I-58 with Kaiten.
News that the Americans had seized Ulithi Atoll in the Carolines, where a deep water anchorage would provide an ideal fleet base, prompted the Japanese to launch their first kaiten attack. Twelve of the newly trained would-be suicides were selected for the strike. Among’ them was one of the two inventors of the weapon. Lieutenant Sekio Nishina. Determined to show the worth of his innovation Nishina was taking along a box containing the ashes of his deceased co-inventor. This would ensure that both would go to Kudan and be enshrined at Yasukuni together. A dedication ceremony was conducted at the Otsujima base during the afternoon of 7th November 1944. Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Miwa, commander of the Imperial Sixth Fleet, supervised the proceedings and explained the forthcoming operation to the kaiten pilots. Three fleet sub marines, the I-36, I-37, and I-47, which were in the bay nearby, would transport four kaiten each to the vicinity of Ulithi where large numbers of American ships were reported to be concentrating. The kaiten pilots were to sink the biggest ships they could. A presentation of short swords and hachimakis followed, and that night there was a party for the twelve doomed men. Next morning they 9am the I-36 led the three I-class submarines out of the harbour. As they steamed slowly up the channel the crews on other ships lined the rails shouting ‘banzai’ and waving their caps in a farewell gesture.
The three submarines parted company not long after leaving port. I-37 was to proceed towards Kossol Passage in the Palaus, to attack Allied shipping there. I-36 and I-47 meanwhile would head straight for Ulithi. Their mission was to attack the American invasion fleet at anchor, launching their kaiten at through two different entrances to the atoll’s giant lagoon. But I-37 was fated not to reach her destination. Despite having six lookouts on the bridge whenever she surfaced she was spotted by the American destroyer Nicholas on 12th November. In a sudden and unexpected attack the I-37 was caught before she could dive and take evasive action.
I-47 was under command of Lieutenant-Commander Zenji Orita, one of Japan’s ace submarine captains. He steamed slowly for his destination, making twenty knots on the surface, until he came within range of the American patrol planes. He then submerged by day, surfacing at night to charge his ship’s batteries and to pick up radio reports from Sixth Fleet headquarters at Kure. His ship and I-36 were working in close cooperation with reconnaissance planes from Truk. They would provide reports on American shipping at Ulithi.
On 17th November the I-17’s radio picked up a message relayed by Tokyo reporting that one of the reconnaissance planes had seen a vast concentration of American ships at Ulithi on the previous day. According to the pilot they appeared to be anchored in three groups, and he had seen battleships and carriers among them. Next day, fifty miles west of Ulithi, Captain Orita surfaced so that the Kaiten could be given a final check. All four were found to be in good working order. By noon on the 19th the sub- marine had closed to within a mile of the southern entrance of the Ulithi lagoon, and at midnight the four Kaiten pilots began making their final preparations. Last minute messages were written and handed to Orita together with their wills; finally all four men wound their hachimakis round their heads.
Ensigns Akira Sato and Kozo Watanabe climbed into their kaiten at midnight while the submarine wallowed quietly on the surface. Lieutenants Nishina and Fukuda were able to defer their entry, because there were access tubes to their weapons from the submarine. (Access tubes to all kaiten were provided on later sorties, so that the submarine could remain submerged.) When the lids of their weapons had clanged shut, Orita dipped I-47 beneath the waves and then edged the submarine stealthily forward to the very en- trance of the lagoon. This manoeuv- ring occupied three hours, during which Sato and Watanabe sat in their kaiten – their only contact with the world outside being two telephone cables. At 3am Nishina and Fukuda struggled through the access tubes to their kaiten, Numbers One and Two. All was now set for the attack. Four cables bound each kaiten to the submarine’s deck during the voyage. Two of these had been loosened when the I-47 surfaced at midnight; the other two could be released from inside the submarine. At 4am Captain Orita, guided by the twinkle of welding torches on the US ships which he could see in his periscope, declared that he was in the firing position. Over the telephone lines the four kaiten men reported they were ready for action.
‘Kaiten Number One stand by, start your engine!’ ordered Orita.
‘Standing by’, came Lieutenant Nishina’s soft voice over the circuit. The third cable on Number One kaiten was loosened.
‘Start your engine!’ said Orita.
Inside the submarine, a motor sound could be heard.
The fourth cable was loosened. It was 4.15am, 20th November 1944. Captain Orita, peering through his periscope, could see just a trace of bubbling water for a moment, as Nishina’s kaiten moved off. Final checks of position, depth and the course Nishima was to follow had been made. He was now on his run-in, under orders to penetrate as deep into the anchorage as he could before raising his periscope and selecting a target for attack.
Ensign Sato left at 4.20, followed by Watanabe and Fukuda at five minute intervals. The second and the third kaiten were to get inside, then move off to the right and left, respectively. Fukuda was to attack when just inside the lagoon. This, it was hoped, would throw the Americans into a panic, when ships began exploding at widely separated points. The last words heard from kaiten pilots in I-47’s conning tower were Fukunda’s, ‘Tenno heika banzai!’. Long Emperor!
The four kaiten forged towards their targets at about thirty knots. Mean- time the barely submerged I-47, live the suddenly freed of twelve tons of metal, lurched towards the surface. Orita submerged again to periscope depth and headed south-east. He had wanted to be well away from the of the anchorage when the kaiten completed their mission. He also wanted a clear view of what happened to take back to Japan. Thus at 5am, the I-47 surfaced again. It was pre-dawn twilight and the crew was edgy, for daylight comes quickly in the South Pacific. The minutes ticked past. Then, at 5.07, an orange flash blossomed over Ulithi, and there was a distinct boom from well within the lagoon where Nishina was supposed to hit a target.
At 5.11 another flash set the submarine’s crew banzaiing. The appearance of an American destroyer soon stopped that, however. Orita dived, but when the absence of depth charges suggested the submarine had not been spotted he surfaced again. The sun was now up and the destroyer could be seen threading its way through the entrance to the Ulithi anchorage. At 5.52 the dull thud of another explosion was reported by I-47’s sonar as coming from the atoll. It seemed that at least three of the kaiten had scored hits on something.
Whether their missions were successful or not Orita concluded that all four pilots were now dead, and at 6am he ordered a silent minute of prayer for their souls. Then he dipped his ship beneath the waters and headed for home. I-36 was not so lucky. Lieutenant- Commander Teramoto, the captain, shut Ensigns Taichi Imanishi and Yoshihiko Kudo into their kaiten from the deck shortly after midnight. At 3am Lieutenants Kentaro Yoshimoto and Kazuihisa Touozumi climbed into their craft through the access tubes. Everything seemed to be going well until I-36 reached the point designated for launching, just off the eastern entrance to the Ulithi lagoon. There, at the very moment set for firing kaiten Numbers One and Two were found to be stuck fast in their racks. They could not be freed after their engines had started. Then the pilot of kaiten Number Four reported that his craft was leaking badly. The only weapon that could be despatched was Ensign Imanishi in Number Three, who was launched at 4.54am.
Yoshimoto and Toyozumi returned to the submarine through their access tubes, and the I-36 surfaced briefly to take in Kudo. At this point the captain decided no more could be achieved, and when the I-36 submerged he turned her bow towards the open sea. Shutting off all the motors the crew listened intently. At 5.45am an explosion was heard, and at 6.05 another. Soon afterwards a pattern of depth charges rocked the I-36 and Teramoto decided it would be wise to get away from the area.
But the I-36 was compelled to stay submerged while American destroyers overhead methodically searched the area for the submarine which they thought had fired conventional torpedoes from the eastern entrance. Nineteen hours passed. By that time the air in the submarine was foul with fumes, and the crew was exhausted. No depth charges had been heard for more than an hour, and Teramoto decided that he would have to surface to get fresh air and charge his batteries. Shortly before midnight the tanks were blown and the vessel surfaced. It was dark night and as there was no sign of American ships Teramoto took a risk. Running north on the surface at maximum speed, he cleared the area without further incident.
I-36 and I-47 both got back to Kure on 30th November. On 2nd December a special conference was held on board the Tsukushi Maru, flagship of the Sixth Fleet, to consider Orita and Teramoto’s reports on the kaiten attacks. Over 200 staff officers and specialists attended, and there was a lot of discussion before the results were summarized by a staff officer of the Sixth Fleet. Men on board I-47 had seen two fires, he said. And the crew of I-36 had heard explosions. Photographs of Ulithi taken by a reconnaissance plane from Truk, on 23rd November, three days after the kaiten operation, were then produced. ‘From these’, declared the speaker, ‘we can estimate that Lieutenant Nishina sunk an aircraft carrier, as did Lieuttenant Fukuda and Ensign Imanishi. Ensigns Sato and Watanabe sank a battleship apiece!’
This was the conclusion the audience wanted to hear, and there was a great outburst of banzais. The Japanese high command had ordered kaiten to be produced in quantity, and news that the first strike had been an outstanding success was a great boost to the morale of the scores of young men in training. ‘Die for the Emperor, but not in vain’ was a good motto. Every embryo Kaiten pilot was positively looking forward to his death-dealing mission, when the news was circulated. The Japanese estimate of ships destroyed was a complete fabrication. The only ship sunk in the operation was the US tanker Mississinewa.