The Tale of a Zero Fighter – by Ron Cole

Ron Cole's dramatic portrait of Zero 3148 as it circles over its base on Taroa.
Ron Cole's dramatic portrait of Zero 3148 as it circles over its base on Taroa.
Ron Cole’s dramatic portrait of Zero 3148 as it circles over its base on Taroa.

Acclaimed digital artist, Ron Cole, recently submitted a story to Wardbirds News about his work with a certain Mitsubishi A6M restoration project. Ron is well known for his fabulous commissioned digital paintings of historic aircraft, and he received a request from Legend Flyers to create an image of the A6M3 they are rebuilding to flying condition. Here is Ron’s story of this remarkable aircraft, and of the beautiful painting he created showing it in the battle field.

Tale of a Zero Fighter 

by Ron Cole

In September 1942, within the confines of a dark factory floor, Mitsubishi factory workers in jika-tabi spit-toe sandals were busily applying a thick coat of high-gloss gray paint to their latest pride and joy: one Type O Model 32 ‘Zero’ fighter. At a time when their factory put out an average of only one of these pristine machines per-day, the completion of every Zero was still regarded as very special, even a moment of religious significance, among all of the Japanese who’d played a part in the aircraft’s construction. Some of them had even etched Shinto blessings into its duraluminum structure, or had added an exhortation of best wishes or good luck to its eventual pilot.

At that moment this particular aircraft was known officially by only a number, 3148, but as its overall paint was being polished to the highest sheen, another skilled craftsman was hand-painting black characters on its fuselage that would set 3148 apart as an even more esteemed Zero than its other factory brethren. They announced that 3148 had been built and gifted to the Navy by the young school children of the Middle Schools of Manchuria.

When 3148 was formally accepted by the Navy, after its formal test flight, there was a ceremony. A Shinto priest blessed the aircraft. Representatives of the Manchurian Middle Schools, the Navy, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were present. Ceremonial bowls were provided to the dignitaries.

Then 3148 went to war.

A6M3 Zero 3148 on the battle field during WWII (image via Ron Cole)
A6M3 Zero 3148 on the battle field during WWII (image via Ron Cole)

Such pomp and splendor was still practical in the Japan of 1942, but that was already starting to change. Japan’s Naval Air Force had adopted a risky strategy before the war, namely to build a very small elite air arm provided with the best equipment the nation could procure. Its pilot training programs were so selective that they graduated fewer by percentage than modern American SEALS or French Legionnaires. Their aircraft were built by hand and contained more than three times the number of parts in relation to the comparable machines being produced by other nations at the time – Zeros were literally built like Swiss watches. All in all it was an admirable accomplishment, especially by a country that had been a feudal global backwater scarcely a century before. But it was a strategy doomed to failure, and Zero 3148 was in fact one of the first signs that the Japanese had already begun to realize it.

3148 was a Model 32, A6M3. That set it apart from earlier models of the Zero, the A6M2 variants, in several ways that were not always appreciated by the pilots who flew them. Its engineers had introduced changes intended to speed production. It had fewer parts. The graceful French curves of the A6M2’s folding wing tips were gone, for example, replaced by an ignominious stump of a shroud that gave the aircraft a clipped-wing look. The Americans who first encountered the Model 32 thought it a completely new machine and even gave it a new name: “Hamp”. To the Japanese, however, it was little more than a reminder that their aircraft didn’t need folding wings anymore because their carriers had been sunk. The A6M3 did have the advantage of a more powerful engine, but many Zero pilots would nevertheless continue to prefer the earlier A6M2s until the end of the war.

Data plate from A6M3 Model 32 'Zero' serial number 3148. Only Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built this model of the Zero fighter, the rarest of all production models. Only 343 were built. (photo via Ron Cole)
Data plate from A6M3 Model 32 ‘Zero’ serial number 3148. Only Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built this model of the Zero fighter, the rarest of all production models. Only 343 were built. (photo via Ron Cole)

Just as an enlisted man’s life changes after going off to sea, so did the life of 3148.  She was assigned, without any fanfare this time, to the 252nd Kokutai (Navy Air Group) and sent off to the remote Marshall Island airfield of Taroa.  As assignments go, Taroa was regarded at the time as a key outpost that guarded the outermost defensive line of Japan’s Pacific empire, but it was also largely ignored by the belligerents until 1944. Therefore, at a time when brand new Zeros were arriving at the front just in time to be destroyed in fierce, increasingly one-sided, battles – 3148 of the Manchurian Middle Schools was living a somewhat charmed life.  Even the Japanese Navy personnel at Taroa came to like the place at that time.  They cared for 3148, and the other aircraft at Taroa, much as fireman do their fire engines during downtime.

But the war did come.  On April 18, 1943, for example, it was very likely Zero fighters from Taroa (and quite possibly 3148) that stumbled upon a lone B-24D and shot it so full of holes that it never flew again, though it miraculously made it back to its base.  Unknown to the Japanese they’d shot up the aircraft of USAAF Lt. Louis Zamperini, an American Olympian who would go on to be the subject of a best selling book, ‘Unbroken’, and in 2014 a Hollywood film of the same name.

As the war in the Pacific increasingly encroached upon Taroa, the life of 3148 became more hazardous. Its once pristine overall gray finish was over-painted with a dull green on its upper surfaces to help it remain hidden in the bush. By then one of Japan’s best fighter pilots, Isamu Miyazaki, was flying out of the field. He almost certainly flew 3148 himself at various times in combat (according to his own testimony, prior to his death in April of 2012).  Taroa was bombed.  Taroa was strafed by carrier-born Hellcat fighters. The respite that the tiny field had enjoyed came to an end.  In the case of Zero 3148, donated by schoolchildren at considerable expense and sacrifice and sent away to war with blessings and to shouts of ‘Banzai!’ – she was mortally wounded, not in aerial combat, but by bomb splinters that damaged her on the ground and wrecked her vitals beyond that which could be repaired locally.

Though Taroa was never invaded by the Allies, it was cut off from resupply and all of her aircraft were rendered un-serviceable.  The war ended, and Taroa was forgotten.

The Japanese Navy built two runways on Taroa in WWII, and a third was under construction when the base was completely demolished by American bombing. (photo via Ron Cole)
The Japanese Navy built two runways on Taroa in WWII, and a third was under construction when the base was completely demolished by American bombing. (photo via Ron Cole)

Flash forward to 1991.

The terrible scrap drives of the ’60s and ’70s, which had decimated the vast majority of surviving WWII aircraft in the Pacific, were over.  They’d been replaced by a fast growing interest in the commercial investment opportunities provided by salvageable ‘warbirds’ still hiding in the jungles.  Once thought of in terms of their scrap value, something like a Japanese Zero in decent condition could turn into a million dollar restoration and a five million dollar sale at an aircraft auction.  These aircraft became big money, and while that sort of gold rush had its downsides, it probably saved 3148 from certain doom at the hands of aluminum exfoliation; from turning to dust, the soon-to-be-realized fate of those aircraft that remain in the Pacific if they are not soon salvaged.

John Sterling came to the rescue of 3148 and several other Zeros on Taroa. After frustrating negotiations and spending three months sleeping in the jungle, the aircraft were disassembled and brought to – of all places – Boise, Idaho, where John operated his cement company. At that time John was a Charter member of Japanese Information International, the association I’d founded in 1988 to preserve and study Japanese aircraft, and he sent me many photos of the Zeros after they’d arrived in Idaho. I supplied him with several original cockpit instruments that were to become a part of his intended restoration project – all of which constituted my first involvement with 3148, but far from the last.

John’s attempt to restore the aircraft came to naught, and in 2001 it was purchased by Evergreen International. They in turn contracted Vintage Aircraft of Ft. Collins, Colorado to conduct the restoration. But after years of delay the aircraft was transferred to Legend Flyers of Everett, Washington (creators of the new-build Fw 190 and Me 262 aircraft), who wasted no time in getting the aircraft back upon its own legs for the first time in 70 years.

The freshly rebuilt interior of A6M3 Model 32 'Zero' 3148  (photo by Chris Stuart via Ron Cole)
The freshly rebuilt interior of A6M3 Model 32 ‘Zero’ 3148 (photo by Chris Stuart via Ron Cole)

My relationship with this aircraft picked up again in mid-2013. Legend Flyers approached me to commission a painting of their unique two-seat Me 262 ‘Vera’ that was captured in 1945 and test flown as one of Watson’s Whizzers. They restored that aircraft for static display and used its parts as patters for their ‘new builds’. Legend Flyers then asked me if I’d be interested in painting the Zero. They didn’t need to ask me twice!

Due to my personal interest in this specific aircraft, and my love for Japanese aviation in general, I was determined to portray it as accurately as possible.  Those of us who research these sorts of things are kind of a subculture of our own; endlessly agonizing over paint chips and old photographs until the wee hours, in the belief that by so doing we may uncover something previously unknown about these nearly extinct machines of the air. One such mystery that for years troubled our minds was the color of these early Zero fighters. They were painted a very unique gray overall, sometimes described as a ‘chalky gray’ and other times as an ‘olive gray’. By 1943 the paint was no longer used, as a two-tone green and gray camouflaged scheme was adopted by the Japanese Navy. Most of the earlier all-gray Zeros didn’t survive the war or had been over-painted by then. In any case: every flyable aircraft in Japan after 1945 was sprayed with napalm and burned into aluminum slag – in accordance with directives from Douglass MacArthur.

That’s why Japanese aircraft are so rare, and why they offer some people with an irresistible challenge when it comes to studying them. It certainly why our 3148 is so incredibly special as a unique piece of history.

But the old arguments regarding the subject of the early war gray color came to rival those between archaeologists fighting over the fossil record. Thanks in part to preserved samples of the paint from 3148’s restoration, however, we have pretty much put the debate to rest. That I had samples of this material in my possession, thanks to Legend Flyers, ensured that my painting could portray the color, roughly equivalent to FS 34201 (Federal Standards reference) correctly.

Years of encroaching corrosion wasn't quite enough to destroy this section of near-perfectly preserved Japanese gray paint from the underside wing of 3148. Built literally like a Swiss watch, these aircraft left the factory in a high polish. (photo via Ron Cole)
Years of encroaching corrosion wasn’t quite enough to destroy this section of near-perfectly preserved Japanese gray paint from the underside wing of 3148. Built literally like a Swiss watch, these aircraft left the factory in a high polish. (photo via Ron Cole)

There was nothing ‘chalky’ about the color these machines were painted, though it could oxidize to appear so when left unattended over years of exposure – something that did not happen until long after the war was over. The original color was very much an olive gray, and was quite a bit darker than the color most of us envision when we imagine what these aircraft looked like when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

Another priority for me was to render all of the Japanese stencils and markings correctly. Of course, as with everything to do with such details of Japanese WWII aircraft, very little was known about them and I had do dig to find what I could. Most of these details on our 3148 had unfortunately long succumbed to the elements.

Ryan Toews came to my rescue. Ryan surely has an obsession for detail when it comes to his accumulation of knowledge regarding the Zero fighter. He has worked on several Zero restoration projects, including the A6M2 for the Air Force Museum, and with Legend Flyers. Ryan provided me with beautiful scale artwork for all of the Zero’s stencils: no step, do not push, etc. It was a treasure trove!

Ryan's stencil references proved an invaluable asset in my painting process. Note how the red line at the wing's trailing edge stops short of the aileron - a detail almost always missed in models and artwork. (photo via Ron Cole)
Ryan’s stencil references proved an invaluable asset in my painting process. Note how the red line at the wing’s trailing edge stops short of the aileron – a detail almost always missed in models and artwork. (photo via Ron Cole)

I didn’t get it quite right the first time, but in the end I had what I believed to be the most technically accurate painting of A6M3 Model 32 ‘Zero’ 3148 that was possible. The overall gray looked good. It possessed the correct gloss sheen with not an inordinate amount of chipping. The fuselage hinomaru did not have a white surround (only Nakajima-built Zeros were outlined in white at the time), and it had the correct Mitsubishi-style antenna, with a ‘kink’ towards its tip. I was very happy with how the pillowing of the aluminum skin turned out.

The tail code ‘S-112’ was evident on the tail of the recovered aircraft. While not typically attributed to the 252nd Kokutai, another Zero recovered along with 3148 from Taroa had the same ‘S’ prefix. Both revealed that they’d received later tail codes with the more typical ‘Y2’ prefix of the 252nd. But these sorts of oddities are not atypical among Japanese WWII aircraft. We still know so little about their unit’s histories.

Soon, the real Zero will be on display for countless people to see and enjoy, and hopefully in the air as well. Current plans are to complete this aircraft with its original and fully-operational Sakae 21 radial engine. Look to Legend Flyers for more updates and in progress reports. The final chapter of Zero 3148, sponsored by the children of the Manchurian Middle Schools, is yet to be written. But it will at last be a chapter of peace and serenity, after so many bloody experiences in a war that was ultimately lost for her designers and pilots.

Legend Flyers paid me well for my commissioned painting – in parts of the original aircraft!

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