At Oahu museum, a piece of WWII history on the mend

The remains of a Japanese Nakajima B5N Bomber, shown with a World War II torpedo, at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor.
The remains of a Japanese Nakajima B5N Bomber, shown with a World War II torpedo, at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor.
Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Dec. 7 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Oahu’s Pacific Aviation Museum has begun a public renovation on the most complete remaining example of critical aircraft used during the aerial assault, the Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber.

Kenneth DeHoff, executive director of the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, said nearly 1,150 B5Ns were built in the years leading up to World War II and during the conflict, but his institution’s bomber is really the only close-to-complete version that has survived the decades following the war.

“Wherever someone is coming from, this is a piece of history they’re not going to see someplace else,” DeHoff said of the plane.

“It was never wrecked,” he added. “It has a couple of bullet hole patches on it, but it was a flyable airplane. When the war was over, like they did with so many of the [surrendered aircraft], they just pushed it off the runway and abandoned it.”

Nicknamed “Kate” by the allies during the war, dozens of B5Ns were involved in the imperial Japanese navy’s attack on Oahu’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, and one of those Nakajima torpedo bombers dropped the high-altitude bomb that did so much damage to the USS Arizona, sinking the battleship and killing 1,177 U.S. sailors and Marines.

“This is probably one of the most fantastic airplanes that participated in the early part of World War II in the Pacific,” DeHoff said of the B5N. “It caused more death and destruction than any other aircraft, and it’s a one of a kind for us. There are no more, so we are honored to have it and restore it and get it to a display quality.”

The museum’s plane was not used during the attack on Pearl Harbor and was actually built in 1942, according to DeHoff. But as the sole remaining, nearly complete example of the unique aircraft, it is a major get for the institution. DeHoff expects the renovation will likely take up to five years, but he’s encouraging Oahu visitors to come view the work’s progress in person.

“Just to get the damaged part of it on display so people can see it is a real thrill for us,” he said, referencing the museum’s restoration hangar where work on the B5N is now being done. “We will be restoring this as an exhibit, and we will be working on the airplane and talking to visitors as they go by.”

DeHoff said the Pacific Aviation Museum’s B5N surrendered a few months after the official end to World War II. The plane then sat near a runway in New Zealand, where it made its last landing more than 70 years ago. Many key parts and pieces were removed over time, some likely taken as war souvenirs. DeHoff believes the museum’s restoration team will be able to fabricate most of the replacement parts required to bring the aircraft up to exhibition quality, but he hopes to get a little help from other aviation buffs, as well.

“I think as we do the restoration on this, there will be a lot of people that come out of the woodwork that say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a piece of that’ or ‘I’ve got a part that came off of one,’ and they will donate to the museum,” he said. “We really want to encourage that.”

Just a short shuttle ride from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, the Pacific Aviation Museum is located on Ford Island, where the first bombs fell during the Japanese attack in 1941. Museum visitors can tour historic Hangars 37 and 79, where bullet holes from the attack remain and most of the institution’s 50-plus aircraft are housed, including the in-progress restoration site for the B5N bomber.

The gorgeous museum is also home to a lively collection of interactive exhibits and interprets all sorts of history beyond the Pearl Harbor attack, including Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, the Battle of Midway and even Amelia Earhart’s 1937 crash landing at Ford Island.
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