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A Miracle of Maritime Salvage: The Salvage of the Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more interesting aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack were the efforts of the US Navy to salvage and return to duty the ships sunk or so heavily damaged that they were thought to be irreparable after the attack. 19 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, or roughly 20% of the fleet present on December 7th 1941. Unlike other great feats of maritime salvage like that of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow after the First World War, this massive effort led to the majority of the ships being returned to an operational status for further service in the war.

Captain Homer Wallin directing Salvage Operations

Many people know something about the attack, but one of the most remarkable aspects of it was the effort to salvage the fleet in the months following the attack. Under the leadership of Captain Homer N. Wallin teams of Navy and civilian divers from the Pacific Bridge Company worked day and night to salvage the sunken ships. The divers spent over 20,000 man hours under water in the highly hazardous waters; which were filled with unexploded ordinance, and contaminated by fuel and sadly decomposing human bodies. Wallin wrote: “The scene to the newcomer was foreboding indeed. There was a general feeling of depression throughout the Pearl Harbor area when it was seen and firmly believed that none of the ships sunk would ever fight again.”

The divers wore were rubberized coveralls with gloves. The divers were equipped with a lead-weighted belt which weighed 84 pounds and lead-weighted shoes, each of which weighed 36 pounds. Each diver wore a copper helmet attached to a breastplate. Air was supplied through a hose which was attached to the helmet and ran up to a compressor monitored by men on the surface. The work was extremely hazardous, the wrecked ships contained numerous hazards, any of which could cut his air hose and cause his death, and they also contained highly toxic gasses. They often worked in total darkness and had to communicate with the men on the surface via a telephone cable. The divers had to be exceptionally talented to and needed a great amount of coordination senses and balance to work with welding torches, suction hoses, and heavy equipment in the confines of the shattered ships. During the salvage operations a number of divers lost their lives. Before the ships could be raised ammunition, including the massive 14 and 16 inch shells weighing anywhere from 1300 to 2000 pounds each, Japanese bombs and torpedoes, fuel oil, gasoline, electrical equipment and batteries, weapons, and whenever possible the bodies of the entombed crews had to be removed, and then every hole had to be patched to make them buoyant. After the ships were raised cleanup crews had to go aboard and clear the ships of other hazardous waste as repair crews began their work to repair the basic systems needed to get the ships to West Coast shipyards for the major overhauls, The herculean effort was one of the greatest engineering feats in maritime history.

Of these were battleships, the USS Arizona sunk by a cataclysmic explosion, her broken hulk with her collapsed foremast the iconic symbol of the attack. USS Oklahoma was capsized on Battleship Row.  USS Nevada was grounded and sunk off Hospital Point after an abortive attempt to sortie during the attack. USS California and USS West Virginia lay upright on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, their superstructure, distinctive cage masts and gun turrets visible above the oily water.

The former battleship USS Utah lay capsized on the far side of Ford Island while the light cruiser USS Raleigh was fighting for her life barely afloat near Utah.  The ancient Minelayer USS Oglala was laying on her side next to the light cruiser USS Helena at the 1010 Dock. She was not hit by a bomb or torpedo but was said to have “died of fright” when Helena was hit by a torpedo, the blast which opened the seams of her hull. The destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were wrecks in the main dry dock. USS Shaw was minus her bow in the floating dry dock after exploding in what was one of the more iconic images of the attack. Other ships received varying amounts of damage.

As the engineers, damage control and salvage experts looked at the damage they realized that every ship would be needed for the long term fight. The building program of the US Navy was just beginning to pick up steam and it would be some time before new construction could not only make up for the losses but also be ready to fight a Two Ocean War. The decision was made to salvage and return to duty any ship deemed salvageable.

Even the seemingly less important ships needed to be rapidly salvaged. Some which initially appeared to be unsalvageable needed at the minimum to be cleared from dry docks and docks needed by operational or less damaged ships. Likewise equipment, machinery and armaments from these ships needed to be salvaged for use in other ships.

Even by modern standards the efforts of the Navy divers and salvage experts and the civilians who worked alongside them were amazing. In the end only three of the 19 ships never returned to service. The work began quickly and on December 14th Commander James Steele began to direct the salvage operations on the sunken hulks. Captain Wallin relieved Steele on January 9th 1942. Wallin formed a salvage organization of Navy officers and civilian contractors. The civilian contractors were instrumental in the operation. Many of the civilians had experience in salvage operations, or underwater construction efforts, such as working on the Golden Gate Bridge which often exceeded the experience of the Navy divers.

The divers recovered bodies whenever possible, salvaged equipment, removed weapons and ammunition, made temporary repairs and help rig the ships for righting or re-floating. In each case the salvage experts, divers and engineers faced different challenges.

Arizona was never raised. Her superstructure was cut down, main battery and some anti-aircraft guns removed. The main batter guns were delivered to the Army Coastal Artillery for use as shore batteries but none reached an operational status before the end of the war. The dives aboard were so dangerous that eventually the attempts to recover bodies ceased as several divers lost their lives in the wreck.  Over the years the National Parks Service has continued to dive on the wreck to assess it as a war grave and memorial.

Utah too was not raised. She was righted in 1942 but efforts to do more were halted because the elderly wreck had no remaining military value. Her wreck along with that of Arizona are war graves, many of their crew members, including over 1000 of Arizona’s men forever remain entombed in their ships. When I visited Pearl Harbor in 1978 as a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet and visited both memorials I was humbled at what I saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

Nevada was the first major ship salvaged. She was re-floated in February 1942 and after temporary repairs sailed to the West Coast on her own power. After repairs and a significant modernization of her anti-aircraft systems was complete she returned to action in 1943 in the invasion of Attu Alaska. She participated in many amphibious operations including Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jim and Okinawa. She survived the Atomic Bomb tests in 1946 but wrecked and radioactive she was sunk as a target off Hawaii in 1948.

 

 

The salvage of the Oklahoma was one of the more challenging endeavors faced by Wallin’s men. Hit by at least five torpedoes during the attack the great ship capsized, her tripod masts digging deep into the mud of the harbor as she settled. Over 400 over her crew lay dead inside the ship. Since it was apparent that the ship was a total loss the salvage operations did not commence until the middle of 1942. The primary goal of the operation was to clear needed space for berthing large ships along Battleship Row. The operation involved making the ship as watertight as possible, solidifying the bottom of the harbor around her to enable her to roll and emplacing a massive system of righting frames, anchor chains and shore mounted winches and cables. The process involved cutting away wrecked superstructure, removing ammunition, weapons and the bodies of those entombed in their former home. She was completely righted in July 1943, and floated again in November. Moved to a dry dock in December she was made watertight and moored in another part of the harbor. Following the war she was being towed to a scrap yard but sank in a storm in May 1947.

California was raised in March and after temporary repairs sailed under her own power to the West Coast. Her repairs and modernization were a major undertaking. Fully reconditioned and modernized to standards of most modern battleships she returned to service in January 1944. She served in retaking Saipan, Guam, Tinian, as well as Leyte Gulf were she had a significant part in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Hit by a Kamikaze she was repaired and returned to action at Okinawa and support the occupation operations of the Japanese Home Islands. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrapping in 1959.

West Virginia suffered the most severe damage of the battleships returned to duty. She was raised in July 1942 and after repairs sailed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like California she was completely rebuilt and returned to action in October 1944 in time to take the lead role in destroying the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro. She served throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the occupation of Japan.

The Mahan Class destroyers Cassin and Downes were so badly damaged sitting in the Dry Dock Number One with Pennsylvania that initially they were believed beyond salvage. However after closer inspection it was determined that the hull fittings, main weapons systems and propulsion machinery on both ships were worth salvaging. These items were removed, shipped to Mare Island Naval Shipyard and installed on new hulls being constructed. The hulks of the old ships were scrapped at Pearl Harbor. Those ships were commissioned as the Cassin and Downes and served throughout the war.

Both were decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1947. Their sister ship Shaw which had blown up in the floating dry dock was wrecked from her bridge forward. However the rest of the ship including her engineering spaces were intact. A temporary bow was fashioned and the ship sailed to Mare Island under her own power. Completely overhauled she was back in service by July 1942. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

The ancient minelayer Oglala was raised in July and sent back to the West Coast where she was repaired and recommissioned as an internal combustion engine repair ship. She survived the war was decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Commission custody. She was a depot ship at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until 1965 when she was sold for scrap.

The salvage feat to return these ships to duty was one of the most remarkable operations of its type ever conducted. Not only were most of the ships salvaged but most returned to duty. While none survive today many played key roles during the war. Artifacts of some of the ships are on display at various Naval Bases, Museums and State Capitals. They, their brave crews and the Navy Divers and civilian diving and salvage experts who conducted this task exhibited the finest traditions of the US Navy. The successors of the Navy divers at Mobile Diving Salvage Units One and Two still carry on that tradition today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sailing for a Date With Infamy: The Kido Butai Sails to Pearl Harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is a blast from the past to remember the Japanese fleet that on this day some seventy-six years ago that was making its way across the Northern Pacific Ocean to attack the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In the coming week or so I will post more articles about that attack and what it means today both as a lesson in history as well as a warning.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

Early in the morning on November 26th 1941 the ships of the Japanese Carrier Strike Force, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo weighed anchor from Tankan Bay in the northern Kurile Islands of Japan. The plan was top secret and very few Japanese officers knew of the target. Many officers presumed that war was immanent but most assumed the target would be the Philippines or other targets in Southeast Asia.

It was an attack that was designed to be pre-emptive in nature. The plan was to deal the United States Navy such a crushing blow that the Japanese could complete their Asian conquests before it could recover. It was a plan of great risk that doomed Japan to horror never before imagined when the United States dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than four years later. By then the bulk of the Imperial Navy   would lay at the bottom of the Pacific and millions of people killed.

The Japanese, even Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the plan assumed that it entailed great risks. A simulation of the plan conducted in early September by the senior officers of the Combined Fleet and the Kido Butai calculated that two of Japan’s precious aircraft carriers could be lost in the operation. But despite the opposition and reservations of key officers, including the Kido Butai commander, Admiral Nagumo Yamamoto pressed forward.

The Kido Butai was the most powerful carrier strike group assembled up to that time. Comprised of six aircraft carriers, the massive flagship Akagi, and the Kaga, the fast 18,000 ton Soryu and Hiryu and the most modern Shokaku and Zuikaku. The carrier embarked over 400 aircraft, of which over 350 were to be used in the two aerial assault waves. Most of the pilots and aircrew were experienced, many with combat experience in China. The carriers were escorted by the old but fast and modernized battleships Kirishima and Hiei, the new heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, the light cruiser Abukuma, the new Kagero Class destroyers, Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Kagero and Shiranuhi,the Asashio classdestroyers Arare and Kasumi.Two additional destroyers the Fubuki class Sazanami and Ushiowere assigned to neutralize the American base on Midway Island. The submarines I-19, I-21and I-23 and 8 oilers were assigned to the force. Five additional submarines the I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24 each embarked a Type-A midget submarine.

On December 7th the force delivered a devastating blow to the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, however no American aircraft carriers were present. It would go on for the next several months on a rampage across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However their success would be short lived. Within a year Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu had been sunk at Midway by the carriers not present. Hiei and Kirishima were lost at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and over the course of the war every ship of the attack force was lost. Shokaku was torpedoed and sunk at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Zuikaku, Chikuma and Abukuma were lost at Leyte Gulf, most of the destroyers and submarines were lost in various engagements. However three destroyers, Isokaze, Hamakaze and Kasumi accompanied the great Battleship Yamato on her suicide mission at Okinawa and were sunk on April 7th 1945. The heavy cruiser Tone was sunk at her moorings at Kure during air strikes by the US 3rd Fleet on July 24th 1945. All of the submarines were lost during the war, however I-19 sank the USS Wasp CV-7 and USS O’Brien DD-415 while damaging the USS North Carolina BB-55 on September 15th 1942 off Guadalcanal. Only the destroyer Ushio survived the war and was broken up for scrap in 1948.

Wreck of the Heavy Cruise Tone 1945

Among the leaders of the Japanese strike force, Admiral Yamamoto was killed on April 18th 1943 when his aircraft was shot down at Buin. Nagumo died at Saipan on July 6th 1944.  Most of the sailors who took part in the attack would be dead by the end of the war.

Few present at Tankan Bay on that fateful November morning could have expected the triumph and tragedy ahead. However Yamamoto was probably more of a realist than many in the Japanese government and military leadership when he told Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” Yamamoto was eerily prophetic and those that counsel pre-emptive war need to never forget his words or the results of his decisions.

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf Part 5: The Suicidal Sortie of the Japanese Carriers

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am finishing up a series of posts about the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This one is about the Battle of Cape Engano in which a force of Japanese carriers with very few aircraft were used to lure the main part of the American Third Fleet under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey away from the vulnerable troop transports and supply ships supporting the invasion. Eventually I will write something about the epic Battle off Samar to conclude the series properly but that will have to wait.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

“TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS.” Admiral Nimitz to Admiral Halsey

After Admiral William “Bull” Halsey felt that he had heavily damaged the Japanese Center Force during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea he withdrew the Fast Battleships of Task Force 34 from the San Bernardino Strait in order to use them in a surface engagement against Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s Northern Force. Halsey assumed that Ozawa’s carriers were the main threat to the American invasion forces. However he did not know that Ozawa’s carriers had very few aircraft embarked and that the Northern force was in fact a decoy, designed to draw him away from Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center and the two task forces of the Southern force.

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The Zuikaku under attack at Cape Engano

When Halsey’s aircraft reported the Center force withdrawing he believed that the threat had been removed. He wrote in his memoirs “I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.” Thus he moved with haste to intercept, engage and destroy the Northern force and its carriers and battleships.  Halsey believed that his engagement against the Northern force would culminate when his fast battleships destroyed whatever Japanese surface forces remained.

It was not a bad assumption. Ever since the early days of the Pacific war the truly decisive engagements had been decided by carriers. Unfortunately for the American sailors of Taffy-3, the group of Escort Carriers, destroyers and destroyer escorts which encountered Kurita’s Center force which had doubled back overnight and passed through the San Bernardino Strait surprising Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s task group of “Jeep” Carriers.

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The Battle off Samar

The unequal battle that ensued off Samar was a near run thing for the Americans. Had Kurita not been confused about what forces he was facing and pressed his attacks he may have inflicted painful damage on the actual invasion forces. However after a morning of battle, in which Taffy-3’s destroyers, destroyer escorts, aircraft and even the Jeep carriers themselves inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese force Kurita withdrew.

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Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

However as Taffy-3 battled for its life against Kurita’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers Halsey’s carrier air groups were pounding Ozawa’s hapless carriers and their escorts. About 0800 on the 25th Kinkaid’s desperate messages began to reach Nimitz and Halsey. However since Halsey did not believe just how serious the situation was he continued to pursue Ozawa’s force. When he received Nimitz’s message he was incensed. The message “TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS was composed of three parts. The preface “Turkey trots to water” was padding, as was the last part “the world wonders.”

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Light Carrier Zuiho under attack

However the communications officer on Halsey’s flagship only removed the first section leaving “Where is Third Fleet, the world wonders.” Halsey was flabbergasted and though the battleships of Task Force 34 were almost in range of the Japanese force he sent them south to relieve Kinkaid’s beleaguered force. However by the time Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s battle line arrived Kurita had withdrawn, losing 3 heavy cruisers sunk, three heavy cruisers and one destroyer heavily damaged.

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Zuikaku being abandoned

All the Japanese carriers were sunk along with a light cruiser and a number of destroyers, but Kurita’s heavy forces escaped. Among the Japanese losses was the carrier Zuikaku the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack. Naval historian Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“If TF 34 had been detached a few hours earlier, after Kinkaid’s first urgent request for help, and had left the destroyers behind, since their fueling caused a delay of over two and a half hours, a powerful battle line of six modern battleships under the command of Admiral Lee, the most experienced battle squadron commander in the Navy, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait in time to have clashed with Kurita’s Center Force… Apart from the accidents common in naval warfare, there is every reason to suppose that Lee would have “crossed the T” and completed the destruction of Center Force.” 

USS Mobile 10

The Battle of Cape Engano closed the epic extended battle of Leyte Gulf. The victory of the US Navy was decisive even without the final destruction of Kurita’s forces. The remnants of the Japanese forces would never mount a serious offensive threat again. The survivors would be hunted down over the next 9 months, some sunk by submarines, other in surface engagements, still more to air attacks at Okinawa and in Japanese ports.

Halsey received much criticism for his decision to withdraw TF 34 from San Bernardino Strait. However in his defense the action exposed one of the key problems in any kind of warfare, the problem of seams. Kinkaid’s escort carriers belonged to 7th Fleet which came under the operational control of Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Region while Halsey commanded 3rd Fleet fell under Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific region. This created a situation where two fleets belonging to two regions under two separate commanders were attempting to fight a single battle. The principle of unity of command and unity of effort was violated with nearly disastrous results.

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf Part Four: The Divine Wind

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USS St Lo exploding after being hit by a Kamikaze

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Again I am taking some time off the Presidential campaign and am posting some articles on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This deals with the first use of Kamikaze aircraft whose pilots would attempt to dive into Allied warships, committing suicide rather than attempting to bomb a ship and return home.

In an age where suicide bombers and attackers do such things it is important to remember that this is not new. I hope you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

“In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of A6M Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier…” Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi

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It was a tactic born of desperation but one that fit in well with the philosophy of Bushido. After the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in June 1944 and the slaughter of land based Japanese Naval and Army air forces based in Formosa in September of that year Japanese leaders began to look to a tactics born of desperation but which fit their Bushido based ethos of sacrifice.

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Lt. Yukio Seki

Suicide attacks were nothing new to the Japanese, but until October 1944 they were tactics decided on by individuals who saw no alternative to the choice. In October 1944 that calculus changed, instead of individuals or isolated units which had no hope of victory conducting suicide attacks, commanders decided to employ suicide attackers as a matter of course.

When the American forces invaded the Philippines Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi was commander of the First Air Fleet based in the Northern Philippines. He was not a fan of Kamikaze tactics and viewed them as heresy. However after the slaughter of the reconstituted Naval Air Force at the Battle of the Philippine Sea he reluctantly changed his mind. I say reluctantly based on his previous views and because after he committed ritual suicide following the Japanese surrender he apologized to the estimated 4000 pilots that he sent to their death and their families.

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Admiral Ōnishi

But in October 1944 with Japan reeling from defeats in the Pacific and its supply route for oil and other raw materials threatened desperation was the order of the day.

The 201st Navy Flying Corps based out of Clark Field near Manila was the major land based Japanese Naval Air Force unit in the Philippines. Among its pilots was a young Naval Officer and Aviator named Lt. Yukio Seki. Seki was a graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima and was recently married. He was not an ideologue or believer in suicide attacks. When questioned by a reporter before his squadron launched the first Kamikaze attacks he remarked to Masashi Onoda, a War Correspondent :“Japan’s future is bleak if it is forced to kill one of its best pilots. I am not going on this mission for the Emperor or for the Empire… I am going because I was ordered to!”

On October 25th 1944 Seki led his group of 5 A6M2-5 Zero fighters, each carrying a 550 pound bomb took off and attacked the Escort Carriers of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s “Taffy-3.” The five pilots all died in their attacks but two damaged the USS Kalinin Bay and USS Kitkun Bay while two aircraft, one believed to be Seki’s hit the USS St Lo causing mortal damage which sank that ship in less than half an hour with the loss of over 140 sailors.

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The attacks of Seki’s small squadron were a harbinger of what was to come. Over the next 10 months over 4000 Japanese pilots would die in Kamikaze attacks against US Navy and Allied Naval units. Numbers of ships destroyed or damaged by Kamikazes are debated by some historians believe that 70 US and Allied ships were sunk or damaged beyond repair and close to 300 more damaged. 2525 Imperial Japanese Navy pilots and 1387 Imperial Army pilots died in Kamikaze attacks killing almost 5000 sailors and wounding over 5000 more.

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Admiral Ōnishi who made the decision to make Kamikazes a part of Japan’s offensive strategy in 1944 appeared to regret that decision. In his suicide note he urged young Japanese to rebuild the country and seek peace with all people and offered his death a penance for the nearly 4000 pilots he sent to their deaths. Accordingly when he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) he did so alone, with a second to finish the job and died over 15 hours after disemboweling himself.

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A Final Toast

The Kamikaze campaign did not alter the course of the war, but it did introduce a new dimension of terror and misguided sacrifice. I do pray that one day war will be no more and that even though I expect war to remain part of our world until longer after my death  that nations, peoples or revolutionary groups will no longer send their best and brightest to certain death.

 

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf Part Three: Slaughter at Surigao

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still taking some time off from writing about the Presidential race and so today I am posting the third article of a series on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This article discusses the Battle of Surigao Strait which ended in the near annihilation of most of the of the Japanese Southern Force. The battle was the last ever where battleships engaged each other in a surface action.

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The two task groups of the Japanese Southern Force passed the daylight hours of 24 October relatively unscathed despite an air attack that caused minor damage. The group commanded by Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura comprised of the elderly Battleships Yamashiro and Fuso the Heavy Cruiser Mogami and four destroyers was leading the charge and was followed by that commanded by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with the Heavy Cruisers Nachi and Ashigara, Light Cruiser Abukuma and four destroyers.

The mission of these two groups which were unable to coordinate their actions due to orders to maintain strict radio silence was to fight their way through the Surigao Strait to assist the Central Force in destroying the US invasion force in Leyte Gulf.  The mission was for all practical purposes a suicide mission, a naval “Charge of the Light Brigade” as they sailed into the Valley of Death against the Battle Line of the US 7th Fleet.

USS West Virginia Surigao strait

USS West Virginia  at Surigao

The Japanese Battleships had spent the majority of the war in home waters and had seen little action.  They had not been part of any of the great Japanese victories in 1941 and 1942 and they had not been blooded in the Solomons.  Instead the two elderly battlewagons passed the war conducting training in the inland sea.  They were no longer first line ships but the Japanese were desperate.  During the afternoon Admiral Nishimura received an accurate report from one of Mogami’s scout planes telling him exactly what he was up against yet he pushed on in the manner of a Samurai.

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Yamashiro and Fuso

Facing him was a force built around the 6 old Battleships of Vice Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s 7th Fleet Battle Line.  The Americans heavily outnumbered the Japanese, the Battleships West Virginia, California and Tennessee were the heart of the force. Fully modernized after Pearl Harbor they no longer resembled the ships that they were before the war. Equipped with the latest Mark 8 Fire Control radar they had the ability to put their 16” and 14” shells on target at ranges farther than anything that the Japanese could counter.  Joined by the less fully modernized Maryland, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, 4 Heavy Cruisers, 4 Light Cruisers, 28 Destroyers and 39 PT Boats the outnumbered the combined Japanese forces with sixteen 16” and forty eight 14” guns to twenty 14” guns on the antiquated Yamashiro and Fuso.  The disparity in lesser guns was just as stark, thirty five against twenty six 8” guns, and fifty one 6” guns against six 5.5 inch guns.  This massive imbalance didn’t count the nearly one hundred fifty 5” guns on the US destroyers and as well as nearly 200 torpedo tubes.

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Yamashiro and Shigure ride into the Valley of death

Nishimura’s force entered the southern entrance to Surigao Strait and was discovered by the American PT Boats at about 2236.  Though the PTs scored no hits they provided critical updates on the Japanese to Oldendorff.  At 0300 the American destroyers began a devastating series of attacks on the Japanese flanks.  They sank two destroyers and damaged another which had to turn back, but the real damage occurred when both Fuso and Yamashiro were hit. Fuso took two torpedoes fired by the destroyer USS Melvin.  She slowed and then blew up and broke in two sinking with all hands.  This account has been contested in recent years but many find the new version less believable than the first. Key in the evidence was the rescue and capture of Yamashiro’s Executive Officer in the north end of the strait and the surviving logs of the other Japanese ships which reported the sinking. Yamashiro though hit continued north with Mogami and the last destroyer Shigure.  At 0353 West Virginia opened fire and score hits on her first salvo. She was joined by California and Tennessee at 0355, the other battleships with their Mark 3 fire direction radars were slow to open up. Maryland got off six full salvos by ranging in on the splashes of West Virginia, California and Tennessee.  Mississippi logged the final salvo of the battle and Pennsylvania got no shots off.  West Virginia fired 16 salvos, 96 round of 16”armor piercing shells, Tennessee got off 69 rounds and California 63 each of 14” armor piercing shells, while  Maryland added another forty eight 16” rounds.

The Yamashiro and Mogami sailed into the maelstrom absorbing hit after hit and gamely fought back. Yamashiro hit the destroyer Albert W Grant which was also hit by friendly fire badly damaging her. Finally both ships ablaze they turned back down the strait with Yamashiro sinking with few survivors at 0420.  Shima’s force entered the fray and the Light Cruiser Abukuma was damaged by a torpedo fired by PT-137 and fell out of the formation. She was sunk on 26 October by Army Air Force B-24s. As Shima came up the strait his force entered the battered remnants of Nishimura’s force, the burning halves of Fuso and the retreating Mogami and Shigure. Assuming the halves of Fuso to be the wreckage of both battleships Shima beat a hasty retreat but in the process his flagship Nachi collided with Mogami flooding Mogami’s steering engine room and leaving her crippled.  She was attacked again by American cruisers and aircraft and as abandoned at 1047 and scuttled a torpedo from the destroyer Akebono sinking at 1307 on 25 October.

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Nachi Under Air Attack

The battle was one of the most lopsided surface engagements of the war.  When it was over only one of Nishimura’s ships had survived the “lucky” Shigure.  Shima’s force survived the night but most of his ships were sunk in the following by war’s end. Nachi was sunk in Manila Bay on 5 November by aircraft from the USS Lexington with a loss of over 800 sailors while Shima was in a conference ashore.

With the exception of Albert W Grant and a PT Boat the American force was unscathed the old Battlewagons dredged from the mud of Peal Harbor had led the fleet to a decisive victory in the last duel between Dreadnaughts ever fought. The Japanese died as Samurai trying to complete a hopeless mission against a far superior force.

 

 

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Battle of Leyte Gulf Part Two: Sinking Musashi

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Battleship Musashi

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m taking a break from politics for a few days and posting some old articles about the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the biggest naval battle in history. This is the second in that series. I hope you enjoy.

Peace

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Following the loss of Atago, Maya and Takao Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force had an uneventful rest of the day on the 23rd as his ships kept a watchful eye and ear for more US Navy submarines. At about 0800 on 24 October the Center Force was spotted by 3 B-24 Liberator bombers which promptly reported them.

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TBF Avenger dropping its “fish” 19 would hit Musashi

One of the ships in the Center Force was the battleship Musashi, sister ship of the mighty Yamato which was also in the force. The two battlewagons were the largest battleships ever built. With a full load displacement of 72,800 tons and an armament of nine 18.1 inch guns, the largest battery ever mounted on a warship the two behemoths also had massive anti-aircraft batteries and the Japanese were counting on them leading the Center Force to a miraculous victory during the battle. Admiral Kurita addressed his commanders prior to the battle:

“I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity. Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf. You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.”

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Musashi or Yamato under attack October 24th 1944

At 1000 the Musashi’s radar picked up approaching aircraft. These were from the USS Intrepid and the USS Cabot which were assigned to Rear Admiral Gerard Bogan’s Task Group 38.4. The anti-aircraft crews and damage control teams prepared as the ship’s bugle sounded the alarm. As the aircraft came closer the main guns of the Musashi fired but ceased fire as the aircraft drew closer. Helldiver dive bombers plunged downward at the ships of the Center Force and F6F Hellcat fighters unopposed by enemy fighters conducted strafing runs as TBF Avenger torpedo bombers dropped their deadly loads at the Musashi. The big ship avoided two of the “fish” but a third struck causing little damage and the first wave few away. Musashi reported that she had sustained a hit and continued on. The Japanese sailors knew that this would not be the last attack. Though Musashi had weathered the first strike the American fliers hit the battleships Nagato, Yamato and severely damaged the heavy cruiser Myōkō.

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Musashi hit

At 1140 the Musashi’s radar picked up the next wave of attackers and at 1203. These were from the Intrepid, Essex and Lexington. Hitting the Center Force in two waves a half hour apart these aircraft delivered punishing blows on Musashi. She was hit by 3 torpedoes and 2 bombs. The torpedoes caused damage that caused a 5 degree list and was down six feet by the bow. The torpedo damage was concentrated midships and one torpedo flooded her number 4 engine room. One of the bombs hit an engine room and disabled her port inline propeller shaft. With her speed reduced she proceeded on.

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Musashi under Attack

Thirty minutes following this attack at about 1330 Musashi was attacked again by Helldivers and Avengers. She is hit by 4 1000 pound bombs and 4 torpedoes. She was now so badly damage that she could no longer keep up with the fleet and dropped behind to fend for herself. At 1350 this attack ended and her speed reduced to 20 knots while she was now down 13 feet by the bow, with nearly all of her trim and void tanks full. With such damage the was now little room for any more damage in her forward compartments, but the hits would keep coming even as she dropped behind the rest of the fleet.

Separated from the fleet, the wounded giant was now attacked by aircraft from the Enterprise, Cabot, Franklin and Intrepid that score hits with 11 bombs including the deadly 1000 pounders and 8 torpedoes. During the course of these attacks which ended shortly after 1530, the Musashi sustained 19 torpedo and 17 bomb hits and taken 18 near hits close aboard. The damage was fatal

At 1620 her skipper Rear Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi began desperate damage control measures to control the increasing list which had reached 10 degrees to port. Now dead in the water Musashi continued to list further and when the list reached 12 degrees at 1915 Inoguchi ordered preparations to abandon ship. The surviving crew assembled on the deck, the battle flag and the Emperor’s portrait were removed. Admiral Inoguchi gave his personal notebook to his Executive officer Captain Kenkichi Kato and directed then him to abandon ship. Admiral Inoguchi retired to his cabin and was not seen again. At 1930 with the list now 30 degrees Captain Kato gave the order to abandon ship and soon with the list increasing further men began to slide across the decks being crushed in the process. Panic broke out among the crew which had been assembled by divisions and Captain Kato ordered “every man for himself.” At 1936 the ship capsized and port and went down by the bow sinking in 4,430 feet of water in the Visayan Sea at 13-07N, 122-32E.

The destroyers Kiyoshimo, Isokaze and Hamakaze rescued 1,376 survivors including Captain Kato, but 1,023 of Musashi’s 2,399 man crew were lost including her skipper, Rear Admiral Inoguchi who was promoted Vice Admiral, posthumously.

The rest of the Center Force under Kurita turned around to get out of range of the aircraft, passing the crippled Musashi as his force retreated. Kurita’s retreat was temporary and Kurita waited until 17:15 before turning around again to head for the San Bernardino Strait hoping to find it empty of American ships. His force was still battle worthy because the majority of the 259 sorties were directed on Musashi and the Heavy Cruiser Myōkō which retired heavily damaged. The Southern Force which had also been hit by American carrier air strikes also continued its push toward Surigao Strait. The Battle of Surigao Strait, the revenge of the Pearl Harbor Battleships will be the next article in this series.

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The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Part One

leaving brunei

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the first of a four article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. The battle was the largest in history both in terms of the number of ships involved and the amount of area covered. The action was triggered by the American invasion of the Philippines causing the Japanese to initiate their Shō-Gō 1 (Victory Plan 1) to attempt to defeat the Americans. The plan relied heavily on land based air power which most of unfortunately for the Japanese was destroyed during the American carrier air strikes on Formosa earlier in the month.

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The battle was necessitated by the absolute need for the Japanese to hold the Philippines and defeat the Americans at all costs. As Admiral Soemu Toyoda the Chief of the Combined Fleet explained under interrogation after the war

Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.

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Atago Class Cruiser 

The battle was comprised of 5 battles, the Battle of Palawan Passage, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All told about 70 Japanese warships and 210 American and Australian ships were engaged. A further 300 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based and 1500 American carrier aircraft took part in the battle. The Japanese order of battle included 1 Fleet and 3 Light Fleet Carriers with a minimal air group, 9 Battleships including the two largest ever built the Yamato and Musashi, 14 Heavy and 6 Light Cruisers and about 3 destroyers. They were divided into four task forces, the Northern Force under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa which had all of the Carriers including the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack the Fleet Carrier Zuikaku plus the converted hybrid Battleships Ise and Hyuga; the Southern Force which was two distinct and independent task forces under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima and was built around the ancient battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and 3 Heavy Cruisers; and the Center Force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita which had the Battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, 10 Heavy and 2 Light Cruisers and 1 destroyers. The Center force was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait and converge on the American landing forces off Samar with the Southern Force which as to come through the Surigo Strait. The Japanese also planned for the first use of Kamikazes as part of the action.

atago color

Atago

The American fleet was comprised of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral William Halsey which was built around the Fast Carrier Task Forces and Fast Battleships of Task Force 38 under the Command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and the Battle Line Task Force 34 under the Command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee; and the 7th Fleet under Vice Admiral William Kinkaid which was the naval support for the landings. It had under its control the old Battleships West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado and Pennsylvania and 18 Escort Carriers which provided the close air support for the Invasion. All told the Americans had 8 Fleet and 8 Light Fleet Carriers, 18 Escort Carriers, 12 Battleships, 24 Cruisers and 141 Destroyers as well as submarines, PT Boats, Transports, Landing Ships and Auxiliaries.

Maya

Maya

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle. Part one will focus on the action of the Submarines Darter and Dace against the Center force in the Palawan Passage. The next will be the sinking of the Musashi during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it will be followed by the revenge of the Old Battleships at Surigo Strait. The next will be the great decision of Admiral Halsey to pursue the Northern Force and leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, followed by the Battle off Samar and last the death of the Japanese Naval Aviation at Cape Engaño.

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Takao

The Battle of Palawan Passage

Admiral Takeo Kurita and the powerful Center Force departed their anchorage at Bruneion 20 October 1944. The task force entered the Palawan Passage on the night of 22-23 October where they were sighted by the American Submarines Darter and Dace which had been posted at the strait for such a possibility. Darter made radar contact at 30,000 yards at 0018 hours on the 23rd and sent out contact reports. The two submarines shadowed the Center Force on the surface to gain an intercept position and submerged just before dawn.

Darter struck first at 0524 firing a spread of 6 torpedoes scoring 4 hits on Admiral Kurita’s flagship the Heavy Cruiser Atago. She reloaded and stuck the Heavy Cruiser Takao with 2 torpedoes at 0634. At 0554 Dace hit the Heavy Cruiser Maya with 4 torpedoes.

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USS Darter

The blow was severe. Atago was mortally wounded she capsized and sank at 0553 with the loss of 360 crew members. She sank so rapidly that Kurita had to swim and was rescued with his Chief of Staff by a destroyer, but many of his staff members were lost with the ship. Though Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato he was now without the advice and counsel of officers that might have prevented later mistakes during the Battle off Samar. Takao suffered heavy damage and though she did not sink she had to proceed crippled to Singapore under the guard of two destroyers. Though she survived the war she never saw action again. Maya, struck at 0554 by 4 torpedoes suffered much damage and was wracked by powerful secondary explosions. By 0600 she was dead in the water and sank five minutes later with the loss of 337 crew members.

The attack of the two submarines was significant; the Japanese lost 3 powerful Heavy Cruisers and had to send two of their destroyers away to guard Takao as she limped away from the action. Likewise the loss of Kurita’s experienced staff hindered his conduct of the battle on the 24th. The cruisers were a big loss, at 13,000 tons and armed with ten 8”guns they could steam at 35 knots and would have been a significant help during the action off Samar.

Darter and Dace conducted a pursuit of the crippled Takao which had to be broken off when Darter ran aground on Bombay Shoal. Despite the best efforts of her crew and that of the Dace to free her she was hopelessly stuck. Her crew was unable to scuttle her and the Japanese were able to board her after she was abandoned and for the first time get a look at the details of a Gato class submarine.

Kurita’s force would continue on into the Sibuyan Sea where they would be attacked again, this time by the aircraft of Admiral Bull Halsey’s carriers. But that is the subject of the next article.

 

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