One of the most famous captured aircraft of the War.
Let’s look at the story of a Zero that changed hands early in the Aleutians Campaign.
Its been mentioned here before how painfully little the Allies knew about Japan’s state-of-the-art fighter at the start of the Pacific War. In December of 1941 it was a complete mystery what this fighter was that appeared over Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and Singapore. Some thought it was just a Messerschmitt in Japanese markings, or even a derivative of the Curtiss Hawk 75?
But its performance was extraordinary, clearly capable of outmaneuvering allied types. As air intelligence personnel got a better look at photos and wreckage they came to the conclusion this was something more frightening, an indigenous Japanese fighter with unknown capabilities. That, combined with skillful and experienced fighter pilots led to this mystery type getting a larger than life reputation for invincibility.
Some more experienced fighter pilots were finding ways to be effective against the type, most notably John Thach with his Beam Defense Maneuver. But obviously more data was needed, especially if more offensive tactics were to be developed.
One strange tangent to the Battle of Midway was the Japanese operation to occupy two Aleutian Islands. The opening moves of this operation involved Carrier Division 4, the aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo. The Ryujo was an older light carrier, as a treaty design meant to maximize airpower on a small hull it was never considered fully successful. The Junyo was a brand new carrier, a conversion from a merchant ship. Between them, the two carriers had 82 aircraft. Less than a normal carrier division, even less then a single US fleet carrier. But considered adequate for secondary missions. On June 3, 1942 Carrier Division 4 attacked the US Navy base at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island Alaska with 46 aircraft. They did little damage, because really, not much was there. Even worse, all but two of Junyo’s 26 planes got lost in the fog and failed to even find the base. The raid had been expected, locally based PBYs were out patrolling in force, but only one coming in for a mail delivery was destroyed. Fighter defense was meant to come from P-40s from the USAAF base at Umnak Island, 70 miles distant. The fighters were even ready and on high alert, but radio communications completely failed until the raid was over and no intercept was made on the main force. Total Japanese losses for the day consisted of a single E8N Dave reconnaissance aircraft that blundered across the previously unknown fighter field at Umnak.
Carrier Division 4 was located by the Catalinas, and a number of long range strikes from Catalinas, Flying Fortresses and Marauders were launched over the next day. But all for no effect.
This did lead to the carrier commander, Admiral Kakuta, deciding Dutch Harbor still needed to be neutralized. Apparently Dutch Harbor was the only American base in the area that the Japanese knew about. On June 4 another strike of 31 aircraft was launched against the Navy Base. A single PBY was spotted in the air again, it was shot down and its crew strafed and killed as they tried to evacuate. This was all done by a section of three Zeros flown by CPO Endo, PO Shikada and PO Koga. The bombers started a fire in a warehouse and destroyed some fuel tanks, and damaged a beached barracks ship. No Japanese were brought down during this attack either, but one Zero was damaged. Who damaged the Zero is unclear, PO Shikada believed PO Koga’s Zero was hit by the intense machine gun fire during the attack; but some American witnesses believed the plane arrived trailing smoke and was likely damaged by the PBY they brought down.
CPO Endo noted one of his wingmen trailing dense smoke and led his flight to Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor. This had been chosen as a rally point for any disabled aircraft, for later rescue by submarine. The trio circled the island and located a large grassy flat area, a previously charted location by the Japanese, designated for emergency landings. Koga set up for a landing, lowering his gear and flaps. Shikada considered he should have kept his wheels up, since he thought he saw water glistening under the grass…
When Koga touched down, the wheels sank into the surface and the plane stood up on its nose, before flopping down on its back.
Endo and Shikada circled the site, looking any sign of Koga escaping the wreck. By orders, if Koga failed to escape the wreck, they should have strafed it to prevent it falling into enemy hands. But the plane was nearly pristine, so little damage visible, surely Koga would crawl from beneath shortly? Neither could bring themselves to shoot up the plane with Koga still in it. Eventually, low on fuel they returned to Ryujo.
A Japanese submarine was directed to the island to pick-up one pilot. But the Destroyer/Seaplane Tender USS Williamson was in the area and attacked the submarine, driving it off.
Over a month later, on July 10, 1942, a PBY flown by Lt William Thies and Ens Robert Larson was returning from an all night patrol. They had been blown off course overnight and found themselves in fog that morning. As conditions improved they got their bearings and they sighted land, and decided to keep the various islands in sight as they worked their way home. The last island they passed over before Amaknak was Akutan. One of the gunners spotted a plane upside down in the marsh. It was light grey with plainly visible meatballs on the wings. The location was noted and they returned to Dutch Harbor.
Lt Thies and Ens Larson lobbied for a salvage mission to the wreck. Aircrew were in short supply, but Ens Larson was put in charge of small party to take a patrol boat over the Akutan and evaluate the wreck. Their specific orders were to be careful! Japanese crew could still be on the island, so the salvage team was well armed.
Of course the only Japanese was dead. Koga was still strapped into the cockpit of the plane. Presumably his neck was broken in the flip over, although his head was underwater so even if it only knocked him unconscious…
The plane was damaged. More seriously by the crash than the oil line they found severed by a single bullet. Everything was well photographed, and the pilot was buried on a nearby hillside. Recovering the wreck from Akutan became an engineering saga itself, more men and equipment were shipped over from Dutch Harbor, plywood “islands” were constructed through the swamp to remove the plane in stages. The engineers quickly realized the main spar for both wings was a single unit passing through the fuselage. Several other captured Zeros were rendered permanently unflyable by attempts to remove the wings, but the Akutan crew made no such mistake.
During July the plane painstakingly moved over to Dutch Harbor where it was loaded on a fast transport that departed for San Diego on July 25.
Arriving on August 1 the Zero was moved to a specially isolated hanger. There are plenty of interesting notes and observations from this time. The biggest take away is how all concerned were immediately impressed with the pure craftsmanship of the aircraft. It was well engineered and well built in every sense by the standards of the time. The engine and cowling stood out as tight and aerodynamic while providing more than adequate cooling for optimum performance. It was also a wholly original design, with no more borrowing of ideas and technologies than any other aircraft in use. Many of the avionics however were American designs, in some cases even American built (the radio compass and generator).
Repairs needed were more extensive than is commonly recognized, but by Sept 20, A6M2 Zero Serial Number 4593 was ready to fly again. A few weeks prior, Navy test pilot Lt Cmdr Eddie Sanders was ordered from Washington DC to North Island NAS with all possible speed. He would be the primary pilot for the initial flight testing. Sanders noted a big discovery from his very first flight; although the Zero was highly maneuverable at low speed, its ailerons became very stiff above 200 kts. This was perhaps the most critical discovery of the whole test program to follow. Other notes being that it rolled better to the left than right; and it had a conventional float-type carburetor, so it couldn’t maintain power at negative-Gs. Visibility was described as excellent. Construction was extremely clean and aerodynamic; but light, with all the good and bad associated with that. The cockpit was tight but comfortable (larger than a Spitfire), but the pilot’s seat didn’t go back far enough!
An F4F-4 Wildcat and F4U-1 Corsair were also made available so Sanders, and other pilots who eventually joined the program, could make relevant comparisons. One comparison jumps out with no flying required; the Zero weighed in at 5555 lbs, the Wildcat 7450 lbs and the Hellcat 12139 lbs (and the Thunderbolt at 17000 lbs!). The supercharging on the Zero was much simpler and lighter than that in the Wildcat. But given that Zeros generally operated lower, that meant the Wildcat had several hundred pounds of unneeded equipment (one pilot’s opinion!).
The flight test findings were considered important enough that outgoing pilots were briefed by the test team even before formal reports were written. In time, the plane would also be tested by the USAAF with similar findings.
Its worth mentioning some bogus information that’s been published a few times. Neither the Corsair nor Hellcat was designed in response to testing Koga’s Zero. Both aircraft were already flying and well along in their development. It was tactics, pilot response that were addressed. Most specifically the importance of keeping one’s speed up. This was particularly critical for Wildcat pilots, their plane had a lower top speed than the Zero so they needed to manage speed and altitude to their advantage at all times. And Zero pilots knew this very well. THEIR training and experience were all about using their unrivaled maneuverability to advantage; turn, loop or roll when attacked.
Later in the War Zero No. 4593 was used for enemy aircraft familiarization flights and mock dogfights. It was joined by other captured Zeros, including one that came all the way from China (that was also a heroic tale and was technically captured “first”. But it was much longer in transit and not subject to well documented testing until 1943). In February 1945 Koga’s Zero was destroyed in a Taxi accident, an SB2C ran up over its tail and reduced everything aft of the cockpit to shreds. The pilot was fortunate to escape injury.
This is the Hasegawa kit, decals were lifted from the Tamiya Wildcat I just finished.