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Japanese aircraft code-names in perspective

Richard L. Dunn © 2005

The aircraft code-name FAGOT may not ring a bell. It is the code-name of one of the most famous fighters in the world. It is not a code-name for a Japanese aircraft but is part of an elaborate system of code-names adopted by NATO early in the Cold War to identify Soviet aircraft. FAGOT is the code-name for the MiG-15. The MiG-15 designation is well known even by many people who are not aviation buffs. The name FAGOT is known by far fewer people and not regularly used even by those who know it! Why is this? My guess is that it doesn't make much sense to use a code-name when the official name is known and easy to use.

The FAGOT example suggests a question, why do World War Two aviation buffs, including many serious historians, persist in using code-names for aircraft whose actual designations are well known? Please note: I am not now referring to quoting or paraphrasing a combat report or contemporaneous document that uses the term. That is entirely legitimate. Rather, why are code-names in general use in preference to well-known official designations or terminology actually used by those who flew or built the aircraft? We don't do this for the MiG-15 or the FW-190 (S.W.P.A. code-name FRED) but we do it for OSCAR and VAL and BETTY. Sometimes ZEKE is used for Zero but this seems less frequent.

This essay will not attempt to answer the question posed in the previous paragraph. Instead, it will review the origins of code-names and suggest some of the fallacies or inaccuracies involved in their general use.

The NATO code-name system was apparently adopted in part because the Soviet Union's closed totalitarian system kept many new aircraft designations shrouded in secrecy. Codenames were used to identify aircraft systematically before their official designations became known. This seems a perfectly legitimate use of aircraft code-names. In order to make a comprehensive system code-names were awarded even to some earlier aircraft with known designations. After the aircraft's official designation becomes firmly established you would expect the code-name to fall into disuse. This happened in the case of many Soviet aircraft that remained in use long after their official designation became known. For example, FAGOT fell into disuse while BEAR, so evocative of the big Tu-95 and a symbol of Russian might, retained substantial currency. This suggests one of the lines of inquiry to be investigated. Were Japanese aircraft code-names adopted because their official designations were unknown? Did they continue in use because they were somehow more useful than official designations?


Many Japanese aircraft and their official designations used in the opening months of the Pacific War were already known to Allied intelligence services prior to the war. Most of the Japanese aircraft had been fairly well described and often illustrated in aircraft recognition manuals. It is, however, clear that the most up to date manuals had received less than universal distribution or had not been carefully studied since many reports written early in the war use descriptive terms rather than designations to identify enemy aircraft encountered.

Some aircraft such as the Mitsubishi Type Zero Carrier-based fighter (REI-SHIKI KANJO SENTOKI) rapidly became well known and were identified by various terms including "Zero", "Navy Zero", or "Navy Nought." On the other hand, the Japanese army's Type 1 fighter which had not seen combat over China prior to the Pacific War was unknown to Allied intelligence at the beginning of the war. When encountered in combat it too was often identified as a Zero.

The Japanese navy's Type 96 Land-attack bomber (KYU-ROKU SHIKI RIKUJO KOGEKIKI) was relatively well known, as was the army's Type 97 Heavy bomber (heavy bomber - JUBAKUGEKIKI). The navy's newer Type 1 Land-attack bomber was more illusive and was usually identified as one of the other two. Eventually it was recognized as a separate type and a variety of descriptive terms ("Wellington type" or "pointed nose" bomber) were applied to it.

The pattern in the early months of the war followed by the Americans, British Commonwealth, Chinese and Dutch forces was to apply official designations when known and use descriptive terms when no designation was known. Identifications like "four-engine flying boat similar to Sikorsky S-42" were used.

An attempt was made to standardize aircraft identifications by assigning serial numbers to aircraft. Serial numbers applied whether the official designation was known or unknown. The serial was generally used in conjunction with an official designation when known and in conjunction with a descriptive term if the official designation was unknown. This system was adopted in the Southwest Pacific Area but was never fully implemented. The Zero fighter being well known was almost never referred to by its serial number "Serial 48." This system was widely used in the S.W.P.A. among intelligence officers and in official reports but never seems to have fully displaced commonly known official designations among many aircrew members.

The serial number system apparently gained no hold in the China-Burma-India Theater or with the U.S. Navy outside the S.W.P.A. In those theaters the mix of official designations and descriptive terminology continued. "Official designations" used by the Allies were not always entirely correct. The Japanese navy terminology "Land-attack bomber" in intercepted radio messages was initially mistranslated as "army bomber" by the Allies. This resulted in some confusion. The existence of the navy's Zero and the army's Type 1 fighter gave rise to the notion that there were two types of Zeros. Conveniently two designations for the Zero gained currency, the "Mitsubishi Zero" and the "Nagoya Zero." U.S. Navy pilots seemed to encounter more "Nagoya Zeros" than "Mitsubishi Zeros." This "confusion" seems not to have interfered with the combat performance of U.S. Navy fighters.

As months of the war passed the Allies gradually gathered more intelligence and were better able to accurately identify Japanese aircraft. Data plates from aircraft fuselages and other components were recovered, prisoners were taken, and documents captured. Conflicting data was checked. Recognition manuals were revised. By the second half of 1942 most of the aircraft in frequent use by the Japanese in the early months of the war had been identified by the Allies. At this point it was possible to apply reasonably accurate official designations to most aircraft likely to be encountered.

The Allies used shorthand versions of known designations almost from the beginning. The prime example is the simple "Zero" for "Type Zero Carrier-based fighter." In written notation "T. 97 H.B." often replaced "Type 97 Heavy bomber."

If, as indicated above, the Allies had a fairly good handle on Japanese official aircraft designations, why introduce a code-name system? The reason is certainly not entirely clear but the examples in the preceding paragraph may suggest what was thought to be a potential problem. Aside from the Mitsubishi/Nagoya Zero canard it was discovered that the Zero fighter was not the only "Type Zero." The Japanese had several Type Zeros (some misidentified as such by the Allies) including two different floatplanes and a transport aircraft. The Type 97 "heavy bomber" was a medium bomber by Allied standards and was often referred to as such.

The Allies did not have a uniform system of identifying Japanese aircraft during most of 1942. There was a common feature that evolved and was used in the various systems, however. That is, when the official Japanese designation was known, it, or a shorthand version of it, was used or made part of the designation adopted. The system was flexible and accommodated unknown aircraft including newly fielded types by utilizing descriptive terms to identify them. For example: the Mark Two version of the Zero fighter (later designated model 32) was identified by the Allies as a "square wing Zero" or "Mark II Zero."

It may not be entirely possible to explain the adoption of a system of code-names for Japanese aircraft designations when a seemingly workable system was in place and gradually evolving. The story of how the code-name system was adopted may be of interest to students of organizational behavior or historians interested in the style and personality of Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, however.


In July 1942 Maj. Gen. George Churchill Kenney left his post as commander of the 4th Air Force in the western United States and headed for the Southwest Pacific where he would take over as commander of the U.S. 5th Air Force and also the Allied Air Forces in the S.W.P.A. The southwest Pacific was then the most active combat area in the Pacific. After a whirlwind inspection tour Kenney took over his new post on August 4th. His new command needed a shake up. Kenney perceived there was too much dead wood and too few "operators" in his organization to get done the things he considered necessary. Kenney made it clear to his staff that it was results not bureaucratic niceties that he sought.

Much good work had been going on under Kenney's predecessor Lt. Gen. George Brett. The intelligence staff at Allied air-headquarters (Australians as well as Americans) had been collecting information and photographs of Japanese aircraft, armament and air organization. They proposed a comprehensive manual on the subject. Noting the lack of uniformity in Japanese aircraft designations, a system of code-names was suggested for inclusion in the document. Frank T. McCoy of Kenney's intelligence staff selected most of the names and many betrayed his background and penchant for names common or unique to the Ozarks or other parts of the southern United States.

In September 1942 "Intelligence Information Memorandum No. 12, Japanese Air Services and Japanese Aircraft" was published. It was an impressive and professionally printed document. Laced between its durable covers were glossy pages that contained clear print and high-resolution lithographs of near photographic quality. The information it contained was state of the art (it is informative even today).

Right at the beginning of the document was an introduction explaining the need for a system of code-names. It used the example of the possible confusion caused by multiple "Zeros." The Zero was awarded the code-name ZEKE. Each section describing an aircraft was headed by its newly created code-name (with its official designation in smaller print). The second page of the memorandum was titled "JAPANESE AIRCRAFT" with a "LIST OF IDENTIFYING NAMES (Replacing Serial Numbers)." This list awarded code-names to Japanese aircraft that had never been encountered in the S.W.P.A. The first two pages of the memorandum were virtually a sales tool for the code-name system.

McCoy appears to have been an "operator", the kind of staff officer Kenney liked. The intelligence memorandum was a valuable document well worth sharing. Shared it was! It was not only sent in quantity to army, navy and air units in the S.W.P.A. but to London, Washington, Hawaii, New Zealand, and numerous outpost islands in the Pacific. Kenney probably considered it a minor point that neither he nor McCoy had any authority to do this. Having forgotten Chennault in China, one hundred copies were sent there by urgent air transportation on October 16th.

With the memorandum widely distributed, McCoy drafted for Kenney's signature cable messages to air headquarters in Washington and London recommending adoption of the list of aircraft designations. A week later a separate message was prepared for China as well. Possibly as prelude to requesting the Supreme Commander's (MacArthur) intervention in the matter, this message was routed to General Headquarters for coordination and approval.

continued in part 2

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