Japan's Sea Lords in the South Pacific

By John Prados

Consider the Night. Just two days earlier, another Japanese bombardment unit coming down “the Slot,” as the waters between the Solomon Islands were called, had been ambushed by an American cruiser-destroyer force lying in wait. That action, the battle of cape Esperance, had featured the first death in action of an Imperial Japanese Navy flag officer in World War II (an imperial navy admiral had perished at Midway, but from his choice to go down with his flagship rather than from direct combat action). Vice Admiral Aritomo Goto had been a real seagoing sailor and a hard-bitten cruiser-division commander. The Japanese navy task force on the Night was bent on avenging his death.

Its leader, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, had been a classmate of Goto’s at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima, and had graduated just two places ahead of him academically. Kurita’s escort commander, Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, had been a good friend of Goto’s, while the task-force commander’s senior staff officer, commander Kikunori Kijima, had had the same assignment under the deceased admiral. He felt responsible for Goto’s death. And the battleship Kongo , commanded by captain Tomiji Koyanagi, had been Goto’s first billet as an ensign fresh from training. Goto had once skippered the heavy cruiser Atago , and Koyanagi had followed him by several years in that command.

What applied at the top level was true down the line in Kurita’s force. Admiral Tanaka led an escort of the light cruiser Isuzu and nine destroyers. No fewer than five of the destroyer skippers were naval academy classmates of the mortified commander Kijima, who had considered suicide to atone for his supposed failure at cape Esperance. Two of Tanaka’s skippers were classmates of the captains of the carriers Kaga and Hiryu , which had been lost at Midway. A pair of the destroyer captains had been classmates of captain Ishinosuke Izawa, who went down with his carrier, the Shoho , at the battle of the coral Sea. Two senior officers (the captain of the Haruna and one of the destroyer-division commanders) had been at Eta Jima with the skipper of light carrier Ryujo , sunk at the battle of the Eastern Solomons. Another of Tanaka’s division leaders had actually been escorting the Ryujo at the time.

And if that were not enough, many of the senior planners on the combined Fleet staff—men anxious to regain Japanese ascendancy over the Allies—were products of the Eta Jima class of 1923, which had also graduated several of Tanaka’s destroyer captains. Two more were classmates of captain Shigenori Kami, the hyper-aggressive senior staff officer to the Japanese fleet commander at Rabaul. What these men heard from their comrades when anchored in port had to have influenced them. Without a doubt, Admiral Kurita’s subordinates were equally determined to achieve a measure of vengeance.

So Japanese sailors on the Night were driven by avenging angels. But fast-forward two years—to the Leyte Gulf battles—and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s desperation played out with opposite consequences among some of the same men. On the Night, Takeo Kurita led the Japanese force. At the famous battle off Samar on 25 October 1944, Kurita again led the attacking force—with former Kongo captain Koyanagi now staff chief. Vice Admiral Kazutaka Shiraishi, leading a heavy cruiser division, had been chief of staff to Kurita’s superior at the time of the earlier action. It is fascinating to speculate on the impact of one set of events on the other. The lesson of the Night was that determination could be driven to success; Samar taught that determination pressed to the point of pursuit but then abandoned could lead to the destruction of the fleet.

The Night formed only part of a much larger strategic scheme with which Admiral Yamamoto intended to reverse the trending course of the war in the South Pacific. Henderson Field had to be neutralized so the Japanese could move a large troop convoy to Guadalcanal and mount a land offensive there. The combined Fleet cruised to the east of the Solomons intending to pounce once the Japanese army had advanced. Of course the plans had been brainstormed by Yamamoto; Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, his chief of staff; plus the specialist planners at headquarters. Their scheme would be carried out by the admirals afloat, Chuichi Nagumo and Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, whose maneuvers led to the battle of the Santa cruz Islands on 26 October 1942. Here the success of Japan’s sea lords in the South Pacific was crucially influenced by the actions of subordinates whom history has often ignored.

Japanese navy doctrine at that time continued to accord primacy to the battleship, with the practical result that when carrier task forces and surface action groups operated together, tactical command went to the surface leader. Thus Kondo of the Second Fleet had overall control of the combined Fleet units heading into battle. In the new aero-naval environment of the Solomons campaign, and given that Kondo had no experience at all with carrier operations, this posed a potentially significant problem.

Admiral Ugaki of the Combined Fleet, who was also educating himself in aerial warfare, understood the dilemma. The same conditions had applied during the battle of the coral Sea, the first carrier battle. During the planning phase before Santa cruz, Ugaki called in the officer who had led the Japanese carriers at coral Sea, Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara; he had also had to deal with a surface officer in overall command at the battle. Hara and Ugaki had several long conversations about carrier operations and coordinating task forces with surface units.

Admiral Ugaki realized that surface warrior Nobutake Kondo needed an education in these matters as well. Chuichi Nagumo, though a friend and Eta Jima classmate of Kondo’s, was not a carrier specialist and not the man to teach air fundamentals. Instead, Ugaki gave that job to Nagumo’s staff chief, Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka. He was a true aerial-warfare specialist and, equally important, had known Kondo since middle school. They shared birthdays and had been in the same school in Osaka, where Kondo had taken Kusaka under his wing as a sort of younger brother. Now Kusaka could return the favor. He gave Kondo the aerial basics and obtained a concession that once the Japanese initiated carrier operations Nagumo could act independently.

But it was within Nagumo’s force itself that Admiral Kusaka’s actions would be decisive. Having also been Nagumo’s chief of staff during the Midway debacle, Kusaka was determined to avoid the errors that had led to disastrous losses there. The sinking of the carrier Akagi especially pained him. Not only had she been the fleet flagship, Kusaka himself had commanded her in 1940. Within the Third Fleet, now Japan’s carrier task force, Kusaka implemented measures to drain carriers’ aircraft fuel lines when combat was imminent, improving ship survivability. He also regularized the practice of launching a two-wave dawn search pattern—a critical failure at Midway. And Kusaka provided that a strike group should be spotted on flight decks when searches went out in order to make instant use of any sightings. These innovations were Kusaka’s, not Nagumo’s.

In the days before Santa cruz, another Kusaka concern—that the American carriers would be poised to attack from the Japanese flank—also led to special search operations by a detached cruiser group. And in the immediate prelude to the battle, Kusaka would be instrumental in adding to Nagumo’s usual caution—to a fault, in the opinion of the combined Fleet, which ordered the force to seek battle in the face of Kusaka’s advice to delay. In any case Kusaka’s careful preparations would afford some advantage to the Japanese at the battle of the Santa cruz Islands.

As valuable as Kusaka’s advice on aerial warfare was to Admiral Kondo, it proved critical to Japanese land-based air commanders in the Solomons. The Eleventh Air Fleet, headquartered at Rabaul, conducted the Solomons air war. Initially Vice Admiral Nizhizo Tsukahara led the air fleet, as he had since before the war. Tsukahara was the imperial navy’s most expert aviation commander and the only officer experienced at conducting long-range interdiction operations. But in the fall of 1942, the admiral contracted malaria and had to be sent home. To replace him the Japanese selected Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka, Ryunosuke’s older cousin.

Kusaka had no air-warfare experience at all. In December 1941 he had been president of the naval academy and looking forward to retirement, but now he was supposed to run an air war. His chief of staff, Rear Admiral Yoshimasa Nakahara, was a Navy Ministry bureaucrat. Fortunately for the Japanese, Kusaka was a quick study and had a flexible mind, but he still operated at a disadvantage. The Japanese high command sent captain Yoshitake Miwa, formerly of the combined Fleet staff, as air officer.

But the skill set remained thin. In the fall of 1943, when the Japanese tried a major air offensive from Rabaul, the combined Fleet tried to make up for Kusaka’s inexperience by assigning him its air operations mastermind, captain Sadamu Sanagi, as air staff officer and by bringing Ryunosuke Kusaka down from Japan as chief of staff. By then, however, Rabaul was under siege and its value as a center for aerial operations rapidly diminishing. Japanese air units were withdrawn from Rabaul in February 1944. Two months later, Ryunosuke Kusaka followed them. Promoted to vice admiral, he would take up the reins as chief of staff of the Combined Fleet.

By far the best-known Japanese surface commanders in the Solomons were Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, victor at the battle of Savo Island, and Raizo Tanaka. Both played key roles in Japanese surface operations, especially during the Guadalcanal phase of the Solomons campaign. Mikawa, at number 41 on the navy’s seniority list, ranked only a half dozen spaces behind Jinichi Kusaka, who would become his direct superior in December 1942. That was when the Japanese created a Southeast Area Fleet at Rabaul to control all naval and air forces in the Solomons. Mikawa was a warrior of the Satsuma clan and an intellectual. Third in his class at Eta Jima and a graduate of the staff college, he returned to the naval academy as an instructor and later was chief of the instructional staff.

Interviewed by historian John Toland in the 1960s, Mikawa volunteered that he had read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower upon History four times. As a junior officer he had been among the Japanese delegation to the Paris Peace conference in 1919 and later served as assistant attaché in Paris and with negotiators at the 1930 London Naval conference, for which he had been rewarded with promotion to captain.

But Mikawa was a seaman too, known as a torpedoman and navigator. In succession he had skippered the heavy cruisers Aoba and Chokai , then the battleship Kirishima . It was he who had led the battleships that protected Nagumo’s Kido Butai (Mobile Force) at Pearl Harbor, and he had commanded another unit of that type with the assault force that was to have made the Japanese landing on Midway. Mikawa had given up command of battleships—the very vessels that would shell Guadalcanal on the Night—to establish the Eighth Fleet in the Solomons. After that campaign ended in defeat, he would go on to bigger things, leading the theater command (area fleet) that defended the Philippines in 1944. His value recognized, Mikawa was accorded the extraordinary distinction of a personal audience with Emperor Hirohito.

But for all his skills and experience, Mikawa remained capable of error. Americans are most familiar with his decision at the battle of Savo Island to give up any pursuit once he had crippled the Allied cruiser force. That had squandered the opportunity to smash the amphibious ships still landing supplies at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. There were reasons for Mikawa’s command decision, of course, and one can argue them. Less defensible is his behavior a few weeks later at the battle of the Eastern Solomons, when on three separate occasions Mikawa countermanded orders from Admiral Tsukahara to the transport force. Raizo Tanaka described tremendous confusion resulting from the conflicting commands, which left his troopships and escorts vulnerable to Allied airstrikes that inflicted critical damage.

Then there are the events of 13–14 November 1942, when a Japanese cruiser unit under Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura carried out another of those Guadalcanal bombardment missions. Mikawa led an Eighth Fleet cover force, which, had it helped shell Henderson Field, might actually have put the place out of action. Instead he held back beyond Savo Island, and the next morning the cactus Air Force plastered the Japanese, causing as much damage as the imperial navy’s cruisers had suffered in any of the Guadalcanal surface battles. Mikawa’s vision failed him that night.

Americans appreciate Rear Admiral Tanaka as an excellent fighting sailor. Japanese are more divided. Take, for example, captain Toshikazu Ohmae, who served on Gunichi Mikawa’s staff and had reason to defend the Eighth Fleet commander. Ohmae was an exceptional officer who after the war became a factotum for foreigners seeking to research the Japanese side of the conflict. When shown the draft of Volume 5 of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II , which covered the Guadalcanal campaign, Ohmae observed that Tanaka had been fond of radioing requests for air cover when there was little hope of any, and on reaching port complaining of poor naval air force cooperation. Ohmae characterized Tanaka as small-minded. While he conceded that Tanaka had been a skilled squadron leader, he opined that the admiral’s methods discouraged initiative among his captains.

This view contrasts with Admiral Tanaka’s record, though not with the imperial navy’s treatment of its supposedly errant Hotspur. Tanaka was wounded twice in running the vaunted “Tokyo Express” to Guadalcanal. His Destroyer Squadron 2, considered the elite night-fighting unit of the Japanese navy, achieved signal success in the 29–30 November battle of Tassafaronga. His ten destroyers—only two of them stripped for battle—overcame an Allied cruiser force with every advantage, including greatly superior strength, radar, and intelligence of the destination and timing of Tanaka’s supply run.

Though lacking the intellectual stature of Mikawa, Tanaka had nonetheless graduated in the upper third of his naval academy class and been alert to possibilities for tactical and material innovation. Even before the war he had listened to his destroyer captains’ arguments for changes in torpedo-attack tactics, and it was Tanaka who had perfected the Japanese method of heading Tokyo Express units with guard ships. His destroyermen also conducted the experiments that enabled the Japanese to drop “strings” of supply drums offshore, permitting them to offload quickly and minimizing exposure in the target zone.

Admiral Tanaka himself recognized his error on the night of Tassafaronga of not pressing ahead to actually unload the supplies on his destroyers. Given Japanese concern at that point about their soldiers starving on Guadalcanal, that failure probably accounts for what hap-pened to him. Tanaka was reassigned to a shore billet and led base forces through the rest of the war. Replacing him in command of Destroyer Squadron 2 was none other than the battleship Kongo’s former commander, Tomiji Koyanagi, newly elevated to rear admiral.

Koyanagi’s destroyers would be instrumental in the final episode of the Guadalcanal campaign. In the first days of February 1943, the Tokyo Express came to rescue the surviving Japanese on the island. The mission was not actually Koyanagi’s. He was slated for a supporting role as Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura led the operation. But Kimura never made it to the ’canal. Instead he was injured when the American submarine Nautilus (SS-168) torpedoed his ship a few days before the evacuation.

The Japanese command next gave the assignment to Shintaro Hashimoto, the flag officer leading Destroyer Squadron 3. The change was more than a little ironic, because Rear Admiral Hashimoto had been a friend and competitor of Raizo Tanaka’s since naval academy days. When they graduated together in 1913, Hashimoto had been just nine places behind Tanaka in the standings, and it had been that way ever since. In 1940, when Hashimoto skippered the heavy cruiser Chikuma , Tanaka was captain of the Kongo , but only four spaces ahead of his comrade on the seniority list. At Guadalcanal their destroyer squadrons had played tag-team for the Tokyo Express. Tanaka had had the duty in August, Hashimoto in September-October, then Tanaka came back for November. Also like Tanaka, Hashimoto had lost a ship in battle, in his case the destroyer Ayanami , which succumbed to American shells in the Naval battle of Guadalcanal’s battleship action.

One more way Hashimoto and Tanaka were alike: both were aggressive officers. On 14–15 November, the night he lost the Ayanami , Hashimoto had been the first to sight Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee’s battleships. Though he turned away initially, Hashimoto later reversed course and carried out the scout mission off Lunga Point that he had been assigned—despite the battlewagons thundering around him.

Still, Hashimoto had a bit of the hard-luck sailor in him. That night of the big ships, the Ayanami had been the only Japanese destroyer lost. The Guadalcanal evacuation drove home the point. On the first rescue run, Hashimoto’s flagship, the destroyer Makinami , was damaged by the cactus Air Force during the approach. The admiral was left to transfer his flag and rush to catch up with the speeding Tokyo Express. For his second rescue run, on 4 February, Hashimoto sailed in the destroyer Shirayuki . This time the ship’s engines gave out and Hashimoto was obliged to transfer again. Only his third transport mission went smoothly, despite damage inflicted by Allied aircraft. Hashimoto’s operation evacuated more than 10,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors from Guadalcanal.

Both times Shintaro Hashimoto was left behind, the destroyer leader who took charge was Rear Admiral Tomiji Koyanagi. A year behind both of the other destroyermen at Eta Jima, Koyanagi never caught up. He had been number 300 on the seniority list in 1940, almost 60 places behind Hashimoto, and only made rear admiral in November 1942. On the other hand, Koyanagi had had a well-rounded naval career. A staff-college graduate, unlike his peers, he had served in cruisers and destroyers and on the staffs of a battleship division, the combined Fleet, and on the Naval General Staff. As mentioned previously he had commanded the battleship Kongo on the Night. It was Koyanagi, with Tanaka’s old squadron, who had ranged the Slot during December 1942. He was resting at Truk a few weeks later when Admiral Kimura suddenly had to be replaced. Rear Admiral Koyanagi fluidly assumed command of Destroyer Squadron 10 and then, with equal presence, pursued the Guadalcanal evacuation missions when his colleague Hashimoto was unavoidably detained.

Koyanagi led units of transport destroyers and got the troops off the shore with great rapidity. When he returned to Truk after the withdrawal from Guadalcanal, Admiral Yamamoto called him in and made a point of expressing his great relief that the younger officer had been on the scene. Guadalcanal marked Koyanagi for bigger things. A few months later he would be appointed to the staff of the Second Fleet. That was why he would be on the scene again at Leyte Gulf.

Japan’s sea lords conducted the Guadalcanal fight with skill and determination. But it was their lot to be on deck when the war was changing, when the formulas so successful during the months after Pearl Harbor stopped working, and when the Imperial Japanese Navy was increasingly matched—then overmatched—by American and other Allied forces that were equal in skill and benefited from technological prowess and intelligence superiority. Looking at the sailors on the other side of the sea adds a new dimension to our understanding of the Solomons campaign.


David c. Evans, ed., The Japanese Navy in World War II , second edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986).

Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

Donald M. Goldstein and Kathrine V. Dillon, eds. Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941–1945 , Chihaya Masataka, trans. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991).

Hara Tameichi, with Fred Saito and Roger Pineau, Japanese Destroyer Captain (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

Herbert C. Merrillat, Guadalcanal Remembered (New York: Avon Books, 1990).

Thomas C. Miller Jr.. The Cactus Air Force (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).

Samuel Eliot Morison, United States Naval Operations in World War II , vol. 5: The Struggle for Guadalcanal (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954).

Samuel Eliot Morison Papers, Naval Historical center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.

John Prados, Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003).

John Prados, Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun (New York: NAL/Castle, 2012).

John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1970).

John Toland Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.



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