Historical Article: Pacific Lancers
"At the time of Imperial Japan's greatest victories of World War II, while engaged in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the core element for this triumphal period was its legendary Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) or Nihon Kaigun."
Acknowledgement: The initial inspiration for this article is based on the detailed prior research of Allyn D. Nevitt, provided at his "Long Lancers" Internet web page for Japanese World War II destroyers. Tabular records of movement (TROM's) are provided at this site for each destroyer, and recent updates (2002) are being performed with the added assistance of voluntary contributors.
At the time of Imperial Japan's greatest victories of World War II, while engaged in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the core element for this triumphal period was its legendary Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) or Nihon Kaigun. Invoking the IJN by name typically brings to mind the accomplishments of its major warships, such as its aircraft carrier force at Pearl Harbor or its cruisers at Savo Island that each inflicted two of the most humbling defeats on the United States Navy. One might also marvel at Japan's battleship development, which peaked with the raw power of the Yamato and its resilience to damage before being finally subdued.
Earnest study of the Nihon Kaigun, however, will reveal that of all its warship classes, the destroyers had garnered their own share of the navy's finest achievements in that war. As with the remainder of the IJN battle fleet, the destroyers as a sum body were overwhelmed to near-annihilation through the war's course. Regardless, certain IJN destroyers still proved outstanding in their fighting power and the skill in which they were used, given the hazards that they faced in their various duties. This story focuses on two of the more famous of the IJN destroyers, the Shigure and the Yukikaze. This would seem a disservice to many lesser-known IJN destroyers that had also performed admirably, and the exploits of the two noted ships are not lacking in earlier coverage. But when the war records of these two ships are taken together, the extensive combined scope of operations for the Shigure & Yukikaze is a compelling portrayal of the tasks and changing fortunes of the Japanese destroyers, as the Pacific war progressed to its end.
THE SHIPS, THEIR WEAPONS, & CREWS
After the resounding victory of Admiral Heihachiro Togo's Japanese battle fleet against a larger Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905, Japan's defense policy placed greater expectations on its navy to seek and win a decisive battle if Japan's expanding sphere of influence was threatened. Both the United Kingdom (and its Commonwealth), and the United States of America were regarded as potential rivals in the years following World War I, but the United States Navy (USN) appeared the greater immediate threat. Japanese strategic anticipation was henceforth planned for the Central Pacific to be the likely "battle area" for a major surface naval engagement between Japan and the USA in the event of war.
In spite of the ambitious buildup of Japanese capital ships during the 1910-22 period, the Japanese government was also astute enough to recognize the difficulty of pursuing a naval production arms race against either the USA or the UK, and thus acceded to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 that limited total capital ship tonnage between the US, British, and Japanese navies at a ratio of 5:5:3. The treaty provided the benefit of slowing US & UK warship construction, but was also a bitter pill for many in the Japanese military. Several large IJN warships under construction were subsequently broken up to abide by international treaty limits. Other means were still needed to close the gap in fleet power, if war broke out and the "decisive battle" was to be fought. With the IJN fleets expected to be in a defensive stance prior to this battle, the hope was that supporting submarines would be numerous enough to thin down the US Navy's own capital ships prior to the main surface engagements. The London Naval Disarmament Conference of 1930, however, dictated a total submarine tonnage of about 53 kilotons each for the USA, UK, & Japan, instead of the 78 sought by the Japanese Naval General Staff. Under this premise, prewar IJN ship designers developed a focus for the destroyers to also add their weight to the "decisive battle" more effectively.
When the Fubuki destroyers began service in 1928 as the first "Special Type" class, their advancements over those from other nations were truly outstanding. The Fubuki's main battery introduced the world's first fully enclosed & powered turrets for destroyers (twin 5" caliber guns per turret), which would be a primary armament for most following IJN destroyer classes. For additional armament, they carried in three triple-tube launchers 24-inch diameter Type 93, or "Long Lance" torpedoes. (The origin of this nickname is attributed to the US naval historian S. E. Morison.) The Long Lance, quietly developed and cloaked in prewar secrecy, used compressed oxygen instead of compressed air for its propulsion oxidizer. The employment of compressed oxygen in the torpedoes and the launchers threatened greater potential operating hazards. But perseverance in testing and modifications overcame the handling difficulties, and the Type 93 became operational by 1935. Its speed, warhead size, and maximum range of 40,000 meters (compared to 13,700 maximum for the US Mark 15) combined to make it the most advanced torpedo available to any nation at the time. It wasn't until a Type 93 was found and salvaged in 1943 that Japan's opponents first recognized its capabilities.
The Shiratsuyu class followed after the Fubuki, Akatsuki, and Hatsuharu destroyer classes, and it bears noting now that the names of first-class IJN destroyers were typically some poetic description of meteorological conditions. Among the Shiratsuyu class was the HIJMS Shigure, translated as "The Frequent Rains of Fall & Winter," which began its service in 1936. Like the preceding Hatsuharu class, the Shiratsuyu's were pared down in overall size as compared to the earlier Fubuki's, due to London Naval Treaty constraints. Each had 1,685 tons unloaded displacement, a crew complement of 180, and one of its three main turrets mounting a single 5-inch caliber gun instead of dual guns. Maximum speed was typically 34 knots (kts). The Shiratsuyu destroyers also were the first to mount quadruple-tube torpedo launchers, each carrying two of these. This reduced the torpedo salvo count from nine in the Fubuki's to eight, but allowed a reduction in deck space requirements and in topweight. This launcher outlay was copied in the following newer "Special Type" or "Fleet" destroyer classes-Asashio, Kagero, and Yugumo.