The Most Important Airplane the US Ever Shot Down?

The Most Important Airplane the US Ever Shot Down?

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To many Americans, the phrase “made in Japan”  was synonymous with low quality and rudimentary   technology. But this perception changed  after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,   in which they were violently introduced to a  groundbreaking piece of Japanese engineering:   the formidable Mitsubishi A6M Zero. For the following months, the US military  scrambled to keep up with the nimble fighter,   and it quickly earned a mythical reputation. The  warplane seemed to be everywhere in the Pacific,   had an unprecedented range, and could easily  outmaneuver anything the Allies threw at it.

More concerning was the fact that it was a  seaborne aircraft designed to be launched by   Japanese carriers. These ships were supposed  to be inferior to land-based fighters due to   their space restrictions; still, the Zero  was outclassing every single land warplane. The US went to great lengths to capture one  of these machines and learn how they were   made and what made them so powerful. However,  the Japanese were highly protective of their  

technology, and they would crash their own  aircraft before risking being captured. On July 12, 1942, the tide abruptly changed when  a US Navy patrol crew landed on the island of   Akutan following a strange series of events that  led to an aircraft being flipped upside-down.   Still, the plane was intact and immediately rushed  to Naval Air Station in San Diego, California.

The secrets of the A6M Zero  were about to be uncovered… Hard   to Believe US intelligence had been informed of the  existence of a new Japanese fighter back in the   summer of 1940 as the Zero obliterated the ancient  Chinese biplanes trying to defend their homeland.   Specialists like Claire Lee Chennault  cautioned the West about Japan’s incredible   fighters describing their performance as:  (QUOTE) “Like hawks in a chicken yard,   they shot down the Chinese fighters  before the defenders knew what hit them.” Nevertheless, the Americans paid little attention   to what they thought were embellished  Chinese reports and were confident that   whatever the Japanese had concocted would  be far inferior to their own technology.   It wouldn’t be until the shocking attack on  Pearl Harbor that they finally started to notice. As it turned out, Chinese reports had  been correct; the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was   a formidable machine, extremely fast and  nimble, and with an incredible climb rate.

Early US encounters with the  Zeros often resulted in tragedy,   as the agile warplane easily outmaneuvered them  in dogfights and shot them down into the sea.   US pilots were also quite green compared to their  Japanese counterparts, who had years of experience   fighting against China, leaving them with an  aggressive and experienced outlook in battle. The American fighters also found themselves  at a significant disadvantage. Their P-40   Warhawks and F4F Wildcats were  slightly faster than the Zero,   but the US aircraft could not outmaneuver the  Japanese warplanes and would often be shot down.

Moreover, even as British pilots were used  to engaging German and Italian fighters,   their European tactics fell  short when they employed them   against the agile Zeros and their virtuoso pilots. The Allies didn’t know it at the time, but  Japan only had 521 active Zeros by then.   Still, their range was so extensive  that they could cover vast regions,   giving the impression that they were everywhere.

Rumors and conspiracy theories soon began to  spread, claiming that the Zero was actually a   Western design. This myth persisted for several  years and was even fueled by none other than   Howard Hughes, who said in 1954: (QUOTE) “I should  say in point of aircraft design and mechanical   aptitude… nobody expected the Japanese to have an  airplane that would be at all competitive [...] It   was quite apparent to everyone that it had  been copied from the Hughes [H-1] plane.” Changing Tactics During the early stages of the war,   the Zeros achieved an incredible 12-to-1  air-to-air kill ratio against Allied aircraft.   This figure surpassed even the Japanese pre-war  estimates of a five-to-one kill ratio advantage.

Soon, the Allies were forced to avoid dogfights  with the Japanese warplanes and instead used “Boom   and zoom” tactics, diving into the Zeros from  the clouds, shooting them, and then diving away.   This tactic finally evened the odds  against the Japanese powerhouse,   as the light Zero was incapable of keeping up with  British and American fighter planes during a dive. Nevertheless, the maneuver was not  easy to implement on a wide scale;   for one, the Allied pilots  were trained to dogfight,   and changing their now-instinctive  behavior took time and additional training. Moreover, some American commanders  considered the diving engagement cowardly   and pressed their pilots to continue  to dogfight, leading to severe losses.

Still, as impressive as the Zero’s performance  was, its reign over the Pacific skies was not   meant to last. The aircraft seemed almost perfect  to the Allied strategists, but in reality,   it had several significant flaws that  could prove their end if discovered. Japan was hoping for a brutal but swift war,  where they would force the US to sue for peace   while continuing conquering Asia unopposed. But  as the war dragged on, a complex race began;  

the Americans needed to capture an intact  Zero to learn its weaknesses, while the   Japanese needed to protect their precious  warplane and end the war as soon as possible. A Stranger On Niihau Island The   Japanese pilots were instructed to crash  or destroy their Zeros before risking the   Allies capturing the technology, even  at the expense of their own lives. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Zero  piloted by Shigenori Nishikaichi was hit by   a P-36 while on the operation’s second wave.  Nishikaichi quickly realized the severity of  

the situation, as his damaged Zero would not be  able to make it back to the aircraft carrier. The pilot then rerouted for Niihau Island, the  agreed location to land in case of an emergency.   However, the Japanese intelligence  assumed the small island was uninhabited,   and they would soon find out  that was far from the truth. As Nishikaichi performed a forced  landing, he hit a metal fence and crashed,   slamming his face against the instrument  panel. Howard Kaleohano, a local resident,  

found the unresponsive pilot and took his  pistol and documents before he could wake up. The island dwellers had no idea about the attack  on Pearl Harbor and Kaleohano took the pilot to   his home, but when communications  proved futile, he called for three   Japanese-immigrant friends to translate. The  pilot then informed them of everything that   occurred in Pearl Harbor and the incoming war,  but they didn’t tell Kaleohano and his wife. Things remained calm for a while, but  the next day the island inhabitants   learned of the Pearl Harbor attack on  the radio, and all hell broke loose.

Chaos! As Kaleohano realized what was happening,   he told Nishikaichi that he would keep his  documents and turn them to the US authorities. Meanwhile, the islanders posted  guards to keep a watch on the Zero   pilot, but the Japanese immigrants did  everything they could to help the pilot,   even attempting to bribe Kaleohano so he would  return the documents. These included the Pearl   Harbor attack plans, Japanese transmission  codes, and the pilot’s personal papers. Nishikaichi knew he could  not let the Americans seize   his documents or his plane under any circumstance. The Japanese nationals then helped him escape  while playing music on a phonograph, took the   guard’s weapon, and rushed to Kaleohano’s house  to get the documents back. The Japanese fired on  

Kaleohano on sight, but the Hawaiian managed  to escape. At that moment, the whole village   started to panic, with most residents running  to the inner island’s caves for protection. After the encounter, the pilot  and his Japanese allies tried to   contact the Japanese military using  the Zero’s radio. When they failed,   they instantly set the warplane on fire to ensure  the Americans never discovered its secrets.  

They then went back to look for the documents and  took another local married couple as hostages,   threatening the husband to bring  Kaleohano and the documents. As the man deceived the Japanese loyalists and  returned to save his wife, a brutal fight ensued.   The local husband was severely injured by  gunfire, but his wife managed to take the   Japanese pilot down, and the remaining  enemy decided to take his own life.

The documents were then turned  in to American authorities,   but the plane had been destroyed, and its  remains were of little use to the US military. Regardless, the brutal incident in  Niihau Island led the Americans to   believe every Japanese immigrant  was a possible Japanese agent,   and the incident would be used to justify the  Japanese internment camps in the mainland USA. Capturing a Zero Days before the Battle of Midway,   the Japanese launched a major offensive on the  American base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Amid the daring Zero pilots deployed from  Japanese aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo   was Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga, whose Zero  fighter took a hit that severed the oil line,   demanding an immediate forced landing. Desperate and in a state of shock, Koga spotted  a large open field on the Island of Akutan,   where he believed he could land safely. He  then lowered his landing gear and prepared   for an emergency touchdown, not realizing  the grass was actually hiding a swamp.

As the Zero’s wheels struck the water, the  uncontrollable aircraft flipped over on its back.   The cockpit slammed against the water, and  Koga could not free himself before the murky   water overwhelmed him. Still, as the pilot  went down, his Zero remained mostly intact. The following month, the crew of  a Catalina from Patrol Squadron   41 spotted an overturned fighter while  returning from a sortie and announced it. Then, on July 12, 1942, a US Navy Patrol  crew landed near the crash site and examined   the warplane; to their amazement, it was a  Mitsubishi Zero in very decent conditions. The warplane was successfully salvaged and sent  to Naval Air Station in San Diego, California,   where it was quickly repaired to flying  condition and painted in a US Navy color scheme.   While there, the aircraft was methodically tested,   its performance probed under various conditions,  and it was taken apart to study it thoroughly.

Fortunately for the Americans, the  examination revealed a series of serious   flaws that would bring the Zero’s reign  over the Pacific to an anticipated end. Inside the Machine Early tests revealed that the Zero was an  engineering marvel. It also demonstrated   that the design was unique to Japan and had not  been acquired from any specific Western power.

The Americans quickly learned that  the design prioritized range, agility,   and maneuverability over everything else and began   understanding the intricate details of  Jiro Horikoshi’s incredible creation. Captain Eric Brown, the Chief  Naval Test Pilot of the Royal Navy,   would describe the overall opinion of the  Allied high command when he said: (QUOTE)   “I don’t think I have ever flown a fighter that  could match the rate of turn of the Zero. The   Zero had ruled the roost totally and was the  finest fighter in the world until mid-1943.” The aircraft could reach speeds of up  to 500 kilometers per hour and climb   to altitudes of over 10,000 kilometers  while carrying an impressive armament of   two 7.7-millimeter machine guns  and two 20-millimeter cannons. Moreover, the Zero had a previously unseen  range for any fighter, being able to fly for   over eight hours at cruising speed  and for two hours at maximum speed.

To achieve these numbers, the Zero  incorporated some of the world’s   most advanced aeronautic advances. It had  thin elliptical wings that minimized drag,   its hull was assembled using groundbreaking Flush  Riveting techniques, and Horikoshi had employed a   state-of-the-art heat-treating procedure  to allow for a complete metal structure. The inner metal skeleton that gave the  warplane its shape was perforated with   circular holes to make the aircraft lighter.  The sheet metal that covered the structure   was also extremely lightweight, with  only 1.2 millimeters of thickness.   Overall, the aircraft weighed up to 1,260  kilograms less than the American Wildcat.

The design philosophy employed by  Jiro Horikoshi dictated that the   ultimate fighter didn’t need armor  plating and hefty protection as long   as its speed and agility made  it almost impossible to be hit. The aircraft was also specially  designed to be seaborne,   with a relatively short 9-meter wingspan  that allowed it to be easily moved and   stored onboard carriers, while its hollow  inner structures enabled it to float. Jiro Horikoshi made significant sacrifices  to keep his creation light and nimble,   but these flaws were about to  be exploited by the US forces. Shortcomings American pilots had noticed that despite the  incredible challenge of actually hitting a Zero,   once they struck, it would quickly  burst into flames or explode.   The engineers now knew why, as the Zero didn’t  have any additional armor in the engine,   fuel tank, or cockpit, and a single  hit could destroy the aircraft. Additionally, the sheet metal covering the  warplane was so ludicrously thin that even   getting into the plane could puncture the hull  and severely damage the aircraft’s structure.  

To solve this, Horikoshi included  button-activated emerging footholds   and handles to help pilots get into  the aircraft without damaging it. Moreover, the Americans discovered a  significant flaw in the Zero’s performance;   it was fast and agile, but couldn’t  showcase both advantages simultaneously.   As the Zero reached maximum speeds,  the control surfaces that allowed it   to turn became stiff and unresponsive,  significantly diminishing its agility. In his quest to keep the  Zero as light as possible,   Horikoshi had relinquished adding  hydraulics to the control surfaces,   meaning that the faster the aircraft  flew, the less responsive it became.

The engine also suffered from a float carburetor,  severely impacting its otherwise remarkable   Nakajima Sakae 1,130-horsepower engine. Like  the Merlin engine used in British planes like   the Spitfire and the Hurricane, the  Zero engine’s float valve tended to   open during zero-G maneuvers, flooding the  engine and shutting down during operation. As the Allies took notice of the Zero’s  sluggish performance and high speeds,   its incredible fragility, and its inability  to maintain stability during Zero-G maneuvers,   they were ready to turn the tables on the  apparently invincible Japanese fighter.

The Downfall The jaw-dropping performance of the  Zero against Allied warplanes during   the initial months of the war in the  Pacific could not be sustained for long. One reason for its inevitable deposing was that  the US simply had a much more capable wartime   industry and much more extensive deposits  of strategic resources that allowed it to   quickly produce new and more powerful  aircraft like the Grumman F6F Hellcat. Japan had little strategic resources  and minimal manufacturing capabilities;   thus, unlike Allied aircraft, they could  not afford to polish the Zero’s flaws,   such as the float carburetor and the rigid  control surfaces. The light aircraft would   have to continue fighting with  its now-disclosed weaknesses.

Additionally, Japan’s shattered hope of a  harsh but brief war had other disadvantages,   as their methodical and exceptional pilot  training program was designed to deliver   only a hundred or so formidable  pilots every several months.   By the end of 1942, the nation was  quickly running out of the highly   experienced airmen that had shredded through  the Allies in the initial months of the war. Additionally, American aviators were being  trained to swiftly identify Zeros and employ   a specific array of tactics. The pilots were  to maintain high speeds at all moments to deny   the Japanese aircraft its low-speed agility, and  they were prohibited from engaging in dogfights,   limiting themselves to swift diving  hit-and-run attacks that forced the   Japanese to keep up with the Allies’  speed instead of the other way around.

Knowing now how fragile and  lightly armored the Zeros were,   the Allied pilots were aware that one lucky hit  was more than enough to take them out of the sky. Soon, Allied airmen would easily obliterate  the Japanese Zeros in large numbers,   and even the Wildcats were  regularly shooting down A6Ms. A Grim Fate By early 1944, the Zero’s performance was so  unexceptional and the Japanese territorial losses   so significant that the once engineering marvel  was deployed to serve as a Kamikaze aircraft.

It is often said that the Japanese  soldiers were so fervently brainwashed   to serve their emperor that they  blindly gave their lives for him.   Still, some recent analyses have pointed  out a more pragmatic explanation. With no time to train new capable pilots for  its air force and knowing that the majority of   recruits would most likely perish in the hands  of the more experienced Allies, the Japanese   concluded that their demise would be  most valuable if they could destroy   large US ships with their sacrifice instead of  dealing minor damage while trying to survive. On October 19, 1944, as Japanese forces faced  an overwhelming Allied attack on the Philippine   Islands, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi decided  to use his fleet of Zeros as suicide aircraft.   He addressed his men by saying: (QUOTE)  “I don’t think there would be any other   certain way to carry out the operation  [to hold the Philippines] than to put a   250-kilogram bomb on a Zero and let it crash into  a US carrier, in order to disable her for a week.” From there, the once mythical Zeros would  continue to be used as Kamikaze aircraft   until the war’s end, alongside other  old Japanese warplanes that could no   longer hold their own against the Allied fighters.

Despite the desperate measures, the Kamikaze  attacks were statistically insignificant,   with most attempts missing their mark or being  brought down by the Allies’ anti-aircraft fire. Nevertheless, on May 11, 1945,  months after the US burned Tokyo,   two Japanese pilots slammed their Kamikaze  Zeros into the deck of USS Bunker Hill,   taking the lives of almost 400 American  servicemen and putting the carrier out of service. Ultimately, the formidable Mitsubishi Zero  would share the fate of Japan in World War 2,   first emerging as a rising sun  to eventually be extinguished   by the unrelenting might of the Allied powers. Thank you for watching our video! For more  thrilling military stories like this one,   click on your screen and check out our  other Dark Documentaries channels. We   publish content regularly across all our channels,   so make sure to subscribe and hit the bell  icon to be notified about it. Stay tuned!

2022-11-02 19:05

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