An enemy plane that saved American lives
Fall 1997 | Volume 13, Issue 2
AT FIRST GLANCE THE PICTURE OPPOSITE RESEMBLES A photo of a pile of junk. Look closer, however, and you will see a propeller, a wing, and a belly tank. Far from being junk, it is a Japanese “Zero” fighter plane from World War II that went on to be of inestimable value to the United States. Aviation buffs and historians know it as Koga’s Zero, for the name of its pilot, or as the Akutan or Aleutian Zero, for the crash site. The photo was taken in mid-July 1942 by a Navy photographer’s mate named Arthur W Bauman on Akutan Island in Alaska’s remote Aleutian chain.
Koga’s Zero, rebuilt, was the first flyable Zero fighter acquired and tested in the United States. A scant two months after Bauman took the photo, the plane had been shipped 2,800 miles to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego and repaired, and it was revealing profound military secrets in the air.
The information it yielded was vital to the U.S. war effort because in 1941 and most of 1942, the Zero outflew virtually every enemy fighter it encountered, primarily because of its agility. During the previous several years many Zero pilots had seen aerial combat in China, so unblooded Allied pilots in less maneuverable planes usually regretted any attempt to fight Zeros flown by the experienced Japanese—if they lived long enough.
For example, 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 of mixed types, many of them obsolete. Twenty-seven of the RAF planes went down: fifteen Hawker Hurricanes (of Battle of Britain fame), eight Fairey Swordfish, and four Fairey Fulmars. The Japanese lost one Zero.
Five months after America’s entry into the war, the Zero was still a mystery 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 the Zero and didn’t know what to call it. Some misidentified it as the German Messerschmitt 109.
A few weeks later, on June 3 and 4, warplanes flew from the Japanese carriers Ryujo and Junyo to attack the American military base at Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago. Japan’s attack on Alaska was intended to draw remnants of the U.S. fleet north from Pearl Harbor, away from Midway Island, where the Japanese were setting a trap. (The scheme ultimately backfired when our Navy pilots sank four of Japan’s first-line aircraft carriers at Midway, giving the United States a major turning-point victory.)
IN THE RAID OF JUNE 4, TWENTY BOMBERS blasted oil storage tanks, a warehouse, a hospital, a hangar, and a beached freighter, while eleven Zeros strafed at will. Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo led a three-plane Zero section from the Ryujo , whose other pilots were Flight Petty Officers Tsuguo Shikada and Tadayoshi Koga. Koga, a small nineteen-yearold, was the son 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 left the Mitsubishi Nagoya aircraft factory on February 19, only three and a half months earlier, so it was the latest design.
Shortly before the bombs fell on Dutch Harbor that day, soldiers at an adjacent Army outpost had seen three Zeros shoot down a lumbering Catalina amphibian. As the plane began to sink, most of the seven-member crew climbed into a rubber raft and began paddling toward shore. The soldiers watched in horror as the Zeros strafed the crew until all were killed. The Zeros 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 (according to Shikada, interviewed in 1984) that Koga’s Zero was hit by ground fire. An Army intelligence team later reported, “Bullet holes entered the plane from both upper and lower sides.”
One of the bullets severed the return oil line 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 raid shows a Zero trailing what appears to be smoke. It is probably oil, and there is little doubt that this is Zero 4593.
After the raid, as the enemy planes flew back toward their carriers, eight American Curtiss Warhawk P-40s shot down four VaI (Aichi D3A) dive bombers thirty miles west of Dutch Harbor. In the swirling, minutes-long dogfight, Lt. John J. Cape shot down a plane identified as a Zero.
Another Zero was almost instantly on his tail. He climbed and rolled, trying to evade, but those were the wrong maneuvers to escape a Zero. The enemy fighter easily stayed with him, firing its two deadly 20-mm cannon and two 7.7-mm machine guns. Cape and his plane plunged into the sea. Another Zero shot up the P-40 of Lt. Winfield McIntyre, who survived a crash landing with a dead engine.