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Book Review
P-39 vs Zero
P-39/P-400 Airacobra vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen New Guinea 1942
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by: Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]

Originally published on:

P-39/P-400 Airacobra vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen, New Guinea 1942 from Osprey Publishing LTD is a new book that examines the early USAAF P-39 defense of New Guinea against an elite Japanese Navy Zero force. It is the 87th title of the series Duel. Authored by Pacific airwar researcher Michael John Claringbould and illustrated by Jim Laurier and Gareth Hector, this 80-page book is catalogued by Osprey with Short code DUE 87, and as ISBN 9781472823663. While many authors of early Pacific airwar topics have not visited New Guinea, Mr. Claringbould has spent much of his personal and professional life in the area. His credentials include the Pacific Air War History Associates: PAWHA is an international organization of researchers and authors who collaborate with each other on their niche expertise in all areas of the Pacific war.

Osprey explains the book thusly;
    After the huge advances made in the early months of the Pacific war, it was in remote New Guinea where the advance of Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) A6M Zero-sen fighters was first halted due to a series of offensive and defensive aerial battles ranging from treetop height up to 30,000 ft.

    Initially, the IJNAF fought Australian Kittyhawks, but by May 1942 they had fought themselves into oblivion, and were relieved by USAAF P-39 and P-400 Airacobras. The battles unfolded over mountainous terrain with treacherous tropical weather. Neither IJNAF or USAAF pilots had been trained for such extreme conditions, incurring many additional losses aside from those that fell in combat. Using specially commissioned artwork and contemporary photographs and testimony, this fascinating study explains how, despite their initial deficit in experience and equipment, the Airacobras managed to square the ledger and defend New Guinea.

Over four decades my interest in the air conflict of World War Two has ebbed and flowed, yet it continues to gain strength. While books such as Thunderbolt, Horrido!, The First and the Last, and Fly For Your Life still yield their pages to my eyes, I keep returning to the stage played out in Samurai!, The Ragged Rugged Warriors, and Flying Buccaneers.

The air war over the south western Pacific islands in the early days of the Great Pacific War has given wing to legends. One of the legendary groups was the Tainan kaigun kōkūtai (Tainan Naval Air Group, or “NAG”) of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Instrumental in the conquest of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies, Tainan kōkūtai arrived in New Guinea at the top of their game, clashing for eight months against rag-tag Allied units that held the line while struggling to catch up. Tainan kōkūtai has inspired books, art, and models, as do the men and aircraft of the opposing Allies. For months the main opponent of the Tainan kōkūtai were green USAAF P-39 and P-400 units. Tainan ace Saburo Sakai described the P-39 as the fighter the Japanese most preferred to engage.

P-39/P-400 Airacobra vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen is told through eleven chapters and subsection in 80 pages:
    Design and Development
    Technical Specifications
    The Strategic Situation
    The Combatants
    Statistics and Analysis
    Further Reading

Mr. Claringbould has authored a definitive work on the Tainan Zeros* and is eminently suited to tell this story of these two very different fighters and fighter groups. His text is smartly organized and clearly written. Introduction and Chronology prepares the reader for the upcoming content in context with historical revelations. It paints the picture of the character of the Japanese pilots compared to their USAAF counterparts, as well as the difficulties of maintaining fighters and launching sorties at the end of a vast logistics chain.

The text includes many quotes and excerpts from the fighter pilots, e.g.,
    Zero stayed with the Aircobras. I dived from 12,000ft, indicating 450mph, and a Zero stayed with me and followed me to ground level, firing.

Design and Development and Technical Specifications presents in detail the origins and operations of the P-39 and the A6M, and their variants that faced each other in 1942. It explains how a P-39 and and a P-400 can not necessarily be identified by the nose cannon or the exhaust stacks. Interesting detail about the Zero is also presented.

The Strategic Situation sets the stage of Allied and Japanese forces in early 1942. The first Allied reinforcements were Australian P-40s of RAAF No. 75 Sqn. USAAF P-39s arrived to relieve them after a valiant yet costly defense.

The Combatants presents the recruitment and training of the Japanese and American pilots. Groundcrews and their servicing of the aircraft are not overlooked. Osprey Duel books feature biographies of two of the opponents. This book presents Capt. Arthur Andres and LtCmdr Shiro Kawai.

Combat is the main event of the book. It begins with America's first ace, Philippine campaign veteran Lt Col Boyd "Buzz" Wagner. He lead the first P-39 contingent to New Guinea. Not long afterwards he demonstrated his mettle again by claiming three Zeros killed over their home 'drome Lae. This chapter records the raid and counter-raiding of the Zero and Airacobra forces. This chapter presents detailed narratives of the USAAF and Japanese raids, including aircraft (often with serial numbers), names, dates and times, of the missions. The chapter reveals that not all dogfights were at medium or low altitudes, as Saburo Sakai recalled of this 25,000ft dogfight:
    The controls were sluggish in the thin air. As the other plane came at me, I tried to gain an advantageous position from which to fire. I kept edging closer to the other fighter in a tight spiral, and maneuvered for a quick burst. I yanked the stick over hard - too hard! Something seemed to crash into my chest and the oxygen mask slipped down to my chin. Afraid to release the controls because I might sin out of control, I fumbled helplessly in the cockpit, and then everything blacked out.

Several more first-hand accounts by American and Japanese pilots enrich this chapter, two of them filling almost a full page, each. Other interesting stories include the introduction of J1N1-C "Irving" twin-engine fighters and the loss of one to P-39s. The 34-page chapter concludes with the dogfights over Buna during which George Welch scored his triple kill.

Statistics and Analysis and Aftermath examines the survivability of the Zero and P-39 when hit, over-claiming and the actual records of losses. It also addresses the impact of the loss of an elite Zero pilot in comparison to the loss of a P-39 pilot on the future of the air war. Research has provided some incredible statistics about the Zero versus P-39 duel of 1942. The actual confirmed air-to-air losses are almost unbelievable.

I had high hopes for this book when I first learned of it. I have not been disappointed. It is an amazing history of the 1942 New Guinea air war and answers many questions about P-39s and Zeros I have had for decades.

Photographs, Artwork, Graphics
Photographic support is excellent. Japanese and Americans of the period seemed to have plentiful cameras and film and documented their existence well. Modelers will be thrilled with the clear images of P-39s undergoing repairs and maintenance. One of the more remarkable images is an aerial shot from a B-17 of the A6M2 of Lt(Jg) Yamashita pulling in for a pass, close enough to see the twin fuselage stripes. There are many photos of aircraft and many of pilots. None are in color.

Color Artwork

1. P-39D-1 Airacobra: 3-view of P-39 as flown by Pearl Harbor hero Lt. George Welch on 7 December, 1943, when he destroyed two "Val" dive-bombers and a Zero of Buna

2. A6M2 Zero-Sen Model 21: 3-view of A6M2 of flight leader Lt. Shiro Kawai

3. P-39D/F and P-400 Airacobra Armament, narrated with technical descriptions and a pilot's perspective of firing the weapons

4. A6M2 Zero-Sen Model 21 Armament: technical descriptions and operational use

5. Map: The strategic South Pacific battleground in April 1942

6. Map: Papua and the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea

7. Map (grayscale): Port Moresby airfield complex

8. P-39D Airacobra Cockpit keyed with 60 components

9. A6M2 Zero-Sen Cockpit keyed with 54 components

10. Airacobra formation

11. Zero-Sen Formation

12. CENTERFOLD: A Zero jumps two low flying P-39s attacking Lae

13. Engaging the Enemy: pilot-view of hands, flight controls, and instrument panel of a Zero firing upon a P-39, with a detailed caption


a. P-39D-2 Airacobra and A6M2 Type O Carrier Fighter Model 21 Comparison Specifications: Engines; Dimensions; Weights; Performance; Armament

P-39/P-400 Airacobra vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen, New Guinea 1942 has been well worth the wait. It provides a great deal of insight and knowledge for those interested in the early South Pacific air war, the Tainan kōkūtai, the USAAF P-39 war, and general interest in the Port Moresby campaign. The author is exceptionally knowledgeable of the subject matter, and the book is easy to read and digest. The gallery of art and photographs definitely reinforces the text.

I have no meaningful complains and absolutely recommend this book to everyone interested in the early South Pacific air war, the Tainan kōkūtai, and the P-39.

* Eagles of the Southern Sky; The Tainan Air Group in WWII; Volume One: New Guinea. [https://aeroscale.kitmaker.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=Reviews&file=index&req=showcontent&id=8688]. 2013.
Highs: The author is exceptionally knowledgeable of the subject matter, and the book is easy to read and digest. The gallery of art and photographs definitely reinforces the text.
Lows: No meaningful complains.
Verdict: I absolutely recommend this book to everyone interested in the early South Pacific air war, the Tainan kōkūtai, and the P-39.
  Scale: N/A
  Mfg. ID: 9781472823663
  Related Link: 
  PUBLISHED: Aug 08, 2018

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About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR)

I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art. My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling! My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...

Copyright ©2021 text by Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]. Images also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. Opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of ModelGeek. All rights reserved.


Great review, Fred. Looks like a very informative book for a subject that sometimes gets overlooked.
AUG 11, 2018 - 03:01 AM
Looks like a great read, with lots of good info. Osprey does some great detail artwork for cockpit areas as well. Back in 1989, I was doing some munitions recovery work on Guadalcanal, and we were working quite a bit in the jungle-- there was an "ad hoc" WWII "Museum" a local "entreuprener" had started off Henderson Field. Parked at the back of his "museum" was a P39 which had been drug out of the jungle, still sitting upright on its tri-cycle landing gear, less tires, prop, guns, doors and plexiglass-- it was still pretty impressive though. A Sakae engine and some Japanese airframe parts lay nearby, presumably from a Zero, at least that's what was advertised. I'll probably get this book just to remember my trip down there. VR, Russ
AUG 11, 2018 - 04:14 AM

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