The float version of the Zero was perhaps the most successful floatplane fighter ever built.
This will also be the mildest sort of “hypothetical” build I can even imagine. The aircraft is real, its service by unit and location are accurate, its markings are accurate for its unit. Just one small detail is hypothetical, and there’s a serious history behind that too. You may guess from the pictures, the hypothetical is about — purple…
Two Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska were captured by the Japanese as an extended part of the Midway Operation in June, 1942. Most older American accounts of that battle refer to the Aleutians as a “diversionary” part of the Midway plan; this was the best guess of Allied leadership at the time. Recent accounts of the event, drawing more heavily of Japanese sources, paint a slightly different picture. Yamamoto himself was opposed to occupying the Aleutians, naval personnel generally considered them to be worthless territory because of their miserably inhospitable weather. But the Japanese Army was convinced it would be a huge political and propaganda win to capture something considered American soil. Ultimately the Army agreed to supply troops for the occupation of Midway on the condition the Navy would help them with their dreams for the Aleutians.
The occupation of two Aleutian Islands came about purely as a matter of Japanese inter-service politics.
Going back a step for this aircraft, the Nakajima A6M2-N (Allied code name “Rufe”) was the first War-time new aircraft deployed by the Japanese. Barely. The first example flew on December 8, 1941. On looking at rapid expansion plans the Navy had decided they needed a fighter to serve at numerous out-of-the-way locations where no airfield could be built. They ordered Nakajima, already the main builder of Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero fighter and the leading supplier of all sorts of naval aircraft, to create such an aircraft. Now.
Nakajima took the basic A6M2 airframe and attached floats from an E8N Reconnaissance Seaplane. They added major fuel tankage to the central float and enlarged the rudder to make up for the increased surface area of the whole contraption.
The aircraft was successful, in a limited sense. Clearly the most maneuverable float plane ever built, but so much extra weight and drag made it much less capable than the Zero itself. Nonetheless, it provided air cover in a general sense and was more than capable enough against enemy bombers and reconnaissance.
With the occupation of Attu and Kiska it was imperative to get air power in. Starting June 15, 1942 came the first of several deliveries of a float plane based air group on Kiska. For fighters this meant 8 Rufes. Within a few weeks the newly created “5th Air Group” had a dozen operational Rufes.
Initially the Rufe was very effective against American B-17s, B-24s and Catalinas that were attacking the outer Aleutians at extreme range. Another float plane group, the Toko Group, also with Rufes was established on Attu Island (smaller, and even further from Alaska) to counter long range raids there too. The Rufes scored several kills, although I believe only one pilot claimed multiple kills. For both sides, the fight against the elements (rain, fog, wind, cold) would always prove deadlier than combat in this theater.
When all this started, total US military personnel in the Aleutians was less than 3000. The biggest bases in the islands were Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and Fort Glenn Army Air Field on Umnak Island; these were almost 700 miles from Kiska. Nonetheless, Japanese in the Aleutians played very badly in the American press and operations had to start against them immediately.
This meant building progressively closer airfields through 1942. With a new airfield on Adak Island, only 250 miles from Kiska, it became possible to launch a more serious bomber offensive. This also included fighter escort from the P-38s of the 54th Fighter Squadron. P-40 Warhawks with drop tanks could even make the trip.
The P-38 established clear ascendency over the Rufe. It was much faster, more modern and capable. Although the Rufe was always superior in pure maneuverability, and at least one P-38 was shot down by a Rufe. A well flown P-40 was more than a match for the Rufe too. By early 1943 the US was completely dominant in the air. The Japanese tried one refresh of their airpower, the exhausted 5th and Toko Air Groups were reinforced with the 452nd Air Group (more float planes, more Rufes). But by May, when US Army troops came ashore on Attu Island the Japanese could offer no resistance in the air. Later, in August, a joint operation of US and Canadian troops (the only such I know of in the Pacific War) re-occupied Kiska Island just days after the Japanese had evacuated.
So where does purple play into this? In the later part of the 1942 campaign several Allied pilots claimed encounters with purple float Zeros. There were enough of these sightings to convince air intelligence officers that some must exist. It was reported in numerous western publications, both official and unofficial. In early 1943 the Japanese repainted the upper surfaces on their combat aircraft green. As always with these things, I’m cautious of words like “always” or “never”; but apparently the directive to repaint was adopted pretty universally. It did include those planes still operational in the Aleutians. And reports of purple Rufes went away.
When Allied forces retook Attu and Kiska they recovered a lot of Japanese wreckage. This included several Rufes, one of which was made flyable by an air intelligence unit. But nothing purple was found.
Post-War, no Japanese service man who was deployed to the Aleutians expressed any knowledge of purple aircraft.
Several publications, including many considered “serious”, included artwork of the purple Rufe. Model Companies also embraced the idea, I still have memories as a kid being wowed by the dramatic purple fighters on model kit boxes.
In the late 1990s several photos were published of wrecked Zeros that had been recovered from the jungle that were severely weather beaten, and exposed a shockingly red primer undercoat. Could this have something to do with the Aleutian purple? It generated a whole new round of excitement and speculation on the subject. But of course these planes had seen 50 years of weathering, the Aleutian Rufes were more or less brand new. Generally less than a year old. And no comment was made about red planes among the wreckage any more than purple.
The adult Dave wants to know, what’s the real story? Its one of those things we are unlikely to get a firm answer on this point. But I’ve seen a speculation that makes the most sense to me. From fall through spring the Aleutian Islands are in an almost perpetual twilight. Sunset all day long. In this low light colors are often hard to identify. Its seriously not hard to look at Imperial Navy Sea Grey and imagine a slight purple cast to it, especially at sunset. I think this is the most plausible answer, light grey aircraft appearing to pick up a purple hue from a sunset that lasts all day long. It is still interesting to me that none of these planes were reported as yellow or orange. But again, that specific grey may just always read as purple in a certain low light.
This build is a hypothetical, in that I no longer believe purple was ever actually used by the Japanese. It is marked as a 5th Air Group A6M2-N from those fall battles in 1942. The purple could be to honor so many sighting reports delivered in good faith; or to honor the memories of all who were inspired by the wonderful, colorful artwork that appeared in books, magazines and model boxes for many years!
This is the Hasegawa kit. The kit’s painting instructions suggested mixing purple in with the Sea Grey. I used much more purple than they recommended.
Still, when looking at this aircraft, and imagine its always twilight operations, I can imagine in a post-War interrogation, Imperial Navy Aircraft Polisher 3rd Class Bob thinking to himself “what’s all these questions about purple?! We never had any purple airplanes! Everything I saw was normal Imperial Navy Sea Grey! With just a little red and blue mixed in to match the Arctic sky…”