Aces of the Imperial Japanese Navy


 Henry Sakaida




Tom Cleaver





At the outbreak of the Pacific War, the pilots and aircrew of the Imperial Japanese Navy were the best-trained naval aviators in the world. Their only close competition came from their opponents in the U.S. Navy, and the IJNAF had something the USN couldn't touch: combat experience over China since 1937. Not only did they have the edge in training, their aircraft were among the best of their types: the Nakajima B5N being the best torpedo bomber extant while the Aichi D3A was a thoroughly competent dive bomber. But the best of all was the Mitsubishi A6M Type 0, the immortal "Zero." It could fly rings around its opponents, land or sea-based, and as well had a range more than triple that of any other fighter in the world; for much of the first six months of the war the Allies were convinced the Japanese Navy had more aircraft carriers than they did, because that was the only explanation they had for the farflung appearances of the agile and aggressive Zeros that decimated Allied ranks.

During the war, IJN fighter pilots were completely anonymous to their foes, unlike the situation in Europe where the top pilots on either side were known to their opponents. This anonymity in part was due to an official Japanese Navy policy of not recognizing individual achievement, a policy based on longtime Japanese social imperatives that subordinate the individual to the group. After the war these men considered themselves disgraced and remained mostly private. Only Saburo Sakai, the top-scoring surviving ace of the war, became known outside of Japan due to the publication of his book, "Samurai!" co-written with Martin Caidin and published in 1955. Despite the fact that it is now known Sakai pulled his punches in describing his experiences, the book was and is a fascinating look at "the other side," and his descriptions of Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Naoshi Kanno, Kaneyoshi Muto and Sadaaki Akamatsu were the first mention of these great pilots anywhere outside of the memories of those who had known them during the war. Over the fifty years since the war, other names have become known in a hit-and-miss fashion, but to date there has been no concerted effort to pull together a comprehensive commentary on the actions and achievements of the fighter pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy outside of Japan.

It helps that in the 1970s, the pilots began to come together in such organizations as the Zero Pilots Association, so they could be tracked down by western historical researchers.

Henry Sakaida, author of the present volume, is a well-known amateur aviation historian here in Southern California, who got into the field by researching various events and putting together the pilots who had opposed each other. In the process he came to know many of the aces - an alarming number of whom are listed in this book as having died in recent years, making his research and contacts where he gathered first-hand accounts even more valuable.

This book covers the war in China, the opening phase of the Pacific War, the Battle of Midway, the Solomons Campaign, the Central Pacific Campaign, and the defense of the Home Islands. In the process, some very interesting individuals like the very un-Japanese, highly-individualistic Akamatsu, the fearless Shoichi Sugita, Takeo Tanimizu, and Tetsuzo Iwamoto - pilots whose names and achievements are somewhat known to modelers - are fleshed out as fairly-complete human beings; not only these men but many other unknowns become known as a result of this book.

My only wish is that the book had been better-edited. Sakaida is a marvelous researcher, but not a professional writer. An editing for readability would have gotten rid of some brain-twisters, as well as made Sakaida read as intelligently as those of us who know him know he is.

Regardless of the editing gaffes, this book continues Osprey Publishing's plan of giving modelers not only information about the airplanes they want to re-create, but knowledge of the truly interesting individuals who made those airplanes as famous as they are. While the colors in the profiles have - in the case of the A5M4 Claude and the early A6M1 Model 11 and A6M2 Model 21 Zeros - been superseded by later information, there is certainly a wealth of ideas for making models where the modeler knows the name of the man who flew the real thing.

Highly recommended.