I Sank the Yorktown at Midway
By Yahachi Tanabe, formerly Lieutenant Commander, Imperial Japanese Navy
With Joseph D. Harrington
Proceedings Magazine, Volume 89, Issue 5, Whole Number 723 in the year 1963
The tension in I-168's conning tower had been steadily building up for six and a half hours. In the cramped command post, I stood, palms out, waiting to grip the rising periscope's handles. We were all perspiring heavily. My torpedo petty officer was scanning his switch panel, and a nervous helmsman wiped clammy hands frequently on his pants. Lieutenant (jg) Nakagawa, pencil in hand, mopped his damp brow between looks at the compass and speed indicator. But my gunnery officer, Ensign Watanabe, seemed almost unconcerned. Of the five, his job was by far the simplest. Our submarine was creeping straight toward the crippled American aircraft carrier Yorktown. There were no ballistics problems for Watanabe to work out-the range was point-blank, and target speed was nearly zero.
The whine of the periscope's lift motor died away as I sighted through the eyepiece. I had been allowing myself a maximum of five seconds on each sight check and I didn't intend to change the tactic. One quick glance would give me the range, and I could give the order to fire torpedoes.
The periscope stopped. I looked and then stepped back. "Down periscope! Right, twenty degrees rudder! Maintain full silence! Maintain speed of three knots!"
My navigator and gunnery officer were astounded. "What has happened, Captain?" they asked, "Aren't we attacking?" They knew we were at that moment so close to Yorktown that we could not possibly miss.
"We are going around again." I told them, knowing full well that four, and maybe as many as seven, American destroyers were prowling overhead. "The range is too short! I'm going to open the range and try again. I want to be sure of this kill!"
An odd series of events had put I-168 where she was on 6 June 1942, deep inside the Yorktown's protective circle of American destroyers whose crews were listening for a Japanese submarine. Although I would soon write a last line in that bloody chapter of Japanese history called the Midway Island Battle, the portion I had originally been scheduled to carry was small, indeed. Of the 160-odd ships that gathered from all parts of the Empire to strike at Midway, and the Aleutians, I-168 had the simplest assignment of all—scouting.
I had missed the war's opening battle. While nearly 30 other submarine commanders were deployed around Oahu, I was plodding our Inland Sea in RO-59. My boat trained officers and crews for duty in larger submarines. We knew nothing; about the proposed attack on Pearl Harbor, although we did suspect something was afoot because of the heavy radio traffic and many ship movements throughout November 1941. All ships had been on wartime readiness for weeks. When in port we had a number of surprise drills, during which all hands ashore were ordered quickly back to their ships.
On 8 December 1941, we had such a drill. But when all ships at Kure reported "manned and ready for sea," we were not given the usual order to secure. Instead, we were told that we were at war with America. Our First Air Fleet had made a very successful attack on the U. S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor, I learned, and we then realized where so many of our first-line units had gone.
Some officers were disappointed at not being in on this battle, but I felt that it would be a long war. Therefore, a highly-trained officer like myself, with six special service schools behind him, would eventually see his full share of sea action. Nor was I disappointed five months later when my part in the Midway operation was explained to me at Combined Fleet Headquarters. I had meanwhile relieved Lieutenant Commander Otoji Nakamura as commanding officer of I-168, in January. Since then we had been exercising in the Inland Sea. I-168 was designed to make 23 knots on the surface, eight submerged. She carried ten torpedoes, with four forward tubes and two in the stern. I was satisfied with her.
The Midway-Aleutian force was to be commanded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who would sail with it in the mighty Yamato, the world's biggest warship and our national pride. A total of 13 submarines were to form the Advance Expeditionary Force, most of them strung out along two lines east of Midway. They were to report any enemy warships coming out of Hawaii to counterattack, then intercept, and sink them. Four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu, veterans of many successful engagements, were to launch two quick air strikes against Midway, after which 5,000 troops in heavily-protected transports would move in and seize the island. This would advance Japan's perimeter well to the east of the homeland. It might even entice the remains of the American fleet au t to fight. If so, defeating that fleet would give Japan control of the Pacific Ocean.
I-168's task was to scout to the southward of Midway, and report on as much of the enemy's activities as we could observe. According to the basic plan, we were to see no action at all. We would be near when the troops landed, but by then, our job would have been done.
We were the van ship of the entire operation, coming in sight of Kure Island, west of Midway, on 31 May 1942. Part of the over-all strategy called for seizing this island, too. It was to be a seaplane and midget submarine base. After radioing a report that nothing appeared to be happening on that island, I proceeded to Midway, and spent the first three days of June making observations there. We would spend daylight hours on periscope watch, on Midway's southern horizon. After dark each night, we moved in within five miles, and continued to watch through powerful binoculars. Our observations made us think that the Americans were expecting imminent attack. I radioed the information that 50 to 100 planes were making landings daily. This meant that American forces on Midway were getting ready to fly extensive patrols, or else were bringing in air protection from Hawaii.
The four carriers of our striking force, although detected at the last, got near enough to launch planes against the island. I-168 had a front seat, or at least I did, at the day periscope, when 108 of our planes hit the island. Divided into equal numbers of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers, the last of which operated as level bombers and carried a 1,770-pound bomb each, this force did heavy damage. My crew grew more and more excited as I described the action to them, and a great cheer went up as I described some fuel tanks being blown sky high.
This portion of the attack appeared to be successful, even though Midway's airplane had been warned. We saw them take off before ours arrived, and watched them land after that first attack ended. At this point Japan was doing very well. More than 100 of our 108 planes made it safely back to their carriers, while our Zeros shot down or badly damaged two dozen American fighters.
Readers are aware of what transpired after that. The Americans counterattacked, with Grumman torpedo bombers, Martin bombers, and Boeing Flying Fortresses, as well as Douglas and Vultee dive bombers. A total of 52 planes attacked our striking force. All were either shot down or driven off, none of them able to do more than get a few machine gun bullets into one Japanese ship. The American aircraft carriers had slipped into the battle area before our submarine scouting lines had gotten into position. Their planes came next. They sent in an additional 41 planes, 32 of which were shot down. At that point, practically no damage had been done to our side. The 4th of June seemed to be a great day for Japanese arms.
Then the tide of battle turned. While our Zeros were at low level, defending against torpedo bombers, 54 American divebombers plunged out of the sky against loaded flight decks. They made a shambles of Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu. No hits were made on Hiryu. She soon got away two strikes. They put three bombs and two torpedoes into USS Yorktown, but a return attack by the Americans hurt Hiryu so badly that her crew had no choice but to abandon and sink her.
By midnight of 4 June, the Midway Battle was lost, though we did not know it yet. Admiral Yamamoto still had hopes of finding the American ships and sinking them in a surface engagement. It was only the cautiousness of the America's Admiral Spruance that prevented this. Having lost one carrier, Spruance decided it was better to fight again another day, and he turned his ships eastward after a short run westward. Comparison of ships' logs after the war showed that, bad he continued westward, his two carriers, eight cruisers, and 15 destroyers would have run into a Japanese force that included seven battleships!
While Yamamoto's main body was steaming eastward, hoping to catch the American striking force, I-168 was given orders to close in on Midway and open fire with her 4-inch deck gun. I was to continue this until joined by the cruisers Mikuma, Mogami, Suzuyu, and Kumano. These were the world's most powerful heavy cruisers then. Their 40 big guns might easily have smashed Midway's defenses with a bombardment in the early hours of 5 June, paving the way for an easy landing of the 5,000 troops in the transport force.
I obeyed orders, taking I-168 in. We surfaced about 0130 on 5 June but got off only six rounds before a pair of shore searchlights picked us out. We submerged immediately. Meanwhile, the four cruisers had their order changed, and were withdrawing. In the morning we were sighted by plane and attacked by them, suffering no damage. We were pursued for a short while by an American ship.
I-168 slipped back onto station as soon as I thought it was safe. We were supposed to watch the enemy and I intended to do so.
The next time our radio antenna poked above the waves frightening news came through it. Soryu and Kaga had gone down the evening before. Akagi and Hiryu had followed them not long before the American planes attacked I-168. One of the messages gave I-168 a new role to play. Scout planes from Japanese cruisers had sighted the American aircraft carrier Yorktown lying dead in the water about 150 miles northeast of Midway. My orders came through quite clearly: "Submarine I-168 will locate and destroy the American carrier."
We set off at once, running submerged in daylight hours at the best speed we could make and still nurse our batteries. After dark I ran on the surface, but could not use top speed for fear of missing our target in the blackness. So it was that, at 0530, on 6 June, the 12-mm. binoculars of my best-trained lookout picked up Yorktown. She was a black shape on the horizon, about 11 miles distant.
It was the easiest intercept a submarine commander ever made. My course had not changed, from beginning to end.
I ordered a dive, a course change to 045 degrees, and then reduced speed to six knots, leveling off I-168 at 90 feet. As we shortened the range, I reduced speed until we were never doing more than three knots. At intervals I moved I-168 up to 60 feet and took sightings. It required only a few course adjustments to set her heading straight for Yorktown's beam.
Our screws were barely turning over, and I hoped they were not giving off enough turbulence for the American ships to detect us. I had sighted one destroyer ahead of the carrier with a towline out to her, and another destroyer nestled close to Yorktown's side. Three more kept station on the side I was approaching, which made me feel certain there must be at least two more on the opposite side. This meant seven of them against one of us.
It never occurred to me to do anything except continue my approach and attack, in spite of the odds. Our intelligence said the American Fleet had seven carriers. Two of them, Ranger and Wasp, were reported in the Atlantic, and we had word that Saratoga was on the U. S. West coast. One more, and perhaps two, had been sunk in the Coral Sea Battle a month before. That left the United States with no more than three carriers operating against us, and one of them was dead ahead. Sinking her would mean that the enemy would be left with no more than two to use against us for some time, a vital point now that we had just lost four of our first-line aircraft carriers.
Each time I took a sight, the sun was higher in the sky. Yorktown appeared to be making just a little headway. I kept making minor changes of course to keep I-168 headed at her amidships section. We might get sunk in this action, but before that happened, I meant to do the maximum possible damage to this ship. I wanted my torpedoes to plow into her midsection, not her bow or stern.
In those moments, a lot of faith was being placed by my crew in shrine charms previously given to each I-168 man by Lieutenant Gunichi Mochizuki, my chief electrical officer. Mochizuki, a deeply religious man, spent much time at shrines ashore, praying. My crew fervently hoped that his piety had given him some extra influence with the gods. When there was time to turn my thoughts in that direction, so did 1.
All I-168 men limited their movements to the most necessary ones only, fearing to create some sound which the American detectors might pick up. By 1100, I had decided that the enemy equipment was not very sensitive. This gave me confidence as the range shortened; I kept moving in. Suddenly my sound operator reported that the Americans had stopped emitting detection signals I couldn't understand this but, since it was now nearly noon, I tried to make my voice light and told my crew, "It appears the Americans have interrupted their war for lunch. Now is our chance to strike them good and hard, while they are eating!" There were small jokes made about what to give them for dessert. Shortly thereafter I raised the periscope again.
Abaft my beam, each about 1,000 yards distant, were a pair of American destroyers, one to port, one to starboard. I-168 had safely pierced the protective screen of escorts; I could now give the order to fire.
Then I took another look. Yorktown and her hugging destroyer filled my periscope lens. I was too close! At that moment I estimated my range at 600 yards or less. It was necessary to come around and open up the range.
What I had to do now was try to escape detection by those destroyers above us and get far enough away so that my torpedoes, fired from a 60-foot depth, would have enough running space to stabilize themselves at a 19-foot depth for hitting. Whatever was the reason, enemy sound detectors could no longer be picked up by our equipment, I knew the destroyermen above were not asleep.
I kept I-168 in a right-hand circle, easing the rudder a little so that I could return to my original track at a point about one mile from Yorktown. I didn't dare put up the periscope until the compass showed us back on our original course. So I concentrated instead on a torpedo tactic I wanted to use. Though some submarines in 1942 had Model 95 torpedoes—underwater versions of the very powerful Model 93 "Long Lance" used on surface ships—my torpedoes were an older type. Model 95's had 991-pound warheads, mine had 446-pound ones. So I planned to make two torpedoes into one.
Listing badly from the effect of Japanese air strikes, Yorktown was virtually helpless as the I-168 moved in for the kill. Four torpedoes, the last two following the wake of the first pair, finished off the six-year-old carrier.
If I followed the usual procedure and fired my four torpedoes with a two-degree spread, they would cover six degrees. But I wanted very badly to deprive the Americans of this carrier. I intended to limit my salvo to a two degree spread I would fire No.1 and No.2 first, then send No.3 and No.4 in their wakes, on the same courses. That way, I could achieve two large hits instead of four small ones. I could thus deliver all my punch into the carrier's midsection, rather than spread it out along her hull.
When I was back on my approach course, I took another look, and wagged my head at how the destroyers still seemed unaware of us. Either they were poor sailors, had poor equipment, or I-168 was a charmed vessel. At a range of 1,200 yards, my periscope up, I sent my four torpedoes away as planned. I did not lower the periscope then, either. The wakes of my torpedoes could be seen, so their source could be quickly established. And, if I-168 was going to die, I at least wanted the satisfaction of seeing whether our fish hit home.
Less than a minute later we heard the explosions. "Banzai!" someone shouted. "Go ahead at full speed!" I ordered, then, "Take her down to 200 feet!" My conning tower officers were surprised when I ordered speed cut back to three knots a short time afterward, but by that time we were where I wanted to be, directly beneath the enemy carrier. I didn't think she would sink at once, so had no fear of her coming down on us. And one of our torpedoes had run shallow and hit the destroyer alongside Yorktown. There would be men in the water. Her destroyers wouldn't risk dropping depth charges for awhile, for fear of killing their comrades. Meanwhile, I hoped to creep out of there. I ordered left rudder, and tried to ease away at three knots.
My plan didn't work. The American destroyers were on us in no time, dropping depth charges. They had I-168 pinpointed, and took turns making runs, according to my sound operator. We had torpedoed Yorktown at 1330. By 1530, the enemy had dropped 60 depth charges at us, one or two at a time. They were much more sparing with these than they were later in the war, and I took advantage of this by trying to keep an opposite course to whichever destroyer attacked us. The tactic worked a number of times, many depth charges dropping well astern of us as the enemy passed directly overhead.
One of the destroyer captains must have estimated that I was doing this, though. The last depth charge of the two-hour barrage landed just off my bow, putting out all lights, springing small leaks in many places, and causing the danger of chlorine gas forming in my forward battery room.
This was serious. I-168 had only ten gas masks for a crew of 104 men. But Lieutenant Mochizuki took a small group of men into the forward battery room, closed it behind them to protect the rest of us, and began disconnecting damaged batteries. Before long they had the situation under control, but more trouble was occurring in the bow. Both the outer and inner doors of No. 1 Torpedo Tube were sprung. I-168 was partly open to the sea; water was entering the bow section.
We couldn't work on the outer door, of course, so men tried to seal off the inner one, that last depth charge having distorted it. Instead of lying flat in its seal, it bulged into the torpedo room, while water jetted from leaks around its edge. Torpedomen finally plugged the leaks with wedges, however, and everything came under control.
By now we had taken on enough water to weigh the bow down considerably. I ordered all crewmen possible to move aft a counterweight. This did not remedy the situation, so I employed a tactic used by other Japanese submarines in the war. Every man walked forward again, picked up a sack of rice from our supplies, and carried it aft. This helped considerably, and I-168 was on an even keel by the time full electrical power was restored.
Now we had been operating nearly 12 hours submerged. The destroyers had continued to fire depth charges after 1530, but only sporadically. That sixtieth one had hurt us, and made us bob up from 200 feet nearly to 60 feet. A few more like it, and we might have broached, a perfect target for the searchers. But it seemed as if they were hoarding charges for a final attack, knowing we would have to surface and charge batteries before long.
There were five pistols and ten rifles in I-168's armory. I ordered these issued and told my deck gun crew to stand by near the tower. Sunset was not far off. If we could surface then, and run long enough to charge our batteries, I-168 might have a chance to reverse the situation, for we still had six torpedoes and five usable tubes left. We might even be able to dive and counterattack, using the darkness to our advantage.
It was still daylight when I ordered "Surface!" There had been a long lull in the firing, and I thought the enemy destroyers might have given up when no sounds could be heard on our detectors. When I got to the open bridge, there was no sign of Yorktown on the eastern horizon. I was sure she was somewhere beyond it, sinking, for I had seen the torpedoes hit. Between myself and the horizon, I could sec three American destroyers, running in line abreast to the east, on an opposite course from my own. I guessed they were looking for other possible submarines, or else had been summoned back to help with survivors of the carrier.
We were not long on the surface before two of the three ships swung about in pursuit. I estimated their distance at about 11,000 yards. We ran west at 14 knots, the best speed I could make while charging batteries and taking in air. I ordered smoke made, using the heavy black clouds for cover. It helped for a while, and the enemy ships did not appear to be gaining on us very much during the first 30 minutes. I couldn't understand this at all, because of the speed I knew they could make.
When they closed to about 6,500 yards, they opened fire and not long afterward I-168 was straddled. All a good gunnery officer had to do now was "walk" across me a few times and all would be over.
I can remember the moment of the straddle most vividly. My lookouts began darting quick looks at me, their faces strained and pale. They were anxious to be back in the hull, and diving I could also detect a high note in the voices below as reports on the progress of the battery charge were called up to me. The men above wanted to dive, though they dared not say so, and the men below wanted to remain surfaced as long as possible while dials and gauges made higher readings. Finally, tile enemy silhouettes growing ever larger, I called down, "Do you have enough air and power for short time operations?"
A reluctant "Yes, sir," came up.
"Stand by to dive!" I shouted, and cleared the bridge. I followed all hands into the hatch, ordering I-168 swung about for a dive into her own smoke. The tactic worked. Both destroyers over-ran us. They soon had our location fixed again, but dropped only a few charges before breaking off the action and making toward the east at high speed.
I looked at my watch. Only a few minutes until sunset. Whether the enemy ships departed because they feared a night encounter with us, or whether they had no more depth charges, I did not know. In either case, I-168 was going to get out of this now.
We surfaced a little while after sunset. Assuming that patrol planes from Midway would be seeking us out, we headed north. I hoped they would think I had set a course for Truk, and thus be thrown off the scent. After a few hours, we changed course for Hokkaido, our northernmost island, it then being the nearest to us on a great circle course. I-168 cruised at her most economical speed, for we were not out of trouble yet. Oil was the Imperial Navy's lifeblood and strictly rationed. I-168 had been given only enough for cruising to Midway and operating there for a few days. All submarines were supposed to have refueled from captured stores when the island was taken. By practicing severe economies, however, we were able to set Yokosuka, then Kure, as our final destination.
Chief Journalist Harrington
A great crowd greeted our arrival. There were cheers, music, congratulations, and speeches in abundance as we tied up. A special news broadcast had told earlier how I-168 had torpedoed the carrier Yorktown, and that she had sunk the following morning. A special report of the exploit was rendered His Majesty, The Emperor—something done only when the war news was of great magnitude.
I was given command of a new submarine, I-776, at once and granted special permission to hand-pick only men who had factory and machine experience as civilians. This guaranteed me a crack crew.
There were to be other exciting times in the war for me. In I-776, I made the first submarine reinforcement of Guadalcanal after the Americans landed there, and with one torpedo knocked out the heavy cruiser Chester for a year. Later, after surviving a tenacious attack on I-776 in the Solomons, I was received in audience by the Emperor himself.
But all I could think of that day at Kure, while being hailed as a hero, was that as yet no news of Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu had been released to the public. All the Japanese people thought we had scored another Pearl Harbor at Midway. They didn't know that four of our fighting carriers, together with hundreds of Japan's best planes and pilots, were gone forever. My sinking of the USS Yorktown was small revenge for that loss.
Mr. Tanabe graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima in 1928, and entered the submarine service six years later. At the end of World War II, he acted as Imperial Naval Representative at Atsugi and made preparations for the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur.
Chief Journalist Harrington served in USS Card (CVE-11) during World War II, and in USS Prairie (AD15) and USS Helena (CA-75) during the Korean Conflict. He has written many articles for national magazines and is a frequent contributor to the Proceedings. Chief Harrington is currently assigned to the Public Information Office of the Chief of Naval Air Technical Training, NAS, Memphis, Tennessee.