Archives For Japanese Shipwrecks

pacocha-3fn-993x652Today marks the 28th anniversary of the sinking of the Peruvian Navy submarine Pacocha which was lost off the Peruvian port of Callao near Lima. Running on the surface on the night of August 26th, 1988, the Pacocha was accidentally rammed by a Japanese fishing trawler. Mistaking the conning tower of the sub for a small craft and thinking the two craft would pass one another harmlessly, the trawler’s crew did not take evasive action and the trawler struck the sub’s hull. The Pacocha‘s captain, Captain Daniel Nieva and six crew members were killed immediately while twenty-two sailors were able to successfully abandon ship. The United States immediately dispatched an underwater rescue team, however, the Peruvians quickly deployed a diving bell and, within 24 hours, gained access to the sub’s trapped crew through one of the Pacocha‘s hatches. The remaining twenty-three crew were safely brought to the surface, escaping an excruciating death of painful asphyxiation from chloride gas or drowning as the sub’s remaining compartments slowly filled with water.

Ironically, prior to its service in  the Peruvian Navy, the Pachoca had been the USS Atule, a Balao/Guppy class diesel submarine whose sole kill during World War II was a Japanese merchant vessel, the Asama Maru. Later, the sub torpedoed and sank the former Kriegsmarine U-boat U-977 during naval exercises in 1946. After thirty years of service in the US Navy, the sub was sold to Peru where she was named after a 19th century Peruvian naval battle. Following the rescue of her crew, the sub was later salvaged and scrapped.


April 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

Russian battleship

On April 13, 1904 the Russian battleships Petropavlovsk and Poltava, four cruisers and an escort of destroyers sallied forth from Port Arthur to attack the Japanese fleet that had besieged the Russian port. The Japanese forces fell back beyond the reach of Russian shore batteries and as a result the Russian admiral, Stepan Makarov, ordered the squadron to return to Port Arthur. As the squadron steamed back to port, the Petropavlovsk struck two Japanese mines in quick succession and sank almost immediately. The loss of the Petropavlovsk devastated the Russian defenses as not only did it lose one of its most capable ships, but Admiral Makarov and a total of 27 officers and 652 sailors perished in the sinking.

Commissioned in 1898, the Petropavlovsk was armed with four 12-inch guns with a secondary battery of twelve 6-inch guns. The vessel saw service in the Boxer Rebellion and by the time the Russo-Japanese war broke out had been with Russia’s Far Eastern Squadron five years. The ship was succeeded by another battleship of the same name in 1911 which served the Imperial Russian Navy in World War I as well as the Soviet Navy in World War Two before being scrapped in 1953.

Royal Navy

HMS Exeter Sinking

In the months following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese juggernaut swept through the Pacific in an all out quest to secure natural resources and eliminate its opponents. A prime target in the Japanese crosshairs was the Dutch East Indies – modern-day Indonesia. In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy dispatched a task force consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 14 destroyers to escort an invasion force of ten transports. Opposing the IJN task force was a motley assortment of Dutch, US, British and Australian naval assets including two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers.

The Allied force was outmatched in numbers and firepower as the Japanese heavy cruisers possessed more heavy caliber guns than their Allied equivalents. Additionally, they were also hampered by communication and coordination issues stemming from trying to integrate ships from four navies into a single task force. In a desperate attempt to destroy the Japanese invasion force before it offloaded its troops, the Allied force sailed into the teeth of the Japanese task force late in the afternoon on February 27, 1942.

The Allied force tried vainly to close within gunfire range of the Japanese transports, but each time they were rebuffed by a hellish rain of gunfire from the Japanese escorts. As the afternoon progressed the Japanese advantages began to tell with Allied ships succumbing to torpedo attacks, gunfire and even mines. By midnight, three destroyers and two cruisers, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, had been lost along with the Dutch admiral in charge of the Allied task force.

Later the next day, two of the surviving three cruisers were annihilated in a follow-on battle in Sunda Strait. Only a day later, on March 1, in the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the remaining Allied cruiser, HMS Exeter, and her two destroyer escorts were sunk. In just three days, the Allies had lost five cruisers and another six destroyers while the IJN had suffered the loss of only a few escort vessels and transports sunk or damaged.

With Allied naval power in the region either destroyed or driven off to Australia, the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was virtually assured. Not only did the battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait represent a stinging defeat for the Allies, but it also signaled the beginning of the end of Dutch colonial power in Indonesia.

japanese submarines

Operation Storm by John J. Geoghegan relates the obscure story of Japan’s last ditch effort to launch an attack on American soil in the closing days of World War II. Geoghegan, the executive director of The SILOE Research Institute’s Archival Division, devotes much of his writing to white elephant technology and thus his choice of subject matter is quite apropos. Over the course of ~400 pages, Geoghegan introduces the reader to the Japanese naval officers and designers who helped craft a Hail Mary strategy of launching an airstrike on the Panama Canal from the largest submarines of the war. Each submarine was designed as an underwater aircraft carrier to carry two or three specially developed strike aircraft and the path of their development makes for incredible reading.

Geoghegan also tells the backstory of the USS Segundo (a sub that often operated in conjunction with USS Razorback) which captured one of the subs in the uneasy days following the capitulation of Japan. Relying on extensive archival research as well as interviews with survivors of the Japanese program, Geoghegan provides readers with a highly readable account of this overlooked aspect of World War II history. In addition to the strength of his research, Geoghegan integrates the story into the continued development of America’s submarine program in the years following World War II. Finally, readers are brought full circle to the present day via two modern points of reference. First, one of the subs (I-401) was re-discovered in 2005 off the coast of Hawaii where it had been used for torpedo practice by the US Navy after the war. Second, the Smithsonian Institution displays the only surviving example of the subs’ Seiran attack planes at its spectacular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia near Dulles Airport. Operation Storm is highly recommended for anyone interested in obscure technology, warfare or a non-traditional history of World War II.

USS Samuel B. RobertsIn his latest book, For Crew and Country, historian John Wukovits recounts the incredible story of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts and her rendezvous with destiny in the Philippines at the Battle of Samar. Building off James Hornfischer’s excellent The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors which recounted the larger tale of the Battle of Samar, Wukovits focuses exclusively on the Roberts, her crew, construction, shake-down and foray into the Pacific theater. Divided into four parts, the book deals first with the molding of both the vessel and her crew, then moves on to early cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific, segues into the Battle of Samar and concludes with the aftermath of the battle.

While the back story is intriguing and important to subsequent events, For Crew and Country shines brightest in Wukovits narration of the Battle of Samar. Wukovits expended hours conducting interviews and poring over first-hand accounts and correspondence between crew and family members to piece together a gripping minute by minute account of the battle. Wukovits’ narrative technique is so effective that as readers burn through the book’s pages, they can smell the sulfur of battle, hear the ringing echo of the Roberts’ five inch guns pounding away at Japanese warships and taste the sea spray that douses the crew with each near-miss from Japanese salvos.

Although some readers may find Wukovits usage of vernacular history a bit tedious and slow, especially in the telling of the backstory prior to the battle, the technique is fascinating when applied to the battle itself. Unlike some texts which focus on big events and big actors, For Crew and Country eschews this approach to present readers with a moving narration of what a World War II naval battle was like for the common sailor. In sum, For Crew and Country is an excellent read and Wukovits has done much to honor the memory of the brave and intrepid crew of the Roberts.

Operation Gratitude

January 12, 2013 — Leave a comment
cam ranh bay

Photo: US Navy

As war loomed between the United States and Imperial Japan, the US Navy began laying the groundwork for a network of coast watching and weather stations throughout the coasts and inland areas of China and Southeast Asia. Following Pearl Harbor, the US Navy dispatched Captain Milton Miles, an officer with pre-war experience in China, to establish what became known as the Sino-American Cooperation Organization (SACO). The organization contributed greatly to the war effort, but one of its biggest successes didn’t come until January 12, 1945.

SACO’s coast watchers observed a 26 ship convoy drop anchor in Cam Ranh Bay in French Asia. The convoy joined numerous other Japanese vessels and SACO quickly informed Admiral Bull Halsey and his Task Force 38 who were conducting operations (Operation Gratitude) in the South China Sea. Halsey worked up an assault plan and dispatched 82 TBM Avenger bombers to destroy the Japanese convoy. By the end of the day, more than 40 ships and 120,000 tons of enemy shipping lay at the bottom of Cam Ranh Bay. Thanks to a handful of American and Chinese SACO coast watchers, thousands of tons of much needed war material were destroyed and the noose tightened ever so tighter around Japan’s home islands.


Marine Raiders embarked aboard US Navy submarine

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the disbandment of the US Marine Corps’ four Marine Raider Battalions. The Battalions were initially formed to conduct operations behind enemy lines in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Raiders are perhaps most famous for their operation in August 1942 against Japanese forces on tiny Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

In order to gather intelligence on enemy forces in the area and to sow confusion in the Japanese command as to where the main Allied thrusts would occur, Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion, better known as Carlson’s Raiders, to assault Makin Atoll on August 17, shortly after the initial invasion of the Lower Solomons by US forces. On August 8, companies A and B of Carlson’s Raiders were embarked aboard two submarines, USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut, and stealthily made their way to Makin Atoll.

Going ashore in small combat rubber raiding craft, the two companies quickly became intermingled in heavy surf and lost the element of surprise shortly after landing. Over two days of fighting, though, the Raiders annihilated the Japanese ground force and fended off multiple air attacks – all while losing only eighteen dead and twelve missing. Additionally, their supporting submarines sank several small craft with fire from their deck guns. Carlson’s Raiders then re-embarked and made their way to Pearl Harbor to a hero’s welcome. Unfortunately, in the chaos of combat, nine Raiders were left behind and later beheaded after they surrendered on August 30th.

During their brief existence, the men of the Marine Raider Battalions earned seven Medals of Honor and several dozen Navy Crosses and one member went on to earn the Medal of Honor in the Korean War. Today, the spirit of the Marine Raiders live on through their sister WWII unit, the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, which has since become Force Recon; as well as through the MARSOC units stood up as part of the US Marine Corps contribution to SOCCOM. The Marine Raiders accomplisments are also remembered through the US Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island. The units have also found their place in popular culture with Makin Atoll missions being featured in the wildly popular Call of Duty and Medal of Honor video game franchises.

amphibious assault ship

USS Makin Island
Photo: US Navy

japanese submarine

Japanese Midget Submarine HA-19
CC Image Courtesy of Brian Bennett on Flickr

Located in Fredericksburg, Texas, the National Museum of the Pacific War honors the sacrifices made by American and Allied Coast Guardsmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers during World War II. Surrounded by picturesque ranches, Fredericksburg is in the heart of Hill Country and the hometown of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Theater during World War II. Among the Museum’s artifacts is the HA-19, a Japanese midget submarine that ran aground during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

HA-19 was only one of several midget submarines deployed by the Japanese to torpedo American ships at anchor in Pearl Harbor during the air raid. The submarine was discovered and depth charged by the USS Helm and subsequently wrecked on a reef near Waimānalo. Recent photographic analysis has led some to suspect that one of HA-19’s sister ships successfully launched her torpedoes at the USS Oklahoma or USS West Virginia on Battleship Row. US forces later recovered HA-19 and paraded it around the US during war bond drives.

Unlike modern SEAL Delivery Vehicles, the Royal Navy’s X type submarinesor the Kriegsmarine’s Seehund subs, the Japanese Navy’s midget submarine program was largely unsuccessful and is today a minor footnote in the greater story of World War II. For more information on planning a visit to the National Museum of the Pacific War, go to their website here.

Peter Stevens

Reporter Peter Stevens’ latest book, Fatal Dive, is an engaging and easy to read work about the disappearance of the US sub USS Grunion off the coast of Alaska during World War II. Launched only a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Grunion’s first combat deployment was against Japanese shipping in the Aleutian Islands. Commanded by Lieutenant Commander Jim Abele, Grunion and her 70 man crew successfully sank 2 Japanese sub-chasers, survived a depth charge attack by a Japanese destroyer and then disappeared with all hands after crippling the Japanese merchantman Kano Maru. Apart from Western Union telegrams declaring the crew members Missing In Action, the relatives of the crew were largely kept in the dark as to the causes of the sub’s loss.

Stevens’ straightforward writing style and the book’s relatively short-length of 175 pages (plus a 60 page appendix containing short bios of each crew member) make it a quick, but thoroughly enjoyable read. Fatal Dive chronicles the life of Lt. Commander Abele, the Grunion’s first combat cruise and subsequent loss, and the dramatic story of her discovery by Lt. Commander Abele’s sons 65 years later. Stevens’ avoids getting bogged down in historical minutiae and instead focuses on the characters in the story from both sides of the conflict. His writing effectively conveys the sense of excitement and danger faced by the Abele brothers and their crew as they work to locate the ship in the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea. Stevens concludes the book with a discussion of the causes of the ship’s sinking and why the US Navy subsequently chose to torpedo any explanation of her loss. Fatal Dive is a great choice for a quick weekend read for any history or mystery buff.


The lure of easy money has long driven salvors and their financial backers to chase rumors of buried treasure. Unfortunately for many, the vast amounts of money necessary to find a ship, much less recover it, has often resulted in bankruptcy. For others, though, the successful location and excavation of a ship garnered them nothing more than worthless trinkets.  One of the greatest and costliest failures in shipwreck hunting history is the search for the Japanese WWII transport Awa Maru.

Guaranteed safe passage by the US government, the Awa Maru sailed for Tokyo from Singapore with more than 2,000 Japanese civilians and medical supplies in late March 1945. Although the ship was marked with a red cross and instructions given to US forces to grant the Awa Maru safe passage, a tragic miscommunication resulted in the torpedoing of the ship by the USS Queenfish on April 1, 1945.  Of the 2,004 souls on board, only one survived. The US submarine commander was removed from command and court-martialled. Rumors immediately began to run rampant that the ship was carrying millions of dollars in precious metals and artwork.

In the late 1970s, the People’s Republic of China began hunting for the wreck and successfully located it. Over the course of 3 dive seasons, Chinese salvors made 10,000 dives and and cleared 10,000 cubic meters of mud from the site.  In addition, the Chinese spent $20 million on the Dalihao, a specialized salvage barge, to perform work on the site. The Chinese eventually declared defeat after only finding human remains and personal effects which were sent to Japan. A declassified 1981 US government document revealed that the treasure was never aboard the Awa Maru, that it had been shipped via another vessel and that the Chinese expended millions of yuan and thousands of man-hours chasing after a treasure that had never existed. In defense of the Chinese efforts, though, noted shipwreck treasure expert Nigel Pickford listed the Awa Maru in his 1995 book The Atlas of Shipwrecks & Treasure as a significant treasure ship lost during World War Two.