Prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Japanese air force pilots (both Army and Navy) were some of the world’s foremost proponents of dogfighting, and the fighters they flew reflected their demand for aircraft that would give them the edge in that realm of aerial combat. Flying lightweight and agile Type 97 Ki-27 s (“Nates” to the Allies), the Japanese Army Air Force’s pilots easily outmaneuvered their opposition in the skies over China and Manchuria in the late 30s, and during the opening days of World War II, JAAF Ki-43 Hayabusas (“Oscars”) more often than not flew rings around Allied fighters over the Southeast Asian battlefields.
Yet even while the superb Hayabusa was being test flown, the JAAF saw the need for a heavy offensive fighter that could fly higher, farther and faster (utilizing what had been a bomber engine), and with greater firepower. From this criteria emerged the Ki-44 Shoki (“Demon Slayer”, and later “Tojo” to the Allies). No dogfighter, the Shoki was a radical departure from traditional Japanese fighters, and its performance characteristics made it a “hot” airplane in the eyes many senior pilots. For this reason, it was initially only issued to experienced combat pilots.
The Shoki had its combat debut in China with nine pre-production aircraft forming the 47th Independent Squadron. The combat trial was considered a success, and soon thereafter JAAF Sentais began to equip with the Ki-44. The Tojo’s principal battlefield was in the skies over China, initially fighting the mixture of RAF, Chinese and AVG units fielded against them. Japanese Shoki pilots of the 50th, 64th, 85th and 87th Sentais found that they could easily enough hold their own in the early days of the war, even against the AVG’s P-40s. And while some former Hayabusa pilots may have wished to return to their “dogfighters”, other pilots were able to use the Tojo’s strengths of speed and firepower to their advantage. It was in the Chinese theatre in 1944 that the Ki-44 was first used against the B-29s. These scenes would be repeated later for the Shoki over the Home Islands. However, with the introduction of higher performance Allied fighters, the Shoki Sentai, like the rest of the JAAF, were soon ground down.
By late 1944, Shoki units were transferred to the East Indies and the Philippines in an effort to provide air cover for Japan’s major oil production facilities and to protect the lines of communication through which that oil had to be sent. Here, as in China, there was little the Shokis could do. The Tojo’s last battlefield was in the skies over Japan. While not specifically designed as an interceptor, its high rate of climb and heavy armament made it a primary weapon in the fight against the B-29s. Here the colorfully marked Ki-44s of the 23rd, 47th, 70th and 246th Sentais struggled against the waves of Saipan-based bombers. They tried everything from 40mm cannon to air-to-air bombing to special air ramming detachments in each Sentai. None could stop the Superforts.
Author Nick Millman is well known to enthusiasts of the Pacific war and the Japanese air forces. His extensive research into the development and combat operations of this often overlooked Japanese fighter provides us with another fine Osprey aircraft volume. Unlike in many histories of combat aircraft units and pilots, the author compares the records of both antagonists in his descriptions of aerial combats, giving the reader a truer picture of what really happened rather than just the claims made and reported. He also provides details of lesser known facets of the air war as fought by the Japanese. In one case in particular, we’re shown a rare photograph of the “wave arrow” insignia used by the 29th Sentai on a Ki-44 found abandoned in the Philippines. This unit insignia is often modeled, yet images of real examples are few and far between.
This is the 100th Osprey Aircraft of the Aces volume, and without a doubt, it’s a real “must have” for Ki-44 Tojo fans. Thanks to Osprey Publishing for providing IPMS with the copy for review.