Origins of References
Japanese Aircraft Camouflage and Markings
James F. Lansdale
(First Draft June 1998)


Great Britain and Germany had been engaged in aerial combat for little more than a year when the Harborough Publishing Company, Limited, of England released the first of a seven volume series of texts entitled the Aircraft of the Fighting Powers (AFP). The texts’ editor, D.A. Russell, using the compiled works of various authors, produced what was then considered to be the premier source of information on military aircraft. The texts contained photographs, line drawings, and commentary on multinational camouflage and markings. This source was to remain the single most important reference on the subject of camouflage and markings for the next two decades. Research on the origins of references for Japanese aircraft camouflage and markings began with the study and analysis of the contents in these widely read books. While the publications did serve as the state of the art on the subject for the times, the authors and publishers suffered from conditions of
war-time censorship and secrecy. Official intelligence reports were not available for analysis and the few combat photographs released often had been subjected to more than one censor. In addition, monochromatic photographs did not make for accurate color interpretations. Panchromatic film was not always used for the accurate registry of variations in color brightness. Written descriptions of colors as being gray, green, or brown, left much latitude for interpretation by artists and model builders as to exact hues. Nevertheless, Harborough had produced what were to become virtual bibles of resource material on the subject. Consequently, more than one generation of historians and model builders have been incorrectly influenced with frequently erroneous or unsubstantiated assertions as to the color schemes of Japanese warplanes contained within these volumes. Such erroneous information needs analysis, correction, and revision in the light of more recent research and available evidence.
The following analysis is the result of efforts by a network of historians working on compiling information on wartime Japanese camouflage color schemes and markings. They have utilized declassified documents from the National Archives and have examined documented relics from the period. The citations and commentary are intended to clarify several issues which have generated controversy over time in this field of study and present the latest information available from the on-going research.

Part I: Original Reference To Japanese Color Schemes and Markings

The first color references to Japanese aircraft camouflage and markings by Harborough Publishing Company, Limited, did not appear until the publication of their third volume of Aircraft of the Fighting Powers (AFP) in December 1942, one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Editor, D.A. Russell had begun to include a section entitled "A Compendium Of International Military Aircraft Markings, With Some Notes On Regulation Colour Schemes Applied To Various Classes of Aircraft." Under the sub-heading "Japan" appeared the following description:

"International markings: A red disc painted above and below the wing tips and sometimes on the fuselage sides, but not on the tail assembly. A narrow white band is painted around the rear fuselage, or sometimes midway between the wings and the tail group. Unit markings take the form of horizontal and diagonal strips painted across the fin and rudder. The camouflage consists of irregular patches of greys and purples on the upper surfaces and a light shade beneath the wings and fuselage. The light shade meets the camouflage with an undulating line." (AFP, Vol. III; p. xliv)

Commentary: Russell’s first textual reference to Japanese colors and markings has been found to be generally accurate. His main failing was not providing a color standard and the uncertain interpretation required of the reader by his use of generic words such as "greys" and, interestingly, a reference to "purple." It is known today that the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) did not apply the fuselage hinomaru during the early stage (December 1941 through February/March 1942) of combat operations. The IJAAF was also the branch of service which almost universally utilized the single "narrow white band," or so-called combat stripe, on the fuselage of its aircraft immediately in front of the fin. In some theaters this so-called combat stripe was red in color. Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) bomber units, while not the only units to do so, were the most likely to utilize the "horizontal and diagonal strips painted across the fin and rudder" as tactical formation markings. Other color references to Japanese aircraft in AFP, Vol. III included:

"S-96 [A5M Claude] fighters are now camouflaged in the standard fashion, but were formerly light grey unrelieved save for the red disc national insignia and the unit markings in the form of hieroglyphics [kanji, katakana, or hiragana markings]." (AFP, Vol. III; p. 64)

"Both Army and Navy versions of the S-97 [Ki-27 Nate] are now camouflaged, but in pre-war days they were silver and the Naval fighters usually had the cowling painted in the flight or group color." AFP, Vol. III; p. 65)

Commentary: In the light of later knowledge, it is apparent that there was some confusion in the discrimination of the Mitsubishi A5M Claude naval fighters, whose early production numbers left the factory in natural metal finish, from the Nakajima Ki-27 Nate army fighters, which left the factory in a color now evidenced to be similar to a gray-green (FS-16350). Mid to late production Claudes did leave the production line in similar livery. The exact hue of these A5Ms continues to be researched. Army air units frequently painted the cowlings of the Ki-27 in the hiko chutai colors, however the naval A5M fighter cowls were invariably a dark gray or black color. In addition, red tail surfaces on IJNAF aircraft were used as a branch of service marking.

Succeeding pages of volume III went on to describe the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, Kawasaki Ki-32 Mary, Mitsubishi Ki-51 Sonia, Kugisho B4Y1 Jean, Mitsubishi
Ohtori (Eve) operated by the Asahi Shimbun, and the Mitsubishi G3M1 Nell as being "camouflaged in the usual way," or "silver" with various white fuselage bands or white stripes on the tail. (AFP, Vol. III; p.p. 66 -71). Russell then went on to describe the Mitsubishi Ki-21 Sally:

"In China the Mitsubishi OB-97s [Ki-21 Sally] were not camouflaged and one squadron carried a star insignia against two diagonal white bands painted spiral-fashion around the rear fuselage. In addition to this special marking the usual white band was painted just forward of the tailplane. The national insignia [is] painted on the wings only." (AFP, Vol. III; p.72)

Commentary: Noteworthy of this citation is that of three photographs which accompanied the article, two illustrated the markings mentioned as consisting of "two diagonal white bands" along with the "star insignia." However, the stripes are obviously not white or light in color! The bombers’ overall color appears to be the standard factory-applied finish known today to be similar to FS-16350 gray-green.

Part II: Origins of References to Clear Coating

Volume IV of AFP was published in 1943. In the Japanese section of the Compendium of International Military Aircraft Markings [and] Regulation Colour
Schemes appears an interesting mixture of information.

"International markings: A red disc painted above and below the wing tips and on the fuselage sides of both Army and Navy aeroplanes. On camouflaged surfaces the red disc is outlined in white. Many differing camouflage schemes have been tried on Japanese aeroplanes and some have been finished in a clear lacquer [Italcs added] so as to reflect the natural surroundings. The upper surfaces are camouflaged in tints of grey, purple, and green, while the lower surfaces are pale grey. Other machines have been painted pale grey or pale green on both upper and lower surfaces. Unit markings take the form of white horizontal bands of varying thicknesses across the vertical tail surfaces and vertical bands surrounding the rear fuselage." (AFP, Vol. IV; p.LII)

Commentary: While most of the material cited is generally accurate in spite of the use of generic color descriptions, the most interesting statement herein is the alleged application by the Japanese of "a clear lacquer so as to reflect the natural surroundings." This citation provides the first published record of a so-called clear coat on Japanese aircraft. Research and examination of scores of relics since the time of this publication have failed to support this contention. In fact, the Japanese Naval Test and Research Center at Yokosuka had come to a much different conclusion as early as February 1942. In the Yokosuka kokutai official Report No. 0266, Research of Camouflage For the Type 0 Carrier Fighter, the writer of the report stated an opposite finding:

"1. The effectiveness of camouflage by the application of various colors differs greatly and is dependent on the background. Therefore, it is difficult for just one color to fit any kind of situation.

2. It is easy to spot aircraft without paint because the reflection of light on the metal [may be seen] at a great distance. If one renders the surface lusterless, one can reduce this weak point no matter what color is applied." (Yokosuka kokutai Report No. 0266; p. 2)

Thus, if a clear coat were to be applied and contribute an effective camouflage it would need to be transparent yet not shiny nor made "to reflect the natural surroundings" much like a mirror! However, the assertion that a clear coat had been applied by the Japanese to their aircraft was erroneously repeated:

"The usual camouflage markings are carried by the OB-01 [Mitsubishi G4M Betty] and it is reported that certain of them have been finished in clear lacquer so
as to reflect the surroundings in which they are operating." AFP, Vol. IV; p.75.

Commentary: One possible explanation for the shine reportedly observed on the Betty land-based naval bombers is that the glint may have been the result of
light reflection on the unpainted lower surfaces of the aircraft or it was the reflection from a paint scheme which had not been rendered "lusterless." Again, it must be emphasized that the reflection of light by the application of a "clear lacquer" would have been the antithesis to the purpose of camouflage and certainly unnecessary if the surface paint were glossy when applied. There would have been no purpose to apply a clear coat to an already shiny surface other than to protect an otherwise bare metal. A flat opaque coat of paint would have been equally effective in protecting the surface and serving as camouflage. In the event, it is extremely difficult to determine if light reflection from a surface is due to the application of a clear coat by merely observing it. One would have to physically examine the painted surface in question layer by layer to make a definitive determination.

Part III: More Clear Coat and New Colors

In the compendium section for the 1944 edition of AFP, it was reported for Japan that on camouflaged aircraft the hinomaru was "outlined in white or
against a yellow square background." Also reported was that "differing camouflage schemes have been tried out on Japanese aeroplanes and some have
been finished in a clear lacquer so as to reflect the natural surroundings. The upper surfaces are camouflaged dark green, while lower surfaces are light
blue. Other machines have been painted blue-grey on both upper and lower surfaces. Some aircraft have a grey-green mottle on the sides and upper
surfaces. A white or yellow band about 10" wide is often painted round the rear fuselage on some types." (AFP, Vol. V; p. LXIX)

Commentary: The above citations include the first published account of a "yellow square background" for the hinomaru. This is not conclusive evidence that this practice was a fact and data substantiating this practice has yet to be documented. Documented relics recently examined and analyzed demonstrate that the upper surface dark green on IJNAF planes was most often similar to FS-34052 or FS-34077 and the lower surfaces were most often either unpainted, painted FS-36307 or FS-36314 light blue-gray or FS-36357 gray. Aircraft reported to have been "painted blue-grey on both upper and lower surfaces" are most likely to have been labeled as such because of photographic misinterpretation of a color that modern research reveals was most similar to FS-16350 or FS-24201 gray-green.

"One [Ki-46] Dinah aeroplane has been seen with the Japanese word Ri (Victory) painted on the rudder. Normally this type is unpainted although some are
finished in light blue grey on all surfaces." (AFP, Vol. V; p. 66)

Commentary: Examples from the Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinah from both the Burma and New Guinea theaters have been examined. All relics from the aircraft samples
examined are a close match to FS-16350 gray-green. None have been unpainted While it is not possible to completely rule out the described "light blue grey
on all surfaces," other than the fabric on the control surfaces, the Dinahs were most likely painted overall in a color similar to FS-16350 gray-green.
Later, field-applied finishes varied as evidenced by wartime photographs. Other factory applied finishes are also currently being researched.

"Most [Mitsubishi A6M3 model 32] Hamp and [A6M2] Zeke fighters are painted a very light blue grey on all surfaces, sometimes with coloured motor cowlings
and normally with coloured identification bands running around the rear of the fuselage. A few of these aircraft have appeared with dark green camouflage on
the upper surfaces and light blue under-surfaces. A number of Hamp aircraft have been seen with the Japanese word Aikoku (Patriotism) painted on the
fuselage in ideographs followed by a number. Two particular aircraft are Aikoku-872 with the number Q-102 on the fin and rudder and Aikoku-870 with the
number V-187 on the fin and rudder. Both airplanes are painted blue-grey on all surfaces with red motor cowlings." (AFP, Vol. V; p. 67)

Commentary: Fortunately there are relics in existence from both of the Hamps described above which are preserved in the National Archives and private
collections (Q-102 s/n 3030 and V-187 s/n 3028 as well as many A6M2 Zeros). The color of the metal surfaces in all cases is either a close match to
FS-16350 or FS-24201 gray-green. This evidence refutes the contention that they were "blue-grey on all surfaces." In addition, color slides and 8 mm
color film of the wreckage at Buna, where these aircraft were recovered, clearly demonstrate that the cowls are not "red." They appear as a shade of
dark gray or gray-black. The Zeros which "have appeared with dark green camouflage on the upper surfaces and light blue undersurfaces" were probably
painted a color similar to FS-34077 dark green over FS-36314 blue-gray, as demonstrated by relics from Nakajima built Zeros. Two-color Mitsubishi
constructed A6M Zekes were most frequently painted FS-34052 dark green over FS-36357 gray lower surfaces.

The myth of Zeros being "blue-grey on all surfaces with red motor cowls" was, unfortunately, reinforced and perpetuated by the noted Harborough artist John
Stroud. In 1945, Stroud authored and illustrated the classic Harborough Publishing Co.,Ltd., edition of Japanese Aircraft with the first full color profiles of Japanese aircraft published. On pages 13 and 15, in this path finding publication, there were Zeros and Hamps erroneously portrayed in a light blue-gray overall finish and red or yellow cowlings! This was the origin of a myth which has continued to the present. Many authors, including Richard M. Bueschel, would later report IJNAF aircraft with a "black or blue and red cowling." (Japanese Aircraft Insignia, Camouflage and Markings by Richard M. Bueschel, 1966: p. 7)

The sixth volume of AFP was published in 1945, after Japanese Aircraft had been published and Russell was very likely influenced by Stroud’s work. In this edition, Russell made the following comments regarding Japanese color schemes and markings:

"National Markings; A red disc painted above and below the wings and on the fuselage. Carried by both Army and Navy aircraft. On camouflaged aircraft
the red disc is outlined in white or painted against a yellow square ground. Various camouflage schemes. Some aircraft are Pale Grey on all surfaces [N.B.
probably a reference to FS-16350 or FS24201]. Others are Dark Green [N.B. probably a reference to naval aircraft with FS-34052 or FS-34077 dark green]
on top and Grey [N.B. probably a reference to naval aircraft FS-36307, 36314, or 36357 blue-gray or gray] underneath. A third variety is Grey-Green mottle
camouflage on the upper surface." (AFP, Vol. VI: p. il)

The seventh and final volume of AFP was published in 1946. These last and certainly least words on the subject of Japanese color schemes and markings in
AFP were a faint and, seemingly, a weary echo of what had so often been said before:

"National Markings. A red disc painted above and below the wings and on the fuselage. Carried by both Navy and Army aircraft. On camouflaged aircraft the disc is surrounded by a white or yellow ring. Various camouflage schemes. Some aircraft pale grey all over. Others dark green on top and grey underneath. A third variety is grey-green mottle camouflage." (AFP, Vol. VII: p. 2)

Commentary: Other than the "yellow ring" around the hinomaru, which has not been substantiated, there was no new material. Again, the generic description of "pale gray all over" did little to establish a precise color or shade. Today, the preponderant evidence is that Japanese army and naval aircraft in the overall light colored paint schemes, were painted in a color similar to FS-16350 or FS-24201 gray-green on their metal surfaces. Often, only the fabric surfaces have shown evidence of what Russell called a "grey" or "blue-grey" color.

The year 1946 also saw the publication of Harborough author Owen G. Thetford’s, first of a two volume series of camouflage and markings books, Camouflage of 1939-42 Aircraft. The second volume, to be published later, would cover the 1943-45 period. Both had three-view drawings and full color illustrations by C. Rupert Moore and were to establish the style of the genre, along with John Stroud’s Japanese Aircraft. On the subject of Japanese camouflage schemes and markings, Thetford wrote about the usual "grey and green" of Japanese aircraft and about the locations of the hinomaru. Then he added:

"Other Japanese aeroplanes observed at one period were pale grey or pale green [Italics added and perhaps alluding to the early overall FS-16350 or FS-24201
gray-green hues] on both upper and lower surfaces. On the pale grey machines the white outline around the red disc was not carried. Unit markings on Japanese aeroplanes took the form of white horizontal bands of varying thickness painted across the fin and rudder, and vertical bands around the rear fuselage. Some Japanese aeroplanes seen over Burma and N. Australia were clear varnished all over so as to reflect the jungle vegetation and merge with their natural surroundings [Italics added]." (Thetford, 1946: p. 76)

Commentary: In addition to the usual generic descriptions of color and markings, now appears the first undocumented statement that Japanese aircraft "seen over Burma and N. Australia were clear varnished all over." Once again, it must be restated that a clear coat is not detectable without having a physical sample in hand nor would aircraft be provided any camouflage value if their surfaces had a clear coat "so as to reflect the jungle vegetation and merge with their natural surroundings." Research is on-going to find hard evidence that a clear coat was ever actually applied by the Japanese to their aircraft during World War II.

Part IV: Fantastic Color Schemes Reach A Zenith

D.A. Russell next production, after AFP, was Aircraft Camouflage and Markings 1907-1954. The book was written by Bruce Robertson and it was first released
in the Autumn of 1956 by Harleyford Publications Limited, now synonymous with "Harborough" Publications. It was reprinted three times with two revised editions. The last edition was published in 1961. Two pages of text dealing with the camouflage and markings of Japanese aircraft did not add to the accuracy of what was then known nor was there documentation of the previously presented material. Furthermore, Robertson’s writings placed the entire subject of Japanese camouflage and markings into increased doubt. The author, inaccurately and incorrectly stated:

"General Finish For both Japanese Army and Naval aircraft a polished metal finish or white doped fabric had been usual. A transparent rust-resisting lacquer was applied producing a smooth surface. To this finish, a camouflage was applied as necessary." (Robertson, 1956: p. 160).

Commentary: Reinforcing what had been inaccurately published before in reference to a so called clear coat, Robertson’s statements did contain some elements taken from a captured enemy material report involving the paint analysis done on the rudder fabric and components of a downed A6M2 Zeke, coded V-110 s/n 1575. (JIC Bulletin No. 1 edited by David Aiken, 1983: p. 20) Robertson continued:

"When Japan struck it was with Japanese Navy aircraft in clear finish - or in brightly coloured schemes [Italics added]. In fact, during the attack on Pearl Harbour, Kates and at least one Jake were painted with red wings and yellow fuselages [Italics added]." (Robertson, 1956: p.160)

Commentary: Robertson, without source citation, repeats the canard of the so called clear coat or "clear finish" and then proceeds to publicizing the most persistent myth regarding the finish on some of the Pear Harbor attackers. The allegation that some of the Pearl Harbor attackers were painted with "red wings and yellow fuselages" has never been substantiated. One theory is that there may have been some observers who, in the midst of the attack, experienced lasting impressions of the red hinomaru on the wings or the yellow and red tactical markings on the tail surfaces of some attacking aircraft. Later, they may have reported seeing the "brightly coloured" schemes alluded to by Robertson. Another theory is that some observers may even have reported seeing one or more of the yellow civilian flight trainers, which were also in the air at the time of the first attack, as "yellow" Japanese aircraft. Allied news reporters of the time would also have desired to picture the Japanese attackers in "yellow" aircraft. Americans, for whom yellow was the symbolic color of cowardice, would have readily accepted such portrayal of an enemy who, at the time, were billed as treacherous and cowardly.

"With the Pacific War a few days old a navigator of a B-17C reported Japanese fighters unlike the silver ones he had previously noted, in that these had a pale green finish." (Robertson, 1956: p. 160)

Commentary: Inadvertently, Robertson had, without citation, quoted one of the first factual references to the Japanese pale gray green schemes (FS-16350 or
FS-24201 gray-green). Walter D. Edmonds wrote the American version of Japanese ace Saburo Sakai’s attack on the B-17 flown by Capt. Colin P. Kelly,
Jr. on 10 December 1941 over the Philippines. In order to record the first description of the A6M2 Zeros flown by Saburo Sakai and other members of the
Tainan kokutai on that date, it is appropriate to here quote from Edmonds’ greatly respected and excellently documented historical classic, They Fought With What They Had. The navigator on the B-17, 2nd Lt. Joe M. Bean, saw fighters "climbing very fast, as if they meant business, and he noticed them especially because, unlike most Japanese fighters, which were finished silver or white, these were painted a soft, pale green [Italics added]." Following the account of the strafing attack by Saburo Sakai and other pilots on the B-17 and Bean’s parachuting from the severely damaged bomber, Bean again saw the Zeros which had attacked them. "The planes were painted the same pale green [Italics added] as the fighters Bean had seen taking off at Aparri…." (Edmonds, 1951: p.p. 128-129)

"When Japan, having swept the Philippines and S.E. Asia, went on to attack Northern Australia, rising suns with orange rays were spread across the wing
undersurfaces of some of the attacking aircraft…." (Robertson, 1956: p. 151)

Commentary: This statement by Robertson has never been substantiated, although a much photographed pre-war civil aircraft owned by the Asahi Shimbun
did sport such markings. Other than another statement by Robertson that, "Little attention was paid to undersurface camouflage, the natural silver-grey
finish with transparent lacquer being most usual," the remaining paragraphs pertaining to Japanese camouflage were, to his credit, generally accurate.

Part V: The American Pioneers

The final, Fourth (Revised) Impression of Bruce Robertson’s Aircraft Camouflage and Markings 1907-1954 was released in the summer of 1961. By this
time, an American historian of Japanese camouflage and markings, Richard M. Bueschel, had published the first scholarly approach to the subject. Bueschel
compiled sufficient data to produce an eleven page article, including illustrations and photographs, entitled "Japanese Aircraft Markings" in the Winter 1960 issue of Air Progress. This work, other than one or two minor errors of interpretation (i.e. a "yellow panel" or surround to the hinomaru, undoubtedly influenced by John Stroud’s artwork, and a reference to the use of the "Cocarde" version of the hinomaru), would become the bench mark for future American studies of the subject. Bueschel’s colorful follow-up article related to IJAAF unit markings, "The Gaudy Killers," appeared in the March 1961 issue of the Royal Air Force Flying Review. Once again, he established a "first" in the English language by publicizing the flamboyant IJAAF tail markings with classic color illustrations. However, influenced once again by John Stroud’s art work in Japanese Aircraft, Bueschel illustrated a Ki-43 Oscar of the 50th hiko sentai with "pink’ lightning markings and
misidentified the markings of the 13th hiko sentai as belonging to the 24th hiko sentai. Five years later, Bueschel authored a combined and expanded version of his two previous articles in a twenty-four page booklet, Japanese Aircraft Insignia, Camouflage and Markings. The booklet was published by World War I Aero Publishers, Inc. of West Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1966. Bueschel’s efforts and work are truly classical.

Influenced in great measure by the work of Bueschel and the Japanese author/illustrator Minoru Akimoto, Donald W. Thorpe, began his studies. Thorpe began by drawing upon the resources of an international network of renowned Japanese aviation researchers including Hideya Anda, Richard M. Bueschel, Charles J. Graham, B. Calvin Jones, Lloyd S. Jones, Witold Liss, Robert C. Mikesh, Yasuo Oishi, and James Wood. Thorpe scoured the photographic files of the National Archives, the Air Force, private collections, and tramped every research area possible. But, his best original data and factual knowledge came from the study of metal scraps and relics of Japanese warplanes which had been contributed by Dr. Charles Darby. Darby had gathered Japanese warplane artifacts from his many trips to the battlegrounds of the Pacific. The end result of these studies was Thorpe’s two-volume standard reference on Japanese camouflage and markings. The first volume, Japanese Army Air Force Camouflage and Markings [of] World War II: Aero Publishers, Inc., was released in 1968. The companion volume, Japanese Naval Air Force Camouflage and Markings [of] World War II, also produced by Aero Publishers, Inc. was published nine years later in 1977. Today, in spite of a few errors which crept into the work as published, the two volumes have remained the quintessential sources on the subject of Japanese camouflage
patterns, color, and markings in the English language.

Respected and renowned Japanese authors and illustrators, including Minoru Akimoto, Kikuo Hashimoto, Shigeru Nohara, Tadashi Nozawa, and Rikyu Watanabe
have added immeasurably to our knowledge of Japanese camouflage and markings and aided research. Yet, research is still on-going with international teams of scholars who continue to make advances in the knowledge of this subject matter. No single work may be considered to be truly definitive, however, the continued efforts in the field by so many individuals evidences the striving for such an ultimate goal.

ŠJune 1998 by
James F. Lansdale
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