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Mitsubishi A6M Reisen
'Zero'
Aircraft Series

Introduction

Genesis and Development

War Prize

The Lean Years

Aircraft Identity

Colour Schemes

Power Plant

Armament

Avionics

Zero and its Opponents

Preserved Zeros

Links

References & Acknowledgments

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Royal Thai Air Force Museum

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All text material on this site is
© Peter Lewis
1985, 1999
unless otherwise acknowledged

 

    

War Prize

Despite the widespread use of the Zero over the Chinese mainland since mid-1940, there were widespread misconceptions about the capabilities of the type. From ignorance and derision before the Pearl Harbour attack - when accurate reports of the 'super fighter' were discounted in Washington and London - the later attitude was one of fear. The Zero was credited with performance and capability far beyond reality. This was reinforced by lack of captured aircraft or wreckage that could be studied and analysed. Only two Zeros had been lost over China in more than a year of combat, while of the nine A6M2 lost in the Pearl Harbour operation, only one was recoverable in recognisable form, although badly damaged.
This situation changed in mid-1942, when a A6M2 Model 21 was force-landed near Fort Moresby and recovered by the Australians, and another Model 21 was recovered intact after being found force-landed in a swamp on Akutan Island. This second aircraft was repaired and flown at San Diego, and the weaknesses in the Zero's construction and performance were pinpointed. As the tide of war turned against Japan, further examples were captured by American and Australian forces. Most of these were the later Model 52.
In September 19459 Australian forces had been occupying key posts throughout Bougainville. Apart from occasional floatplane courier flights from Rabaul, no Japanese aircraft had been sighted near the island since March 1944 due to the overwhelming Allied air superiority. About 13 September, however, RNZAF intelligence heard of an apparently airworthy Zero located at Kara airstrip in Southern Bougainville. This strip was seven miles northwest of the large Kahili airfield. To verify the rumour, Auster A11-3RNZAF personnel visited the strip on 14 September and an RAAF Auster (A11-3) was used to fly an RNZAF photographer from the RNZAF field HQ at Piva.
The aircraft existed, and was serviceable, this being demonstrated by the Japanese engineers running up the engine for the New Zealanders. The aircraft had been caught on the ground by Allied bombers during the American landings at Empress Augusta Bay in November 1943. It had suffered serious damage which prevented its withdrawal to Rabaul. The aircraft had then been hidden at the northeast of the strip for over eighteen months.
As Discovered, at Karaa morale exercise, the decision was then made to get the aircraft airworthy. With 60 to 70 technical personnel available, and a variety of other airframes as a source of parts, they soon had the machine in flying order. A young Japanese Navy pilot, Petty Officer Sekizen Shibayama, was flown from Rabaul to Bougainville at the end of July 1945 in a 'Jake' seaplane, and his job was to test fly the Zero and then ferry it back to Rabaul. The tide of war caught up with this programme, however, and the aircraft stayed on the ground.
Preliminary enquiries were made by Intelligence staff regarding the possibility of Shibayama flying the aircraft to Piva, but this idea was promptly vetoed by the Surrender Commission who probably had visions of a frustrated kamikaze flying the machine to Torokina anchorage and diving into the largest ship in sight. Instructions were issued that no-one was to attempt to fly the aircraft.
Wing Commander Bill Kofoed decided that he wished to see, and, despite these instructions, hopefully fly the aircraft. He was aware that the only alternative means of transporting the aircraft back to the RNZAF base at Piva was by road, down the rough winding jungle trails to the coast, and then by barge. As there was no pressing official need for the aircraft to be salvaged by such means it was likely that it would be left to rot. Therefore the morning of 15 September 1945, he and Engineer Officer C D Kingsford flew in a Wirraway (of 5Sdn RAAF) to Kara airstrip.
Kofoed and Kingsford inspected the aircraft, and the Japanese pilot answered their queries as best he could. Kingsford sat in the cockpit while the Japanese stood on the wing to assist with the identification of the various controls. All equipment seemed to be well built and in workable order. arrival at PivaThe repair work had been well carried out, and he had no hesitation in declaring the machine airworthy. On the strength of this opinion, and his own impressions, Kofoed decided to fly it north-west to Piva. Two 200-litre drums of fuel were produced and hand-pumped into the aircraft. After another runup, Kofoed took off and, with undercarriage left down during the entire flight, landed at Piva without incident 32 minutes later.
The appearance of the strange aircraft caused quite a stir, as few personnel among the thousands at the base had seen a Japanese aircraft, even at a distance. Air Commodore G N Roberts, Roberts inspects the ZeroAOC NZ Air Task Force, was among those to inspect the aircraft on arrival, and he was one of the first to try the aircraft for size. No later flights were attempted at Piva, although the engine was run up several times. Mostly it sat in the servicing area, an object of curiosity, while the men and materials at the base were preparing to move out.
The Zero was not unique, as other Japanese aircraft in flyable condition had also been acquired by the RNZAF. Three days after Kofoed flew the Zero to Piva, four Japanese aircraft, with an escort of RNZAF Corsairs, were flown by Japanese crews into the RNZAF base at Jacquinot Bay, New Britain. The aircraft comprised three A6M5 Three Zeros arrive at RabaulModel 52 (two of which were c/ns 3479 and 4043) and a Mitsubishi Ki-46-II c/n 2783. The Ki-46 suffered damage to the undercarriage on landing, but the three Zeros were flyable. Two were presented to the Australians, and the third was flown at times by RNZAF pilots. Also flown into Jacquinot Bay on the 14 October was an Aichi E13A1, a floatplane, which remained moored in the harbour until a leak developed in a float and the machine sank. In view of the official disinterest at Jacquinot Bay, it seems a little surprising that a decision was made to return the Piva Zero to New Zealand.
The Union Steam Ship Company inter-island ferry WAHINE was chartered to repatriate RNZAF personnel from the Pacific Islands, Zero loading on to 'Wahine'making three return trips. On the second of these trips, leaving Bougainville on 15 October 1945, rode the Zero, as deck cargo under the supervision of Warrant Officer C Calcinai. The aircraft was still painted in its white surrender markings, but the propeller and tailplane were removed for the trip.
On arrival at the Port of Auckland on Saturday 20 October, transport by barge was arranged to RNZAF station Hobsonville. Hobsonville was instructed to make the aircraft serviceable, carry out a 90-hour inspection, and draw up a provisional maintenance schedule to cover daily inspections for a period of exhibition flying.
Maintenance work was carried out under the supervision of Squadron Leader F W Thornton, who reported that the engine, airframe, and instruments were in good condition. Main problem areas were the wheel brakes being very weak and not being able to hold the aircraft above 1500rpm, port and tail wheel bearings pitted with corrosion, port tyre in poor condition, and instrument panel shock absorbers in bad shape.
There were, of course, no spares available, but an attempt was made to procure a tyre through the RNZAF forces based in the Japanese home islands. This was not successful. A group of Japanese prisoners of war, who were passing through Auckland on repatriation, were taken under escort to view the aircraft and try and decipher labels and instructions thereon. Little success was obtained, as the Japanese, though cooperative, were not aviation personnel, and thus could not translate the specialised lettering.
Air Department directed Hobsonville to apply the serial number NZ6000 and RNZAF roundels, but it is thought that this did not occur. On the 6 December Wing Commander A E Willis took the aircraft out onto the airfield for taxiing trials, and Hobsonville advised Air Department that the work was completed and the aircraft was awaiting a test flight. Six days later, on Wednesday 12 December, the Hobsonville unit history records that Wing Commander Willis took the aircraft on to the airfield for further taxiing trials.
On the 18th the Air Force Member for Supply, Air Commodore S Wallingford advised the Minister of Defence that "the Zero was now serviceable and will be flight tested within two or three days. After tests it is proposed to allot the aircraft to the Central Fighter Establishment at Ardmore, where it will be used for tactical training of fighter pilots". Despite this optimism, the test flight was never authorised.
Some consideration was given to sending it to the Central Plying School at Wigram, but the consensus was that the aircraft would be of little use if restricted to limited straight and level flying. With this and the complete lack of spares and servicing information, enthusiasm began to wane.
The arrival at Hobsonville of the RNZAF's first jet, the Gloster Meteor, at Hobsonville in the last few days of 1945, made the Zero look dated.
However, there was still enough interest at Hobsonville for Wing Commander Willis, as CO Hobsonville, to authorise himself to perform one ten minute flight in the Zero. The date of this flight was not recorded, but may have been on the 12th. He states that it was "around the dates I reported on the brakes . The aircraft was quite pleasant to fly, being rather like a Harvard. It appeared to have no unusual traits in the ten minutes I was flying".