Long Lances and Kaitens
Rolfe L. Hillman III
I enjoyed all the features in the latest Naval History (April 2019). One feature caught my particular attention: Norman Friedman’s piece on the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo (“Armaments & Innovations,” pp. 6–7).
I hope you will publish a follow-on piece on the Kaiten manned suicide torpedoes, several models of which were based on the Type 93. The Japanese used Kaitens in the last year of the war. A plug was inserted in the torpedo’s body to help create a pressurized cockpit.
For the most part, the Kaiten program was a costly failure. The only major success was when a Kaiten, assigned to 1st Group/Kikusui Group, launched from the B-1–class submarine I-36 and sank the fleet oiler USS Mississinewa (AO-59) anchored at Ulithi Atoll on 20 November 1944. Only a few subsequent Kaiten attacks were successful. I-47 launched four Kaitens, but they only succeeded in damaging the Liberty ship SS Pontus H. Ross, anchored in Humboldt Bay off Hollandia on 12 January 1945. I-36 engaged U.S. ships with Kaitens at Ulithi on 12 January 1945. Depth charges from Patrol Bombing Squadron 21 aircraft destroyed one of the suicide torpedoes, but the others succeeded in damaging the ammunition ship USS Mazama (AE-9), with eight fatalities, and sinking an infantry landing craft, the USS LCI(L)-600, with three deaths.
Roosevelt’s Mighty Navy
I enjoyed the article by Michael Hull, “FDR & His Mighty Navy,” in the February issue (pp. 34–39). Often overlooked by World War II historians is how effective President Franklin Roosevelt was in taking steps from the beginning of his administration to ensure U.S. naval power.
Navies take longer to build up than armies or even air forces, and FDR knew this. As the article shows, had Roosevelt not gotten a jump on naval construction when he did, the United States would not have had ships in the production pipeline needed to win a two-ocean war as quickly as was the case. The planning, preparation, and construction already were done or in progress when the war started. One often hears that the United States picked itself up after Pearl Harbor and quickly built a navy. Not true—the navy was already in production, thanks to FDR.
That being said, Mr. Hull stated that the keel for the USS Washington (BB-56) was laid on 1 June 1940. This is incorrect; her keel was laid on 13 June 1938. He may have meant to say that the Washington was launched on 1 June 1940 (which is correct), as she was the first U.S. battleship to be launched since the West Virginia (BB-48) slid down the ways on 19 November 1921.
The Washington beat her sister, the North Carolina (BB-55), into the water by 12 days. The North Carolina was actually the first U.S. battleship laid down since the Washington Naval Treaty halted battleship construction in 1922, her keel being laid on 27 October 1937. But construction for the Washington proceeded more rapidly.
By 1 June 1940, in addition to the North Carolinas, all four of the South Dakota–class battleships had been laid down, and the keels of all four of the Iowa-class BBs that would be completed during the war would follow in less than a year. Those accomplishments are testament to FDR’s driving force for a “Mighty Navy.”
Another Naval Invention
The Hedy Lamarr article, “Naval Warfare and the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (April, pp. 22–27), was terrific and brought up a semi-unpleasant experience: My father enlisted in the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor as a lieutenant in the Supply Corps and was fairly quickly promoted to lieutenant commander. In the 1950s, he told me he had “invented” a way for submarines to avoid being triangulated when they broadcast a message from enemy waters. The invention was a disposable perforated-tape transmitter that would be thrown in the water from the sub. After half an hour, it would begin transmitting the message contained on the tape. Of course, in the meantime, the sub was long gone.
I could never find any information from naval records on the device, which was disappointing, but I never knew whose name(s) might be on the patent.
Richard P. Miller
I was pleasantly surprised to see a story about a fleet oiler in the April issue—Robert Stern’s “A Least-Likely Combatant” (pp. 48–53).
I was stationed on board the fleet oiler USS Ponchatoula (AO-148) during the late 1950s. After World War II, the Navy saw that faster and bigger oilers with more cargo capacity were needed. A new class of six ships was designed. They were designated Neosho-class fleet oilers, with the lead ship bearing the name of Mr. Stern’s “least-likely combatant.” The hull numbers were AO-143, -144, -145, -146, -147, -148. For the next 30 years, they serviced the fleet with distinction. During the Vietnam War, the Ponchatoula set a replenishment record: 484 replenishments to 503 ships.
The Ponchatoula Shipmates Association worked with the City of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and in 2015 a memorial was erected there from parts of the oiler saved from the ship breakers.