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Sortie from Hashirajima
A day broke over the western Inland Sea on 27 May 1942, the sun's rays slanted down on the greatest concentration of Japanese fleet strength since the start of the Pacific War.
The setting was at the island of Hashirajima, which lies to the south of the well-known city of Hiroshima and southeast of the lesser-known coastal town of Iwakuni. The anchorage at Hashirajima is surrounded by hilly little islands, most of which are cultivated from water's edge to summit. Camouflaged antiaircraft batteries atop almost every hill belied the peaceful appearance of these islands. The anchorage was large enough to accommodate the entire Japanese Navy and was well off the ordinary routes of merchant ships. It was a wartime stand-by anchorage for Combined Fleet, whose headquarters had been functioning in safety from a battleship group stationed there since the start of the war. It had remained there so long, in fact, that naval officers had come to speak of Combined Fleet Headquarters simply as "Hashirajima."
Within the anchorage Commander in Chief Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's 68,000-ton flagship, Yamato, was moored to a red buoy. Underwater cables to shore permitted instant communication with Tokyo. Gathered around Yamato were a total of 68 warships, constituting the greater part of the surface strength of the Combined Fleet.
Admiral Yamamoto's Battleship Division 1 consisted of Yamato, Nagato, and Mutsu, which with Ise, Hyuga, Fuso, and Yamashiro ofBattleship Division 2 made the total of seven battleships. Torpedo nets were extended around each of these giants. Pearl Harbor had impressed on us the importance of protecting ships against torpedo attacks, even in home waters. The other ships were disposed around the battleships as further protection against attacks by planes or submarines. There were light cruisers Kitakami and Oi of Cruiser Division 9, flagship Sendai and 12 destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 3, eight destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 1, light carrier Hosho with one destroyer and two torpedo boats, and seaplane carriers Chiyoda and Nisshin, each of which had six midget submarines on board.
All these ships and units except Battleship Division 1 belonged to the First Fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Shiro Takasu, whose flag flew in Ise. Both the First Fleet and Battleship Division 1 had remained at Hashirajima since the outbreak of war, awaiting an opportunity for decisive surface battle. Aviators of the Carrier Force sarcastically referred to them as the "Hashirajima Fleet."
The 21 ships of our force, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, were anchored to the north of the so-called "main strength" just described. To the west of us was a force under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, commander of the Second Fleet. Here were heavy cruisers Atago (Kondo's flagship) and Chokai of Cruiser Division 4, Myoko and Haguro of Cruiser Division 5, fast battleships Hiei and Kirishima of Battleship Division 3, light cruiser Yura and seven destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 4, and light carrier Zuiho with one destroyer.
This massive gray armada swung silently at anchor, each ship riding low in the water under a full load of fuel and supplies taken on board at Kure in preparation for the sortie. The only traffic in the whole area consisted of chugging yellow Navy tugboats which emitted heavy black smoke from their tall stacks. On board the warships there was little evidence of activity other than the occasional fluttering of signal flags as messages were exchanged. But despite the general quiet of the anchorage, one felt the excitement permeating the entire fleet.
It was Navy Day, the anniversary of Admiral Togo's great victory over the Russian Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. Japan's achievements during the first six months of war in the Pacific seemed to rival that triumph of 37 years earlier. Spirits were high—and why not? Now we were embarking on another mission which we confidently thought would add new glory to the annals of the Imperial Navy.
At 0800 Akagi's ensign was raised. Then on her signal mast went up a single flag which gave the tensely awaited order, "Sortie as scheduled!"
Standing at the flight deck control post, I turned to watch the ships of Destroyer Squadron 10. White water splashed from the anchor cables of each destroyer, washing mud from the heavy links as they dragged through the hawseholes. The destroyers soon began to move, and they were followed by Cruiser Division 8, the second section of Battleship Division 3, and Carrier Divisions 1 and 2, in that order. The Nagumo Force was on its way toward the scene of one of the most significant naval actions in history.
As we steamed out of the anchorage the ships of the other forces, which would sortie two days later, gave us a rousing send-off. The crews lined the rails and cheered and waved their caps as we passed. They seemed to envy our good fortune in being the first to leave. We waved back a farewell, and a general gaiety prevailed. Every man was convinced that he was about to participate in yet another brilliant victory.
Two hours later we were halfway across the Iyonada and before long would enter Bungo Strait. Beyond the strait it was expected that we might encounter enemy submarines. Combined reports on their activities were sent out daily from Imperial General Headquarters. Latest reports indicated that a dozen or more of them were operating close to the homeland, reporting on ship movements and seeking to destroy our lines of communication. Occasionally they would send radio reports to Pearl Harbor, and it was at such times that our scattered radio direction finders would endeavor to spot them.
Akagi, the sleek aircraft carrier flagship of Admiral Nagumo, headed westward through Kudako Strait, cruising easily at 16 knots on her course toward Bungo Channel and the broad Pacific. Through scattered clouds the sun shone brightly upon the calm blue sea. For several days the weather had been cloudy but hot in the western Inland Sea, and it was pleasant now to feel the gentle breeze which swept across Akagi's flight deck.
The fleet had formed a single column for the passage through the strait. Twenty-one ships in all, they cruised along at intervals of 1,000 yards, resembling for all the world a peacetime naval review. Far out in front was Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura's flagship, light cruiser Nagara, leading the 12 ships of Destroyer Squadron 10. Next came Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe's Cruiser Division 8—Tone, the flagship, and Chikuma—followed by the second section of Battleship Division 3, made up of fast battleships Haruna and Kirishima. (The first section of Battleship Division 3, Hiei and Kongo, had been assigned to Admiral Kondo's Invasion Force for this operation.) Behind Kirishima came large carriers Akagi and Kaga, comprising Carrier Division 1, under Admiral Nagumo's direct command. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi's Carrier Division 2—Hiryu and Soryu—brought up the rear, completing the Nagumo Force.
Presently a dozen or so fishing boats waiting for the tide hove into sight to starboard, and their crews waved and cheered as we passed. To port the tiny island of Yurishima appeared to be floating on the surface of the sea, its thick covering of green foliage set off against the dim background of Aoshima. Beyond, the coast of Shikoku lay hidden in mist.
As the fleet steamed on, three seaplanes of the Kure Air Corps passed overhead, their pontoons looking like oversized shoes. The planes were on their way to neutralize any enemy submarines which might be lying in wait for us outside Bungo Strait.
Yashirojima soon appeared to starboard. Wheatfields, cultivated high up the mountainsides, were lightly tinged with yellow, proclaiming the nearness of summer. Offshore a small tug belched black smoke as she struggled to pull a string of barges. We soon left them far behind as the tiny islands of Ominasejima and Kominasejima came into view, lying peacefully on the sea.
To me this was familiar ground. My career had started at the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima, which lay but 20 miles to the north. In the score of intervening years I had viewed every corner of the scenic Inland Sea, both from the sea and from the air, and I knew this region like a book. Now, as these familiar places passed by, I was lost in reminiscences which were suddenly interrupted by the loud voice of the chief signalman as he relayed an order through the voice tube.
The flight deck control post, where I sat, was situated on the port side, amidships. Directly forward of it rose the island which housed the bridge and the central battle command station, the ship's nerve center. At this moment all the top-ranking officers of the Striking Force, as well as Akagi's own skipper and his staff, were assembled on the bridge, for regulations required all hands to be at their stations when passing through a narrow strait.
Scarcely had the chief signalman ceased calling the order when four flags were quickly hoisted on the small signal mast just abaft the flight deck control post. The first flag indicated a maneuvering order. Since we had now passed through the strait, I concluded, without knowing the other three flags, that the order was for all ships to move into normal cruising disposition.
Atop the signal mast fluttered the flag of the Striking Force Commander. I wondered at the vast importance which Navy men attribute to such symbols. It is the hope and dream of every naval officer some day to fly his own flag. There were almost one hundred such flags in the Japanese Navy at this time, and four of them were flying in this very force.
Suddenly the ship's loudspeakers blared: "Passage through strait completed. Stow gear. Restore normal condition of readiness!" Men in undress whites and green work uniforms began drifting up to the flight deck to enjoy a last glimpse of the receding coastline. Some twenty communications men, their watch just completed, appeared on deck, doffed their shirts and began to exercise.
Commander Minoru Genda, First Air Fleet Operations Officer, came down from the bridge and joined me. A classmate of mine at the Naval Academy, he was also an aviator, and our friendship was of long standing. He sat down beside me on a folding chair, lit a cigarette, and said, "I heard that you were ill back at Kagoshima. Are you all right now?"
"Not so good," I replied. "My stomach still bothers me occasionally."
"What's the trouble?"
"Well, back at the base they sent me to an Army hospital for examination, and the doctors seemed to think it was ulcers. Anyway they told me to quit drinking for a while. Pretty rough!"
"Aha," laughed Genda. "So that's why you were on such good behavior back at the base?"
"That's right," I admitted, "and I'm still not feeling up to par. But my fliers are in good shape. They didn't have much time for training, but they are ready and confident. I suppose you've been busy, too, preparing for the sortie."
"It was terrific! We were supposed to wind up the southern operations and get ready for this one at the same time. We really had no time to study this operation thoroughly. Why, the Chief of Staff was still running around trying to put through promotions for the fliers killed in the Pearl Harbor operation!"
This last remark of Genda's touched on a sore point. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the nine men who lost their lives there in midget submarines had promptly been promoted two ranks and glorified as national war heroes. The First Air Fleet had endeavored to obtain similar promotions for the 55 airmen lost in the attack, but the authorities had disapproved them on the ground that there were too many.
"The fliers are really disgusted with that situation," I told Genda. "Why, now the authorities are even giving the small subs credit for sinking battleship Arizona! And that's obviously ridiculous, because there was an oiler moored outboard of Arizona, so a submarine torpedo couldn't possibly have scored on her. Furthermore, the big explosion in Arizona came immediately after Kaga's second squadron of high-level bombers got two direct hits.
"We don't mean to discredit the midget submarines and their crews. They certainly did their part. But the morale of the air units has to be considered too. After all, they are the backbone of the Fleet. And their morale would be much higher right now if the airmen's promotions had been granted before this sortie. Soryu's air officer, Commander Kusumoto, has been saying that the top echelons in Tokyo seem to be deliberately trying to discourage us."
"I know," nodded Genda. "The Naval General Staff isn't acting energetically enough, and Combined Fleet Headquarters also seems to have lost some of its prewar enthusiasm. Our own Chief of Staff seems to be the only one really sticking up for us; and, instead of that, he ought to have been devoting himself exclusively to studying this operation."
"Well, at least we're sortieing according to plan," I remarked.
"Sure," Genda laughed somewhat sarcastically, "the sortie is going as scheduled. We just swallowed the Combined Fleet plan down whole and rushed out. The trouble is that there are several things in it that just don't add up. But then, I think the Nagumo Force can handle this operation all by itself. The other forces can operate as they please."
"Yes, I guess you're right," I agreed. "But one thing that worries me is the way information about the sortie has leaked out. Everybody seems to know of it. One officer I know was getting a shave the other day and was surprised to hear his barber remark, `You're going out on a big one this time, aren't you?'"
"Barbers always have quick ears," said Genda. "With so many ships docking at Kure for repairs, loading supplies and so forth, nobody in town could have helped knowing we were preparing to sortie. Also, some of our forces were rather obviously being fitted out for cold weather. With summer practically here, any fool could guess that northern operations were in prospect."
I remarked on the difference in security measures between this and the Pearl Harbor operation, in which strictest precautions had been taken.
"It just couldn't be helped," replied Genda. "Our entire Fleet had to prepare for sortie on such short notice. It would have been better if the Fleet could have made an intermediate move—say, to the Marshalls—and waited for a while until attention was diverted from them. That way, we might have kept the enemy guessing longer as to where and when we intended to strike."
I asked Genda why Combined Fleet hadn't taken this factor into consideration in planning the operation.
"They still think that the initiative is entirely in our hands," he explained. "Their plans are made far in advance, based entirely on their own thinking. The result is that they will never budge from them an inch."
Our attention now shifted to the planes overhead. Bungo Strait was defended by the Saeki Defense Force and the planes of the Kure Naval Air Corps. To ensure the safe passage of our powerful task force, their entire strength had been assigned to sweep the channel and hunt out enemy submarines. But there were no alerts from either ships or planes.
By noon we had passed through the eastern channel of Bungo Strait into the deep blue waters of the Pacific, and the destroyers had spread out for a swift antisubmarine sweep before assuming their positions in a ring formation.
At the center of the formation four carriers steamed in two columns, Akagi and Kaga on the right, Hiryu and Soryu on the left. Surrounding them were two circles of screening ships. The inner circle consisted of heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, disposed diagonally forward of the carriers, and battleships Haruna and Kirishima diagonally to the rear. Light cruiser Nagara and 12 destroyers formed the outer circle, with Nagara out in front as the lead ship.
The atmosphere was tense in every ship. Antisubmarine stations were fully manned, and all hands were alert and ready for action. There was not even time for sentimental looks backward at the receding coast of the homeland.
Our ships sped to the southeast, making better than 20 knots to escape possible pursuit by enemy submarines. Evening twilight soon spread over the ocean and we were cloaked in the security of darkness. No submarines had been sighted, nor was there any indication that one had observed our sortie and reported it back to base. We had passed safely through the danger area and were speeding toward our destination—Midway!
Posted August 8, 2002
Fuchida and Okumiya provide an excellent account of the strategic and tactical planning driving the Imperial Japanese Navy during the first six months of World War Two. The authors critically examine the disastrous decision of the Japanese naval leadership to seize an American military outpost far outside their territory. This work provides excellent insight into the decision making process and illustrates the impact seemingly minor events have on military planning.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.