Posts Tagged ‘Dutch Harbor’

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 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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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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