THE SACRIFICE OF THE MOBILE FLEET Part II

Similar scenes played out elsewhere. Essex torpedo bombers went after the battleship Ise and claimed three hits. The Japanese recorded nothing more than near misses on her. Torpedo bombers from Task Force 38 carriers Belleau Wood and San Jacinto rolled into attacks on the light cruiser Tama. Captain Yamamoto Iwata’s (no relation to any of the others in our story) cruiser had been helping protect the Japanese light carrier Chitose. For her trouble she suffered a torpedo hit in a portside boiler room, which left the ship temporarily dead in the water.

Dive-bombers and torpedo planes from the Essex took on the Chitose. Captain Kishi Yoshiyuki’s carrier would be challenged by three events in quick succession. Sources differ on whether these were bomb hits, near misses, or torpedos, but Lieutenant John D. Bridger’s Helldivers claimed a dozen hits and the Avengers of Torpedo 15 insisted two of their fish struck home.

The carrier’s executive officer, Commander Yano Kanji, plunged into efforts to save the ship. He managed to right half of the steep thirty-degree list, but he could not restore power lost from two flooded boiler rooms. Then the rudder failed, and the vessel had to steer by engines. When an engine failed too, Chitose’s speed, which had already dropped to fourteen knots, fell off even more. Before Yano could accomplish anything else, the Chitose’s list increased more, and just an hour after her initial wounds, the ship sank. Captain Kishi and more than 900 crewmen went down with her. Captain Matsuda Gengo’s Isuzu plus destroyer Shimotsuki teamed up to rescue another 600 sailors.

In the Japanese formation, Captain Sugiura Kuro’s Zuiho steamed on the port quarter of Ozawa’s flagship. Emmet Riera of the Enterprise led his Helldivers to bomb her. There were three misses off the stern and a 500-pound bomb hit aft, which jammed the rear elevator. The ship took a slight list, rudder control failed, and a fire started in the hangar deck. But Commander Eguchi Itozumi’s repair teams were so effective that by 8:55 a.m.—within twenty minutes—the list had been righted, the fires stopped, and the steering restored.

Fleet carrier Zuikaku’s purgatory would be more intense as Rear Admiral Kaizuka Takeo maneuvered the ship. (Ozawa had no use for superseding his ship captain.) Kaizuka went twenty-four knots, turning violently. Lookouts counted forty bombers plus ten torpedo planes. Someone spotted a torpedo on the starboard beam. Barely five minutes later, another track appeared up the ship’s throat—from port, astern. Just then one or several 500-pound bombs hit on the port side, amidships. Then a torpedo impacted amidships. Fires started on the hangar deck. The number four generator room flooded. That and consequent damage disabled the rudder, cut power to the helm, and shorted out the secondary switchboard controls. Soon one of the port engine rooms flooded and the ship acquired a marked list, her speed depending solely upon a single propeller.

At first damage control worked effectively. By nine o’clock, when Admiral Kaizuka ordered a cease-fire, signaling the end of the air attack, helm control had been restored, the fires were out, counterflooding had corrected the port list from a dangerous twenty-nine and a half degrees to a mild six, and the vessel could make good speed again, albeit on only two shafts. On the other hand, the Zuikaku’s radio transmitters had ceased functioning altogether.

The latter seriously affected fleet commander Ozawa. Chief of staff Obayashi advised the admiral to transfer his flag. Ozawa refused. He expected the fleet to be destroyed, so he would go down with his flagship. Senior staff Ohmae appealed to his good sense, and Ozawa still resisted.

Seven Lexington torpedo planes had been too late for the first wave. Airman John Underwood was the belly gunner in one of those and had missed the launch because hangar crews had trouble slinging her torpedo properly. The planes finally got away, flying parallel to a small second wave from Enterprise. Big E Helldivers and Lexington Avengers went after Kaizuka’s carrier, which had just finished moving ammunition from the water-threatened aft magazines to the starboard side. Zuikaku mustered all her speed, and gunners poured out fire. Crewmen saw two torpedos off the stern. The carrier emerged unscathed, but the TBMs believed they had hit with three fish. Underwood and his crewmates received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Most of the second wave concentrated against light aircraft carrier Chiyoda. She was the vessel skippered by Captain Jyo Eichiro, one of the Navy’s kamikaze advocates and formerly aide-de-camp to Emperor Hirohito. The Helldivers were from Lexington and Franklin. They bored in from 10:10 a.m., slapping Jyo’s carrier with four bomb hits. Suddenly the Chiyoda lost power, like the others, but this time nothing that executive officer Kumon Shigenori tried seemed to work. The warship drifted. A few planes went after the Zuiho, and in one of the few instances where these proved effective for the Japanese, the carrier’s antiaircraft rockets were instrumental in driving them off.

With Imperial Navy warships being destroyed, and Zuikaku without radios, Admiral Ozawa finally listened to Captain Ohmae’s pleas. Thanks to swift repair work, Captain Yamamoto’s cruiser Tama had gotten under way again just as the second attack rolled in. Light cruiser Isuzu sailed with her. Rear Admiral Matsuda was trying to organize a tow for the crippled Chiyoda. What to do? The fleet still needed Ozawa’s leadership. When Captain Ohmae asked again if he would transfer—and said “Please!”—Gargoyle agreed. At 9:44 a.m. Zuikaku signaled Oyodo to come alongside, but they postponed the transfer minutes later as the gunners fired upon the new attack planes. Another transfer attempt failed at 10:14. A dozen minutes later, Captain Mudaguchi was actually able to stop and put a boat in the water. Admiral Ozawa and eleven staffers climbed down to the cutter, which also picked up a downed pilot. At 10:54, Ozawa raised his flag on board the cruiser Oyodo. He had come full circle.

The Zuikaku managed eighteen knots, but it was not enough for Rear Admiral Kaizuka to position his ship to recover CAP fighters. The nine remaining planes had to ditch. Ozawa instructed the Tama to head home independently and tried to regroup the remaining ships with him. A little after noon, the Zuikaku increased to twenty knots and an hour later to twenty-four. She seemed to be in good condition.

The Zuiho now held the port quarter position, with Rear Admiral Matsuda’s Ise completing a triangle. Battleship Hyuga now lay thirty miles to the rear, trying to protect the Chiyoda while Isuzu towed her. When Admiral Ozawa discovered a third attack wave headed his way, he reluctantly recalled those ships and left the light carrier to her fate.

This third mission, coordinated by Commander Ted Winters, put more than 200 aircraft up against the Mobile Fleet. Ozawa’s force, punier by the minute, was creamed. Winters set Lexington’s planes against the Zuikaku. Aircraft divided to hit from both sides at once. He thought the carrier smothered. Beginning at 1:15 p.m., pilots pressed home their attacks. Within the space of eight minutes, half a dozen torpedoes slammed into the hapless warship from both sides. The assault left the carrier powerless and settling in the sea. Rear Admiral Kaizuka ordered all hands on deck at 1:27, preparatory to abandoning ship. The captain addressed his crew, the Imperial Navy ensign was lowered, and a bugler played the “Kimigayo.” Crewmen began leaving just before 4:00 p.m. About a quarter of an hour later the Zuikaku slowly rolled over to port and sank, stern first. Destroyer Wakatsuki and escort Kuwa rescued a bit more than half the carrier’s crew. Some 842 sailors were lost, including Rear Admiral Kaizuka.

Zuiho’s cruise also ended in a nightmare. Captain Sugiura could hardly maneuver. Strike coordinator Winters directed the attack planes from the Enterprise, San Jacinto, and Franklin at her. At 1:17 p.m., Enterprise planes hit the carrier with a torpedo right under the bridge. Sugiura would be wounded. A bomb struck the after elevator. A little more than ten minutes later, the really massive strike washed over Sugiura’s weakened ship—a torpedo hit starboard, another bomb, and seven near misses, followed by dozens of claimed near misses from subsequent serials of aircraft. Lieutenant Wistar Janney of the Franklin’s VT-13 won the Navy Cross for putting the new torpedo into the Zuiho.

On the Japanese carrier, executive officer Eguchi Itozumi had little chance against the extensive damage. Speed dropped until the Zuiho drifted, only to be hit by Task Force 38’s fourth strike, with yet more near misses. Already by 2:10, every available sailor had been summoned to the pumps. Zuiho sank about an hour later, though Sugiura had time to save the emperor’s portrait and most of the crew—more than 750 men. It was Commander Eguchi, caught in the blasted bowels of Zuiho, who did not survive. He would be the senior-most of 215 men lost.

For Task Force 38’s fifth-wave attack, Admiral Mitscher considered the Japanese defenses so beaten down that he ordered the fighters to fly in a strike role, armed with rockets or 1,000-pound bombs. That assault connected around 4:15 p.m., to be credited with two torpedo and six bomb hits on the battleships, plus sinking a destroyer. The claims seem to have been illusory.

What is interesting about the last three Task Force 38 strikes—the ones that finished off two of the four Japanese aircraft carriers—is that they were mounted by an incomplete and reduced U.S. striking force. Admiral William F. Halsey no longer sailed alongside. The Bull had left—taking Jerry Bogan’s Task Group 38.2 and Ching Lee’s Task Force 34 with him. Halsey’s absence reflected the gravest emergency for the Allies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s