* World War II Japanese aviation military training








World War II: Japanese Military Aviation: Naval Training


Figure 1.--Japanese naval carrier pilots at the onset of the War were arguaably the fiest pilots of World War II. Thery were trained to an amazing level of proficency. They were the ipposite of kamilaze pilots. Kamakaze attacks began after the Cattle of Leyre Gulf and the destruction of most of the carriers. Both the Amy and Navy flew kamakaze attacks. The Navy kamakazes came from naval air bases. As with the Army kamalazes, most of the pilots were hiven the most minimal training and were barely able to take off. The pilot wound a folded white cloth about his head to confine his hair and to keep perspiration from his eyes. This was the 'hachimaki' symbolizing manly composure and was worn by all the kamikaze pilots. Here we see a teenage kamikaze pilot preparing for his suiside sortie. A comrade tightens his hachimaki. Notice the expression of his older comrad's face. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command photograph, NH 73096.

The Japanese Navy before the War had perhaps the best pilot training programs in the world, at least in terms of turning out skilled airmen, but not large numbers of airmen. The Yokaren Naval Preparatory Flight Training Program was begun in 1930. It was a highly selective, rigorous, intensive training program. Here we see a training session beginning with gliders (figure 1). Japanese naval aviation training was the most exhaustive and intensive aviation training program of any country. And the results were extraordinary. Japanese naval pilots, in sharp contrast to the assessment of military experts were probably the most talented and skilled group of pilots on the planet. As a result of the intensive training program, Japan thus entered the Pacific War with the finest, most superbly trained naval aviators in the world. It was a force perfectly suited for scoring a knockout blow against an enemy force which it demonstrated with stunning efficiency at Pearl Harbor (December 1941). And in the first year of the Pacific War they demonstrated that skill with startling achievements. And Pearl Harbor was only the beginning. They not only dominated the Pacific, but in a foray into the Indian Ocean, forced the British Royal Navy to withdraw west. The Japanese corps of naval aviators was a relatively small force, but one ideally suited for winning a short war, which is the war that the Japanese militarists planned. A maxim of military strategy is that no plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength. The Japanese missed that idea and in fact had no way of forcing a peace despite stunning victories. The Japanese carrier pilots demonstrated their skill in their spectacukar performance in the early months of the War. They flew the sleek Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the most effective fighter in the Pacific for the first 2 years of the Pacific War with devastating consequences. The catastrophe at Midway (June 1942) had nothing to do with the skill of the pilots, but with the failure of naval leadership. After the three Japanese carriers were sunk or disabled, a handful of pilots from Hiryū scored repeated hits on the heavily defended Yorktown. One shudders to think what Admiral Nagumo would have achieved had he succeeded in launching a full-scale attack on the American carriers with all four of his carriers. The Japanese pilot training program, however, had a serious weakness. It was geared to producing a relatively small number of superb aviators to man the air units of the Imperial Fleet at a time that the United States was significantly limiting military spending. The Japanese pilot training was more than adequate for a peace time Navy. The question for Admiral Yamamoto was, could Japan force the United States to make peace before his corps of superb naval aviators suffered the inevitable attrition of a long drawn out war. Yet the nature of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor virtually assured that there would be no negotiated peace. And in fact as the Pacific War was fought out, the corps of well-trained naval aviators proved totally inadequate for the Pacific War launched against a country with the capabilities and resources of the United States. America not only did not sue for peace, but instead mobilized and brought the force of its massive resources to bear on Japan--especially the IJN. The United States very rapidly expanded the U.S. Navy and in particular naval aviation, much more rapidly than the Japanese has thought possible. The United States immediately established an effective pilot training program aimed at training a very large number of well trained, competent but not superb aviators. The Japanese carrier aviators were a very small force and totally unsuited for a protracted war of attrition against the United States with its huge industrial capacity and virtually unlimited resources. The existing Japanese training program was so intensive that it could not be expanded to train large numbers of merely competent naval aviators. Nor did Japanese commanders move to create am effective larger scale program. Japan for tghe most part did nor bring its experienced pilots back to help train new recruits. They stayed on station until shot down, losing their irreplaceable combat experience. The aerial fighting in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign showed the quality of Japanese naval aviation training. Most of the carrier pilots had survived Midway. The naval aviators were assigned to land bases at Rabaul and other island sites. But few of the survivors would survive the Solomons. And as they gradually were lost, especially after Midway, Japan was left with poorly trained naval aviation recruits who could hardly land on their carriers. The Japanese increased the number of entrants to the Yokaren program dramatically in the last 2 years of the War, but now they were rushed the young recruits through with minimal training and flight time. Not only did they fail to create an effective training program, but fuel shortages because of American submarine attacks on the Maru fleet sharply limited training time in the air. Access to oil and the other resources of the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ) was the primary reason that Japan had launched the Pacific War. And while they succeeded in conquering the SRZ after Pearl Harbor they soon found it impossible to get those resources back to support the war industries on the Home Island. Nor could they get needed food supplies back to Japan. This severely crimped Japan's war industries even before the Strategic Bombing Campaign began. As a result, when the Imperial Navy's new / carriers finally emerged to give battle in the Philippines Sea (June 1944), its highly committed, but poorly trained aviators were slaughtered in what became known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot (June 1944). This is when the Japanese began to shift to Kamikaze attacks, using young men who knew little more than how to take off and steer. Numerous Yokaren-trained pilots and crew members carried out the kamikaze attacks on American invasion forces (1944-45). Many more recruits were still in training preparing to crash into the expected American fleet assembling to invade the Home Islands when Japan surrendered. About 80 percent of the graduates of the Yokaren died in the Pacific War.

Pre-War Training

The Japanese Navy before the War had perhaps the best pilot training programs in the world, at least in terms of turning out skilled airmen, but not large numbers of airmen. The Yokaren Naval Preparatory Flight Training Program was begun in 1930. It was a highly selective, rigorous, intensive training program. Here we see a training session beginning with gliders. Japanese naval aviation training was the most exhaustive and intensive aviation training program of any country. And the results were extraordinary. Japanese naval pilots, in sharp contrast to the assessment of military experts were probably the most talented and skilled group of pilots on the planet. As a result of the intensive training program, Japan thus entered the Pacific War with the finest, most superbly trained naval aviators in the world. The problem for the Japanese Navy wa that the program only ptoduced anout 100 mew polots a years. That was more than enough in peace time, but fifgtingba navalmwar with the United Stateswasa fifferent matter. The Japanese were contemplating a naval war with America for about 2 years before Pearl Harbor, but made no effort to expand the training program.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

The Japanese carrier naval air corps force perfectly suited for scoring a knockout blow against an enemy force which it demonstrated with stunning efficiency at Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The Japanese lost some 25 pilots at Pearl Harbor, a bery cheap victory. Pearl of course was only the beginning and the Americans were still at peace. In the first year of the Pacific War they demonstrated that skill with startling achievements. And Pearl Harbor was only the beginning. They not only dominated the Pacific, but in a foray into the Indian Ocean, forced the British Royal Navy to withdraw West. But the loss of pilots segnificantly escalated, begiining in the Coral Sea (May 1942).

Flawed Japanese Strategy

The Japanese corps of naval aviators was a relatively small force, but one ideally suited for winning a short war. Adm. Yamamoto inlike many of his peers was aware of the awesomr industrial power of the United States. Hr know that Japan would inevitably loose ant protracted war of attrition with the United States. The question for Admiral Yamamoto was, could Japan force the United States to make peace before his corps of superb naval aviators suffered the inevitable attrition of a long drawn out war. Yet the fundamental nature of Yamaoto's attack on Pearl Harbor virtually assured that there could be no negotiated peace. A sneak attack with a country at peace negotiated in good faith infuriated the Americam people--a good portion of whom wanted to stay out of the War. The powerful Isolationist Movement instantly noy only collapsed, but dusappeared. The public reaction was npt to make peacem but a desire for revenge. This ebnabled President Roosevekt care blance to mobilize the full force of American industry for war. No American even among the former Isolationists wanted to negotiate. And if Peral harbor was not bad enough, the Bataan Death March sealed the Japanese image in the American mind. What America wanted was to wage war and defeat the Japanese.

Midway and the Solomons (1942-43)

And the Japanese carrier pilots demonstrated their skill by their performance in the early months of the War, And they flew the sleek Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the most effective fighter in the Pacific for the first 2 years of the Pacific War with devastating consequences. The catastrophe at Midway (June 1942) had nothing to do with the skill of the pilots, but with the failure of naval leadership. After the three Japanese carriers were sunk or disabled, a handful of pilots from Hiryū scored repeated hits on the heavily defended Yorktown. One shudders to think what Admiral Nagumo would have achieved had he succeeded in launching a full-scale attack on the American carriers with all four of his carriers. There were serious losses at Midway, but most of the polots survived. And many were reassigned to air groups at Rabaul where they would fight the Solomons's air war. Here they were at a serious disadvantage. Flying from Rabaul, they were at the outker limit of the Zero's range by the time they reached Guadalcanal. The aerial fighting in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign showed the quality of Japanese naval aviation training. The naval aviators were assigned to land bases at Rabaul and other island sites. But the attrition was significant as the American flyers developed effecive aerial tactivs and more and advanced American aircraft reached the theater. The mounting lsses were such that there was no way tht a training origra, priducing 100 pilots a yeast was going to replace them. Few of the original corps of naval aviators survived the Solomons. And as they gradually were lost, Japan was left with poorly trained naval aviation recruits who could hardly land on their carriers.

War-Time Training

The Japanese pilot training program, however, had a serious weakness. It was geared to producing a relatively small number of superb aviators to man the air units of the Imperial Fleet at a time that the United States was significantly limiting military spending. The Japanese pilot training was more than adequate for a peace time Navy. The existing Japanese training program was so intensive that it could not be expanded to train large numbers of merely competent naval aviators. The Japanese commanders did move to create a larger scale program. Thet reained some 2,500 pilots during the Pacific War. It was, however, not an effective program. The tarinees finished with only the nist basic flying skills. Japan did nor bring its experienced pilots back to help train new recruits. They stayed on station until shot down, losing their irreplaceable combat experience. An exception was Lieutenant Kiyoto Furuta, one of the most extrodinary naval aviators of the War. Among his achievemebts was hitting the elusive USS Enterprise -- twice. Try as they might, no other Japanese pilot suceeded in doing so. The Japanese increased the number of entrants to the Yokaren program dramatically in the last 2 years of the War, but now they were rushed the young recruits through with minimal training and flight time. Not only did they fail to create an effective training program, but fuel shortages because of American submarine attacks on the Maru fleet sharply limited training time in the air. Access to oil and the other resources of the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ) was the primary reason that Japan had launched the Pacific War. And while they succeeded in conquering the SRZ after Pearl Harbor they soon found it impossible to get those resourcesm especially oil, back to support the war industries on the Home Island. Nor could they get needed food supplies back to Japan. This severely crimped Japan's war industries even before the Strategic Bombing Campaign began. And one of the military programs affected was the pilot training program. Fuel shortages meant that the trainees were severely resticted in actual flying time.

American Response

And in fact as the Pacific War was fought out, the Hapanese corps of well-trained naval aviators proved totally inadequate for the Pacific War launched against a country with the capabilities and resources of the United States. America not only did not sue for peace, but instead mobilized and brought the force of its massive resources to bear on Japan--especially the IJN. The United States very rapidly expanded the U.S. Navy and in particular naval aviation, much more rapidly than the Japanese had thought possible. The Navy had administered three programs: NavCad, NAP, and AVMIDN. All of the pre-War limits on the military were sweot away by Pearl Harbor. The Navy program was different than the Japanese program. The United States immediately established an effective pilot training program aimed at training a very large number of well trained, competent but not superb aviators. An mprtant feature of the Amerivan program was standardization. In harsh calculation of war it did not make sence to invest too heavily in airmen who might not survive in combat. The Japanese carrier aviators were a very small force and totally unsuited for a protracted war of attrition against the United States with its huge industrial capacity and virtually unlimited resources. The NaVas program in just 1942 graduated 10,900 aviators, almost twice as many as had completed the program in the previous 8 years. There were 20,800 graduates (1943). Some 21,100 (1944). As the carriers were fully staffed, the program began to wind down to 8,900 (1945). During the Pacific War, the U.S. Navy trained 61,700 pilots – more than 2.5 times the number of pilots trained by the Imperial Japanese Navy and to a higher standard. Of course some of those polits were assugned to the Atlantic, but the vast majority went to the Pacific.

The Turkey Shoot (June 1944)

Notining could more clarly shoe the inadequacies of the war-time Japamese naval training program than their performance in the Battle of the Philippines Sea. As a result, when the Imperial Navy's new / carriers finally emerged to give battle in the (June 1944), its highly committed, but poorly trained aviators were slaughtered in what became known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot (June 1944). Adm. Ozawa who commanded the Japanese carrier seems to have been unaware of how poorly prepared his air crews were. We do not understand this. Ozawa was not an idiot. He nust have had some idea about the battle readiness of his aviators. Perhaps it was skill of the American aviators he did not inderstand or the capability of their new F6F Hellcats. He apparently was relying on shore-based aircraft to assist his carrier forces. (American shorebased aircraft from Midway and Guadalcanal has played an aimprtant role in American victories.) After the disaterous performance of his flyers, Ozawa withdrew his surviving carriers and would not make the same mistake in the subsequent Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944).

Kamikaze Attacks (1944-45)

The decisive defeat of Japanese naval aviation is when the shift to Kamikaze attacks began. It was a tactic the junior officers demanded, not the concept created by senior commnanders. The primary Japanese air tactic became to use young men who knew little more than how to take off and steer to take on the Americans. This had become the only way that Japanese pilots with their obsolete aircraft could deliver a deadly blow. The Japanese Navy used various naval air bases in the Philippines, Formosa (Taiwan), and the Home Islands to carry out kamikaze attacks against Allied ships (October 1944 - August 1945). The major kamikaze camapagign was conducted during the Okinawa campaign and was primaruily an Army operation. After the Batlle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944), the Japanese no longr had operational carriers and naval aircraft operated from naval air bases. The two most important naval air bases launchung kamamkaze attacks were on the Home Islands: Kanoya (829 sorties) and Kushira (334 sorties). This included Okha attacks. There are believed to have been over 2,500 naval kamalaze sorties. [Kanoya Air Base Museum] Most of the Kamakaze pilots were not trained pilots, but only teenagers given the most rudimentary training. It was a way to kill Americans, it was not, however, a war winning tactic. Sinking a few ships in the Pacific was not going to stop the Americans. Numerous Yokaren-trained pilots and crew members carried out the kamikaze attacks on American invasion forces (1944-45). Many more recruits were still in training preparing to crash into the expected American fleet assembling to invade the Home Islands when Japan surrendered. About 80 percent of the graduates of the Yokaren Naval Air Training School died in the Pacific War. This is the heaviest death toll of the War--a distinction more commonly awarded to German U-Boat crews.

Sources

Kanoya Air Base Museum. Display on Navy Kamikaze Air Bases






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Created: 11:01 PM 6/10/2020
Last updated: 3:03 AM 11/6/2020