Are there any photos of Japan’s World War II “invasion fleet?”

How to hide thousands of airplanes.

Battle of Pearl Harbor and the Malay Coast
A frame from the 1942 Japanese film "Battle of Pearl Harbor and the Malay Coast" showing a Nakajima B5N1 "Kate" bomber taking off from an aircraft carrier. NASM, SI Neg. #9A00157

Bob Bartell, a retired airline pilot and WW2 buff from Palm City, Florida, asks: "I have heard several times about thousands of Japanese aircraft discovered in caves that were to be used in an invasion against the U.S., but never have seen photos of this mass fleet. Do any exist?"

Turns out there's some debate about the size of this fleet, which most historians say included large numbers of airplanes hidden in caves and grottoes on Kyushu and southern Honshu. But the lack of photographic records leaves at least one long-time researcher doubtful.

Bob Mikesh, a former curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, has been researching Japanese aircraft since the 1950s, and has pored over the photos in the National Archives' Army Signal Corps collection and at the Strategic Air Command. He's never laid eyes on a photo of a cave-full of Japanese aircraft waiting for the invasion.

"It makes me ask, were the airplanes [even] there to be photographed?" asks the former curator, who still volunteers at the Smithsonian's Paul E. Garber Preservation Restoration and storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. "I've never seen anything to substantiate the thousands of aircraft that Japan was believed to have at the end of the war."

Jon Parshall, a Naval War College lecturer and co-author of Shattered Sword, about the battle of Midway, says that thousands of Japanese airplanes did in fact exist in reserve. The types spanned the gamut from older combat models like the Aichi D3A1 "Val" and Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" (Japan's warplanes were assigned code names by the Allies) up to modern fighters like the Kawasaki Ki-61 "Tony" and Nakajima Ki-84 "Frank."

"They were intended for use in kamikaze attacks against the American invasion fleet, which the Japanese correctly assumed was going to be deployed against Kyushu at some point in late 1945 or early 1946," Parshall says. But, he adds, they were never used because the Japanese fuel situation was so dire they couldn't even fly normal (i.e. round trip) sorties for defending the homeland.

Mikesh has seen aerial intelligence photos taken of airplanes hiding from American attacks under trees and along rural roads, but has never run across a view of a substantial cache in a grotto. Parshall notes that Japanese aircraft were widely dispersed to avoid detection—"a handful in a small cave here, another couple stuffed in a warehouse there, and so on....In many cases the ‘airfield' they were going to use was a dirt strip, or an improved road that had been widened enough to serve as a take-off point," he says.

So finding that perfect photo of the last-ditch kamikaze fleet, all assembled in a neat line and ready to go, may be impossible. It would more likely look like a lot of individual airplanes tucked under palm trees, circa 1945. So where does that leave Bob Bartell's quest to find a photo that tells the tale? "Tell him to join the crowd," Mikesh says.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.