Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How The US Got Its First Japanese Zero In WW II

Synchronicity - I thought I would use that word to describe how I've been reading Brian Garfield's The Thousand Mile War:  World War II In Alaska And the Aleutians and just recently saw a photo at the Anchorage Museum of an event I had just read about.

But when I looked up synchronicity online, I realized that while it sort of has that meaning, it has a lot more meaning than I really want to imply.  I don't think I want to suggest that these two events - reading about Japanese Zeroes in the Aleutians and finding a picture of a downed Aleutian Zero at the museum - had any special meaning beyond coincidence and the fact that I was especially alert to WWII Japanese Zeroes when I happened to see this picture at the museum.  I might have passed by a similar picture a month ago, not giving it any special notice.  But now that I just read about it, I'm paying more attention.  Like when a couple is pregnant, suddenly they see a lot more pregnant women than they had before.

But, I will take this opportunity to share some Alaska WWII history with you.  The book is full of stories of incredibly far sighted thinking on the part of some - General Simon Bolivar Buckner gets lots of credit for getting Alaska as ready as possible given the inter-service rivalries, the general lack of military resources in the US in general, and the belief by many that Alaska was irrelevant - and equally incredible lack of preparedness as, for example, primitive communications systems that prevented critical information from getting delivered.

Photo of photo at Anchorage Museum
The quote below comes from a description, in The Thousand Mile War, of day two (June 4, 1942) of the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor.  The weather is horrible.  Buckner has managed to put in a landing strip on Umnak Island and get some planes there to help protect Dutch Harbor.  The Japanese have no idea this air strip or these fighters are there.  The whole Japanese mission to go after Dutch Harbor was to divert US ships and planes to Alaska while the Japanese attack Midway.  US planes fly out into the storm to try to locate and torpedo the Japanese fleet.  (Yes, they have torpedoes, not bombs.)  They find them, but can't hit them.  The Japanese zeroes are far superior planes to the ragtag collection that Buckner's been able to cadge out of the military brass in the Lower 48.

The Japanese have bombed Dutch  for 20 minutes,  hitting a wing of the hospital and setting fire to a warehouse.  750,000 gallons of fuel exploded when they hit four storage tanks.   Garfield writes that because Dutch Harbor knew the Japanese were coming, only eighteen men died.
Heavy antiaircraft flak scored no hits on the wheeling enemy aircraft, but the Japanese did not escape untouched.  The Rube Goldberg radio had failed to get through, but Umnak had been alerted by the noise, and the Japanese choice of the west end of Unalaska Island as a rendezvous point to rally after each attack.  Now eight Japanese planes from Junyo had formed up in plain sight of the Umnak runway - and eight Flying Tiger Warhawks scrambled to meet them.
American fighters corkscrewed through the enemy formations, striated the sky with tracers, and sent one Zero into a spin, surrounded by a white vapor that turned black and erupted before the Zero touched into the water.
Lieutenant John J. Cape, a good-natured boyish twenty-three year-old pilot who loved to drive an old tractor around Umnak, watched a Japanese dive-bomber swell in his gunsight until, at point-blank range, he triggered a burst that hammered the enemy plane into a ball of flame and sent it down in fragments.  Then a snapped warning in his radio headset made him look behind:  he had a Zero on his tail.  He zoomed upward, hung desperately on his propeller, and rolled over on his back in a wild attempt to evade the Zero. 
In 1942, the United States had no fighter capable of outmaneuvering the Japanese Zero.  When Cape righted his P-40 he found the Zero still with him.  The panel instruments blew apart in Cape's face.  Ammunition exploded in his gun racks and fumes rolled through the cockpit.  Engulfed in flame, Cape fell into Umnak Pass, unable to get out of the spinning airplane.
From Navy webpage The Forgotten Theater  (Japan to lower left not on map)
As Cape when down, Lieutenant Winfied E. McIntyre tried to break away from another pursuing Zero.  The Zero's guns knocked out McIntyre's engine and set it afire.  McIntyre put the ship into a screaming dive, trying to blow out the fire;  he could not get the engine restarted, and almost went into a spin before he glided to a crash-landing on the Umnak beach.  He put the burning P-40 down so skillfully that he climbed out of it and walked unaided into camp.

Meanwhile, four of the homeward-bound Zeroes spotted an American PBY flying low on the water.  The PBY's waist-blister gunners raked the sky with tracers that seemed to have no effect on the diving fighters.  But three of the Zeroes broke off and headed away, too low on fuel to stay for the finish.  One stayed behind to finish off the PBY:  Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga, a slim young man with an abiding hatred for Americans.  Koga blew the plane apart in the air with his guns.  The Catalina splashed into the ocean, but Koga stayed to make sure.  Finally one man (Aviation Machinist's Mate W. H. Rawls) crawled out of the burning wreckage and paddled away in a life raft.  
Rawls, the blister gunner, had put a machine-gun bullet into Koga's plane, though Koga did not know he had been hit.  That one bullet, a third of an inch in diameter, was to bring the Allies a decisive prize of war.  Koga circled the bobbing rubber raft and machine-gunned Rawls to death in the water.
Koga climbed into the soup after that, but at that moment the needle of this oil-pressure gauge dropped to zero.  Convinced his engine was about to pack up, Koga turned toward the nearest land - Akutan Island.  He sent out a voice broadcast to the I-boat submarine which he had been told was standing by to pick up downed pilots.  Coming in over the island, he prepared to make a forced landing on the flats.  
He made the mistake of lowering his landing gear;  his wheels caught in the boggy tundra, snagged and flipped the Zero on its back.  The crash broke Koga's neck.
The alerted Japanese submarine searched the coast by periscope, but could not find Koga's plane.  (The Zero remained undisturbed on the lonely island until a month later, when a U. S. Navy PBY sighted it.  Navy crews were immediately dispatched to collect the prize.
(Aside from a few dents, Koga's Zero was intact.  Its only damage was a single bullet hole, from A/M Rawls' gun, severing the pressure gauge indicator line.  The gauge was broken, but the engine was unharmed.  American crews quickly dismantled the Zero and shipped it back to the States.
(Tadayoshi Kogoa's fighter was the first Zero captured intact by the Allies in World War II.  The apparently trivial loss cost Japan dearly.  American engineers, with this opportunity to fly and study the war's fastest, deadliest and most secret fighter aircraft, would design the Navy's F6F Hellcat around the principles they learned from Koga's Zero;  in less than eighteen months the Hellcat would drive the zero from Pacific skies and insure Allied supremacy of the air.) [pp. 40-42]
Such little things can make such a big difference.  One bullet in the pressure gauge indicator line, because Koga hung around to kill Rawls before flying back.  Koga trying to land, not knowing he could get back to his carrier, and getting his landing gear caught in the brush.

The book was published in 1969.  I'm not exactly what you'd call a war buff, but as you can tell from this quote, the prose moves you right along.  And for Alaskans, the book is full of back stories on familiar names and places. 


  1. I read Garfield's book when it first came out in paperback, and have re-read it twice over the years. It was the first history book that interested my son enough to embrace it.

    My favorite chapter is the one on the Battle of the Pips.

    Garfield fawned way too much over Simon Bolivar Buckner, who has never been highly regarded as a thinker, tactician or strategist. Some have estimated that almost half the US casualties in Okinawa were the result of Buckner's uninspired, head-on tactics, reminiscent of WW I.

    Don't get me started on the invasion of Attu. After that fiasco (Buckner was not in direct control of the Attu invasion troops, but bore significant responsibility for the way the campaign was mishandled), Buckner never should have been promoted to form up and lead the US 10th Army.

    Contrary to popular belief, Koga's Akutan A6M was not the first captured intact by the allies. The first was located near Qian Shan on the southeastern coast of Leichou Panto, where it had landed mistakenly on a beach inside Chinese lines, on November 26, 1941..

    It took longer for technical results from restoration of that plane to get back to aviation experts than that from the Akutan trophy.

  2. Thanks Phil. I followed up your lead and anyone who wants to know about the Zero captured in China can check here. But Garfield's book came out in 1969 and I'm guessing that the Chinese captured Zero info wasn't known until later. At least my title says the first for the US, but Garfield's does say allies.

    I've also been wondering, as I read about them, essentially throwing planes and pilots at Kiska, about the importance of this and whether this loss of life was necessary. And since Garfield makes so much of Buckner, I am naturally suspicious. I understand there's the critical sea route along the North Pacific, but the weather was so bad and the conditions so rainy and muddy that I wonder how valuable it was to try to keep. Of course, the symbolic importance of it being American soil does have some relevance here. Still have lots of pages to go.

  3. "Still have lots of pages to go." Enjoy it - one of the better Alaska books there is.

    Many Pacific campaigns were wastes of lives and energy. There really was no need for the invasions of Attu and Kiska by the U.S. The same holds true of many of Gen. MacArthur's campaigns - western New Guinea and the Phillippines could have been left to whither, for instance. Japanese forces in southern Okinawa could have been shut off, rather than attacked in such a way it killed almost 100,000 Okinawan civilians. We left scores of Japanese garrisons isolated all over the Pacific, with no negative consequences for the overall direction of the war there.



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