Mitsubishi A6M Reisen
Genesis and Development
The Lean Years
Zero and its Opponents
References & Acknowledgments
Thai Air Force Museum
All text material on this site is
© Peter Lewis
unless otherwise acknowledged
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, RNZAF
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.
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. The
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, AOC
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
Model 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, 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".