Mitsubishi A6M Zero:
Terror of the Pacific
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
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
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 ‘30’s, there were
few engines in Japan that put out much over 1000 hp, so Jiro Horikoshi,
the Mitsubishi designer, had to meet the government’s 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
The Japanese high command was also mired down in the belief that aerial
combat always came back down to the turning dogfight typical of WWI
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 Zero’s
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
By the end of the first y ear 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.
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