Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sailor of Monarchy: Kinashi Takakazu

Human beings are very fond of ‘keeping score’. This is as true in warfare as it is in sports or other civilian activities. We rank tank commanders by how many enemy tanks they destroy, fighter pilots by how many planes they shoot down or, with submarine commanders, how much tonnage of enemy shipping they sent to the bottom of the sea. Lieutenant Commander Kinashi Takakazu (or in western order; Takakazu Kinashi) was a submarine captain of the Imperial Japanese Navy, yet, his name will not be found in any top ranking of “ace” submarine commanders based on the amount of tonnage he sank. However, sometimes a submarine commander gains fame for accomplishing a particularly difficult or dangerous goal, for sinking some major enemy warship or something which, in some way, gains attention for breaking some sort of record. This is the category that Commander Kinashi fits into. In fact, he never really knew just how incredible was the success he won in his military career. Nonetheless, he earned a place in naval history and a legendary status among the ranks of the submariners of the world for his achievement. It is unfortunate that he never knew just how famous he would become.

Kinashi Takakazu was born on March 7, 1902 in Usuki, Oita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu in the Empire of Japan. After a fairly typical childhood, he decided on a career in the navy as a young man. Looking only at the start of his military career, no one would have expected him to rise to greatness. He studied and trained at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and graduated at the very bottom of his class, the very last of 255 cadets in 1920. After this less than impressive academic performance, his career path had nothing to do with submarines as he served as a passed midshipman on several cruisers on training exercises. From 1924 to 1925 he traveled around the Pacific stopping in at such places as Acapulco, Mexico, San Francisco, California, Vancouver, British Columbia and Hawaii. He received his promotion to ensign before returning to Japan where he underwent training in torpedoes and naval artillery. He was a dedicated and dutiful young officer but still did not seem to be at all exceptional. In 1926 he was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to the destroyer Harukaze. It was only after that assignment that he began to think about submarine service.

The following year, Kinashi volunteered for sub duty and gained important experience serving on the I-54, I-61 and I-66. It was certainly something different but he still did not stand out all that much and returned to the surface fleet to serve on a river gunboat in China (at the time, various foreign powers maintained naval vessels on the major rivers in China). He also served on the destroyer Fubuki and by December of 1937 had been promoted to lieutenant commander and posted to the minelayer Okinoshima, hardly a prestigious assignment. For any young naval officer of the time, serving on a battleship was always the most sought-after posting and, perhaps discouraged by his position in the surface fleet, Kinashi transferred back to the submarines. In 1938 he was finally given command of his own boat, becoming captain of the RO-59. The RO-type boats were smaller, second class coastal submarines that were largely neglected by the naval high command but, at least, it was a place to start. In 1940 Commander Kinashi was transferred to the Submarine Warfare School but this proved only temporary as six months later he was back at sea as captain of the I-3 until November of 1940 when he was given command of the RO-34 on which he served until July of 1941. The I-3 was one of the earliest ‘cruiser’ type submarines, a J1-type, which was later converted into a transport. The RO-34 was one of the first medium subs (a K5-type) since the 1920’s and would see service later in the war but with no success.

When Japan went to war with the United States (and others) in December of 1941, Kinashi was captain of the I-62 (later I-162), a small KD4-type sub that had some success in the Dutch East Indies and the Indian Ocean. However, Kinashi was soon transferred to command the I-19 where he would gain his greatest fame. This came during the titanic struggle for the island of Guadalcanal, perhaps the most pivotal land engagement of the Pacific War and coming on the heels of the stunning defeat for Japan at the Battle of Midway which had decimated the Imperial Navy. The fight for Guadalcanal was to be a turning point and Japan threw everything possible into defending the island which they had invaded in early 1942 (it was part of the British Solomon Islands protectorate).

The I-19 was a B1-type sub, one of the most successful types Japan would produce. In keeping with standard Japanese tactics, the I-19 and her sister sub I-15 were deployed to interdict American vessels approaching the island. Such vessels were coming as part of “Operation Shoestring” but the American forces had already suffered considerable losses for the greatest prize in the U.S. Navy: the aircraft carriers. In the Battle of the Eastern Solomons the USS Enterprise had been so badly damaged that it had to return to Hawaii for repairs and only a week later the Japanese submarine I-26 badly damaged the USS Saratoga (Admiral Fletcher’s flagship) which left only the USS Wasp and USS Hornet. These were the targets that Commander Kinashi and his counterpart on the I-15 wanted most of all. Kinashi in the I-19 would go after the Wasp while the I-15 tried to engage the Hornet. It was September 15, 1942, a clear day with sunny skies and a 20-knot trade wind blowing. Kinashi submerged his boat and moved in for the attack. Displaying immense calm and skill, he took the I-19 through the rings of deadly destroyers escorting the American carrier. As these were the only two left, their escorts were all the more determined to defend them. Running as silently as possible, Kinashi slipped underneath the floating guard dogs and, amazingly, remained undetected.

Once well clear, Kinashi ordered his diving officer to bring the boat up to periscope depth. Scanning the surface, he spotted the USS Wasp, displacing 14,900 tons and capable of holding up to a hundred aircraft, she was a formidable target. The ship was part of a task force escorting the 7th Division of the U.S. Marine Corps to Guadalcanal which, along with the Hornet, included the battleship USS North Carolina and ten other warships. Kinashi knew the odds were against him. He would get only one chance to fire and would then, most likely, be destroyed by the counter-attacking American warships. Still, he had made it through the escorts and hoped that his good fortune would hold. He ordered the maximum salvo possible, all six forward torpedo tubes were made ready in all respects. As he watched through the periscope, passing along the necessary information, another bit of good fortune came his way; the Wasp began to slow down to launch 26 planes and allow another 11 to land that were coming back from patrol. It was the perfect time. Kinashi was determined that he would hit his target and moved his boat in closer and closer, even though this increased the risk of someone spotting his periscope and spoiling his attack but he did not want to miss. It took nerves of steel but Commander Kinashi and the I-19 silently swam to within 500 meters of the massive American ship. He wasn’t spotted and things could not have worked out better if he had been giving orders to the helmsman of the Wasp himself. To launch the planes, the carrier began to turn to starboard, presenting its beam (and thus the largest possible target) to the Japanese sub.
USS Wasp, CV-7

Finally, with the tension onboard at maximum, Kinashi gave the order to fire. Six deadly Type 95 torpedoes burst from the bow and shot through the water. The Type 95’s were the fastest torpedoes in the world and at only 500 meters, the Wasp barely had time to react to the sudden attack. Lookouts spotted the incoming torpedoes and Captain Forrest Sherman tried to turn his ship toward but it was too late. In quick succession, three torpedoes slammed into the Wasp, one even shooting out of the water to strike above the waterline. Massive explosions went off and began to spread and almost immediately the huge ship began listing heavily to starboard. The torpedoes had hit exactly where the gasoline tanks and magazines were on the carrier. Within about 30 minutes Captain Sherman gave the order to abandon ship. The Wasp was finished.

Of course, as soon as Commander Kinashi fired his torpedoes, he slammed the periscope down and took his boat deep, knowing that a counter-attack by the circling destroyers was soon to come. The U.S. Navy did not disappoint as destroyers circled over head, groping the depths with sonar and lobbing depth charges at the unseen attacker. It was the I-15 which confirmed the sinking of the Wasp since Kinashi was deep below the surface trying to save his boat and his crew from being blasted into little pieces. The attack of the I-15 on Hornet, five miles away, had not been successful. For Kinashi and the I-19, they endured the worst experience possible for submariners as the American destroyers dropped no less than eighty depth charges in the frantic effort to destroy them. Yet, Kinashi and his men did not panic and amazingly managed to survive the ordeal and successfully escape from the American fleet. Once clear, Kinashi surfaced his boat and as the men came out, gasping for fresh air, they knew they were heroes. They had done what very few men in naval history had ever accomplished: sank an American aircraft carrier. They had even lived to tell the tale.

Kinashi and his men returned to Japan for a hero’s welcome. Kinashi, who had finished last in his class and whose career had always seemed rather lackluster, was promoted to full commander and summoned to the Imperial Palace to report on the sinking and receive the congratulations of His Majesty the Emperor. For a Japanese naval officer, there was no greater honor possible. Kinashi was formal and correct, he had done his duty as he had been trained to. In fact, being brought before the Emperor was probably a source of greater anxiety than facing a fleet of American warships had been. In terms of his naval career, Kinashi had reached his pinnacle and would not see such success again. The following year, near Fiji, he torpedoed and badly damaged an American liberty ship but inexplicably failed to finish it off. However, in December of 1943 he was tasked with a most dangerous mission. In command of the I-29 he would travel through three oceans to pay a visit to Japan’s Nazi allies in Europe. At the former British bastion of Singapore the I-29 was filled with rubber, tin, tungsten, opium and other items before sailing off for France. Thanks to their code-breakers, the Allies knew all about the voyage of the I-29 and where it was going, yet, Commander Kinashi skillfully avoided discovery.

Kinashi at a banquet given for him by Germany
On March 11, 1944 the I-29 safely arrived at the port of Lorient, France where her cargo was unloaded and the crew were treated as the special guests of the Germans. Commander Kinashi was taken to Berlin to be congratulated by Adolf Hitler for sinking an American carrier, for which the Nazi dictator personally decorated Kinashi with the Iron Cross (second class). In April, filled to the top with important passengers and the latest German designs for everything from radar to rocket engines, the I-29 left France for the return trip to Japan. Unfortunately, none of the men on the I-29 would ever see their homeland again. American intelligence was tracking the Japanese submarine more closely this time and as the boat passed through the Luzon Strait near the Philippines on July 26, 1944 it was hit by three torpedoes and totally destroyed by the American submarine USS Sawfish. Commander Kinashi and all his men and passengers were killed. When the naval high command in Japan realized that the I-29 had been lost, Commander Kinashi was posthumously promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in recognition of his outstanding service.

And yet, that service was more outstanding than anyone knew. On that critical day in 1942, I-19 had fired six torpedoes at what, in naval terms, was practically point blank range and yet only three had struck the Wasp. What of the other three? It would be some time before the truth was known. On that same day, the accompanying battleship USS North Carolina had been struck by a torpedo on her port side, killing five men and causing considerable damage (only the quick and expert work of the damage control teams prevented the ship from sinking). The destroyer USS O’Brien was also hit on the port side by a torpedo and was so badly damaged that she later sank. For years it was assumed that the I-15, targeting the Hornet, had hit these ships with the torpedoes she had fired at the carrier with but missed. Eventually, however, careful study showed that this was not possible, they could not have come from the I-15. Suddenly, the naval experts realized what an incredible thing had happened. When Kinashi fired his salvo at the Wasp, three torpedoes struck and sank the carrier but the other three continued on, over the horizon, running for some twelve miles before slamming into the North Carolina and then the O’Brien. Everyone then realized that Commander Kinashi Takakazu had made the single most successfully destructive attack in naval history. With one salvo of torpedoes he had sunk an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and heavily damaged a battleship even if he did not know it at the time.

It is for that reason that the name of Rear Admiral Kinashi Takakazu is still a legend in the submarine community today and why he will always have a place in naval history. No one shot ever did so much damage to the enemy as the one he fired from beneath the waves on that sunny day in 1942 off Guadalcanal. Kinashi may not have the highest score among submarine commanders but he accomplished something that no one else ever did or is ever likely to and for that he holds a very singular place of honor.

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