Death of the Japanese Fleet – Part I


December 7, 1941. Dawn had broken on a beautiful Sunday morning. The blue waters of the Pacific and sky above had never looked clearer. All was quiet at the U.S. Navy base in Hawaii’s Pearl harbor…and then hell broke loose.

When one looks at the losses of the Battle of Leyte the disparity is so great that it is remarkable the Japanese admirals could have any hope left at all for anyting. Japan lost 3 battleships, a fleet and 3 light carriers, 6 cruisers, 4 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers in the four forces that took part in the battle.

Now it became for the American carriers a question of tracking down and destroying the units of the Japanese fleet as they found them, and the emphasis naturally had to turn to tankers, supply ships, and other shipping because there was (with one great exception) to be no further Japanese naval effort on the sea. The Japanese navy fliers in the Philippines, for example, became troops or Kamikaze pilots.

October 1944 marked a high point in American aerial attacks on Japanese shipping and caused the Japanese to change their manner of protecting shipping between the outer fringes of the Empire and Japan proper.

By November, the results of the Leyte battles had brought about a basic change in the convoy system. Convoys had been routed from Southeast Asia along the Philippines to Japan, but now they hugged the Asiatic coast instead. The convoys became smaller, and the number of destroyers and escorts were increased. There was even an occasional cruiser along. Japan absolutely had to have oil above all, and there was only one source of supply to her, the Netherlands East Indies.

The story of just one convoy at the end of the year is indicative of what was happening to Japan’s forces at sea in these last terrible days.

Capt. Chuji Kawamura was the commander of the tanker Sarawak, a 5,000 ton ship that plied between Singapore and Japanese ports bringing oil and aviation gasoline. Between November 20, 1943, and the summer of 1944 she made 3 trips to Singapore and back; then on the 4th trip sixty feet of the ship’s bow was blown off and she was towed to Manila. In August 1944 the ship was taken to Japan, and in the middle of December repairs were completed there. Captain Kawamura sailed from Yokohama on December 31, bound again for Singapore to bring back gasoline. There was a decided difference this time.

There were 10 merchant ships in the convoy and 8 escorts. This was hardly an economic way to use shipping, but Japan was desperate for petroleum products.

The speed of the convoy was 12 knots, sailing out of Moji. When it was learned from convoy command that U.S. Task Force 58 was in the South China Sea, plans were changed, although the convoy was ready to hug the China coast. It was diverted to Takao. On January 8 the first ship was sunk by a submarine off Keeling, Formosa. Then, in Takao, in harbor no less, the convoy was attacked by Task Force 38’s carrier planes on January 9, and 3 more ships were sunk. One ship also suffered engine trouble and was lost to the convoy here. The air attack began in the morning, and came over in 4 waves that day – the Japanese estimated 300 planes in all. They sank or damaged 2 other ships in the harbor besides those of the convoy, dropping perhaps 100 bombs and then strafing. A ship 200 yards from the Sarawak was sunk. Captain Kawamura’s men manned their 12 machine guns – there were 50 navy men in his crew these days. The American bomb marksmanship was not very good, but perhaps that was because of the terrible weather in Takao that day; it was so cloudy that the Japanese in their ships could not see the Americans until just before they dropped their bombs – and, of course, it worked both ways. They were flying in at 600 feet to drop.

On January 10, the convoy was now reduced to 5 tankers and cargo ships, plus the escorts. It sailed from Takao, followed the China coast in shallow water past Hong Kong, and was passing outside Hainan Island – or beginning to. When the convoy reached a point just north of Hainan, the leader had news that Task Force 58 was moving north again through the China Sea, and so the convoy turned and headed for Hong Kong. It reached the harbor on January 13. But on the 15th and 16th the carrier planes came in again and attacked the convoy in Hong Kong harbor, sinking 4 of the 5 cargo ships in the convoy. Three hundred  planes a day came in. At the end of the raid, of the cargo ships and tankers only Sarawak was still afloat, and 6 escort vessels had been damaged.

At the end of the 2nd day, Captain Kawamura’s ship had only about 200 rounds of antiaircraft ammunition left. He consulted with the convoy commander, and they discussed what the next day might bring. If the task force planes came back, almost certainly the ship would be sunk. Perhaps, said the commander, it would be a good idea to fill the ship’s tanks with water to make it appear that she was half sunk. That way the Americans might ignore her and concentrate on other vessels. But the staff of Task Force 58 figured they had cone enough damage to Hong Kong in 2 days’ bombing, and moved on.

On January 17 Sarawak and 4 escorts left the harbor and proceeded down the China coast, north of Hainan, following Hainan’s coast to the port of Yulin, stopping there and then going on the next day. The ships cut directly across to the Indo-China coast that day, hugging the shore and shallow water to keep submarines off at least one side. Down they went to Saigon, then to Pointe de Camau, the southernmost point of Indo-China, and then back across to the Malaya coast – all this to avoid attack. What happened?…

Just off the coast of Malaya the convoy was attacked by a submarine, and one escort ship was torpedoed. It was January 24th. The escort fell out, and the 3 other escorts and the Sarawak went on toward Singapore Straits, where they anchored on the night of January 26.

That night B-29s dropped mines in the Straits, near the anchorage, and the next morning when trying to get into port, Sarawak hit a mine. Not only was she damaged, but she had to sit and wait 4 days for the navy to come and sweep the channel, so she got into harbor on January 31. It was mid-February before she was in drydock, and March 15 before she was repaired and ready to sail. One ship of ten had made it back to Singapore to pick up supplies for the Island Kingdom on this voyage!

…continued with Part II (Sarawak’s 2nd attempt)

Source: THE CARRIER WAR, Author: Edwin P. Hoyt – Avon Books

Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: