Japan's World War II Zero Fighter Terrified the Allies

May 8, 2019 Topic: Security Region: East Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Imperial JapanWorld War IIPearl HarborWarZero Fighter

Japan's World War II Zero Fighter Terrified the Allies

A captured plane provided some key insights.

Clandestine Efforts Conceal Coup From Japanese

It took months to transport the two Zeros by ox cart under the noses of the Japanese Army units in the area to the inland city of Liuchow. By summer’s end, 1942, Inoue’s Zero had been reassembled with substitute fuselage panels aft of the cowling being fashioned to replace those lost on the trip north. It was during this time that Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, then director of War Organization and Movement, visited the area on a liaison mission to the Chinese Air Force and was shown the captured Zeros. He informed General Chennault of their existence.

In October 1942, Gerhard Neumann, commander of the 23rd U.S. Fighter Group, along with Staff Sgt. George L. Mackie, was ordered by Chennault to Liuchow to complete the restoration of one Zero from parts taken from the two aircraft. The reconstituted Zero was then to be test-flown against available U.S. models. Bill Barnes, a war correspondent from Yank magazine, and War Department photographer Mac McGregor accompanied Neumann and Mackie to document and report on the salvage project.

Restored and Refitted, Captured Zero Ready For Evaluation

It was discovered that the two Zeros contained no radio equipment, although they were equipped with antennae, and that they had already been repainted in Chinese camouflage and markings. Neumann adapted and installed American radio equipment for communication, adjusted the engine timings, and tested the engine and flight controls for a week before determining that Zero 3372 was ready to fly. During the inspections Neumann removed a cover on one of the wing gun ammunition bays and found, to his surprise, a woman’s Japanese-style decorative hair comb. This poignant souvenir, which he kept, was thought to have belonged to the pilot’s wife or sweetheart.

Colonel John R. Alison, commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron, soon arrived by train at Liuchow to conduct the in-flight testing, and thus became the first American to fly a Japanese Zero. It was a short but uneventful hop to the airfield at Kweilen, with landing gear down and locked the entire way. It appeared that the Zero’s hydraulic lines and fluid for the undercarriage were damaged beyond repair, so Neumann replaced them with parts salvaged from the wrecks of Japanese bombers downed in the area, and even included original Japanese spark plugs.

They tested the wheels in a hangar workshop and confirmed that they were working fine. On the next test flight, however, the wheels were raised but did not lock into position when lowered. The Zero cracked up on landing, twisting the fuselage, but Colonel Alison emerged unhurt. It took long days of rebuilding before the Zero was ready to take to the air once more, and during this time no less than five American aces with the 23rd Fighter Group test-flew the Japanese fighter. They formed a very exclusive club: John R. “Johnny” Alison (6 victories), Albert J. “Ajax” Baumler (9), Bruce K. Holloway (13), Grant Mahoney (5), and Clinton D. “Casey” Vincent (6).

A Long Journey to the States and a Passage to India

When testing was completed, Zero 3372 was then flown from Kunming, China, to Karachi, India, accompanied by an escort of 23rd Fighter Group P-40s. During the long-distance flight all of the P-40s had to abort for one reason or another, but the Japanese-built Zero managed to complete the grueling journey without a single mechanical malfunction, arriving in India alone.

In Karachi, the Zero was crated and placed aboard a ship for further testing in the United States. The ocean voyage was not uneventful. During a storm the forward fuselage and wings of Zero 3372 were damaged. They were off-loaded in Havana, Cuba, for a change of ship bound for the U.S. mainland. The Curtiss Aircraft Company volunteered to rebuild the damaged Zero once again, free of charge, in exchange for a chance to evaluate the Japanese fighter against Curtiss aircraft.

Six months of repair and restoration followed at the Curtiss plant in Buffalo, NY. Now bearing U.S. markings and the tail fin EB-200, the captured Zero underwent further tests at Wright Field, Ohio, and the Army Proving Grounds at Eglin Field, Fla., beginning in September 1943. In 1945, Zero 3372 was photographed in California on a War Bond tour, then mysteriously vanished. No record of its disposition exists. It is unknown whether it was destroyed or scrapped after the war, or whether is still sits in some dusty crates in some long-forgotten warehouse, waiting to be discovered once again.

One Zero Disappears; Another Falls into American Hands

Zero 3372’s more famous cousin, however, left behind a celebrated trail and is often credited with helping to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. In June 1942, while Zero 3372 was being reassembled at a dusty airfield deep in the interior of China, a Japanese task force under the command of Rear Adm. Kakuji Kakuta was approaching the cold, wet, windswept Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. The 2nd Carrier Striking Force of the Imperial Japanese Navy was to launch a diversionary attack against the American base at Dutch Harbor, only a hundred miles from the Alaskan mainland. This was an attempt to draw attention away from a major Japanese assault against Midway Island 2,000 miles to the south. The northern force was also to support landings on the islands of Attu and Kiska, the only U.S. territory occupied by enemy forces during the war.

On the morning of June 3, 1942, the light carriers Ryujo and Junyo, accompanied by two heavy cruisers and three destroyers, launched a strike against Dutch Harbor. The murky weather forced the Junyo’s planes to turn back, but the 13 attack bombers from the Ryujo, accompanied by three Zero fighter escorts, pressed on. Since the poor visibility made formation flying impossible, the planes headed singly for Dutch Harbor, navigating by dead reckoning.

Fateful Diversionary Attack During Battle of Midway

Under the command of Lieutenant Masayuki Yamagami, Ryujo’s planes found Dutch Harbor through a break in the clouds and swept in to the attack, destroying radio stations, fuel depots, and harbor facilities. No enemy fighters were encountered, so the Zeros strafed flying boats tied to their moorings. One Zero, piloted by Petty Officer First Class Tadayoshi Koga, took a hit in the gasoline tank from small-arms fire. The leak became heavy and, rapidly losing fuel, it became evident that Koga would be unable to return to the carrier. He reported his situation to Yamagami and prepared for an emergency landing. Accompanied by his companions, Koga headed for a small, deserted island just east of Dutch Harbor. It had been designated as a predetermined emergency landing spot, where downed pilots could await pickup by submarine.

Northern Tundra Doesn’t Make a Good Runway

Yamagami watched Koga’s landing. From above, the area looked ideal—a flat, grassy stretch of ground. Koga was seen to be in full control of his aircraft and maneuvering calmly for a landing. When the wheels of Koga’s Zero touched ground, the aircraft immediately stood on its nose and flipped backward, coming to rest upside down. What looked smooth and safe from the air turned out to be a treacherous patch of peat and bog, known as muskeg in the northern tundra regions. Koga did not emerge from his plane.

The Japanese were under strict orders to destroy all downed Zeros to prevent them from falling into enemy hands but, thinking that Koga might still be alive but badly wounded, Yamagami could not bring himself to do it. Low on fuel and with thick fog beginning to swallow the crash site, Yamagami was forced to lead the rest of the flight back to the Ryujo, where he reported the crash. A waiting submarine was ordered to investigate. Crews were landed under cover of darkness and searched eagerly for their countryman, but the weather continued to worsen and they had no choice but to give up without finding anything.

A Dead Japanese Pilot and an Almost Intact Zero

A short time later an American Navy search group out on patrol happened upon the island and spotted Koga’s crashed Zero from the air. A ground party arrived on the scene and found the upside down Japanese fighter in almost perfect condition, except for slight damage to the nose and wingtips where it had impacted with the soft earth. Koga was still inside his canopy, hanging from his straps. His skull was crushed and his neck broken, probably from a sudden impact with his instrument panel. Inside his flight suit were a few photographs and other personal effects. Koga was given a decent burial nearby.

Naval intelligence officers were ecstatic. Here, right in their own backyard, was a nearly perfect, brand-new A6M2 Zero that had been badly mauling Allied aircraft in the Pacific for months. A few pieces had been collected from planes downed either at Pearl Harbor or the Philippines in an attempt to unravel the design of the aircraft, but most downed planes were badly damaged. At this time, Zero 3372 was undergoing restoration in China, and though nearly complete, it would be almost four months before an American officer would inspect it firsthand.