Was it “a prize almost beyond value to the United States” and did it “much to hasten Japan’s final defeat”? Or was it a good additional source of information, confirming what was already known through diligent intelligence work and patient investigation of recovered wreckage? This discussion is still going on.
But whatever the discussion, the discovery and salvage of an almost brand new Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero in a swamp on the island of Akutan is one the most intriguing tales of the Pacific war.
On June 4, 1942, Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo led a three-plane Zero section from the carrier “Ryujo”. The other pilots were Flight Petty Officers Tsuguo Shikada and Tadayoshi Koga. Koga was a small nineteen-year old son of a rural carpenter. His light gray Zero, serial number 4593, had left the Mitsubishi Nagoya aircraft factory on February 19, only three and a half months earlier.
They had orders to raid Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, probably a diversion to lure American forces away from the developing battle for Midway. Endo’s flight attacked and severely damaged an American PBY-5A Catalina not far from Dutch Harbor. Its pilot, Bud Mitchell, made an emergency landing at sea. He and his six crewmen crowded in a dinghy and tried the reach the nearby shore but Endo’s flight strafed them until they were all killed.
After massacring the PBY’s crew Endo and his flight then joined eleven other Zeroes that were strafing Dutch Harbor. Together with twenty bombers they blasted oil storage tanks, a warehouse, a hospital, a hangar, and a beached freighter. The Americans on the ground retaliated with everything they had. Members of the 206th Coast Artillery Regiment and sailors on various US Navy ships put up a hailstorm of bullets, mostly from .50 caliber machineguns but also from even smaller weapons. Flying through this intense ground fire Koga’s Zero was hit in several places. One .50 slug severed the return line between the oil cooler and the engine and the plane immediately began trailing oil.
Knowing it was only a matter of minutes before his engine would seize up, Koga headed west to Akutan Island, 25 miles distant from Dutch Harbor. He knew a Japanese submarine was waiting near that island to pick up downed pilots. With an overheating engine, Koga circled a grassy valley floor half a mile inland from Broad Bight. The ground looked firm but coming down he saw the gleam of water beneath knee-high grass. It was a bog and he should have made a belly landing. But it was too late; his engine had seized up and his wheels and flaps were down and he was committed. Then his wheels touched and they dug in, flipping the Zero violently onto its back, throwing up a cloud of water, grass, and mud. It came to a rest upside down and without a sign of life from Koga.
All Japanese pilots had standing orders to destroy any disabled Zeroes lest they fall into enemy hands. Koga’s wingmen couldn’t bring themselves to shoot the plane up, fearing they might kill their friend. They returned to their carrier, not knowing Koga hadn’t survived,: His neck had broken when the plane flipped over.
For more than a month, the wrecked Zero lay in the bog, unnoticed by U.S. patrol planes and offshore ships. Then, finally, on July 10 a U.S. Navy Catalina returned from an overnight patrol. They had navigated by dead-reckoning and were unsure of their position. Recognizing the Shumagin Islands they returned to Dutch Harbor by the most direct course—across Akutan Island. Crossing the island, the plane’s captain, Albert Knack, called, “Hey, there’s an airplane on the ground down there. It has meatballs on the wings.” Lieutenant William “Bill” Thies, circled the wreck to make sure and hurried to Dutch Harbor. There he persuaded his squadron commander Paul Foley to let him take a party to have a look at the downed plane.
He returned the next day, July 11. The team extracted Koga’s body from the plane by having Knack (the smallest crew member) crawl up inside the plane and cut his safety harness with a knife. They searched it for anything with intelligence value, and buried Koga in a shallow grave near the crash site. Returning to Dutch Harbor Thies reported the plane as salvageable and a team was sent out on July 13 to retrieve it. Several attempts to right the plane failed. The tripods they used sank almost a yard in the mud and heavy equipment could not be unloaded as the salvage ship had already lost two anchors. Finally, on July 15, the salvage team managed to free the Zero from the mud.The plane was too heavy to turn over with the equipment on hand, so it was left upside down while a tractor dragged it on a skid to the beach and a barge. At Dutch Harbor it was turned over with a crane, cleaned, and crated, wings and all.
When it arrived at North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, a twelve-foot-high stockade was erected around it, inside a hangar guarded by armed Marines. Salvaging what they could and fabricating the few new parts needed, Navy mechanics brought the plane back up to flying condition. On September 20, Lieutenant Commander Eddie Sanders became the first pilot to fly a Zero in American colours. Sanders flew 24 test flights in 25 days.
During those flights Sanders discovered several critical flaws in the Zero’s performance, notably a difficulty of performing rolls at moderately high speeds and a carburettor fault, causing the engine to falter during negative G’s at high speed.
Some historians dispute the degree to which the Akutan Zero influenced the outcome of the air war in the Pacific. For example, the Thach Weave, a tactic created by John Thach and used with great success by American airmen against the Zero, was devised by Thach prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, based on intelligence reports on the Zero’s performance in China. As another example, Grumman used intelligence reports drawn up after examining the wrecks of 9 Zero’s downed at Pearl Harbor to improve the F4F Wildcat and re-design the XF-6F-1 Hellcat. But nothing beats the possession of an enemy’s prime fighter to develop tactics and train aviators.
The Akutan Zero was destroyed during a training accident in February 1945. While it was taxiing for a take-off, a SB2C Helldiver lost control and rammed into it. The Helldiver’s propeller sliced the Zero into pieces. Only a few parts were salvaged an later donated to various museums.
Note: I have also updated the “Mitsubishi A6m Zero-Sen” page