Thursday, December 12, 2013

Japanese A6M3 Model 32 Zero (3148) Forensics: Part I

We're a little crazy - those of us who are so obsessed with the combat aircraft of Japan during WWII that we dive into our research so deeply that it can only be compared with the work of Egyptologists meticulously dissecting a 4000-year-old mummy.  It's a sickness.  I don't know how I caught it.  All I know is that I've exhibited its symptoms since I was a kid.  I also know that, as an adult, I've witnessed mature and otherwise respectable men almost come to physical blows over differences in interpretation of our research.  I suppose such things happen in every genre' where people become passionate - and, oh yeah, where egos are usually at the helm.  I once found myself in the middle of an online fight over whether Japanese aircraft navigation lights were constructed with a clear light bulb within a translucent colored housing, or a colored light bulb within a clear housing.  People reverted to calling each other names.

I learned to steer clear of certain forums after that.  However: Clear bulb with a colored housing.  And the Japanese didn't use translucent green, they used blue because their 'white' lights were actually yellow.  A little crazy, but I love the subject and the research nonetheless.  

Recently I acquired a significant collection of very rare original parts from a Japanese A6M3 Model 32 Zero - known to the Allies during the war as 'Hamp'.  A very rare aircraft, of which only 343 were ever built, this one having been constructed in September 1942 by Mitsubishi (they were the sole manufacturers of this particular variant).  The Model 32 is most notable for its clipped wing tips, a feature believed by the Allies at the time to provide the aircraft with better low-altitude performance, but was in reality a simple cost saving measure by the Japanese (replacing the Model 22's complex folding wing tips).  Since then I've had a field day studying these parts.

Nothing riles both the appetite and the passions of a Japanese aircraft nut so much as color information, and in spite of over 40 years in the tropics (these parts were recovered from Taroa in the 1980s) there was much to be gleaned from them.

Probably the most elusive color to identify and match among all of the pigments employed by the Japanese has always been the gray used to paint the early Navy fighters.  This is the color that all of the Zeros were painted that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 (unlike those portrayed in the Hollywood movie).  Because the Japanese stopped using it in 1943 and began using a very different gray, authentic samples of the early war color have been extremely hard to come by.  For decades historians reverted to eye witness explanations from veterans, and as a consequence came to accept a chalky white color.  Though that shade is still championed by some, who seem inclined to have their declarations in support of it carved upon their gravestones, more recent discoveries of this color on actual pieces of these aircraft reveal something very different and somewhat counter-intuitive.

It has been described as 'olive gray' and 'gray brown'.  Technically it is very close to Federal Standards color number 34201, and it had a high gloss as applied at Mitsubishi factories.  I was happy to discover examples of this paint on samples of material from opposite ends of the same aircraft: from the tail and from the inside of the port wheel well.  The latter example (shown above) was a surprise due to the fact that it has been assumed that the wheel wells of the Zero - all makes and models - were left in the well-known 'Aotake' blue/green primer that commonly adored the internals of most all wartime Japanese aircraft.  The wheel wells being an 'internal' area, it was a reasonable assumption.  But false, at least in the case of this aircraft.  The evidence reveals that the components were painted with primer before assembly, and then received a thick spray-painted coat of gray along with the exterior of the aircraft.  The method and even direction of application can be ascertained, as certain areas that were hard to reach behind structural frames were partly missed, while the paint built up thickly in other areas.  Most importantly, however, the unique color of 'olive gray' so described in recent studies is precisely verified in these examples.

It's a weird color in relation to other 'grays' applied to other military aircraft through the ages, and I suppose for that reason alone it was more logical to adhere to the proven false belief that it was a more logical average 'chalky' gray.  Again, however, an exterior aluminum panel (above), that was once partly covered by a fairing, does reveal the same gray that was encountered in the wheel well.

It's worth repeating that this paint originally was of a high gloss.  It did weather to a dull finish rather quickly if neglected, but many Japanese pilots have testified to the fact that their ground crews took great pride in maintaining this glossy finish. These aircraft were the Samurai swords of the mid-20th Century. They were regarded as the property of the Emperor, bequeathed into the able hands of his subjects in the interests of the Empire.  They were not neglected.  It's also a fact that the Japanese paint and primers used in the construction of these aircraft were the best in the world at the time.  Allied studies during and shortly after the war did not shy away from giving credit where credit was due in this case.  It's also true that, as Charles Darby noted in his 1979 book, 'Pacific Aircraft Wrecks and Where to Find Them', Japanese aircraft tended to far outlast their Allied contemporaries abandoned in the bush and surrendered to the tropical elements. During the war all of this translated into aircraft that stood up better, looked better, resisted chipping and other signs of wear and tear better than anything in the air at the time.  While one might otherwise expect a war-weary looking machine after a short time, Japanese machines were simply better built and better maintained by the men responsible for them.  While these standards of Japanese manufacture and maintenance began to go into decline after 1943 - they held almost religiously true until the fates of war forced a change in priorities.  

- Ron Cole


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  2. Ron, well-said and illustrated. I am at the point where I hesitate to buy a modern book (post 2005) that depicts the chalk gray. We know better now. Fantastic painting of the Hamp flying over the B-24! You got the gloss just right. A careful look at the Zero photos pre-launch for the Dec 7th attack show a very high gloss on the paint, just as you describe. -AH.