Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power 1909-1941

(Mark Peattie)

Sixty years later, we're still teasing out the truth about the blow that fell upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Mark Peattie has already contributed to this effort as the co-author of Kaigun, a study of the Japanese surface fleet. Unlike that book--and despite its sub-title--Sunburst goes beyond the December 7 attack to show how the very strengths of the Japanese navy led to its decline and fall in the years that followed.

"The transcendent symbol of the amazing qualities and fatal weakness of Japanese naval air power," as Peattie points out, was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter. "Dazzling in its quickness, extraordinary in its reach, and possessed of great firepower, its vulnerabilities in design and frailties in construction were ultimately discovered and exploited by its foes." The Zero "embodied the central assumption with which the Imperial Japanese Navy went to war: that speed, maneuverability, and firepower would deliver a slashing stroke at the outset and would bring the giant to his knees before he could assert his massive strength."

Like the nation that built it, the Zero was a long-range fighter with a short-range vision. It could fly and fight over 1,000 miles of ocean, but it couldn't withstand the hammering of .50-caliber bullets. When Americans learned how to bring their guns to bear, the Zero was doomed, along with the pilot who flew it and the nation that had created it.

Peattie makes two points that aren't immediately obvious to the student of the Pacific War. First, he argues that the Pearl Harbor attack actually worked to the American advantage: by destroying our "battle line," the Japanese forced the U.S. to rethink its war-fighting doctrine. Submarines and aircraft carriers survived the initial blow, so we put them into the vanguard and developed new ways to use them. But the Japanese, having won that first clash, learned nothing from it. They continued to believe--to the bitter end and against their own demonstrated success with a carrier task force--in the notion of a titanic clash between battleships somewhere in the Pacific.

He also disputes the conventional wisdom that Japan lost the war at the Battle of Midway, June 1942. He points out that most of the IJN carrier pilots survived, while its aircraft losses were soon made good by new production. (Indeed, it was the of the technicians who maintained those planes, and who drowned with the carriers, that was the greatest blow.) Not until that autumn, and in the Solomon Islands, did the tide begin to change.

In the end, Japan was "outproduced, outorganized, outmanned, and outfought." The navy's own doctrinal failures helped guarantee that outcome: having staked everything on nimble aircraft and elite pilots in the opening round, it had no counter for the slowly improving American planes and pilots ranged against them. (The same of course was true of the Japanese army. My sole complaint about this impressive work is the short shrift it gives to Japanese army aviation. Peattie suggests that navy aircraft bore the brunt of the attack on British Malaya, but that was almost entirely an army show, and army aviation also helped reduce the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines.)

Copious notes--many referring to Japanese-language sources unreachable by most westerners--add to the value of the book, as do more than 100 pages of appendices: biographical sketches of Japanese navy figures, three-views of aircraft carriers and warplanes, an explanation of the nomenclature, and even an explanation of the hineri komi, an improvement on the Immelmann turn that enabled a pilot to turn the tables on a pursuer. Altogether, a must-have addition to any serious library of the Pacific War.

(First published in Air & Space / Smithsonian, April-May 2002; © 2002 by Air & Space / Smithsonian)

Also see the review of Kaigun