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Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

It was just a single plane.  One silly plane.  A lone Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of nearly 11,000 made by Japan during the Second World War.  Today, there are a handful of flyable Zeroes in the world, but as far as I know, there exists but one example that still flies with the original engine.  These are truly rare birds.

But the Zero I’m thinking of isn’t in a museum.  In fact, other than a couple of miscellaneous parts, the subject of Today’s History Lesson no longer exists, having been chopped up in a training accident in 1945.  As you might have guessed, I’m referring to Tadayoshi Koga’s aircraft, shot down during a raid on Dutch Harbor in 1942.

Koga crash-landed on Akutan Island, 25 miles from Dutch.  The plane flipped onto its back, sustaining minor damage and killing Koga in the process.  The plane lay on Akutan for more than a month, until it was discovered by a PBY Catalina pilot.  The plane was investigated, recovered, and transported to Dutch.  It then became something of an adventure to not only keep the find as much a secret from the Japanese as possible, but also keep souvenir hunters at bay.

Packing the plane for transport from Alaska was also something of a problem due to the fact that the Zero’s wings were integrated right into the fuselage.  At the end of the day, Koga’s plane was packed into a rather strange crate and shipped off.  It arrived at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, on August 12, 1942.  And over the next six weeks (as we know from our time together here), it was there that the plane was repaired, reconditioned, and made flyable.

Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery

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On March 13, 1942, U.S. cryptanalysts wedged the first cracks into Japan’s JN-25 code system.  As we well know, this bright spot falls into that dark, 6-month period for the U.S. armed forces between the disaster at Pearl Harbor and its first victory at Midway.

The advent of radio had really transformed radio communications for the world’s navies, allowing messages to be sent instantly over long distances.  Unfortunately, anyone with a receiver and the proper frequency could hear the message, and if one knew the language, well…secrets didn’t stay secrets very long.  So out came the codes, and they increased in complexity rapidly as each previous version was cracked by the enemy.

During World War II, Japan used numerous different coding systems.  There was one for the army, a Flag Officers Code (that the U.S. never cracked), and numerous others.  But JN-25 (as it was called by the U.S.) was the biggie, as it was used by the Japanese Navy…hence the “JN”.

This system consisted of a codebook with nearly 30,000 entries.  On top of that book was a “superenciphering” 300-page additive book, with each page containing 100 random five-digit sequences.  This created a sort of two-tiered encryption, which proved to be a tough nut to crack, indeed…even with the use of a very rudimentary computer (the IBM ECM Mark III).

But U.S. cryptanalysts were aided in their jobs by the Japanese themselves.  First, the five-digit sequences in the additive book were not used just once, but repeatedly, which gave codebreakers a hook on which to grab.  Second, Japanese command formality meant that phrases like “I have the honor to inform your Excellency” were used many times, as were nicknames for various commanders.  This repetition is anathema to encryption, because repeated patterns are the first things for which codebreakers look, and even using a different five-digit superencryption key couldn’t hide those pattern phrases for very long.

So rather that having to decipher a massive code system, it really became an exercise in collecting enough Japanese messages and putting enough smart people to work finding those repeated patterns.  Add in two parts patience and two parts persistence, and stir until enough of JN-25 was cracked to begin reading messages.

Within a month, the U.S. Navy had enough information to try a little test.  “Island AF” kept coming up in messages and the Navy suspected it was a reference to Midway.  So they told the guys on Midway to transmit that they were low on water.  Sure enough, a coded Japanese message was intercepted days later reporting Island AF low on water.

Game over.  Check and mate.

The Japanese knew their systems could be hacked, so they changed them periodically.  But their initial arrogance (caused by their incredible successes) meant they didn’t change them as much as they should have.  And they never really altered the basic structure of their messaging.  So U.S. codebreakers would simply look for the phrases and nicknames, which largely gave them “the key to the candy store.

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I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  Last time I wrote…well…it was nearly last year.  I’ve been away too long, but that’s ok.  Most of us have had plenty of other good diversions to keep us busy.  It’s another quickie…

During the last half of the 1930s, Americans watched the increased aggression taking place abroad.  A great number of people wanted nothing to do with foreign intervention, or entanglements, or war.  But as Hitler expanded out from Germany and Mussolini did the same in Africa and southern Europe, it became pretty apparent that war would come.  And there was growing disquiet over Japan’s push in China and her desire to create a giant Japanese pond out of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the U.S. military noticed all this as well, and they began pushing for increased armaments production.  It was during this time that the potential for war actually gave America the head start she would need when war did arrive in 1941.

One of the better-known projects to come out of this period was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Consolidated Aircraft Company had been approached by the Army Air Corps to produce B-17 Flying Fortresses under license from Boeing.  The B-17 was a durable, rugged aircraft that was pretty well loved by those who flew it, and Boeing couldn’t keep up with the increased demand.

But Consolidated believed they could do better.  And just like North American Aviation (when asked to build P-40 Warhawks for Curtiss), Consolidated’s leadership believed they could build a better plane.  So they built a four-engine bomber that was a bit faster, climbed a little more quickly, and could perform a 2,000-mile mission carrying three tons of bombs.

The new mark first flew on December 29, 1939 and, while there was favorable response to the aircraft’s abilities, actually flying the plane turned out to be a more difficult affair.  It didn’t fly in formation nearly as well as the Flying Fortress.  It’s lightweight design (which gave it greater range) meant it couldn’t withstand the same level of damage as the 17s.  And they had a tendency to catch fire.

But they could carry a big bombload for quite a distance, and that made Liberators a very popular weapon of choice.  So popular, in fact, that the B-24 would become the most mass-produced aircraft in U.S. history, with on the order of 18,000 being produced.  And with so many in service, lots of guys flew them, including my next-door neighbor when I was growing up.  He flew in Germany and was actually shot down.

And while there were myriads produced, hardly any are still flying.  There are a handful of survivors on static display, but only two are still capable of taking to the skies.

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Well, winter has come to Iowa with a gale.  Yesterday, it was 53°F and gorgeous.  Today, it’s about 15 with 45mph wind gusts, blowing snow, and super-icy streets.  I’m glad I got a good bike ride in yesterday…it’ll be a few days before I get another opportunity.

It’s a quickie this evening.

On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States.  But Germany didn’t necessarily have to do so.  The U.S. hadn’t declared war on Germany, nor had either country attacked the other.  And what’s more, though Germany and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact the previous year, Germany was only obligated to come to Japan’s defense, not back her aggression against Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the German High Command also believed a declared war with America was dangerous ground.  It’s true that the U.S. was openly assisting Germany’s enemies through the Lend-Lease program, and German U-boats were clashing with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic.  But this was a far cry from open war, where the full weight of America’s military potential would be brought to bear.

But Adolf Hitler made the declaration anyways.  With his successes to date, he believed in the might of his military and the ability of his country’s industries to fuel it.  He also believed in Japan’s ability to defeat America, even though some in Japan’s own leadership, particularly Isoroku Yamamoto, pretty much knew the score.  And he thought that America lacked the will to fight and that it would take some time for her to put her economy on a war footing…by which time Japan would have already knocked her from the conflict.

Adolf Hitler ended up being wrong on every point…

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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

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We’ll keep it brief this evening, as it’s the first night of baseball’s amateur draft, and I enjoy tracking that.

Out of the disaster that was the Midway campaign, the Japanese did manage some success up north in the Aleutians.  The Battle of Dutch Harbor (which we’ve talked about a couple of times) didn’t really accomplish a whole lot in terms of the actual engagements, but it tied down the U.S. forces stationed there so that an invasion force could approach the far western edge of the Aleutians.

Subsequent attacks on the island of Adak (between Dutch and the Japanese targets of Attu and Kiska) suppressed U.S. forces there such that Japan’s invasion force could make their landings.

Attu and Kiska are small islands sitting way out west in the Aleutians.  They are rugged, barren, and largely inhospitable.  But for the invaders, they provided a place to set up bases from which to patrol the northern Pacific.  A victory at Midway would have made the islands very important as protectors of Japan’s northern flanks.

But of course, Japan was shockingly defeated at Midway, which really made the Aleutians untenable.  Still, Admiral Yamamoto ordered their occupation, with two-fold reasoning in mind.  First, the bases could still provide value should the Americans decide to launch attacks against Japan from the north.  Second (and maybe more important), it would give the whole Midway campaign some marginal victory on which the Admiral’s hat could be hung.

And so, on June 7, 1942, Japanese forces landed on Attu (a day after they landed on Kiska).  And for a year, they would sit with little to do but dig trenches and emplacements in the unforgiving climate.  Back in Japan, the entire campaign was heralded as a huge victory for the Japanese.  In fact, the Japanese citizens would not learn the truth of Midway until after the war ended in 1945.

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The Battle of Dutch Harbor has generally occupied little more than a postscript in the affairs of the Second World War.  It’s pretty much an “oh-by-the-way” engagement when weighed against what was building around Midway.  And truth be told, it is a relatively minor encounter as they go.

Begun in the early morning of June 3, 1942, it involved a small Imperial Japanese fleet with a couple of light carriers (Ryujo and Junyo) and a handful of cruisers and destroyers…a pittance compared to the massive Midway armada.  Their job was to shoot stuff and blow stuff up and create enough havoc to cover for the invasion force that was making for Attu and Kiska, a pair islands farther down the Aleutian chain.

Facing the Japanese was an amalgamation of forces, including an Army regiment, some anti-aircraft batteries, and a handful of aircraft.  Of course, U.S. intelligence was aware that an attack might be coming, but no one was sure of exactly when or where it would fall.  So while the men had been on alert, the sounds of bombs falling and explosions at 4:30 in the morning was still a bit of a surprise.

The Japanese attacks were kind of on-again, off-again affairs throughout the day, but usually involved strafing runs at very low altitude, low enough that some soldiers claimed they could see the faces of the pilots at whom they were shooting.  Japanese fighters succeded in not doing much damage, though they did manage to bomb the barracks at Fort Mears, killing 25 servicemen.  As defenders, U.S. forces managed to keep the Japanese dodging enough that it prevented any serious damage, other than the attack at Fort Mears, and U.S. planes dispatched a couple of reconnaissance planes that got a little too close to the action.

So the first day of the battle saw a flurry of activity and a whole bunch of ammunition expended for not a ton of results.  But the Japanese were doing their job…keeping the American forces occupied as an invasion force made its way north.

Like I said, the Battle of Dutch Harbor sounds kind of ho-hum.  But it was very important for what happened on June 4th.  That action would provide the most memorable results and a huge windfall to American Navy pilots.

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