When the first Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighters or Mitsubishi A6M “Zero-sen” arrived in China in 1940, they quickly established uncontested dominance in the sky. The new fighter’s performance was a tremendous boost to the morale of the Japanese pilots who quickly became frisky and reckless. One episode that best described the esprit de corps of the Japanese pilots at the time happened on October 4, 1940.
The events of the day are brilliantly described in Håkan Gustavsson’s site (HERE) and are quoted below with the kind permission of the author:
4 October 1940
On the 4 October 27 bombers escorted by eight Zeros from 12th Kokutai led by Lieutenant Tamotsu Yokoyama and Lieutenant (junior grade) Aya-o Shirane made a massive attack on Chengdu. The air staff of 3 Army ordered all aircraft to disperse. Six Hawk 75s of the 18th PS flew off to Guanxian. But on the way they were intercepted by Japanese Zeros which shot down Shi Ganzhen (Hawk no. 5044) in flames. Shi managed to bale out, but his parachute failed to open. Two more pilots were wounded and returned, and one Hawk 75 was burned on the ground at Taipingsi. The Japanese claimed that they destroyed five I-16s and one SB in the air. 19 more aircraft were claimed destroyed on the ground and one more damaged. Then four Zeros (Warrant Officer Ichiro Higayashima, PO1c Matsuo Hagiri, Masayuki Nakase, and PO2c Hideo Oishi) supposedly landed on Taipingsi airfield and the pilots set fire to the command post “by hand”!
It seems that the claimed SB in fact was a DB-3 of the 6th BS with a Chinese crew, which had taken off to disperse but out of impatience returned too early to base at Taipingsi and was shot down over the aerodrome.
Håkan also sent us the following additional information:
Having been warned about 54 Japanese planes (bombers + fighters), all planes were dispersed.
Japanese repeatedly strafed the Taipingsi airfield, destroying 12 planes on the ground (I-16 no. 5355, I-16, no. 564, Dewoitine no. 5914, SB3 no. 6535, Hawk 75 no. 5021, I-15 no. 7170, I-15 no. 7780, Hawk III no. 5616, Hawk III no. 5615, three other trainers).
At 1240, one of the DB3 (from 6th BS) used for training purpose had to return to the airfield due to mechanical failure and was promptly shot down, killing the crew of three. Another I-15 returning too early to the airfield was badly damaged by two pursuing Japanese planes as it attempted to land, seriously damaged the plane and wounding the pilot 金偉 Chin Wei [Jin Wei]. Another Gladiator attempting to do the same managed to escape to another airfield. Another I-15 (no. 7160) crashed due to engine failure, the pilot 梁鎮生Liang Chen-sheng [Liang Zhen-sheng] was able to bail out but was wounded.
The October 1964 issue of the Japanese magazine “MARU” features an article written by non-other than Yokoyama Tamotsu himself giving an account of the events of the day from the Japanese side.
Yokoyama-san describes that the Chengdu area in autumn was usually cloudy and the Japanese air units had to wait for a day with good weather and this was decided to be October 4. The previous day there was a meeting with all eight Zero fighter pilots of the 12th Kokutai during which intelligence was shared that the enemy had retreated to Chengdu for reorganisation and that there were about 30 enemy fighters in the area. The pilots also reflected on the way the pilots had fought until now and various air combat tactics were discussed but also how to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground. One way was to provoke the enemy aircraft to take-off and fight in the air where the Japanese planes had the clear advantage. If the enemy did not took to the air, strafing attacks were considered the best course of action and for those aircraft that escaped these attacks it was suggested a number of Japanese planes to land on the enemy airfield and burn them on the ground. In this case the 1st Hentai (flight) led by Yokoyama would provide air support, while the 2nd Hentai would try the daring undertaking.
Yokoyama-san mentions that the pilots equipped themselves with pieces of cloth, matches and pistols.
The next day, the sky was cloud free and after the bombers attacked Chengdu it was the turn of the fighters to get into the action. First the Zero pilots spotted a number of I-16 which they attacked shooting down and dispersing them. When there were no more enemy aircraft in the vicinity they turned to strafing attacks, one hentai after the other setting enemy planes on fire all over the place. They were able to tell the difference between the real and hack aircraft and were careful to attack only the first. While strafing was going on the four aircraft of the 2nd Hentai proceeded to land and follow the plan but due to heavy fire from the enemy they took off again and strafed the enemy positions.
The result of the combat of the day was five I-16s and one SB shot down, 19 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground and four damaged.
A newspaper article later wrote: “Our Umiwasi (sea eagles) flew great distances and fighting with absolute frenzy attacked Chengdu, landed on the ground and burned enemy airplanes.”
Next Yokoyama-san includes in the article descriptions by the four pilots that participated in the attack although the source of these is not mentioned.
Warrant Officer Higashiyama Ichiro briefly describes that when they landed, enemy soldiers started shooting at them. They shot back and got ready to follow the plan. (end of Higashiyama’s description).
PO1c Hagiri Matsuo does not mention the events on the ground at all but describes he shot down three enemy fighters alone after he took-off from the airfield and lost his unit.
PO2c Oishi Hideo mentions that he was the first to land on the airfield casually looking around from inside the cockpit until he came to a stop. A hail of bullets “welcomed” him but he stayed relaxed and even thought of planting a Japanese flag in the middle of the airfield. His pistol was jammed and he tried to fix it with the help of the second pilot who had landed, Nakase Masayuki. After fixing his gun they started returning fire and crawled towards enemy fighters. From an embankment about 20 meters away, 30 enemy soldiers started shooting but they didn’t hit them. (end of Oishi’s description).
PO1c Nakase Masayuki explains that it was his very first combat experience. He landed after Oishi who took out his matches and pieces of cloth but just when he was about to light them up they got under fire from an enemy near a tree and had to fall on the ground returning fire. Enemy fire was very intense and they had to run back to their airplanes (aiki). When they took off they saw an SB on fire loosing altitude and just missing Nakase’s plane which had its starboard fuel tank shot by AA fire. (end of Nakase’s description).
None of the pilots mention explicitly that they set enemy aircraft on fire while on the ground or that they saw others successfully doing it. So I believe that although the whole endeavour was incredibly audacious, it is safe to assume that the claim that they actually set planes on fire "by hand" was created by the wartime newspaper reporter for propaganda purposes. Rather unfortunately the “Maru” article has the unnecessarily boastful title “We destroyed the Chinese air force with one match!!!” that I suspect was the magazine’s choice.
Interestingly Hata & Izawa in their “Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II” do not also mention any enemy aircraft set on fire “by hand” but add on p 352 that “Higashiyama and Nakase then set the command post on fire.” Something that remains to be verified by this author.
Special thanks to Håkan for allowing us to quote from his excellent site which we cannot recommend strongly enough to visit.