HIROYOSHI NISHIZAWA: THE TRUTH ABOUT JAPAN’S TOP FIGHTER ACE

By Henry Sakaida

“Hiroyoshi Nishizawa was Japan’s greatest fighter ace; he shot down over a hundred American planes!” exclaimed Saburo Sakai, the first Japanese fighter pilot to pen his memoir in English. Sakai did more to promote and lionize his comrade than anyone else. He takes full credit and remarked, “If it weren’t for my book, no one would have known about him!”

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UI-105 of Air Group 251 in the Spring of 1943. Nishizawa flew this Zero 22. Censors have erased part of the unit marking.



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Newly promoted Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, circa November 1943, poses with
a ceremonial sword presented to him by Adm Jinichi Kusaka.

Japan in the mid 1930s was on its way to economic recovery after a severe recession; industrial production was booming. The country was engaged in overseas colonialism, their military was powerful, and national spirit was high. As a poor country boy, young Hiroyoshi wanted a better life. While working in a textile factory as a teen, he saw a navy recruitment poster for flight training. This was just his ticket to adventure and advancement! He joined the service in 1936 and 3 years later, graduated 16th out of 71 in his class.

Nishizawa went to Rabaul (New Guinea) with the 4th Air Group in February 1942 and was assigned to the Tainan Air Group in April. According to Sakai, this is where his friend blossomed into a consummate aerial killer. As a veteran of the China War, Sakai tutored his buddy in the fine art of gunnery and it eventually paid off.

Fifty-four years after Saburo Sakai penned his book (Samurai!) in the US, authors Luca Ruffato and Michael Claringbould published Eagles of the Southern Sky: The Tainan Air Group in WWII, New Guinea (2012).  It cuts through Sakai’s old memoir to give a refreshing and more accurate perspective of Japanese claims. Very few aircraft on either side were actually lost in dogfights despite graphic postwar recollections.nishizawa

“As evidenced by the list, the Tainan, like their Allied contemporaries, substantially overclaimed,” write the authors. “The kodochosho (combat records) in some cases credits pilot individually, and in others as a group. For group claims the kills have been equally apportioned between participants. Whilst an imperfect science, it reflects official policy of the times and should be viewed as valid. There were many days of course where claims were made and in fact none were scored.”

Ruffato and Claringbould assigned victory credits to the pilot if there was a corresponding loss on the Allied side. In a case where five Zero pilots were involved in a kill, each pilot received .2 credits. Under their system, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa achieved 3.9 victories, a very respectable score.



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PO1/c Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, standing left in a Tainan AG photo. Saburo Sakai sitting right.

The top pilot of the Tainan Air Group was Lt(jg) Junichi Sasai (5.5),  followed by PO1/c Toshio Ota (5.3), and PO1/c Saburo Sakai with 4.3. While their tallies seem ridiculously low, each victory was hard won. The Americans and the Australians were every bit as tough and skilled as their Japanese opponents and their loss records prove it. “Shooting down an enemy plane was like hitting a dragonfly with a rifle!” explained Sakai.

The Tainan Air Group was viciously mauled and limped back to the mainland in November 1942 to reorganize. The recollections of so many dead comrades were haunting. In May 1943, Nishizawa returned to Rabaul to serve with the 251st and 253rd Air Groups.

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When Nishizawa (left)  returned home from the front, he was temporarily pressed into service as a flight instructor. He hated this job!

There is absolutely no doubt that CPO Hiroyoshi Nishizawa’s skills were valued. Adm Jinichi Kusaka, commander of the Southeast Area Fleet, presented the pilot with a ceremonial sword, inscribed “for conspicuous military valor.” For an enlisted man to receive such an honor was almost unprecedented! He had 30 officially recognized aerial victories attributed to him at this time. The unverified claims were accepted at face value by the Navy and became a part of his military record.

From Tainan Air Group through his last assignment with the 253rd, Nishizawa flew 95 missions and entered combat 52 times. During this second tour, he battled the F4U Corsair and P-38 Lightning for the first time. He returned to Japan in October 1943 and was promoted to warrant officer the following month.



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Lt Yukio Seki on the cover of a war time magazine, November 1944. As a Navy Academy graduate, he could not refuse the honor of leading his men into glorious death.

Despite having survived intense combat, Nishizawa hated the lull in fighting. He served with Air Group 203 in defense of the northern Japanese islands and saw little action. When the Allied Forces threatened the Philippines, the Japanese started to organize suicide squadrons in a desperate attempt to thwart defeat.

Nishizawa was transferred to the Philippines with the 201 Air Group. The Battle of Leyte Gulf commenced on 23 October 1944.  On the 25th, he was selected as one of four escort pilots for a Kamikaze flight led by Lt Yukio Seki. The escorts consisted of Warrant Officer Nishizawa, CPO Shingo Honda, and Leading Seamen Misao Sugawa and Ryoji Baba. Nine Zeroes took off from Mabalacat on Luzon Island at 0725.

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Lt Seki’s Kamikaze pilots are remembered in a war time news magazine. Left to right: Superior Seaman Shigeru Oguro, Leading Seaman Hajime Nagamine, Petty Officer 1/c Nobuo Tani, and PO1/c Iwao Nakano.

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Capt Sakae Yamamoto (injured), commanding officer of Air Group 201, briefs Lt Yukio Seki’s Kamikaze pilots on Mabalacat Airfield, 25 October 1944.The tall pilot on the left is Nishizawa, leader of the escorts.

The targets for Lt Seki’s group were the American escort carriers. The Shikishima Unit fought their way in through a gauntlet of American fighters and anti-aircraft fire. In the confused action, the St. Lo was sunk and various other ships suffered damages. The day’s action marked the first success of the Kamikazes.

Nishizawa and two comrades touched down on Cebu Airfield, roughly 400 miles southeast of Mabalacat. Sugawa was lost to anti-aircraft fire. The pilots claimed to have shot down two Hellcats while running interference. Nishizawa reported to his old commander from his Tainan Air Group days. Cdr Tadashi Nakashima listened intently as Nishizawa excitedly described how 4 out of the 5 bomb-ladened Zeroes hit their targets. The news spread like wildfire and boosted morale. Nishizawa was eager to get back to Mabalacat for further action. He and his wingmen boarded a transport plane the next morning and flew into oblivion.

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Japanese painting of the first successful Kamikaze attack on 25 October 1944, from a war time magazine.

The death of Hiroyoshi Nishizawa has remained a cold case mystery for decades. Saburo Sakai wrote in his memoir: “…Nishizawa took off in an old, unarmed DC-3 transport to fly himself and several other pilots to Clark Field, where they could pick up some Zero fighters. The transport took off early on the morning of October 26… It was never heard from again.”

Japanese military records for this period are almost non-existent. However, it is known that a transport aircraft left Cebu Airbase at 0820 on 26 October 1944 for Mabalacat (Clark Field) and was lost over Calapan on Mindoro Island. The aircraft type is not recorded nor is there a list of the flight personnel aboard. Cdr Tadashi Nakashima told Professor Ikuhiko Hata, one of Japan’s leading war historians, that Nishizawa was a passenger on a Douglas transport plane.

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Nakajima L2D “Tabby” was a civilian DC-3 for military service, built under license from Douglas.

The Nishizawa Family had a newspaper clipping from the Shinano Mainichi, dated 11 Feburary 1945, stating that his transport was intercepted by two Grumman Hellcats near Puerta Galera on 26 October 1944 and shot down. Evidently, the doomed plane sent a frantic SOS that it was under attack. How this information made its way to the newspaper is a big mystery! Puerta Galera is located on the northern coast of Mindoro, roughly 27 flight kilometers from Calapan.

Aviation historian Frank J. Olynyk produced a computerized listing of all US Navy aerial victory claims during WWII. In checking, there is no claim for a DC-3 transport on 26 October 1944. However, between 0800 – 0830, two Japanese Army “Helen” bombers were shot down by VF-14 pilots on patrol around Mindoro Island.



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Japanese Ki-49 Army heavy bomber “Helen.” It was rugged.

The flight path of the Japanese transport plane from Cebu to Mabalacat (Luzon Island) would have taken it over northern Mindoro Island. There was an hour difference between local and US aircraft carrier time.

Lt(jg) Robert West and Ray Taylor Jr. “spotted a Helen off the middle of the east coast of Mindoro about 4 miles away. They immediately gave chase, bracketed the enemy plane, and shot it down in flames.”



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Mitsubishi Betty bomber, known as the “Flying Cigar.”

“Lt(jg) H.P. Newell and Lt(jg) R.R. Dennes had spotted a Helen at the north end of Mindoro at about 6,000 feet. Lt(jg) Newell being the nearest quickly closed in and shot the enemy down.  It burst into flames and burned as vigorously as do the Bettys.” Nishizawa’s transport was lost on the northern end of Mindoro Island, where Newell bagged his bomber.

Dr. Hata was emphatic. He stated that it was unthinkable for Navy pilots to be flying in an Army aircraft. Unlike the American military, there was almost no cooperation between the two branches of the Japanese military. They seldom ever shared intelligence information, supplies, and equipment. Inter-service rivalry, politics, turf wars, and especially pride had a lot to do with it. The Navy thought of itself as far superior to the Army. Each branch had their own air transport unit.

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Lt(jg) Harold P. Newell in 1945 in a FM-2. He shot down Nishizawa’s transport plane off Puerta Galera/Calapan.

Lt(jg) Harold P. Newell was not a veteran pilot. Approaching from behind, he probably did not have time to study the aircraft’s silhouette. American pilots gave the Betty bomber various nicknames such as  “The Flying Cigar, The Flying Zippo, and One-Shot Lighter” for its propensity to burst into flames when hit. It lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection. Lt(jg) Newell’s remark that the Helen bomber “burned as vigorously as do the Bettys is telling.



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Map of Cebu, with red line showing the flight path of Nishizawa’s bomber transport, and where it was shot down around Calapan on the northern coast of Mindoro Island.

The Japanese Army’s Nakajima Ki-49 “Helen” was a heavy bomber. It was more difficult to destroy than the Navy’s Betty bomber due to self-sealing fuel tanks and armor plating. The Army used it for transport duties.

There were two JNAF transport units in the Philippines at the time: 1001 and 1021 Transport Air Groups. Both used the Betty bomber to ferry supplies and personnel.

Japanese aviation historian Kazuhiko Osuo was certain that Nishizawa’s transport was a Betty bomber. In a 1995 letter to me, he wrote: “26 October 1944 1021 KU (air group), one airplane missing take off Cebu to Manila, duty transport and patrol flying. I think sure 1021 KU airplane was Riko (Betty), not DC-3 because Lt Tsuneo Otake 1021 Ku pilot used Riko mission to transport. 26 October 1944, 1021 Ku plane leader was Warrant Officer Hisatoshi Chaki.”

Warrant Officer Nishizawa’s exemplary combat record brought him a double promotion to the rank of lieutenant junior grade. Kamikaze pilots were automatically elevated two ranks after their deaths, but for a regular pilot this honor was extremely rare. His citation states that he had shot down 36 and damaged 2 enemy aircraft. He told his commanding officer at Rabaul that he had shot down 86.

Was Hiroyoshi Nishizawa Japan’s top ace? If claims are used as a basis in ranking, then he would fall behind Lt(jg) Sadaaki Akamatsu (350), Lt(jg) Tetsuzo Iwamoto (202), Ens Shoichi Sugita (120+), and CPO Noritsura Kodaka (105). His importance in the history of Japanese Naval aviation lies not in the victory claims attributed to him, but for his skills and indomitable fighting spirit.



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Harold P. Newell with Saburo Sakai on Memorial Day 1982. He was a Certified Public Accountant. I located him 2 weeks before the reunion. This brought closure to both former pilots. Mr. Newell passed away in Santa Clara, CA in 1997, Sakai in 2000.

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Harold Newell, left, confers with aviation historians Steve Blake and Col. Raymond F. Toliver, about the downing of Nishizawa’s transport.

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Translation of Nishizawa’s official citation. Those mentioned received double rank promotions. (Click to enlarge)

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PROCLAMATION NO.172
“201 Air Group, 303 Squadron, Warrant Officer Nishizawa Hiroyoshi, Otsu-7 flight training class, 1944 October 26, Mindoro, Nagano Prefecture (his home province in Japan) Pilot fought in the South Pacific operations, (Solomons, Aleutians, Philippines) From Cebu to Mabalacat in a transport plane, was killed. During this time, in group fighting, 29 planes shot down, 429 damaged, 36 personal/individual victories, and 2 damaged.”

July 11, 1983 letter from Harold Newell to Henry Sakaida

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June 4, 1984 letter from Harold Newell to Henry Sakaidanishizawa

After action reports from VF-14 regarding the shooting down of Nishizawa’s plane

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For More on Japanese Aces of WWII Check Out:

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai


Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945


B-29 Hunters of the JAAF




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2 thoughts on “HIROYOSHI NISHIZAWA: THE TRUTH ABOUT JAPAN’S TOP FIGHTER ACE

  • Bill Getz says:

    Fascinating story, well-researched. Brings out the more personal aspects of war and highlights how cultural differences affected combat. Those differences remained in both the Japanese and German populations who could not admit to the atrocities they committed prior to and during WWII. Some in both countries still cannot their guilt.

  • Cahyadi Kartawiharja @ Michael Chong says:

    I feel deep seated sadness for those fighters on both sides of the divide. In any war there are no victors, all are victims of circumstances beyond their control. To satiate the appetites of a few in high places, the common man has to bear the brunt of consequences of the conflicts. Let us for goodness sake dispense with who is right or wrong, for the conscience of man was flawed and defective in the first place. My forebears had to flee the old country to a distant shore but evil does not honour boundaries….and they had to witness the slaughter and butchering all over. Who cares who wins or who loses, all the heroes and all the villains of past are dead to be replaced by a new generation of the same. Sadly history always repeats itself. From the hands of Cain that struck and slayed Abel was the first signs of man’s inhumanity towards his brother. From that first demonic act, the myth of the brotherhood of man was fait acompli. The sacred grounds on earth is interred with the souls of dead warriors all to what purpose….I ask you??….glory?….dignity…..patriotism?…..filial piety?……dedication and belief in a cause?….none of it. The only reason I can find fathomable and offers a peak into this mystery is the fact that the primeval instinct of a primate to overcome another primate as the only reason and logic for the curse of man’s inhumanity to man. It has always been the instinct to even the score.

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