The Survivors: Mitsubishi J2M Raiden – The Last Japanese Thunderbolt

One of the better fighter designs operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War Two but not built in enough numbers, was the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (“Thunderbolt” – Allied Code Name: Jack) land based interceptor used to attack Allied bombers such as the USAAF Boeing B-29 Superfortress. It was designed to be fast with a top speed 596km/h (370 mph – examples captured and tested by the United States using 92 octane fuel plus methanol, flew at speeds between 655km/h and 671km/h!), with an excellent rate of climb, to quickly reach the enemy bombers at altitude and later variants packed a punch with 4 x 20mm Type 99 wing mounted cannons to bring them down. It was armoured but maneuverability was sacrificed for speed and this pilot protection. Unfortunately performance at high altitude was hampered by the lack of an engine turbocharger on the main production Raiden aircraft.

Mitsubishi J2M1 Raiden prototype - the three J2M1 Raiden prototypes flew for the first time on March 20th, 1942
Mitsubishi J2M1 Raiden prototype – the three J2M1 Raiden prototypes flew for the first time on March 20th, 1942 (Photo Source: ijnafphotos.com)

Although a fast and well armed design, only 671 were built. The first J2M1 prototype flew on March 20th, 1942 (8 were built – they were armed with 2 x 7.7mm machine guns above the engine and 2 x 20mm Type 99 cannons in the wings) but production was delayed due to issues with the 14 cylinder Mitsubishi Kasei 13 radial engine cooling system (it used an air driven fan to blow cool air onto the engine) and a troublesome undercarriage design. The first J2M2 Model 11 variants, armed as per the prototypes reached development units in December 1942 but the engine problems delayed testing and more J2M2 production examples did not reach the operational 381st Kōkūtai until December 1943 – by then the tide of war had well and truly turned against Imperial Japan and Allied bombing soon reduced production by hitting aircraft parts and engine factories.  The engine issues were partially overcome by using a Kasei 23a radial engine that had an inbuilt fan cooling system.

Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) line-up
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) line-up

Developed in conjunction with the J2M2 was the J2M3 Model 21 variant that was armed with 2 x 20mm Type 99-1 outboard wing mounted cannons and 2 x 20mm Type 99-2 inboard wing mounted cannons. The first J2M3 entered service in October 1943 for testing but did not enter operational service with frontline squadrons until February 1944. Again all too late to turn that ever-present tide of incoming Allied forces.

Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiden (Jack) of the 302nd Kokutai taking-off from its base at Yokosuka
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiden (Jack) of the 302nd Kōkūtai taking-off from its base at Yokosuka (Image Source: Aviadejavu.ru)

A small number of J2M Raiden interceptors were used in combat during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944 but saw limited success. Based off captured British examples the Imperial Japanese Navy must have operated the type in Malaya and they were also deployed in Korea but it was in the defence of the home islands in Japan where it saw its main use attempting to intercept the USAAF Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers (as mentioned earlier the lack of a supercharger limited its performance though) – the cannon armament and diving tactics brought down some bombers but when the USAAF switched to night bombing its effectiveness was even further reduced as the Raiden was not fitted with radar. A lack of numbers also did not help the strategy to stop the Allied bombing offensive.

Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden
A stern looking Imperial Japanese Navy member in front of a J2M Raiden gives you some idea of the size of the fighter! (Photo Source: ijnafphotos.com)
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden of the 352nd Kokutai
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden of the 352nd Kōkūtai (Photo Source: ijnafphotos.com)

A small number of J2M4 and J2M5 were produced with Kasei 23c and Kasei 26a engines that had a turbo-supercharger to improve high altitude performance. The J2M4 had two upward firing 20mm cannons and the supercharger was fitted behind the cockpit but this proved unreliable, hence only 2 prototypes were built. Modifications were made to the J2M5 and a three stage turbo-supercharger was fitted to the engine – 34 of this variant were produced.

End of the line - incomplete or partially disassembled Imperial Japanese Navy J2M Raiden interceptors in Japan in 1945
End of the line – incomplete or partially disassembled Imperial Japanese Navy J2M Raiden interceptors in Japan in 1945 (Photo Souce: worldwarphotos.info)
The remnants of the Imperial Japanese Navy 302nd Kokutai at Atsugi in 1945 including J2M Raiden, A6M Zero and G4M Betty aircraf
The remnants of the Imperial Japanese Navy 302nd Kōkūtai at Atsugi in 1945 including J2M Raiden, A6M Zero and G4M Betty aircraft (Photo Source: Worldwarphotos.info)

Captured

A number of Mitsubishi J2M Raiden aircraft were captured by the Allies and tested by the Americans and the Brits at the end of the war. In some cases Japanese pilots were used to fly the aircraft under close supervision (they knew the aircraft)! Technical Air Intelligence Units (TAIU) made up of USAAF, US Navy & RAAF personnel tested captured aircraft in the Pacific Theatre – initially set up in Australia in 1943, by 1945 they were in operation in the Philippines and tested at least one captured J2M Raiden. The general assessments seemed to be impressed with the rate of climb of the J2M.

Captured - Mitsubishi J2M Raiden in the Philippines TAIC 1945
Captured – Mitsubishi J2M Raiden in US markings with the Philippines TAIU 1945 (Photo Source: worldwarphotos.info)
Captured - Mitsubishi J2M Raiden in the Philippines TAIC 1945
Captured – Mitsubishi J2M Raiden in the Philippines TAIC in 1945, flying alongside a US Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat and a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Supermarine Seafire (Photo Source: worldwarphotos.info) – sometimes you read descriptions of the J2M as being stubby, its size is evident here and far from stubby!
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE IN THE FAR EAST, 1945-1946 (CF 900) Japanese aircraft taken over by the Allies in Malaya were tested and evaluated by Japanese naval pilots under the supervision of Royal Air Force officers. Here two Mitsubish J2M Raiden fighters (known to the Allies as 'Jack') are flying in close formation during their evaluation. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207368
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE IN THE FAR EAST, 1945-1946 (CF 900) Japanese aircraft taken over by the Allies in Malaya were tested and evaluated by Japanese naval pilots under the supervision of Royal Air Force officers. Here two Mitsubish J2M Raiden fighters (known to the Allies as ‘Jack’) are flying in close formation during their evaluation. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207368

The Survivor

The sole Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) survivor, a J2M3 variant (Serial Number 3014) is in the United States and can be found at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. I first saw this impressive looking fighter in person at Chino in 2013. I have not been able to find much information about this aircraft, the information sign at the museum was more about specifications and the museum website doesn’t have any background info but it must have been one of the aircraft tested by the Technical Air Intelligence Unit (TAIU). The livery and markings on the aircraft are a little confusing though, as the twin yellow lightning bolts on the fuselage are like those seen on Imperial Japanese Navy 352nd Kōkūtai (352nd Naval Air Group) Raiden aircraft but the tail number is more like those from the 302nd Kōkūtai (302nd Naval Air Group)! Perhaps they were just taking an each way bet?!

Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) interceptor at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino
The sole survivor – Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiden (Jack) interceptor at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013 with the confusing markings of the 302nd and 352nd Kōkūtai!
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) interceptor at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiden (Jack) interceptor at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (Jack) interceptor at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013
Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiden (“Thunderbolt”) at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California in 2013

 

References:

Classic Wings – Preserved Axis Aircraft – Mitsubishi

History Of War – Mitsubishi J2M Raiden

Wikipedia – Mitsubishi J2M Raiden

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26 thoughts on “The Survivors: Mitsubishi J2M Raiden – The Last Japanese Thunderbolt

  1. Didn’t know about this plane.
    I had heard that someone was trying to rebuild an authentic Zero and had found a one in a jungle in pretty good shape. Incredibly they were almost completely lost. Then they had to find Mitsubishi blueprints, and in the end were successful.
    It’s astonishing how quickly some things can be lost. But maybe we wanted to lose those?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe that this aircraft was transported to the North Island Naval Air Station right after WW2 ended. After the Navy got through with it it was transferred to the San Diego Junior Collect Industrial Arts Program (Air Craft Repair and Maintenance) The classes were conducted at the large San Diego Exhibition Building located in Balboa Park (a large circular building with murals around the walls). That is where I saw it in the early 1950’s; it was surrounded by a variety of piston engines (Cyclones, etc) on test stands. When the San Diego Aerospace Museum was established, there were plans to bring the aircraft over to the Museum building. An arsonist (some said “vagrant”) burned the building to the ground. The fire destroyed a replica of the “Spirit of St. Louis” along with thousands of other documents and memorabilia. I had donated all of my father’s memorabilia, including a complete set of manuals, plans and drafting documents for the Consolidated-Vultee B-32 “Dominator” bomber. All of that burned thanks to an “urban camper’s carelessness”. Fortunately the J2M Raiden was still inside the Exhibit Hall about 1/4 mile away. Several years later, when I was in the Army, I revisited the museum but it wasn’t the same without my dad’s old flight jacket, leather helmet and everything else. During that visit, one of the museum Docents told me that the Raiden had been “towed off” for parts unknown around 1963 or 1964.

    Liked by 1 person

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