Speeding like phantoms over the glassy waters of Savo Sound came eight two- slacked destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s DesRon 2 this night of November 30,1942, their decks crammed with supplies for Guadalcanal. Suddenly gunfire sparkled from a line of enemy cruisers spread to port, and enveloped one of the destroyers. Quickly the order went out to “Execute Mass Torpedo Attack!”; and from almost three score tubes deadly long-lance torpedoes were soon streaking for their targets. The Japanese wheeled about and ran for safety, their supply mission defeated; but behind them a whole squadron of heavy cruisers writhed in agony as their torpedoes struck home.
Tassafaronga stands as the high point of Japanese destroyer history, and it revealed to a surprised foe how highly developed their destroyer service was. The story of Nippon’s 176 destroyers in World War II is a dramatic and intensely interesting one; for in its rise and fall this destroyer fleet wrote its record in blazing letters across the Pacific.
The Imperial fleet had always been interested in torpedo craft and made effective use of them in the Russian and Chinese wars at the turn of the century. Their development continued afterwards, with Japanese ideas and equipment gradually coming forward to replace Western designs; this was especially true in the years around 1930, when, with her oversized torpedoes and Fubuki-class destroyers, Japan wrested superiority away from Britain and America. By 1941, out of 105 destroyers in service, 70 were five or six- gun boats firing broadsides of six to nine deadly torpedoes; and there was nothing afloat to match those seventy in doctrines or equipment.1 They were organized into squadrons of normally a dozen ships under a rear admiral, with a cruiser flagship—testimony to the reliance that the Japanese placed on their destroyers and their major part in fleet actions. For destroyers were not to be tied down to their cruisers but were free to push in and use their torpedoes to best advantage. The DesRon commander normally equalled a cruiser commander in rank. And his rank was not undeserved; under certain circumstances a big DesRon could be fully as effective as a division of cruisers or battleships.
In November, 1941, the six squadrons2 began moving to their battle stations. During the months of invasion that followed DesRon 1 screened Nagumo’s carrier striking force; the others mainly protected troop convoys. The hardest working part of the navy, these destroyers yet seemingly accomplished little; but they were really more successful in doing their job than ever again.
Destroyers in Triumph
The first destroyers lost in the war were sunk at Wake, when DesRon 6 was repelled by the Marines. There, at Lingayen Gulf, and elsewhere they gave gunfire support to the troops. But that was not the main sort of support they gave; during those months of invasion and conquest the squadrons’ main job was forming a protective screen around the convoys against submarines and surface raiders.
Drab was this work, in comparison to the fiery battles they fought later; yet, except for the foolish (from the Japanese side) affair at Makassar Straits, it was really effective. There were, at this time, enough destroyers, and they shuttled back and forth guarding the onward push of the troop convoys. The submarines waiting for those convoys were vexed by many things besides the thick escorts around transports; yet the fact remains that the invading transports sunk by forty submarines in three months can almost be counted on two hands. The powerful destroyer screens either kept submarines at a respectful distance or harried them unmercifully if they persisted in attacking; the ordeals of Perch and S-383 tell well enough how the destroyers successfully protected their convoys. As in World War I, when their predecessors had gotten convoys safely through the Mediterranean, the Jap destroyer skippers sank few subs; but they were nonetheless a mighty aid to the success of Japan’s expansion.
Four times surface raiders appeared; the first was at Makassar Straits, easily the worst-fought Japanese destroyer action of the war, while the second time a pair of destroyers defended their transport against great odds off Bali. The third and fourth times, at Java Sea and Sunda Straits, squadrons fought highly successful coordinated fights with their heavy cruiser companions. Those fights, forlorn as they were for the Allies, teach a valuable lesson in cruiser- destroyer cooperation, for in them the destroyers were used boldly and successfully, exploiting their torpedoes to the utmost. Later on, at Komandorskis, Empress Augusta Bay, and Leyte Gulf, the cruisers and destroyers fell down in giving support to each other, and their great victories were won independent of each other; but in this pair of early actions the Japanese revealed how their cruisers and destroyers could be a hardhitting team, uniting their big shells and big torpedoes in a symphony of destruction.
Java Sea, Sunda Straits, Wake, the bombardment of Midway—these and other hot actions enliven the record of destroyers in triumph. Their achievements were not often so spectacular; yet they were a solid wall behind which the troop convoys were brought safely to their destination.
Troubles began piling up in June and July. First came Midway, when all the carrier force’s destroyers could do was rescue sailors off the blazing flat-tops; then there were a pair of bad days off Kiska in July, when two destroyers \yere sunk and two crippled by our submarines. Finally came the turning point in Japanese destroyer fortunes; for early in August came the word that Guadalcanal was invaded.
Destroyers in Adversity
There followed eighteen months of the wildest sort of destroyer-fighting that has ever gone on: ambush, bombardment, air raid, torpedo action, troop transportation. The Japanese destroyers were in the middle of the Solomons war, for the Nipponese naval effort was built around them; and most of the destroyers got in action there at one time or another, more often doing the work of freighters than that of destroyers. Thousands of Americans and Japanese died in these actions; yet it is striking that the Jap destroyers seldom fought except when attacked—while they were escorting other ships or carrying supplies themselves.4 Excluding Empress Augusta Bay and a few other actions, the dozens of surface and countless air actions were involuntary on the Japs’ part. But they fought back when attacked with a stoutness that took a severe toll of the attackers and fills scores of pages of the histories.
Not even a sketch of these battles can be given here; most have individual interest only in their relation to the progress of the war up the Solomons, and vital as that was, it did not directly affect the fortunes of Japan’s destroyer fleet, which could fight as well off Bougainville as off Savo. Yet it was in these battles, taken as a whole, that the most powerful destroyer force ever fashioned was broken asunder; for it was here that their superiority in night actions, the prime reason for their existence, was taken from them; and here also their strongest ships and best crews were lost.
Their prowess at night disappeared under the probing radar beams from American warships—no Japanese destroyer ever went into action with effective radar. They had trained long and well for night battles, and their equipment was first rate; but radar turned the night into, day for our gunners, while the Japanese were left literally and figuratively in the dark. Time after time during 1942-44 American cruisers and destroyers ambushed Japanese task forces; and their vaunted torpedo tactics disintegrated before the fire of an enemy whose presence became known only as his missiles came aboard.
Radar did not at once win the night war for the U. S. Navy. Though their scientists had served 'them badly, the Jap destroyers still fought back, winning their greatest victories under this handicap. Eight battles5 they fought with American cruisers and destroyers, battles where we had radar and they did not; yet in those they sank two and torpedoed nine Allied cruisers and sank seven or eight destroyers for a cost of one light cruiser and nine destroyers of their own. The degree of ambush varied from complete surprise in the action off Vila Stanmore in March, 1943, to a very qualified surprise at Kolombangara, where the radarless enemy discovered our approach by radar receivers; but the circumstances were certainly disadvantageous in all cases, and yet the DesRons gained great victories. In the five battles where squadron formations met American cruiser forces, they sank 33,000 tons of American warships and damaged 85,000 tons, in exchange for 16,000 tons of Jap cruisers and destroyers sunk and a similar tonnage damaged.6
The Tide Turns
The long-lance torpedoes had done their work well, bringing the Emperor a series of fine victories; and through the summer of 1943 his flotillas had proven themselves to be one of the most effective forces at his disposal. They had thrown troops into Guadalcanal, making possible the long stand there; while they had indeed failed to keep those troops well supplied, they had skilfully rescued the survivors at the end. In the Aleutians a smaller Express had proven invaluable; and at the end of July destroyers carried out another fine evacuation, that of Kiska. Both evacuations had confounded the Allies. So far the destroyers had proven effective against submarines—Argonaut, Triton, and perhaps Grampus had only recently felt the fatal lash of their bombs, and others had been harried by them. Japanese destroyers had indeed proved helpless to prevent the destruction of convoys under their charge by Allied aircraft off Guadalcanal and in the Bismarck Sea, and that was an evil portent with our airpower on the increase; but certainly the war record of the Japanese destroyers in their first 20 months had been one of exceptional success.
Forces were shaping up which were to abruptly reverse this story. One such force appeared at the start of their twenty-first month of war. On the night of August 6/7, 1943, the end of their winning streak in surface actions came. The American destroyer had found itself and that night demonstrated its determination to take over the mastery of the night seas. In the months following Vella Lavella desultory skirmishing between the opposing destroyer fleets left unsettled the problem of which would win. The November 25 battle off Cape St. George pointed up forcefully, however, the fact that our destroyers were on the ascendency. After Vella Levella the Jap destroyers never really won another surface battle; during the second half of 1943 our destroyers gradually took over and proceeded to make the night as unsafe for Japanese destroyers as they had formerly made it for us.7
Attrition had hurt the Express badly. The toll of SBD and B-25, cruiser and destroyer, PT boat and mine, added up to a staggering picture of losses. This picture was brought into sharp focus a flaming night off Empress Augusta Bay, when a Jap cruiser-destroyer force came down to raid our transports. Three of their six destroyers disabled themselves in collisions while dodging American fire. After the war the Japanese commander was asked, “What caused your unusual number of collisions?,” and he answered—
“Lack of training in night operations. By the time of this battle we had lost about 40 destroyers and about 6 cruisers from the fleet that operated in the Rabaul-Solomons area. In order to maintain our bases we had to substitute ships from other fleets. These ships never had an opportunity to train together. Sometimes, as in this action, they would report in the afternoon and be engaged in an action the same night.”
Forty destroyers in sixteen months! These losses had not been distributed evenly over the whole destroyer fleet, either; the ratio of losses was almost three times as high for modern as for old destroyers, for it was the strongest ships which were sent into the dangerous waters of that area. Meanwhile lesser casualties in other areas had combined with these Solomons losses to reduce the Japanese destroyer fleet by one-third in numbers from Pearl Harbor strength by April, 1944; while real fighting strength was down even more, because the 2,000-tonners sunk were to be replaced by war-built light destroyers,8 while a terrible wastage of the prewar crews had accompanied this. By the spring of 1944 about half of the modern prewar destroyers had been lost, and many of the older destroyers; experienced admirals and thousands of their men lay drowned across half the Pacific.9
Destroyers in Ruin
With their ability at night actions gone and sorely weakened in numbers and quality, the Jap destroyers were driven out of the narrow seas into deep water where subs and carriers could get at them.
And these did get at them. The story of Japanese destroyers in 1944-45 is overshadowed by the withering fire from above and below that steadily shrank their numbers. Air attack, which had hurt them so badly in the Solomons, inflicted truly ruinous losses when it was thrown against them by our carriers; at Leyte Gulf destroyers were carrying thirty or forty 25 mm. machine guns apiece to make up for their lack of air cover, but they got sunk anyway. As for submarines, which had been experimenting with destroyer-killing from an early stage of the war, these started on an officially sponsored10blitz that is all the more amazing when one considers how thoroughly the Jap destroyers had dominated them early in the war. Now there were more subs and fewer destroyers; more than that, the submariners had learned the hard way about the habits of their arch enemy. Their war against the Jap destroyer has become famous; the carriers’ war was more sporadic, but at least equally destructive. Ground between these millstones of sub- and super-surface attack, the squadrons which had scoured the seas in 1942-43 melted away; by April, 1945, there were only a third as many destroyers as had been in service in December, 1941, and of the seventy modern destroyers of 1941, only a dozen remained (while three-fourths of the old destroyers were gone too). Few of the war-built 2,000-tonners were still surviving.
But the squadrons fought, even as they melted away. They rapidly were becoming as atrophied as the carrier arm of the fleet, and weaker than the relatively intact battle force of CA’s and BB’s; nonetheless mighty tasks fell to them in 1944-45. Their Express operations continued, in the South west Pacific and even into the Indian Ocean; their convoying of troop convoys was a vital task in the Leyte campaign. Their escorting of regular convoys and of naval vessels consumed most of their efforts; while at Leyte Gulf they were committed in all possible strength as torpedo carriers. Finally, a shrunken DesRon was sent out with a heavy ship in each of the two last offensive sorties by the Japanese surface navy in the war— the December, 1944, bombardment of Mindoro, and the “Ten-Ichi” operation off Okinawa in April, 1945.
The record of their failure in these varied enterprises is written boldly in the records of this part of the war—and in the crowded pages of JANAC. The odds of American strength and skill were too great, there were too few destroyers, and the earlier losses seem to have drained away much of the best talent of the Jap destroyer fleet, leaving inexperienced men to carry on the crucial fight. There were no more brilliant Express victories, either of transportation or of destroying the task forces that met them; the abortive Biak express of June, 1944, is typical of this period, even as Tassafaronga was of the earlier one. Their escorting of '.other ships failed repeatedly before the onslaught of airplane and submarine; not only were merchant convoys shattered, but for the first time major Japanese warships were sunk by subs on the very eve of battle.
As for their torpedo support of the only engagement of the entire Jap battle line since 1905, it was entirely ineffective. Jap destroyers had been carefully designed with so much firepower so that they could multiply the fleet’s power in surface engagements. They had never been intended as freighters, and their primary function was not antisub warfare either (fleet destroyers normally carried only 30 depth charges, whereas the kaibokan, specially built as escorts, carried 120). But in their grand opportunity to fulfill their intended function they failed utterly; their part at Surigao Straits was entirely ineffective, while Kurita so mismanaged his destroyers off Samar that they again did little—even though the odds were in their favor.11 Thus in the crisis they failed, through their own ineptness rather than American strength; the way in which our submarines also made them look foolish adds weight to the contention that the Jap destroyermen of 1944-45 were far below those keen, highly- trained crews who scored such victories earlier.
Hatsushimo, a 1,600-ton destroyer of the middle 30’s, was the last Jap tin-can to be in fatal engagement during the war. She struck a mine on July 30, the last of 129 to go.
Why had this ruin descended upon what for a time was possibly the finest destroyer force ever put afloat? Obviously it was overwhelmed in the general disaster that overtook Japan; its downfall was inevitable, no matter how effectively it handled its long- lance torpedoes. But that general disaster was attributable in no small degree to failures of the destroyer fleet itself, so it can hardly be said to have been blameless for its own collapse.
Lack of radar cost the Jap destroyers dearly; but that is far from all the answer, for they won their most notable victories without it. Lack of air cover was a serious factor, but not the final one; at Midway destroyer Tanikaze dodged some fifty SBD’s by adroit ship-handling. Their admirals’ penchant for cruiser flagships certainly hurt, but hardly ruined them.12 Lack of replacement destroyers was a very severe thing, yet lack of numbers does not explain their disaster; for example, Kurita had enough destroyers to do far more than he did. Their antisubmarine equipment did not deteriorate, as far as we know; but their ability to cope with submarines certainly did, as had their ability to cope with enemy aircraft and surface ships.
The answer lies beyond any inherent weakness in Japanese destroyers; for what really beat them was the hard-won skill of American fighting men, while the losses in those engagements accelerated future defeats by draining off the best ships and crews. The difference between Tanikaze’s feat and the fate of many another destroyer under much lighter attack, the difference between the outcomes of Tassafaronga and Cape St. George, the difference between our submarines’ ability to handle the Japanese destroyer at the beginning and the end—that was what broke the Jap destroyers. Their defeat hastened the defeat of Japan; while the Nipponese could at least remember with pride a record of striking if short-lived successes in torpedo actions that will long be remembered in destroyer annals.
(Note: the strength statistics are approximate only, as the available data are irreconcilable. The following figures for beginnings of fiscal years (1 April), from Japanese Naval Shipbuilding (USSBS) may be more accurate:
1. Foreign navies, to be sure, had destroyers as heavily- gunned as the Japs’; we had eight-gun ships even more heavily armed. But there were only a few of these, and most of our destroyers were four-gun. Again, we had sixteen-tube destroyers, but only a few, and no torpedoes equal to the Japanese. The 36 older Jap destroyers were themselves well-armed with four 4.7-inch guns and six broadside torpedoes.
2. DesRons 1 through 6. Many destroyers operated independently. A seventh squadron, DesRon 10, was added in the spring of 1942 from new construction; this represents the peak of Japanese destroyer strength. By Leyte Gulf only the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Squadrons were still in existence.
3. See Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II, 36-38, 96-99. Submarine doctrine at this time called for giving a wide berth to destroyers, which were well-equipped with sound gear, and consequently extremely dangerous.
4. The destroyers were poor transports, ISO fully- armed troops or small amounts of supplies being a fair load; but their speed let them get through where regular transports could not. Light cruisers could carry 400-500 men. Expresses varied from one to twenty ships; six to twelve was most common. The larger expresses were often divided into two parts, one carrying supplies and the other acting as escort. At Tassafaronga only two out of eight were so detailed; later the escorts were as numerous as the escorted in some Expresses.
5. Kawakaze vs. Blue, Aug. 1942; Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal (two battles), Tassafaronga, Vila Stanmore, Kula Gulf, Kolombangara.
6. In earlier surface actions Japanese destroyers had torpedoed four Allied cruisers and sunk five destroyers for a cost of no destroyers sunk and three seriously damaged.
7. During the whole war U. S. destroyers sank twelve and helped sink other Jap destroyers; the Japanese sank about ten American DD’s and damaged several others.
8. The Matsu class, 1260-tonners which took only two- thirds as long to build as the standard 2000-tonners, and much less steel. Thirty-two were delivered in 1944-45, accounting for four-fifths of deliveries in those years; in 1942-43 heavy destroyers were still standard, some 25 being delivered. These took a year to complete. A few 2700-ton leaders were delivered early in the war.
9. Of forty destroyers lost in the Solomons, 8 were sunk by dive-bombers (almost all land-based Navy), 6 by B-25’s (altogether 10 Jap DD’s were sunk and others damaged by B-25’s during the war), 18 by surface ships,
10. A priority list of April, 1944, gave destroyers a high rating, as it was suspected how badly they had been hurt in the Solomons.
11. Kurita sent half of his too few destroyers to "bring up the rear," while the others delivered an ineffective stern-on attack. Except for the early battles in the Java Sea, Jap cruiser-destroyer coordination did poorly; it was tried on few occasions, and then flopped as it did in this action.
12. The cruisers, three times as big as the destroyers they led, were all the more attractive as targets. At least eight times these cruisers were sunk or disabled while all or most of their destroyers escaped unharmed, while the reverse never happened. DesRon 2 was especially afflicted, losing flagships five times. This early elimination of the Admiral from the action was a characteristic of Empress Augusta Bay, Kolombangara, Kula Gulf, and Surigao Straits (Shima’s action).
*Source: Appendix A of Admiral King’s “Final Official Report.”