Zero! Normally that’s a number signifying nothing, but to those who know history it indicates an able foe. A dainty, but lethal, dancer that cut a swath across the Pacific so bloody that for the first six months of World War Two it appeared as if nothing could stop it.
The stories that filtered back from the South Pacific initially painted a bleak picture: the Japanese had a secret weapon that could turn so sharp and hit so hard that our Wildcats and P-40’s were helpless against it.
The stories were so pervasive and the victories so lop sided that the Japanese themselves began to believe their airplane was invincible. But, they were wrong. Our pilots quickly learned how to fight the little devil (never turn with it, use slash and dash techniques). More important, the Zero was so successful that Japanese high command saw no reason to plan for a follow-on design. This was to be a fateful decision. Allied technology moved ever forward, eventually fielding designs that would rewrite the outcome of the war.
The secret to the Mitsubishi Reisen Type Zero A6M (code name Zeke) series of airplanes was a low power to weight ratio. However, when the design specifications were laid down in the late ’30s, there were few engines in Japan that put out much over 1000 hp, so Jiro Horikoshi, the Mitsubishi designer, had to meet the governments goals with modest power. To get the speed and range demanded by the specifications required building an airframe that weighed 4,300 pounds empty, about the same weight as an AT-6 Texan, while a Hellcat weighed over twice that.
The Japanese high command was also mired down in the belief that aerial combat always came back down to the turning dogfight typical of WW I where a light wing loading was necessary to pull a tight circle. However, the very key to its success, its light weight, was also one of the keys to its undoing.
To build the airplane that light Horikoshi had to eliminate as much metal as possible. For instance, he made the fuselage formers an integral part of the wing spar and eliminated the center section. The one-piece wing made it impossible to produce sub components in widely scattered, easily protected cottage industry workshops.
The Zero was wildly labor intensive, which is why barely 10,000 Zeros were built during its seven year life span. Nearly every American fighter topped the 10,000 mark in barely half the time.
The super light structure also meant the six .50 caliber machine guns on an American fighter could literally chew it to pieces. Designed strictly as an offensive machine, Japanese command saw no reason to mount self-sealing gas tanks or pilot armor. They couldn’t envision anyone getting in position to shoot at it so why protect the pilot? Enemy arrogance may well have been the single largest contributing factor to Allied victory.
By the end of the first year of war, we knew how to fight the Zero. By the second year, the rugged and tight turning Grumman F6F Hellcat and tank-like Corsair could take the fight to the enemy and whip it on its own playing field.
The Japanese eventually did put some competitive fighters into the fight, but it was too little, too late. In the end, the Zero and its peer group were overpowered by sheer numbers and advancing technology and, where it had once been the scourge of the skies, the Zero was reduced to a scrappy little foe just trying to survive.
–BY BUDD DAVISSON