Jul 10

That Time the Navy Learned the Way to Beat a Zero is to Catch a Zero

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 7:41 AM


During the Cold War air-to-air warfare was alive and well. The Soviets had a huge air force, and their fighters were a viable threat to NATO aircraft. As a result, American fighter crews trained extensively in matters pertaining to shooting down other airplanes. Among the air-to-air training programs was a super-secret one called “Constant Peg.” In the late ’70s the U.S. Air Force came into possession of a few Soviet aircraft (MiG 21s and 23s) that Israel captured from Syria. Over the years, that inventory grew to more than a dozen airplanes acquired from states including Pakistan and China.

The Constant Peg aircraft were assigned to the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron—”The Red Eagles”—based at Tonopah in the Nevada desert. Fighter crews from both the Navy and Marine Corps would do one-on-one flights against the Soviet jets to get a solid idea of how theie potential enemy would perform in a combat.

Constant Peg MiG-23

MiG-23 used for Constant Peg exercises during the Cold War. (Official DoD Photo)

But decades earlier, there was another top secret initiative designed to make America’s fighter pilots smarter than the adversary they were likely to find themselves dogfighting against. In mid-May of 1942, the Japanese launched a massive strike force bound for Midway while a smaller flotilla headed for the Aleutians with the hope that they would distract the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Early on 3 June, a bomber and three fighters from the carrier Ryujo launched a raid on Dutch Harbor.

One of the fighters, a Mitsubishi A6M2 model 21 Zero, took a bullet to a fuel line and was forced into an emergency landing. But the pilot, Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshiga, couldn’t tell where he was going because of the low clouds and wound up touching down in a marsh instead of solid ground. The Zero flipped over on its back and Tadayoshiga was killed.

While returning from a routine patrol, PBY from VP 41 found the aircraft on 10 July 1942.

Japanese Zero crashed in marsh.

Japanese Zero crashed in a marsh in the Aleutians. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

In his article titled “The Day the Navy Caught a Zero” (USNI members only content) from the February 1968 Proceedings, Robert Underbrink captures the rest of the story:

Although the impact of the somersault had broken the pilot’s neck, the marsh cushioned the crash, leaving the nearly-new fighter plane virtually undamaged, and the party realized they had made a great find. Prior to the war, Colonel Claire Chennault, commander of the volunteer Flying Tigers in China, had written the U. S. Army Air Corps that the Japanese had developed a fast, highly ma­neuverable fighter plane, but his letter had apparently been buried in a filing cabinet and forgotten. Despite Chennault’s warning and the fact that the United States had been at war more than six months, our aerial experts were still very much in the dark about the much-vaunted Zero aircraft that had downed American planes all over the Southwest Pacific.

Japanese Zero being repaired.

A repair crew at NAS North Island in San Diego fix the captured Japanese Zero. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

The Zero fighter plane—the first ever cap­tured intact—was disassembled, crated, and removed to the Naval Air Station at San Diego’s North Island. Following careful re­assembly and a meticulous examination by America’s aviation experts, a Navy pilot conducted a series of flight tests to learn the aircraft’s characteristics and, even more important, to determine its inherent weak­nesses. Thus, the information gained from Petty Officer Koga’s plane found on Akutan Island in the Aleutians gave U.S. pilots a much better chance of survival when they came up against the Zero. It also brought the Allies closer to final victory.

Zero with American markings.

The captured Zero with American markings takes to the skies after repair effort. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

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