In September 1942 a Zero fighter to replace the venerable A6M2 model (which had scorched Pacific skies since Pearl Harbor) rolled off of Mitsubishi's assembly lines and took an ox cart ride to its nearest aerodrome. This version of the Zero, the A6M3 Model 32, was a big deal from the perspective of the designers and the Navy. It had a more powerful engine, and it employed some modifications to make production easier and cheaper. When it came to the folding wingtips of the previous model, for example, Mitsubishi cut them off and stuck an aluminum fairing at each wing tip. Japanese pilots were not happy with such 'efficiency' measures and grumbled their displeasure across the Pacific. Allied intelligence contemplated the significance of the clipped wings, theorizing that they might improve low altitude performance. The Japanese wished! But the Model 32 was merely a stop-gap machine - a slight improvement over its predecessor until the 'real' replacement was ready to enter production. That aircraft, the A6M5, would boast an even more powerful engine and an entirely redesigned wing. Thus Mitsubishi only produced 343 Model 32 aircraft, all from their same production line.
But our little plane that rolled out of the factory in September (and depicted above) was nevertheless destined for a unique life. Her official name was just a number: 3148. Whether her sponsors knew her by another, possibly more endearing name, is quite probable but lost to history. 3148's construction was paid for by funds raised by the Manchurian Secondary Schools, and was 'gifted' by schoolchildren to the Japanese Navy. There would have been a ceremony at the time, with various VIPs from both the Navy and Mitsubishi present, as well as a Shinto priest on hand to bless the aircraft. A series of ceremonial bowls would have been given to the school and to other key participants in the sponsorship. The aircraft was adorned with special markings on its fuselage - behind the hinomaru insignia - denoting it as a sponsored aircraft and by whom. Thus 3148 was a loved and appreciated machine of the sky from the very start.
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.
I have portrayed that April 1943 action in my painting above.
As the war in the Pacific increasingly encroached upon Taroa, the life of 3148 became more hazardous. 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. 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 unserviceable. The war ended, and Taroa was forgotten.
Flash forward to the mid-1980s. 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. She was picked to be salvaged and was brought to the United States. She changed hands many times as some restoration shops were either not up to the task or ran short of funds - familiar stories in the world of high end classic cars and collectible airplanes alike.
But by 2013 she was in the experienced hands of Legend Flyers, the company responsible for building several Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jets from scratch. They could do anything, and did!
A6M3 Model 32 Zero 3148 hasn't looked this good in a very long time!
My own relationship with this aircraft started 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'. When my painting was completed they paid me generously in parts: specifically a full original engine nacelle panel from the Me 262:
I'm still in the process of restoring it and intend to paint it with its original colors and red stenciling, while leaving the inside all original.
Then they asked me if we could make a similar trade for the Zero. I've loved the Zero fighter since I was a kid! They sent me some amazing parts from her original airframe:
Some of these pieces I've put into some unbelievably rare and one-of-a-kind displays with my original artwork:
Soon, this Zero will be on display for countless people to see and enjoy. In the meantime it means a great deal to me that I can possess pieces of this great historical machine, and be in a position as an aviation artist to share these pieces with others out there who can appreciate what a special aircraft old 3148 was, and is.
- Ron Cole