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Interview with a Zero pilot (part 2)

continued from part 1

As the war progressed, the difference in aircraft development capability between Japan and the USA became marked. Take for example the specifications of the Reisen Type 52 and the Grumman F6F Hellcat, both introduced in 1943. The differences are glaring. The F6F's engine is 2100hp versus the Reisen's 1130hp, while top speed was 611km/h against the Reisen's 565km/h. Japan's prized Reisen had by then already been developmentally completely outclassed.

"The time which the Reisen was feared as a high performance fighter was during the first one, two years. We, who experienced air combat, felt the difference between our aicraft and the enemy most clearly, and in fact we had access to the relevant data before we even went into combat against them. The specifications were written in various magazines. So for example, if the engine is 2000hp, okay so we know it is twice that of the Reisen. The fuel load also three times? Well, then we could estimate that the Reisen's range advantage too was gone....etc. And indeed, when we did meet the enemy planes, they were full of confidence! (laughter) Up until then they had been very afraid of us, but now they became full of fight.

The early Reisen's greatest trump had been its small turning radius. In large-scale air combat we used all kinds of tactics to lure the enemy into a dogfight. And finally, the enemy stopped fighting on our terms, and with power and speed they carried out with all their strength frontal attacks and disengaged before we could turn after them.

In that situation, we could not compete. Our only tactic then was to spot the enemy first and before they had prepared themselves attack and vanquish them."

Also, in air combat there are some well-known ironclad rules, such as that one should already be above the enemy and have the sun behind oneself before beginning the attack. For this rate of climb, and therefore power and speed are necessary, but the propeller-driven Reisen of the time used to lose power dramatically above 8000m.

"The engine began to lose power suddenly from around 5000m. 8000m was definitely the limit of its capabilities. Above that the fighter was extremely unresponsive, making big control movements necessary. Unlike bombers which fly straight to their targets, fighter combat involves control movements to the extremes. At around 5000m or 6000m there was still sufficient air resistance to bank or roll. But at 7000m or 8000m this was no longer possible. Moving the control stick too much theatened to stall the engine.

Therefore, taking into account also our own decrease in capability with altitude, the Reisen's maximum effective altitude for combat was around 5000m or 6000m, ideally we thought that we should stay between 3000m and 5000m."

However, the USA military succeeded in the development of aircraft with better and better high altitude performance that the Reisen could only dream of.

"When during air combat we reached altitudes of 7000m or 8000m, the Reisen began to behave very badly, whereas on the enemy planes two-stage boosters (turbochargers) kicked in, the fuel injection ratio was boosted again to impede the drop in performance with altitude.

Especially the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning was always aiming for higher altitudes. When we were battling with, say, F6F's and had achieved a superior position, then from way up high suddenly would plummet down a Lightning. From about 1943 it became the norm for the enemy to employ this form of combination attack. That was one further reason why the Reisen began to suffer so badly at this point.

I seem to recall that at the end the Reisen also had a little more boost, but no matter what small improvements were carried out, in total we have to admit that the Reisen's performance remained virtually unchanged throughout the war."

From the difference in development capability between the enemy and us, the disaster of our radio equipment and so on, it may appear that this was due solely to a technological gap between us and them. But in reality, there was a common weakness throughout the war in the military general staff, Mr. Komachi asserts.

"In one word, this pointless fixation on mind over matter philosophy (Note: seishin-shugi) and as its result, the tendency to view (Note: or have contempt for) life lightly. This was the prevalent dogma in the military general staff at the time. That is what I feel.

For example, it was unavoidable that due to the difference in technological skill there should be a performance difference of some kind between US and our aircraft. But the fitting or lack of armour of the pilot comes from the difference in attitude towards human life, way before technology. Frankly speaking, while enemy aircraft had armour in many places around the cockpit, the Reisen had as good as no such protection.

Furthermore, we heard that US aircraft had rubber coated fuel tanks, and sure enough, no matter how much we hit them we got the impression that there was never any fuel leakage. Now, while we very much wanted the same sort of protection fitted to our own aircraft, in the eyes of the military general staff this was cowardice, and so quite out of the question."

For Mr. Komachi, who experienced air combat every day, day in day out, there was doubtless no day on which he was not aware of the the proximity of his own death. But for the sake of his own life, for the sake of the life of his family and of the future of his country, he continued to fight. In fact, it was precisely because of his strong overriding will to live that he could continue to risk his life and fight on.

"For example, due to the fact that we could not make use of our radio gear, there were I think many many cases where pilots could not get a bearing on their carrier after combat and ended up missing in action, in other words ditching in the sea.

After completion of combat over the Pacific, with no islands at all to show the way, there was no way of telling which direction and for how many hours to fly in order to return safely. That is a pretty damned situation."

Actually, Mr. Komachi and his comrades repeatedly informed the general staff of the problem, but the reply was invariably, "A fighter plane does not fight with its radio. How many aircraft can you shoot down with a radio set?", completely missing the point.

Mr. Komachi's opinion was that main and most important reason for the lack of flexibility of the the Japanese military illustrated by the above was the ghost of the "Victory in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese War (Note: Nisshin, Nichiro no Shori)", which was still very deeply rooted even during the Second World War.

"During the initial phase of the Pacific war, with the attack on Peark Harbor, the battle of the Malaysian Sea (Note: Japanese history records the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales as the Battle of the Malaysian Sea) and others, even though aircraft had achieved such an incredible degree of success, the military staff admirals and generals above Mr. Yamamoto Isoroku, all leftovers from the Meiji era, possessed an awareness regarding aircraft that amounted to no more than an inkling. Like the absurd argument of how one could possibly fight with a radio set, likewise aircraft were not seen as the able to destroyer the enemy, that would always be the realm of the big guns of the battleships.

And so, finally it came to tying bombs to our planes and going out to die. No matter how you think about it, it was a tragedy for the planes and for the pilots who were forced to man them."

Incidentally, fighter plane enthusiasts often have a tendency to praise famous wartime pilots, referring to them as kings of shootdowns or aces of the sky (Note: in Japanese, aces are referred to either by the english word 'ace' written in katakana, or more fancifully as gekitsui-o, or o-sora no ace). Mr. Komachi, however, deplored this, saying, "I don't care for those expressions".

"First of all, we lost the war. People of such a country cannot possibly feel happy when they are referred to as kings of shootdowns or aces. And then, secondly, we pilots, and our foes too, fought in deadly earnest to protect our families and our homeland, we did not fight to settle a personal score. Therefore, the thing is, I do not want people to use game score expressions, you know.

There are many tales of pilots painting stars on the their planes' fuselages to designate the number of downed enemy. Yes, for sure it looks really neat (laughter), but those were tales from the very early relaxed part of the war. As the war became desperate, such things were just no longer around. There was incessant restructuring of units, and transfer between them, and planes too changed all the time. It was not possible to keep an aircraft for personal use and so on, and also no time to paint star marks."

As planes changed all the time, naturally each plane picked up and mixed the peculiarities of the various pilots.

continued in part 3