The Zero

Robert E. Lee advised his children to avoid fiction and read biography and history so that they might know the world "as it really is."

Only recently I came upon a new paperback edition of a book originally published in 1956. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It’s called Zero, by Masatake Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi with Martin Caidin. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Martin, who was one of the most prodigious writers I’ve ever known (50 books and 1,000 magazine articles).

Okumiya was an air operations officer aboard carriers and ashore throughout World War II, and Horikoshi was the chief designer of the Japanese plane that came to be called the Zero. It’s a shame that more Americans today drive Mitsubishi automobiles than know about the Mitsubishi Zero, which played a key role in Japan’s early victories in the Pacific, including the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This is the story of that remarkable airplane, which was far superior to any that fought against it in the early months of the war. It is also the story of the Pacific War, told by men who were our enemies at that time. There is a long personal account by Saburo Sakai, the leading fighter ace who survived. He had 60 kills in air-to-air combat and made an almost miraculous nine-hour flight with half his face shot off, his left arm and leg paralyzed, blinded in one eye and his Zero badly damaged. Somehow he made it back to base and landed safely after covering 563 kilometers.

It is always valuable to read history from a different perspective. These men are not jingoists. While justly proud of Japanese accomplishments, they freely praise the courage and skill of their American opponents. One of the valuable lessons from this book is how much opposition to war there was in Japan, and what happens when a fanatical government disregards the advice of its professionals. Many Japanese officers, especially in the navy, knew that Japan had no hope of matching the industrial strength of the U.S. and Great Britain.

Japanese industry could not replace the losses, while American factories turned out new fighters and bombers literally by the thousands. That is exactly what Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and some Japanese diplomats had tried to tell army fanatics who had control of the government. They refused to listen

Japanese aviators, like their American and British counterparts, had a long fight to convince the older navy officers that the battleship would be rendered obsolete by carriers and their airplanes. Japan, like America, went into the war with huge battleships that ultimately played virtually no part at all, except to get sunk by air attacks or submarines. It really is true that generals and admirals, with some fortunate exceptions, tend to prepare to fight the last war instead of the next one.

One of the reasons 600,000 Americans died in the War of Northern Aggression was because the tactics taught to both sides came from the Napoleonic wars.

This book has a lot of information about aircraft, and if you are an aviation buff, you will enjoy it for that reason alone. And I can tell you about a real treat if you are interested in the Pacific War. In Pensacola, Fla., you can see a Japanese Zero and all of the American Navy planes that fought it at the National Museum of Naval Aviation. This is one of the outstanding museums in the world, and there is no admission charge. The museum has intact not only a Zero, but one of the American planes that actually participated in the Battle of Midway, which, in terms of American history, is just as important as the battles of Yorktown and Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the Pacific War.

Of course, the main lesson to learn from histories of wars is to avoid war if at all possible. Even victories are bought at a fearful price in blood, and the Pacific remains a graveyard of ships, planes and men.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969 to 1971, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.