WRECKS OF ASIA
EXCITEMENT BUILDS as I recognise the familiar shape emerging beneath me. The distinct outline is of the A6M Zero, the legendary World War II Japanese fighter that I once built models of as a child. Hovering above the 17-metre-deep seabed, I stare in an awe-inspired trance at this incredible warbird. Both revered and feared by the men who flew against it, this aircraft was the most capable carrier-based fighter the world had ever seen during the outbreak of war. In the hands of a good pilot, of which there were many in the Japanese Navy, this renowned dogfighter was a tough match for any opponent it encountered. “Never try to turn with a Zero” became the mantra of the Allied pilots as this fast, light and manoeuvrable enemy forced them to change their tactics to survive in air battle.
This wreck was discovered by accident in January 2000, by a local freediver fisherman, WilIiam Nuli. The propellers are intact, indicating the engine may have shut down before it plunged into the sea as spinning blades often shear off. There is also no visible evidence of battle damage, so did it run out of fuel or did the engine simply fail?
The pilot’s canopy is open and the plane faces the shore less than 100 metres away. The condition of the aircraft indicates a controlled landing, so did the pilot skillfully land on water and then escape to the jungles of New Britain? This is the popular story of Tomiharu Honda, who is identified as the pilot of this aircraft after research on the markings of this A6M2. It’s never been established whether Tomiharu Honda made it safely back to base; his fate has been lost in time, but due to William Nuli’s chance find, we now at least know part of his story.
Text & image by Steve Jones