The loss of a Mitsubishi Zero was, for the Japanese, not all that uncommon an occurance during the Second World War. After all, the Zero was their primary fighter throughout the conflict, and they lost plenty during the War’s duration. But one of those losses was especially painful, not just for the pilot who was killed when it went down, but for many, many other Japanese pilots who lost their lives because of it.
Of course, I’m referring to the Zero flown by Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. The youngster was shot down during the Battle of Dutch Harbor…well, “shot down” is probably not the most accurate term, at least not with how our mind’s eye see a shootdown. We might think of a classic dogfight (Red Baron style) with planes chasing each other in the wild blue yonder, guns blazing and fists clenched. But Koga was actually forced to land when a .50 caliber bullet (from ground fire) punctured an oil scavenger line and began draining the oil from his engine. His landing on Akutan Island ended as a minor crash which flipped the plane on its top, killing its occupant with a broken neck.
Six weeks later, the Zero was discovered by the U.S. Navy. They very carefully removed the dead pilot and buried him, then very carefully removed the plane from the site. It was packed into what Jim Rearden describes as a “very awkward crate” and shipped on a freighter to the North Island San Diego Naval Air Station, arriving there in mid-August.
Rebuilding the plane was a 24-hour-a-day process, and it was done with as much secrecy as conditions would allow. The plane was only lightly damaged, with the propellor, landing gear struts, gun sights, and instruments needing a bit of reconditioning. The engine was probably the biggest concern, since nearly all the oil had been drained. But other than a bit of rust in some of the cylinders (the plane had been upside down in a couple feet of water for a month and a half), most things were in excellent condition and the engine turned freely, so it hadn’t seized up.
On a side note, it was a bit disconcerting to discover that the Zero’s radio direction finder was made by Fairchild Aero Radio Company, New York City. In addition, the generator inside the radio was manufactured by another American company…Eclipse.
A few of the plane’s surfaces (the vertical stabilizer, the canopy, rudders, and flaps) needed adjustments, but again, damage was modest.
By most accounts, Koga’s Zero was ready to fly again on September 25, 1942, which makes it another dark day in the Pacific campaign for the Japanese. In the following days and weeks, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eddie Sanders repeatedly flew the Zero, becoming familiar with its characteristics, its flight envelope, its strengths, and (most importantly) its weaknesses. The information would be passed on to Navy pilots in battle, where their successes increased dramatically. In addition, new aircraft designs incorporated “Zero-beating” features into them, which assisted Navy (and Army Air Force) pilots greatly.
It’s been said that one man can make a difference. I suppose the same could be said of airplanes. It certainly holds true for Koga’s Zero.
Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery