If there was just one aircraft that symbolized Japanese air power during World War II, it was the Zero fighter, versions of which served throughout the Pacific War from strafing attacks at Pearl Harbor to the great carrier battle at Midway to the final defense of the Home Islands.
The birth of the legendary fighter came in 1937, with the issuance of specifications for a new fighter by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The engineering team from Mitsubishi, led by Horikoshi Jiro, submitted a design for an all-metal, low-wing monoplane that during flight trials in 1939 met or exceeded all requirements. Weighing just 5,313 lbs., much less than its Allied adversaries, the lightweight fighter boasted exceptional maneuverability, range, rate of climb and acceleration. What the airplane lacked was armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, which made it vulnerable to enemy fire. The Zero fighter made its combat debut in the skies over China in July 1940. While only 328 A6Ms were in operation at the beginning of World War II, some 11,283 examples were ultimately produced by war's end, equipping both carrier-based and land-based units.
Even before the United States entered World War II, word of the Zero’s capabilities appeared in intelligence reports emerging from China. Among those paying close attention was Lieutenant Commander John S. “Jimmy” Thach, commanding officer of Fighting Squadron (VF) 3. With the prospects of his squadron potentially confronting an enemy airplane that was faster, more maneuverable, and with a greater rate of climb than his squadron’s F4F Wildcats, Thach sought ways to gain some advantage. Using matchsticks on his kitchen table, he developed a defensive maneuver employing a two-plane section, the successful tactic eventually called the “Thach Weave.”
In the hands of experienced pilots, the Zero proved a formidable adversary during the first year of the war. However, as the war progressed, the combination of inexperienced Japanese pilots and more capable Allied fighters flown by well-trained Navy and Army Air Forces pilots turned the tables on the Zero. However, the airplane retained some of its vaunted advantages in maneuverability until the very end. An April 1945 report of performance trials at Eglin Field between a captured Zero fighter and three Army Air Forces fighters, noted “’hit and run’ tactics should be used whenever possible, and following the Zeke [Allied codename for the Zero] through any continued turning maneuvers should be strictly avoided.”
The Museum's example of the Zero is a conglomerate of components from more than one aircraft wreck discovered at an abandoned fighter strip on Ballele Island near Bougainville.
Manufacturer: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Company and Nakajima Aircraft Company
Dimensions: Length: 29 ft., 8 11/16 in.; Height: 10 ft., 1/16 in.; Wingspan: 39 ft., 4 7/16 in.
Weights: Empty: 3,704 lb.; Gross: 6,164 lb.
Power Plant: One 950 horsepower Nakajima NK1C Sakae engine
Performance: Maximum Speed: 331 M.P.H. at 14,930 ft.; Service Ceiling: 32,810 ft.; Range: 1930 miles
Armament: Two fixed forward-firing 7.7mm guns and two 20mm forward-firing cannon