Warship Wednesday December 10, 2014: The Japanese Saratoga
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger.
Warship Wednesday, December 10, 2014: The Japanese Saratoga
Here we see a wonderful colorized overhead shot of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier Kaga as she steams in a deep blue sea in 1930. Note the huge twin 7.9-inch turrets up front just under her superimposed flight deck and the meatballs on the wingtips of the early Mitsubishi B1M torpedo bombers. This massive 812-foot long flattop was part of the backbone of Japanese Naval Aviation.
In 1922, the Empire built its first carrier, which was actually the purposely-built ship for that purpose with prior British and U.S. carriers being converted from other ships. This little 9,600-ton flattop, Hōshō, was the cradle of Japanese Naval Aviation much as the USS Langley was to the USN. Then followed two larger fleet carriers, which were actually able to fight. These were the 42,000-ton Akagi (converted from a battlecruiser hull in 1927), and the 38,000-ton Kaga (converted from a battleship hull in 1928). These two ships were comparable to the converted American battlecruisers-cum-carriers Lexington and Saratoga. Then came the experimental 10.500-ton light carrier Ryūjō (comparable to the too-small-for-fleet operations USS Ranger CV-4) whose poor design led to the development of the much better 20,000-ton purpose-built fleet carriers Soryu and Hiryū and follow-on 32,000-ton sisters Shōkaku and Zuikaku (who were roughly comparable in size and operation to the Yorktown-class carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet completed at about the same time). A pair of slow light carriers converted from submarine tenders, Zuihō and Shōhō rounded out the Japanese fleet before the start of World War II in the Pacific, giving the Imperial Japanese Navy some 10 flattop-like ships at the start of the war to the American’s 8.
While the Japanese were able to commission another 10 flattops during the war itself (Ryūhō, Hiyō, Jun’yō, Chitose, Chiyoda, Unryū, Amagi, Katsuragi, Shinano and Taihō), these ships by and large were poorly constructed and in many cases never fully operational– a fact contrasted by the dozens of excellent Essex-class fleet carriers that the USN was able to field by the end of that conflict. No, the true flower of the Japanese Navy’s air arm was developed and at sea by December 7, 1941, and its sunrise would soon set.
Originally laid down 19 July 1920 as a leviathan 45,000-ton battleship that would have carried an amazing ten 16.2-inch guns in five twin turrets and been clad in up to 14-inches of sloping Vickers cemented armor (Japan was a British ally), the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 doomed her and sistership Tosa, both of which had already been launched but were more than a year away from completion, to the scrap heap that was world peace. Tosa was towed out to sea and used an a floating target to test the effectiveness of her new armor and arrangement– which led to lessons in how the later Yamato-class super-dreadnoughts were built. Had these ships been completed as battleships, they would have been at least equal to, if not more powerful than the latest U.S. ships of the day: the Colorado-class.
Kaga, the more complete of the two sat at Kawasaki Shipyard, Kobe while the Japanese Navy considered what to do with her. Two of the faster 30-knot Amagi class battlecruisers (Amagi and Akagi), also canceled due to the Washington Naval Treaty, were undergoing conversion to aircraft carriers much as the U.S. was converting their canceled USS Lexington and Saratoga hulls to flattops at the same time. However, an earthquake in Tokyo in Sept. 1923 produced stress cracks throughout the unfinished Amagi and she was hulked. This meant that the Kaga was given a last-minute reprieve from the breakers and completed to take the place of the already treaty-allowed battlecruiser-tuned carrier.
After an extensive conversion and completion process, Kaga joined the Combined Fleet 30 November 1929. She was a big girl, at over 38,000-tons full load. Only the slightly longer Akagi along with the U.S. Lexington and Saratoga were bigger and not by much (42,000-tons). A brace of 8 Kampon Type B boilers powered 4-geared turbines giving her over 127,000 horses under the hood, meaning she could race around at 26-knots if needed. Although capable of carrying up to 100 aircraft, she also had a very decent main gun armament of 10 7.9-inch 3rd Year Type naval guns installed in six casemates with a maximum elevation of 25 degrees limiting maximum range to 22 kilometers and two forward twin turrets with a maximum elevation of 70-degrees thus giving them the same 29 km range as those guns carried by heavy cruisers. Another 16 5-inch guns were carried in her secondary battery, thus giving her the same armament of both a heavy and light cruiser. She still carried an impressive 6-inches of armor belt, which in theory at least meant she could fight it out on the surface against a decent sized cruiser and likely win without having to launch an aircraft.
Speaking of aircraft, she had three flight decks, stacked upon one another. This allowed her the very sweet option of launching and recovering planes at the same time from the multiple decks. The topmost deck was covered in 1.5-inches of armor for added protection.
Her first missions saw her fitted with up to 60 aircraft, all biplanes, to include Mitsubishi B1M3 torpedo bombers, Nakajima A1N fighters, and Mitsubishi 2MR reconnaissance aircraft. She participated in the first invasions of China, escorting troops of the Imperial Army to Shanghai.
There on Feb. 19, 1932, three planes from the Kaga took off and were met by U.S. Army Air Force reservist 2nd Lieutenant Robert Short who, flying a Boeing 218 P-12 prototype fighter as a volunteer pilot to the Chinese Air Force, smoked a Japanese plane in combat, killing one Lt. Kidokoro, IJN.
Two days later a six-plane stack including three Mitsubishi B1M3 bombers and three Nakajima A1N1 biplane fighters met Short once more and he killed flight leader Lt. Kotani, IJN, disrupting the attack. Regrouping, the two fighters engaged Short and one, piloted by Lt. Nokiji Ikuta, sent the 27-year old American down in flames.
It was Japan’s first-ever air-to-air victory and would not be the last American life that Kaga would cut short.
The shootdown was widely celebrated in Japan for more than a decade.
While in China, the Japanese realized that Kaga had a crapload of flaws and sent her back to the yard. When she emerged, she only had a single flight deck supplemented by a large hangar deck, had lost her 7.9-inch turrets, had a new funnel arrangement, and picked up an island control tower on her deck. Engineering improvements increased her speed to over 28-knots and her hangar space was improved to where she could carry as many as 103 aircraft although never did.
How she would have looked post-mod
Back in Chinese waters, throughout 1937-38 her air group flew thousands of sorties as the ship covered more than 30,000 miles in constant shuttling up and down the coast to support the Japanese Army ashore.
During this time, her pilots mixed it up regularly with Chinese pilots flying American Curtis Hawk III aircraft, bagging 10 of the outnumbered fliers.
On 12 December 1937, three Yokosuka B4Y Type-96 bombers and nine Nakajima A4N Type-95 fighters left her deck to attack a group of Standard Oil-chartered Chinese oil tankers off Nanking. While attacking the merchant ships, the planes also took the 191-foot river gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s Yangtze River Patrol under fire, sinking her in shallow water without provocation.
Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger, Standard Oil Tanker Captain Carl H. Carlson, and Italian reporter Sandro Sandri were killed, Coxswain Edgar C. Hulsebus died later that night and 43 sailors, and five civilians were wounded.
It would not be the last American lives she would take.
December 7, 1941, some 73-years ago this week, Kaga was part of an impressive six-carrier striking force laying just off of Oahu, Hawaii Territory. Although a declaration of war had not been delivered, 26 Nakajima B5N Kates typically armed with Type 91 torpedoes modified to run in the shallow water of the harbor escorted by 9 Mitsubishi A6M Zeros from the carrier accompanied the first wave of Japanese aircraft into Pearl looking for American battleships. Soon after that wave, a second was launched consisting of 26 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers armed with 550 lb. general-purpose bombs and 9 more Zeroes that were tasked with attacking aircraft and hangars on Ford Island.
Of these, 15 did not return, making Kaga‘s air group losses of 31 aviators the heaviest of the Japanese attack. Of the 55 that did make it back, over half were damaged. This is not that surprising as, of the 353 Japanese naval aircraft that attacked Hawaii that day; nearly every fourth one came from Kaga while just over half of the Japanese planes scratched came from the carrier.
However, they inflicted a terrible price on the harbor on that infamous day. Her Zeros reported strafing more than 20 planes on the ground and her bomber and torpedo planes reported hits made by them on the battleships Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona, California, West Virginia, and Maryland. While there is no way to know for sure, likely, a large portion of the 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 others wounded came from Kaga‘s group as two-thirds of the torpedo planes that attacked battleship row in the first wave came from the flattop.
She then followed up this attack with supporting Japanese attacks in the Dutch East Indies and Australia, with her air group raiding Darwin.
June 1942 found her off Midway Island as part of Yamamoto’s final push to break the back of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Along with her old companion Akagi, two other Pearl Harbor veterans, Soryu and Hiryu joined Kaga for the epic naval battle. Of 248 Japanese carrier aircraft deployed, nearly a third flew from the Kaga.
Although her Zeros helped destroy a number of American attack squadrons wholesale, and her Vals and Kates bombed the isolated island, there was a final reckoning in the form of a 25 plane attack of SBD Dauntless dive bombers from the USS Enterprise that caught Kaga and her three companion carriers unaware with her decks full of torpedoes, bombs, aviation gas, and planes out in the open. At 10:22 am on June 4, one 1,000-pound and at least three 500-pound bombs from Enterprise’s VS-6 hit her and within minutes, the chain reaction of secondary explosions had the ship ablaze.
After a nine-hour funeral pyre, the Japanese sank her with a volley of torpedoes in more than 16,000 feet of seawater some 350-miles northwest of Midway. More than half of her complement, including dozens of her unreplaceable veteran aviators, rode her to the bottom of the Pacific.
The destroyers had picked up some 700 of her crew from the debris-clogged waters. These men became a pariah in their own service. Kaga ‘s surviving crewmembers were restricted incommunicado to an airbase in Kyūshū for months after returning to Japan, to help conceal word of the Midway defeat from the Japanese public and were then transferred back to frontline units without being allowed to contact the family.
In 1988, a grove of cedars along with a monument was erected to the carrier in the old Higashiyama Navy Cemetery, now part of Higashi Park in Sasebo City. Parts of her wreckage were found in 1999 by a U.S. Navy survey ship although none was recovered.
As for Lieutenant Ikuta, the Japanese ace who shot down Robert Short over China in 1932, against all odds, he was one of the very minuscule groups of Imperial Naval aviators who survived the war and in 1960; he tracked down Shot’s elderly mother in the United States and begged her forgiveness.
Displacement: 38,200 long tons (38,813 t) (standard)
Length: 247.65 m (812 ft. 6 in)
Beam: 32.5 m (106 ft. 8 in)
Draft: 9.48 m (31 ft. 1 in)
Installed power: 127,400 shp (95,000 kW)
Propulsion: 4-shaft Kampon geared turbines
8 Kampon Type B boilers
Speed: 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph)
Endurance: 10,000 nmi (19,000 km; 12,000 mi) at 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph)
Complement: 1,708 (after reconstruction)
Armament: 10 × 200 mm (7.9 in) guns,
8 × 2 – 127 mm (5.0 in) guns,
11 × 2 – 25 mm (0.98 in) AA guns
Armor: Belt: 152 mm (6.0 in)
Deck: 38 mm (1.5 in)
Aircraft carried: 90 (total); 72 (+ 18 in storage) (1936) 18 Mitsubishi A6M Zero, 27 Aichi D3A, 27 Nakajima B5N (+ 9 in storage) (Dec. 1941)
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