• The Japanese Zero and how we learned to fight it

In April 1942 thirty-six Zeros attacking a British naval base at Colombo,Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), were met by about sixty Royal Air Force aircraft ofmixed types, many of them obsolete. Twenty-seven of the RAF planes wentdown: fifteen Hawker Hurricanes (of Battle of Britain fame), eight FaireySwordfish, and four Fairey Fulmars. The Japanese lost one Zero. Five months after America's entry into the war, the Zero was still amystery to U.S. Navy pilots. On May 7, 1942, in the Battle of the Coral Sea,fighter pilots from our aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown fought theZero and didn't know what to call it. Some misidentified it as the GermanMesserschmitt 109. A few weeks later, on June 3 and 4, warplanes flew from the Japanesecarriers Ryujo and Junyo to attack the American military base at DutchHarbor in Alaska's Aleutian archipelago. Japan's attack on Alaska wasintended to draw remnants of the U.S. fleet north from Pearl Harbor, awayfrom Midway Island, where the Japanese were setting a trap. (The schemeultimately backfired when our Navy pilots sank four of Japan's first-lineaircraft carriers at Midway, giving the United States a major turning-pointvictory.) In the raid of June 4, twenty bombers blasted oil storage tanks, awarehouse, a hospital, a hangar, and a beached freighter, while elevenZeros strafed at will. Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo led a three-planeZero section from the Ryujo, whose other pilots were Flight Petty OfficersTsuguo Shikada and Tadayoshi Koga. Koga, a small nineteen-year old, was theson of a rural carpenter. His Zero, serial number 4593, was light gray,with the imperial rising-sun insignia on its wings and fuselage. It had leftthe Mitsubishi Nagoya aircraft factory on February 19, only three and ahalf months earlier, so it was the latest design. Shortly before the bombs fell on Dutch Harbor that day, soldiers at anadjacent Army outpost had seen three Zeros shoot down a lumbering Catalinaamphibian. As the plane began to sink, most of the seven-member crewclimbed into a rubber raft and began paddling toward shore. The soldierswatched in horror as the Zeros strafed the crew until all were killed. TheZeros are believed to have been those of Endo, Shikada, and Koga. After massacring the Catalina crew, Endo led his section to Dutch Harbor,where it joined the other eight Zeros in strafing. It was then (accordingto Shikada, interviewed in 1984) that Koga's Zero was hit by ground fire. AnArmy intelligence team later reported, "Bullet holes entered the planefrom both upper and lower sides." One of the bullets severed the return oilline between the oil cooler and the engine. As the engine continued to run,it pumped oil from the broken line. A Navy photo taken during the raidshows a Zero trailing what appears to be smoke. It is probably oil, andthere is little doubt that this is Zero 4593. After the raid, as the enemy planes flew back toward their carriers, eightAmerican Curtiss Warhawk P-40s shot down four VaI (Aichi D3A) dive bombersthirty miles west of Dutch Harbor. In the swirling, minutes-long dogfight,Lt. John J. Cape shot down a plane identified as a Zero. Another Zerowas almost instantly on his tail. He climbed and rolled, trying to evade,but those were the wrong maneuvers to escape a Zero. The enemy fightereasily stayed with him, firing its two deadly 20-mm cannon and two 7.7-mmmachine guns. Cape and his plane plunged into the sea. Another Zero shotup the P-40 of Lt. Winfield McIntyre, who survived a crash landing with adead engine. Endo and Shikada accompanied Koga as he flew his oil-spewing airplane toAkutan Island, twenty-five miles away, which had been designated foremergency landings. A Japanese submarine stood nearby to pick up downedpilots. The three Zeros circled low over the green, treeless island. At alevel, grassy valley floor half a mile inland, Koga lowered his wheels andflaps and eased toward a three-point landing. As his main wheels touched,they dug in, and the Zero flipped onto its back, tossing water, grass, andgobs of mud. The valley floor was a bog, and the knee-high grass concealedwater. Endo and Shikada circled. There was no sign of life. If Koga was dead,their duty was to destroy the downed fighter. Incendiary bullets from theirmachine guns would have done the job. But Koga was a friend, and theycouldn't bring themselves to shoot. Perhaps he would recover, destroy theplane himself, and walk to the waiting submarine. Endo and Shikadaabandoned the downed fighter and returned to the Ryujo, two hundred miles tothe south. (The Ryujo was sunk two months later in the eastern Solomons byplanes from the aircraft carrier Saratoga. Endo was killed in action atRabaul on October 12, 1943, while Shikada survived the war and eventuallybecame a banker.) The wrecked Zero lay in the bog for more than a month, unseen by U.S.patrol planes and offshore ships. Akutan is often foggy, and constantAleutian winds create unpleasant turbulence over the rugged island. Mostpilots preferred to remain over water, so planes rarely flew over Akutan.However, on July 10 a U.S. Navy Catalina (PBY) amphibian returning fromovernight patrol crossed the island. A gunner named Wall called, "Hey,there's an airplane on the ground down there. It has meatballs on thewings." That meant the rising-sun insignia. The patrol plane's commander,Lt. William Thies, descended for a closer look. What he saw excited him. Back at Dutch Harbor, Thies persuaded his squadron commander to let himtake a party to the downed plane. No one then knew that it was a Zero. Ens. Robert Larson was Thies's copilot when the plane was discovered. Heremembers reaching the Zero. "We approached cautiously, walking in about afoot of water covered with grass. Koga's body, thoroughly strapped in, wasupside down in the plane, his head barely submerged in the water. "We weresurprised at the details of the airplane," Larson continues. "It was wellbuilt, with simple, unique features. Inspection plates could be opened bypushing on a black dot with a finger. A latch would open, and one couldpull the plate out. Wingtips folded by unlatching them and pushing them upby hand. The pilot had a parachute and a life raft." Koga's body wasburied nearby. In 1947 it was shifted to a cemetery on nearby Adak Island, and later, itis believed, his remains were returned to Japan . Thies had determined thatthe wrecked plane was a nearly new Zero, which suddenly gave it specialmeaning, for it was repairable. However, unlike U.S. warplanes, which haddetachable wings, the Zero's wings were integral with the fuselage. Thiscomplicated salvage and shipping. Navy crews fought the plane out of thebog. The tripod that was used to lift the engine, and later the fuselage,sank three to four feet into the mud. The Zero was too heavy to turn overwith the equipment on hand, so it was left upside down while a tractordragged it on a skid to the beach and a barge. At Dutch Harbor it wasturned over with a crane, cleaned, and crated, wings and all. When theawkward crate containing Zero 4593 arrived at North Island Naval AirStation, San Diego, a twelve-foot-high stockade was erected around it insidea hangar. Marines guarded the priceless plane while Navy crews workedaround the clock to make it airworthy. (There is no evidence the Japaneseever knew we had salvaged Koga's plane.) In mid-September Lt. Cmdr. Eddie R. Sanders studied it for a week asrepairs were completed. Forty-six years later he clearly remembered hisflights in Koga's Zero. "My log shows that I made twenty-four flights inZero 4593 from 20 September to 15 October 1942," Sanders told me. "Theseflights covered performance tests such as we do on planes undergoing Navytests. The very first flight exposed weaknesses of the Zero that our pilots couldexploit with proper tactics. "The Zero had superior maneuverability only atthe lower speeds used in dog fighting, with short turning radius andexcellent aileron control at very low speeds. However, immediately apparentwas the fact that the ailerons froze up at speeds above two hundred knots,so that rolling maneuvers at those speeds were slow and required muchforce on the control stick. It rolled to the left much easier than to theright. Also, its engine cut out under negative acceleration [as when nosinginto a dive] due to its float-type carburetor. "We now had an answer for ourpilots who were unable to escape a pursuing Zero. We told them to go into avertical power dive, using negative acceleration, if possible, to open therange quickly and gain advantageous speed while the Zero's engine wasstopped. At about two hundred knots, we instructed them to roll hard rightbefore the Zero pilot could get his sights lined up. "This recommendedtactic was radioed to the fleet after my first flight of Koga's plane, andsoon the welcome answer came back: "It works!'" Sanders said, satisfactionsounding in his voice even after nearly half a century. Thus by late September 1942 Allied pilots in the Pacific theater knew howto escape a pursuing Zero. "Was Zero 4593 a good representative of the Model 21 Zero?" I askedSanders. In other words, was the repaired airplane 100 percent? "About 98 percent," he replied. The zero was added to the U.S. Navy inventory and assigned its Mitsubishiserial number. The Japanese colors and insignia were replaced with thoseof the U.S. Navy and later the U.S. Army, which also test-flew it. The Navypitted it against the best American fighters of the time-the P-38 LockheedLightning, the P-39 Bell Airacobra, the P-51 North American Mustang, theF4F-4 Grumman Wildcat, and the F4U Chance Vought Corsair-and for each typedeveloped the most effective tactics and altitudes for engaging the Zero. In February 1945 Cmdr. Richard G. Crommelin was taxiing Zero 4593 at SanDiego Naval Air Station, where it was being used to train pilots bound forthe Pacific war zone. An SB-2C Curtiss Helldiver overran it and chopped itup from tail to cockpit. Crommelin survived, but the Zero didn't. Only afew pieces of Zero 4593 remain today. The manifold pressure gauge, theair-speed indicator, and the folding panel of the port wingtip were donatedto the Navy Museum at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard by Rear Adm. WilliamN. Leonard, who salvaged them at San Diego in 1945. In addition, two of itsmanufacturer's plates are in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum inAnchorage, donated by Arthur Bauman, the photographer. Leonard recently told me, "The captured Zero was a treasure. To myknowledge no other captured machine has ever unlocked so many secrets at atime when the need was so great." A somewhat comparable event took place offNorth Africa in 1944-coincidentally on the same date, June 4, that Kogacrashed his Zero. A squadron commanded by Capt. Daniel V. Gallery, aboard the escortcarrier Guadalcanal, captured the German submarine U-505, boarding andsecuring the disabled vessel before the fleeing crew could scuttle it. Codebooks, charts, and operating instructions rescued from U-505 proved quitevaluable to the Allies. Captain Gallery later wrote, "Receptioncommittees which we were able to arrange as a result ... may have hadsomething to do with the sinking of nearly three hundred U-boats in the nexteleven months." By the time of U-505's capture, however, the German wareffort was already starting to crumble (D-day came only two days later),while Japan still dominated the Pacific when Koga's plane was recovered. A classic example of the Koga plane's value occurred on April 1, 1943,when Ken Walsh, a Marine flying an F4U Chance-Vought Corsair over theRussell Islands southeast of Bougainville, encountered a lone Zero. "Iturned toward him, planning a deflection shot, but before I could get onhim, he rolled, putting his plane right under my tail and within range. Ihad been told the Zero was extremely maneuverable, but if I hadn't seenhow swiftly his plane flipped onto my tail, I wouldn't have believed it,"Walsh recently recalled. "I remembered briefings that resulted from testflights of Koga's Zero on how to escape from a following Zero. With thatlone Zero on my tail I did a split S, and with its nose down and fullthrottle my Corsair picked up speed fast. I wanted at least 240 knots,preferably 260. Then, as prescribed, I rolled hard right. As I did this andcontinued my dive, tracers from the Zero zinged past my plane's belly. "Frominformation that came from Koga's Zero, I knew the Zero rolled more slowlyto the right than to the left. If I hadn't known which way to turn orroll, I'd have probably rolled to my left. If I had done that, the Zerowould likely have turned with me, locked on, and had me. I used thatmaneuver a number of times to get away from Zeros." By war's end Capt.(later Lt. Col.) Kenneth Walsh had twenty-one aerial victories (seventeenZeros, three Vais, one Pete), making him the war's fourth-ranking MarineCorps ace. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for two extremely courageousair battles he fought over the Solomon Islands in his Corsair during August1943. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1962 after more than twenty-eightyears of service. Walsh holds the Distinguished Flying Cross with six GoldStars, the Air Medal with fourteen Gold Stars, and more than a dozen othermedals and honors. How important was our acquisition of Koga's Zero? Masatake Okumiya, whosurvived more air-sea battles than any other Japanese naval officer, wasaboard the Ryujo when Koga made his last flight. He later co-authored twoclassic books, Zero and Midway. Okumiya has written that the Allies'acquisition of Koga's Zero was "no less serious" than the Japanese defeat atMidway and "did much to hasten our final defeat." If that doesn't convinceyou, ask Ken Walsh.INSIDE THE ZERO The Zero was Japan's main fighter plane throughout World War II. By war'send about 11,500 Zeros had been produced in five main variants. In March1939, when the prototype Zero was rolled out, Japan was in some ways stillso backward that the plane had to be hauled by oxcart from the Mitsubishifactory twenty-nine miles to the airfield where it flew. It represented agreat leap in technology. At the start of World War II, some countries'fighters were open cockpit, fabric-covered biplanes. A low-wing all-metalmonoplane carrier fighter, predecessor to the Zero, had been adopted by theJapanese in the mid-1930s, while the U.S. Navy's standard fighter was stilla biplane. But the world took little notice of Japan's advanced militaryaircraft, so the Zero came as a great shock to Americans at Pearl Harbor andafterward. A combination of nimbleness and simplicity gave it fightingqualities that no Allied plane could match. Lightness, simplicity, ease ofmaintenance, sensitivity to controls, and extreme maneuverability were themain elements that the designer Jiro Horikoshi built into the Zero. TheModel 21 flown by Koga weighed 5,500 pounds, including fuel, ammunition, andpilot, while U.S. fighters weighed 7,500 pounds and up. Early models had noprotective armor or self-sealing fuel tanks, although these were standardfeatures on U.S. fighters. Despite its large-diameter 940-hp radialengine, the Zero had one of the slimmest silhouettes of any World War IIfighter. The maximum speed of Koga's Zero was 326 mph at 16,000 feet, notespecially fast for a 1942 fighter. But high speed wasn't the reason forthe Zero's great combat record. Agility was. Its large ailerons gave itgreat maneuverability at low speeds. It could even outmaneuver the famedBritish Spitfire. Advanced U.S. fighters produced toward the war's end stillcouldn't turn with the Zero, but they were faster and could out climb andout dive it. Without self-sealing fuel tanks, the Zero was easily flamedwhen hit in any of its three wing and fuselage tanks or its droppable bellytank. And without protective armor, its pilot was vulnerable. In 1941 theZero's range of 1,675 nautical miles (1,930 statute miles) was one of thewonders of the aviation world. No other fighter plane had ever routinelyflown such a distance. Saburo Sakai, Japan's highest-scoring surviving WorldWar II ace, with sixty-four kills, believes that if the Zero had not beendeveloped, Japan "would not have decided to start the war." Other Japaneseauthorities echo this opinion, and the confidence it reflects was not, inthe beginning at least, misplaced. Today the Zero is one of the rarest ofall major fighter planes of World War II. Only sixteen complete andassembled examples are known to exist. Of these, only two are flyable: oneowned by Planes of Fame, in Chino, California, and the other by theConfederate Air Force, in Midland, Texas. Note: Jim Rearden, a forty-seven-year resident of Alaska, is the author offourteen books and more than five hundred magazine articles, mostly aboutAlaska. Among his books is Koga's Zero: The Fighter That Changed World WarII, which can be purchased from Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 713South Third Street West, Missoula, MT 59801.


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