One of the most obscure aircraft of World War II, the Mitsubishi J8M1 Shusui, survives today only through remarkable happenstance. The Shusui is a Japanese copy of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, a rocket-powered interceptor produced late in the war to defend German cities from Allied bombers. In 1943, Japanese military attachés, knowing that U.S. B-29s would soon be unleashed against the home islands, bought the Komet design from the Germans. By August 1945, however, only a few pre-production models had been built.
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There are two places in the world today where the rare Shusui aircraft can be seen. One is the Mitsubishi factory museum in Komaki, Japan, where a damaged Shusui discovered in a Japanese cave in the 1960s has been restored for display. The other, thanks to the foresight of a teenager who spotted the craft in a southern California storage yard, is the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. The 19-year-old who recognized in 1948 an aircraft that few would know even today (the owner of the storage facility thought it might be some kind of boat) was Ed Maloney. The Shusui, which had been captured by U.S. forces and brought to the States, became the first artifact in his now world-famous collection of 150 aircraft. A Mitsubishi team traveled to Chino to measure Maloney's Shusui so they could complete the restoration of their airplane.
On certain days of the week, a visitor is likely to spot the tall, erect figure of Edward T. Maloney busying himself around the Planes of Fame museum, chatting with visitors, or rearranging some of the hundreds of finely crafted scale models of aircraft in glass cases that line the sides of some of the hangars. Many of the models, which depict the evolution of aircraft from the 1903 Wright Flyer through the Lockheed Martin F-22, were created by Maloney himself.
"I had been building models since I was seven years old," he recalls. "I remember the Jimmy Allen club, used to be on radio. Richfield Oil sponsored them Monday through Friday. You could send in and become a member and they would send you pictures and things like that."
Maloney was one of the first to see the need to save historic airplanes. A high school student during World War II, he was too young for the military, but he joined the Civil Air Patrol and learned to fly. In 1946, when he was a high school senior, he made a trip to Cal-Aero at the Chino airport, one of the largest collection points in California for surplus military aircraft. That same year, he had seen William Wyler's Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler had filmed a sequence at Cal-Aero, in which rows of abandoned, engine-less World War II airplanes symbolize returning airmen and soldiers who were lost in civilian life, victims of American indifference. The scene made a powerful impression on Maloney. And what he saw at Cal-Aero—row after row of airplanes being auctioned to scrappers by the hundreds—cemented his determination to save as many examples of warplanes as he could.
Maloney is ordinarily even-tempered, but his voice tightens with anger and disgust when he describes how the airplanes were melted down to be sold as scrap aluminum. "They made ingots out of them," he recalls. "They'd just stack them up with forklifts as high as a building. It was just mind-boggling." Later, he spoke of the recycling going on today at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard in Tucson, Arizona: "I go down there and it makes me sick. They don't smelt them anymore. They have a new machine down there now; it nibbles the parts off airplanes. It's a terrible sight to see an airplane nibbled to death."
In 1948, while he was working in his father's automobile repair shop, Maloney bought the Shusui for the cost of its unpaid storage charges. "I wanted to start a museum," he says. "Somebody had to start it or it wouldn't get done." Almost 10 years later, he opened one in Claremont, California. Last year, it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
"I charged a dollar admission," Maloney says of the early years. "Of course, I had the model collection and engines on display, all kinds of aeronautical items in showcases." Besides the Shusui, Maloney had bought a 1928 Boeing P-12E, a U.S. Army biplane fighter with an all-metal fuselage; a Japanese rocket-powered kamikaze Ohka; and, today one of the most famous flying aircraft in the collection, a Northrop N-9MB Flying Wing. (It became airworthy in 1994; see "And Then There Was One," Feb./Mar. 2007.) "We also had a Bell P-59 and a Chanute glider," Maloney says. "Got the doors open anyhow. It was always my intention to have flyable aircraft, but that would have to come later because we didn't have a cadre of pilots at that time." Today, about a third of the museum's aircraft are flyable.
For his first purchases, Maloney paid scrap prices. "Aluminum was going for 25 or 30 cents a pound," he says. "At the time, P-51s were going for fifteen hundred dollars." He bought airplanes as well as bits and pieces of airplanes. In the 10 years before he opened the museum, he stored his collection in his own back yard and wherever else he could find space.
Six years passed after the opening before Maloney could devote his full time to the museum. "I held two jobs," he says, recalling the day job in his dad's shop. "I worked nights and weekends on the airplanes. I hired a retiree to keep the museum open during the days. I didn't take any salary. The museum paid for the rent and the electric bill, primarily."
Meanwhile, he made some trips to study what other museums were doing and was discouraged by what he saw. He visited the Smithsonian, which he recalls had some interesting airplanes in an old Quonset hut on the National Mall. He visited the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio, hadn't opened by that time. "Everybody was pretty short on aircraft," he recalls.