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Japan’s World War II “Betty” Bomber: A Battleship Killer and Admiral’s Coffin

Japan Betty Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Japan Betty Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Last September, this reporter wrote an article on the unfortunate story of the WWII British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, whose 10 December 1941 sinking along with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse represented the bleakest day in the history of the Royal Navy. These two sunken vessels are now back in the news, but not for sentimental reasons: it’s been reported that communist China has committed flagrant acts of graverobbing against these shipwrecks, which just further demonstrates that the Beijing government has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

My 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu was faster on the draw than I was as far as doing a writeup on these latest Chinese shenanigans. So instead, this will be a story on the warplane responsible for sinking the British warships in the first place. Say hello to the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” medium bomber.

“Betty” Early History and Specifications

The Mitsubishi G4M Navy Type 1 attack bomber (一式陸上攻撃機, 一式陸攻, Ichishiki rikujō kōgeki ki, Isshikirikukō) made her maiden flight on 23 October 1939 and officially entered into operational service with the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) Air Service on 2 April 1941. She became the IJN’s primary land-based bomber as well as the most widely produced Japanese bomber of WWII.

The plane’s own crews nicknamed her Hamaki (“Cigar”) due to both the cylindrical shape of her fuselage as well as her inflammability (more on this in a bit). Meanwhile, the Allied codename was “Betty.” As Stephan Wilkinson of HistoryNet explains: “The American system of nicknaming World War II Japanese  aircraft gave female names to bombers, male names to fighters. Betty was actually a waitress in Pennsylvania. A member of the three-man intelligence team that picked the names thus immortalized a one-night stand.”

Specifications included a crew of seven, a fuselage length of 65 feet 6 inches, a wingspan of 81 feet 8 inches, a height of 16 feet 1 inch, an empty weight of 14,861 pounds, and a max takeoff weight of 28,361 pounds, which included a payload of either four 551-lb. bombs or a single 1,892-lb. Type 91 Kai-3 torpedo. Defensive armament consisted of a single tail-mounted 20mm Type 99 cannon and four 7.7 mm Type 92 machine guns in the nose, waists, and top turret. Max airspeed was 266 mph.

Betty the Killer: Sinking the Pride of the Royal Navy

The G4M soon proved its deadliness in many battles, including the raid on Clark Field, Philippines the day after the Pearl Harbor raid. But of course, the Betty’s greatest moment of glory was the aforementioned sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse. This marked the first time that capital ships actively defending themselves were sunk solely by airpower upon the open sea.

Shockingly, the ships were sunk with a mere four torpedo hits apiece. In exchange for these massive ship kills, only two Hamakis and one Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 “Nell” were shot down out of a total attacking force of 88 planes, all the more mind-numbing in light the bristling antiaircraft armament the two British behemoths carried: sixteen QF 5.25-inch Mk. I guns and thirty-two QF two-pounder (40 mm) “pom-pom” guns on Prince of Wales, and seventeen 4-inch and two 3-inch guns on Repulse.

Afterwards, Sir Winston Churchill remarked “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock … Across this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.”

Betty the Victim: An Admiral’s Coffin, i.e. Sayonara, Admiral Yamamoto 

Unfortunately for Imperial Japan’s air superiority prospects, the Betty had something in common with the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane: deadly on the one hand, but quite vulnerable on the other hand; just like the Zero, the initial versions of the Betty lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, which meant both planes had a rather distressing tendency to light up like a tinderbox when hit by a solid burst of .50 caliber machine gun fire. Indeed, Allied fighter pilots’ unofficial nickname for the G4M was the “The Flying Lighter” (ironically apropos given the IJN crews’ own “Cigar” nickname for the plane). Eventually, later variants of the bomber came along with those protective features along with improved defensive armament, but by then, it was too little, too late.

The most historically significant example of a Betty falling victim to an Allied fighter plane’s guns occurred over Bougainville Island on 18 April 1943, when a Lockheed P-38 Lightning flown by U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. shot down a Betty ferrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the IJN’s Combined Fleet, described by Don Hollway of HistoryNet as “the Harvard-educated, poker-playing mastermind of the December 7, 1941, attack.” Mr. Hollway adds that “The admiral’s body was found near the wreckage, belted upright in his seat and still holding his sword, leading some to believe he survived the crash and might have been saved. More likely his body was arranged by another dying victim, in a demonstration of the reverence his countrymen felt toward him.”

The psychological effect that Yamamoto’s death had on the IJN was analogous to the effect that Stonewall Jackson’s death at the Battle of Chancellorsville had upon the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War: the institutions just weren’t the same afterward.

Where Are They Now?

 A total of 2,435 Hamakis were built, yet not a single intact airframe survives in the present day. That said, there are partial carcasses on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and Australia’s Darwin Aviation Museum.

Fortunately, for those of us who are historic preservation and restoration enthusiasts, Mr. Wilkinson’s article ends on a hopeful note: “In November 2015, billionaire Paul Allen bought the wreck for his Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum in Seattle. Judging by what Allen has done with other such acquisitions, it is possible that this Betty will someday fly again. Almost certainly it will eventually be fully restored and placed on display.”

Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).