The Zero: Two men and a plane
The end of the Second World War in the Pacific was officially marked by the formal surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945, just over two weeks after Emperor Hirohito himself publicly announced the decision ‘to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.’1 The Emperor’s pre-recorded radio address on 15 August set in motion a series of steps to bring the war to a close. On Sunday 19 August, two Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombers with armament removed and painted in the specified surrender livery of white with green crosses on fuselage and wings, carried Japanese representatives to the American Le Shima Airfield on the island of Iejima off Okinawa. The envoys were en route to a Pre-Surrender Conference in Manila where they were to receive ‘requirements for carrying into effect the terms of surrender.’2 These two aircraft (Mitsubishi G4M, known to the Allies as Bettys) are arguably the most photographed ‘Green Cross’ surrender aircraft from the end of the war.
Several Green Cross aircraft, including three Mitsubishi Zeros, were flown to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) base at Jacquinot Bay on New Britain (Papua New Guinea) after being surrendered at Rabaul.3 And across the Solomon Sea on Bougainville, the RNZAF acquired a further Zero. One of the Jacquinot Zeros was apparently ditched during a test flight mishap and, with a lack of shipping space available, the other surrendered aircraft at this base were left behind and passed into Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) ownership when the RNZAF returned to New Zealand. The remains of these two Zeros were removed to Australia in the seventies. But the Bougainville Zero came back to New Zealand in October 1945 on the interisland ferry Wahine which was being used to repatriate troops. This aircraft is now on display in Auckland War Memorial Museum (AWMM) and the story of its journey here has been widely repeated.4 However, the story hinges on two men of different nationalities who were each instrumental in the Zero’s acquisition.
The Zero had been caught on the ground on Bougainville and seriously damaged in the bombing that accompanied the Allied Bougainville campaign in November 1943. It was hidden for eighteen months before the Japanese restored it as best they could with the goal of flying it off the island. War circumstances prevented the retrieval and RNZAF intelligence officers found the plane in September 1945 at the Japanese airfield at Buin, southern Bougainville.
Defence authorities were not interested in salvaging the Zero and issued orders no one was to fly it. But a New Zealand pilot could not resist the challenge and flew it, without authorisation, north to the RNZAF airstrip at Piva (also in Bougainville) where it attracted much attention.
Wing Commander WR (Bill) Kofoed DSO DFC was Officer Commanding of the RNZAF Field HQ at Piva. A man of the land pre-war, Kofoed became a skilful, enterprising and admired airman in the North African and European theatres. Among the first New Zealand pilots to attend training in Canada, Kofoed took part in the thousand-bomber raids on Cologne, Essen, and Bremen in the northern summer of 1942.5 He had already flown daylight missions against the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (namesakes of the armoured cruisers familiar to New Zealanders from their Pacific presence during the first days of the First World War) while they were in port at Brest, France. He had also taken part in the low-level night raids in April 1942 against the Tirpitz while that vessel was anchored off Trondheim in Norway. His operational work in this period was to earn him the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).6 By September of that year he was flying his Halifax heavy bomber in Egypt which included regular night raids on Tobruk, on one of which Kofoed carried an official New Zealand war correspondent.7 Later, Kofoed was recognised with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).8
This then is the man who went out to evaluate the Bougainville Zero on 15 September 1945. The Wing Commander was a veteran flyer seasoned in challenging conditions, a decision-maker and a calculated risk-taker. And he was interested in the opportunities offered by this unfamiliar technology. The plane appears to have been already painted in its surrender colour and Japanese mechanics and the pilot who had been sent there to retrieve the plane were on hand. After assessing airworthiness and receiving basic advice and instruction from the Japanese pilot, Kofoed brought the plane back to Piva.
Although the RNZAF Official Correspondent suggested the motivation for the retrieval flight might have been for scoring purposes, to claim a 100th downed Japanese fighter, it seems much more likely that the machine was in front of him and Kofoed’s personal orientation was to ‘give it a go.’9 An RNZAF researcher has painted an interesting picture based on a copy of notes from the Wing Commander’s log book:
He apparently absented himself from duty, hitched a ride in an RAAF Wirraway to Kara, requested the Japanese prepare this aircraft for flight, then flew the aircraft to Piva in about 20 minutes with the u/c locked down. He apparently did not want the Zero to be abandoned, and felt he could not order a subordinate to carry out this task on an ex-enemy aircraft with no guarantee as to its airworthiness, and no real military need for such a flight that could be justified, so took it upon himself.10
Technical curiosity, the challenge together with the opportunity for testing and extending personal skills, a little bit of Kiwi self-reliance and a touch of disregard for authority when circumstances appear to demand it? Whatever the reason, Kofoed saved a piece of history that has become a popular part of the Museum’s collection. And he became the first New Zealander to fly a Zero.
Air Commodore GN (later Sir Geoffrey) Roberts, Commander of the New Zealand Air Task Force in the Solomons, later said
‘Kofoed had to be “matted” for disobeying orders but with that formality over, I took him to my quarters, gave him a couple of whiskies and congratulated him for being so bloody stupid.’11
The second man integral to the story of this Zero was young Japanese Navy pilot, Petty Officer Sekizen Shibayama. He was an ace with 13 recorded victories who by 1945 was apparently running a guerrilla squad from Rabaul, operating behind enemy lines following the departure of the main Japanese Navy Air Group north to the Carolinas.12
He had arrived in Rabaul in September 1943 to join 201 Air Group (combat Zero Fighters) where he had his first experience of aerial battle. Between October 1943 and April 1944 Shibayama recalled taking part in an average of three aerial battles every day, ‘perhaps 150 times in total with the result of 7 machines shot down. I joined air raids 7 times.’ 13 When this corps moved to Truk six months later Shibayama, with a leg wound from an unsuccessful engagement and suffering from malaria, was left behind with a small number of other sick and wounded, including several mechanics. The story of these men left behind with little more than a few wrecked aircraft and minimal materials is cloudy and difficult to confirm but appears to be one of resourcefulness and dedication to their orders.14
Eventually, in July 1945 Shibayama was taken to Buin by floatplane at night, with orders to test-fly the rebuilt Zero and ferry it back to Rabaul. He did not know, however, that once airworthy it would be loaded with a 250kg bomb, and he would be sent on a kamikaze mission against Allied shipping. The ground crew did not rush the job, feeling sorry for him and knowing the fate that awaited him. In a letter to AWMM on 13 May 1997, he wrote:
There were some quite good Japanese engineers for repair the plane [sic]. We all wanted to carry this new built “ZERO” to RABOUL [sic] as soon as possible. We were pushing the engineers to move quickly to finish the building in order to get the point. But afterwards I hard [sic] from someone that the responsible person of the local army seemed to be planning to use this newly build “ZERO” for the aim of offensive fighting! … If the end of the war had been a few days later than 15th of August, I am sure that I had already gone to the sea of SOLOMON ISLANDS and today I must be sleeping in that sea …!!15
Shibayama wrote that the retrieval flight was delayed ‘many times’ for different reasons including the necessity to repaint the aircraft, ‘to change the Japanese national flag to BLUE CROSS, or to change the colour to all WHITE.’ Fifty years later his memory of the cross colour was confused. But other memories of ‘my unforgettable ZERO,’ had stayed with him. He provided Kofoed with his first basic instruction and remembered piloting the plane for a ‘running test on the ground’ with the New Zealand pilot ‘sitting on one of the wings. After that, the colonel [sic] went inside instead of me. I got out of ZERO and gave him a kind and light patting. I touched ZERO very lightly. It was so regrettable. “ZERO” had gone and disappeared so rapidly toward the direction of TAROKINA [Torokina].’
In the story associated with this aircraft it is possible to see the impact that professional respect has on political enemies. While there was potential for ongoing hostility and resistance, the men involved on both sides formed a relationship founded on shared technical interest and recognition of skill and ability. Certainly, there was an element of resignation or at least acceptance of the changed world. But there also seems to be pride and even pleasure in sharing knowledge. Shibayama and his mechanics explained the workings of the plane, and back in New Zealand later that year Japanese prisoners of war on their way home from internment in Featherston Camp also tried to help with translating specialist labels and instructions on the fuselage and around the aircraft.
In 1997, high school English teacher and former Imperial Japanese Navy pilot and kamikaze trainer Nobuya Kinase arranged a visit to the Museum. He brought with him several older Zero pilots to reconnect with the plane and to meet former New Zealand fighter pilots. He had dedicated his post-war life to teaching peace, had met a New Zealand teacher in Japan and was regularly bringing groups of students to New Zealand. The visitors on his 1997 tour included Sekizen Shibayama.
Kinase subsequently donated his uniform to the Museum, and pilot Sekizen Shibayama gifted a pair of ceramic dishes. The visits excited the public imagination and generated goodwill on all sides.16
In the Zero we have an object which has been a focus for engagement across the spectrum, hostile in its war aspect and in its post-war life neutral at worst but intriguing and even friendly at best and the catalyst for future relationships. Focuses such as this can do two important things if we are open to them. They may highlight the essential humanity of declared and operational enemies and remind us all that regardless of nationality, ethnicity, culture, and ideology people have much in common, and they may allow all parties to learn more about each other.
The Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero, now repainted in its wartime colours, is on display in its own gallery on Level 2 of the Museum.
1 Atsushi Kodera, ‘Master recording of Hirohito's war-end speech released in digital form’, The Japan Times, 1 August 2015.
3 If you’re interested in following up on the fate of these aircraft this website, Pacific Wrecks, may be of interest. See also a photograph of RNZAF mechanics investigating one of the Zeros at Jacquinot Bay held at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand: PR7496.
4 Peter V. Lewis investigated the aircraft in the 1980s and his research is readily available on Zero-Sen, a digital resource focused on the AWMM Zero.
5 ‘Huge Supplies,’ Evening Star, 30 September 1942, 3.
6 ‘Air Awards,’ New Zealand Herald, 23 February 1943. 2. ‘Flight-Lieutenant Kofoed has displayed the highest qualities of leadership and courage in the face of the enemy. His record of numerous sorties includes raids on heavily defended targets. He participated in two daylight raids on German warships at Brest, and also two attacks on the enemy base at Trondheim from a low level in the face of heavy fire.’
7 ‘Big Air Raid on Tobruk’, Press, 10 October 1942, 4. The war correspondent may have been R.T. (Bob) Miller, W. S. Jordan, or B. L. Hewitt: ‘Army Appointment,’ Evening Post, 31 March 1941, 4; ‘Paper for Troops,’ Waihi Daily Telegraph, 4 July 1941, 3; ‘War Correspondent with Forces,’ Press, 7 February 1942, 6.
8 ‘Air Awards,’ Otago Daily Times, 25 October 1943. 2.
‘Squadron Leader Kofoed, on his second tour of duty after completing a tour of operations against objectives in Europe and the Middle East, has attacked such targets as Palermo and Catania and flown over the battle areas in the Tunisian campaign. On a sortie over Palermo a photograph flash exploded in the fuselage of his aircraft, which was badly damaged. By superb handling, 'however, Squadron Leader Kofoed flew the aircraft safely to his base—an eight-hour flight. His determination in identifying and attacking selected targets, even in poor visibility and in the face of intense opposition, has been inspiring to the crews of his squadron.’
9 ‘Elusive Jap,’ Auckland Star, 30 December 1944, 6; Japanese Zero Flown by Dominion Pilot,’ Northern Advocate, 18 September 1945, 2.
10 David Duxbury, forum post, RAF Commands, 3 July 2009.
11 Robert E. Montgomery, ‘Auckland War Memorial Museum A6M3 Model 22,’ Walkarounds, j-aircraft.com. Roberts subsequently became the General Manager of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd from 1946 and is regarded as the ‘Father of Air New Zealand’.
12 ‘La última Águila Marina de Rabaul,’ Nonsei SGM: Historias de la Segunda Guerra Mundial
13 ‘Biog: Sekizen Shibayama, Japanese Navy Air Corps, WW2,’ biographical details supplied by email via Professor Kinase, 17 July 1997. Museum files.
14 ‘La última Águila Marina de Rabaul.’
15 Sekizen Shibayama, Letter to AWMM, 13 May 1997. Museum files.
16 To read some of Nobuya Kinase’s story see this 2006 item on the Japan Visitor website, which includes a photo of Kinase in the Zero Gallery at AWMM: David Stormer, ‘Kamikaze Survivor.’
Cite this article
The Zero: Two men and a plane. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 September 2020. Updated: 11 March 2021.