Sakaida's Japanese Army Aces

Sakaida: Japanese Army Air Forces Aces
Japanese Army Air Force Aces, 1937-45 by Henry Sakaida. Osprey (distributed in U.S. by Specialty Book Marketing), 1997. 96 pp., b&w photos, drawings, color plates, $16.95.

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Luftwaffe fighter ace Eric Hartmann has a more devoted following today than he did in the 1940s, Das Boot is enjoying another run at the art houses, and even a book on German Firefighting Vehicles of WWII finds a ready market among war buffs.

Imperial Japan has no such following, although it went to war two years before Germany did--and was still fighting when Germany surrendered. How many Americans can name a Japanese ace except for Saburo Sakai? How many know that Japan had two air forces, each with its own aircraft and traditions?

The Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) fought half a dozen bitter campaigns, including a 1939 border war with Russia and the last, hopeless struggle to protect the Homeland from hordes of Boeing B-29s. "Finally, I sighted an enemy four-engined bomber," recalls Captain Isamu Kashiide about the first times the giants appeared over Iwata. "I was scared. It was known that the B-29 was a huge plane, but when I saw my opponent it was much larger than I had ever expected!"

This volume profiles each of the major JAAF aces, including the durable Yohei Hinoki. (His name means "tree of the sun," the beautiful ground cypress of Japan.) Hinoki fought the Flying Tigers in Burma, lost his right leg in an encounter with a P-51 Mustang, but survived to fly again. His final combat is pictured on the cover: Hinoki's radial-engined Kawasaki Ki-100 winging victorious over a P-51 supposedly flown by Captain John Benbow, who vanished over Nagoya in the war's last month.

There are color views of JAAF fighters, a list of aces beginning with Warrant Officer Hiromichi Shinohara, and an explanation of why Japanese victory claims are even less to be trusted than those of other nations: "Shinohara is attributed with 58 victories during the Nomonhan Incident, but the Soviets admitted losing 207 aircraft during the entire conflict." In other words, somebody was hyperventilating.

Overclaimers or not, these pilots are worth knowing. We owe a debt to Henry Sakaida, a Californian who learned Japanese so he could research these matters, and to Osprey books for publishing his research in one of its compact but handsome volumes subtitled Aircraft of the Aces, of which this is number 13.