It has long been believed that the
first example of Japan’s vaunted
Mitsubishi A6M2 Type Zero carrier fighter to be captured by the Allies
in World War II was the one salvaged the United States Navy from an
Aleutian island in July of 1942. However, interviews with surviving witnesses
and the discovery of pertinent documents in the national and military
archives of the United States, Japan, and the Peoples Republic of China
have confirmed that the recovery of the very first intact Zero fighter
occurred prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor! The following account
traces the events leading to the acquisition of the first Japanese Zero
by the Chinese government on 26 November 1941 and its subsequent history.
It was obvious that they were lost! Low lying fog made it impossible
for the two Japanese naval pilots to make out any of the coastal features
below them. Only a few hours earlier, they had taken off in their Mitsubishi
A6M2 Type Zero carrier fighters from Tainan air base on Taiwan bound
for Saigon. En route they had become separated from and lost sight of
the rest of their formation. Now, nothing below was clear. Short on fuel
and unable to communicate because the radios had been removed to increase
the flying range of their fighters, the two pilots continued to fly
their last compass bearing. Then, good fortune appeared to smile on them
as the clouds parted and a broad expanse of beach adjacent to a town welcomed
them. The two pilots circled and prepared to land.
- Mitsubishi A6M2 Type Zero carrier
fighter. This is a view of V-172 as it
would have looked shortly before take off on its
fateful flight of 26 November 1941.
- (Photo simulation by Don Marsh)
- In November 1941, the military forces of Imperial
Japan were completing plans to launch the most complex operation
in their history. Three units of the carrier forces would neutralize
the American Navy at Pearl Harbor, while land-based air units would
support Japanese operations on the Philippine Islands and the capture
of other resource-rich areas on the Malayan Peninsula and in the
Netherlands East Indies. Attacks against the British forces in Burma
and Malaya were to be supported by bomber units of the 22 Koku Sentai
(Air Flotilla) which consisted of the Genzan and Mihoro Kaigun Kokutai
(Naval Air Groups). A detachment of Mitsubishi G4M1 Betty bombers
from the Kanoya Kokutai had been added to the force for good measure.
However, the 22nd Air Flotilla had no resident fighter units for
escort and other tactical missions. On 22 November, the 22 Koku Sentai
Shireibu Fuzoku Sentokitai (22nd Air Flotilla Headquarters Attached
Fighter Unit), a special fighter detachment, was formed to fulfill
- The 22nd Air Flotilla Fighter Unit was composed of
elements drawn from the fighter air groups of the 23rd Air Flotilla,
the Tainan and 3 Kaigun Kokutai. Tainan Kokutai provided fourteen
Mitsubishi A6M2 Type Zero carrier fighters, four Mitsubishi A5M4
Type 96 carrier fighters (“Claude”), and three Mitsubishi
C5M1 Type 98 reconnaissance planes (“Babs”), under the
command of Lt. Kikuichi Inano. The 3 Kokutai contributed thirteen
Zeros, five Claudes, and three “Babs” under the command
of Lt. Tadatsune Tokaji. Three additional Claude fighters were added
to the unit from the reserve force giving it a grand total of twenty
seven Type Zero plus twelve Claude fighters, as well as six Babs
reconnaissance aircraft. All were under the overall command of Commander
Yutaka Yamada, executive officer from the Takao Kaigun Kokutai.
- The Tainan Kokutai complement to the 22nd Air Flotilla
fighter unit made ready to depart their Tainan, Taiwan (Formosa)
air base on 26 November 1941. They were bound for air bases in the
Saigon, French Indochina area but were scheduled to stop for refueling
on Hainan Island. Tainan Kokutai records were examined and interviews
of surviving veterans were conducted by Japanese historian Juzo Nakamura.
According to this source, the Tainan Kokutai buntaicho (squad leader),
Lt Inano, accompanied the fighter unit C.O.,
Commander Yamada, and the unit air officer, Lt. Commander Shigehachiro
Koro, in a transport plane bound for Saigon ahead of the main group.
Flying Petty Officer First Class (PO1C) Shimezoh Inoue, a native
of Fukoka Prefecture, as confirmed by Tainan Kokutai pilot and renowned
ace Saburo Sakai, was scheduled to fly Lt. Inano’s Zero, serial
number 3372 and marked V-172. Accompanying PO1C Inoue would be Flying
Petty Officer Second Class (PO2C) Taka-aki Shimohigashi, a native
of Kure City, Hiroshima Prefecture, as confirmed by his younger brother,
Shigefumi. PO2C Shimohigashi would be flying his own assigned Zero,
serial number unknown and marked V-174. In the predawn hours of 26
November, both pilots took off with the rest of their unit. They
were scheduled to fly a southwesterly course to Hainan Island, but
along the way they became separated from the main unit.
- No one is certain how the two pilots made it to Leichou
Pantao (also known as Leizhou or Luichow Pennisula). The radio equipment
had been removed from the two Zeros in order to increase their operational
range. The two pilots undoubtedly became disoriented while flying
over the prevalent fog of the area and their plight was compounded
by their inability to communicate. Noted Japanese historian and humanitarian,
Dr. Minoru Akimoto, interviewed Akagi carrier dive-bomber pilot Tokuji
Iizuka. Iizuka-san, a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, was later
stationed on Hainan Island. Iizuka-san observed that, “The
airspace over Leichou was wicked, with layers and layers of dense
fog and many planes had been lost in this fog after running out of
- According to the famed post-war General Electric engineer
and former 23rd Fighter Group lead mechanic, Gerhard Neumann, the
two pilots had landed on the “beach opposite Hainan” Island.
American ace Bruce K. Holloway, ex 23rd Fighter Group commander,
confirmed that the two Zeros had been captured “near the town
of Teitsan on the southeastern coast of Luichow Peninsula.” Dr.
Kawamoto explained that on “postwar maps the town’s name
is spelled ‘Qian Shan’ in Mandarin Chinese, while ‘Teitsan’ is
(the) local Cantonese dialect, same Chinese
characters but pronounced differently.”
- Attempts to absolutely confirm the fate of the two
Japanese naval pilots after their capture in 1941 at Qian Shan have
been thwarted. Dr. Kawamoto stated that the Government Travel Agency
in Beijing had informed him that this “area was off limits
to outsiders, including foreigners.” Dr. Kawamoto’s search
of the Peoples Republic of China archives in Beijing for records
of captured Japanese military personnel failed to reveal pertinent
information. However, archival records in Japan and the United States,
correspondence with historian Juzo Nakamura, and interviews with
Gerhard Neumann, Bruce Holloway, and American ace John R. Alison,
have produced evidence and a plausible scenario of the events leading
to the capture and fate of the two pilots and their aircraft.
- As PO1C Inoue and PO2C Shimohigashi passed over the
coast near Qian Shan on the southeastern coast of Leichou Panto,
the fog cleared, and both brought their aircraft down. Inoue was
successful, but Shimohigashi’s Zero fighter was extensively
damaged during the beach landing.
- “Shimohigashi’s Zero fighter
(V-174) was extensively damaged during the
beach landing.” This photograph depicts the very
likely scene on the beach near
the town of Qian Shan (Teitsan) on the southeaster
coast of Leichou Peninsula.
According to Alison
- “Two Japanese pilots were on patrol” and
one “made a forced landing (but his) airplane wasn’t
damaged.” Alison continued: “There was no clearly
defined frontline in China. The Japanese moved in and out almost
at will, but there was no way that they could occupy and control
a vast amount of territory. These Japanese pilots thought they
were over territory which the Japanese controlled. The second
airplane landed alongside the first. The pilots got out, and
they asked to be taken to a telephone (sic) so they could telephone
back to base. As I understand it, there were some school children
there, and one of the school kids said, ‘Come on up to
the school, and we have a telephone that you can use.’ So
they led the Japanese pilots up to this schoolhouse, and they
- Exactly what happened next is not known and the fate
of the two Japanese pilots may forever remain a mystery. It is very
likely that the local Chinese military force, recognizing the importance
of their prize and wishing to maintain secrecy, may have summarily
executed the two flyers. Then the Chinese military detachment and/or
local villagers pulled the Zero, serial number 3372, off the beach.
According to Holloway, the second and more badly damaged Zero was
crudely hacked into sections and removed piecemeal from the beach.
It would have been important for the Chinese to remove the planes
from view as quickly as possible to prevent the Japanese from knowing
about the capture of the two Zeros.
- Alison recounted:
- “I was told the Chinese farmers, particularly
in that part of China, didn’t have newspapers to read,
and they weren’t quite sure that these were the enemy.
As soon as they found out, before the soldiers got there, they
actually destroyed one of the aircraft. The other one (V-172)
was carefully taken apart and carried some way up into the mountains.
I don’t know whether they carried it in oxcarts or coolie
- It took months to transport the two Zero war prizes
under the noses of the Japanese army units from the Leichou coast
to the inland city of Liuchow (24.5N, 109W). By summer’s end
the Chinese mechanics had reassembled Zero V-172, serial number 3372.
During re-assembly it was found that the fuselage panels aft of the
cowling had been lost on Zero 3372 during its trip north. Therefore,
the Chinese mechanics had fashioned substitute panels with uncharacteristic
louvered vents as a replacement for the original panels. Meanwhile,
in July of 1942, another Mitsubishi A6M2 type Zero carrier fighter
had been recovered from its crash site in the Aleutians by the United
States Navy. It was during this time, according to one unconfirmed
account, that Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, then Director of war Organization
and Movement, went to China on a liaison mission to the fledgling
China Air Task Force organization in the theater. While there, so
the story goes, Twining was shown the remains of the captured Zero
and he appraised General Claire L. Chennault of this fact.
- In October, Neumann, while standing outside a hanger
in Kunming, was approached by Holloway, the 76th Fighter Squadron
C.O. Holloway said, “Herman, the Old Man wants to see you right
away!” Neumann related his meeting with Chennault: “‘Neumann,’ said
the General, ‘we’ve got hold of a pretty good Zero captured
by Chinese farmers on the Japanese-occupied beach opposite Hainan
- … Here is a marked-up chart where the wrecks
are located. How about trying to put one Zero together, to test fly
it against our own planes?’”
- Alison corroborated:
- “I didn’t know Neumann at the time,
and I really didn’t know that we had the Zero until Chennault
called me. He said, ‘We have this Zero, and I want you
to go down there and pick it up and fly it up to Kweilin (Kueilin).’ He
sent a message, and I said, ‘I can’t read Japanese.’ He
said something to the effect, ‘You don’t need to.
There is a sergeant down there who is smarter than you are, and
he will tell you how to fly the airplane.’”
Subsequently, Neumann with Staff
Sgt. George L. Mackie flew to Kweilin and proceeded south by train
to Liuchow. A war correspondent from Yank magazine, Bill Barnes,
and a War Department photographer, “Mac” McGregor
accompanied him. Neumann set about repairing it and making it flyable.
During one interview, Neumann remembered that there was no radio
equipment installed in Zero 3372 at the time he first examined it,
although it was equipped with an antenna. He also recalled that when
he first saw Zero 3372 it had already been
repainted in Chinese camouflage and markings.
- Series of photographs taken during the
summer of 1942 at Liuchow. These
photographs show the Zero 3372 after reconstruction by
the Chinese engineers and mechanics.
The first photograph shows the wing from the other
crashed Zero in the background. (USAF I.D. 4721-A.C.)
|Note the missing
fuselage panels behind the cowling which were replaced
by louvered panels of Chinese design and which distinguished
Zero 3372 in subsequent photographs. (USAF I.D. A-4721-A.C.)
|Rear view of Zero
3372. (USAF I.D. B-4721-A.C.)
|The American officer,
second from the right is thought to be General Nathan
F. Twining. (USAF I.D. C-4721-A.C.)
- Neumann further stated:
- “The Zero had been put together by the
Chinese and I began to check up on it and made certain changes
of adjustment of (engine timing) and other slight repairs. After
one week of testing and running the engine for hours, we called
up Colonel Alison to come down and take the plane back to Kweilin.”
- Neumann also adapted and installed American radio
equipment for communications.
- In another 1990 interview, Neumann recalled a poignant
moment during his repair work on the Zero. He had just removed a
cover on one of the wing gun ammunition bays. Within the bay, Neumann
found a woman’s, Japanese-style, decorative hair comb. He retained
this touching souvenir with the thought that it might have belonged
to the pilot’s wife or sweetheart. Alison, who at the time
was the 75th Fighter Squadron C.O., arrived at Liuchow. He became
the first American to fly Zero 3372, which by now had been marked
with Chinese insignia and the Chinese serial, P-5016, on the tail.
After a cockpit check by Neumann, Alison flew the short and uneventful
hop to Kweilin with the landing gear in the down and locked position.
After the arrival of the Zero at Kweilin,
“I was asked to see if I could make the
wheels work and make another checkup after the first flight.
Just previous we’d shot down a few bombers in Kweilin,
so from these I took some hydraulic lines and fluid, and original
spark plugs, and put them in the Zero. We tested the wheels on
the ground a few times everything worked fine in the presence
of the Commanding Officers. It took off, the wheels came up,
but didn’t lock when lowered and the plane cracked up;
the fuselage was twisted. The pilot Colonel Alison was unhurt.”
- After long hours and days of once again rebuilding
Zero 3372, alias P-5016, it was ready for more test flights. During
this period, no less than five American aces with the 23rd Fighter
Group test flew the Zero and formed a very exclusive group they called, “The
Zero Club.” The sole members of “The Zero Club” were
John R. “Johnny” Alison, six victories; Albert J. “Ajax” Baumler,
nine victories; Bruce K. Holloway, thirteen victories, Grant Mahony,
five victories; and Clinton D. “Casey” Vincent, six victories.
Soon the time drew short for Zero 3372’s stay in China. In
early 1943 the Zero was flown to Karachi, India from Kunming with
an escort flight of 23rd Fighter Group Curtiss P-40K Warhawks. One
by one, all the Warhawks aborted their escort mission and Zero 3372
arrived in Karachi alone! There, Neumann supervised the crating of
the Zero and it was placed aboard a ship bound for the United States
as a war prize and for further testing.
- The Zero Club. These famous members
and aces of the 23rd Fighter Group
all test flew Zero 3372, alias P-5016. Standing, left
to right: “Casey” Vincent; “Johnny” Alison,
then C.O. of the 75th Fighter Squadron; and
Bruce Holloway, C.O. of the 23rd Fighter Group. Front,
left to right, “Ajax” Baumler,
75th Fighter Squadron member and ex Spanish Civil War
ace; and “Grant” Mahony, then 76th Fighter
Squadron C.O. (Erma Baumler)
- The voyage to the United States was not uneventful.
Historian Robert C. Mikesh reported that the forward fuselage and
wings of Zero 3372 were damaged during a storm. Yet another account
is that the Zero was damaged while being off-loaded in Havana, Cuba
for a change of ship bound for a mainland port. In the event, the
Curtiss Aircraft company volunteered to rebuild the damaged Zero
once again. After its repair and reconstruction, but now bearing
USAAF markings and the evaluation branch code EB-2 on the tail, Zero
3372 underwent further test flights at Wright Field, Ohio and the
Army Proving Grounds at Eglin Field, Florida. At Eglin Field the
tail number of the Zero was changed for the
final time from EB-2 to EB-200.
- During the last year of the war, the airframe was
photographed in California on a War Bond tour. Then, just as mysteriously
as the Zero had disappeared from the Japanese military inventory
in 1941, the Zero vanished into the mists of time. Who knows? Perhaps
Zero 3372, “The Mystery Zero,” also known as “The
China Zero” or “The Tiger Zero,” will again reappear!
Today we only know one thing for certain. Mitsubishi A6M2 type Zero
carrier fighter, s/n 3372 originally marked V-172 and belonging to
the Tainan Kaigun Kokutai was the very first intact Japanese Zero
fighter captured as a prize of war.
data stencil from Zero 3372. This photo simulation by Don Marsh
duplicates the appearance of the data stencil carried by
Zero 3372. The first line reads:
Type Zero No.1 Carrier Fighter Plane Model 2. The second
line reads: Mitsubishi Dai 3372 No. The third line is the
date of manufacture: 1941/October/21.
to see additional photos
- © 1999 James F. Lansdale
- The following individuals graciously and selflessly
gave of their time and
- knowledge during numerous interviews and in correspondence
over the years
- in order to record the history of Zero 3372. To each
of them I owe a huge
- debt of gratitude. I am only sorry that Gerhard Neumann
- Holloway did not have the opportunity to read the
finished product. We
- will all truly miss them.
- John R. Alison
- Dr. Minoru Akimoto
- Mrs. Albert J. Baumler
- Bruce K. Holloway
- Don G. Mahony
- Robert C. Mikesh
- Carl Molesworth
- Juzo Nakamura
- Gerhard Neumann
- I am also indebted to Don Marsh, who has performed
miracles with his
- unsurpassed artistic skills and made Zero 3372 take
wing once again.
- Jim Lansdale, December 1999
- Anon. Interview: M/Sgt Gerhard Neumann, ASN 10500000,
Technical Air Intelligence, A-2, Former AVG. Washington D.C.: 14th
AF Historical Office, 8 May 1945.
- Hata, Ikuhiko, and Yasuho Izawa. Japanese Naval Aces
and Fighter Units in World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press,
- Japan Welfare Ministry. Roster of Aircrew Killed in
Action. Tokyo: Defense Research Institute.
- J.I.S. Working Committee on Japanese Aircraft. Type
0, Mark 1 S.S.F.
- (Zeke) Manufactured by Mitsubishi: Serial No. 3372.
Washington D.C., 1
- June 1943.
- Mikesh, Robert C. Zero. Osceola: Motorbooks International
Publishers & Wholesalers, 1994.
- Molesworth, Carl. Sharks Over China. Washington: Brassey’s,
- Nakamura, Juzo. Tainan Kaigun Kokutai Chronicles.
Tokyo: Unpublished Manuscript.
- Neumann, Gerhard. Herman The German. New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.
- Olynk, Frank. Stars & Bars. London: Grub Street,
- Thompson, Scottie S. Interview of Maj Gen John R.
Alison. Montgomery: Office of Air Force History,
- Tracy, Charles. Air Progress Vol. 21 No. 3 “The
Engine Genius of General Electric.” New
York: Conde Nast Publications, Inc., 1967
- Second Draft 991203