“History is full of ignominious getaways by the great and famous.” ~ George Orwell
The A-6E Intruder, the Navy’s premier attack aircraft for 30 years and my initial fleet aircraft I few for four years from 1990-1994, was rather suddenly “retired” in the mid-1990s. At that time, since the Intruder’s “sundown” came so unexpectedly, several airframes were waiting re-winging at the Northrop Grumman facility at St. Augustine Airport, Florida. Unserviceable and not worthy of long-term storage, some 44 aircraft were later sunk off the coast of St. Johns County, Florida, starting on June 16, 1995 to form an artificial reef and fish haven named “Intruder Reef” or perhaps even “Naval Air Station Atlantis.” Burial at sea: a fitting end, or an ignominious one?
It has always amazed me at how such iconic aircraft, built in sometimes massive numbers, reach their final, often times ignominious end. During a visit to Okinawa’s Pineapple Park last year, I noticed a derelict aircraft I recognized sitting in the weeds of a field across the street. Upon further examination, this was indeed a T-33 of the Japanese Self Defense Force (JASDF), rotting away under the harsh skies of this sub-tropical island….
JASDF received a total of 68 T-33A Shooting Stars, better known as “T-Birds,” from the United States Air Force in 1955, serialized between 51-5601 and 51-5668. Later, Kawasaki was licensed to first assemble aircraft from components built in America, and then build aircraft from scratch. They went on to build 210 airframes between 1956-1959, with JASDF serials between 61-5201 and 91-5410. In Japan, the aircraft were known as “Wakataka” (“Young Hawk”), a name reflecting their primary role as a pilot trainer. Initially the Japanese used a natural metal color scheme, but began painting them silver in the 1960’s, while those in Okinawa (Naha airbase) were painted differently in an effort to avoid corrosion from the harsh environment found there.
Into the 1980s Japan maintained two jet training squadrons flying T-33As, the 33rd and the 35th. But other aircraft were operated by other operational squadrons in a proficiency and general support role. As amazing as it might sound the last of the JASDF T-33As were withdrawn only in 2000 after 40 years of continuous service; in the United States, the last NT-33 was retired only in 1997. A total of 6,557 Shooting Stars were produced, 5,691 by Lockheed, 210 by Kawasaki and 656 by Canadair.
In Nago, Okinawa, there used to be a military surplus store called “Ordnance Tactical“. It was a popular place for Marines based at Camp Schwab to have their combat gear customized or modified. For whatever reasons, two JASDF T-33s were purchased by the store’s owner. One, sitting out front and wearing very faded USAF markings, is a composite aircraft based on the former Japanese Air Defense Force fuselage from 81-5349, combined with the tail of 81-5382. Inside the shop, on a second story loft, was the cockpit of airframe 81-5345, which amazingly enough had most of the equipment, controls and instruments openly displayed for visitors to enjoy!
These aircraft were assigned to the 201st and 203rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron (2nd Air Wing) when they were outfitted with F-104Js at Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido, Japan. During the Cold War, the interceptors based there, being in such close proximity to the USSR, were tasked with keeping the “Soviet Menace” at bay.
But Hokkaido is a long way from Okinawa, and how these aircraft came to neglect under rather obscure private ownership is forgotten to time, as are probably most of the amazing stories these airframes could tell, if only they had a voice. From what I understand, the store in Nago has been razed and moved. It seems that 81-5349 and its associated engine have been sold, but this is hard to confirm, and one source says it has been sold for scrap. On the other hand, the cockpit display for 81-5345 found its way safely into storage in the shop’s warehouse, its final disposition unknown. For me, such ignominy seems not so far removed from burial at sea….