War Prize: The Capture Of The First Japanese Zero Fighter In 1941
By James F. Lansdale
Graphics By Don B. Marsh

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 this role.
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 fuel.”
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. (Lansdale Collection)

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 captured them.”
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 carts.”
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,

Neumann said:

“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.
Main fuselage 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. (Don Marsh)

Click 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 and Bruce
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, 1989.
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, Inc., 1994.
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, 1995.
Thompson, Scottie S. Interview of Maj Gen John R. Alison. Montgomery: Office of Air Force History, 1979.
Tracy, Charles. Air Progress Vol. 21 No. 3 “The Engine Genius of General Electric.” New York: Conde Nast Publications, Inc., 1967
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