"Oh, but that's not a Zero!" he said. "It's an AT-6, a fighter trainer from World War II." And indeed it is. To the untrained eye (for example, mine), it looks just like a Zero. And in fact these planes were painted in Japanese colours and used in such WWII films as "Tora Tora Tora", impersonating Zeros. (In the case of "Tora Tora Tora", for the attack on Pearl Harbour). To the untrained eye (for example, mine), it's impossible to tell that those filmed aircraft were not Zeros. But I now have it on good authority, from JR, at an airport in smalltown California. I'm not sure I'm happy.
This began the previous night, as we drove down the street looking for a campground. Suddenly, I caught sight of this gorgeous red-and-silver bird that I assumed was a Zero. Had to get closer to take a look.
I mean, as a young kid, I idolized the Mitsubishi Zero, and I mean idolized. Here's a little-known fact: I once wrote a haiku -- I promise you, my only one ever, and I also promise you I have lost it and don't remember it and thus cannot reproduce it here even if I wanted to -- on the legendary Japanese WWII fighter. Had a book about it whose every word I pored over, again and again. It's still on my shelf somewhere, in tatters but I cannot bring myself to fling it out. I was charmed by the mystique of this plane, especially during the early years of the Pacific war. It swept every opposition out of the sky like so much target practice. The Americans had a squat fighter called the Buffalo -- a singularly appropriate name, really -- at the time, whose lumbering path through the sky was no match for the speed and agility of the Zero. It was only with the coming of the muscular Corsair and the swift, elegant P-51 Mustang that the tide turned, and it was now the Zero that could not match the Americans, and the Japanese themselves could not face up to the might of this sleeping giant they had awoken so stunningly at Pearl Harbour. And a war was eventually lost.
And of course, this was war, brutal take-no-prisoners war, so I wonder about the use of words such as "mystique" and "elegant." Yet that's the sense this book, and all else I read about this magnificent flying machine, gave me.
So I couldn't get over it, couldn't believe my eyes, when we drove past this airstrip. What's this Zero doing here? I didn't even know there were any intact Zeros left.
But of course, this wasn't a Zero.
We stood there for a good half hour, chatting about Zeros and AT-6s with JR. He's a squat, muscular and good-natured man in his mid-50s, black T-shirt and cap on his head, a lifelong pilot. We talk about the Pacific, and flying, and the last gasp Japanese effort -- kamikaze attacks -- to strike back at the Americans. And a Zero that was found on some Pacific island a few years ago, in remarkably good shape even though it had been shot down during the war; and they brought it to the States and exhibited it in -- where else? -- a mall. "All the bullet holes still right there on the fuselage, poof-poof-poof in a line," said JR. They found both the Japanese pilot who was shot down and the American who had done the shooting, and they met and shook hands there at the mall.
And only a few AT-6s saw action, with .303 guns attached below their wings; but the Zero -- "man," said JR, "they were armed something fierce!" All the way to their highly trained and motivated pilots, at least in the early years. (Later, the Japanese found it hard to train new pilots quickly enough to match the rate at which they were losing them). And the Zero, flying at close to 300 mph and able to climb swiftly too, was far speedier than the AT-6 that topped out at 200 mph.
"You must love flight", said JR. "You seem to know an awful lot about these planes!" I confessed it was only the Zero, and I told him about the book. I did not confess about the haiku.
Then he took me up for a flight. Not in the AT-6. In a biplane. Of that, another time.
Extra credit to the person who tells me where the title of this post is from.