U.S. vs. Japanese Fighter Planes, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

American aviator Jim Morehead flew P-40s over Java and Darwin and was taken aback by the ability of the Japanese enemy, completely at odds with what he had been led to expect: “Before the war officers assured us that American pilots were flying some of the best planes in the world. Everyone underestimated the Japanese and the Zero was a real shock,” he told an interviewer later. “I remain bitter that our government, backed by the most advanced economy in the world, would send their men to war in aircraft that were inferior to that of the enemy.” Australians who had arrived from Europe tried “Battle of Britain” tactics against Japanese pilots and often paid with their lives when discovering the great maneuverability of the enemy’s aircraft. “We told them the basics,” an American pilot said later. “Don’t think that because you could turn inside a German fighter that you could do the same with a Zero.”

This changed with the battle of Midway. Although it was a myth that the elite of Japanese Naval aviation was wiped out in the fateful encounter in June, enough pilots were killed to make it impossible for Japan to ever again recover its greatness in the skies. At the same time, US pilots proved to be quick learners and began showing awe-inspiring ability. A case in point were the “Cactus” pilots on Guadalcanal dubbed after the island’s codename. “It is necessary to remember that the Japanese Zero at this stage of the war was regarded with some of the awe in which the atomic bomb came to be held later,” according to an early account. “The Cactus fighters made a great contribution to the war by exploding the theory that the Zero was invincible.”

US technology also showed its enormous potential. The twin-engine P-38 was not just a piece of state-of-the-art engineering but also entailed a peculiar psychological boost. Since it had two propellers, the pilot could afford to have one engine shot out or otherwise malfunction, and still be able to make it home over hundreds of miles of ocean. This was reassuring for pilots who otherwise would face the prospect of making a forced landing, in which case Japanese patrol boats might not even be the biggest horror. “You look down from the cockpit and you can see schools of sharks swimming around,” said George C. Kenney, commander of MacArthur’s air forces. “They never look healthy to a man flying over them.” All in all, it added up to one thing: towards the end of 1942, the Allies were close to achieving air superiority in key theaters of war in the Pacific. On December 3, a Japanese soldier on Papua wrote jealously in his diary: “They fly above our position as if they own the sky.” Even before the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, when Japanese planes had roamed at will over the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific, the Allies were winning the war in the air.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, industry, Japan, military, Pacific, U.S., war

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