When Mitsubishi AGM Rei-sen entered service in 1940, Western military experts ignored reports that the Japanese military had a world-class warplane. How wrong they were. The plane – better known as ‘Zeke’ or ‘Zero’ – dominated the skies at the start of World War II. The single-seat, low-wing monoplane proved to be the most capable carrier-based fighter in service at the time, and it gave the Japanese naval forces near-guaranteed air superiority.
The A6M, which was designed by Horikoshi Jiro, was also known to be the first carrier-based fighter capable of beating ground-based opponents. However, from 1943 the tide turned against the Zero with the introduction of more capable Allied fighters.
It was fast and nimble
The A6M was produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and was initially powered by a 14-cylinder Nakajima Sakae air-cooled radial engine (two staggered rows of seven) which developed 1,020 horsepower. It was not a powerful engine, but the designers did everything to reduce weight.
However, the effort to make it fast and light also meant that it had very little armor and was vulnerable to even the lightest caliber enemy weaponry. This was not a problem when the aircraft’s speed and agility allowed it to dominate the skies, but as more capable Allied aircraft took on the Zero, it proved deadly for the Japanese pilots. It was certainly never even able to overpower the Grumman F4F Wildcat, whose heavier armament and rugged construction made up for its slightly inferior performance and agility.
Later models of the aircraft were fitted with a 1,130 horsepower engine to spin its three-bladed propeller at a constant speed. The aircraft’s top speed was 350 miles per hour (565 km/h) at nearly 20,000 feet (6,100 m).
The Zero was armed with two 7.7 millimeter machine guns and two 20 millimeter cannons in its wings; it could carry two 132-pound (59.9 kilogram) bombs under the wings.
Zero is not really his name
The plane was never officially designated the “Zero”, nor was it even known as such by the pilots who flew the plane. The Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen was officially designated by the Imperial Japanese Navy as the “Rei-shiki-kanj -sent ki – Type 0 Carrier Fighter”, and the most common nickname comes from the fact that it was basically named for the Japanese year. 2600 (1940).
Japanese military equipment of the time was named for the year – as noted in weapons such as the Type 99 light machine gun which was introduced in 1939. Interestingly, the same year the Mitsubishi A6M was introduced, the Imperial Japanese Army introduced the “Hyaku-shiki kikan-tanj”, also known as the Type 100 submachine gun. It is still unclear why the IJN used “0” while the IJA used ” 100″ for the same year.
Most-produced Japanese aircraft of the war
More Zeros were manufactured during World War II than any other Japanese aircraft, and production continued until the very end of the conflict. Sources vary, but somewhere between 10,499 and 10,939 were produced during the Pacific War.
Some 125 Zeros took part in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and only nine failed to make it back.
Almost zero survival
Today, there are less than twenty surviving Zeros in the world and only a handful in their original state. Most of the museums were restored wrecks, and aircraft still airworthy had their engines replaced with American units. Only the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California has an intact Zero with the original Sakae engine.
The aircraft is so rare that film and television productions have had the single-seat North American T-6 Texan – heavily modified and painted with Japanese markings – replacing the Zeros. Such planes were seen in the film Torah! Torah! Torah! and The final Countdownas well as the television series Black Sheep Squadron.
An original A6M5 Type 0 Model 52, a variant built in the later stages of World War II, appeared in Michael Bay’s 2001 epic wearing pearls, the model is anachronistic for the time. In addition, this aircraft and the other replicas used in the film were painted green, as if they were Japanese army aircraft. In fact, the zeros of the IJN that attacked Pearl Harbor were silver, but Bay said he liked the look of the plane and that it would help the public tell the “good guys from the bad guys.”
Today’s editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military hardware and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A Gallery of Military Headdress, available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a contributing writer for Forbes.