The Akutan Zero – the first intact to be captured by the US in 1942 and the last flight of Tadayoshi Koga

WW2, WW2 Pacific treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

In June 1942, as part of the Japanese Midway operation, the Japanese attacked the Aleutian islands, off the south coast of Alaska. A Japanese task force led by Admiral Kakuji Kakuta bombed Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island twice, once on June 3 and again the following day.

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Tadayoshi Koga, a 19-year-old flight petty officer first class, was launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō as part of the June 4 raid. Koga was part of a three-plane section; his wingmen were Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo and Petty Officer Tsuguo Shikada.

Koga and his comrades attacked Dutch Harbor, shooting down an American PBY-5A Catalina flying boat piloted by Bud Mitchell and strafing its survivors in the water. In the process, Koga’s plane (serial number 4593) was damaged by small arms fire.

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Tsuguo Shikada, one of Koga’s wingmen, published an account in 1984 in which he claimed the damage to Koga’s plane occurred while his section was making an attack against two American Catalinas anchored in the bay. This account omits any mention of shooting down Mitchell’s PBY.

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Both American and Japanese records contradict his claims; there were no PBYs in the bay that day. However, his claims do match American records from the attack against Dutch Harbor the previous day (June 3).

Rearden noted, “It seems likely that in the near half-century after the event Shikada’s memory confused the raids of June 3 and June 4 … It also seems likely that in his interview, Shikada employed selective memory in not mentioning shooting down Mitchell’s PBY and then machine gunning the crew on the water”.

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It is not known who fired the shot that brought down Koga’s plane, though numerous individuals have claimed credit. Photographic evidence strongly suggests it was hit by ground fire.

Members of the 206th Coast Artillery Regiment, which had both 3-inch anti-aircraft guns and .50 caliber machine guns in position defending Dutch Harbor, claimed credit, in addition to claims made by United States Navy ships that were present. Physical inspection of the plane revealed it was hit with small arms fire—.50 caliber bullet holes and smaller, from both above and below.

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The fatal shot severed the return oil line, and Koga’s plane immediately began trailing oil. Koga reduced speed to prevent the engine’s seizing for as long as possible.

The three Zeros flew to Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor, which had been designated for emergency landings. Waiting near the island was a Japanese submarine assigned to pick up downed pilots.

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At Akutan, the three Zeros circled a grassy flat half a mile inland from Broad Bight. Shikada thought the ground was firm beneath the grass, but in his second pass he noticed water glistening. He suddenly realized Koga should make a belly landing. But by then Koga had lowered his landing gear and was almost down.

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 instantly on impact, probably from a broken neck or a blunt-force blow to his head.

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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. They decided to leave without firing on it. The Japanese submarine stationed off Akutan Island to pick up pilots searched for Koga in vain before being driven off by the destroyer USS Williamson.

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The crash site, which was out of sight of standard flight lanes and not visible by ship, remained undetected and undisturbed for over a month. On July 10, 1942, an American PBY Catalina piloted by Lieutenant William “Bill” Thies spotted the wreckage.

Thies’s Catalina had been patrolling by dead reckoning and had become lost. On spotting the Shumagin Islands, he reoriented his plane and began to return to Dutch Harbor by the most direct course—over Akutan Island. Machinist Mate Albert Knack, who was the plane captain, spotted Koga’s wreck.

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Thies’s plane circled the crash site for several minutes, noted its position on the map, and returned to Dutch Harbor to report it.

Thies convinced his commanding officer, Paul Foley, to let him return with a salvage team. The next day (July 11), the team flew out to inspect the wreck. Navy photographer’s mate Arthur W. Bauman took pictures as they worked.

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Thies’s 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. Thies returned with his team to Dutch Harbor, where he reported the plane as salvageable.

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The next day (July 12), a salvage team under Lieutenant Robert Kirmse was dispatched to Akutan. This team gave Koga a Christian burial in a nearby knoll and set about recovering the plane, but the lack of heavy equipment (which they had been unable to unload after the delivery ship lost two anchors) meant their efforts failed.

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On July 15, a third recovery team was dispatched. This time, with proper heavy equipment, the team was able to free the Zero from the mud and hauled it overland to a nearby barge, without further damaging it. The Zero was taken to Dutch Harbor, turned right-side up, and cleaned.

The Akutan Zero was loaded into the USS St. Mihiel and transported to Seattle, arriving on August 1. From there, it was transported by barge to Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego where repairs were carefully carried out.

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These repairs “consisted mostly of straightening the vertical stabilizer, rudder, wing tips, flaps, and canopy. The sheared-off landing struts needed more extensive work. The three-blade Sumitomo propeller was dressed and re-used.”

The Zero’s red Hinomaru roundel was repainted with the American blue circle-white star insignia. The whole time, the plane was kept under 24-hour military police guard in order to deter would-be souvenir hunters from damaging the plane. The Zero was fit to fly again on September 20.

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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. According to Sanders’ report:

“These flights covered performance tests such as we do on planes undergoing Navy tests. 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.

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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.”

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.

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In an attempt to repatriate Koga’s body, American author Jim Rearden led a search on Akutan in 1988. He located Koga’s grave, but found it empty. Rearden and Japanese businessman Minoru Kawamoto conducted a records search. They found that in 1947 Koga’s body was exhumed by an American Graves Registration Service team and re-buried on Adak Island, further down the Aleutian chain.

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The team, unaware of Koga’s identity, marked his body as unidentified. The Adak cemetery was excavated in 1953, and 236 bodies were returned to Japan. The body buried next to Koga (Shigeyoshi Shindo) was one of 13 identified; the remaining 223 unidentified remains were re-interred in Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Japan. It is probable that Koga was one of them. Rearden later wrote the definitive account of the Akutan Zero.

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