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Japanese army aces

[This material is based on an English-language typescript by Yasuho Izawa in response to questions by an American historian. Some is original, much is from Nihon rikugun sentokitai (JAAF Fighter Units) which Dr. Izawa wrote jointly with Ikuhiko Hata (Kantosha, 1977). (The link is to the English translation on Amazon.com.) I've edited the text for clarity--in effect, making an unauthorized new translation. Remember that the "I" in the paragraphs below is Dr. Izawa, not me! My comments are in brackets. -- Dan Ford]

Victories--the way they were credited

I have heard that no firm way of confirming aerial victories existed either in the army or the navy. In Japanese Imperial Forces there was no emphasis on individual accomplishments, with the result that in fierce combat there was a tendency to over-estimate total victories, and there was no mechanism for correcting this tendency at any level of command.

I think that both army and navy victories were recorded in this way: After a combat mission, each participating pilot reported the circumstances of his combat, his success, the fate of his comrades, etc., to his superior--in the case of the army, his sentai commander or chutai leader. The superior then summed up the reports of all his pilots. If there were reports from friendly grounds troops, steps of someone's victories [?], or intercepts of enemy reports of losses, these might be added to the summary.

There was no operations or intelligence officer whose job it was to sum up and evaluate the unit's results. Instead, it was usually an NCO who wrote the combat reports.

Army units had the custom of writing up individual victories, so I heard, but to date I have seen only two units' combat reports. They were the 77th Sentai for the period December 1941 to April 1944, and the 64th Sentai for the years 1937-1939. [Both groups fought against the AVG in Burma and China.] The reports of the 77th were captured by U.S. troops at Hollandia in 1944, where the group ended its history. The reports of the 64th were kept by a former sergeant-pilot of the unit until the war ended.

Seventy percent of the reports of navy flying units are on file in the war history chamber of the Japan Defense Agency, but the majority of them contain only the combat summary, the names of the participating pilots, and the unit's total victories--not individual victories.

We aviation historians have to estimate individual victories from these records, supplemented by newspaper articles, stories of the surviving pilots, and pilot diaries (there are many of these) and log books (very few--I saw only eight of them). So if we know of a pilot who achieved considerable success, but there are no details, we must guess at his score. The majority of Japanese aces are in this category.

[Dr. Izawa doesn't mention another factor that confused the accounting. A Japanese pilot might "give" his victory to a dead comrade (the AVG had a similar tradition) or to his commander, as a repayment of the giri or filial obligation owed to a superior officer. - Dan]

Awards and citations

Except for the high brass (I have no interest in them), the only medal awarded to a Japanese soldier was one of several degrees of kinshi-kunsho or Order of the Golden Kite, and that was given upon his death in combat. In addition to valor, a soldier's everyday conduct was also considered. So was his rank: for the same accomplishment, an officer would receive a medal one higher degree than an NCO.

The policy of honoring only the dead was waived on three occasions. Surviving soldiers who did well in combat received kinshi-kunsho medals in 1895 for the first Japanese-China war, in 1905 for the Russo-Japanese war, and in 1940 for the "China Incident" and the Nomonkan border conflict with Russia. [That explains why some pilots who fought against the Allies in the Pacific War were decorated, including Major Tateo Kato of the 64th Sentai.]

The Japanese Imperial forces paid high respects--sometimes I think too high respects--to the dead. Soldiers killed in combat were promoted one rank posthumously. The especially distinguished dead--including all kamikaze pilots--were promoted two ranks. [Kato was a lieutenant colonel when he was shot down in May 1942 by a British turret gunner aptly named McLucky, but was promoted to the rank of general and the status of "war god."] On some occasions, unit commanders made beautiful stories for the dead.

In 1943, with victories harder to come by, commanding generals and admirals at the front sometimes gave citations on an unsystematic basis to living soldiers who had distinguished themselves in spite of harsh conditions, or gave a sword for gallantry.

In late 1944, the army established the bukosho or Distinguished Service Order, divided into ko and otsu (A and B) degrees. Several living fighter pilots received this medal. Similarly, the navy issued citations to living fighter pilots (including Sakai and Sugita) in 1945, but did not give medals to the living after 1941.

Continued: Top scoring JAAF aces