SALT LAKE CITY — The little-known story of a Utah man who oversaw a secret World War II mission to reconstruct and test Japanese aircraft has a prominent place in a new heritage site in Australia.
Clyde D. Gessel oversaw the assembling of Japanese Zeros from salvaged parts — "shot up junk" as he described it — at Eagle Farm airfield near Brisbane. The operation, authorized by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, played an important role in history and possibly changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
Linda Grow and her husband, Robert, were in Brisbane on Thursday to share part of her father's remarkable military service at the dedication of an interpretive center at Eagle Farm.
Grow spent the past five years supporting creation of the heritage site, which includes an 1800s women's prison, a testing and maintenance area for Allied aircraft engines, and Hangar No. 7 where Gessel worked.
"Hangar 7 is a tangible symbol of what men from our nations accomplished together in those dark days with courage, devotion and hard work to preserve the freedom we cherish," according to remarks Grow prepared for the event. "I hope Hangar 7 will stand forever in remembrance of our shared heritage and the enduring bonds of friendship between our two nations."
While Gessel's story is known Down Under — a street in Eagle Farm is named Clyde Gessel Place — it hasn't been told in his home state.
Grow said her father was a quiet man who never talked much about his secret mission. She discovered much of what she knows after he died in 2007.
Gessel was a young first lieutenant and civil engineer in the Army Air Corps from the small northern Utah town of Providence when he received orders in early 1943 to salvage parts from downed Japanese Zeros and reconstruct them to be tested against Allied fighters.
His orders to recover planes and notifying all military personnel to give him whatever help he requested came directly from MacArthur.
In early combat, the Japanese Zero gained legendary status as a dogfighter, with a kill ratio of 12 to 1. It became less effective as the war went on.
Gessel's crew of Americans and Australians recovered Japanese airplane parts and equipment in New Guinea and loaded them on a ship for Brisbane. In his history, Gessel described life in New Guinea as a "different type of existence."
"We ate and worked in large grass shack that the natives had built for us. We slept in tents, always under carefully arranged mosquito nets. The mosquitoes at night were numerous and bloodthirsty. We also had slit trenches for air raid protection," he wrote.
In Brisbane, the crew worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for six months to put together and test the first Japanese plane on July 20, 1943. They called the hangar the Air Intelligence Technical Unit.
"I was not an aeronautical engineer so we just used good common sense in trying to make the airframes stronger than the original structure," Gessel wrote in his history. "After getting one Japanese Zero completely airworthy, we flew it against our own planes in all sorts of tactical manuevers."
On Aug. 10 1943, he wrote in his journal, "We have flown the (Japanese) airplane six flights. Quite a feat after putting together a mass of shot up junk."
As a result of the operation, Allied planes were told to avoid dogfighting with the lighter more agile Zeros and use tactics to improve their defenses against the Japanese fighters.
Gessel's crew also identified production rates, manufacturing sites and supply lines from the engine parts, allowing Allied bombers to hit specific targets in Japan.
Their work also led to improved designs for Allied fighter planes.
Grow said her father and his crew worked with a sense of urgency to provide information that would save Allied lives and possibly bring an earlier end to the war.