Akutan Zero Pilot - Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga

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Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga

In January 1941, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto began developing a plan to attack the American base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. For nearly a year, the Japanese continued to refine their plans while at the same time working diplomatically to portray a willingness for compromise, with the United States. While the attack was successful in temporarily crippling the USN Battleship Fleet, however, the raid missed the opportunity to destroy fuel storage, submarine pens, and most of all, the failure to locate the American aircraft carriers.

Admiral Yamamoto was aware that his forces had a very small window in dealing with the U.S. forces. His intentions were to avoid a long-protracted war in which he knew that American industry would be a defining factor. This point was brought home when the USN and USAAF join forces on April 18, 1942, to bomb Tokyo and several other home islands in a daring raid of B-25 Mitchell twin-engine bombers, led by the legendary Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, launched from the USS Hornet. Combine that with the clash with the Americans in the Coral Sea a month later, in which, both sides lost a carrier and aircraft, this forced Yamamoto hand to develop a plan to defeat the Americans once and for all.

The Americans secret weapon was the ability to break the Japanese code, dubbed JN-25. Even though they were unavailable to prevent the Pearl Harbor attack, America regrouped and first uncovered the Japanese Coral Sea plan. and later Midway. Typical of Japanese naval planning during World War II, Yamamoto's battle plan for taking Midway (named Operation MI) was exceedingly complex. It required the careful and timely coordination of multiple battle groups over hundreds of miles of open ocean. His design was also predicated on optimistic intelligence suggesting that USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, forming Task Force 16, were the only carriers available to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the USS Lexington was lost, and the USS Yorktown was severely damaged. However, following hasty repairs at Pearl Harbor, Yorktown sortied and ultimately played a critical role in the coming Battle of Midway.

Who Planned the Attack on Dutch Harbor WW2

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Dutch Harbor June 3, 1942

With plans now formulated, the Japanese Army and Navy forces swung into action the first days in June of 1942. Typical of Japanese planning, operation MI was complexed and required precise timing of Naval forces in the Northern and Central Pacific. Yamamoto rightly concluded that another air attack on the main U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor would induce all the American fleet to sail out to fight, including the carriers. However, considering that America had replaced its loses of land-based airpower on the Hawaiian Islands since the 7 December attack the previous year, he judged that it was now too risky to attack Pearl Harbor directly. Yamamoto understood that deception would be necessary to draw-out the U.S. fleet into a situation favorable to the Japanese. Yamomoto plans involved in dispersing his forces so that their full extent would be concealed from the Americans prior to battle. He positioned his supporting battleships and cruisers trailed Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo's carrier force by several hundred miles. The plan was to come up and destroy whatever elements of the U.S. fleet might come to Midway's defense once Nagumo's carriers had weakened them sufficiently for a daylight gun battle.

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Commander Joseph Rochefort

Thanks to the efforts of Commander Joseph Rochefort and his team at Station HYPO, as a result, the Americans entered the battle with a good picture of where, when, and in what strength the Japanese would appear at Midway and the Aleutians. Nimitz knew that the Japanese had negated their numerical advantage by dividing their ships into four separate task groups, so widely separated that they were essentially unable to support each other. This type of battle maneuver resulted in few fast ships being available to escort the Carrier Striking Force, thus reducing the number of anti-aircraft guns protecting the carriers. Nimitz rightly deduced that the aircraft on his three carriers, plus those on Midway Island, gave the U.S. rough parity with Yamamoto's four carriers, mainly because American carrier air groups were larger than Japanese ones. The Japanese, by contrast, remained largely unaware of their opponent's true strength and dispositions even after the battle began. According to Yamamoto’s plan, the Japanese would begin with a diversionary attack in the Aleutians Islands on June 1 or later.

Who were the Commanders of the Aleutians Campaign WW2

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Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, Northern Area Fleet

Admiral Yamamoto provided the Japanese Northern Area Fleet, led by Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, the overall commander, along with Admiral Kakuji Kakuta with a force of two non-fleet aircraft carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transports, along with supporting auxiliary ships. With that force, Hosogaya was first to launch an air attack against Dutch Harbor, then follow with an amphibious attack upon the island of Adak, 480 miles (770 km) to the west Hosogaya was instructed to destroy whatever American forces and facilities were found on Adak, but the Japanese did not know the island was undefended. Hosogaya 's troops were to return to their ships and become a reserve for two additional landings: the first on Kiska, 240 miles (390 km) west of Adak, the other on the Aleutians' westernmost island, Attu, 180 miles (290 km) west from Kiska. These islands provided the Japanese with a base from which to limit Allied air and sea operations in the North Pacific, and a potential base to attack the U.S. West Coast via Alaska. They attacked Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska on June 3rd and 4th, 1942, seeking to destroy U.S. Army and Navy operations near the city of Unalaska.

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Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, Northern Area Fleet

The light aircraft carriers under Hosogaya were the Junyo a 24,100-ton aircraft carrier, was built at Nagasaki, Japan. The Junyo was begun as the civilian passenger liner Kashiwara Maru but was taken over by the Japanese Navy in 1940, while still on the shipways, and converted to a carrier. The second, the Ryujo, captained by Tadeo Kato, displayed 8,000 metric tons was commissioned on May 9, 1933. The air contingent aboard the carriers was much smaller than those attacking Midway. Each carrier was beset with a set of specific circumstances, for example, Junyo was far too slow to launch Kate torpedo bombers, and>b> Ryujo’s the size of its elevators was too small to operate Val dive bombers. In addition, the Ryujo had the distinction of not having a superstructure above its flight deck. But what the Japanese were very skilled at was coordinating their attacks. On the afternoon of 2 June, a naval patrol plane spotted the approaching Japanese fleet, reporting its location as 800 miles (1,300 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor. The U.S. Eleventh Air Force was placed on full alert. However, due to bad weather, no further sightings of the fleet were made that day.

What Japanese Carriers Were Involved in Aleutians Campaign WW2

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Japanese Aircraft Carrier, Ryujo

After weaving his way through dreadful Aleutian weather, cloaked in fog and rain squalls, and anxious to complete his mission , on June 3, 1942, Admiral Kakuta concurred with his Aerial Flight Officer, Masatake Okumyia, and then ordered the attack launch. Between his two light carriers he had 82 aircraft at his disposal. They included Fighters, dive bombers and level bombers. Hosogaya launched his first attack on the U.S. Naval base at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska. Morale amongst his fighter pilots was extremely high. They had every reason to be confident because they were armed with one of the best fighter aircraft of the war, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Aboard the carrier was a 3 ship Zero contingent who would take part in the coming battle. The highly trained young pilots were Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo and Petty Officers Tsuguo Shikada and Tadayoshi Koga. Of the three young pilots it would be Tadayoshi Koga who would become infamous with the loss of his plane.

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Japanese Aircraft Carrier, Junyo

Who Was Pilot Tadayoshi Koga WW2

The 19-year-old Koga was born September 10, 1922, to Shichiro and Fumi Koga in the village of Chitose Mura, Fukuola Prefecture, Japan. This picturesque city is located 40 km southeast of Fukokoa City on Kyushu Island. It is located on the southern coast of Hakata Bay, about 40 miles (65 km) southwest of Kitakyūshū. The landscape ranges from beautiful sandy beaches to lush green mountains. Koga’s father was a carpenter by trade and labored to build wagons and carts. When his business failed, Schiciro relocated to Manchuria in the city of Shenyan, in 1933 and took a job as a civilian employee with the Japanese Army. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and were in the process of stripping the region of its resources to support its war and political ambitions. Eleven-year-old Tadayoshi remained in the village of his birth, living with his grandparents. In 1936 Koga entered Ukiha Middle School along with his cousin, Isao. In the late 1980’s Isao recalled how daring his cousin was as a young boy. The village had a tunnel that was 300 years old built for irrigating rice fields. This particular time, the tunnel ran full of water. The boys of the village found it to be a test of their courage to swim through the tunnel. Isao said Koga accomplished this dangerous task several years younger than most boys.

Like many boys his age Koga was drawn to the military in service to the emperor. In 1940 Koga enlisted in the Tsuchira Flight Training Corps in Ibarki Prefecture, located 55 km Northeast of Tokyo. Upon completion of preflight training, Koga enrolled in basic flight training a trainee in a class of 260. The new recruits would soon learn the motto that they would live and die by “A fighter pilot must be aggressive and tenacious. Always.” To say that the learning and training regimen that young cadets would endure would be an understatement. The physical aspect of the training was designed to weed-out any cadets unfit. One-on-one wrestling matches were often grueling and violent. Strict discipline left no room for error. Cadets lived in a period o constant fear that the slightest infraction could mean dismissal. Acrobatics, swimming, recognition, and reaction-time were a necessity for pilots in honing their endurance and balance, a requirement for one day dueling in the air. Tadayoshi Koga was one of 25 to complete the rigorous training. One can only imagine how proud his family was that he was now a naval aviator.

In 1942 Tadayoshi was assigned to the aircraft carrier, Ryujo, that at that time was stationed off the Philippines Islands, that Japan was attacking after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. It is thought that Koga and his mates were involved in attacks on the Americans fighting to hang on. But it would be events in April and May 1942 (Doolittle and Coral Sea) would draw Tadayoshi to his destiny. Early June was designated to be the attack date for the Midway operation. Cloaked in a violent storm, the Japanese task force arrived within striking distance of their target, Dutch Harbor, on the island of Unalaska. Just prior to dawn, 20 planes were parked on the pitching and rolling deck of the Ryujo for the June 3, 1942, attack. The Zero’s were first to launch based on the fact they need less runway. The Ryujo launched 20 aircraft and the Juyno launched 26. The formation had planned to fly in a tight formation, but the dense foggy weather forced them fly independently. Due to the weather, half the planes did not find the target. Junyo’s planes turned back and only nine Kates and three Zeros from Ryujo attacked Dutch Harbor, however, the strike force was surprised to see that they didn’t catch the Americans off-guard as they had previously done in other engagements.

Based on the amount of anti-aircraft that greeted the raiders. And, once again, they were unable to locate U.S. capital ships in the harbor. The June 3rd attack on Dutch Harbor lasted a frightening 50 minutes, and the Japanese had yet to confront U.S. fighter planes, instead, they attacked Catalina PBY reconnaissance aircraft. The first engagement with U.S. fighters occurred after the Japanese returning group discovered 4 U.S. destroyers in Makushin Bay near Unmak Island. With this discovery, Admiral Kakuji Kakuta order an attack with fighters from Juyno and reconnaissance seaplanes. It was at this time that the Japanese encountered 21 P-40’s from a base they were not aware of. The Junyo fighters were unable to locate the U.S. ships, however, the seaplanes did. During the battle one seaplane was shot down and the others retreated into the clouds and limped back to their ships.

The Final Day of Tadayoshi Koga WW2

Realizing the previous day’s attack had not achieved its mission Admiral Kakuta ordered another mission on June 4, 1942. It was here that the final saga for Tadayoshi Koga began to unfold. The 3-ship section, led by Chief Petty Officer Endo, arrived at Dutch Harbor around noon escorting dive and horizonal bombers. An account by U.S. Army observers recounted the attack on a PBY, piloted by Ens. Albert E. Mitchell, USNR, by 3 Zeros at Egg Island that was shot down in flames. The soldiers observed that some of crew of the stricken plane climbed into a raft prior to the plane sinking. To the horror of the soldiers, they watched the Zeros strafe the raft until all were killed. It is thought that the Zeros were Koga and his mates. Koga then turned their attention to several PBY’s moored in the harbor. It was here that ant-aircraft fire struck Koga’s Zero, severing the oil line between the oil line and engine, which proved to be the fatal blow. His plane now streaming oil, Koga was forced to break off his attack and head to a pre-designated location in case of an emergency. The emergency plan called for damaged aircraft to fly to Auktan Island, about 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor. A submarine was on standby to pick up and pilots in distress.

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Tadayoshi Koga’s Zero Damaged in the Dutch Harbor Attack WW2

Gently nursing his aircraft by reducing throttle, which reduced oil pressure, the trio arrived at Akutan Island. A grassy location a half mile inland seemed to be a good spot to land. However, like so many aspects of the Aleutians, the appearance was deceiving. What they didn’t know was that beneath the grassy flat was a watery bog. Endo realized that Koga should do a belly landing with wheels up, but it was too late, Koga had lowered his landing gear. They watched in horror when Koga touched down, his wheels dug into the mud causing his plane to violently flip over on its back. Now Endo and Shikada faced a true dilemma. They could not tell if Koga had survived the crash. All pilots had standing orders to destroy any aircraft that appeared to be intact, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. As they continued to circle the site, they must have had several decisions to make. Should they destroy the plane, not knowing if Koga had survived. Do one of them attempt a landing to see of Koga had survived, but risk losing another plane? They were alone, deep in enemy territory, time was running short. In the end they could not bring themselves to destroy the plane, so they chose to return to the carrier. Later when Koga’s plane was discovered, he was still strapped in the cockpit, and it appeared he had suffered a broken neck.

The only possibility of help for Koga was the Japanese submarine stationed off the island. The sub captain was notified of Koga’s plight and conducted a search of the beach to no avail. They too came under fire when the U.S. seaplane tender Williamson spotted the sub and attacked it unsuccessfully. Several days later Ens. Leyland L. Davis piloting a PBY attacked the same sub a short distance from Akutan. Of the overall Midway operation, the Aleutians campaign proved to be the most successful. Further south things quickly escalated from bad to worst. After initial success of fending off air attacks from Midway more and more U.S. planes continued to arrive and attack. Although the U.S. Torpedo planes were unsuccessful, it became clear that American carriers were close by. Once scout planes confirmed the American presence, the game had changed. In fending off the first attacks the Japanese Zero fighter coverage was not in position to prevent the most critical part of the attack. U.S. dive bombers soon appeared and were unhindered in attacking Admiral Nagumo’s carriers, eventually destroying all of them. As Yamamoto looked at his dwindling options, first, he ordered overall Aleutians commander Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya break-off the Aleutians operation and proceed south. Then after further consideration the orders were countermanded and, instead, proceed with occupying the island of Attu and Kiska to save face.

The Discovery of the Akutan Zero WW2

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Wrecked Koga Zero on Akutan WW2

As fate would have it, it would be nearly a month before the U.S. discovered Koga’s Zero on Akutan. In July, while on a reconnaissance mission a PBY piloted by Lt. William Thies, he and his crew spotted the downed plane while flying over Akutan. After returning to base at Dutch Harbor, Lt. Thies petitioned his squadron commander, Paul Foley, Jr. to give him permission to mount a mission to determine if this prize was salvageable. The team boarded a fishing craft, the Maryanne that had been converted to a patrol boat. When the team arrived, they cautiously approached the crash site, they were heavily armed just in case they encountered any Japanese. As they stood next to Koga’s plane, light gray with the red insignia on the wings and fuselage, they were standing in a foot of water. To them the plane appeared to be in good condition despite the over-turning. First, they made an effort to turn the plane right side up but were unable to do so. They noted a bullet hole near the engine. Next, they lifted the tail high enough to reach the cockpit. They found Koga securely strapped in his seat. The team removed Koga and his parachute and raft. They laid Koga on the ground. He appeared to be young, and short in stature. He was clad in a black flight suit and boots. Beneath his clothing they found Koga’s body wrapped in strips of white cloth. The thought was that the cloths protected the body like today’s G-suits. Koga also had a plastic sleeve around his neck that had images of U.S. Army and Navy planes, Japanese voice codes, and engine and drift information. The team took photos of the plane and removed the 20 mm Oerlikon guns from the wings. Before leaving the team dug a shallow grave and place Koga in the ground.

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US Navy Lieutenant William Thies and Captain Leslie Gehres

On July 12 a second mission was mounted, led by Lt. Robert C. Kirmse. Lt. Kirmse recalled how they had the tools with them to give Koga a proper burial. They removed Koga and moved him to a new location. They wrapped his body in canvas and placed him in the ground. The second in command of the Maryanne spoke a few words, and the team recited the Lord’s Prayer. One of the crew had prepared a cross that was placed at his grave. On the third mission Lt. Kirmse returned with the necessary equipment to move Koga’s Zero. The real challenge would be that the wings were integral with fuselage. After much trial and error, they removed the engine, then placed the aircraft on a skid and moved it to a barge. After arriving at Dutch Harbor Koga’s Zero was placed right side up and partially cleaned. Koga’s Zero was crated a placed aboard the USS Army transport St. Mihiel, for transport to North Island San Diego, California which arrived on August 12. In a month, with great secrecy, Koga’s Zero was completely restored and ready to fly again. This time without Koga. Lt. Comdr Eddie Saunders was chosen for the role of test pilot for Koga’s Zero. He would take test flight the Zero 24 times between September to October. Saunders reported that the Zero was very maneuverable at lower speeds used in dogfighting where it had an advantage in turning radius and aileron controls. It was immediately apparent the above 200 knots the ailerons tended to freeze. However, two aspects of the Zero would be very instrumental in saving U.S. pilots lives was the fact the Zero’s engine cut out under negative acceleration because of it float-type carburetor. In addition, the Zero was less effective in turning right, and the lack of armor around the pilot and the lack of self-sealing fuel tanks could now be exploited. This information was passed along to pilots in the Pacific, and the results were immediate.

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Akutan Zero Transported to Dutch Harbor

For nearly three years the U.S. was able to test fly Koga’s Zero and reveal all its strengths and weaknesses. But as fate would have it Koga’s Zero was destroyed in a collision with another aircraft on the ground in 1945. Throughout the war the Japanese built over 10,000 of this legendary fighter plane. At the conclusion of World War II Tadayoshi Koga’s parents requested their son’s remains be returned to Japan. Sadly, there request was not fulfilled. In 1974 the Japanese authorities contacted the Navy department about locating Koga’s remains. Navy historian, Lee M. Pearson contacted pilot Bill Thiess who was part of the crew who discovered Koga’s Zero. Thiess thought with the passage of time and considering the rough tundra of the islands it would be impossible to locate the site.

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Akutan Zero with U.S. Markings

It would take a determined effort by author Jim Reardon and Japanese businessman and a retired soldier, Minoru Kawamoto, who financed the project, to find Koga’s remains. In October 1988 Reardon ventured to Dutch Harbor. He sought help with the mission but found no volunteers. However, Alaska native Mike Cunningham agreed to help. They flew by helicopter to Akutan where the pilot dropped them off three miles inland. Based on the photos they had with them Reardon was able to triangulate and find the spot by following Kirmse’s direction of finding the highest spot. They began digging at that location and about 10 inches below the surface they found the water-soaked wooden cross. Digging further, they reached a spot 5 feet down, where they reached a layer of volcanic rock. It was here that they discovered that Koga’s remains were not there. Also, there was no trace of the canvas cloth Koga’s body was wrapped in back in 1942. It was clear Koga’s remains were moved, but by who? Reardon was later informed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers historian that a graves registration team between 1946 to 1949 had removed WW II combatants from Akutan. The thought was that Koga might have been moved to the Japanese cemetery at Anchorage, Alaska, or, possibly back to Japan. To date there is no record of this occurring in Japan.

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Tadayoshi Koga Burial Site

Conclusion

One of the great tragedies of war is the loss of young men women who have yet to live their lives. In this case, we see the case of Tadayoushi Koga, a 19-year-old who lost his life in June of 1942. For those like him, on both sides, you wonder what could have been with their lives. Did he have a special loved one at home, did he ever contemplate fatherhood, and one-day grandchildren? How strong was his religious faith, how did he grieve the loss of his comrades? And who would he miss the most in his young life. One thing is certain is that the young people of his generation, is that in our memories they will forever remain young.