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Japanese aircraft code-names in perspective (continued)


There was some delay before the new code-names began to take hold in the S.W.P.A. The most commonly encountered enemy aircraft was the Zero fighter and the sobriquet Zero died hard. While the new code-names were official policy in the 5th Air Force at least by October 1st, the first combat victory using the new terminology may have been a VAL claimed early in December 1942. Soon thereafter ZEKE appeared in a combat report but the term Zero continued in common usage for many months. When the Type 1 fighter was first encountered that same month both Type 1 and OSCAR appear in combat reports but soon OSCAR began to predominate. Among intelligence summaries issued from headquarters parallel designations using both the code-name and Japanese type designation (usually abbreviated) prevailed through 1943 and later.

Navy carrier pilots and Marine fighter pilots on Guadalcanal continued to distinguish between Nagoya and Mitsubishi Zeros until late in 1942. They reported both types during the Battle of Santa Cruz in late October 1942. "Nagoya Zeros" were reportedly encountered over Munda late in December 1942 but code-names had already begun to creep into combat reports and intelligence summaries from the Solomons. RUFE and PETE had been mentioned in November 1942. Early in 1943 ZEKE and HAMP appeared with some frequency and gradually displaced the earlier terminology.

As far as the Tenth Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater is concerned the change (at least in official intelligence summaries) came early in 1943. Fighter pilots do not always speak in terms of intelligence summaries. "Zero" long remained in the parlance of fighter pilots including malapropisms such as "OSCAR type Zero." Robert Scott, commander of the 23rd Fighter Group, left China in early 1943. Soon after returning to the United States he published God Is My Co-Pilot. Not a single Japanese aircraft is identified by a code-name in Scott's book.

As aircrew and intelligence officers familiar with the old designations were replaced by new men without the baggage of the old knowledge the code-names were accepted ever more widely. During the last year of the war the code-names had achieved almost universal acceptance among operational aircrews. Even the British in India and Burma accepted the code-names.


In the discussion above it has been suggested that there really was no strong imperative to adopt a code-name system. Kenney and McCoy associated their list with an impressive looking and useful document. They circulated it widely in an unauthorized manner. Only after this did they press through official channels to have the list accepted. Had the idea of a code-name system been totally without merit even such a preemptory strategy would not have worked. The strategy worked and the system eventually was accepted. Even after acceptance the use of official designations in lieu of or in addition to code-names prevailed for a substantial period and never completely died out.

The code-name system eventually became the dominant system for identifying Japanese aircraft during the war. Arguably it has merits over an abbreviated official system. It allows an observer to identify an aircraft for reporting purposes without knowing its official designation or even its mission type. If that is a strength it seems that it could also be a weakness. Is it inherently better or easier to remember a name (that may have other connotations) than number and type? The system was not primarily used to designate new aircraft whose official designation was unknown. In fact it sometimes probably hurt rather than helped. Before the Type 2 Carrier-reconnaissance plane was identified and designated JUDY it was often identified as a TONY in combat reports. If the pilot in a carrier action had thought "army type 3" before reporting his sighting perhaps he would have realized the incongruity of his observation. Likewise DINAHs (female gender indicative of a bomber) were often inaccurately reported as engaging in bombing raids. Other similar examples could be cited. This flaw may not be unique to the code-name system but that system did nothing to improve aircraft identification.

Presumably the code-name system was thought to have utility at the time. One of the "faults" of using official designations as illustrated by the Air Ministry cable quoted above is that they evolve. The Air Ministry proposed to add data to official designations (such as manufacturer's name), as it became known. The code-name system was, however, not exempt from evolution. For example HAP changed to HAMP, then ZEKE 32. The simple ZEKE multiplied into ZEKE 21, 22, and 52 in addition to the ZEKE 32. Is this really simpler or better than Zero 21 and so forth? In other cases the Japanese aircraft evolved, sometimes with fairly significant changes in appearance, but the designation did not keep pace with the change. The code-name system was neither better nor worse than its predecessor in this regard.

It appears adoption of a code-name system compared to an abbreviated official type designation system constituted a marginal gain in utility if any. As recounted above adoption of the system did not depend on its increased usefulness but on other factors. The code-name system was not primarily created to deal with unidentified aircraft types. In short, there was no strong reason to adopt the system.

The code-name system is a historical fact. Historians can hardly ignore it. That does not mean that it makes sense today to use the code-name system as the general or dominant system for referring to Japanese aircraft in the Pacific War. General use of the system ignores the fact that the Japanese did not use it at all. It was not used at all by the Allies for tactical purposes for nearly the entire first year of the war. The system rapidly gained acceptance during 1943 but not necessarily to the exclusion of earlier systems. Only during the late phases of the Pacific War did the system predominate and then gain a near monopoly of use.

We don't refer to the Bf-110 as DOC, the Ju-87 as IRENE, or the Ju-88 as JANICE. They received those designations in intelligence memorandum No. 12. Incidentally, FRANK was the name originally awarded to the "T.K. 4, 2E, SSF" whatever that is. Frank McCoy awarded the designation GWEN to the non-existent Mitsubishi Type Zero medium bomber! The people that created the original list of Japanese aircraft designations only knew what they knew and they didn't always get it right. Why do many people slavishly following a practice that began under such questionable circumstances?

One final point in this discussion is that not once has a Japanese army kitai designation been mentioned nor has a navy "model-type" designation (such as A6M2) been mentioned. The reason for this is that historically these designations played virtually no part in the discussion of the issue because they were generally unknown to the Allies until late in the war. They were unknown because the Japanese seldom used them in front-line operations. Despite volumes of captured documents, prisoner of war interrogations, intercepted messages and captured data-plates there was little evidence such designations constituted a system in general operational use by the Japanese (as distinguished from specialized use for some production and logistics purposes). Some of the seemingly authentic designations used in publications today (for example, Ki 43-Ic) simply cannot be found in historic records. They are undoubtedly post-war creations. In other cases the designations existed, they simply weren't in such general use as common practice today indicates.


A complete description of Japanese aircraft designations is beyond the scope of this article. The Japanese in fact had multiple systems. The long form with Japanese calendar year was the most common and used by both the Japanese army and the navy but with slight variations. Year 2600 (1940) was Zero in navy nomenclature but 100 in army terminology. Other examples of differences were noted above ("land-attack" versus "heavy bomber"). Designations were sometimes awarded on a temporary basis. When the official designation became final, slight changes were sometimes made. The navy adopted a two-digit model system in late 1942 (Zero carrier fighter Mark 1 eventually became Zero models 11 and 21).

Other systems included the navy model-type and army kitai systems (examples, A6M2 and Ki 43) already mentioned. Additional systems (navy OBA and army Kana [e.g., "Se" equates to Sentoki or fighter]) were used primarily in recognition manuals for surface forces. Experimental aircraft had a separate system in the navy based on the year of the Showa reign. In the army the kitai designation was used at the experimental stage and continued for the life of the aircraft though having only secondary use after the aircraft was awarded an official year-type designation. Finally, late in the war the long form designation was abandoned and a system of naming aircraft adopted.

It is not necessary to master the complexity of these various systems to use historically correct designations for the vast majority of Japanese aircraft discussed in popular literature. Perpetuating a system of code-names and using it as though it was universally adopted to the exclusions of Japanese official designations throughout the war may be convenient for some but is historically inaccurate.