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Zero Fighter

9 December 2015

Zero Fighter, Akira Yoshimura (translation by Retsu Kaito and Michael Gregson), 1996, ISBN 0-275-95355-6, 298 pp.

Zero Fighter by Akira Yoshimura

Zero Fighter by Akira Yoshimura

Mitsubishi’s A6M5 (the famous/infamous Zero of WW II) is argued to be the world’s first long range escort fighter. How it came to be a game changer of modern aerial warfare is fascinating to follow as Yoshimura (a famous author in Japan) brings personalities to life as well as describing the engineering challenges which had to be surmounted.

Complications were many with:

  • New duralumin materials
  • Unrelenting performance demands by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)
  • Machinations of selecting a Mitsubishi designed engine over a competitor’s more powerful (but weightier) power plant

The result was a premier fighter in the opening days of WW II though at the cost of the chief designer’s health. Yoshimura also details main designers and their decision making such as with the wing and the landing gear. He also beautifully describes why the Zero has powerful armament but limited on-board ammunition. This required Zeros to land not to refuel but to reload 20mm and 7.62mm ammunition—all while actively defending their aircraft carriers against the U.S. Navy dive and torpedo bombers during the Battle of Midway—which must have heightened the excitement of Kido Butai. This illustrates the IJN’s overarching thinking for long range decisive striking over brutally slugging it over time.

Yoshimura includes much of the perspective of Japanese people as well as their impressions when the Zero was famously ruling the skies over China and Asia’s side of the Pacific Ocean. He also describes the emotions of Japan’s populous as they and the Zero descended into defeat. Notably, the author does not address the emotions experienced by those peoples initially conquered (and later liberated by the Allied Forces) in Japan’s advance across Asia in WW II or what the Japanese thought of them as Japan was pursuing “Asia for Asians” in their casus belli.

Zero Fighter describes the virtues and failings of this still famed aircraft, whether in service in the army or navy. Although not underscored, the lack of engine development is mentioned and how the Zero could not evolve at the pace of American fighters with engines soon more than twice as powerful. Not addressed is the lack of rare earth materials for engine design advancement during the war which is a primary reason Japan could not match the hyper-powerful engines produced by the United States like the Pratt & Whitney Wasps and Double Wasps as well as the Wright Cyclones. Unconsciously, Yoshimura underscores a curious lack of logistics in Japan’s industry with his lively description of moving aircraft from the Mitsubishi factory across town to the IJN airfield. These aircraft deliveries were initially made by teams of oxen and then by horse teams. Paradoxically, the world’s most advanced fighter of the day was able to fly only after being laboriously drawn by draft animals for the better part of a day. The description of this logistical exercise is as interesting as the design considerations, however. This same lack of meeting a civil engineering construction challenge with a modern solution is somewhat mirrored by World War II Japan’s characteristic lack of mechanized airfield construction.

Zero Fighter by Akira Yoshimura has this perspective drawing of the Zero from Suzuki Yukio

Zero Fighter by Akira Yoshimura has this perspective drawing of the Model 52 A6M5 Zero from Suzuki Yukio

This book should be read for the Japanese perspective as well as various pertinent personalities involved or influencing the Zero design. Yoshimura shows how the life of an aircraft design is neither linear nor entirely logical as many factors as well as facets affect the eventual outcome. He also explains design details and decisions better than any other author. Most importantly, this is the biography of a premier paradigm changing fighter design including the way of Japanese thinking of the time in thought as well as action.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. shortfinals permalink
    9 December 2015 09:05

    Thanks for this review, Joe! Sadly I have not seen a complete ‘Zero’ fighter in the flesh, so to speak, only the center-section and cockpit of the A6M5 held at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      9 December 2015 22:12

      It is a rare aircraft indeed which has not been seen by Ross Sharp!

  2. 11 December 2015 18:20

    About thirty years ago, I was at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. While in the WW-2 room, there is a Zero suspended by wires from the ceiling. It is very close to the Mezzanine walkway, near the railing. An elderly Japanese gentleman and his little wife were standing by the plane. He was pointing out features of the Zero to her. Tears were running down his face. I had been taking pictures, and it would have been a wonderful candid shot.

    Instead, I turned and backed away from that touching and powerful moment. There are times when one must put the camera away.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      12 December 2015 07:12

      I agree…poignant moments are best left private.

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