How a Japanese fighter jet shot down in the Aleutians revealed secrets that turned the tide of WWII

Part of a pursuit weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about the history of Anchorage or Alaska or an idea for a future story? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On June 4, 1942, 19-year-old Captain Tadayoshi Koga launched his Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft from the deck of the aircraft carrier Ryūjō in the early days of Japan’s Aleutian Islands campaign. Koga was part of a three-plane group that relentlessly strafed Dutch Harbor for the second day in a row. On this particular flight, they were the likely culprits who shot down an American PBY Catalina, then returned to shoot the survivors in the water.

During one of Koga’s passes over American forces, his Zero took several hits, one of which severed his engine’s oil line. Trailing oil and smoke, it flew northeast to Akutan Island for an emergency landing. There he saw what he thought was a smooth green field. Already slowed down to prevent its engine from seizing, it lowers and lowers its landing gear.

Too late, he realized that the smooth green field was, in fact, a bog. If he had kept the landing gear retracted and landed the plane on its belly, he might well have survived. Instead, the wheels caught in the mud, flipped the plane, and instantly killed Koga. However, his wingmen did not know he was dead, only that he had not exited the plane. Although under orders to destroy any Zeros left in enemy territory, they chose to leave it intact and return to the Ryūjō. This article is the story of that aircraft, the Akutan Zero, which helped turn the tide of the war.

Some details are a little hazy, understandable since events unfolded in the fog of a war that ended over 75 years ago. For example, no one knows for sure who placed the fateful holes in the Akutan Zero. Private Lee Compere claimed to have hit the plane four times in four shots from the ground. Decades later, he told the Army Times, “I was, with almost everyone else, in my burrow near the top of a hill (when) the Zero came over our barracks area at Ft. Mears (at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island).” “I had previously loaded my M1 rifle with alternating tracer and armor-piercing rounds,” Compere said, “and released everything I had at that zero.” He thought those shots put the Zero in the ground, a possible claim, though incredibly unlikely.

At the dawn of World War II, the Zero was perhaps the world’s first aerial combat aircraft, a brilliantly engineered combination of machines that emphasized simplicity, responsiveness and ease of repair. It was more agile than the British Spitfires, outmatched American fighters like the F2A Buffalo and F4F Wildcat, and had a much greater range than the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. From 1940 to 1942, the Zero flew over any aircraft Allied forces threw at it. The Japanese fighter ruled the skies of Pearl Harbor and decimated Allied aircraft of all types across the Pacific. Such was his reputation that American military personnel imbued the Zero with almost mystical abilities. Quite simply, the Zero was a major contributor to Japan’s early victories in the war.

William Leonard, a World War II fighter ace who retired as a rear admiral, described what it was like to first encounter the Japanese fighter on the Pacific front. “We were learning the madness of dogfighting with this newcomer (Zero) and the merit of the speed and altitude advantage if we could get it.” He added: “From the way the Zero pilots rolled through the skies, it sometimes seemed like they’d rather do stunts than fight.”

Even after the Zero was widely studied, some members of the United States military refused to believe that the Zero had been an all-Japanese project. Due to a mixture of arrogance and racism, some of these skeptics believed that the fighter was based largely on European aircraft. While the Zero was built on pre-existing engineering knowledge from around the world, the design was ultimately Japanese.

At the time of the Dutch Harbor attacks, the Zero’s full capabilities and limitations remained largely a mystery to American forces, although that would soon change. A month after Koga’s death, his plane remained unknown. Finally, on July 10, 1942, a gunner on a Navy Catalina spotted the downed Zero. The Catalina’s commanding officer, Lt. William Thies, confirmed the sighting and convinced his superior officer to approve further inspection. It wasn’t until he returned to the crash site that Thies realized the fighter was one of the Renowned Zeros.

Thies’ co-pilot, Ensign Robert Larson, later recalled, “We were surprised by the details of the plane. It was well built, with simple and unique features. Inspection plates could be opened by pressing a black dot with a finger. A latch would open and the plate could be removed. The wingtips folded by unlocking them and pushing them in by hand. He also noted, “The pilot had a parachute and a life raft, somewhat discrediting the then-common theory that Japanese pilots were not interested in survival.”

Any Alaskan who has just attempted to cross the muskeg on foot will understand the plight of the rescue teams, who had to pull out a fighter jet partially buried in knee-deep mud and transport it to the coast of the island to retrieve it. . It took three separate rescue attempts before the Zero could be brought back to Dutch Harbor.

From there, the Akutan Zero was shipped to San Diego, where it was quickly repaired. By September 20, it was airworthy again, after a month in an Aleutian bog and three and a half months after being shot down. That day, Lieutenant Commander Eddie Sanders conducted the first test flight. Its subsequent report stated, “The very first flight revealed weaknesses in the Zero that our pilots could exploit with appropriate tactics.” Essentially, although fast and nimble, the Zero lost much of its maneuverability at speeds over 200 knots. Additionally, the fighter rolled more easily to the left than to the right, and the engine was susceptible to stalling under negative acceleration. When combined, these flaws suggested a simple tactical remedy.

As Sanders noted, “We now had the answer for our pilots who were outmaneuvered and unable to escape a pursuing Zero: dive vertically, using negative throttle if possible to open up range while the engine of the Zero was stopped by acceleration.. At around 200 knots, roll hard just before the Zero pilot could line up his sights.

These tactical innovations accentuated the other flaws of the Zero, namely the lack of armor that made it so fast and agile in the first place. The discoveries made by Sanders and others were quickly relayed to pilots at the front, where they had an immediate impact. Navy pilot Lt. Col. Kenneth Walsh, credited with 21 enemy aircraft destroyed in World War II, survived and won his first kill thanks to this intelligence. Said Walsh, “Knowing what to do with a Zero on my tail—information from Koga’s Zero—saved my life many times.”

Hunting ace William Leonard claimed, “The captured Zero was a treasure. To my knowledge, no other captured machine has ever revealed so many secrets at a time when the need was so great. Japanese military historian Masatake Okumiya wrote that the Akutan Zero revelations were as disastrous for the Japanese military as the loss of the Battle of Midway.

By the end of the war, the Zero’s reputation had plummeted. Attrition from the Japanese fighter ranks had retired many of their pilots. And intelligence gained from captured Zeros combined with American and British technological improvements subverted air superiority to such a degree that some military historians have questioned the Zero’s virtues at all times. Likewise, some historians and military minds disagree on the extent of the Akutan Zero’s significance. Yet there is no doubt that his discovery was an intelligence stunt with immeasurable impact.

The Akutan Zero arrived at the end of the war. A runway accident in February 1945 left the fighter in pieces. But pieces of the wreckage survive in several museums, including the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage. As for Koga, Thies’ party initially buried him on the island of Akutan. His body was exhumed in 1947 and reburied on Adak Island. His body was almost certainly exhumed again in 1953 and returned to Japan, where he was probably cremated.

If you want to learn more about the Akutan Zero – including the Zeros in general or Tadayoshi Koga in particular – I highly recommend Jim Rearden’s 1995 book Koga’s Zero: The Fighter That Changed World War II. It is affordable and widely available.

Key Sources:

Dorr, Robert F. “Crash Recovery Helps Navy ‘Zero’ in Air Supremacy.” Navy Times, October 4, 2004, p. 43.

Dorr, Robert F. and Fred L. Borch. “WWII veteran says he shot down ‘Akutan Zero.'” Army Times, December 18, 2006, p. 43.

Reeden, Jim. Koga’s Zero: The Fighter Who Changed World War II. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.

Smith, Peter C. Mitsuboshi Zero: Japan’s Legendary Fighter. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2014.

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