View Full Version : Some historical perspective on the Pacific Air War

11-07-2004, 05:04 PM
Below I'm going to post a lengthy exert from the book "Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific" by Eric M. Bergerud. It is a very interesting read and I hope that people here learn something from it.

This matter leads to the larger issue of feelings held toward the Japanese on the park of American airmen. This is a complex matter and generalizations are precarious, to say the least. On one hand there was genuine respect for the obvious bravery of the Japanese. This view was expressed after the war by Major General Richard Carmichael, who during the conflict served as commander of General Kenney€s 19th Bomb Group and spent a year in a Japanese POW camp:

We always respected the Japanese. I never looked down on them. They were formidable. We had a lot of respect for their pilots. The best Japanese pilots were the Navy pilots in the beginning. We were against Navy pilots every time we ran up to Rabaul. In the first part of the war, those were real fine pilots. They wasted away their really trained pilots, I guess, within the first year or so€¦ I don€t think anybody had any doubt in their minds that they were up against a real smart, aggressive enemy.

On the other hand racial hatreds and the legacy of Pearl Harbor had an undeniable impact. LeRoy Smith reflected on this years after the war but made the simple yet easily forgotten observation that Americans and Japanese lived on the other side of what was, in cultural terms, a much larger world than today€s:

We didn€t have much good to say about the Japanese. Everyone knew that they were brave or crazy. Some of the guys just hated them. When we first took Guadalcanal, we captured a bunch of construction workers who were building what we called Henderson Field. I heard stories that guys would go up on a little hill with their rifles and take pot shots at the prisoners in the pen down below. I never saw it, and maybe it didn€t even happen, but it gives you an idea of how some guys thought. Hell, a friend of mine a little while ago ribbed me for driving my old Japanese pickup. But you should remember we were really distant from the Japanese. Most Americans didn€t know a **** thing about them or their country. It wasn€t like the French or Germans, or Russians and Poles who were neighbors and always fighting wars. I don€t think I had ever seen a Japanese before I entered the navy before the war. America was a big island then. There was a lot we didn€t know.

Much the same, no doubt, could have been said about the Japanese. Regardless of feelings of cultural antipathy, nations do not normally go to war to faraway countries because they do not like the people involved. The fighting personnel of both nations were stationed at the end of the Earth, from their point of view, struggling over land that none of them had ever heard of for causes that were most abstract.

In addition, the military regime governing Japan showed a remarkable callousness towards the lives of fighting men. Assuming that everyone would do their duty, and that their men considered death in war an honor, the Imperial High Command did much to waste some of their most precious human assets. There was no policy of rotation for units and individual pilots. Units were reassigned, and if one was demolished its remnants might be sent to Japan for rebuilding. No doubt wise commanders found excuses to reassign pilots when their performance began to deteriorate, as happens in almost every case at some point. Normally, however, Japanese pilots served until they were killed, wounded, or evacuated because of disease. In addition, there was no formal policy of air-sea rescue for downed pilots. Commander M. Okumiya was a squadron leader on Rabaul with 2,200 hours of flying experience. Wounded, he was promoted and reassigned to staff duty in Tokyo. Immediately after the war, Okumiya told American officers:

Pilots generally had parachutes, life preservers, and rafts. Seaplanes, subs, and destroyers were sometimes used to search for downed fliers. But this depended entirely on the will of the division commander. There was no organized system at all. This was one of the big differences in your approach and ours. Your whole philosophy was different. Approximately 20,000 naval pilots were trained during war, and approximately 9,500 of them were killed.

The Japanese indifference toward their own men quickly was manifested in their treatment of the enemy. One of the intellectual errors concerning the Pacific war, at least in its early stages, was that racial hatred was central to the mutual butchery that ensued. This, in my opinion, was a minor factor. Far more important was the impression passed on from man to man on the front that the Japanese asked no quarter and gave none. The closer Allied pilots were to combat, I think, the worse was their opinion of the Japanese as humans.

Like all American servicemen fighter pilots were infuriated by Pearl Harbor. The Allied defeats that followed were viewed as a kind of mugging. Even worse, I think, all of the Allied pilots had heard horror stories-many true-of brutal mistreatment and executions of prisoners of war. Wake and Bataan, which show the Japanese in a miserable light in retrospect, were exaggerated by the eternal military grapevine. Although the details are not exact, apparently the Japanese executed some thirty American fliers captured over Rabaul. It was common practice for American fliers above the rank of lieutenant not to wear insignias into combat, because they feared that if downed and captured they would be tortured by the Japanese military police to learn military intelligence.

From the point of view of a fighter pilot, however, the treatment afforded a pilot who bailed from a stricken aircraft was of utmost importance. Warfare is an ethical swamp, and this issue is a perfect example of the deadly ambiguity facing men in the field. In retrospect it is obvious that aircraft and not pilots were the limiting factor in operations in the South Pacific. This was probably true in other theaters as well. At the time, however, this would not have been at all clear. Fighter pilots would have known better than anyone that a skilled opponent was a military asset well worth denying the enemy. If one side was attacking the other, seeing a plane go down and the pilot in a parachute meant that the pilot might well be in battle again quickly. A violent logic would argue that killing the pilot along with the aircraft was a justifiable military act. Unlike prisoners taken in a ground fight, if a pilot parachuted over his own lines he was likely to be back in action. A certain logic would argue that killing the pilot was as important as killing the aircraft.

A comparison between the Pacific and European Theaters in this regard sheds light. In practice, although few European theater pilots like to discuss it, many men were shot in their parachutes. An overly excited or fatigued pilot, especially one who had lost a wingman, was an obvious candidate to smoke an enemy before he reached safety. Yet on the Western Front men in €˜chutes were relatively safe. German pilots over Britain in 1940 usually allowed RAF pilots to bail safely, perhaps because the war between the two nations had yet to reach the violent crescendo that later developed. When the Allies went on the offensive in Europe there was an obvious deal between the opposing sides. Luftwaffe pilots and German troops on the ground usually imprisoned the huge numbers of Allied airmen who parachuted out of stricken bombers. In return Allied fighters allowed German fighter pilots to float to the ground even though they knew many would be up in the air again within days. Most of the great German aces in the West were shot down several times. Killing those men on the way down would have saved many Allied planes, but the Luftwaffe would have taken its revenge in spades. Consequently the two sides concluded that they had a vested interest in conducting a harsh air war with some trappings of ancient chivalry.

This bond born of violent necessity was never made in the Pacific war. The Japanese made it a practice to shoot Allied pilots in their €˜chutes from the start of the war and never ceased the practice. It is impossible to say to what degree this policy reflected circumstance or military ethos. Although it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which Japanese military ideology penetrated the intelligent men flying fighters, there can be little doubt that they shared in the cult of death that permeated the Japanese military. To give or show mercy in traditional Bushido was a complex subject. When the warrior code was mass-produced for the nation after the Meiji Restoration the idea of surrender was considered something close to treason or, worse yet, of cowardice. From this logic terrible things flowed. Suicide in the early stage of the war was not the norm for Japanese pilots. Most pilots carried parachutes knowing that they could land in friendly hands. (Even over Guadalcanal there was a Japanese zone of control until imperial forces were expelled in February 1943.) But not even that expedient was required. Simple pilot armor was available early in the war, yet few men took advantage of it. If an honorable and sacred death was preferable to captivity, then it followed that destroying enemy aircraft and crew was likewise acceptable because the victims had sacrificed honor. We will never know how the Pacific air war would have developed had the Japanese followed the Luftwaffe practice of allowing downed pilots to live. However, in practice the Imperial forces began a vicious correlation of killing that did not end until VJ-Day.

Whatever the motivation, it was common for Japanese pilots to shoot helpless victims. During the large air battle of June 7th, 1943, some of which is related above, Corsair pilot Lieutenant Samuel Logan experienced the practice but lived to describe it:

I saw two Zeros chasing a New Zealand P-40. I followed them down trying to close in on the tail of the Zero. When I was about 500 yards away, my plane suddenly began to vibrate and shake. I pulled up the nose but it continued to stall and shake worse than ever. I hadn€t seen any tracers but I turned and saw that my rudder was mostly shot away and that I had very little elevator control. The nose kept dropping. Suddenly I saw a Zero go past me from behind. I hadn€t known one was there. My plane was getting out of control so I opened the greenhouse, got out, and crawled back along the fuselage, clear to the tail. I didn€t have a chin strap on my helmet, so it blew off with my goggles, and for a while I couldn€t see a thing. I jumped but made the mistake of pulling my ripcord too soon. It worked OK and I was at about 20,000 feet. I was trying to pull up into the seat of the chutes when I heard kind of a €˜put-put€ behind me, the noise of machine gun fire. I swung around in my chute and saw a Zero making a run on me from behind firing with two machine guns. He missed but went so close under me that I had to jerk up my feet to avoid being hit by the prop. When he passed by, he did a wingover and made a second run on me. I was trying to collapse the chute to speed up my descent, but couldn€t do it. I was pretty high and weak from lack of oxygen. He missed again and then wheeled around and came back for a third run with both guns firing. I was busy trying to spill the air out of the chute, and I now had it partially collapsed. This time though, I didn€t think to pull up my feet. The prop hit me. I thought at first my feet were gone, but then saw that only the heel had been taken off my left foot. He made another run before the New Zealand P-40 I saw before came along and chased him off. It seemed to take ages to hit the water, and I had to fight to keep from passing out. Several Corsairs and P-40s were around so I figured I€d get picked up soon. I put a tourniquet on my right leg. The bit toe and the one next to it were on, but all the outside and rest were cut off just above the ankle-kind of a sideways cut. My left heel was cut too. I gave myself two morphine surettes and I took four sulfa tablets. The morphine started to do its work, things began to go dim, and I lay back and relaxed.

Lieutenant Logan was quickly picked up. His foot was later amputated. However, as we can see from another account, this practice was not a Japanese specialty. In August 1943, during one of the big air battles of the Munda-Bougainville campaign, a large group of inexperienced Zero pilots tangled with veteran American Corsair and P-40 pilots who went on a rampage. U.S. Army Lieutenant Lucien Shuler, a P-40 pilot, was in the fight. Already an ace, Shuler added to his score:

Lt. Shuler made a pass on another Zero, from left-rear quarter, he fired and the Zero rocked its wings and fell off in a roll to the right. Lt. Shuler followed in the roll, firing as he went. The Zero pulled out into a shallow dive, Lt. Shuler fired from behind and the Zero started burning. The canopy came off, and the pilot stood up in the cockpit. The parachute opened, pulling the pilot out of the plane and into the cone of fire from Lt. Shuler€s guns. When last seen the parachute was blazing.

Robert DeHaven put well the thoughts of many veterans of the air war in the South Pacific:

In my memory there was nothing racial to explain the intensity of the hatred of the Pacific War. It never came up. This is hard to explain now, but absolutely true. We considered them a despicable people but it wasn€t the same thing as racism. We learned from the performance of the enemy. There were no prisoners. They didn€t believe in it. I saw the strafing of an American pilot in a parachute. We retaliated and the result was a mind-numbing involvement in the Pacific that I don€t think existed in Europe. The war was very personal, not machine versus machine. Sometimes you could see the enemy in their cockpits. It was fleeting, but I looked two of them in the face. The days of chivalry were certainly over in the Pacific. Everything was amplified. There was Pearl Harbor and the other savage events of the war. But it involved us, too. When we returned from a mission we faced dust, mud, heat, insects, and all of the things that made New Guinea a miserable place. Any men had times when he very much would have preferred to have been somewhere else. But the Japanese had started the war so our danger and physical suffering were because of them. We were in New Guinea, the end of the world, because of the Japanese. We held that against them. There was no remorse when an enemy pilot died.

Joel Paris shared DeHaven€s thoughts but with even more feeling:

The war was nasty in the Pacific. We never let anybody reach the ground alive unless they were coming down over our own territory where they€d get captured. If we could help it they were going to die. It would be stupid- we were there trying to kill them. If they got on the ground, they were going to be up tomorrow. Ours was a war of annihilation. In Europe it was a little more restrained in the air. We were intent on killing them and they were intent on killing us. None of our pilots reached the ground alive if the Japs could kill €˜em. We didn€t give any quarter and they didn€t either. We had six or eight pilots shot down over Japanese lines and captured. Not one survived the war. I don€t have much grief for the Japanese. I was working on killing them until the war ended. I€ve never forgiven them for Bataan and the POW camps. No apologies. They were so cruel. Even before the war some people talked about how civilized the Japanese were. How could they do what they did? They showed cruelty to everybody, not just to us.

The world of fighter combat in the South Pacific, like much of war, defied concrete description. The varieties of men and motives were as broad as the theater was large. Edwards Park, in his splendid autobiographical account of the war in the theater, not only described the types of men involved but also touched on an affection held by man toward the machines that they flew into combat:

There were many pilots I knew who honestly loved what they were doing, who could not rest easy until they felt they had flailed the skies and loosed a hail of bullets at every enemy plane that ever flew. They would complain when they had a day off; they would moan when their mission did not invite combat. I knew these young men and some of them I quite liked. But I never understood them.

There were others who were devoted to the whole exercise of flight to the exclusion of everything else. They tended to abhor combat because it might be injurious to their planes, but they would accept it as a technological plateau that their machines were built to achieve. They could talk about nothing but aviation; they were doing what they loved and knew best though admittedly not the war they€d like to do it.

Most of the men I knew were civilian groundlings at heart who joined up quite simply to fight for their country, whatever that meant, and went bouncing through this strange and savage environment with varying degrees of tolerance and endurance. Some found themselves flying fast little aircraft and firing guns. Some were sent home for psychiatric treatment. Some were naturally good at it, but hated it; some were naturally poor at it, but loved it.

Steve [A squadronmate-EB] was quite good at the job because he worked at it. He also had a dimension of responsibility that fitted him for command. Guppy [another squadronmate-EB] was very good at the job (he became an ace) despite the fact that he despised every minute of it and plotted incessantly to find a way safely out. I was quite poor at it most of the time and more or less resigned to being marked for destruction. But I was saved by a breathtakingly lovely brown-grey-green Airacobra with a delicious smell all her own who accepted me with resignation and then incredibly, with a stirring of her pure metallic soul that can only be called a kind of love. She saved me again and again, and she nurtured me and equipped me, at least for survival. Yes. Nanette. I still remember you, Nanette.

Despite a long and brutal campaign, marked on both sides by a multitude of tactical successes and failures, one inexorable trend became clear in 1943: Japan was going to lose the contest between fighters in the South Pacific. What had started as a Japanese victory slowly turned into a catastrophe for Tokyo. As usual, Robert DeHaven put the situation well and succinctly:

Starting in 1943 the P-38 and our other modern fighters posed tactical problems for the Japanese that they had no answer for. Compound that with the growing inexperience and aircrew degradation suffered by Japan, their situation was hopeless.

But worse was to come for Tokyo. With their fighters stalemated or defeated they could not prevent the Allies from making full use of their airpower. Air transport kept alive a major Australian land campaign in New Guinea and proved invaluable elsewhere. Allied photo and reconnaissance units watched every move made by Japanese naval units. Worst of all, by checking the power of Imperial fighters, Allied fighters mad the skies safe for Allied bombers. The fighters may have opened the door to the Japanese Empire, but the bombers kicked it in.

Bravo if you actually had the time and patience to read it all. Anyone learn anything or was it simply more of the things you've already heard?

11-07-2004, 05:10 PM
Testing to see if I fixed my sig or not.

11-07-2004, 05:20 PM
Test Number 2.

11-07-2004, 05:26 PM
Your Sig ain't shown my man.


11-07-2004, 05:27 PM
good post by the way.

11-07-2004, 08:22 PM
Good post. Stuff I didn't know. Thanks.

11-07-2004, 08:44 PM
Thanks for sharing - a good read for my lunch break http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif.



11-07-2004, 09:09 PM
Interesting post: the bit about the Western Front reminds me that during the Battle of Britain, Dowding (l believe) felt that the Luftwaffe would have been justified in shooting bailed out RAF pilots, because they were landing on English soil and could be back in the air within the day. German pilots were destined to become POWs so there was no point in shooting them.

11-08-2004, 07:05 AM
Glad some people were able to learn something from this. It's a great book, I certainly recommend buying it; It contains information about both sides of the conflict but focuses on the Allied Side, the USN/USAAF and the RAAF/NZRAAF.

Anyone feel free to post exerts from other books, share the wealth of knowledge. http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif