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Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Dutch Harbor’

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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