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Posts Tagged ‘Akutan Island’

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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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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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.

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