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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, April 10, 2000

Star-Bulletin photo
A6M3 Zero in late-war camouflage, which is incorrect
for the Pearl Harbor time period. See "Wat Dat"
for actual paint scheme.

Off & on target

With war as a backdrop for its
romantic story line, 'Pearl Harbor'
aims for authentic but is a
smidge off the mark

Bullet Fires will burn at Pearl Harbor this week
as explosions and air battles are
recreated on film.

By Burl Burlingame


YOU can't judge a book by its cover, or an elephant by touching it with your eyes closed, so there's absolutely no clue what kind of film "Pearl Harbor" will turn out to be until it's showing in your neighborhood cineplex. Movies are far too collaborative and iffy a process to prejudge. We can only hope it will be a breathtaking dramatic masterpiece, a work of cinematic genius, and will sell lots and lots of tickets.

But because the producers have claimed absolute authenticity, and fidelity to the reality of the event, we took a look at the work in progress, armed only with the sort of basic knowledge that an average 12-year-old model-building nerd would have access to.

The good, the bad, the ugly

Good news is, they're trying.

Bad news is, they're not trying hard enough.

No matter what your filmmaking budget is, you can't recreate a war. You can only create an impression of it in brief snippets. And "Pearl Harbor" isn't really about Pearl Harbor -- it's an adventure/romance in which everything blows up at the end. It could just as easily been titled "Leyte" or "Crecy" or "Manassas" or "Barbarossa," but those would have been a hard sell to today's audience demographic. Almost everyone has heard of the Pearl Harbor attack. Only the John F. Kennedy assassination has inspired more authors.

Star-Bulletin photo
Above, Zeros shoot up Ford Island during a strafing run.

In fact, "Final Countdown," a 1980s film about a modern aircraft carrier thrust back in time, was greenlighted by studios only after the screenwriter changed the scenario from the Battle of Jutland to Pearl Harbor. The unexpected and furious assault on snoozing Americans at Pearl Harbor is part of our national mythology.

Which is why getting the details wrong is more annoying than it usually is.

Ford Island has been transformed into a closed set, with the centerpiece being the "18th Squadron" headquarters (presumably based on the 18th Pursuit Group, stationed at Wheeler Field) at the base of the rusting control tower. Everything is dilapidated-looking, and the run-down condition must have delighted set dressers who believe that anything set in the past must be "old" looking.

In fact, most of Pearl Harbor was brand spanking new in 1941, and the base was in a ramp-up building program. One feature of the base in 1941 were piles and piles of lumber, used for new construction.



Pearl Harbor: The filming begins
from Friday's

Also, although the Navy and Army had previously shared use of Ford Island, by 1941 the Army had moved out, relocating at Hickam. The flight line at Wheeler, however, has not changed appreciably since it was built in the '20s. It looks just like it did in '41. According to the shooting schedule, however, the filming at Wheeler will concentrate on Zeros chasing after cars, which never happened.

(Nearby Schofield Barracks, despite what you saw in "From Here to Eternity," was never attacked by the Japanese.)

Ship shape

Some ships in Pearl Harbor are being used as stand-ins, such as the frigate Whipple pretending to be battleship Oklahoma. It's the wrong size, shape and color, and the tophamper is 1980s vintage, but maybe they're only shooting close-ups. In which case the modern Navy gray is incorrect. In 1941, all ships at Pearl Harbor were either in the camouflage scheme Measure #1 -- a charcoal-gray color -- or Measure #11 -- a dark blue.

The filmmakers have assembled a fleet of olive-drab vehicles on Ford Island, including the ubiquitous Jeeps, M43 ambulances (OK, they're post-war, but they're based on the WWII Dodge Power Wagon), Dodge WC23 command cars and a WC51 weapons carrier, what appears to be a GMC CCKW 6X6 truck and some post-war 6X6s as well.

In 1941, Army vehicles were properly painted with olive-drab camouflage and dark blue serials, and white or yellow stars were quite rare. And Jeeps didn't arrive in Hawaii until after the attack.

The uniforms are generic khaki, with WWI-style piepan helmets. Uniform experts will probably quibble over stuff like shoulder patches, but most of the extras we saw were wearing ripped and bloody uniforms.

Plane truth

But the meat of the production is the aircraft. The flightlines of Army fields in Hawaii in 1941 were filled with P-36 and P-40B fighters (essentially the same aircraft with different engines), whale-like O-47s, B-18 medium bombers and a sprinkling of new and obsolete types such as the B-17, A-26, P-26 and P-12. Most were newly camouflaged in olive drab and neutral gray colors; the B-18s were only partially painted. Many were in shiny aluminum.

"Pearl Harbor" is sticking solely to the P-40, using late-war P-40Ns to stand in for the early-war P-40Bs. Because there are virtually no P-40Bs left and quite a few P-40Ns, that's understandable. They look quite a bit different; the P-40B was chunkier and more shark-like, the P-40N had a slimmer fuselage and a deeply cowled engine.

Star-Bulletin photo
Extras wander around the set of "Pearl Harbor."

The cockpit area on the P-40B had manufacturer Curtiss Aircraft's trademarked teardrop-shaped rear window, while the P-40N had a more traditional canopy. The filmmakers have elected to simply paint over the rear window, making the plane look like neither version.

There are a dozen or so fake P-40Ns made of urethane foam that wiggle in the wind. They are painted and weathered in various shades of dirty olive drab. In 1941, however, these planes would have been pristine, highly cared for by ground crews.

Amusingly, they have fake data blocks painted on the fuselage side for P-40Es, also the wrong type for the Pearl Harbor time period, but the kind used in "Tora Tora Tora."

The Japanese aircraft all have extremely bright, almost fluorescent, red paint on the hinomaru, the Japanese disk insignia, as well as the single red fuselage stripe indicating the aircraft are from the aircraft carrier Akagi. (Other carriers had different numbers of stripes or colors.)

There are a couple of B5N "Kate" replica torpedo bombers with bogus katakana painted on the fuselage sides. They're painted dark green, and since several Kates had green and brown paint swabbed on with mops during the voyage to Hawaii, they look acceptable.

These planes are almost certainly ex-"Tora Tora Tora" birds, converted from American BT-13 trainers. The torpedos look good, properly painted in silver, with a wooden tailfin addition that allowed the torpedoes to skim the shallow waters of Pearl. The torpedo nose is black, however, and it's not known whether this was a temporary covering or not. A surviving Japanese torpedo found in Pearl Harbor a few years ago was destroyed by the Navy before it could be examined.

The torpedo is hanging far too low. Real Kates had them snuggled up next to the fuselage, and carried off-center. But there may be a good aerodynamic reason the replicas are carrying their loads this way.

Star-Bulletin photo
One wing of this fake B-40, made of foam, is
buckling under its own weight.

There are at least three D3A "Val" replica dive bombers, at least one of which was converted from a BT-15 only two months ago at the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, Calif. The other two are likely ex-"Tora" birds converted from BT-13s. Despite all the work converting them, they have a peculiarly humped, angular appearance that doesn't match the Val's graceful lines.

All Vals are close to the proper Imperial Japanese Navy light gray shade, a color that, even when found on wreckage today, looks like it was just applied. One plane is painted as AI-201, flown by Lt. Zenji Abe, a frequent visitor to the Arizona Memorial. It's missing some red tail stripes, though.

Another has the single blue stripe used by planes from the carrier Soryu, and the third has two red fuselage stripes, indicating it's from the carrier Kaga, but the tail code of EI-231 is for carrier Shokaku. Oops.

The Vals have funky-looking bombs hanging underneath that look like a rocketship from a Flash Gordon serial. They and the Kates also have smiling mannequins in the rear seats, which probably makes the aviation insurance carrier happy.

The "Pearl Harbor" production is also using, bless them, real Japanese Zeros. They are later variants of the type used at Pearl Harbor, but the primary differences are relatively minor (shorter wingspans, repositioned airscoop in the cowl, "speed" exhausts, armament, etc.) and they are unmistakably the silhouette of one of the most famous aircraft designs in history. One plane, an A6M5 owned by Steve Hinton, actually has an original Sakae engine installed, which sounds different than the Pratt & Whitney R-1830s installed in the other two aircraft, which are A6M3s.

Star-Bulletin photo
Wrecked M43 ambulance hit during strafing attack.

Last laugh

But ...

This is offset by an astounding blunder, the filmmakers' choice of camouflage for the Zeros, a late-war green over gray scheme that is absolutely incorrect for the Pearl Harbor period. Zeros for the first year of the war (the United States' first year of the war, that is) remained a light gray color. Look at the drawing in "WatDat?" to see what a Pearl Harbor Zero should look like.

The choice must be deliberate. No Pearl Harbor history ever printed has depicted Zeros in this way. It doesn't even work cinematically; the enemy Zeros now look more like the P-40s, which are similarly painted.

It's the little things that bite you in butt, and this screw-up will have armchair historians and airplane buffs pointing at the screen and laughing. And now you can too.

Illustration by Burl Burlingame
The colors and markings of this A6M2 Zero are the ones
that would have been seen in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Zeroing in on
the real thing

Burl Burlingame


We're seeing something in the skies over Oahu that hasn't been here since Dec. 7, 1941 -- honest-to-gosh Zeros. Those things you saw in "Tora Tora Tora" and "In Harm's Way" and a dozen other Wat Dat?WWII movies shot in the islands were actually American T-6 trainers, which look like the lean, mean Zero only if they're whizzing by in a blur.

Jiro Horikoshi's design for the Mitsubishi company had its roots in an Imperial Navy demand for a fighter plane that could keep up with bombers over the vast reaches of China, fit on a carrier, carry a cannon and remain as maneuverable as a biplane fighter. Horikoshi tossed out anything remotely heavy, like armor protection for the pilot.

The Zero could fly remarkable distances, often more than a thousand miles and stay aloft 12 hours, easily doubling the capability of other fighters at the time.

The Zero was the Stealth fighter of the day. The Japanese military kept it as secret as possible. When Claire Chennault -- later head of the Flying Tigers -- sent descriptions of the plane to Washington in 1940, the War Department responded "Bunk. Such an airplane is an aerodynamic impossibility."

When Zeros appeared over Pearl Harbor, Americans scrambled to discover its secrets, and retrieved one in flyable condition from the Aleutians. One of Horikoshi's design secrets was never discovered by U.S. engineers -- the outer third of the wings are slightly twisted forward, disrupting the stability of the dihedral, or angle of the wings, and making the plane more agile.

The Zeros being used in the filming are A6M3 and A6M5 versions. The type used in 1941 was the A6M2 with longer wings. The "A" stands for a carrier-based fighter, the "6" for the sixth such fighter used by the Imperial Navy, and "M" for Mitsubishi, although most Zeros were manufactured by Nakajima.

Because the plane was introduced in 1940, in the Showa calendar year 2600, it was called the Type 00 ("zero-zero") or Rei Shiki Sento Ki, often shortened to "Rei-sen." The term "Zero-sen" is a corruption of the Japanese phrase.

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