aviation in World War 2

the Flying Tigers
Battle of Midway
Pearl Harbour (Japanese view)
Jimmy Doolittle raid
the Atom Bomb

War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbour to Midway

Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

The United States was caught by surprise on the morning of December 7, 1941, when 365 aircraft—bombers, fighters, and torpedo aircraft—attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and sank or severely damaged eighteen warships, destroyed or damaged 347 aircraft, and left 2,403 dead on the ground.

The reaction of the United States was outrage at this undeclared act of war, and the United States declared war on Japan the next day. Three days later, Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the United States, making the conflict truly a world war. At the time of Pearl Harbour, the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet was out on manoeuvers and thus escaped attack.

However, the effect of the Pearl Harbour attack was to bring the United States and Japan into a closer state of military parity. Although the attack, and the December 13 attack on the U.S. airfields in the Philippines (which somehow also came as a surprise), gave Japan the momentary edge, and the United States would be involved in a theatre of war on the other side of the globe, the industrial output of the United States would clearly make up the shortfall in a year or so.

Naval photograph documenting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, which initiated U.S. participation in World War II. Navy's caption: Abandoning ship aboard the USS California after the ship had been set afire and started to sink from being attacked by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941.

The strategy of the Japanese government in 1941, as it had been twice before in the century, was to fight a limited war until it gained its objectives, and then dig in. The attacks on Pearl Harbour and the Philippines were designed to buy the time needed to create new boundaries in the Pacific.

Jumbled mass of wreckage of the U.S. destroyers Downes (left) and Cassin (right), Pearl Harbour.

That the war turned into a contest to the death was due in part to the unwillingness of the Japanese military and the American political leadership to think in such equivocal terms. The  fighter aircraft that Japan used to achieve early control of the skies were, as has been pointed out, derived from American and British designs (the Germans were much more circumspect about sharing their technology with their Japanese allies), but the designers at the chief manufacturers—Aicihi, Kawanishi, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, and Nakajima—took those ideas and pushed then in new directions that astounded aircraft designers the world over.

Moreover, unlike the Germans, the Japanese kept developing their aircraft and creating innovative designs. In fact, sometimes new models of older fighters (like the A6M3, a new model of the A6M) were given new designations because they looked like new airplanes even to trained observers.

The greatest of these fighters, on a par with the Spitfire and the Bf 109, was the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, identified officially by the Allies as “Zeke,” but known throughout the war as the Zero. The Zero had a manoeuvrability that seemed physically impossible to American  pilots; finding its weakness became a top priority.

Painstakingly (and sometimes heroically), pieces of downed Zeros were recovered and brought to Wright Field in Day ton, Ohio, and pieced together. The engineers found that the engine was  modelled on an old Pratt & Whitney that had been abandoned because of difficulty it had in diving, and that the plane had virtually no protective armour. The strategy developed for fighting Zeros was to avoid engagements at close range, to attack from above, forcing it to dive, its most vulnerable flight phase, and to use wide-area explosives that would disable the aircraft with even a glancing hit.

The key to the defeat of the Japanese air force was not in the tactics used against the Zero, but in the limited capacity of Japan to manufacture planes to replace those downed. Of the five important Japanese fighters deployed during the war, the Zero was produced in the greatest numbers, but production reached only about 10,500.

The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was the first air battle fought exclusively between aircraft carriers that never saw each other. The United States lost the USS Lexington (shown, with the crew abandoning ship as ordered) with thirty-three planes aboard, but the Japanese were thwarted in their attempt to capture Port Mores by, New Guinea, which would have cut off Australia from the American fleet.

Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”

Nakajirna Ki 27 “Nate”

 Kawasaki  “Tony”

Outnumbered in the air three-to-one, the Japanese were fighting a losing battle the minute the United States entered the war. Two different philosophies informed the production of Japanese planes during the war. That the Japanese military supported both and gave proponents of each free rein to develop, make their mistakes, and come back with new machines showed intellectual fortitude, during what was, after all, a time of war.

The one approach had its roots in the ancient martial disciplines in which the weapon was an extension of the warrior. The pilots of these aircraft were all steeped in the martial art of Kendo and practiced as much with bamboo Shinai as with their training aircraft. The Nakajima Ki 27 Nate, built in the mid 193Os, was a paradigm of economy and miniaturization: a wing span of only thirty-seven feet (11 in), a length of less than twenty-five feet (7.5m), and virtually nothing between the pilot and the air save a thin metal skin so loosely riveted that pilots felt the draft of the onrushing air while in flight.

The Ki 27 was manoseverable as few fighter aircraft before or since, and it remained in production throughout the early stages of the war. The design approach of the Ki 27, the brainchild of Hideo Itokawa and Yasumi Koyama, was carried forth into the Ki 43, a larger aircraft that maintained its predecessor’s agility, but at higher speeds. The plating protecting the plane was still tissue-thin and the weaponry was still minimal, but the plane had a larger cross- sectional area, all of which made the Ki 43 vulnerable (to some, more so than the Ki 27). The two Nakajima planes became the mainstays of the Japanese Army and were used throughout the Pacific for most of the war.

Meanwhile, the success of the navy’s A6M Zero, a decidedly Western airplane in conception, fostered the second design path the Japanese followed. The Zero gave rise to the Ki 61 Hien, a plane that melded the features of the Zero with those of the Polikarpov 1-16 used by the Soviets against the Japanese in 1939. The basic problem with the Ki 61 was its engine, a modified version of an outdated Daimler-Benz engine supplied by the Germans. The Ri 61 was most useful in defending Japanese targets against Allied bombers and fighters and in any area where it was likely to encounter ground fire or fire from enemy aircraft, resistance the other Japanese fighter could not withstand.

The two) basic approaches came together in he  Ri 84 Hayate, a Nakajima fighter designed by Yasumi Kovama that combined adequate protection and structure; significant armament, and as much of tile agility that the design could incorporate. “Frank” fighters entered the fighting in 1943  and some thirty-five-hundred were built, but it was too little too late to alter the course of the war significantly.

Coral Sea Battle (click to enlarge)

The Hayate was seen by experts as the best Japanese fighter of the war. In May and June of 1942, two battles, fought at great cost to both sides, marked the turning points in the war:  the Battle of the Coral Sea (fought May 2-8) and the Battle of Midway (fought June 4-.7). Both were called naval battles, but they were fought by ships that never saw one another and never, in fact, fired directly on an enemy naval vessel. In both battles, the objectives were very similar: the Japanese were seeking a foothold that would allow them to isolate Australia from the American fleet, and the Allies were determined to stop them.

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs on 4 June 1942. Dense smoke is from fires in her uptakes, caused by a bomb that punctured them and knocked out her boilers

Both battles ended with the Japanese being forced to retreat, but whereas the Japanese claimed victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea because the Americans sustained greater losses, no such claim was possible at Midway. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and more than 330 aircraft to the Americans’ losing only the Yorktown and 150 aircraft. Midway was also the first battle for the CV 6 Enterprise, a name that  was to become synonymous with excellence in naval aviation.

Midway Island battle map. (click to enlarge)