Bidders vie for a piece of aviation history
By William Cole | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: March 7, 2014
HONOLULU — A rare piece of Pearl Harbor's Dec. 7, 1941, history that even the USS Arizona Memorial museum would like to have in its collection is up for sale on eBay.
What is believed by experts to be the stenciled fuselage serial number from Japanese Petty Officer 1st Class Takeshi Hirano's crashed A6M2 Zero fighter started at the bargain-basement price of 99 cents Tuesday.
As of Thursday evening the nearly 9-inch serial number 5289, its ragged aluminum edges looking like it was cut out with a can opener, was at $610 with four days left.
Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the Arizona Memorial, said the relic, which he calls "very rare," has a far greater value.
"Certainly people have the right to sell artifacts on eBay, but something as important, something that can relate directly to the Pearl Harbor attack, has its value and importance for future generations when it's held by a museum authority that will preserve it and protect it for future generations," Martinez said. "Once something like that is purchased privately, very rarely does it get donated."
The serial number stencil has taken a nearly 73-year journey since Hirano's Zero violently careened into palm trees and a group of coast artillery men at the entrance of an ordnance machine shop on Fort Kamehameha, which later became Hickam Air Force Base.
"The engine, with its bent propellers, mowed down one group of soldiers. Other men were struck by the fuselage and/or wings on the ramp or pinned against the building," wrote military researcher Jim Lansdale.
Somehow, the fuselage stencil came into the possession of Jack Dodd, who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on Oahu, and then his granddaughter in Southern California, and then into a pawnshop, and then onto eBay, according to the pawnshop's owner, Noel Goetz.
Goetz said he was consigned the artifact by the owner, who decided to make a "leap of faith" by offering it on eBay at the starting price of 99 cents.
Martinez and other experts have looked closely at photos and concluded that the cut-out aluminum stencil from the Zero's fuselage is the real deal.
"There are a lot of people who have done the research on the provenance of this piece every way except downtown, and it's, to me in my mind, unquestionably (what it's advertised to be)," said Mike Wenger, a North Carolina-based military historian.
Wenger said another portion of the Zero's fuselage stencil abutting the part that's now for sale is known to be in the southern United States, "and somebody checked the cut marks out of that and it supposedly matches up," he said.
"But from the standpoint of the colors and the configuration of the stencil and everything, it appears to be what it is," Wenger said.
In the eBay picture, the fuselage marking looks practically brand new. They probably were at the time of the crash, Goetz said.
"That airplane was probably no more than 4 to 6 months old when it crashed," said Goetz, owner of Ponderosa Coin and Loan in Beaumont, Calif.
For many years after that, the stencil was "stored in an envelope and filed away," he said, adding, "It hasn't been in the sunlight."
So how rare is it?
"I know that there are any number of collectors all over the country that collect airframe data plates and collect things with aircraft serials on them," said Wenger, the military historian. "There are some of those that exist for Pearl Harbor, but (this) is as close to being a unique piece as you'll ever find."
Goetz said he's known the owner, who doesn't want to be identified, for a long time, and for years she was the caretaker of his mother.
The owner's mother, Marianne Dodd, moved to Hawaii at 13 with her parents, Jack and Alice Dodd, in 1940, he said.
Some of the provenance in the sale of the aircraft stencil includes copies of family photos and excerpts of an account of the family's time in Hawaii put together by Marianne.
She recounts how beautiful the islands were on arrival in Honolulu Harbor on July 2, 1940, and how her father, who had come earlier, showed her Pearl Harbor and where he worked.
The family rented a big house at 602 Judd St. and took in boarders. At the time, her father was working for the Corps of Engineers at Schofield Barracks.
Then came Dec. 7, 1941, and everything changed.
"A few of the boarders were welders and they worked day and night on the bottom of the overturned Arizona and other ships, trying to cut into and save the trapped men," Marianne wrote. "They would hear tapping from inside the hulls, but after a few days, the tapping stopped. There were some saved, then they took bodies out and the smell was so bad, the boarders came home so tired and from the smell, could not eat."
According to Pearl Harbor historian David Aiken, Hirano and another pilot shot down the first plane of the new war with America a civilian Piper Cub. Hirano and other Zeroes also strafed John Rodgers and Hickam fields, Aiken said.
A map taken from the dead Hirano had courses laid out on it that gave clues to the location of the Japanese fleet.
Goetz said the owner can't afford to donate the artifact to a museum.
Martinez, who is with the World War II Valor in the Pacific monument, said the stencil is "part of the fabric of history."
"The owner can make those kind of decisions (to sell the piece)," Martinez said, "but it would be nice if someone purchased it and then donated it to us."