As a follow-up to last week’s post on the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), this week I am focusing on a title that is arguably the most significant training film produced by the unit.
Considered as a federal record, Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter (1943) is an important historical document of the training of World War II fighter pilots. If we look a little deeper, though, it is the story of the making of this film that provides the best illustration of the First Motion Picture Unit’s impact on World War II.
In the film, pilot Lt. Jimmy Saunders (played by Ronald Reagan) learns to identify the differences between the American P-40s and the Japanese Zero fighter planes. Saunders really learns his lesson when he jumps the gun and only his poor shot keeps him from downing an American pilot.
(In case the animated diagrams of planes bore you, Reagan
appears and the story begins at about the five minute mark.)
The First Motion Picture Unit produced Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter to address a very real and serious problem: American pilots were mistakenly shooting down our own men because they could not easily distinguish between our own P-40s and the Japanese Zero fighter planes. The instructor in the film explains that this was not a common occurrence, but one can imagine that any deaths caused by pilot error were a major concern, as they would be today.
The solution was Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter, which we have preserved at the National Archives. It’s an entertaining and effective training film that emphasizes the differences between the two planes, as well as the importance of knowing the exact moment to act. The film instructed pilots to fire once they were certain, but without any hesitation so that an enemy plane wouldn’t have time to attack them first.
Even at the time it was made, Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter was held up as the prime example of how the First Motion Picture Unit was critical to the war effort. Production on the film was rushed, and prints were shipped to Pacific bases as quickly as possible. According to a 1946 piece in Hollywood Quarterly, “uncounted lives” were saved because the First Motion Picture Unit was nimble and responsive.
In this case, the First Motion Picture Unit’s efforts translated directly to saved lives, creating an immediate, measurable impact on the Pacific war front. Secondarily, while a good training film doesn’t replace the need for a parachute, the success of Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter proved that it can be just as essential.