Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse II

As the Allied admirals and their advisers gathered in the US Navy’s air-conditioned conference rooms in Manila to discuss their strategic options on the morning of Friday, 5 December, the Japanese were already stepping-up their activities and, throughout the day, groups of transports together with covering forces of warships sailed from various secret anchorages in Indo-China in accordance with Japan’s master plan – possibly the most complex and ambitious series of landing operations ever undertaken in modern history, embracing, as it did, virtually simultaneous attacks by land, sea, and air, on objectives situated along a perimeter of some 6,500 miles.

Before flying to Manila, Phillips had come under pressure from the Admiralty to disperse his capital ships and move them away from Singapore – the War Staff in London apparently feeling jittery about reports of Japanese submarines converging on the base which they feared might presage an orchestrated submerged attack on the big ships if they tried to leave harbour after war had broken out.

In deference to the Admiralty’s fears, the Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore on 5 December with orders to proceed to Darwin – a trip which many on board hoped would lead to the ship continuing on to Sydney in time for Christmas. Although underwater ambushes rarely succeeded – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s U-boat dispositions before the Battle of Jutland and Japan’s cordon of submarines off Pearl Harbor being cases in point – the Admiralty’s concern at the possibility of a mass submarine attack was understandable. Phillips’ decision to send the battle-cruiser to Australia, however, seemed less explicable and appeared to be yet another example of a senior officer misjudging Japanese intentions. Bearing in mind the reason why the Repulse had been despatched to the Far East, it would have been more in keeping with her intended role as a visible deterrent to send the ship on a flag-showing tour of Sumatra, Java or perhaps Borneo – all of which would have kept her within steaming distance of Singapore in an emergency. But as usual the Admiral’s decisions and dispositions were subject to political considerations and his choice of Australia reflected a desire to impress the Dominion’s government with the Royal Navy’s on-the-spot presence and to persuade it to release the cruiser Hobart for service with the Eastern Fleet which, at that particular moment, possessed no operational modern cruisers whatsoever. The unfolding drama of the next 48 hours, however, was to prevent Phillips from putting his ploy into practice.

The calm atmosphere of the Manila talks was rudely interrupted on Saturday (6th) when news arrived that an Australian reconnaissance aircraft from Kota Bharu – a Malayan airfield close to the Siam border – had sighted a Japanese convoy of twenty-five transports escorted by a battleship (it was, in fact, the heavy cruiser Chokai), five cruisers and seven destroyers, steaming westwards through the Gulf of Siam. Whether it was heading for Malaya or Siam was impossible to determine at this stage, but it was clear that trouble was brewing and Hart responded by ordering his destroyer division at Balikpapan to raise steam and make for Singapore as a matter of urgency. The Eastern Fleet’s Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral Palliser, who had remained behind when Phillips flew to Manila, showed similar initiative by immediately signalling Repulse: Return with all despatch – his prompt action being confirmed by Phillips’ similar instruction which arrived from Manila an hour or so later. And as the British C-in-C hurriedly boarded his flying-boat for the return flight to Singapore further sighting reports of Japanese troop convoys came in from the search aircraft winging through the gathering dusk of the rain-swept Gulf of Siam.

Two thousand miles to the east another Japanese invasion force had just set out from Palau – the islands that had witnessed Drake’s first historic landfall in 1579 – for the initial assault on the Philippines. And with equal stealth Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force was approaching the unsuspecting Hawaiian Islands from the north with its torpedo-aircraft and dive-bombers ranged on the darkened flight-decks eagerly waiting to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor that would finally bring the United States into the war. That same night the submarines I-121 and I-122 laid a secret minefield off Singapore while two surface vessels, Tatsumiya Maru and Nagas, laid another across the entrance to the Gulf of Siam between Tioman and the Anambas Islands. This latter obstacle contained around 1,000 mines and was to claim the Dutch submarines 0-16 and K-XVII as its victims later in the month.

If the Eastern Fleet had been able to sail immediately the sighting reports were received and had successfully intercepted the Japanese invasion force at sea there is a good chance that the enemy might have been persuaded to turn back, for the stakes were high and the Japanese had not anticipated being discovered quite so early in the game. Had such a gambit succeeded, Churchill’s concept of deterrence would have been justified. But it was not to be. Phillips was in Manila and the fleet remained leaderless until he returned to Singapore during the early hours of Sunday, 7 December. Moreover, 50% of the fleet’s main fighting strength, the battle-cruiser Repulse, was absent from its war station and en route to Australia. On this particular occasion the disarray was really nobody’s fault. But it was to have disastrous consequences over the course of the next few days.

Bad weather had curtailed air search activities during this critical period and although Japanese ships had been sighted for brief intervals such fleeting contacts in poor visibility made it impossible to determine their courses and probable destinations with any degree of accuracy. In growing desperation the RAF despatched two Catalina flying-boats to extend the search area further north towards the Indo-China coast. One machine returned empty-handed. The other was sighted by a Japanese fighter and shot down at midday on the 7th (0430 GMT) before it could transmit any signals. The RAF had suffered its first casualties of the Pacific war – nearly 14 hours before the first American serviceman was killed at Pearl Harbor!

But the situation was still uncertain and, despite a prodding request from the Admiralty asking‘… what action would be possible …’ if the Japanese landed in Malaya, there was little Phillips could do. He had already considered and ruled out the politically dangerous option of intercepting the invasion force before positive evidence of its destination was available. Now all he could do was to wait for events to unfold.

It is not generally realized that the Japanese landed in Malaya a clear ninety minutes before Nagumo’s dive-bombers swooped down on the anchored US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Based on Greenwich Mean Time the landings at Kota Bharu began at 1655 on 7 December (0025 on 8 December local time) while the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor at 1825 on 7 December (0755 on 7 December local time).

In addition to carrying out a number of landings in Siam the Japanese intended to occupy Kota Bharu, where the RAF had recently constructed an airfield, during the first wave of attacks. Another objective was the Kra Isthmus which General Yamashita was anxious to seize at an early stage of the campaign in order to prevent British military reinforcements coming overland into Malaya from Burma via Siam. The Malayan operation was therefore planned as a series of separate assaults and, to this end, the invasion armada divided up into its component units at midday on the 7th. One transport proceeded to Prachuap, another to Bandon, two more to Jumbhorn and another three to Nakhon – Siamese harbours which it was necessary to seize if the Kra Isthmus was to be secured. The main force of seventeen transports, supported by minesweepers, assault ships and submarine-chasers, continued towards Singora and Pattani in southern Siam while the remaining three transports with the cruiser Sendai and the 19th Destroyer Division steered for Kota Bharu.

The Siamese offered no resistance at either Singora or Pattani and the Japanese troops disembarked in parade order with bands playing and flags flying. By contrast the Siamese army strongly resisted British attempts to cross their frontier and gain control of the strategically important north-south highway. Although caught by surprise when the Japanese landed, the Indian troops of the 3/17th Dogra Regiment who were defending Kota Bharu fought back fiercely, heavy casualties being sustained by both sides. And, hitting back with commendable speed, a group of Royal Australian Air Force Hudson bombers took off from the airfield in bright moonlight and attacked the Japanese invasion force as it lay off-shore – sinking a 9,749-ton transport and damaging two others. But the enemy soon gained a foothold and the vital airfield fell within hours when the demoralized RAF ground staff set fire to buildings and equipment and then, climbing aboard their lorries, evacuated the base without orders.

It was an equally hectic night in Singapore and, while senior officers tried to make sense of the garbled reports filtering into the capital from up-country, a stream of radio signals and news broadcasts from around the world revealed the extent of the Japanese offensive. Pearl Harbor had been bombed at 0155 Singapore time and the entire US Pacific Fleet incapacitated – some reports said annihilated – and at 0430 came news that the British Concession in Shanghai had been occupied. Then, at 0800, came the first reports of air raids on Hong Kong and, an hour and a half later, the bemused staff officers learned that the Japanese had attacked the Philippines. It was like some horrendous nightmare. And the pressures on the harassed Singapore Staffs were not made easier when seventeen bombers of the Mihoro Air Corps raided the city soon after 0400 in an attack that destroyed three Blenheim aircraft on the ground, caused considerable structural damage to buildings, and inflicted some 200 civilian casualties. The raid, however, gave the Prince of Wales her first taste of action against the new enemy when her high-angle 5.25-inch guns were used to strengthen the dockyard’s anti-aircraft batteries. But the Japanese suffered no losses and the Mihoro Air Corps machines returned to their Indo-China bases unharmed.

In addition to the Main Fleet at Singapore the Royal Navy had another small group of ships, the East Indies Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral G.S. Arbuthnot at Ceylon. This force, which included the carrier Hermes refitting at Durban, was mainly engaged on trade protection duties in the Indian Ocean. Although the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were left on station to cover the transit of troop reinforcement convoys from Colombo to Singapore the Admiralty decided to transfer the third cruiser, the 8-inch gunned Exeter, to the Eastern Fleet and in the early hours of 8 December, Captain Gordon was ordered to leave the convoy he was escorting and to make post-haste for Singapore where he was to join Sir Tom Phillips’ flag. Gordon obeyed the order with alacrity and, leaving the convoy to make for Rangoon, he headed towards the Malacca Straits at 26 knots. He was, however, already too late to save Phillips and the two big ships of the Eastern Fleet.

Further to the south, and despite the earlier decision to give the ANZAC Squadron responsibility for protecting the Australasian trade routes, only two of the ships, Canberra and Perth, were sailing in company. The light cruiser Achilles – which had fought alongside Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate in December, 1939 – was at Auckland when news of the Japanese landings came through and although she was promptly ordered to join the Eastern Fleet at Singapore she was first given the task of escorting a contingent of New Zealand troops to Suva in the Fiji Islands. These islands of Melanesia formed part of Australia’s defensive perimeter the northern segment of which – New Guinea and the Solomons – was to become a fiercely contested battle-gound when Japan later tried to gain control of the Coral Sea and sever sea communications between the United States and the Australasian continent. Achilles’ departure and her unexpected allocation to the Eastern Fleet hardly augured well for the continued cohesion of the ANZAC squadron.

Phillips summoned a conference of staff officers and senior captains aboard the Prince of Wales on the morning of 8 December and, as bad news continued to flood in from all quarters of the Far East, they began to discuss how the Eastern Fleet should react to the events of the previous night. At an early stage in the proceedings the Admiral sent a written request to Pulford asking him to make reconnaissance machines available on the 9th and 10th and, most importantly, to provide fighter cover for the fleet off Singora at daylight on the 10th. Pulford did not reply until the late afternoon by which time he knew that the airfield at Kota Bharu was likely to be abandoned within hours and although he promised Phillips that air reconnaissance units could be provided as requested he was unable to guarantee fighter cover for the 10th.

It was cold comfort for the Admiral, but, still convinced that the Fleet’s guns could ward off an air attack and satisfied that if he remained more than 200 miles from the coast of Indo-China he would be beyond range of Japanese aircraft, Phillips went ahead. According to one officer, Phillips told the assembled meeting: ‘I feel we have got to do something.’ Another recalled: ‘Admiral Phillips summed up in words something like this – “We can stay in Singapore. We can sail away to the East – Australia. Or we can go out and fight. Gentlemen, we sail at five o’clock.”’

The Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, cleared the dockyard boom at 1735 that evening and slowly increased speed to a steady 17 knots. Now identified by the code-name Force Z the squadron was headed by the flagship with the Repulse following 4 cables astern, and the ruddy glow of a spectacular tropical sunset painted a lurid backcloth above the port horizon as the ships altered course north-eastwards.

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Early War Japanese Air Supremacy – the “Zero”

After the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, the lightning fast expansion was slowed. The road to Australia for the Japanese was blocked by Port Moresby. After unsuccessful landing attempts, whose failure was ensured by the cruel defeat in the Coral Sea, the attempt was made to take the target over land, and the complicated conditions of the New Guinea jungle and the Owen Stanley mountain range proved to be insurmountable.

As a result, the Japanese continued to press air attacks. These were made from bases along the north-eastern shore of New Guinea at Lae, Salamaua, and especially later from Buna.

The brunt of the combat with units equipped with the Airacobra was carried out in 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force, notably by two units – the Tainan Kokutai1 and the 2nd Kokutai, besides the vanguard role played by the 4th Kokutai. This was a mixed unit with fighters and bombers in its inventory.

The unit arrived at Lae, just several days after the base was secured by Japanese ground forces on March 11th, 1942. Attacks on Post Moresby began immediately, and Lae had seven Reisens2 available. There was a reorganization of the unit on April 1st, with the 4th Kokutai becoming exclusively a bomber unit, and her fighter assets were formally turned over to the Tainan Kokutai. On dividing the aircraft, pilots were also reassigned accordingly. Tainan Kokutai is without question, the best known unit within the Japanese forces operating during World War Two. Out of its ranks came the greatest number of aces, including Saburo Sakai, and the most successful Japanese fighter ace of all time, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa. New Guinea was reached in April, 1942, and the unit arrived at Rabaul by the transport ship ‘Komaki Maru’, and then proceeded by air to Lae on April 17th. On April 25th, there twentyfour Reisens at Lae. From April to the early August, the unit conducted 51 raids on Port Moresby. Claims of victories were, as they were all over the world, more or less exaggerated. According to the pilots, there were 246 enemy aircraft shot down (of which 45 were probables). Other victories were claimed during combat directly over the bases at Lae and Buna. The majority of the opponents were identified as P-39s, which, in a maneuvering dogfight with a Zeke, had no chance. They themselves lost twenty aircraft to various causes, including crashes.

The turning point came with the American landings at Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942. Tainan Kokutai dedicated all of its strength to the liquidation of the landings, and the battle for Port Moresby, while Australia took a back seat. The unit began using Rabaul as its base, since it was closer to Guadalcanal than Buna.

In the battle over New Guinea, the unit was replaced by the 2nd Kokutai. It was formed on the last day of May, 1942, as a mixed unit operating both fighters and bombers. After two months of equipping and training, this unit set out on the transport converted to escort carrier ‘Yawata Maru’, and headed southeast. Primarily, the unit was committed to fighting in the New Hebrides. The Japanese never did reach these islands, and the 2nd Kokutai landed at Rabaul in mid-August. The first meeting of these pilots with Airacobras came on the 24th of August on an attack on Rabi, southeast of Port Moresby. The Japanese, with no losses to themselves, claimed nine kills, two of which were probable. Further attacks followed on the 26th and 27th of August, but this time with the loss of two bombers and six Reisens (four from Tainan Kokutai). Attacks on Port Moresby continued by the 2nd Kokutai flying from Buna up to September 8th, and then came operations in support of counter offenses in an attempt to push the Americans back from Guadalcanal.

On November 1st, 1942, came a reorganization of the IJNAF, affecting the units in question, with Tainan Kokutai becoming the Kokutai 251, and the 2nd becoming the Kokutai 582.

Further combat, where units flying the Airacobra were met, came during Operation ‘I’ (in Japanese I-go Sakusen). This operation, personally overseen by the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the head of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, took place between the 7th and 14th of April, 1943, and its goal was to regain the initiative in the southwest Pacific. Within this operation, the Japanese undertook massive attacks on Post Moresby (April 12th), and Milne Bay (April 14th). The entire venture ended in failure, despite minimal losses, Yamamoto was killed several days later thanks to the breaking of encryption codes and P-38s waiting for him as a result, and the Japanese forces found themselves strictly on the defensive, which eventual led to final defeat.

Over 1943, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force also began to commit to New Guinea. Fighter units equipped with the Ki-43 Hayabusa (dubbed ‘Oscar’ by the Allies) and the Ki-61 Hien (‘Tony’), as well as bomber units equipped with light bomber Ki-48 (‘Lily’) and Ki-49 Donryu (‘Helen’) heavy bombers. These units suffered greatly at the hands of American fighters, notably the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt.

Getting back to the most intensive fighting that occurred during the spring and summer of 1942 involving the Airacobra, claims by the two best known fighter aces of the Tainan Kokutai, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Saburo Sakai, included quite the list of the P-39. Nishizawa claimed 21 confirmed P-39 kills plus five probables between May 1st and June 25th, 1942. His best results came over Port Moresby on May 17th, when he claimed five Airacobras confirmed and one probable. Sakai claimed 22 confirmed Airacobra kills and one probable between April 11th and August 2, 1942. He also could boast about downing five P-39s in one day, on June 16th. Although these numbers are evidently inflated, there is no doubt that the Zeke in the hands of a capable Japanese pilot, had a definite advantage. The Japanese fighter pilots were aware of this fact and did not consider the Airacobra in the same league. The skies over New Guinea were not much safer even in 1944, when the Japanese air forces presented no great danger. Between January and August, the 71st TRG3 lost a minimum of nine Airacobras over the space held by the enemy.

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At the beginning of the Pacific war neither Japan nor the United States possessed large numbers of warplanes, despite unprecedented programs of prewar aircraft development and production. Thus, early Pacific war air operations on both sides were undertaken with what were small forces compared with those engaged in Europe. Most British aircraft were, of course, in Europe, although there were air assets in Asia, in such places as Singapore, and Commonwealth air forces in Australia and New Zealand.

With long lead times in aircraft production from inception to production—up to four years for airframes and more than that for engines—timing and strategic decisions were extremely important. Both Germany and Japan caught aircraft modernization at the right time, that is, during the decade of the 1930s, when aircraft technology changed faster and more profoundly than at any time before or since. Furthermore, Japan’s penchant for secrecy enabled that country to keep the West unaware of what it had accomplished. Washington discounted reliable reports about the quality of Japanese aircraft, including reports from Claire Chennault, then supervising the Chinese air force.

Even though the Japanese air force was superbly equipped and trained at the outset of the conflict, it was in fact too small for world war. In December 1941 Japan had fewer than 3,000 combat-ready aircraft (the army had about 1,500 planes and the navy another 1,400). The vast majority of these were, however, of modern design (although several models with fixed, “spatted” landing gear gave a deceptively obsolete appearance) and were well suited for long-range operations. Japan emphasized maneuverability and long range in its fighters, and long range and bomb capacity in its bombers.

The weak design point of Japanese aircraft was their engines, in large part because of materials shortages, inferior lubricants, and inadequate quality control. Japan also continued to rely on prewar aircraft designs. Its basic design types—the Zero, the Betty, and the Val—all flew throughout the war. And Japan largely ignored defensive aircraft. Japan wanted a strike force capable of carrying out long-distance missions and inflicting maximum damage. Japanese pilots were superbly trained and had gained extensive combat experience against the Russians and the Chinese in the late 1930s, but Japan lost air supremacy in the great land-sea battles of 1942. Midway cost the navy four carriers and the lives of hundreds of experienced airmen. Guadalcanal was even more expensive; it became a “meat grinder” battle, in which Japan lost perhaps nine hundred aircraft, and, because Japanese bombers had relatively large crews (the Betty required seven men), it lost some twenty-four hundred trained pilots and aircrew. After Guadalcanal the United States launched many more carriers and vastly more aircraft (many of which were newer types), while the Japanese were forced for the most part to make do with updated versions of earlier aircraft, without veteran pilots to fly them.

By far the best and most famous Japanese fighter of the Pacific war was the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (Zero, known as Zeke to the Americans but generally called Zero by all nations—eventually even by the Japanese, who nicknamed it Zero-sen). An excellent original design, it entered service in 1940. More Zeros (10,449) were built during the war than any other Japanese warplane. The A6M2 model that led the attack at Pearl Harbor had a speed of 332 mph and the exceptional range of 1,930 miles. It was exceptionally light; the fuselage was skinned with almost-paper-thin duralumin, and there was no seat armor; nor were its gas tanks self-sealing. At 6,264 pounds loaded, the A6M was almost half a ton lighter than the F4F Wildcat. It was also as maneuverable as any fighter of the war. The Zero had a surprisingly heavy armament—two 7.7-mm machine guns in the upper fuselage and two wing-mounted slow-firing 20-mm cannon. It could also carry 264 pounds of bombs. It was, however, deficient in structural strength. Based on bitter experience, U.S. pilots developed tactics to defeat the Zeros. Pairs of F4Fs, using the “Thach weave,” could handle four or five Zeros. The Zero went through a succession of models. The final (1945) A6M8 model had a 1,560-hp engine—60 percent more powerful than the engine in the A6M2—and could achieve 356 mph.

The main U.S. opponents of the Zero early in World War II were the army P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk and the navy/marine F4F Wildcat. The Bell P-39 Airacobra entered service in 1941. Its design centered on its unique armament—a 37-mm cannon firing through the middle of the nose cone—which dictated the entire structure of the aircraft. The engine was mounted in the center of the fuselage, behind the pilot, and the driveshaft to the propeller did double duty as a 37-mm cannon! The P-39 also had retractable tricycle landing gear positioned under its nose—the first such arrangement in a fighter. At 8,300 pounds, it was significantly heavier than the Zero, although its speed of 385 mph was faster. It had a range of 650 miles. The P-39 had one 37-mm cannon, four machine guns, and 500 pounds of bombs. No match for the Zero in one-on-one combat, the P-39 excelled in ground support operations. Of 9,558 P-39s produced during the war, fully half went to the Soviet Union for tactical support.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat entered service in December 1940. Powered with a 1,200-hp air-cooled engine, it was, at 7,000 pounds, only slightly heavier than the Zero and as fast as it (331 mph), but not nearly as maneuverable. Its range was 845 miles, and it was armed with six machine guns and 200 pounds of bombs. The F4F-4 (1941) had a speed of 318 mph and a range of 770 miles. The Wildcat was also quite strong. Although the Zero could easily outmaneuver the P-40 and F4F, U.S. Navy and Marine pilots developed tactics enabling them to utilize their heavy (.50-caliber) machine guns to cut the Zeros apart. The Wildcat was also faster than the Zero in a turning dive. The F4F remained in manufacture (8,000 produced) through the end of the war for service on escort carriers.

 

The Battle of Sibuyan Sea: The Sinking of Musashi

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Before the battle, Vice-Admiral Kurita, fully aware of the likelihood that his fleet would be annihilated, addressed his less than enthusiastic commanders:

I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity. Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf. You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.

Admiral Kurita’s battle started badly. In the first of a litany of mistakes Kurita failed to take anti-submarine precautions after a radio operator on board the Yamato picked up signals from American submarines. On the morning of 23 October, Kurita’s flagship Atago was sunk by torpedoes fired from the submarines USS Darter and USS Dace. So rapidly did his ship go down that Kurita was forced to take an early morning salt-water bath in which he was forced to swim for his life. Less fortunate were 359 of his crew who died. Of Atago’s sister ships, the heavy cruiser Maya was sunk, while the Takao was heavily damaged. The Takao was escorted out of the battle taking with it two Japanese destroyers from the battles ahead. In reply, at the so-called Battle of Palawan Passage, the Japanese won a fortuitous, albeit token, prize when Darter ran aground and her entire crew had to be rescued by the USS Dace.

Pressing onward, Kurita’s surface force now faced the onslaught of Halsey’s carrier attacks. Deprived of McCain’s stronger airpower, Bogan’s group’s carriers concentrated their attacks on the battleships Nagato, Yamato and Musashi. Musashi became their principal target. The first torpedoes to strike Musashi barely registered on its heavily armored hull and it maintained its speed at over twenty knots. This was followed up just after midday by a second wave of VB-15 Helldivers and VF-15 Hellcats from the USS Essex (CV-9), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Lexington (CV-16), the Essex Class replacement for the Lexington, (CV-2), that was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Over the next hour and a half Musashi was slowed to ten knots and listed five degrees to port and thirteen feet down at the bow; she began to drop off the back of the fleet.

Commissioned in the summer of 1942, Musashi, sister ship to Yamato, was the last of the behemoth Japanese battleships. They had been built as a result of the Japanese Navy’s strategy to build a navy that was qualitatively better than the US Navy—an outcome of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty [1922]. Japan went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the building of the vast new battleships. The chief engineer, Kumao Baba and the director of the steel mill were notified accordingly in 1937. “This project has been classified top secret, and we have been ordered to assign only absolutely trustworthy employees to it. Each of you has been checked out by the secret police. Your political and religious beliefs, family backgrounds, and contacts with foreigners have proven to be acceptable for the project. However, in order to further assure absolute confidentiality from all of you, we would like you to swear an oath of secrecy.” When a blueprint plan of a section of turret was lost, six engineers and two blueprint makers were imprisoned and tortured. Compared to US battleships with their 16-inch guns, the Yamato and Musashi, each sporting nine 18.1-inch guns, twelve 6.1-inch guns and batteries of smaller caliber armaments, were fearsome weapon systems. Each 18.1-inch gun weighed 162 tons and their turrets, with 26-inch armor weighed 2,774 tons, more than many destroyers. Shells weighing 1.5 tons could be fired every forty seconds to a distance of twenty-six miles. The force of fire of one of these guns was enough to severely injure or kill a man standing nearby. In experiments, guinea pigs were blown apart.

At 72,000 tons displacement, Yamato Class battleships were double the displacement of any warships previously built in Japan. In spite of this weight the Yamato Class battleships could travel at twenty-seven knots and had a cruising range of 7,200 nautical miles at sixteen knots. In addition to their fearsome weaponry they sported heavily armored hulls to protect them from torpedo strikes. At least, that was the theory. Designed with a broad beam (a design feature not available to US warships because of the width of the Panama Canal), the battleships could box their enormous engine rooms with relatively short sides that could be heavily protected by 18-inch steel, enough to resist torpedoes. The deck was also heavily defended with 7.8-inch steel that could withstand 1,000-kilogram (2,204 lbs) armor-piercing bombs. These were formidable defenses but the allocation of armor to these critical areas meant that other areas had to be compromised, notably the under bow and stern sections. To compensate, a watertight compartment system was designed along with flooding and pumping systems. Events would show that the damage control calculations were over-optimistic. Nevertheless engineer Shigeichi Koga proudly reflected, “Looking at it taking shape on the slipway, it seems like this battleship could never be sunk.”

In truth Pearl Harbor had demonstrated that the battleship, the weapon of choice during the interwar arms race, the subject of thousands of hours of negotiation at naval disarmament conferences in Washington and London, as well as miles of newspaper column inches, was now a dinosaur. For the Americans, battleships had proved mainly useful in the unglamorous role of offshore batteries to wear down defenders prior to beach landings in the Central Pacific and New Guinea campaigns. Japanese battleships had played a similar role at Guadalcanal. The aircraft carrier now represented a navy’s main strike capability—it lay at the heart of new Japanese naval tactical thinking.

In a shoot-out between battleships and aircraft carriers there could only be one winner. When at 3.30 p.m. a third wave of bombers from the USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Franklin (CV-13), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Cabot (CVL-28, a light carrier) hit the struggling Musashi with eleven bombs and eight further torpedoes, making a total of nineteen torpedo hits and seventeen bomb hits, her fate was sealed. A Helldiver rear gunner, Russ Dustan, serving on the Franklin recalled, “Musashi was huge! I had never seen anything as big in my entire life. It was a magnificent sight.” A ten degree list was corrected by pumping and counter-flooding to six degrees but the bow sagged down by 8 yards and sea water began to sweep over the main deck which was littered with dismembered bodies. Kurita ordered the struggling Musashi to be beached and used as a stationary battery. When her engines failed, the great battleship listed twelve degrees to port and an evacuation was ordered. At 7.36 p.m. Musashi capsized and sank by the bow taking 1,023 men to their deaths. Many of the young seamen could not swim and refused to jump into the sea. Others went down clinging to the propellers. Destroyers subsequently picked up 1,326 survivors. A further fifty of these died when 420 of their number were being shipped aboard the Santosu-Maru. To hide the shame of the sinking, survivors were relocated to a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea. Captain Kenkichi Kato, who was prevailed upon not to go down with his ship, wrote in his notebook, “… I am pleased that almost no damage was sustained by other vessels in the fleet in this battle. I somehow feel that, as the main target, the Musashi managed to save the fleet.” A Japanese seaman recalled that at 7.35 p.m. on 24 October, Musashi’s stern rose out of the water:

Crewmen started to jump off … the stern, which was sticking up like a tower from the ocean surface. Before they reached the ocean surface below, they were screaming with horror. Most of them hit the battleship’s huge screws before they reached the water. Crewmen were running along the battleship, and several men who jumped off the sides were sucked into the huge holes made by the torpedoes.

At a cost of just eighteen planes, Halsey’s Third Fleet had sunk the pride of the fleet, Admiral Yamamoto’s former flagship, and a ship that its designers and builders had believed unsinkable.

The carrier attacks, which had also inflicted damage on the battleships Yamato, Nagato and the heavy cruiser Myoko, forced Kurita to turn away and retreat, but in the late afternoon he turned his ships again toward the San Bernadino Straits. The 259 sorties flown by Halsey’s Third Fleet, denuded of McCain’s stronger Task Group 38.1, had not been enough to turn back the Japanese attack. In diverting American carrier aircraft from attacks on the rest of Kurita’s Center Force, the sacrifice of the Musashi may not have been entirely in vain.

The Formidable Power of One-Hit Sinking

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Damaged William D. Porter listing heavily. Landing Craft Support ships LCS(L)(3)-86 and LCS(L)(3)-122 (behind) are assisting.

On 28 May, Japan’s Navy Ministry for the first time made public the operations of the Thunder Gods, extolling them for their fighting spirit and “the formidable power of one-hit sinking.” Newspaper accounts also carried the names of 332 Thunder God pilots who had already sacrificed their lives. Despite the public adulation, most ka pilots now went about their duties under a cloud of despondency, often ignoring the frequent air raid alarms, instead staying in their quarters. Increasingly, petty officers were even sneaking off base to carouse at local inns.

For Ryuji Nagatsuka, meanwhile, May’s end marked the completion of suicide tactical training for Jun-no Special Attack Corps. Nagatsuka received his promotion to flying officer and now was in line for a posthumous promotion. Credible war news was sparse, but conditions were undoubtedly desperate. Each time flights of American Grummans headed for their base northwest of Tokyo, the pilots flew to safer airspace. Machine guns had been removed from their planes and the primary objective was to preserve them for tokko missions.

The rainy season was in full swing, and the only possible bright spot was a brief visit from his mother and two of his sisters. But even this reunion was awkward. Candor about the future went unspoken in the presence of the young girls. When Nagatsuka left the three of them at a nearby train station, he knew he was seeing them for the last time.

The horrid weather, while it curtailed American air attacks, also delayed launch of Kikusui No. 9. An announcement trumpeting the assault went out each morning only to be rescinded by afternoon. Finally, on 3 June, a break in the weather set Kikusui No. 9 in motion. The operation’s buildup vastly overshadowed its substance: in a scattered series of sorties, barely fifty suicide aircraft flew south toward Okinawa, most without escorts.

These handfuls of kamikazes were having a harder time sneaking through, and their attacks seemed to be odd sideshows. Though not any less chaotic or dangerous, the air-sea duels involved many fewer planes and ships.

On 6 June, eight bogeys set upon DMs J. William Ditter and Harry F. Bauer on patrol southeast of Nakagusuku Wan. One attacker’s wing clipped Ditter’s after stack and tore open a long strip of shell plating on the port side, flooding the after fire room and forward engine room.

A plane also crashed close to Bauer’s starboard beam, tearing a twelve-foot gash in her side. Bauer’s damage seemed to be limited to flooding, but crewmen also spotted a large hunk of metal submerged near the forward fireroom and worried it might be a bomb. After taking a look, a bomb disposal expert dispatched from Wiseman’s Cove assured Bauer’s XO Robert Morgenthau it might be the plane’s engine or its landing gear, but was no bomb.

Destroyer William D. Porter’s time off Okinawa did much to erase the stigma that plagued her CO and crew since the accidental but near disastrous torpedo shot at battleship Iowa. But then, on 10 June, bad luck caught up with Porter on RP15 when an undetected kamikaze Val dove at her through a low overcast. The plane struck only a glancing blow to Porter’s radar mast, but when its bomb exploded in the water nearby, the blast tore up the after half of Porter’s hull and unleashed uncontrollable flooding. Even the pumps on LCSs dispatched to help Porter could not stay ahead of the rising water, made worse by the explosion of several jettisoned depth charges. Porter’s sailors were finally evacuated to CO Richard McCool’s LCS-122. Lined up along LCS-122’s railings, Porter’s men watched their hard-luck ship sink at 1119.

On RP15 at dusk the next day, it was LCS-122’s turn, but almost a different kind of turn. After escaping a near miss crash by one Val, LCS-122 took a direct hit to its conning tower by a second Val. The crash and explosion killed 11 men and seriously wounded another 29, including McCool. Despite his wounds, with 122 on fire and sinking, McCool somehow managed to exit the conning tower, jumping first to the gun deck and finally the main deck. McCool rallied his crew to fight fires, hauled one man to safety, and helped rescue several others before 122 had to be abandoned.

This was to be the last kamikaze blow for a week—though by no means the last off Okinawa or the last of the war. Still it was almost a showcase—an attack that occurred in focus and isolation, instead of the thudding, relentless blur of April’s and May’s attacks (and, earlier, the attacks in the Philippines). The LCS-122’s casualties (over half the crew) and the actions of the survivors and the rookie CO somehow symbolized all the suffering, determination, and instinctive heroism displayed by thousands of men through the seemingly unending days of eight long months.

Lieutenant Richard M. McCool, captain of the landing ship LCS(L)(3)-122, received the Medal of Honor in part for assisting in rescue of survivors of William D. Porter.

Manchukuo Aviation I

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Ki-9. Manchukuo National Military Force Air Corps, 1938-39. This trainer is Orange overall, with Black cowling, forward fuselage, undercarriage legs and wheel spats. MNMFAC roundels are applied in four wing positions, in (from top) Red, Blue, White, Black and Yellow. The fuselage script, indicating the donor of the aircraft, is in Black.

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Until just five years ago, Manchurians were little more than backward bandits squabbling over pieces of torn fiefdoms. Today, we operate our own air force against all the enemies of a modernized Manchukuo.

-Nobuhiro Uta, 1st Lieutenant, Doi ManshuTeikoku Kugun’

In 1640, Ming Dynasty control over China was falling apart. Widespread crop failures, followed by starvation on a scale too massive for government redress, and peasant revolts broke out to badly shake the nearly 300-year-old order. Taking advantage of these upheavals, Manchu raiders from the north approached the capital on May 26, 1644. Beijing was defended by an unfed, unpaid army unwilling to oppose the invaders, who entered its gates just as the last Ming emperor hung himself on a tree in the imperial garden.

The Manchus replaced his dynasty with their own, the Qing (or “clear”), that ruled until the early 20th century. Demise of the Manchurian imperium in 1912 had been preceded by decades of corruption, military defeats, and foreign exploitation, leading inevitably toward revolution. Organized society dissolved, as private armies fought each other for control during the so-called Warlord Era.

Observing this calamitous decline from afar were the Japanese. They knew that someone would eventually emerge from the chaos to unify the country, thereby fulfilling Napoleon’s dire warning about China being a sleeping giant that, once awakened, would terrify the world. In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria to extirpate its contentious warlords, restore some semblance of social order, and, most importantly to themselves, create a buffer state, rich in natural resources, between Japan and the USSR.

On February 18, 1932, Manchukuo was established with assistance from former Qing Dynasty officials, including Pu-Yi, “the last emperor.” Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film of that name, the new “State of Manchuria” was not entirely a Japanese “puppet;’ or colony, although it had elements of both. Like most Asian monarchs of his time, including Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, Pu-Yi was mostly a figurehead: the nation’s symbolic personification. Real power lay in the hands of state council cabinet ministers, who belonged to the Xiehehui Kyowakai. This “Concordia Association” embodied the principles of Minzoku Kyowa, the “concord of nationalities;’ a pan-Asian ideology aimed at making Manchukuo into a multi-ethnic nation that would gradually replace the Japanese military with civilian control.

By granting different ethnic groups their communal rights and limited self-determination under a centralized state structure, a balance was created between federal power and minority rights, thereby avoiding the same kind of separatism that had undermined the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian monarchy or Russia’s Czarist empire. Accordingly, emigres were allowed their own independent groups, which included a wide spectrum of agendas, from White Russian Fascists and Romanov monarchists, to Jews involved in several Zionist movements. Together with these diverse populations, Mongols, Hui Muslims, and Koreans, as well as native Manchu, Japanese settlers, and the majority of Chinese found workable representation in the Concordia Association that dispensed with former animosities.

Because the rights, needs, and traditions of each group were officially respected, religious liberty was guaranteed by law. Mongol lamas, Manchu shamans, Muslim ahongs, Buddhist monks, Russian Orthodox priests, Jewish rabbis, and Confucian moralists were equally supported by the state. Corporatist, anticommunist and anticapitalist, Minzoku Kyowa aimed at class collaboration by organizing people through religious, occupational, and ethnic communities. Manchukuo was intended to be the ideal and standard by which the rest of China was to be reconstituted.

Other similar states set up by the Japanese were the Mangjiang government for Inner Mongolia, the Reformed Government of the Republic, and the Provisional Government of the Republic for the eastern and northern areas of China, respectively. These last two were combined by 1940 in the Nanjing National Government headed by Wang Jingwei, perhaps the most brilliant Chinese statesman of the 20th century. After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, as described in Chapter 13, Jingwei became the leader of the Kuomintang, China’s Nationalist Party, but was subsequently ousted by backstage intrigue to put Chiang Kai-shek in control.

Jingwei believed with the Japanese that China only avoided being a military, economic, and ideological threat to the outside world and itself, while preserving its culture from foreign influences, by a decentralized system of cooperative independence for the various provinces, with emphasis on their ethnic individuality. In this, the Japanese envisioned themselves as the power center of Asia’s Co-Prosperity Sphere. Heavy Japanese investment helped Manchukuo to become an industrial powerhouse, eventually outdistancing Japan itself in steel production.

Manchuria operated its first airline, the most modern in Asia outside Japan. Flying with the Manchukuo Air Transport Company were Junkers Ju.86s and Fokker Super Universals. The German Junkers was powered by a pair of Jumo 207B-3/V, 1,000-hp diesel engines, able to carry its 10 passengers nearly 1,000 miles above 30,000 feet, making it an ideal transport for China’s mountainous terrain.

The Dutch-designed Fokker F.18 Super Universal was actually produced in the United States during the late 1920s, later manufactured under license by Canadian Vickers and Nakajima in Japan. Chosen for its ruggedness, especially the reliability of its 450-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp B engine in very cold conditions, a Super Universal known as the Virginia served in Richard E. Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition. He additionally valued the conventional, eight-place, high-wing, cantilever monoplane for its 138-mph performance at 19,340 feet over 680 miles.

Even before the Manchukuo Air Transport Company was renamed “Manchukuo National Airways;’ the city of Changchun had likewise undergone a change to Xinjing, the “New Capital” of Manchukuo. The former whistle-stop town was transformed almost overnight into a beautiful, modern, and large city, the most culturally brilliant in China at the time. Manchukuo was officially recognized by 23 foreign governments from all the Axis powers and the USSR to El Salvador and the Holy See. The League of Nations denied Manchukuo’s legitimacy, however, prompting Japan’s withdrawal from that body in 1934, while the United States opposed any change in the international status quo “by force of arms;’ as stated by America’s Stimson Doctrine.

Still, Manchukuo experienced rapid economic growth and progress in its social systems. Manchurian cities were modernized, and an efficient and extensive railway system was constructed. A modern public educational system developed, including 12,000 primary schools, 200 middle schools, 140 teacher preparatory schools, and 50 technical and professional colleges for its 600,000 pupils and 25,000 teachers. There were additionally 1,600 private schools; 150 missionary schools; and, in the city of Harbin, 25 Russian schools. By 1940, of Manchukuo’s 40,233,950 inhabitants, 837,000 were Japanese, and plans were already afoot to increase emigration by 5 million persons over the next 16 years, in the partial relief of Japan’s overpopulation crisis.

Bordering as Manchukuo did the Russian frontier, the necessity for self-defense was apparent. In February 1937, an air force, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, was formed. To begin, 30 officers were selected from the Imperial Army for training with Japan’s Kwantung Army at Harbin. By late summer, their first unit was established at the Xinjing airfield under the command of 1st Lieutenant Nobuhiro Uta. His taskto make something of the fledgling service-was daunting, because he had only a single aircraft at his disposal, a World War I-era biplane.

The Nieuport-Delage Ni-D.29 had made its prototype debut in August 1918 and looked every bit its age with its open cockpit and fixed tail skid. Even then, the French-built pursuit aeroplane did not pass muster, because it could not achieve altitude requirements. The Ni-D.29 received a new lease on life when, stripped of its cumbersome military baggage and its Gnome 9N rotary engine replaced by a 300-hp HispanoSuiza 8Fb V-8, it won eight speed records, including the Coupe Deutsche and Gordon Bennet Trophies of 1919 and 1920, respectively.

Nieuport-Delage executives cashed in on the aircraft’s new prestige by making it a lucrative export to Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Argentina, Japan, and Thailand. Their swift model saw action in North Africa, dropping 20-pound antipersonnel bombs on native insurgents unhappy with French and Spanish colonialism. By 1937, the old double-decker’s top speed of 146 mph and 360-mile range made it something of a relic, but Lieutenant Uta made good use of its forgiving handling characteristics in the training of his novice aviators.

Appeals to Japan resulted in more modern aircraft for the nascent Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun. First to arrive were examples of a Kawasaki KDA-2 reconnaissance biplane. It had been designed specifically for the Imperial Japanese Army by Richard Vogt, an aero engineer from Germany’s renowned Dornier Flugzeugewerke. Following successful trials, the KDA-2 entered production with Kawasaki as “Type-88-1, in 1929. Its unequal span wings and slim, angular fuselage married to a 600-hp BMW VI engine provided a respectable range of 800 miles at 31,000 feet.

The aircraft’s remarkable stability and rugged construction lent itself well to the light-bomber role when fitted with 441 pounds of bombs. Lieutenant Uta’s men also received the Nakajima Type 91, until recently replaced by the Kawasaki Type 95, Japan’s leading fighter. The parasol monoplane’s Bristol Jupiter VII, 9-cylinder radial engine was rated at 520 hp, allowing a service ceiling of 29,500 feet and 186-mph maximum speed. Twin 7.7-mm machine-guns synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc were standard for the time.

In July 1938, Soviet troops violated the 78-year-old Treaty of Peking between Russia and China by establishing their common Manchurian border, a move that alarmed the Japanese, suspicious of Stalin’s plans for a Communist China. On the 15th, Japan’s attache in Moscow called for the withdrawal of newly arrived Red Army forces from a strategic area between the Shachaofeng and Changkufeng Hills west of Lake Khasan, near Vladivostok. His demand was rejected because, he was told, 1860’s Treaty of Peking was invalid, having been signed by “Czarist criminals”2 Soon after, he learned that the Soviets had relocated the original 19th century demarcation markers to make their territorial claims appear legitimate.

Japan answered this deception on the 29th by launching its 19th Division and several Manchukuo units at the Red Army’s 39th Rifle Corps, without success. Although the Nakajima fighter planes stayed behind for homeland defense, the Manchurians used their Kawasaki reconnaissance aircraft to scout Russian weak spots without being detected. Based on photographic information made available by the high-flying biplanes, the Japanese renewed their offensive on July 31, this time expelling the enemy from Changkufeng Hill in a nighttime attack. Beginning on the morning of August 2, General Vasily Blyukher, commanding the Far Eastern Front, ordered a massive, relentless, week-long artillery barrage that drove the Japanese and Manchurians back across the border. Hostilities ceased on August 11, when a peace brokered by the United States came into effect, and Soviet occupation of the compromised Manchurian border was affirmed.

Far from being honored as the victor of the short-lived campaign, General Blyukher was arrested by Stalin’s political police and executed for having suffered higher casualties than the enemy. Russian dead amounted to 792, plus 2,752 wounded, compared with 525 Japanese and Manchurians killed, 913 wounded.

Although the Changkufeng Incident, or Battle of Khasan, as it is still sometimes known, was a Japanese defeat, it afforded the young Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun its first operational experiences. More were to come in less than a year during another, far more serious frontier dispute with the USSR, when Manchukuoan horse soldiers drove off a cavalry unit of the Mongolian People’s Republic that had crossed into Manchuria across the Khalkha River, near the village of Nomohan on May 11, 1939.

Forty-eight hours later, they returned in numbers too great to be removed by the Manchurians alone. The next day, Lieutenant-Colonel Yaozo Azuma, leading a reconnaissance regiment of the 23rd Division, supported by the 64th Regiment of the same division, forced out the Mongols. They returned yet again later that month, but as the Japanese moved to expel them, Azuma’s forces were surrounded and decimated by overwhelming numbers of the Red Army on May 28; his men suffered 63 percent casualties.

One day short of a month later, Japan’s 2nd Air Brigade, in conjunction with the Manchurian Air Force, staged a massive raid on the Red Air Force base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. Numerous Soviet aircraft were caught on the ground before they could get airborne, and those that did were mostly shot down. Manchukuoan-flown Nakajimas came in low to strafe the airfields, setting fuel dumps ablaze and holing bombers parked out in the open, defying intense and accurate ground fire. Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun fighters suppressed enemy opposition for the arrival almost immediately thereafter of their comrades flying Kawasaki Ki-32s. Just previous to the attack on Mongolia, these more modern light-bombers replaced the Manchurians’ Kawasaki Army Type 88/KDA-2 biplanes. Code named “Mary” by the Americans, the Ki-32 carried 990 pounds of bombs used by DMTK airmen to virtually obliterate the Soviet air base. The Red Air Force defenders of Tamsak-Bulak suffered heavy damage, with more than twice as many Russian warplanes than Japanese-Manchurian lost.

Manchukuo Aviation II

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The effective strike had been ordered by Kwantung Army commanders without permission from Imperial Japanese Army headquarters in Tokyo, which grounded any further air raids. Henceforward, the battlefield situation went from bad to worse for the Japanese, who were decimated by waves of heavy armor attacks against which they had little defense, and forced to accept an armistice on August 31.

The very next day, Germany’s invasion of Poland precipitated World War II, an event that promised greater significance than the Nomohan Incident. Soviet forces halted at the Manchurian border, as Stalin concluded a neutrality agreement with Japan, then turned his attention to Europe. Fearing an inevitable resumption of hostilities in the uncertain future, the Japanese began seriously outfitting more Manchukuoan squadrons.

In July 1940, Japan’s Air Defense Headquarters worked in conjunction with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing. At first, only Japanese pilots and ground crews served in Air Defense, but Manchus underwent specialized flight training soon after. A flight school was established on August 30, 1940, in Fengtien to teach both military and civilian pilots. The following January, some 100 cadets, unused to strict discipline and incited by Communist agent provocateurs, murdered their instructors, then fled Manchukuo.

By 1941, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing had 5 Japanese and 6 Manchurian officers, 14 NCOs of similarly mixed backgrounds, and about 90 pilots. They were joined by a 2nd Air Unit at Fengtien, a 3rd Air Unit Ordnance Depot of 15 Japanese and 30 Chinese officers from the National Government of China Air Force at Harbin, the Aircraft Arsenal Air Unit (supply), and the Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School, which increased the following year to three squadrons. In September and October 1942, the school was issued more than 20 training aircraft. These included the Tachikawa Ki-9, a two-place biplane rigged for blind-flying with a folding hood over the rear cockpit for the student. Powered by a 350-hp Hitachi Ha-13a radial engine, the Spruce, as it was known to the Americans, topped 149 mph, making the Ki-9 a respectable intermediate trainer. Staff officer transport versions featured a glazed canopy.

Another Tachikawa was fitted was a 510-hp Hitachi Ha-13, a nine-cylinder, radial engine, that gave the advanced biplane an outstanding maximum speed of 216 mph. Air Ministry officials were so impressed with its performance, the Ki-55 was occasionally fitted with a single, fixed forward-firing 7.7mm machine-gun to serve as a fighter the Allies called Ida.

The Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School was also sent several examples of the Mansyu Ki-79 for advanced training. More immediately significant, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun received its first modern warplanes. These were the Nakajima Ki-27 and Kawasaki Ki-32, known in the West, respectively, as Nate and Mary. The former, as some indication of Japanese regard for the Manchukuo Air Force, was Japan’s premiere fighter at the time, and had been selected for production primarily for its outstanding handling characteristics, by virtue of which it rapidly assumed ascendancy over all other pursuit aircraft in Chinese skies.

K-27s were superior to their Red Air Force opponents at 1938s Battle of Khasan but roughly handled one year later during the Nomohan Incident by Polikarpov 1-16 Ratas able to outrun them by 12 mph. A weaker airframe additionally prevented the Nakajima from holding up under stress during high-speed maneuvers, allowing the faster, sturdier, if more unwieldy Soviet monoplane to escape in a dive the Japanese warplane could not follow. Moreover, the Ki-27 lacked pilot armor protection or self-sealing fuel tanks, and the 7.7-mm rounds spat by its twin Type 89 machine-guns were weak. Fortunately for the Japanese, Nate was replaced as their leading fighter by Mitsubishi’s more famous and altogether superior A6M Zero in time for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Dai Manchu Teikoku Kugun received fewer numbers of Kawasaki’s Ki-32. Vulnerable to flak and a sitting duck for enemy interceptors, the sluggish, low-wing monoplane with its non-retractable, drag-inducing landing gear, would have been butchered in any confrontation with the Red Air Force. Instead, an 850-hp Kawasaki Ha-9-llb liquid-cooled, V-12 engine enabled the tough, reliable light-bomber to deliver its 990pound payload over a 1,220-mile range, rendering Mary ideally suited for the antipartisan role to which she was assigned. In the hands of Manchurian pilots, her interdiction of distant enemy truck convoys and supply concentrations often came as an unpleasant surprise for both Communist and Nationalist opponents.

When Manchukuo came within range of USAAF heavy bombers, the Japanese 2nd Air Army assumed direction of the Dai Manshu Teikoku, augmenting it with the 104th Sentai (“Group”), plus the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai (“Squadron”). These units were equipped with the Kawasaki Ki-45, known appropriately as the Toryu, or “Dragon Slayer;” for the many American Superfortresses it claimed since four night-fighter sentais were established to defend the home islands in autumn 1944. One sentai alone scored 8 “kills” during their first engagement with B-29s, going on to destroy another 150.

Reorganization comprised the new Fangfu Air Corps of Manchu pilots manning 120 fighters, mostly Nakajima Ki-27s. With their service ceiling of 32,940 feet, they could not even approach incoming waves of B-29s operating 660 feet higher. More powerful 710-hp Ha-lb, nine cylinder, radial engines were installed to carry the Nates just above the Superfortresses’ operational altitude and boosted maximum speed to nearly 300 mph, but that was still 65 mph slower than the strategic bombers. Even if the old fighters were able to maneuver into firing position, their twin, 7.7-mm machine-guns were outmatched by-per B-29-10,12.7-mm Browning machine-guns firing from remotely controlled turrets.

Yet, odds against the defenders were not as hopeless as they appeared. The Superforts were unable to open their bomb bay doors above cruising speed at 220 mph, giving the Nates a temporary nearly 80-mph speed advantage. But the huge silvery enemy’s real Achilles’ heel was his oxidized aluminum skin, which was prone to fire in the worst way, consuming the entire aircraft, fore and aft. Japanese and Manchu pilots found that hits of even their puny, 7.7-mm rounds just about anywhere along the frame of a B-29 could sometimes set it entirely alight. But getting close enough to do so was made extremely hazardous by combined defensive fire thrown up by the Superfortresses, and many would-be interceptors paid with their lives before they could get within range of their own guns.

B-29s first struck Manchuria three years to the day of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Their anniversary raid was not coincidental but deliberately timed to encourage the more than 1,600 American prisoners of war incarcerated near Mukden. The mission’s tactical objective was destruction of the city’s aircraft factories.

Of the original 108 Superforts that set out with the XX Bomber Command, no less than 17 were forced to drop out, due to unforeseen problems caused by extremely low temperatures. Inside and outside surfaces of canopies iced over, and the big warplanes struggled, not always successfully, to gain altitude in the thin air. These worsening conditions forced another 10 B-29s to haphazardly jettison their payloads over a railroad yard long before reaching Mukden, utterly missing this secondary target, before banking away for home base. When the remaining 80 Superfortresses arrived over the city, flight crews found it entirely obscured by a heavy smokescreen. Undeterred, they unloosed their combined 800 tons of bombs, which fell mostly within residential districts, killing about 1,000 civilians, injuring several thousand more. The primary targeted aircraft factories escaped unscathed.

USAAF commanders had anticipated no enemy interdiction, regarding the Manchukuoan Air Force as nothing more than a propaganda joke, while all Japanese fighters were believed to have been recalled to defend the home islands. But the Americans were to be deceived as much about opposition over Manchuria, as they had been concerning its climate conditions.

As they approached Mukden, Sergeant Shinobu Ikeda of the 25th Dokuritsu Chutai attacked one of the monstrous bombers from behind with his Kawasaki interceptor. Before he could draw a bead on the B-29, a stream of .50-inch caliber rounds found and shattered his canopy and set his right engine alight. Wounded in a damaged airplane on fire and spinning toward the ground, Ikeda eventually regained control of the Dragon Slayer, climbed back on one engine after the same target, and deliberately collided with its tail section. The Superfortress nosed over into a steep dive from which only one gunner parachuted to safety. Like the other 10 men aboard the big bomber, Ikeda perished in the collision.

Another Japanese pilot died when the B-29 he rammed with his Nakajima was consumed in a terrific explosion that fortuitously ejected a pair of surviving crew members uninjured into space. Two more Superforts fell under conventional attacks, one each shot down by Japanese and Manchurian pilots. Three B-29s, trailing debris and smoke, escaped the combat zone, but were so badly damaged they had to be written off. For the Superfortresses’ first raid against Manchukuo, they missed all their targets, losing 7 aircraft and 44 crew members for 1 Japanese and 2 Manchurians killed in action.

Fourteen days later, 40 of the survivors returned to inaccurately and ineffectually raid Mukden, veiled once more under its obscuring smokescreen. Eighty-eight tons of high explosive intended for the earlier targeted aircraft factory yet again fell wide of the mark. This time, a Manchurian Air Force pilot, 1st Lieutenant Sono-o Kasuga, crashed his Nakajima fighter into one of the Superfortresses, which exploded for the loss of its entire crew. Another B-29 was similarly destroyed by 2nd Lieutenant Tahei Matsumoto, a Japanese pilot serving with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun.

To oppose both December raids on Mukden, the Japanese and Manchurians lost 7 pilots and planes against 12 American bombers destroyed with 121 men killed and captured. Instead of taking heart at the appearance of USAAF warplanes high overhead, Allied POWS had watched in horror, as one Superfortress after another tumbled out of the sky in flames. Pilots of the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, together with their Japanese comrades in the 104th Sentai and the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai, achieved a real defensive victory, when, following the December 21 raid, XX Bomber Command terminated all further operations against Mukden as too costly for the negligible results achieved.

Thereafter, the war shifted away from Manchuria and virtual peacetime conditions prevailed there throughout most of 1945. By late summer, however, a buildup of Soviet forces along the Mongolian border made invasion from that quarter evident, and Manchukuo Air Force personnel underwent intensive training for ground-attacking armored vehicles. Between the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, they were able to muster 1,800 aircraft, mostly trainers and obsolete types fit only for self-destruct missions.

Just 50 Nakajima fighters were on hand, without, however, enough fuel to operate them all against the 5,368 Red Air Force warplanes they faced. Manchukuo’s Defense Force comprised 40,000 troops in 8 divisions, insufficiently supplied and poorly equipped. Supporting them were more than 600,000 men in the Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army, but they, too, were threadbare. Their armor consisted of 1,215 light tanks and armored cars, together with 6,700 mostly light field pieces, opposed by 5,556 Red Army heavy tanks and 28,000 artillery.

On the morning of August 9, one-and-a-half-million Russian and Mongolian troops inundated the Manchurian border. Impossibly outnumbered, both the Manchukuo Defense Force and Kwantung Army melted away. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a revisionist historian at the University of California (Santa Barbara), has shown that this Red Army offensive, not the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompted Japan’s capitulation.’ Japanese leaders knew that the Red Army juggernaut would not stop with the easy conquest of Manchukuo, but roll on into Japan itself.

Indeed, Stalin was ready to implement the invasion of Hokkaido long before U.S. commanders intended to put their forces ashore at Kyushu. Despite Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast surrender on August 15, the Soviets refused to halt their offensive, sweeping across northeastern China into Korea, coming to a halt at the 38th Parallel, where they met their American allies. It was also the place where the next war would erupt just five years later, in Korea.

Meanwhile, occupied Manchukuo was handed over to Mao Zedong, who, after a bloody purge of the country’s intellectual and propertyowning classes, used Manchuria as a headquarters for his ultimately victorious revolution.

German Advisory Corps In China 1937

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Falkenhausen 1937.

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Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”