You seldom hear much about the Alaskan territory in the scope of World War II but in reality it was considered to be very strategic by both the Americans and Japanese during that time. The famous U.S. General Billy Mitchell stated to the U.S. Congress in 1935, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”
The strategic thinking of the day was that whoever controlled the area would have an advantage over the opposition by using it as a jump off point to launch possible strikes from the north against the respective homelands. Thus began the “Aleutian Islands Campaign” to gain control over the Aleutian Islands (part of the Alaskan Territory) in the Pacific portion of World War II.
On June 3, 1942 a small Japanese force occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto assigned Vice-Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya to the task of taking the Aleutians and provided him a force of two small aircraft carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, four troop transports, and supporting auxiliary ships. Hosogaya was to first launch an air attack against Dutch Harbor (June 3, 1942), then follow with an amphibious attack upon the island of Adak, 480 miles to the west. Hosogaya was ordered to destroy all American forces and facilities found on Adak and then return to their ships and to become a reserve for two additional landings: the first on Kiska (June 6,1942), 240 miles west of Adak, the other on the Aleutians’ westernmost island, Attu (June 7,1942), 180 miles west from Kiska.
Here is where the story of the captured Japanese Zero begins…
The Akutan Zero (piloted by 19 year old flight petty officer first class Tadayoshi Koga), also known as Koga’s Zero, and the Aleutian Zero, was a type 0 model 21 Mitsubishi A6M Japanese Zero fighter plane (serial number 4593) that crash-landed on Akutan Island, Alaskan Territory, during World War II.
Koga was part of a three-plane raid against Dutch Harbor that was launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō on June 3, 1942. At some point during the raid Koga’s airplane was hit by small arms fire which severed the engine’s return oil line immediately causing a trail of oil and smoke.
In order to prevent the engine from seizing Koga reduced his airspeed and flew with his fellow airman approximately 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor to a designated emergency landing airfield on Akutan Island.
At Akutan the three Zeros circled a grassy flat area about a half mile inland from Broad Bight and decided that Koga should land on what was believed to be solid ground. (In reality it was muddy and swampy ground and the decision to land with landing gear extended proved to be a fatal mistake.)
The plane’s landing gear mired in the water and mud, causing the plane to flip upside down and skid to a stop. Although the aircraft survived the landing nearly intact, Petty Officer Koga died on impact, probably from a broken neck or a blow to the head. Koga’s wingmen, circling above, had orders to destroy any Zeros that crash-landed in enemy territory, but as they did not know if Koga was still alive, they could not bring themselves to strafe his plane.
The wreckage laid undiscovered for over a month but on July 10, 1942 it was spotted by Lieutenant William “Bill” Thies (a Catalina PBY pilot) and efforts began to salvage the airplane. On July 15, 1942 the airplane had been transported to Dutch Harbor where it was turned right-side up and cleaned then shipped to Seattle. From there, it was transported by barge to Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego where repairs were secretly and carefully carried out to make the airplane airworthy again. The three-blade Sumitomo propeller was dressed and re-used and the Zero’s red Hinomaru roundel was repainted with the American blue circle-white star insignia. The Zero was fit to fly again on September 20.
On September 20, 1942 (2 months after the Zero’s capture), Lieutenant Commander Eddie R. Sanders took the Akutan Zero up for its first test flight. He would make 24 test flights between September 20 and October 15. The very first flight exposed weaknesses of the Zero which our pilots could exploit with proper tactics … immediately apparent was the fact that the ailerons froze up at speeds above 200 knots so that rolling maneuvers at those speeds were slow and required much force on the control stick. It rolled to the left much easier than to the right. Also, its engine cut out under negative acceleration due to its float-type carburetor. We now had the answer for our pilots who were being outmaneuvered and unable to escape a pursuing Zero: Go into a vertical power dive, using negative acceleration if possible to open the range while the Zero’s engine was stopped by the acceleration. At about 200 knots, roll hard right before the Zero pilot could get his sights lined up.
American tacticians were able to devise ways to defeat the Zero, which was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s primary fighter plane throughout the war.
The Akutan Zero has been described as “a prize almost beyond value to the United States”, and “probably one of the greatest prizes of the Pacific war”. Japanese historian Masatake Okumiya stated that the acquisition of the Akutan Zero “was no less serious” than the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, and that it “did much to hasten Japan’s final defeat”.
The Akutan Zero was destroyed during a training accident in February 1945. While the Zero was taxiing for a take-off, a SB2C Helldiver lost control and rammed into it. The Helldiver’s propeller sliced the Zero into pieces. From the wreckage, William N. Leonard salvaged several gauges, which he donated to the National Museum of the United States Navy. The Alaska Heritage Museum and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum also have small pieces of the Zero.
|Specifications Type 0 Model 21 Mitsubishi A6M Zero
• Service Life: Test flown April 1, 1939. Entered service on August 14, 1940 with 10,815 being produced.
• Never Exceed speed: 410 mph 356 kt (660 km/h)
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