Back from the dead
The resurrection of a long lost Japanese tank
Article by Oliver Barnham
You will probably have heard of the fantasy Spitfires; the cache of Spitfires buried ‘somewhere in Burma’, just waiting to be disinterred and returned to flying condition. It was a myth of course, but it fooled a lot of people and attracted world-wide interest.
The Spitfire saga was false news, but what follows here is the true story of how the Americans buried 20 Japanese Ha- Go tanks on Ponapi Island in the Pacific at the end of World War II. And how, 25 years later in 1970, a landslide revealed them and they were dug up. The discovery of this ‘Ha- Go hoard’ passed un-noticed at the time (except in Japan) as interest in WWII vehicles was fairly minimal then. Not so today.
Of the 20 Ha- Gos that were brought to light, 19 are still on the island. Just one was exported. It went to Japan where it spent the next 30 years on display at the Kyoto War Museum. This quiet life ended in 2000 when the museum was forced to close following the acquisition of their site for redevelopment. After the closure, the museum’s exhibits were scattered and I was offered the tank and, in a moment of folly, bought it.
To briefly describe a Ha- Go; it is a small 8 ton tank with a 3-man crew, a 37mm gun and a 15 litre air-cooled diesel engine. Ha- Gos were built by Mitsubishi who made 1,200 between 1935 and 1943. The Japanese army used them in every theatre of the Pacific War, and Ha- Gos stayed in service right up until the end, even though they had been outclassed long before then.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Japanese were busily expanding their empire. They had already taken Taiwan and Korea, and they now took Manchuria in north east China, and concurrently set about colonising all the available islands of the Pacific, which brings us back to Ponapi.
Ponapi is part of the Caroline group of islands in the central Pacific, in what is today the Federated States of Micronesia. It is about the size of the Isle of Wight. It was once volcanic, and is largely composed of hard basalt rock; steep hills, narrow valleys and knife edge ridges … all covered in jungle.
Before WWI, Ponapi had been a German colony. It was then handed to the Japanese to administer, and the Japanese methodically started filling it with settlers with a view to turning it into a permanent outpost of their empire. By 1941, there were 6000 local Ponapians living on the island, which they now shared with 14,000 Japanese – 8,000 servicemen and 6,000 civilian settlers. Since their arrival, these new settlers had been busy clearing the jungle for agriculture. They expanded the capital (Kolonia) and they built roads, reservoirs, a power station, paddy fields, a sugar refinery and so on… and they built air fields and fortifications.
As for my Ha- Go. It started its military career in 1943 as part of the batch of 20 Ha-gos (a mixed group of Mark IIs and Mark IIIs) sent to Ponapi to strengthen the Japanese garrison. These tanks never saw action as the Americans by-passed the area, and left Ponapi and the surrounding islands to starve.
Today, there are approximately 60 known Ha- Gos left in the world. Most of these are wrecks scattered about the Pacific, but there are about a dozen preserved examples in museums here and there. Most of these have motors in relic condition, but a tiny number still have complete engines and gearboxes. To a collector these are very rare beasts; hence my excitement, when I was able to lay my hands on one.
Having acquired my Ha- Go, the previous owners arranged a Shinto ceremony to ensure that any spirits trapped around it could finally rest in peace. Once this had been done, the tank sailed off to England.
When it arrived in UK, I had a really good look at the tank for the first time, and it didn’t look too bad. The wings and external tinware were missing, but the hull was intact. The turret, main gun and hatches were still in place, as were the road wheels and tracks. But everything was rusted solid.
When I got inside the Ha- Go, I felt like an archeologist exploring an untouched Egyptian tomb. It had never been cleaned, and looked like the inside of a sunken submarine. Everything was still there, but in ruinous condition. The instrument panels were still in place. There were magazines in the ammunition racks. There were tools on the floor and the batteries were still full of acid.
My plan was to preserve the tank as a static ‘non-runner’. But before putting it on display, I showed it to Robert Lewszyk, an engineer who runs a workshop in Poland which specialises in restoring old military vehicles. To everyones’ surprise, after taking a careful look at the tank’s engine and gear boxes, Robert announced that they were still full of oil, and he bet me that he could make them all work again. I accepted the bet and sent the tank to Poland to be given a new lease of life.
The rebuild was a challenge and took 10 years. Before starting work we had to assemble a critical mass of reference material. Getting our hands on this was difficult. Plenty of original manuals and good modern books exist on WWII German and Allied tanks, but this is not the case with wartime Japanese vehicles. But we got off to a good start by obtaining a copy of an original Ha-go driver’s manual from the archive at the Tank Museum in Bovington, and by sheer luck we discovered a roll of Ha- Go blueprints in America. To supplement this, we were able to obtain copies of wartime British, Russian and Australian intelligence reports.
Paperwork aside, we had problems finding missing parts. But with patience and the help of friends, we were able to source most of what we needed from Asian battlefields and army firing ranges… and we were able to borrow parts to copy. As we progressed, we learnt the hard way about the differences between the Mark II and the Mark III Ha- Go. There was no guide book to explain what was interchangeable and what was not. This created great confusion and caused us to waste a lot of time.
Our restoration philosophy was to keep original metalwork and materials wherever possible, and to repair damaged parts rather than replace them. We remained true to this objective although we had to incorporate a few new ‘look alike’ components to complete the job.
And so we finally got under way. Luckily we were not alone as, at the time of our reconstruction, museums elsewhere in the world (in Australia, USA and Russia) were also restoring Ha- Go tanks and we were able to help each other.
Midway through our rebuild, Japanese enthusiasts found out about our work and took a great interest in what we were doing. Ha-gos were the most important Japanese tank of WWII, and there was not a single example left in the country. Mr Kobayashi, the director of the new Defence Technology Museum at Gotemba City in Shizuoka prefecture vowed to correct this, and he negotiated with me to acquire the tank when we finished it, and to take it home.
So now our task is done, and the tank is running for the first time in 75 years. It is 90% original and looking remarkably neat and tidy. Fulsome thanks are due to Robert Lewszyk and his people for achieving this miracle.