unfortunately, that makes for poor drama.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
9/07/2013 7:32 PM   
And celebrating pilot prowess is better TV than touting engineering expertise.