Our recent trip to Darwin, Australia made me aware of a whole new part to WW II that I never studied before… starting with the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942. It was both the first and the largest attack mounted by Japan against mainland Australia, when four Japanese aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū) launched a total of 188 aircraft from a position in the Timor Sea.
These 188 naval aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the northern Australian port city and sank eight ships. A raid conducted by 54 land-based bombers later the same day inflicted further damage on the town and RAAF Base Darwin and resulted in the destruction of 20 military aircraft.
Allied casualties were 235 killed and between 300 and 400 wounded, the majority of whom were non-Australian Allied sailors. Of the townspeople killed was the very popular and well known 4 person family that ran the local post office.
The Japanese raid was unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor in that it was launched against a nation that had already declared war on Japan (on 8 December 1941) the day after the Japanese attacked Singapore.
It was similar to Pearl Harbor in that it was a successful aerial surprise attack on a naval target that came as a great shock to the attacked nation.
While the number of bombs dropped on Darwin (681 bombs by 205 bombers) exceeded those dropped on Pearl Harbor (457 bombs by 273 aircraft), loss of life was much greater at Pearl Harbor (more than 2,400 people) than Darwin (235 people) due to the presence of capital ships and the catastrophic loss of a single battleship, the USS Arizona, and its 1,177 men lost.
Only four Japanese aircraft were confirmed to have been destroyed by Darwin’s defenders.
One Zero (one of the newest A6M models) was damaged in the first bombing raid of the day and was crash landed by its pilot on Melville Island near the Darwin harbor. He was quickly captured by local aborigines and turned over to Australian authorities. He carried no personal identification paper and said his name was “TADAO Minami.” (After the war Japanese grave registration authorities reported that his real name was Sergeant Hajime Toyoshima). He was the first Japanese prisoner of war to be captured in Australia and was eventually incarcerated in the Cowra POW camp in New South Wales 200 miles inland from Sydney.
Tadao’s crashed A6M Zerro
Soon after Tadao’s capture
By August 1944, there were 2,223 Japanese POWs in Cowra, including 544 merchant seamen. There were also approximately 3,000 Italian prisoners, who had been captured mostly in the North African Campaign and 1,585 Germans, mostly naval or merchant seamen.
Great difference in the attitude of the prisoners. The Germans were stoic in their manner, waiting out the end of the war. They were not a problem, though they were not trusted and required a strict guard.
The Italian, however, seemed grateful that they were in a safe environment and made the most of their situation. Many were allowed out to work in the countryside, some with Australians of Italian heritage who farmed the area. There were instances when these work release POWs returned to the camp after a day or two working neighboring field, and arrived to find the gates closed and locked… and they would hammer on the prison gates until someone on the inside opened them for the prisoners to return to their quarters.
The Japanese, however, found the act of surrendering a deeply humiliating experience. Many, like TADAO, adopted false names when they were captured so that their brothers-in-arms and families would presume them dead. They accepted no mail from Japan or any international aid packages. They never made eye contact with the guards and generally were surly and uncooperative.
The Australian guards, aware of the deep-seated unhappiness of the Japanese – that was almost palatable – held no serious fears of an escape however. There were out in the middle of nowhere, where were they goin’ to go if they escaped?
Howsomeever at 1:45 am 5 August 1944, TADAO sounded a bugle to signal the commencement of a mass break out.
At least 1,104 of the Japanese POWs charged from their barracks screaming “BANZAI…. BANZAI.” They broke through a gate and overran a position guarded by two Australian soldiers manning a machine gun. It was the largest POW escape in World War II, as well as one of the bloodiest. During the ensuing manhunt, 4 Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed.
Included in the dead was TADAO, who was wounded near the camp and laid out with other re-captured Japanese. When the attention of the Australians soldiers guarding this group was momentarily diverted, TADAO reached over and took a knife from a nearby Japanese soldier – who was also wounded – and cut his own throat.
All this brings to mind a couple of other items.
1) The Japanese employed 205 aircraft in its bombing of Darwin, 273 in the subsequent attacks on Pearl Harbor. In fact 10,979 Zeros were made by the Japanese from 1940 to 1945. Yet near the war’s end, only aircraft that the Japanese could deploy were those provided with enough gas for a one way trip. Kamikaze.
There was absolute no air cover for the largest, the grandest battleship in the Nippon Navy – Yamato – sunk off the coast of Okinawa on 7 April 1945 by US Navy fighter aircraft. 3,063 Japanese sailors lost their lives on the Yamato and 1,187 sailors were lost in the escort force.
US losses were ten planes and 12 men.
With the Yamato sunk, there was no more Imperial Navy.
Emperor Hirohito was devastated. Then early August Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.
Pretty damn good war-fighting.
2) A significant factor in winning the Pacific air war – and the sinking of the Yamato – was the information gained from the US capture, reconstruction and test flights of an A6M Zero downed on American soil in the early fall of 1942.
When it was introduced early in World War II, the Zero was considered the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world, combining excellent maneuverability and very long range. In early combat operations, the Zero gained a legendary reputation as a dogfighter, achieving the outstanding kill ratio of 12 to 1.
The US needed to get a full read on the Zero’s aeronautics to learn how to deal with it in the air.
TADAO’s Zero was examined to see if it was salvageable. It was not. Another Zero, piloted by Yoshimitsu Maeda, crashed near Cape Rodney, New Guinea on 22 April 1942. Maeda was also captured and was also sent to Cowra. He was there during the 1944 breakout, but apparently did not participate, because he was repatriated to Japan at the war’s end.
A third A6M2 Zero (serial number 3372) that had landed in Chinese territory 28 April 1942, was repaired with salvaged pieces from other downed and crashed Zeros. While this plane was made air worthy in China, due a host of problems it did not arrive in the states for test flights until late fall 1942.
In June 1942, as part of the Japanese Midway operation, the Japanese attacked the Aleutian islands, off the south coast of Alaska. A Japanese task force bombed Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island twice, once on June 3 and again the following day.
Tadayoshi Koga, a 19-year-old flight petty officer first class, was launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō as part of the June 4 raid.
Koga and his comrades attacked Dutch Harbor, shooting down an American PBY-5A Catalina flying boat and strafing its survivors in the water. In the process, Koga’s plane (serial number 4593) was damaged by small arms fire.
The fatal shot severed the return oil line, and Koga’s plane immediately began trailing oil. Koga reduced speed to prevent the engine’s seizing for as long as possible.
Two other Zeros accompanied Koga to Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor, which had been designated for emergency landings. Waiting near the island was a Japanese submarine assigned to pick up downed pilots. At Akutan, the three Zeros circled a grassy flat half a mile inland. The ground appeared firm beneath the grass, but it was in fact very marshy. Koga’s Zero was almost dead in the air and – unknowing that he was landing in a bog, lowered his landing gear and came in flat.
The plane’s landing gear mired in the water and mud, causing the plane to flip upside down and skid to a stop. Although the aircraft survived the landing nearly intact, Petty Officer Koga died instantly on impact, probably from a broken neck or a blunt-force blow to his head.
Koga’s wingmen, circling above, had orders to destroy any Zeros that crash-landed in enemy territory, but as they did not know if Koga was still alive, they could not bring themselves to strafe his plane. They decided to leave without firing on it. The Japanese submarine stationed off Akutan Island to pick up pilots searched for Koga in vain before being driven off by the destroyer USS Williamson.
The crash site, which was out of sight of standard flight lanes and not visible by ship, remained undetected and undisturbed for over a month. On July 10, 1942, an American PBY Catalina spotted the wreckage. The plane had been patrolling by dead reckoning and had become lost. On spotting the Shumagin Islands, the pilot reoriented his plane and began to return to Dutch Harbor by the most direct course—over Akutan Island. The plane’s captain, Albert Knack, spotted Koga’s wreck and circled the crash site for several minutes, noted its position on the map, and returned to Dutch Harbor to report it. The pilot convinced his commanding officer to let him return with a salvage team. The next day (July 11), the team flew out to inspect the wreck.
Koga’s body was extracted from the plane by having the smallest crew member crawl up inside the plane and cut his safety harness with a knife. They searched it for anything with intelligence value, and buried Koga in a shallow grave near the crash site. The next day (July 12), a salvage team was dispatched to Akutan. This team gave Koga a Christian burial in a nearby knoll and set about recovering the plane, but the lack of heavy equipment (which they had been unable to unload after the delivery ship lost two anchors) meant their efforts failed. On July 15, a third recovery team was dispatched. This time, with proper heavy equipment, the team was able to free the Zero from the mud and hauled it overland to a nearby barge, without further damaging it. The Zero was taken to Dutch Harbor, turned right-side up, and cleaned.
The Akutan Zero was loaded into the USS St. Mihiel and transported to Seattle, arriving on August 1. From there, it was transported by barge to Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego where repairs were carefully carried out. These repairs “consisted mostly of straightening the vertical stabilizer, rudder, wing tips, flaps, and canopy. The sheared off landing struts needed more extensive work. The three-blade Sumitomo propeller was dressed and re-used.” The Zero’s red Hinomaru roundel was repainted with the American blue circle-white star insignia. The whole time, the plane was kept under 24-hour military police guard in order to deter would-be souvenir hunters from damaging the plane.
Akutan Zero with American marking
On September 20, 1942 (2 months after the Zero’s capture), Lieutenant Commander Eddie R. Sanders took the Akutan Zero up for its first test flight. He would make 24 test flights between September 20 and October 15. According to Sanders’ report:
These flights covered performance tests such as done with all standard issue Navy aircraft. The very first flight exposed weaknesses of the Zero which our pilots could exploit with proper tactics … immediately apparent was the fact that the ailerons froze up at speeds above 200 knots so that rolling maneuvers at those speeds were slow and required much force on the control stick. It rolled to the left much easier than to the right. Also, its engine cut out under negative acceleration due to its float-type carburetor.
This explained why our pilots were being outmaneuvered and unable to escape a pursuing Zero… but the first test flights also had an answer… Go into a vertical power dive, using negative acceleration if possible to open the range while the Zero’s engine was stopped by the acceleration. At about 200 knots, roll hard right before the Zero pilot could get his sights lined up.
In later test flights, Anacostia Naval Air Station director of flight testing flew the Akutan Zero in performance while Sanders simultaneously flew American planes performing identical maneuvers, simulating aerial combat. Following these, USN test pilots conducted more dogfighting tests between himself flying the Akutan Zero and recently commissioned USN pilots flying newer Navy aircraft.
Data from the captured aircraft was submitted to BuAer and Grumman Aircraft for study in 1942. The U.S. carrier-borne fighter plane that succeeded the F4F Wildcat, the F6F, would be tested in its first experimental mode with specific “Wildcat vs Zero” input from test flights of the Akutan Zero. Plus the knowledge gain on the Zero’s vulnerabilities was instituted into all naval pilot training. By all acc’ts the Akutan Zero was of tremendous historical significance. A naval historian described it this way: “The captured Zero was a treasure. To my knowledge, no other captured machine has ever unlocked so many secrets at a time when the need was so great.” It was credited with “tipping the balance in the Pacific.”
And at the end, leaving the Yamato with no Zero aircraft coverage.
Again, pretty damn good war-fighting.
3) The story of TADAO and the Akutan Zero also harkens me back to 1999 when I was accepted into a UCLA screen writing workshop. I told Brenda, “Yes, this is a clear sign from the Gods to go west young man. Go west, learn how to write for the movies and bring fame and fortune to the family.”
As I remember this moment Brenda just looked me deep in the eye to make sure I wasn’t joking. I think she might have briefly thought that I was heading out west with some local bimbo, and the screen writing thing was just a cover… but she must have finally decided that I was too much a lazy slob for something like that – she’s never considered me God’s smartest creature… So in the end, she just finally just shook her head and said something about her Mother was right all along. But she smiled.
Now in applying to the workshop, maybe, just maybe I said I was up on dialogue writing to join an Advance class. Maybe. I always figured I could come up with … “You talking to me? You TALKing to me?” or “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.”
To find once I drove out to California and joined the workshop, that I was miles behind my younger workshopmates. Who were vulgar the way they could move a story along with just dialogue and setting. The instructors were all vets of the movie business.
ne might say, “OK, we got this situation. Dolly has walked in on Phil who is looking out a window while tugging on his ear lobe. We want to expand the mystery here, work the drama. Is he Carol Burnett in drag, a Russian spy or does he have an ear infection… or – what we want the audience to believe is that he is trying out his new exercise routine that will in time bring him into contact with Evon the Polish gymnast.”
Me, I’m goin’ “WTF?” But all around me are coming ideas like shotgun pellets. They ain’t questioning the premise… they just go with ideas that involve human suffering, and man’s quest to understand his place in the universe.
Trying to catch up, I’d be thinking, “Now who the hell is Dolly? Parton you reckon?”
But anyway later on in the 6 week workshop they learned I was a former CIA operations officer, and suddenly I had cache. Suddenly ol’ Pop had substance, had stories to tell.
One of my instructors in fact had worked on script development of a number of movies and he asked me if I had a movie inside me… some piece of fact or fiction that could fit the Hollywood formula for movie ideas.
I gave that some thought.
In my many years in Thailand I had heard stories of the Tarutao maximum security island prison off the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula… a place cut off from civilization as the Japanese took control of Singapore in late 1941 and moved up the peninsula to establish a presence in Thailand. Left without oversight – or food – prison guard merged with the prison population and by the middle of the war were a well-coordinated pirate outfit that fed off the heavily travelled marine passage into the Malaccan straits.
So the ol’ workshop instructor, with a history of movie script construction, brain stormed this idea with me, there in the shadow of the MGM movie lot. And what we came up with an island prison in the beautiful islands of Phuket, Thailand that housed some of the worst criminals in Indochina. Many former French Foreign legion soldiers, local drug smuggler, murderers, and the like. The commandant was a Sean Connery type who administered the prison with the help of starch white-liveried British Penal Colony Service officers. His main adversary in the prison population was a ruthless Thai bandit who was so bad in an Asian kind of way, that he would have been a good foil for Indiana Jones. This bad dude’s girlfriend, a knock you dead beautiful Eurasian girl, would visit the island occasionally to bring fruit to her boyfriend and she caught the eye of the Sean Connery guy. Obviously there was tension and a confrontation ahead… when the prison got word from their headquarters in Singapore that the Japanese had invaded the city/state and were advancing on the Penal Colony headquarters. The Prison staff was on their own and… the message went dead.
The following day Sean Connery gathers the whole prison population in the walled courtyard and told them that there was goin’ be changes…. And he yelled for some of his people to open the gates. Three choices, Sean said. One you are free to leave. Any of you.
And some of the prisoners made a mad dash for the outside. Including the baddest of the bad convict.
Speaking in a lower voice to those that remained, he said there are other choices.
Some of the men who had left the courtyard began to drift back in, testing if in fact they were free to come and go as they wished. Some felt vulnerable outside and missed the prison security. Some had left gear they thought they might need.
Mr. real bad guy came walking back in with his head cocked to one side. Wanting to hear the other options.
Sean said everyone would work together to help anyone wanting to set sail for British held India. Without instruments, it would be difficult, but doable. Also if people wanted to try and get to India by walking up the peninsula and then over to Burma, they would help them with maps and local guides or whatever.
“And?” Mr. Real Bad Guy asked.
“Staying here is not an option,” said Sean, “the Japanese will come to this place and will certainly kill everyone… guards, prisoners alike. Or they will turn everyone into slave laborers.”
“So?” Asked Bad Guy.
“We take what arms we have, and our ammunition and go into the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia and fight the Japanese advancing up to Thailand.”
Bad guy says something along the lines of he had no beef with the Rising Sun people… nope he was out of here. He and his girl and some of his men were going back to being pirates. Good bye Sean. Good luck. You ain’t got a chance in hell of surviving.”
As Bad guy leaves, Sean says to himself, “I know.”
But then later Bad Guy comes back, with his girl and his men and said he lied, that he really didn’t like the Japanese, almost didn’t like them as much as he hated the crazy Brits… or something like that. He came back just because…
And he and Sean and the beautiful girl and his men and some of the prison guards in their dirty white uniforms, go into the Cameron Hills and of course die fighting the Japanese.
My UCLA screen writing instructor liked the story. Fit the Hollywood profile. Had action and places for pretty good lines. Was fresh… and with the description I could draw of some of these characters based on soldiers I had known in SEA… we got a winner here.
So in leaving the workshop, my job was to go home and write a 5 page screen “treatment” of the story. We had had lesson on writing “treatments” plus I had the three day drive back across the states to dream up some dramatic meat to put on the bones of the story.
Got back to NC, the instructor called me… he did… he called me, to make sure I was following up, saying he knew it was going to be difficult to make this story stand up and shine in 5 pages but to work it hard. He knew I could do it.
But he was wrong. I wrote a 500 pages trying for 5 good ones telling that story. After a while it was jinxed. I’d sit down to write and… all goin’ on in my mind was fear and apprehension and dumb words. Couldn’t do it. My best efforts were horrible. I had read many screen treatment during the workshop, I knew what was good, and what wasn’t, and my stuff was sure the latter.
After a year or so, I just gave up.
And that’s it.