The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
ACES OF THE PACIFIC
From the look of it, the war depicted in Aces of the Pacific might as well have been on another planet. It seemed only coincidence that the Pacific war took place simultaneously with the one in Europe. They had nothing in common.
The terrain is altogether different. The familiar topography of the European continent is replaced by vast stretches of featureless ocean. Where the ETO encompassed a few hundred densely populated square miles, the war in the Pacific is spread over thousands of square miles, dotted with tiny islands, where most of the population has recently disembarked from troop transports.
For the first time in history, gigantic naval battles were fought without ships of the line being in contact, without even firing a single shot at each other. The battles were fought with naval aviation—fighter planes, dive- and skip-bombers, and torpedo planes—substituting for long-range guns.
Despite the fact that both sides maneuvered endlessly in expectation of a conclusive, even apocalyptic, naval battle, it never came. The Japanese built the two largest battleships the world has ever seen: the Yamato and the Musashi (their eighteen-inch guns had barrels seventy feet long and could hurl 3,200-pound shells thirty miles); they both died "the death of a thousand cuts," pecked to death by endless droves of tubby little Grumann Avengers and Douglas Dauntlesses.
Unlike what happened in Europe, where the intensity of battle built to a late crescendo, the two climactic battles in the Pacific air war happened early, within six months of Pearl Harbor. The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway seemed fumbling and inconclusive, but the Japanese had bet on a swift, decisive blow. Losing the initiative, the Japanese ceded carrier-based air superiority to the Americans and avoided carrier-to-carrier confrontation for two years thereafter.
There were, of course, no aircraft carriers in the ETO, so it is not surprising that the aircraft that fought these "naval" battles were altogether different than those that fought in Europe. Just as the P-51 Mustang was top gun in Europe, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the best fighter in the Pacific. Designed as a carrier aircraft from the git-go, it was underweight and underpowered in comparison with its primary American opponents, Grumann's F4F Wildcat and the later F6F Hellcat, and the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair. It was also far more maneuverable. After the United States had test-flown a captured example, the Army issued a blunt directive: "Never attempt to dogfight a Zero."
To compensate, American pilots developed new fighter doctrines. If your plane had superior speed, you could choose when to engage and when to break contact. If your plane could outdive the Zero, you would go for a slashing, hit-and-run attack. If you had a wingman, you kept your planes turning toward each other (the celebrated "Thach Weave") so if one of you was attacked, the other was already rolling in to attack the attacker.
Aside from carrier-based naval warfare, the rest of the Pacific war was fought on flyblown, palm-covered specks of land: atolls and delicate coral archipelagos (although New Guinea, site of some of the fiercest air battles, is the world's second-largest island). Most of these island-hopping battles were in support of (or against, if you're flying for the Japanese Air Force) U.S. amphibious invasions.