Jiro Horikoshi, (1903–1982)

Creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter. Jiro Horikoshi was born in 1903 in Fujioka, Grunma Prefecture, Japan. His interest in aircraft began in grade school while he was reading newspaper accounts of the air war in Europe.During his senior year in high school he was faced with the decision of what to study when he graduated. He decided on aeronautical engineering and in April 1923 began his studies in the newly formed Aeronautics Department at the University of Tokyo.
In 1926, Jiro joined Mitsubishi as an engineer in the airframe design section. Jiro’s first major design project was the Prototype 7, a navy monoplane fighter. The project was part of a prototype competition that the Japanese used to select new aircraft. Both Prototype 7 aircraft built for the competition crashed during flight-testing. It was a rather inauspicious start for Jiro—but one that gained him a great deal of experience.
Jiro’s next project was the Prototype 9 or Type 96 No. 1 carrier-based fighter. This aircraft, the A5M, was known to the Allies as “Claude,” a top performer during its time. It was very fast and had excellent handling characteristics, which pilots particularly favored.
When the specifications for the Prototype 12 aircraft came to Mitsubishi in 1937, Jiro was once again called upon to lead the development. The Prototype 12 would become the Mitsubishi Type Zero carrier-based fighter, Model 11. The Zero would be the backbone of the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945.
While Jiro completed work on the Zero he was also tasked to produce a new aircraft the Prototype 14, the J2M Raiden (“Jack” to the Allies). The Raiden was an interceptor, used with very limited success against U.S. B-29 raids.
 Jiro’s final design was in progress when the war ended. It was the A7M Reppu (“Sam” to the Allies), in flight-testing when the war came to an end.

The wartime years

Despite Mitsubishi’s close ties to the Japanese military establishment and his direct participation in the nation’s buildup towards the Second World War, Horikoshi was strongly opposed to what he regarded as a futile war. Excerpts from his personal diary during the final year of the war were published in 1956 and made his position clear:

When we awoke on the morning of December 8, 1941, we found ourselves — without any foreknowledge — to be embroiled in war…Since then, the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.

On 7 December 1944, a powerful earthquake in the Tokai region forced Mitsubishi to halt aircraft production at its plant in Ohimachi, Nagoya. An air raid made by B-29s on the Mitsubishi Engine Works in Daiko-cho, Nagoya a week later caused extensive damage to the works and a severe setback in production. Horikoshi, who had been at a conference in Tokyo with Imperial Navy officers to discuss the new Reppu fighter, returned to Nagoya on the 17th, in time to experience another air raid on the Mitsubishi factories the next day. As a result of the air raid, the company evacuated its machinery and engineers to the suburbs of eastern Nagoya. Horikoshi and the Engineering Department were rehoused in a school building which had been requisitioned. Exhausted and overworked, Horikoshi fell ill with pleurisy on 25 December and remained bedridden through early April. During this time, he recorded in detail the horrors of the increasing air raids on Tokyo and Nagoya, including the devastating Operation Meetinghouse Tokyo incendiary raid of 9-10 March. A massive air raid on Nagoya the following night, with B-29s hurling “tens of thousands of incendiary bombs,” destroyed most of the largely wooden city. On 12 March, Horikoshi sent most of his family, including his elderly mother, children and brother-in-law, to his home village near Takasaki to be safe from the bombings, though his wife remained with him in Nagoya.

Though greatly weakened by his long illness, Horikoshi returned to work at Mitsubishi in May. He was assigned to the company’s No. 1 Works, located at Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. While on the train to Matsumoto, he witnessed the true scale of the war’s impact on Nagoya:

For the first time, I really saw the effects of the incendiary raids on Nagoya. The city is a wasteland, charred and unspeakably desolate. My former factory is a ghostly, steel-ribbed wreck, shattered by bombs and torn apart by the dispersal crews. It is hard to believe that all this is true. I knew that soon I would be well. Strangely, though, I had little desire to return to work. The impression of the shattered city and the wrecked factories will not leave me.

Still very weak, Horikoshi was sent home to rest after only a week back at work. He returned to his hometown, where he rejoined his family and rested through the month of July. In his diary, he recorded how they could still hear distant explosions as the Allies bombed nearby Takasaki and Maebashi. During the war’s final months, Horikoshi recorded Japan’s descent into chaos and exhaustion. Though he returned to work at the Matsumoto plant on 22 July, as Matsumoto had been spared from air raids, he found the workforce demoralised and operations in chaos as a result of the emergency evacuations which had scattered employees and workshops around the country. Most of the remaining Mitsubishi employees abandoned all efforts to work by early August and prepared for Japan’s defeat and surrender, which finally came on 15 August.

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  1. Pingback: The Mitsubishi A5M | Aviation and Military History Blog | Chris Chant's Blog

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