Posts Tagged ‘Mitsubishi A6M Zero’

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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It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard.  For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August.  I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention.  So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests.  Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.

When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise.  The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway).  Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.

The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands.  Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai.  Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.

After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses.  The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief.  But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him.  The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head.  Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.

He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least.  His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood.  Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base.  Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound.  And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.

The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned).  He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships).  And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.

Sakai survived the War.  And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.

Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal

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When I was in college, I took a two-part course in Military History…History 389 & 390.  In the first course, I was required to write a paper, and I chose to focus on advances made in aviation during the Second World War.  As I recall, I did reasonably well on the paper (though thinking back, I’m not sure it was all that good).

But if my writing was worth a grain of sand (it’s hard to recall almost 20 years down the road), hopefully I spent a little time talking about the rapid advances made just by Grumman just during the war’s first couple of years.  The F3F, introduced in the mid-1930’s, was the last biplane flown the U.S. Navy.  But by the time the bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor were bringing America into the war, it had been relegated to trainer status.  It was followed by Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a fairly capable monoplane design that borrowed heavily from the F3F.  But even the Wildcat’s successor was on the drawing board before America entered the war.

For Navy pilots, however, Wildcats were the best available aircraft, so Wildcats were what they used.  While it was a good aircraft, it quickly became apparent that it had distinct disadvantages in a fight with Japan’s primary fighter, the Mistubishi A6M Zero.  It couldn’t turn as quickly as a Zero (very few aircraft could), and it couldn’t climb as quickly (Zero’s were relatively light).  But a Wildcat could dive faster (it was heavier), and a Zero didn’t have anywhere nearly the Wildcat’s armor protection for the pilot.

And since the Navy was discovering all this good information while designing and building a new airplane, it was the perfect time to try and address the shortcomings.  The single biggest fix was more power (it’s the answer to all car problems, too).  The Wildcat’s 1,200-horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,700-horsepower beast.  These were air-cooled radial engines, as liquid-cooled engines were a bit more complicated to service in a carrier environment, to say nothing of how all that radiator ducting added numerous points of failure out over the water.

And by the time the first F6F Hellcat (as the replacement was designated) took to the skies on June 26, 1942, another upgrade was already in the works.  The engine had been upgraded yet again to 2,000 horsepower.  The airplane was significantly larger than the Wildcat it replaced, but the cool part (for the Navy anyways) was that two planes looked remarkably similar.  So when Japanese pilots used their “Wildcat tactics” against the new mark, they got a nasty surprise.

With a 380mph top speed, the Hellcat was 50mph faster than the Wildcat, climbed 50% faster, featured better range and much heavier armament.  With the larger Double Wasp engine, it was better than the Zero in almost every aspect.  And that was made abundantly clear when it entered service later in 1943.  Extensively used from September of 1943 until the end of the war, it was responsible for shooting down more than 5,000 enemy aircraft for a loss of fewer than 300 of its own.  It bears pointing out that, by this time, most of Japan’s better pilots were already dead, with poorly-trained pilots as their replacements.  But even assuming equal talent behind the stick, the Hellcat was the superior plane…and it wasn’t really close.

The F6F Hellcat would remain the U.S. Navy’s primary fighter until the war ended, and it’s successor, the lightweight super-fast F8F Bearcat, would only see a handful built.  And then Grumman’s jet-powered aircraft were on the scene.  In little more than 7 years, Grumman had advanced from biplanes to jets.  And right in the middle was the best known of all of them.  The F6F Hellcat.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor is the watershed event in World War II history for Americans.  And rightfully so, as it brought the United States into the conflict.  But from a Japanese perspective, it was a move largely designed to keep us out of the War and, as such, was merely an operation to protect the real Japanese objectives…bringing the entire Pacific region under the flag of the Rising Sun.

One of those “real” operations was the invasion of Malaya, to which we alluded when discussing the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in December.  Japanese troops landed at the northeast coast city of Kota Bharu on December 8th (the same time as the Pearl Harbor attacks, but on the other side of the International Date Line) and began working south.  Opposing them were British, Australian, and Indian forces, as well as a regiment of Malayan soldiers.

The Allied defense of Malaya was pretty much doomed from the start.  The British had hoped a strong naval presence at Singapore would act as a deterrent to Japanese aggression, but no significant naval force arrived until late October of 1941 (the Repulse and Prince of Wales), and we know what happened to them.  But more than that, the Allies had no armored answer to the Japanese tanks that landed and moved south, and the Japanese Zero, at this early stage, was vastly better than any plane the Allied air forces flew in the Far East.  And Chennault’s Flying Tigers were tied up in China and Burma.

Moving south and west, the Japanese fanned out and, within a month, had captured the northern half of Malaya.  Allied forces were pushed southward towards, and then through, the western city of Kuala Lumpur.  On January 11, 1942, Japanese forces entered Kuala Lumpur and took it with almost no opposition.  One of Japan’s main objectives, the British-owned city of Singapore, was now just 200 miles away.

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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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