Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Guadalcanal: The Beginning of the Long Road Back
Combat in October
A New Crew at Cactus
The Battle for Guadalcanal
Cactus Victory
Post-Guadalcanal Operations
The Marine Corsair Aces of Bougainville and the Central Pacific
The First Corsair Ace
The One and Only 'Pappy'
Other Marine Aces
Marine Corps Aviators Who Received the Medial of Honor
Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger
Special Subjects
'CUB One' at Guadalcanal
The Aircraft in the Conflict
Main Types of Fighters
Japanese Pilots in the Solomons Air War
Researching the Aces' Scores

TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve

The One and Only 'Pappy'

Japanese Pilots in the Solomons Air War

The stereotypical picture of a small, emaciated Japanese pilot , wearing glasses whose lenses were the thickness of the bottoms of Coke bottles, grasping the stick of his bamboo-and-rice-paper airplane (the design was probably stolen from the U.S., too) did not persist for long after the war began. The first American aircrews to return from combat knew that they had faced some of the world's most experienced combat pilots equipped with some pretty impressive airplanes.

rebuilt late-model Zero
A rebuilt late-model Zero shows off the clean lines of the A6M series, which changed little during the production run of more than 10,000 fighters. Author's Collection

Certainly, Japanese society was completely alien to most Americans. Adherence to ancestral codes of honor and a national history — one of constant internal, localized strife where personal weakness was not tolerated, especially in the Samurai class of professional warriors — did not permit the individual Japanese soldier to surrender even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Ens Junichi Sasai
Newly commissioned Ens Junichi Sasai in May 1941. Author's Collection

This capability did not come by accident. Japanese training was tough. In some respects, it went far beyond the legendary limits of even U.S. Marine Corps boot training. However, as the war turned against them, the Japanese relaxed their stringent prewar requirements and mass-produced pilots to replace the veterans who were lost at Midway and in the Solomons. For instance, before the war, pilots learned navigation and how to pack a parachute. After 1942, these subjects were eliminated from training to save time.

Young men who were accepted for flight training were subjected to an excruciating preflight indoctrination into military life. Their instructors — mostly enlisted — were literally their rulers, with nearly life-or-death control of the recruits' existence. After surviving the physical training, the recruits began flight training where the rigors of their preflight classes were maintained. By the time Japanese troops evacuated Guadalcanal in February 1943, however, their edge had begun wearing thin as they had lost many of their most experienced pilots and flight commanders, along with their aircraft.

The failed Japanese adventure at Midway in June 1942, as well as the heavy losses in the almost daily combat over Guadalcanal and the Solomons deprived them of irreplaceable talent. Even the most experienced pilots eventually came up against a losing roll of the dice.

As noted in the main text, Japanese aces such as Sakai, Sasai, and Ota were invalided out of combat, or eventually killed. Rotation of pilots out of the war zone was a system employed neither by the Japanese nor the Germans, as a matter of fact. As several surviving Axis aces have noted in their memoirs, they flew until they couldn't. Indeed many Japanese and German aces flew until 1945 — if they were lucky enough to survive — accumulating incredible numbers of sorties and combat hours, as well as high scores which doubled and tripled the final tallies of their American counterparts.

Unfortunately, Japanese records are not as complete as Allied histories, perhaps because of the tremendous damage and confusion wrought by the U.S. strategic bombing during the last year of the war. Thus, certainly Japanese scores are not as firm as they are for Allied aviators.

In the popularly accepted sense, the Japanese did not have "aces." Those pilots who achieved high scores were referred to as Gekitsui-O (Shoot-Down Kings). A pilot's report of his successes was taken at face value, without a confirmation system such as required by the Allies. Without medals or formal recognition, it was believed that there was little need for self-promotion. Fighters did not have gun cameras, either. Japanese air strategy was to inflict as much damage as possible without worrying about confirming a kill. (This outwardly cavalier attitude about claiming victories is somewhat suspect since many Zeros carried large "scoreboards" on their tails and fuselages. These markings might have been attributed to the aircraft rather than to a specific pilot.)

A6M2 Zeros
A lineup of A6M2 Zeros at Buin in 1943. By this time, the heavy combat over Guadalcanal had been replaced by engagements with Marine Corsairs over the approaches to Bougainville. Japanese Navy aircraft occasionally flew from land bases, as these Zeros, although they are actually assigned to the carrier Zuikaku. Author's Collection

The Aces

Although the men in the Zeros were probably much like — at least in temperament — Marine Wildcat and Corsair pilots they opposed, the Imperial Japanese Navy pilots had an advantage: many of them had been flying combat for perhaps a year — maybe longer — before meeting the untried American aviators over Guadalcanal in August 1942. Saburo Sakai was severely wounded during an engagement with U.S. Navy SBDs on the opening day of the invasion. He returned to Japan with about 60 kills to his credit. Actually, because he was so badly wounded early in the Guadalcanal fighting, Sakai never got a chance to engage Marine Corps pilots. They were still in transit to the Solomons two weeks after Sakai had been invalided home. (His commonly accepted final score of 64 is only a best guess, even by his own logbook.)

Enlisted pilots of the Tainan Kokutai pose at Rabaul in 1942. Several of these aviators would be among the top Japanese aces, including Saburo Sakai (middle row, second from left), and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (standing, first on left). Author's Collection

After graduating from flight training, Sakai joined a squadron in China flying Mitsubishi Type 96 fighters, small, open-cockpit, fixed-landing-gear fighters. As a third-class petty officer, Sakai shot down a Russian built SB-3 bomber in October 1939. He later joined the Tainan Kokutai (Tainan air wing), which would be come one of the Navy's premier fighter units, and participated in the Pacific war's opening actions in the Philippines.

A colorful personality, Sakai was also a dedicated flight leader. He never lost a wingman in combat, and also tried to pass on his hard-won expertise to more junior pilots. After a particularly unsuccessful mission in April 1942, where his flight failed to bring down a single American bomber from a flight of seven Martin B-26 Marauders, he sternly lectured his pilots about maintaining flight discipline instead of hurling them selves against their foes. His words had great effect — Sakai was respected by subordinates and superiors alike — and his men soon formed a well-working unit, responsible for many kills in the early months of the Pacific war.

Typically, Junichi Sasai, a lieutenant, junior grade, and one of Sakai's young aces with 27 confirmed kills, was posthumously promoted two grades to lieutenant commander. This practice was common for those Japanese aviators with proven records, or high scores, who were killed during the war. Japan was unique among all the combatants during the war in that it had no regular or defined system of awards, except for occasional inclusion in war news — what the British might call being "mentioned in dispatches."

This somewhat frustrating lack of recognition was described by Masatake Okumiya, a Navy fighter commander, in his classic book Zero! (with Jiro Horikoshi). Describing a meeting with senior officers, he asked them, "Why in the name of heaven does Headquarters delay so long in according our combat men the honors they deserve?. . .Our Navy does absolutely nothing to recognize its heroes..."

LCdr Tadashi Nakajima
LCdr Tadashi Nakajima, who led the Tainan Air Group, was typical of the more senior aviators. His responsibilities were largely administrative but he tried to fly missions whenever his schedule permitted, usually with unproductive results. He led several of the early missions over Guadalcanal and survived to lead a Shiden unit in 1944. It is doubtful that Nakajima scored more than 2 or 3 kills. Author's Collection
Lt Junichi Sasai
Lt (j.g.) Junichi Sasai of the Tainan Air Group. This 1942 photo shows the young combat leader, of such men as Sakai and Nishizawa. shortly before his death over Guadalcanal. Author's Collection

Occasionally, senior officers would give gifts, such as ceremonial swords, to those pilots who had performed great services. And sometimes, superiors would try to buck the unbending system without much success. Saburo Sakai described one instance in June 1942 where the captain in charge of his wing summoned him and Lieutenant Sasai to his quarters.

Dejectedly, the captain told his two pilots how he had asked Tokyo to recognize them for their great accomplishments. "...Tokyo is adamant about making any changes at this time," he said. "They have refused even to award a medal or to promote in rank." The captain's deputy commander then said how the captain had asked that Sasai be promoted to commander — an incredible jump of three grades — and that Sakai be commissioned as an ensign.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic, yet enduring, personalities of the Zero pilots was the man who is generally acknowledged to be the top-scoring Japanese ace, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa. Saburo Sakai described him as "tall and lanky for a Japanese, nearly five feet, eight inches in height," and possessing "almost supernatural vision."

These A6M3s are from the Tainan Air Group, and several sources have identified aircraft 106 as being flown by top ace Nishizawa. Typically, these fighters carry a single centerline fuel tank. The Zero's range was phenomenal, sometimes extending to nearly 1,600 miles, making for a very long flight for its exhausted pilots. Photo courtesy of Robert Mikesh

Nishizawa kept himself usually aloof, enjoying a detached but respected status as he rolled up an impressive victory tally through the Solomons campaign. He was eventually promoted to warrant officer in November 1943. Like a few other high-scoring aces, Nishizawa met death in an unexpected manner in the Philippines. He was shot down while riding as a passenger in a bomber used to transport him to another base to ferry a Zero in late October 1944. In keeping with the established tradition, Nishizawa was posthumously promoted two ranks to lieutenant junior grade. His score has been variously given as 102, 103, and as high as 150.

However, the currently accepted total for him is 87.

Henry Sakaida, a well-known authority on Japanese pilots in World War II, wrote:

No Japanese pilot ever scored more than 100 victories! In fact, Nishizawa entered combat in 1942 and his period of active duty was around 18 months. On the other hand, Lieutenant junior grade Tetsuo Iwamoto fought from 1938 until the end of the war. If there is a top Navy ace, it's him.

Iwamoto claimed 202 victories, many of which were against U.S. Marine Corps aircraft, including 142 at Rabaul. I don't believe his claims are accurate, but I don't believe Nishizawa's total of 87, either. (I might believe 30.) Among Iwamoto's claims were 48 Corsairs and 48 SBDs! His actual score might be around 80.

Several of Sho-ichi Sugita's kills — which are informally reckoned to total 70 — were Marine aircraft. He was barely 19 when he first saw combat in the Solomons. (He had flown at Midway but saw little of the fighting.) Flying from Buin on the southern tip of Bougainville. he first scored on 1 December 1942, against a USAAF B-17. Sugita was one of the six Zero escort pilots that watched as P-38s shot down Admiral Yamamoto's Betty on 18 April 1943. There was little they could do to alert the bombers carrying the admiral and his staff since their Zeros' primitive radios had been taken out to save weight.

The problem of keeping accurate records probably came from the directive issued in June 1943 by Tokyo forbidding the recording of individual records, the better to foster teamwork in the seemingly once-invincible Zero squadrons. Prior to the directive, Japanese Zero pilots were the epitome of the hunter-pilots personified by the World War I German ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen. The Japanese Navy pilots roamed where they wished and attacked when they wanted, assured in the superiority of their fighters.

Occasionally, discipline would disappear as flight leaders dove into Allied bomber formations, their wingmen hugging their tails as they attacked with their maneuverable Zeros, seemingly simulating their Samurai role models whose expertise with swords is legendary.

Petty Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa
Petty Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa at Lae, New Guinea, in 1942. Usually considered the top Japanese ace, Navy or Army. A definitive total will probably never be determined. Nishizawa died while flying as a passenger in a transport headed for the Philippines in October 1944. The transport was caught by American Navy Hellcats, and Lt(j.g.) Harold Newell shot it down. Author's Collection
Petty Officer Sadamu Komachi
Petty Officer Sadamu Komachi flew throughout the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the Solomons, from Bougainville to the defense of the Home Islands. His final score was 18. Photo courtesy of Henry Sakaida

Most of the Japanese aces, and most of the rank-and-file pilots, were enlisted petty officers. In fact, no other combatant nation had so many enlisted fighter pilots. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had a relatively few enlisted pilots who flew in combat in World War II and for a short time in Korea. Britain and Germany had a considerable number of enlisted aviators without whose services they could not have maintained the momentum of their respective campaigns.

However, the Japanese officer corps was relatively small, and the number of those commissioned pilots serving as combat flight commanders was even smaller. Thus, the main task of fighting the growing Allied air threat in the Pacific fell to dedicated enlisted pilots, many of them barely out of their teens.

During a recent interview, Saburo Sakai shed light on the role of Japanese officer-pilots. He said:

They did fight, but generally, they were not very good because they were inexperienced. In my group, it would be the enlisted pilots that would first spot the enemy. The first one to see the enemy would lead and signal the others to follow. And the officer pilot would be back there, wondering where everyone went! In this sense, it was the enlisted pilots who led, not the officers.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division