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Shō-Gō 1: Introduction to and the Beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; the Greatest Naval Battle of All Time

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year it seems that I return to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the largest and most expansive naval battle in history. Thousands and ships and aircraft, including the largest battleships ever constructed. Tens of thousands of sailors and Marines on both sides died in the battle. The Japanese first employed the Kamikazes aviators determined to sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks to save their country, as great storms, typhoons did against the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. It is a battle that should not be forgotten, and one which the lessons of should be remembered, even 75 years later.

This is the first of a five article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. I may add a sixth this year. 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 in order to maintain their supply lines with the oil resources in Southeast Asia, and in the process 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. One was under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral 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 Kuritawhich 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.

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                                            Heavy Cruiser 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.

The 7th Fleet 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. 7th Fleet was not the glamour Navy, its task was the protection and support of the amphibious landings by Douglas McArthur’s Army units.


                                                            Maya

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle.

This section 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 Brunei on 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 experienced and trusted staff officers that might have prevented his 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.

                                            The Wreck of USS Darter
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 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.

To be continued…

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“One Learns more from Adversity than from Success” The Battle of Cape Esperance 11-12 October 1942

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Naval battles between U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy surface forces around Guadalcanal in 1942 were almost always brief and bloody. The number of ships from both sides sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal, and the islands near it: Tulagi and Savo Island, led to the area being nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.” Over fifty ships and craft would be interred in the waters around Guadalcanal by the end of the campaign. These numbers included 2 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 22 destroyers.

The battles around Guadalcanal occurred in a time of technical transition for the United States Navy as its radar became better at detecting ships and fire direction systems advanced in their accuracy and targeting ability. While almost all U.S. warships had radar primarily the SC search radar and FC Fire Control radar, not many U.S. Navy warships had the advanced SG surface search radar. But it was not just a matter of technology, it was a matter of training and experience. Their opponents, the Imperial Japanese Navy had very few ships equipped with radar, but their training for surface actions, especially night fighting where their superior optics, gunnery skills, and torpedoes proved deadly during the first year of the war before U.S. Navy crews mastered their technology edge.

By October 1942 the U.S. Marines battling on Guadalcanal were fighting an enemy growing in numbers on the ground even as they felt the effects of the the predatory Japanese surface raiders that routinely bombarded their positions and endangered U.S. resupply efforts.

USS Helena

Since the Marine, Navy and Army Air Force Squadrons based on Guadalcanal maintained air superiority in the nearby waters during the day the Japanese were limited to night surface operations against the island. These operations involving the reinforcement and resupply of Japanese Forces on the island as well as offensive naval gunfire operations to aid the land forces in which Japanese warships attempted to destroy or degrade Henderson Field.

Henderson Field

The first major operations mounted by the Japanese was in early August when a Japanese cruiser destroyer force ravaged the U.S. cruiser forces off Savo Island. The Japanese inflicted the worst defeat of an American naval squadron, sinking 3 American and one Australian Heavy cruiser while damaging another. The battle was a disaster for the U.S. forces and led to the early withdraw of transport and supply ships of the invasion force before many could finish unloading the equipment and supplies that were critical to the operation. In that operation radar played no role for U.S. forces, and sets were either turned off or not relied upon by commanders. Admiral Richmond Turner noted:

“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”

Despite this admission it would take several more engagements in the waters around Guadalcanal before the U.S. Navy fully appreciated the superiority of Japanese optics, training in night fighting, and their deadly 24″ “Long Lance” torpedoes. It would not be until 1943 that the U.S. Navy began to exploit its advantage in radar and use it to their advantage in night surface actions.

The Tokyo Express Route along the Slot

Japanese resupply and reinforcement operations to Guadalcanal were so frequent that the Japanese forces were nicknamed the Tokyo Express by the Americans. Knowing that the Marines who had been in bitter combat with the Japanese needed reinforcements the U.S. sent a convoy to land the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on October 13th.  To protect the convoy the U.S. Navy dispatched a surface task force, TF-64 composed of the Cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Boise, USS Salt Lake City and USS Helena and 5 destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott to protect it from any Japanese surface threats.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Aoba after the battle

The U.S. move to reinforce Guadalcanal coincided with a Japanese effort to reinforce their forced on the island. They Imperial Navy sent a covering force of three heavy cruisers, the Aoba, Furutuka and Kinugasa and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto. The Japanese cruisers were to bombard Henderson Field as the Japanese were not expecting any American surface forces to oppose their effort.

Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto

The Japanese were detected by aerial reconnaissance on the afternoon of the 10th when they were still about 200 miles from Guadalcanal. Scott, whose forces lacked experience in night surface combat made a simple plan to “cross the T” of the enemy force in a single line formation with three destroyers in the van, the cruisers in the center and two destroyers in the rear.

Rear Admiral Norman Scott

U.S. floatplanes from the American cruisers detected the Japanese at 2300 hours. At 2322 the radar of the USS Helena picked up the Japanese force at a range of about 27,000 yards. However misunderstandings of Scott’s orders by his flagship broke his formation and put the van destroyers out of position in the poor visibility of the moonless night. The confusion caused Scott to believe that the radar contacts were his own destroyers.

The Japanese still did not realize that an American force was near them and continued on. At 2345 the ships were only about 5,000 yards apart when Helena radioed Scott asking permission to fire. The message was received by Scott who acknowledged his receipt of the message did not grant permission open fire. However, his response of “roger” was mistaken as permission to open fire by Helena. The American cruiser opened fire on the Japanese aided by her SG and FC radars. She was followed by the other cruisers which opened a devastating fire on the Japanese force.

The Japanese task force was completely surprised, they had not expected to encounter American surface ships and failed to be on alert. Goto’s lookouts had sight the Americans at 2343 but assumed that they were friendly Japanese ships. The result was that the Americans inflicted heavy damage to the Japanese flagship, the heavy cruiser Aoba and left Goto mortally wounded.

IJN Heavy Cruiser Furutaka

Scott was taken by surprise by the action of his cruisers and ordered ceasefire at 2347 thinking that he was shooting at his own destroyers. Four minutes later he ordered his ships to resume fire at 2351. At 2349 the heavy cruiser Furutaka was heavily damaged by American fire and at 2358 she was was hit by a torpedo fired by the destroyer Buchanan. The Japanese destroyer Fubuki was mortally wounded about the same time and began to sink. The U.S. destroyers Duncan and Farenholt were both damaged in the crossfire with Duncan so badly damaged that she would be abandoned and sunk.

USS Duncan

Instead of continuing to rely on radar the American cruisers turned on their searchlights which provided the last Japanese cruiser, Kinugasa the opportunity to hit them hard. Kinugasa’s gunners heavily damaged Boise and but for a certain amount of luck would have sunk the American ship. One shell hit the number one turret setting fires in it, while another hit below the waterline and detonated in the forward 6″ magazine threatening to blow the ship to pieces but the onrushing water from the hit doused the flames and saved the ship. Despite that Boise was out of action with over 100 casualties, all of the forward magazine and handling crews were all killed.

As Boise sheared away from the action, Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire, each hitting each other before the Japanese cruiser broke off the action.

The commander of the Japanese reinforcement group, his mission completed dispatched his destroyers to assist Goto’s force at it withdrew and rescue survivors. However these ships were caught by U.S. aircraft from Henderson Field as the light of the dawn lit the sky. The destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo were heavily damaged, abandoned, and scuttled by the Japanese.

On the 13th the American reinforcement convoy arrived, as did Japanese reinforcements later that night. On the night the 13th, the Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna  conducted an attack which most destroyed Henderson Field. However, the resilient Marines kept the airfield operational as the Marines of the 1st Marine Division and the nearly arrived soldiers of the 164th Regiment held off a major Japanese assault from 23-26 October, known as the Battle of Henderson Field or Bloody Ridge.

Scott’s Task Force 64 lost one destroyer sunk and two cruisers damaged while the Japanese lost one cruiser and three destroyers sunk, with two cruisers damaged in the action.

The Japanese flagship Aoba was severely damaged by nearly 40 6” and 8” shells fired by the American cruisers. Her bridge was shattered and her number three turret destroyed. The damage knocked her out of the war for four months and the number three turret would not be replaced. On the American side the heavily damaged Boise was sent to the East Coast for repairs while Salt Lake City was repaired at Pearl Harbor. The battle had lasted less than 50 minutes from the time Helena picked up the Japanese force on her radar.

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USS Salt Lake City

The battle was a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy. However, the Navy did not learn  but the lessons of the battle about the power of Japanese torpedoes and effectiveness in night combat. While he Scott maintained a cool head and reacted to the situation with great courage he assumed that his deployment of his ships in a line formation coupled with superior American gunnery had won the battle. However, his ignorance on the proper use of the various types of radar used by the U.S. Navy meant that he and other American commanders would continue to misuse it and rely on searchlights and recognition lights during night surface actions. Likewise, he made the false assumption that Japanese torpedoes were no longer a threat.

This caused other U.S. task forces to have to learn the hard way in the subsequent engagements of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Tassafaronga. Rear Admiral Scott would not long survive his victory. He was killed in action aboard the USS Atlanta during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal just a month later. The great American naval historian of the Second World War, Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“So, because we won the Battle of Cape Esperance, serious tactical defects were carried over into subsequent engagements with unfortunate results. One learns more from adversity than from success.” 

While the battle helped inspire American confidence, it was not a strategic victory. Japanese forces nearly destroyed Henderson Field on the night of the 13th, and the the most decisive battles were yet to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Our World in Stupor Lies…” December 6th 1941 at 75 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Walter Lord wrote this perceptive and prophetic comment about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “A nation brought up on peace was going to war and didn’t know how.” His words still resonate as most people have no idea about the reality of war. Despite terrorist attacks on major cites and unending war in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa, for most Americans and Western Europeans this is time of peace. Well, at least the illusion of peace.

Today tens of thousands of American, NATO and European Union troops operating in a number of mandates are in harm’s way. In some places like Afghanistan they are at war, in others attempting to keep the peace amidst a resurgence of the Taliban. Around the world regional conflicts, civil wars, insurgencies  and revolutions threaten not only regional peace but the world peace and economy. Traditional national rivalries and ethnic and religious tensions especially in Asia and the broader Middle East have great potential to escalate into wars that should they actually break will involve the US, NATO and the EU, if not militarily economically and diplomatically.

But, we live in a dream world an illusory world of peace, that entraps political leaders across the political spectrum. It is as W.H. Auden wrote in his poem September 1st 1939:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies…

On December 6th 1941 the world was already at war and the United States was edging into the war. The blood of Americans has already been shed but for the vast majority of Americans the events in Europe and Asia were far away and not our problem. Though President Roosevelt had began the expansion of the military there were those in Congress seeking to demobilize troops and who fought all attempts at to intervene.

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Most people went about their business that last furtive day of peace. People went about doing their Christmas shopping, going to movies like The Maltese Falcon staring Humphrey Bogart or the new short Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Night Before Christmas.

Tom And Jerry

Others went to football games. UCLA and USC had played their annual rivalry game to a 7-7 tie, Texas crushed Oregon in Austin by a score of 71-7 while Texas A&M defeated Washington State in the Evergreen Bowl in Tacoma by a score of 7-0.

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In Europe a Soviet counter-offensive was hammering a freezing and exhausted German Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow. U-Boats were taking a distressing toll of ships bound for Britain including neutral US merchant ships and warships, including the USS Reuben James. American Airmen were flying as the volunteer Flying Tigers for the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese invaders.

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War was everywhere but there was still the illusion of peace. When the messages came out of Pearl Harbor the next morning it was already early afternoon on the East Coast. The Japanese Ambassador had been delayed in delivering the declaration of war, people across the country going about their Sunday business, going to church, relaxing or listening to the radio. Thus when war came, despite all the precursors and warnings war came. When it happened it took the nation by surprise. Walter Lord wrote in his classic account of the Pearl Harbor attack Day of Infamy: “A nation brought up on peace was going to war and didn’t know how.”

By the end of the day over 2400 Americans were dead and over 1200 more wounded. The battleships of the Pacific Fleet were shattered. 4 sunk, one grounded and 3 more damaged. 10 other ships were sunk or damaged in the attack. 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged.

 

The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the nation to action requesting that Congress declare war on Japan. 

Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that Nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American Island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

But always will our whole Nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces- with the unbounding determination of our people- we will gain the inevitable triumph- so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

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Today thousands of US and NATO troops are deployed in Afghanistan, while others are advising Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels in the fight against the so called Islamic State. Some of them are dying in places that most of us do not care about in the least, so that others might have a chance at peace and a better life. Eleanor Roosevelt reflected:

“Lest I keep my complacent way I must remember somewhere out there a person died for me today. As long as there must be war, I ask and I must answer was I worth dying for?”

Wars, revolutions and other tensions in other parts of the world threaten on every side, but most Americans and Europeans live in the illusion of peace.  A very few professionals are given the task of preparing for and fighting wars that our politicians, business leaders, Armageddon seeking preachers and the talking heads of the media sow the seeds. As such many have no idea of the human, material and spiritual cost of war and when it comes again in all of its awful splendor few will be prepared.

We do not know what tomorrow will bring and unfortunately for the vast bulk of Americans and Western Europeans the comments of Walter Lord and W.H. Auden are as applicable today as they were on December 7th 1941 for our world in stupor lies…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Battleship Row: The Story of the Battleships of Pearl Harbor

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“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost.” Except of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Speech December 8th 1941

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Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and as we were then we are at war. Of course it is not the same kind of war and most Americans live in the illusion of peace which makes it even more important to remember that terribly day of infamy.

I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic and very readable book about Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” when I was a 7th grade student at Stockton Junior High School back in 1972.  At the time my dad was on his first deployment to Vietnam on the USS Hancock CVA-19.  As a Navy brat I was totally enthralled with all things Navy and there was little that could pull me out of the library.  In fact in my sophomore year of high school I cut over one half of the class meetings of the 4th quarter my geometry class to sit in the library and read history, especially naval and military history.

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The main battery of either USS Arizona or Pennsylvania 

Over the years I have always found the pre-World War Two battleships to be among the most interesting ships in US Navy history.  No they are not the sleek behemoths like the USS Wisconsin which graces the Norfolk waterfront. They were not long and sleek, but rather squat yet exuded power. They were the backbone of the Navy from the First World War until Pearl Harbor.  They were the US Navy answer to the great Dreadnaught race engaged in by the major Navies of the world in the years prior to, during and after World War One.

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USS Pennsylvania passing under the Golden Gate

Built over a period of 10 years each class incorporated the rapid advances in technology between the launching of the Dreadnaught and the end of the Great War.  While the United States Navy did not engage in battleship to battleship combat the ships built by the US Navy were equal to or superior to many of the British and German ships of the era.

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US Battleships at the Grand Fleet Review of 1937

Through the 1920s and 1930s they were the ambassadors of the nation, training and showing the flag. During those years the older ships underwent significant overhaul and modernization.

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The Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet in 1941 included 9 battleships of which 8 were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th.  In the event of war the US War Plan, “Orange” called for the Pacific Fleet led by the Battle Force to cross the Pacific, fight a climactic Mahanian battle against the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy and after vanquishing the Japanese foe to relieve American Forces in the Philippines.  However this was not to be as by the end of December 7th all eight were out of action, with two, the Arizona and Oklahoma permanently lost to the Navy.

The ships comprised 4 of the 6 classes of battleships in the US inventory at the outbreak of hostilities.  Each class was an improvement on the preceding class in speed, protection and firepower.  The last class of ships, the Maryland class comprised of the Maryland, Colorado and West Virginia, was the pinnacle of US Battleship design until the North Carolina class was commissioned in 1941.  Since the Washington Naval Treaty limited navies to specific tonnage limits as well as the displacement of new classes of ships the United States like Britain and Japan was limited to the ships in the current inventory at the time of the treaty’s ratification.

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USS Oklahoma

The ships at Pearl Harbor included the two ships of the Nevada class, the Nevada and Oklahoma they were the oldest battleships at Pearl Harbor and the first of what were referred to as the “standard design” battleships. The two ships of the Pennsylvania class, the Pennsylvania and her sister the Arizona served as the flagships of the Pacific Fleet and First Battleship Division respectively and were improved Nevada’s. The California class ships, California and Tennessee and two of the three Maryland’s the Maryland and West Virginia made up the rest of the Battle Force.

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USS California passing under Brooklyn Bridge

The Colorado was undergoing a yard period at Bremerton and the three ships of the New Mexico class, New Mexico, Mississippi and Idaho had been transferred to the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor due to the German threat.  The three oldest battleships  ships of the New York and Wyoming Classes, the New York, Arkansas and Texas also were in the Atlantic. Two former battleships, the Utah and Wyoming had been stripped of their main armaments and armor belts and served as gunnery training ships for the fleet. The Utah was at Pearl Harbor moored on the far side of Ford Island.

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The ships that lay at anchor at 0755 that peaceful Sunday morning on “Battleship Row” and in the dry dock represented the naval power of a bygone era, something that most did not realize until two hours later. The age of the battleship was passing away, but even the Japanese did not realize that the era had passed building the massive super-battleships Yamato and Musashi mounting nine 18” guns and displacing 72,000 tons, near twice that of the largest battleships on Battleship Row.

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USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor

The Oklahoma and Nevada were the oldest ships in the Battle Force.  Launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916 the Nevada and Oklahoma mounted ten 14” guns and displaced 27,500 tons and were capable of 20.5 knots. They served in World War One alongside the British Home Fleet and were modernized in the late 1920s. They were part of the US presence in both the Atlantic and Pacific in the inter-war years. Oklahoma took part in the evacuation of American citizens from Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

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USS Oklahoma Capsized (above) and righted (below)

 

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During the Pearl Harbor attack Oklahoma was struck by 5 aerial torpedoes capsized and sank at her mooring with the loss of 415 officers and crew. Recent analysis indicates that she may have been hit by at least on torpedo from a Japanese midget submarine. Her hulk would be raised but she would never again see service and sank on the way to the breakers in 1946.

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USS Nevada aground off Hospital Point

Nevada was the only battleship to get underway during the attack.  Moored alone at the north end of Battleship Row her Officer of the Deck had lit off a second boiler an hour before the attack.  She was hit by an aerial torpedo in the first minutes of the attack but was not seriously damaged. She got underway between the attack waves and as she attempted to escape the harbor she was heavily damaged. To prevent her from sinking in the main channel she was beached off Hospital Point.

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USS Nevada at Normandy 

Nevada was raised and received a significant modernization before returning to service for the May 1943 assault on Attu.  Nevada returned to the Atlantic where she took part in the Normandy landings off Utah Beach and the invasion of southern France.  She returned to the Pacific and took part in the operations against Iwo Jima and Okinawa where she again provided naval gunfire support.  Following the war the great ship was assigned as a target at the Bikini atoll atomic bomb tests. The tough ship survived these tests and was sunk as a target on 31July 1948.

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USS Arizona

The two ships of the Pennsylvania Class were improved Oklahoma’s.  The Arizona and Pennsylvania mounted twelve 14” guns and displacing 31,400 tons and capable of 21 knots they were both commissioned in 1916. They participated in operations in the Atlantic in the First World War with the British Home Fleet. Both ships were rebuilt and modernized between 1929-1931.

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They were mainstays of the fleet being present at Presidential reviews, major fleet exercises and making goodwill visits around the world.  Pennsylvania was the Pacific Fleet Flagship on December 7th 1941 and was in dry dock undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack. She was struck by two bombs and received minor damage.

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She was back in action in early 1942. She underwent minor refits and took part in many amphibious landings in the Pacific and was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait.  She was heavily damaged by an aerial torpedo at Okinawa Pennsylvania and was repaired. Following the war the elderly warrior was used as a target for the atomic bomb tests. She was sunk as a gunnery target in 1948.

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Arizona was destroyed during the attack. As the flagship of Battleship Division One she was moored next to the repair ship USS Vestal.  She was hit by 8 armor piercing bombs one of which penetrated her forward black powder magazine. The ship was consumed by a cataclysmic explosion which killed 1103 of her 1400 member crew including her Captain and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One.  She was never officially decommissioned and the colors are raised and lowered every day over the Memorial which sits astride her broken hull.

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The Tennessee class ships the Tennessee and California were the class following the New Mexico class ships which were not present at Pearl Harbor. These ships were laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1920. Their design incorporated lessons learned at the Battle Jutland. They mounted twelve 14” guns, displaced 32,300 tons and were capable of 21 knots. At Pearl Harbor Tennessee was moored inboard of West Virginia and protected from the aerial torpedoes which did so much damage to other battleships. She was damaged by two bombs. California the Flagship of Battleship Division Two was moored at the southern end of Battleship Row. She was hit by two torpedoes in the initial attack. However, she had the bad luck to have all of her major watertight hatches unhinged in preparation for an inspection.

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Despite the valiant efforts of her damage control teams she sank at her moorings. She was raised and rebuilt along with Tennessee were completely modernized with the latest in radar, fire control equipment and anti-aircraft armaments. They were widened with the addition of massive anti-torpedo bulges and their superstructure was razed and rebuilt along the lines of the South Dakota class.

USS California Late WWII

USS California following Modernization

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USS Tennessee with another ship, possibly California in reserve awaiting the breakers

When the repairs and modernization work was completed they looked nothing like they did on December 7th. Both ships were active in the Pacific campaign and be engaged at Surigao Strait where they inflicted heavy damage on the attacking Japanese squadron. Both survived the war and were placed in reserve until 1959 when they were stricken from the Navy list and sold for scrap.

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USS West Virginia 

The Maryland and West Virginia were near sisters of the Tennessee class.  They were the last battleships built by the United States before the Washington Naval Treaty. and the first to mount 16” guns. With eight 16” guns they had the largest main battery of any US battleships until the North Carolina class.

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They displaced 32,600 tons and could steam at 21 knots. Laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1921 they were modernized in the late 1920s. They were the most modern of the Super-Dreadnoughts built by the United States and included advances in protection and watertight integrity learned from both the British and German experience at Jutland.

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USS Maryland behind the capsized Oklahoma

At Pearl Harbor Maryland  was moored inboard of Oklahoma and was hit by 2 bombs and her crew helped rescue survivors of that unfortunate ship.  She was quickly repaired and returned to action.  She received minimal modernization during the war. She participated in operations throughout the entirety of the Pacific Campaign mainly conducting Naval Gunfire Support to numerous amphibious operations. She was present at Surigao Strait where despite not having the most modern fire control radars she unleashed six salvos at the Japanese Southern Force.

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USS West Virginia, sunk, raised and in dry dock, note the massive damage to Port Side

West Virginia suffered some of the worst damage in the attack. She was hit by at least 5 torpedoes and two bombs. She took a serious list and was threatening to capsize. However she was saved from Oklahoma’s fate by the quick action of her damage control officer who quickly ordered counter-flooding so she would sink on an even keel.  She was raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor and after temporary repairs and sailed to the West Coast for an extensive modernization on the order of the Tennessee and California.

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USS West Virginia after salvage and modernization 

West Virginia was the last Pearl Harbor to re-enter service. However when she returned she made up for lost time.  She led the battle line at Surigao Strait and fired 16 full salvos at the Japanese squadron. Her highly accurate gunfire was instrumental in sinking the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro in the last battleship versus battleship action in history.  West Virginia, Maryland and their sister Colorado survived the war and were placed in reserve until they were stricken from the Naval List and sold for scrap in 1959.

The battleships of Pearl Harbor are gone, save for the wreck of the Arizona and various relics such as masts, and ships bells located at various state capitals and Naval Stations.  Unfortunately no one had the forethought to preserve one of the survivors to remain at Pearl Harbor with the Arizona.  Likewise the sailors who manned these fine ships, who sailed in harm’s way are also passing away.  Every day their ranks grow thinner, the youngest are all 89-90 years old.

As this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack passes into history it is fitting to remember these men and the great ships that they manned.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Fighter Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging inEuropeand the Japanese continuing their war in China  and occupied French Indo-China theUnited States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Adjusting Strategy to Reality: The Pacific War- Why the Japanese Lost

Lead aircraft ready to take off of IJN Carrier Akagi to attack Pearl Harbor beginning a 6 month chain of Japanese victories in the Pacific

The outcome of the Pacific war was directly related to the ability of the Americans to adjust strategy to the realities of the Pacific war, a unity of effort directed by the National Command Authority and superior industrial, technological and logistical capabilities. The Japanese after initial success did little to adapt and were hamstrung by inter-service rivalries and inadequate industrial capacity and limited natural resources.

US Destroyer USS Pope being blasted out of the water by Japanese Cruisers at the Battle of Java Sea

The Japanese and the Americans each had war plans in place for the Pacific campaign.  The American plans, Plan Orange had been developed since the early part of the 20th Century after the Spanish-American War and Russo-Japanese War.  Predicated on holding the Philippines until relief could arrive Orange assumed that the US Pacific Fleet would sail across the Pacific and fight the Japanese Navy in a manner written about by Alfred Thayer Mahan; see Weigley in The American Way of War and Ronald Spector in “Eagle Against the Sun: The American War Against Japan.”

IJN Carrier Hiryu heavily damaged and abandoned at Midway. Hiryu, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu the creme of the Japanese carrier fleet were lost at Midway, the Japanese found it hard to replace them or their decimated air crews

The Japanese were conflicted.  The Navy desired a campaign that would destroy the American Navy and expand the Empire to the East and to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Army was fixated on the China strategy having been embroiled on the Asian continent since the early 1930s. John Toland discusses this in good detail in his book “Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945” In addition other Japanese Army leaders had designs on Siberia and fought a brief campaign against the Soviets which ended in a defeat.

Japanese destroyer shown sinking after being torpedoed by a US submarine

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor as well as the Philippines and Southeast Asia defeating American and Allied forces in detail, crippling the American Navy and dooming the Philippines the Americans were able to adjust strategy to first a defensive one supplemented by raids against the Japanese perimeter by carrier forces and the beginnings of a nascent submarine campaign against Japanese merchant shipping.  The Americans were able to parry the Japanese thrust at the Coral Sea and inflict a major defeat on the Japanese Carrier Forces at Midway prior to launching the first limited offensive by the Navy and the Marines at Guadalcanal.

Aircraft like the F6F Hellcat drove Japanese aircraft such as the A6M2 Zero from the skies in the Pacific


The Japanese remained mired in their conflicting strategies with the Navy primarily fighting the Pacific campaign aided by limited Army and Army Air Forces on the islands Japan had occupied or fortified while the bulk of the Army was engaged in China, Southeast Asia or sitting on the Manchurian-Soviet border.

Heavily fortified Japanese islands were either bypassed or taken in bloody assaults, here a 8″ gun on Tarawa

Once the Americans shifted to the offensive a campaign of island hopping coordinated between the Southwest Pacific Area under General MacArthur and the Central Pacific Area under Admiral Nimitz focused on gaining control of islands which contained airbases and anchorages capable of sustaining the American advance while bypassing islands not necessary for this along with their Army garrisons. Both American advances in the South Pacific and Central Pacific focused on retaking the Philippines and cutting the Japanese lines of communication and supply with Southeast Asia. From late 1942 on the Japanese strategy was focused on individual areas of danger versus a overall coordinated defensive effort.

Japanese war industries were woefully ill equipped to match US war production. Here a factory producing Oscar fighter planes

The Japanese were hamstrung from the beginning of the war by limited natural resources, especially oil and oil refining capacities, limited industrial capacity, especially in the realm of the manufacture of steel and machining tools.  All of these were supplied in large part by their opponents and were cut off once the war began.

The Carrier Taiho was the equivalent of the Essex Class but the Japanese could only produce one unit

Michael Barnhart in his book Japan Prepares for Total War” has an excellent account of the limitations of Japanese economic, industrial and natural resource capacities, as well as the continual struggle by the Army and the Navy for priority in access to them and the inability of Japanese planners, both civilian and military to resolve this conflict. The Americans had a different situation; although American industrial capacity was enormous it had to be split between to Theaters of Operations and support the needs of American Allies, Britain, the Soviet Union, Canada and China.

An Armada of US Essex Class Carriers in 1944 the Japanese could not keep pace with US Naval production

Despite this the Americans in a relatively short time were able to amass forces equal to or great than the Japanese who were unable to replace losses in ships, aircraft or the highly trained personnel needed to man them.  At the beginning of the war Japanese Air and Naval forces in the Pacific outmatched everything the Allies could offer, however once they began to experience significant losses at Midway and during the Guadalcanal Campaign their air and naval capabilities diminished to the point that they had to conserve ships and aircraft hoping to be able to gain local advantage in critical defensive areas.

The US Amphibious warfare capacity was a key factor in the ability of the United States to take the war to Japan

New American ships and aircraft introduced during the war were superior to Japanese designs, many of which had reached their apex by 1942.  American advantages in radar, communications equipment added to American advantages throughout the war.  Japanese ground forces in the Pacific were dependant on the Navy and merchant marine for supply and reinforcements. As the American submarine campaign became better organized this became more difficult as the American submarines copying German Wolf pack tactics decimated the Japanese merchant Marine. I particularly like Samuel Elliott Morrison’s account of this in “The Two Ocean War” and “The History of US Navy Operations in World War II” which has a volume devoted to this subject.

US Navy Submarines cut off Japan from its vital natural resources in Southeast Asia. A Sub Squadron above and USS Barb below

Japanese forces would always fight determined battles but they often expended great amounts of manpower in senseless Banzai charges rather than make the Americans force them out of well prepared positions.  Where the Japanese maintained excellent defense such as at Tarawa and Iwo Jima they made the Americans pay greatly for their gains.  American Marines were apart from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were the best infantry in the US Military and their skill at amphibious operations and integrated air-ground and naval warfare increased as the war went on.  The Americans were well equipped with modern weapons while the Japanese operated antiquated tanks and often substandard artillery.

Japanese leadership at the strategic and political level was inept throughout the war. They failed to coordinate any strategy with the Germans and failed to enunciate any sort of Grand Strategy.  On the operational and tactical levels the Japanese forces, especially the surface navy performed well, however as the American numeric and technologic advantage increased the Navy became less effective.  After the death of Admiral Yamamoto in 1943 Japanese Naval Leadership became far less effective. The Americans as mentioned before were able to devise a Grand Strategy which not only dealt with Japan but also Germany and coordinated the efforts of forces, war production, planning and logistics to advance their war aims.  At the operational and tactical level American forces, especially the Navy and Marines and later the Army Air Forces and Army became more skilled and than their Japanese counterparts with the possible exception of General Simon Bolívar Buckner at Okinawa. See Spector and Thomas Costello “The Pacific War.” In the air the Americans continued to increase their combat capabilities at the tactical and strategic level and used massed fire bombing raids to devastate the Japanese homeland.  The Japanese in contrast due to inexperienced pilots and fewer competitive aircraft were forced into suicide or Kamikaze missions as the war neared Japan.

B-29 Super-fortresses leveled Japanese cities and even excellent fighters like the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden could not stop them


The outcome of the Pacific war was directly related to the ability of the Americans to adjust strategy to the realities of the Pacific war as well as the unity of effort which enabled the American superiority in industrial, technological and logistical capabilities to overwhelm the Japanese. The Japanese after initial success did little to adapt and were hamstrung by inter-service rivalries and inadequate industrial capacity and limited natural resources, fell behind in technology and were unable to replace losses among the ships, men and aircraft that they needed to fight an effective war.  Japanese leaders at many levels failed to adapt strategy, tactics or methods to match the reality of the war and the places that they did do so were done by local commanders and never instituted throughout the Japanese military.

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The Battle Fleet that Never Was: The USS Washington, the South Dakota Class and the Lexington Class Battle Cruisers

Artist depiction of the Lexington as Battle Cruiser

Note: This is the first of a series of articles on what might have happened if the Washington Naval Treaty had not been signed. This article is a look at the American fleet that never was, the following articles will be in the alternative history genre looking at a war breaking out in the Pacific in 1937.

Historians almost always muse on what might have been.  One of the most significant events of the years following the First World War was the Washington Naval Conference and Treaty. The treaty called by the President Harding and conducted under the auspices of the League of Nations was the first international disarmament conference and attended by none nations having interests in the Pacific. The major players in the conference from the naval power perspective were the British, Americans, Japanese, French and Italians.  Each nation had an agenda for the conference, for the United States it was to break the Anglo-Japanese naval accord and to limit the Japanese naval build up.  The British, exhausted and financially reeling from the effects of the First World War had a number of goals.  Though they had the largest navy and the most Dreadnaught type battleships and battle cruisers of any Navy many of its ships were obsolete or worn out from wartime service.  They had little capital to put into new ship construction, especially considering the vast resources of the United States which was already well into a vast naval buildup including ships that would be among the largest and most heavily armed in the world.  It was in the interest of Britain to limit the both the number, tonnage and armament of these ships.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class

The treaty which was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each.  Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest. For the US this had a dramatic effect on its planned fleet, which if built would have become the dominant Navy of the 1920s and 1930s.  It is fascinating to think what might have happened if the treaty had not been signed and what the battle fleets of the various nations would have looked like in 1941 had war not come sooner.

Plans for South Dakota Class

The American Navy went to war in 1941 with 18 battleships, the most modern of which were the new North Carolina and Washington and the rest averaging over 20 years old in 1941. The most modern of these ships were the Colorado class composed of the Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia each mounting eight 16”/50 guns.  The fourth ship of the class the Washington was sunk as a gunnery target when 75% complete under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty.

The incomplete USS Washington sinking

However it was a battle force that could have been much larger and far more capable, a force that may not been regulated to convoy escort duties and shore bombardment but instead may have taken on the Imperial Navy on the high seas in battleship combat not seen since Jutland.  Yet this was not to be, the great fleet of super-battleships was never built and only two hulls completed the Lexington and Saratoga which instead of being completed as battle cruisers were completed as aircraft carriers.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class

The Americans had set out to build the largest, most modern and powerful battleships and battle cruisers afloat.  The Navy had already produced the Colorado class super-dreadnaughts which were equal to or superior to any battleships of their era.  The Navy planned for a class of six battle cruisers which would be superior to any similar ship afloat, the Lexington class and a class of six battleships, the South Dakota class mounting twelve 16”/50 guns in triple turrets.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class as they might have appeared in 1938

The two classes were leviathans and to counter them the British made plans for a four ship 48,000 ton class of battleships, the N3 project mounting nine 18” guns and a class of battle cruisers mounting nine 16” guns.  The ships of both classes were designed with their main battery mounted forward in order to save weight on armor.  Both classes were canceled with the signing of the treaty and none were laid down.  It is suggested by some that the G3 battle cruiser design was a ploy to get the United States to agree to the cancellation of its capital ship projects. The guns planned for the G3 class were mounted on the Nelson class battleships which complied with treaty limits.  Although powerful ships they suffered from engineering problems which often reduced their speed from what was designed.  Along with the HMS Hood, the sole ship completed of the four ship Admiral class the Nelson and Rodney were the most modern battleships in the Royal Navy until the King George V class entered service in 1941.  The Japanese planned for eight battleships and eight battle cruisers centered on the two existing Nagato class battleships and 4 Kongo class battle cruisers to be joined by the two ship 40,000 ton Tosa class battleships, the Tosa and the Kaga, of which Kaga was completed as an aircraft carrier. They were to be joined by the 4 improved Tosa class or Kii class fast battleships of 42,000 which were ordered but never laid down.  These were to be joined by the four ship Amagi class battle cruiser class.  Amagi was destroyed during the Tokyo earthquake of 1922 and scrapped and Akagi completed as an aircraft carrier.  All of the planned Japanese ships were to mount ten 16” guns in five twin turrets.

Lexington Class final design drawing

The American ships were to be powerful and based on main battery, protection and speed they would have acquitted themselves well had they been built.  The Japanese ships would have had a speed advantage over the South Dakota’s but this would have been offset by the gun power and protection of the latter.  The American Lexington class would have been faster than any of their competitors.

South Dakota Class Design Specifications
Displacement: 43,200 tons normal
Dimensions: 684 x 106 x 33 feet/208.5 x 32.3 x 10.1 meters
Propulsion: Turbo-electric, 12 285 boilers, 4 shafts, 50,000 shp, 23 knots
Crew: 1191
Armor: 8-13.5 inch belt, 3.5 inch deck, 4.5-13.5 inch barbettes, 5-18 inch turrets, 8-16 inch CT
Aviation: none
Armament: 4 triple 16″/50cal, 16 6″/53cal, 8 3″/50cal AA, 2 21 inch torpedo tubes (submerged)

The six ships in the Class, South Dakota, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Iowa and Massachusetts were all scrapped in accordance with the treaty when partially complete, the North Carolina being in the most advanced stage of construction, 37.8% when construction was halted.

Lexington class Battle Cruiser Design Specifications

Displacement 43,500 Tons, Dimensions, 874′ (oa) x 105′ 5″ x 31′ (max).
Armament 8 x 16″/50 16 x 6″/53 4 x 3″8 x 21″ torpedo tubes
Machinery, 180,000 SHP; G.E. Geared Turbines with Electric Drive, 4 screws
Speed, 35 Knots, Crew 1500

The ships with the exception of the Lexington and Saratoga were scrapped incomplete.  All were to be named after famous warships or battles, and the Constellation, Constitution, Ranger and the United States were to be named after some of the most illustrious ships ever to serve in the US Navy.

If all of the ships, including the Washington of the Colorado class been completed the US Navy would have had eight battleships and six battle cruisers mounting 16 inch guns to compliment the nine battleships of the Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and California classes which all mounted 14 inch batteries.  The fleet would have been superior to either the Royal Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy even with the ships planned by those navies.  Economically the United States was the only nation in the world capable of sustaining a naval arms race of this magnitude, the British economy and political will would have been unable to sustain it and the limited industrial capacity and dependence on the United States for raw materials and machine tools needed to construct their ships would have limited their ability to produce such a fleet. Without the conversion of the Lexington, Saratoga and their Japanese counterparts the Akagi and Kaga into aircraft carriers the development of the carrier would likely have gone slower and that type of ship may not have risen to the prominence that they gained during the Second World War.

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