When I think of Dutch Harbor, two things usually come to mind. First, crab fishing. For years, this small city has been the center of an enormous fishing business. Located in the middle of the Aleutian Island chain that hangs off the southwest side of Alaska, it has become synonymous with King and Opilio Crab fishing, thanks to my favorite television show, the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch“.
The second thing is an obscure Japanese operation during World War II to seize the Aleutians. Designed to prevent the U.S. Navy from using the Northern Pacific for attack routes, the campaign had, in most opinions, little strategic value. But it had a tremendous payout for U.S. Navy pilots, as we’ll soon discover.
The fight for the Aleutians began on June 3, 1942 with Japanese air attacks on Dutch Harbor, which succeeded in setting a few fires, killing a few people, and little else. The attackers returned the following afternoon, bombing fuel depots and strafing the flying boats in and around the harbor.
Among the attackers was Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. Koga, a Mitsubishi Zero pilot, was part of a 3-ship flight. During one of his runs, ground fire cut an oil line (shown above), causing his plane to lose oil and power. Recognizing that his plane was in trouble, Koga made for Akutan Island, about 25 miles from Dutch. Thinking he was landing on a grassy strip, Koga lowered the landing gear of his sputtering aircraft and set down. However, the “landing strip” was nothing more than a grass-covered bog, which grabbed the wheels and flipped the Zero onto its back, but caused very little damage and no fire. Koga’s wingmen watched the incident and waited for Koga to emerge. Japanese orders were to destroy downed (but undamaged) planes to keep them from the enemy, but they didn’t want to kill Koga.
With fuel getting low, they decided to head for the carrier and report the incident. Koga had indeed been killed, suffering a broken neck when the plane flipped. But events conspired to prevent the Japanese from following up on their missing Zero, and so there the plane lay, until it was discovered five weeks later by an American patrol plane. At that point, the plane would be rescued, refurbished, and researched…by the U.S. Navy.
June 4, 1942 was a really bad day for the Japanese Navy, which ended up on the short end of two Miracles: six minutes near Midway Island, and a lucky .50 caliber bullet that sliced an oil line in Koga’s Zero.
Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery – One of the best sources of information about Koga’s Zero and its recovery.