Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"The Eternal Zero," Or, The Mystique Of The Zero

YouTube is full of these videos about the Mitsubishi Zero and its brave pilots. Some are from movies made in Japan; some are from video games. They tend to put forward the idea that the Zero was a supreme dogfighter without equal in the world. That’s the myth. This idea, this myth, was never true, I repeat, never. I submit to you that anyone who would suggest that the myth is true is not being completely fair to the brave men who flew Zeros in combat or to the memory of the venerable Zero itself.

Some of the devotees of these videos are young Japanese men; some are fan-boys from around the world. They are all living in a dream world.

The Japanese aircraft industry in the late 1930s was in its infancy. It had little capacity to produce aircraft; very few engineers to assist in the design of aircraft; few precision machining tools, all of which had been recently obtained from overseas companies; few trained machinists; and no experience with mass production techniques. In spite of all of those shortcomings, the Japanese managed to design a full range of military aircraft, fighters, naval torpedo and dive bombers, and medium bomber aircraft. But, there were problems.

Every one of these new aircraft had some things to recommend it. Japanese doctrine stressed long range, and all of these planes featured much longer range than their western counterparts.  The fighters had not only long range, but also fabulous maneuverability. These things were achieved at a price.

The weakness of all of the Japanese planes became apparent immediately after the war started. They were all very lightly built; they were very susceptible to destruction from low levels of battle damage. They had very weak engines, which was all that Japanese industry was capable of providing them with. And they had no armor to protect the pilot or the critical systems, and no self-sealing fuel tanks, because those things add weight, thus reducing maneuverability and range. If you would only give them a good slap, they blew up.

Over the course of the war, the Japanese did develop some new designs. Many of these new planes performed very well, and a couple of them, like the Frank (KI-84), were fully equivalent to the top American performers. Quantities were very low, however, and most of the planes that were produced were not up to specs. Most of the good flyers were long dead by then as well, and the pilots that were trained in 1944 and 1945 were only able to take off and get killed almost immediately, whatever they were flying. Those are the unfortunate facts. All of the statistics bear me out.

The Zero was in production until the end of the war, because that was the plane that the Japanese could build. This video depicts a confrontation between Zeros and North American P-51 Mustangs, and it seems to suggest that the confrontation had some give-and-take to it.  No such thing would have been possible. An even-up fight between Zeros and Mustangs would have as much reality to it as a telephone conversation with Paddington Bear.

These videos . . . these sentimental, heroic, demented videos . . . they not only distort the past, but they also take away from the very real accomplishments of Japanese Zero pilots. One of my heroes as a boy was Saburo Sakai, one of the most famous Zero aces. I read his book, “Samurai,” when I was twelve. He wrote with a very realistic, unsentimental eye about the air war in the Pacific. Even in 1942, the prospect of flying a Japanese aircraft against American opposition was daunting. Sakai himself was shot down by a mere Douglas Dauntless, a dive bomber.

The Japanese pilots in the Pacific war were surpassingly brave to go up against superior American planes and doctrine day after day. Month after month! Even after they knew that their efforts were hopeless, they did their duty uncomplainingly. They were real heroes, and they still have my unqualified admiration.  They could really fly, especially in the early years. But they died. They were sent into battle flying obsolete planes, with inadequate maintenance and primitive airfield conditions, and they died. They were condemned to perpetual combat unto death, with no rest, no leave, and no rotation home, and they died. They all died, but for a precious few.

They were surpassingly brave, and they did their duty, and they died.

What they did not do was rise in 1945, when the Mustangs arrived, rise up in Zeros, and fight the Americans on anything like even footing. No, that did not happen. To suggest that it did happen is a slap in the face to the brave Japanese pilots who fought the actual war. The real story is heroic in itself; it does not require embellishment.

Those Japanese pilots were real heroes. We should let their real accomplishments stand on their own. Creating fairy tales about imaginary victories does not do them any service. The reality of their accomplishments can stand on its own. 

No comments: