Daily Archives: 27 January 2007

Dancing Destroyers and Submersible Freighters, 1942–43

In November [1942] there were on Guadalcanal nearly 15,000 Japanese officers and men, thousands of whom were incapacitated by sickness—malaria, stomach disorder, malnutrition. All day they had to fight against steadily growing enemy land forces. At night they were engaged in receiving such food, ammunition, stores, and medical supplies as might be brought in by fast destroyers or submarines. The “grocery runs” were made at full speed, under cover of darkness on moonless nights.

In hope of avoiding air attacks, Japanese destroyers stayed by day at Shortland Bay in Bougainville. Yet even there they were subjected to bombing attacks by the far-ranging American planes. These regular bombings were dubbed teikibin [定期便], meaning scheduled runs.

When the air-raid alarm sounded, all ships would get underway and maneuver violently, swinging their bows hard left or right to dodge the falling bombs. These attacks came so frequently and regularly that the destroyer skippers began to look forward to them as a chance for practicing evasive tactics. Admiral Tomiji Koyanagi, commander of the destroyer squadrons, nicknamed these evasive maneuvers the “Bon Dance” because of their left and right swinging movements, so reminiscent of the dancing in the annual Bon Festival of Lanterns. The dance of the destroyers was laughable, if one could ignore the deadly consequences of a misstep….

Deplorable as was this destroyer situation, the story of misused submarines is even sorrier.

When first-line submarines were employed almost exclusively in the demeaning task of supply operations, the war for Japan on a gloomy aspect despite many great naval victories.

Early in the effort of supplying Guadalcanal by surface ship, it was realized that nocturnal destroyer runs could not bring in enough material. Accordingly, submarines were detailed to the same task. As need for supplies increased, more submarines were assigned until, by January 1943, thirty-eight submarines were eventually involved. This “submerged freight service” cost Japan the loss of 20 submarines and their seasoned crews. During this period another four submarines were sunk in the Solomons area while on regular patrol. The loss of 24 submarines in a few short months was bad enough, but it was especially painful that 20 of these aggressive fighting machines should be lost in the course of nonaggressive operations for which they were never intended.

Submarines assigned to this duty were stripped of all torpedoes, shells, and guns to make room for supplies. Crews were dejected when informed of their mission, even though they realized the importance of bringing needed materials to Guadalcanal. It was a further blow to morale when the crews witnessed enemy submarines, on proper offensive missions in the same area, attacking our ships and disrupting our supply lines.

Quite naturally our submariners felt that their proper and primary task was to cut off the line of supply between the mainland of the United States and Guadalcanal, or to attack the line of communication between Guadalcanal and Australia. Disruption of the enemy’s line of communication to Guadalcanal—so much more extended than that of Japan—would have been far easier for Japanese submarines had they been allowed to pursue their proper function. And it would also have been far more profitable to the Japanese war effort.

With only three Japanese submarines engaged in offensive operations around Guadalcanal, it is to their great credit that they succeeded in sinking the enemy aircraft carrier Wasp. The poor showing of Japanese submarines in World War II, as compared with those of Germany and the United States, must be attributed in major part to their unwise employment in late 1942 and early 1943.

If the thirty-odd Japanese submarines available in the Solomons had been mobilized offensively to the east and south of Guadalcanal they could have seriously disrupted enemy convoys and been a great threat to the supply strategy of the United States. When Japanese submarines were finally released from logistic support operations and resumed regular offensive tasks, there was a marked increase in their effectiveness against enemy ships.

SOURCE: The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy, by Masanori Ito, trans. by Andrew Y. Kuroda and Roger Pineau (Jove Books, 1984), pp. 79-83

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