Ki-44 ‘Tojo’ Aces of World War 2
Aircraft of the Aces 100
Author: Nicholas Millman
Illustrator: Ronnie Olsthoorn
Osprey just keeps issuing titles with me in mind! When I learned of the pending release of Ki-44 ‘Tojo’ Aces of World War 2
I was excited as when Hasegawa fulfilled a longtime wish and released their 1/32 Ki-44. This book is absolutely what I hoped for and I trust you will find it as rewarding a read as I do.
When the Imperial Army called for a ‘heavy fighter,’ Nakajima won the contract with their Ki-44 design. The design completely departed from the traditional Japanese concept of wispy light fighters emphasizing maneuverability above all; Ki-44 was designed for speed, climbing ability, and powerful weapons to fulfill their concept for an ‘aerial extermination force’ fighter, what today is known as ‘air superiority.’ In Imperial Japanese air force nomenclature the aircraft was the Army Type 2 single-seat fighter. The Allied code-name was Tojo
So why then is the Shoki so overlooked in the annals of the Pacific air war? First, only 1,227 were built. The highest monthly production total was only 84; only 123 had been built by the end of 1942! While Shokis were sent to all fronts except the maelstrom of New Guinea, their performance and capabilities found them mainly held for strategic defense and homeland defense. It is ironic that the Type 2, designed to reach out and touch enemy fighters, found its greatest acclaim combating B-29s. Yet Shoki’s greatest, and least known, success was in the aerial extermination role over China. In 1943 and 1944 Ki-44s were not only rising to defend Japanese assets from Chennault’s 14th Air Force, they were sweeping over Chennault’s airfields trying to draw the American and Chinese pilots up into dogfights. In the Shoki the P-40 pilots found a fighter that they could no longer outrun or outdive, and wouldn’t always explode when hit!
by the Japanese after a Taoist deity who could quell demons, the Army Type 2 single-seat fighter was demonized by Japanese pilots of traditional designs for Shoki’s high wing loading and lack of dogfighting maneuverability; in fact the Japanese restricted its use to pilots with a minimum of 1,000 flight hours! Eventually Japanese leaders realized that less experienced pilots could handle the Army Type 2, and they could employ it successfully in slashing hit-and-run tactics that caught Allied pilots by surprise. The later crop of fighter pilots came to appreciate the Type 2’s racing speed, rocketing climb, blazing dive, pulverizing armament, steady gunnery, whirling rate of roll, and ability to take battle damage. Those who could handle Shoki could employ these qualities well. With its powerful 1250 hp Nakajima Ha-41 engine (later the 1520 hp Ha-109) Shoki was one of the few Japanese designs that could threaten the great B-29 Superfortress.
In fact, Tojo was maneuverable by Western standards. After first encountering Tojos in a P-51A Mustang, veteran ace ‘Tex’ Hill reported to Gen. Chennault, “I don’t think we can beat these new Japs in the air.” The Shoki pilots of the 85th Sentai were not impressed with the first Mustangs either, noting a P-51 kill was like taking candy from a child, and the P-51 was no better than the P-40 but with less firepower! Over Burma RAF No 136 pilots flying the Spitfire VIII found them challenging in a dogfight and with equivalent performance: Flt Sgt Cross wrote: Having dived from a great height, my IAS (Indicated Air Speed) was 320-340 mph, so I swung around and climbed…I was followed by four bandits who kept up with me very well until I was forced to flatten out at 18,000 ft and fly level, weaving violently.
And while not recounted in this book, US Navy Hellcat pilots approaching the Philippines were warned about the Tojo, believing it was ‘an anti-Hellcat fighter.’ Indeed, this book relates dogfights between Shokis and Hellcats that indicate two very well matched fighters. Ki-44 was also equipped with ‘butterfly flaps’ for dogfighting.
The first Shokis were a handful of pre-production models operating in December 1941. Major Toshio Sakagawa lead the 47th Dokuritsu Hiko Chutai
(47th Independent Air Squadron) from French Indochina against the American Volunteer Group over China and Burma, and against the Royal Air Force over Burma and Malaya. It appears the first kill was over Singapore on 15 January 1942, by Capt. Yasuhiko Kuroe against a Brewster Buffalo piloted by Plt Off Hesketh of No 243 Sqn. This experimental unit fought through April 1942, when it was called home to Japan following the Doolittle Raid. Although their Shokis suffered attrition from operations and combat action, only one pilot was killed in action. The Ki-44 did not perform as hoped but was judged to be worthy of production.
While the Doolittle Raid prompted the Japanese to bolster Homeland defense with Shokis, in January 1943 five Shokis returned to the China skies as the air defense shotai
(flight) of the Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ equipped 33rd Sentai
(Group); their exploits are unknown. Perhaps the greatest Shoki air superiority Sentai was the 85th, based around Wuchang, Hankow and Henyang. They also based detachments to defend Hong Kong. Low delivery rates and increasing combat tempo found the overstretched 85th hard pressed yet crossing swords with American and Chinese fighters and bombers. Indeed, the top-scoring Shoki aces flew with the 85th including WO Shibata, credited with 27 kills in the Type 2. Shoki units gave P-40 units serious problems, and did well against modern Allied fighters. Shokis battled over Burma, attacked over India, defended Sumatra and Borneo and the Philippines, struggled over China, and stood guard against the Soviets. Then came the B-29.
Boeing’s big bomber cruised faster and higher than many Japanese fighters could manage. Indeed, Shoki’s powerful Ha-109 had trouble clawing up to the bomber’s altitude in time to make an attack. Mr. Millman notes that ironically, the hastily armed Mitsubishi’s Ki-46 “Dinah’ reconnaissance plane was found by the Japanese to be the fastest to 30,000 ft, although just a shade faster than Shoki. Ki-44s attacked Superfortresses day and night, with machine guns and aerial bombs, flinging themselves headlong into the big bombers – literally. Shokis often resorted to ramming attacks. Occasionally the pilots would live. Shokis also attacked with the derided Ho-301 40 mm anti-bomber cannon, a unique weapon that fired a caseless rocket propelled warhead. The weapon had a low muzzle velocity, short range, slow rate of fire and only 10 rounds per gun. This weapon was used before the introduction of the B-29, arming Shokis in Burma, the East Indies, and everywhere enemy bombers were found. It was a useless weapon against fighters and could be replaced by machine guns when fighter- vs- fighter operations were planned.
Shoki’s iconic defense against the B-29 is apparent in that over 20 pages of 87 text pages chronicle defense of the Japanese Homeland, and many more reveal Shoki action against B-29s in China. The difficulties of fighting the Superfortress leave quite an impression.
Shoki was designed originally to a concept of a "heavy fighter" embodying characteristics drawn from the European air war, (fast climb, heavy armament, hit and run tactics, maneuverability sacrificed for speed armament). However, when production was authorized by the JAAF, assessing the various negatives from the operational trials by pilots wedded to maneuverability and who had seen the "success" of the Ki-27 and Ki-43 compared to their own Ki-44, they concluded that the type would make a useful "anti-bomber fighter" (i.e. an interceptor) for limited defensive deployment. Exploiting the fighter's best characteristics in the face of preferred JAAF doctrine of maneuverability was throughout a challenge to those pilots and staff who understood it. It was never realized.
Author Nicholas Millman is a leading British researcher of Japanese aviation who has spent much time living in the Far East. He brings an impressive amount of knowledge and insight into his work and includes first-hand accounts by Shoki veterans. Many photographs are credited to the gurus of World War Two Japanese aviation. He has brought the history of this undervalued Japanese fighter to life in 96 pages with six chapters and appendices:
• KINGFISHER FORCE
• DEBUT IN CHINA
• EAST INDIES AND BURMA
• THE END IN CHINA
• THE PHILLIPINES
• DEFENCE OF THE HOMELAND
I. Colour Plates Commentary
These chapters include very interesting subjects such as:
i. Allied Examination: two accounts from 1943 and 1944.
ii. Palembang: a three page account of Lt. Inayama’s dogfights against Fleet Air Arm Corsairs, Hellcats, and Avengers in a black painted 87th Sentai Shoki.
iii. Singapore: use of Ta-dan bombs – phosphorous and fragmentation types, experimental rockets, and IJAAF gunnery tactics.
iv. Hellcats verses Shokis
v. Air-to-Air Bombing
vi. To Ni Go Butai: special units of instructors and test pilots to combat B-29s
Mr. Millman does a good job of keeping us up with the unit histories and giving the little understood Shoki units their dues. Some Shoki units were moved about, in whole or in part, as ‘fire brigades.’ As a result the unit history of some sentai, such as the 246th, can be confusing. It is mentioned that Japanese evaluations rated the 47th Sentai as ‘…the best in Division…’ while the famous 244th Sentai, with their popular elaborately marked Ki-61 Heins, was rated as ‘adequate.’ By the end of the war the Ki-44 made up 18% of Homeland Defense units, even though Shoki was only 9% of Japanese fighter production.
Further support of this book is a detailed explanation of Japanese Army aircraft nomenclature, and an appendix of leading Ki-44 aces and B-29 killers. I certainly appreciate Mr. Millman using Japanese terms and then including the translation.
Tojos are a favorite of modelers. Gleaming natural metal Shokis with bright and sometimes garish Homeland Defense markings are striking to behold. Tojos also sport some of the more intriguing camouflage schemes. Thirty-two excellent color profiles support this work. They are by Mr. Ronnie Olsthoorn. He even includes a top and bottom planform of one of the aircraft.
Quality photographic support of Japanese subjects has been sparse; the past decade has revealed new material from private collections and archives. Although controversy still flares over some colors and markings, a number of researchers fluent in Japanese and with experience and contacts in Japanese culture are making strides to clarify the subject. Mr. Millman and Mr. Olsthoorn invested much effort into accurate and authentic artwork and admits when the illustration is speculative, noting their reasoning for what the artwork shows.
Photographic support is outstanding! Many of the photos are studio quality. Not surprising, all are black and white. Included are some tragic yet amazing images including a straight-up view of a B-29 moments after being rammed by Sgt Masami Yuki, and a shot of a Japanese fighter pulling contrail tracing a pursuit curve into the face of a formation of B-29s. Also included is a photograph of a 29th Sentai Ki-44 clearly showing the ‘wave arrow’ sentai marking long thought to be fictional.
To top it off Osprey includes crisp detailed 1/72 line art of a Ki-44-II Hei, showing front, rear, both sides, and top and bottom aspects.
Okay, you may have guessed that I am very happy with this book. I challenge any fan of the Ki-44 in particular, and fans of IJAAF aircraft in general, not to be. My only criticism of this work is that the expressed purpose of the Ki-44 concept seems to change a couple of times, confusing the purpose of what mission the Ki-44 was truly conceived to fulfill. That aside, I can’t think of a better subject to mark the 100th title of Osprey’s Aircraft of the Aces
series, and definitely look forward to the next offering by Mr. Millman and Mr. Olsthoorn. Absolutely recommended!
Thanks to member
HARV for the scans!