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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The War Plane that Nearly was Victorious

By Tom Morrow

The company that built Japan’s most formidable aircraft during World War II is the same company whose automobiles today pass up and down freeways and streets all around the world: Mitsubishi.

Mitsubishi’s automotive origins date back to 1917, when the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co., introduced the Mitsubishi Model A, Japan’s first series-production automobile. An entirely hand-built seven-seater sedan based on the Fiat Tipo 3, it proved expensive compared to its American and European mass-produced rivals, and was discontinued in 1921 after only 22 had been built.
In 1934, Mitsubishi Shipbuilding was merged with the Mitsubishi Aircraft Co., a company established in 1920 to manufacture aircraft engines and other parts.
The unified company was known as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and was the largest private company in Japan. In 1937. Mitsubishi developed the PX33, a prototype sedan for military use. It was the first Japanese-built passenger car with full-time four-wheel drive, a technology the company would return to almost 50 years later in its quest for motorsport and sales success.
Enter World War II and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Mitsubishi A6M, a.k.a. the “Zero,” was the primary aircraft used in the attack as well as subsequent air battles such as the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea.”

On June 6, 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy’s Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters went into battle against the Zero. Throughout the Battle of Midway Allied pilots expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with the F4F Wildcat. The Commanding Officer of USS Yorktown noted:
“… The Zero fighters could easily out-maneuver and out-climb the F4F-3, and the consensus of fighter pilot opinion is the F4F-4 is even more sluggish and slower than the F4F-3. It is also felt that it was a mistake to put 6 guns on the F4F-4 and thus to reduce the rounds per gun. Many of our fighters ran out of ammunition even before the Jap dive bombers arrived over our forces; these were experienced pilots, not novices.”

The American military discovered many of the A6M’s unique attributes when they recovered a largely intact specimen of an A6M2 Zero on Akutan Island in the Aleutians of Alaska. During an air raid over Dutch Harbor on June 4, 1942, the fighter was hit by ground-based anti-aircraft fire. Losing oil, Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga attempted an emergency landing on Akutan Island about 20 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor, but his Zero flipped over on soft ground in a sudden crash-landing. The relatively-undamaged fighter was found over a month later by an American salvage team and was shipped to Naval Air Station North Island at Coronado where testing flights of the repaired Zero revealed both strengths and deficiencies in design and performance.
The experts who evaluated the captured Zero found the plane weighed about 5,200 lb., fully loaded, some 2,780 lb., lighter than the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the standard United States Navy fighter of the time.
The Zero’s airframe was “built like a fine watch;” the Zero was constructed with flush rivets, and even the guns were flush with the wings. The instrument panel was a “marvel of simplicity … with no superfluities to distract [the pilot.” What most impressed the experts was that the Zero’s fuselage and wings were constructed in one piece, unlike the American method that built them separately and joined the two parts together. The Japanese method was much slower, but resulted in a very strong structure and improved close maneuverability.

Immediately following the end of the Second World War, the company returned to manufacturing vehicles. Fuso bus production resumed, while a small three-wheeled cargo vehicle called the Mizushima and a scooter called the Silver Pigeon were also developed. However, in 1950, the zaibatsu (Japan’s family-controlled industrial conglomerates) were ordered to be dismantled by the occupying Allied powers, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was split into three regional companies, each with an involvement in motor vehicle development: West Japan Heavy-Industries, Central Japan Heavy-Industries, and East Japan Heavy-Industries.

Any Navy or Marine fighter pilot that encountered a Zero during the war will attest to the agile, formidability of the aircraft. During World War II, Mitsubishi built a total of 3,879 Zeros, most of which were shot down or destroyed by Allied aircraft, shipboard and land artillery.