In 1937 the Imperial Japanese Navy issued a requirement for a new fleet fighter aircraft. The specifications seemed overambitious. Mitsubishi believed they could meet the specifications with the Mitsubishi A6M. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero-sen made its first flight on April 1, 1939. Mitsubishi delivered the first Zeros in 1940. British and American intelligence weren’t impressed with the A6M.[i] Hubris may have affected their evaluations.[ii]
The Zero, carrier-based aircraft, had performance comparable to the top land-based fighters. This was an accomplishment in itself in 1940. The A6M excelled in range and had superior low-speed maneuverability. The Zero’s standard armament was two 20mm cannons and three 13mm machine guns. It also had a provision for a 250kg bomb or a drop tank. With the drop tank the Zero had a range of over 3,000 kilometers (1,930 miles).[iii] The range and maneuverability came at the expense of armor. The A6M tended to be more fragile than western fighters. It also lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. Mitsubishi built about 10,500 A6Ms. They were outclassed by the newest fighters in the last two years of the war. The Zeros served with the Imperial Japanese Navy until the end of the war.[iv]
[i] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes, © HarperCollins Publishing 2005, P.200.
[ii] There were many examples of both sides underestimating the other side and overestimating their side.
[iii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes, © HarperCollins Publishing 2005, P.200.
[iv] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes, © HarperCollins Publishing 2005, P.200.
The A6M and its Contemporaries 1941
|A6M Zero||Spitfire 1||F4F Wildcat||P-40|
6,025 lb (2,733 kg)
5,784 lb (2,630 kg)
7,952 lb (3,607 kg)
9,100 lb (4,128 kg)
340 mph (548 km/h)
355 mph (568 km/h)
320 mph (515 km/h)
335 mph (539 km/h)
2,485 miles (8,000 km)
575 miles (920 km)
770 miles (1,239 km)
900 miles (1,448 km)
Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter -1943
The Japanese Navy assigned 15 pre-production A6M2s to the 12th Rengo Kokutai on July 21, 1940. The Zero’s combat debut was on August 19, 1940. It was an uneventful escort mission. On September 13, 13 Zeros, led by Lt. Saburo Shindo, attacked 27 Chinese Air Force Polikarkpov I-15 and I-16 fighters. The Zeros shot down 26 Chinese fighters without loss. Four Zeros received some battle damage as did the surviving Chinese fighter. The Zeros shot down 99 Chinese aircraft and only suffered two losses, both to groundfire.[i] The Zero operated over enemy territory for over a year without a single example falling into enemy hands. Retired United States Army Air Corps Major Claire Chennault, who was working for the Chinese military, warned the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) about a new Japanese fighter. The USAAF ignored his warning.
The first U.S. encounter with the A6M was on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Japanese Zeros damaged an Aeronoca 65TC, piloted by Nathan Tomberlin with student James Duncan, of the Hui Lele Club. Zeros strafed a civilian airfield and destroyed a DC-3. The strafing killed Robert Tyce. Zeros shot down two civilian owned Piper Cubs. All three on board, Army enlisted men, died in the attack.[ii] A6Ms also encountered SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the USS Enterprise. The Zeros shot down 6 dive bombers without loss.[iii] The Japanese lost 8 Zeros in the Pearl Harbor attack, most to groundfire. U.S. Army P-36 Mohawks claimed 2 Zeros. Zeros shot down 4 aircraft. They also destroyed many of the 60 aircraft destroyed on the ground.[iv] The A6M’s also caused other damage and casualties.
On December 8 Zeros and Japanese bombers attacked Wake Island and The Philippines. The Japanese destroyed many aircraft on the ground. Zero Pilot, Petty Officer Saburo Sakai, shot down a P-40.[v] The Japanese claimed three other P-40s destroyed in the air and 35 on the ground. On December 10 he shot down a B-17 Flying Fortress piloted by Captain Colin P. Kelly.[vi] Sergeant William Delahanty died in the attack. Captain Kelly ordered his crew to bail out and tried to make it back to Clark Field. After the rest of the crew bailed out the B-17 exploded, killing Captain Kelly.
On June 3, 1942 some Zeros attacked Dutch Harbor. Groundfire struck the fuel tanks of an A6M piloted by Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. Koga attempted an emergency landing on Akutan Island. The Zero flipped over, killing Koga. The A6M was relatively intact and became the first Zero to fall into American hands. The Americans repaired and evaluated the Zero. The knowledge helped Grumman develop the F6F Hellcat. Footage of this A6M in flight was used in a USAAF training film about aircraft recognition. The film stared future president Ronald Reagan.[vii]
On June 4 Japanese and U.S. carriers clashed in the Battle of Midway. The Japanese lost all four of the carriers they committed to the battle. This meant they lost many experienced pilots. During the battle the Zero again showed it was a formidable aircraft. Lt. Cmdr. John Smith Thach led six F4F Wildcat plots that were escorting 12 Devastator torpedo bombers. Lt. Cmdr. Thach developed a tactic dubbed the “Thach weave”. The tactic involved two aircraft sections turning towards each other when the enemy attacked a section. The tactic proved successful and Thach’s Wildcats shot down three Japanese Zeros for the loss of one F4F.
On June 9, near New Guinea, Lt. Commander Lyndon Johnson was an observer on a B-26 named Heckling Hare. The Congressional Representative and future U.S. President was supposed to be on a B-26 named the Wabash Cannonball. Another member of the fact-finding group, Lt. Col. Francis R. Stevens, took Johnson’s place on the Wabash Cannonball. As the planes approached the target Petty Officer Saburo Sakai pounced. He shot down the Wabash Cannonball, killing everyone onboard. He damaged the Heckling Hare. Heckling Hare’s pilot, Lt. Walter H. Greer, nursed his damaged B-26 back to base.[viii]
On August 7, Saburo Sakai, shot down 3 F4Fs. He spotted another 8 enemy airplanes. He misidentified these SBD Dauntlesses as Wildcats. He came under fire from the 8 Dauntless rear gunners. He shot down 3 Dauntlesses but his plane was badly damaged and he was shot in the forehead. This blinded him in one eye. Believing his plane wouldn’t make it back to the base he was planning to crash it into an enemy ship. Despite the Zero’s reputation of being a fragile aircraft Sakai flew 600 miles (1,000 km) back to his base and safely landed the aircraft.[ix] Sakai was withdrawn from combat but eventually returned to combat.
The Japanese Navy neither replaced nor fielded a significantly upgraded Zero. In the right hands an A6M could be a lethal aircraft. Lt. (j.g.) Tetsuzo Iwamoto, Japan’s top ace with 94 aerial victories, shot down 48 F4U Corsairs. That’s over 25% of the Corsairs lost in air-to-air combat. He also shot down 39 of the vaunted F6F Hellcats. His total included a P-51 Mustang shot down on February 19, 1944.[x]
On June 24, 1944 Saburo Sakai made another misidentification. He mistook 15 U.S. Navy F6F Hellcats for A6Ms. The ensuing dogfight lasted 20 minutes and was inconclusive. The Hellcats caused no damage to Sakai or his Zero. [xi]
Near the end of the war Japan used many Zeros in Kamikaze attacks. Zero pilot, Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa scored his last 2 of his 87 air victories on October 25, 1944. He was escorting Kamikaze aircraft.[xii] On April 11, 1945 a Japanese Zero struck the Missouri. There was a fire but no explosion. The crew quickly extinguished the fire. The Zero pilot, believed to be Setsuo Ishino, was the only fatality. The Missouri crew gave the pilot a burial at sea with full military honors.[xiii]
On May 11 kamikaze pilot Sub Lt. Yasunori Seizo crashed his Zero onto the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill. The explosions caused a chain reaction with the 34 armed and fueled aircraft on the flight deck. Seconds later Ensign Ogawa Klyoshi crashed his Zero onto the Bunker Hill’s flight deck. The attacks killed 393 of the Bunker Hill’s crew and wounded another 264.[xiv] The Bunker Hill was out of action for the remainder of the war. The herculean efforts of the crew and the insistence of its captain, Captain Bowen F. McLeod, not to abandon the ship, saved the Bunker Hill from sinking.[xv]
Saburo Sakai claimed the last air victory for the Zero, and probably for the Japanese military. It was August 17, 1945, three days after Japan surrendered. The victim was a B-29 Superfortress that went down over Tokyo Bay.[xvi]
[i] Fighter Planes.com, A6M Zero, Mitsubishi, https://www.fighter-planes.com/info/a6m.htm, last accessed 5/31/2021.
[ii] AOPA.org, Civilian Pilots Under Fire at Pearl Harbor by Jim Moore Civilian pilots under fire at Pearl Harbor - AOPA, last accessed 6/5/21. Those killed in the Piper Cubs were Sgt. Henry C. Blackwell, Cpl. Clyde C. Brown, and Sgt. Warren D. Rasmussen. The Japanese intent was to prevent any aircraft from following them back to the carrier.
[iii] Weapons and Warfare, https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2018/01/20/the-sinking-of-i-70/, last accessed 6/5/21.
[iv] WWII Pacific, Dec 7. 1941: Aircraft at Pearl Harbor, Aircraft at Pearl Harbor (ww2pacific.com), last accessed 6/5/21.
[v] WWII Pacific, Dec 7. 1941: Aircraft at Pearl Harbor, Aircraft at Pearl Harbor (ww2pacific.com), last accessed 6/5/21.
[vi] Aces of WW2, Saburo Sakai (acesofww2.com), last accessed 6/21/21.
[vii] Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_jJB23V7tM, last accessed 6/12/21.
[viii] History.com, How a Luckily Timed Bathroom Break Saved LBJ’s Life During WWII, by Patrick J. Kiger, How a Luckily Timed Bathroom Break Saved LBJ's Life During WWII - HISTORY, last accessed, 6/19/21.
[ix] Aces of WW2, Saburo Sakai (acesofww2.com), last accessed 6/21/21.
[x] Air Power Asia, Japanese “Zero” Fighter Air Ace Tetsuzo Iwamoto “Tiger Tetsu” – 94 Aerial Victories – Greatest Japanese Fighter Ace of All Time, Japanese “Zero” Fighter Air Ace Tetsuzō Iwamoto “Tiger Tetsu”- 94 Aerial Victories – Greatest Japanese Fighter Ace of All Time – Air Power Asia, last accessed 8/13/21.
[xi] Aces of WW2, Saburo Sakai (acesofww2.com), last accessed 6/21/21.
[xii] Fighter Aces by Christopher Shores, © The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Limited, 1975. P.121. WO Hiroyoshi Nishizawa died October 26, 1944 when allied fighters shot down the transport he was flying in as a passenger.
[xiii] USS Missouri Organization, https://ussmissouri.org/learn-the-history/world-war-ii-1/kamikaze-story, last accessed 1/11/21.
[xiv] Naval History and Heritage Command, Bunker Hill I (CV-17) 1943-1966, Bunker Hill I (CV-17) (navy.mil), last accessed 6/26/21.
[xv] Captain McLeod abandoning the ship would mean it would be torpedoed by U.S. destroyers. This sinking would doom any men trapped inside the ship.
[xvi] Aces of WW2, Saburo Sakai (acesofww2.com), last accessed 6/21/21.
The A6M and its Contemporaries - 1944
|A6M Zero||Spitfire XIV||F6F Hellcat||P-51D|
6,025 lb (2,733 kg)
8,500 lb (3,865 kg)
13,228 lb (6,000 kg)
10,100 lb (4,590 kg)
340 mph (548 km/h)
448 mph (717 km/h)
376 mph (605 km/h)
437 mph (699 km/h)
945 miles (1,520 kms)
460 miles (736 kms)
1,085 miles (1,746 kms)
2,080 miles (3,328 kms)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 29, 2021:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, there are many strange twists of fate. That is one example of a mundane thing having huge consequences.
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 28, 2021:
It’s so interesting to consider all that wouldn’t have happened if Johnson had been on the flight he was supposed to be on. Great article and I enjoyed reading comments too.
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 27, 2021:
Thank you all for reading and commenting.
Liz Westwood - The Mitsubishi that made the Zero is the same company that makes cars. Ronald Reagan made films when he was in the army. I saw another Army film about the Tuskegee Airmen that Ronald Reagan narrated. WIth Lyndon Johnson he had to make a restroom stop and that is why he ended up on Heckling Hare.
MG SIngh Emge - I learned a lot when reasearching this article. I found researching for articles fills in a lot of blanks for me.
Pamela Oglesby - Surprisingly, the article didn't take long to write, hours wise. The internet is very good for research. In a lot of cases I knew some of the information so it was a matter of getting a source to confirm. That usually led to another bit of information. In the case of the Zero there is a lot of information readily available.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 27, 2021:
This is a very interesting article, Robert. The Japanese sure made use of that plane. You have provided us with a wealth of good information. I liked your pictures also. I imagine it took quite a bit of time to write such an in-depth article. Thank you, Robert.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 27, 2021:
What a wonderful article. As an aviator, I really appreciate the amount of effort you have taken to dig out information for this article. So many interesting facts in this article and all I can say is thank you.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 27, 2021:
This is a fascinating article. What is the link with the Mitsubishi car company? Lyndon Johnson had a close call. Interesting too to see mention of Ronald Reagan in a training film.