Two rare warbirds in one little museum
The first flying Zero to call Japan home in 70 years has come to Kanoya, in the far south of Kyushu. Flying or not, Japanese warbirds are a rare breed.
They were never produced in the same numbers as their American, German or Soviet counterparts. Many were shot down throughout the war or used as suicide attacks in the end. After the war, most were scrapped in mass lots.
When I learned there was a Zero on display at the Chikuzenmachi Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum in Chikuzen-machi, Fukuoka Prefecture, I decided it needed a visit some day. When I learned there was a Type 97, an even rarer fighter, on display alongside it that visit “some day” became a visit “right now.”
The Peace Memorial Museum is built over the former Tachiarai Army Air Field, one of the Imperial Japanese Army’s aviation training centers before and during World War II. It began service in 1919 and at one point was home to the largest air force in Japan. The air field’s proximity to China made it an excellent location for a civilian international airport during times of peace and also a vital field for supplying troops during Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s.
During World War II, Tachiarai functioned as the Imperial Japan Army’s largest flight training school. Near the end, it also became the army’s primary kamikaze training center, with Chiran, also home to a kamikaze museum, serving as a branch. Tachiarai was hit by two large air raids that destroyed or damaged the airfield, flight schools and aircraft manufacturing facilities in late March 1945, but was able to continue with kamikaze operations until the end of the war.
The museum itself is compact and occupies a tiny portion of the airfield’s foot print, but is full of artifacts and pictures that tell the Tachiarai story.
Photography is generally prohibited inside the museum except for their Zero fighter. The Zero is the most famous Japanese fighter of World War II and was known for its long-range and maneuverability. This one was recovered from the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s and restored with wingtips from a different model of Zero, the Model 32 ‘Hamp,’ which physically altered its appearance. Rebuilt as a Model 32, it’s the last of its kind, making this the only place to see that version of a Zero.
The area around the Zero focuses on Japan’s pre-War aviation technological development and its years as an army flight school. Unfortunately, only an odd panel here and there is in English, but for people willing to come this far to see an airplane this isn’t an issue.
The technology area is mostly composed of models that form an evolutionary chain of Japanese airplanes from biplanes to the last fighters and bombers of World War II. Also included is a model of the Kyushu Aircraft Company’s J7W Shinden, an unusual fighter with canards and a rear-mounted “pusher” engine. The Shinden was tested about 50 miles from Tachiarai.
As the Zero bridges the gap between technological innovation and military application, on the airplane’s other side are displays of military uniforms and hardware relating to Tachiarai’s time as a flying school. The artifacts explanations are in Japanese, but it’s all very recognizable and in good condition.
Up to this point, the museum was rather positive and light, from a subject stand point and from a design one as well. Well-lit via a large window with displays making use of soft and bright colors, it conveyed the more positive themes of technological innovation and aviation very well.
Then it got dark as the next section dealt with what happened when the war fought abroad came home to Japan. The lighting is dimmed except for the dramatic spotlights on the room’s centerpiece, the aircraft that brought me here, the Ki-27 or Type 97 ‘Nate’ fighter. The Type 97, with its fixed landing gear and open cockpit, is a typical fighter of the pre-war era and began production in 1936. It served with distinction fighting in China and over the skies of Mongolia during the brief 1939 border war with the Soviet Union. Obsolete as a fighter by 1941, it was continued to be used as a trainer. In the last year of the war, many were pressed into service as kamikazes.
The museum’s Type 97 was intended to be a kamikaze, but never got a chance. It was being flown from China to Chiran when it developed mechanical trouble and the pilot made an emergency landing in Hakata Bay. The plane sank and the pilot survived, though he would die as a kamikaze a few months later. The Type 97 was rediscovered in 1996 and pulled from the bay. It was restored, but you can still see the faded hinomaru roundels on its sides. A 500-pound bomb has been strapped to its belly, giving the impression that it’s ready for its last flight.
The would-be kamikaze is surrounded with artifacts, information and pictures chronicling the last year of the war. It focuses on the some of the ugliest aspects of the air war - air raids on the air field and suicide missions. The walls are covered in images from the aftermath of the B-29 air raids showing the damage inflicted on the air field and town. There are also pieces of one of the B-29s that went down over Tachiarai. B-29s can occasionally be found in American air museums, but it’s not often I get to see pieces of one downed by enemy action in a museum. It’s a different perspective to see them from the receiving end.
One of the more unusual bits of information I picked up here was about an aircraft I’d never seen before nor heard of, the Sakura-danki. A purpose-built kamikaze, it looks like a bomber with a giant hump loaded with 3 tons of explosives just aft of the pilot. Nine are believed to have been built, three of which flew from Tachiarai to attack ships off Okinawa. There is a model of this peculiar kamikaze along with a picture and a piece of one.
After the kamikaze room is a memorial room with pictures of the victims of war in Tachiarai. This doesn’t focus on one group or really attempt to make a political statement, but is simply a memorial for everyone who died in the fighting here. Primarily, this was military personnel, but includes children returning from school who got caught in a raid on the air field and also the crew of B-29 Gonna Maker. Gonna Maker was rammed over Tachiarai on April 18, 1945 by a Toryu/‘Nick,’ bringing it down and taking all 11 crewmen with it.
What happened with Gonna Maker was a common occurrence. The kamikazes lived to trade ‘one plane for one ship,’ but in the defense of the home islands, the Japanese were willing to also trade plane for plane, either as members of special attacking units or individually. There is a memorial to the crew of a B-29 at Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, who fell to a ramming by a Zero.
While walking around the first floor, I noticed what appeared to be a metal outline of an airplane on the ceiling but couldn’t make out what. Going upstairs I found the odd metal shape dominating the airspace over visitors to be the outline of a B-29 and beneath it on the floor was that of a Toryu/‘Nick,’ such as those based out of Tachiarai. There are many informative panels up there that cover the B-29 and the fighters used to intercept them, though all but one are in Japanese. From up there you can also get high shots of the Zero and admire the ‘Nate’ from another angle.
The special exhibition area upstairs was a bit of a surprise as the current display has pictures of Japan’s fire balloons or fu-go. Made of laminated mulberry parchment paper, these simple hydrogen-powered balloons were strapped with a few incendiary bombs and were intended to float on the jet stream from Japan to North American. Getting to the North American continent they were hoped to cause massive forest fires and create mass panic once American realized Japan could reach out and hurt them. Of the 9,000 balloons sent, only one resulted in casualties, killing six civilians going to a picnic in Oregon. The balloons would occasionally be found in the American wilderness for years after the war.
I believe the museum’s display is related to a recent lecture given by a woman who helped build the bombs as a schoolgirl. The women’s volunteer corps and schoolgirls near the Kokura Arsenal, which was the original target of the second atomic bomb, helped build balloon bombs. I found it interesting a Japanese museum would even broach the subject.
There’s a lot that can be studied and learned by visiting this museum for a single airfield: the evolution of aviation technology, flight training and how devastating a war can be. Air raids targeting military facilities dropped bombs that killed indiscriminately, fighters scrambled to protect their homes and fought desperately. Desperate times led to more desperate actions, the willingness to use suicide attacks and fire balloons in hopes it would make a difference.
Before leaving, you can also try your hand at making a paper crane to be put on a string of cranes in the memorial room. Japanese tradition holds that when a thousand paper cranes are folded, a person can make a wish. And so, in places such as this, it’s associated with a wish for peace. After showing the ugliness of war, it’s easy to see how and why the museum’s overarching message is the importance of peace.
Because so little of the museum is in English I hope this article can be used as a supplement to better understand it if you choose to visit.
For more to see in the area related to the air field there is a map at the museum’s website, which is Japanese language only, but an online translator works fine on it. It’s interesting to note one of the nearby roads was originally a runway.
HOW TO GET THERE
To get to Tachairai from Sasebo by train I took the JR line to Tosu, switch to a local train for Kiyama and at Kiyama switched to the Amagi Railway Line for Tachiarai. The train station is home to the Tachiarai Retro Station whose collection of technology and common items of life during the early to mid-20th century complements the larger Peace Memorial Museum just across the street. With the T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer mounted out front, it feels like it should be a Route 66 diner or gas station from the 1950s, even passing by in a car the Retro Station is impossible to miss.
If you are interested in seeing a Toryu for yourself, the only one I am aware of is in the Smithsonian Air & Space Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., near Dulles International Airport. It has a pair of cannons pointing up out of the cockpit and was intended for shooting down B-29s from below. It is situated beside the world’s most famous B-29, Enola Gay.
Chikuzenmachi Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum
ADDRESS: 2561-1 Takada, Chikuzen-machi, Asakura-gun, Fukuoka prefecture
Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
CLOSED: Dec. 29 - Jan. 3
FEE: Adult 500 yen
Website: http://tachiarai-heiwa.jp (Japanese only)