Kidō Butai Warming up

Artwork from John Hamilton’s War at Sea shows the six fleet carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fearsome Kidō Butai (“Mobile Force”) launching the striking force on Pearl Harbor on the early morning of 7 December 1941. It would be their swansong in a very real sense.

From the Art Gallery of the US Navy

Kaga steams through heavy north Pacific seas, enroute to attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, circa early December 1941. Carrier Zuikaku is at right. Frame from a motion picture film taken from the carrier Akagi. The original film was found on Kiska Island after U.S. recapture in 1943. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Lieutenant Ichiro Kitajima, group leader of the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Kaga’s Nakajima B5N bomber group, briefs his flight crews about the Pearl Harbor raid, which will take place the next day. A diagram of Pearl Harbor and the aircraft’s attack plan is chalked on the deck. Photo Chihaya Collection via Wenger

For the attack on Hawaii, the Kidō Butai consisted of six aircraft carriers (commanded by VADM Chūichi Nagumo and RADMs Tamon Yamaguchi and Chūichi Hara) with 414 aircraft (353 of which would launch as part of the two-wave attack) escorted by two battleships (Hiei and Kirishima), three cruisers (Tone, Chikuma, and Abukuma) and nine destroyers, followed by eight tankers (all impressed merchantman) of the 1st and 2nd Supply Train. In a separate operation, 23 sea-going and four midget submarines would mount their own operation.

They would all meet their end soon enough. 

Of the carriers, the flagship Kaga, along with Akagi, Sōryū, and Hiryū, would be sent to the bottom not too far away at Midway less than six months later in the U.S. Navy’s epic “scratch four flattops” moment, taking the bulk of the aircrews with them that had flown the Hawaii strike. The twin holdouts, Shōkaku and Zuikaku, would be lost in the Philipines in 1944 to the submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) and aircraft from the USS Essex, the latter the only Japanese fleet carrier sunk by aircraft-launched torpedoes.

Carrier flagship Hiryu: Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi at the Battle of Midway. oil painting by Renzo Kita, 1943.

Hiei and Kirishima were the first Japanese battleships lost in the war, sunk following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942.

Carrier Akagi, battleship Hiei, and battleship Kirishima in the Pacific Ocean en route toward US Territory of Hawaii, 6 Dec 1941

Japanese Battleship Hiei sits at sunset in Saiki Bay, October 1941

Of the cruisers, Chikuma would likewise be sunk in the Philippines by TBMs from a trio of escort carriers– USS Kitkiun Bay, Ommaney Bay, and Natoma Bay; the day after Abukuma was sent to the bottom by Army B-24s off Negros Island in the Mindanao Sea.

Of the principal Japanese ships of the Kidō Butai on that Day of Infamy, only the heavy cruiser Tone would see 1945, finally deep-sixed by American carrier aircraft from the carriers Wasp, Bataan, Shangri-La, and Ticonderoga as she lay at the once-mighty IJN base at Kure in the formerly impregnable Japanese Home Islands.

Air Raids on Japan, 1945. Japanese cruiser Tone under air attack near Kure, 24 July 1945. Photograph by USS Shangri-La (CV 38) aircraft. Note the camouflage nets hanging over its sides. The heavy cruiser settled to the bottom of the bay that day. 80-G-490148

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