Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Sept 6, 2017: The Japanese brass band down Berlin way
Here we see the Imperial Japanese Navy Myoko-class heavy cruiser Ashigara on 24 May 1937 in Kiel Harbor with the charming German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee peeking over her stern. At their wartime displacements, the Ashigara was actually about as heavy as the German panzerschiffe and could outrun her by about seven knots.
But she wasn’t designed to fight the Germans in the Baltic.
While the Washington Naval Treaty, limiting the fleets of the France, Italy, Japan, the U.K and the U.S, was registered in the League of Nations Treaty Series on 16 April 1924, the four Myōkō-class cruisers were ordered the same year with only a paper-thin veneer of compliance towards the document.
You got 10 8-inch guns, a top speed of 36-knots, 12 Long Lance torpedo tubes and up to 4-inches of armor in a ship less than 10K tons, OK!
While the treaty capped tonnage for cruisers at 10,000, the Myōkōs met this on paper but really went 11,600-tons standard and a jaw-dropping 15,933-tons at a full load. Equipped with 10 20 cm/50 (7.9″) 3rd Year Type guns in five double turrets, they were the most heavily armed cruisers of the day barring full-fledged battlecruisers and the German’s later pocket battleships, capable of raining 242.5-pound AP shells out to 30,000 yards.
A dozen Kampon boilers ran four geared turbines to a maximum of 130,000shp, generating over 36 knots at trials (for a more sedate 33.5 at full load). Equipped with a trio of reconnaissance planes, these long-legged vessels could be the eyes of the main fleet or operate as their own surface action group if needed. They carried a light belt of armor (102mm) over magazines and machinery, which tapered to as thin as 25mm over the guns.
The hero of our tale, Ashigara, was named for 3,978-foot volcanic Mount Ashigara on the border of Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures as well as recycling the name of a previous Imperial warship. Laid down at the Kobe Kawasaki yard in April 1925, she was commissioned 20 August 1929 and assigned to Cruiser Division 4 which consisted of Ashigara and her three sisters.
She was a showboat and participated in Emperor Hirohito’s Naval Review in 1930 and, following a one-year reconstruction after a turret explosion that killed 41, was designated flagship of her division under RADM. Kobayashi Sonosuke, then dispatched to Europe in March 1937.
Imperial Japanese Navy heavy cruiser Ashigara prior to the Spithead Coronation Fleet Review, May 19th, 1937
While on the way, she stopped and made merry at Singapore, Aden, the Suez Canal and Malta, arriving in Portsmouth in May where she participated in the Coronation Review in honor of “The Sailor King” George VI remember that Britain was a longtime Japanese ally.
IJN Heavy Cruiser Ashigara – 1937. Spithead. Note the two E8N Type 95 “Dave” seaplanes
From there, Ashigara went to Kiel.
Japanese and German naval officials celebrated first the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May, then the Battle of Jutland/Skagerraktag on 31 May.
The ship’s band was granted a special parade down Unter den Linden through the Brandenburg Gate– a feat likely not done by a Japanese martial band since. It was a major step in closer relations between the two countries.
Following up on the trip, in September, Prince Chichibu, Hirohito’s younger brother, visited Germany and was taken to the big Nazi rally at Nuremberg, further strengthening ties between the two nations. While this was occurring, Ashigara was back in the Pacific as the flagship of CruDiv 5 and was escorting a Japanese Imperial Army force to the Ma’andao islands and on to China.
Notably at the same time the Germans were training the Chinese Nationalist Army, who had been embroiled in full-scale conflict with the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War since the Emperor’s troops crossed the Marco Polo bridge that July. With the growing pro-Japan vibe, Germany withdrew its support for China in 1938, recalling its advisors in May of that year.
Ashigara became a familiar sight in Chinese waters after that, photographed by U.S. Asiatic Naval officers and dutifully sent to the intelligence file.
HIJMS ASHIGARA Off Tsingtao, China, circa 1938.Description: Courtesy of Vice Admiral Morton L. Deyo, USN (retired)Catalog #: NH 77686
ASHIGARA off Tsingtao, China, circa 1938. The flagship of Vice Admiral Toyoda. Description: Courtesy of Rear Admiral J.P. Walker, USN (Ret), 1973.Catalog #: NH 78057
The view is taken at Tsingtao, China, in 1938. ASHIGARA at the center of the picture, to right of cruiser USS AUGUSTA. Description: Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Yarnell, 1974.Catalog #: NH 81240
Ashigara and the Asiatic fleet even bumped heads.
While trying to escape from the Sino-Japanese war zone in December 1937, the 22,000-ton Dollar Steamship Lines ocean liner SS President Hoover (which had been damaged by a Chinese air force bomber while on the Yangtze who mistook her for Japanese troop ship) ran aground off Taiwan and Ashigara raced to her distress call. Arriving on scene, she helped transfer survivors from the stricken liner to the waiting SS President McKinley and President Pierce. Aboard Hoover was a young crewmember by the name of Robert S. McNamara who later did some things in the 1960s for JFK.
It would be the last solid that the cruiser would pay to the U.S., as during the operation news of the Panay attack reached the rescue party, which by that time included two American destroyers, USS Barker and USS Alden, who quietly kept ready ammo on hand if things turned sour.
Ashigara later became a flagship for VADM Ibo’s Third Fleet and participated in the occupation of Vichy France’s Indochina in July-August 1941 on the lead up to her involvement in WWII proper.
When the balloon went up in December 1941, she participated in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, covering landings at Vigan and the Lingayen Gulf while dodging bombs from Navy PBYs and Army B-17s.
She next appeared at Balikpapan and Makassar in the Dutch East Indies in February 1942, covering the landings there and escorting Japanese shipping against the ABDA forces, which ironically included the former SS Hoover rescue partners USS Barker and USS Alden.
Ashigara at Balikpapan 1942
This ended up in the Battle of the Java Sea, where Ashigara fired salvos that helped in the sinking of British cruiser HMS Exeter (who ran Graf Spee to ground in 1939) and destroyer HMS Encounter. The same battle saw Spithead review alumni HNLMS Java sunk, though not by Ashigara’s guns.
After April 1942, her war wound down as she was left in the comparative backwater of Makassar as a flagship of the Second Southern Expeditionary Fleet, shuttling from there to Singapore regularly over a two-year period.
Ashigara at Singapore July 1943-Jan 1944
Serving later as the guard ship at the former Dutch key port of Surabaya, she received 8 25mm AAA guns and a Type 22 radar. She would ultimately carry 48 of these guns, landing one of her four-pack of 610mm torpedo tubes to save weight. She also updated her seaplanes.
Myoko-class cruiser Ashigara preparing to catapult an Aichi E13A seaplane
While escorting troops and supplies between Burma and the Indies, as noted by Combined Fleets, she came across the submarine USS Jack (SS-259) but did not become perforated.
By October 1944, she was assigned to VADM Kiyobide’s CruDiv 21 and was headed for fleet action in the Philippines where over an eight-day period she shrugged off brushes with the submarines USS Besugo (SS-321), USS Sterlet (SS-392), USS Trigger (SS-237), LCDR O’Kane’s famous USS Tang (SS-306), USS Seadragon (SS-194), USS Shark (SS-314), USS Blackfish (SS-221), USS Icefish (SS-367).
Used as part of Operation Sho-I-Go, which became the Battle of Leyte Gulf Ashigara somehow managed to escape intact from that action to Palawan and later Brunei. Returning to the Philippines in December, she picked up a 500-pound bomb from an Army B-25 the day after Christmas but repaid the favor by bombarding the U.S. beachhead at San Jose in Mindoro on 27 December with 200 7.9-inch shells.
Falling back to her old Dutch East Indies stomping grounds, she played cat and mouse with the Free Dutch submarine O-19 over a week-long battle in April 1945 during which the fabulously lucky cruiser somehow missed eight different torpedoes. It would be the last time she made it from a cruiser-v-sub engagement intact.
It would be the last time she made it from a cruiser-v-sub engagement intact.
With the end game coming, Ashigara left Singapore with 1,600 Imperial troops and 489 tons of supplies for Batavia, Java, and came across the submarines USS Blueback (SS-326), HMS Trenchant (P331) and HMS Stygian (P249) in the narrow Bangka Straits on 8 June. Trapped between a coastal minefield and three hungry sharks, her goose was cooked.
HMS ‘Submarine Trenchant’ Sinks the Cruiser ‘Ashigara’, 8 June 1945 by David Cobb; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The British T-class boat managed to get within 4,000 yards of the cruiser and hit her with five out of eight Mark VIIIs fired. The skipper of the British sub, “Baldy” Hezlet, administered a coup de grace with two more fish from her stern tubes, with at least one hitting. In all, she took 75 percent of the embarked Japanese troops with her as well as an estimated 100 crew.
Ashigara was tied for the largest Japanese warship sun by the Royal Navy during the war. Hazelt, who also helped drag the X-boats to attack the Tirpitz among other WWII tasks, was awarded his second DSO and was eventually promoted to vice-admiral and appointed KBE before his retirement in 1964. He passed in 2007.
As for Ashigara, she had outlived her sisters Nachi (sunk, 4 November 1944 off Corregidor by aircraft from USS Lexington) and Haguro (sunk, 16 May 1945 during a fight with five Royal Navy destroyers in the Strait of Malacca). The last of the class, the crippled Myōkō, formally surrendered to Royal Navy units on 21 September 1945 and was subsequently towed to the Strait of Malacca to be scuttled in deep water.
Today, Ashigara is remembered in several scale model kits and her name has been recycled for a destroyer of the Atago-class (DDG-178) which also has its own model.
10,000-tons official, 11,633 tons (standard load) 15,000+ (full load)
Length: 669 ft. overall
Beam: 56 ft.
Draught: 19 ft.
4-shaft geared turbines
12 Kampon boilers
Speed: 35.5 knots
Range: 7,000 nmi 7at 14 kn with 2214 tons fuel oil
Complement: 773 (950 by 1944)
4″ (102mm) NVNC belt inclined 12 degrees
Torpedo bulges with 2.3″ (58mm) HT holding bulkhead
1.4″ (35mm) NVNC middle deck
1.4″ (35mm) NVNC lower deck
3.5″ (89mm) NVNC uptakes
3.5″ (89mm) bulkheads
1″ (25mm) NVNC turrets
10x 120/45 guns (5×2)
6x 4.7 in (120 mm)/45 guns (6×1)
12 x 610 mm (24 in) torpedo tubes (4×3)
10x 120/45 guns (5×2)
6x 4.7 in (120 mm)/45 guns (6×1)
8 x 610 mm (24 in) torpedo tubes (4×3)
48x 25mm guns along with 13-go, 22-go radars
Aircraft carried: 3 E8N Type 95 “Dave” seaplanes as built, later Aichi E13A ‘Jake’ Type 0 Reconnaissance Seaplane after 1941
Aviation facilities: 2 Kure Type 2 Model 51 catapults
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