Thursday, February 21, 2019

Found: The First Japanese Battleship Sunk by the United States Navy

Although older than the American battleship Arizona (BB 39), the Japanese battlecruiser (later fast battleship) Hiei, seen here in October 1941, was longer, heavier, and much faster.  Despite heavy damage inflicted at point-blank range by destroyers and cruisers early on the morning of November 13, 1942, Hiei then endured over 70 sorties by American bombers and torpedo aircraft, suffering an entire day of almost continuous bombardment, before finally sinking. (Zuruck/  
Portholes line the rear section of the fast battleship Hiei, which was found upside down earlier this month in nearly 3,000 feet of water off Savo Island in the Solomon Islands near Guadalcanal by the exploration team financed by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  (Navigea Ltd/ RV Petrel)

By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

February 6, 2019, was a day of discovery when the Japanese fast battleship HIJMS Hiei was located in the Pacific Ocean. Explorers aboard the research vessel RV Petrel discovered the Hiei northwest of Savo Island in the Solomon Islands chain. The Hiei is now lying upside down over 3,000 feet beneath the waves. Despite being sunk 77 years ago, the images captured by the RV Petrel show that the ship is in relatively decent shape. The glass port holes are still intact along with the 5-inch gun mounts, and the shaft and blades of its propellers.

Construction of the Hiei began on November 4, 1911. Part of the Kongo class of battlecruisers, the Hiei was actually designed by British naval architect George Thurston. The Hiei was 728 feet long, had a beam of 101 feet, and a draft of 31 feet. It weighed in at 36,600 long tons and was propelled by steam turbines with four shafts capable of producing a speed of 30 knots.

The battlecruiser Hiei departing Yokosuka Naval Arsenal, Japan, in 1914. (Wikimedia Commons
The Hiei had a crew of 1,360 men and had a range of 10,000 nautical miles. Primary armament consisted of eight 14-inch guns in four twin turrets. The 14-inch guns had a range of 19 miles and could fire at a rate of two rounds per minute. The Kongo class of ships were actually the first in the world to be equipped with 14-inch guns. This made the Hiei a very formidable weapon on the high seas.

Probably made during the 1920s, this print is labeled with the names of both Hiei and sister ship Kirishima.  Of the same class and almost identical, both battleships would be lost within days of each other after unsuccessful bombardment missions against Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The Hiei first saw service in World War I deploying from Sasebo, Japan in October of 1914. The Hiei was tasked with supporting Japanese troops during the siege of Tsingtao, China, but was recalled on October 17. In 1916, she was dispatched to patrol the coast of China along with her sister ships Kirishima and Haruna. The Hiei fulfilled this assignment until the end of the war.

In this photograph taken during the 1930s that found its way into the files of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), we see Hiei during its service as a training ship.  Its aft gun turret and one of the original three funnels has been removed under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Another photograph from the ONI series shows the plethora of portholes on the aft quarter of the battleship, a part of the vessel that would prove to be its Achilles heel.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
This halftone illustration from the Department of Naval Intelligence files shows the general design of the Kongo-class battleships.. (Library of Congress via Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Hiei saw extensive combat during World War II. On November 26, 1941, it departed Hitokappu Bay, Kurile Islands, and was part of the strike group that attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Hiei's final year was spent supporting operations against Rabaul, New Britain in January 1942, followed by supporting Japanese bases in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. In June, it was part of Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s invasion force of Midway, which was recalled after the loss of four Japanese carriers.
Although its quality isn't that good, we can see that by July 11, 1942, when this photo was taken in Tokyo Bay, Hiei has been extensively outfitted for combat and is a much more formidable ship that even before its training ship days. Its stern has been lengthened, its aft twin 14-inch turret is back, more armor has been added to its decks and belt, while the battleship's "pagoda" superstructure has been broadened. (Donation of Kazutoshi Hando/ Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
Following the Battle of Midway, the Hiei participated in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Battle of Santa Cruz in August, and the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. That battle, known by the Japanese as the Third Battle of the Solomon Sea, which took place in the first hours of November 13, 1942, would be its last. Fighting at night and engaging American ships at point blank range, the Hiei crippled the USS Atlanta (CL 51), and disabled two American destroyers (one of which was the USS Laffey, which eventually sunk). Due to the close range, the Hiei received multiple hits from American 5-inch guns which injured the Hiei’s commanding officer as well as killed the chief of staff.

Each force being unaware of the others' exact location, the lead destroyers of both the Imperial Japanese Navy's Battleship Division 11 and the American task force (TG 67.4) hurtled towards one another in the dark morning of November 13 at a combined speed of over 40 knots, and in the words of  Director of Naval History Sam Cox, the Americans' line-ahead formation "pierced into the center of the dispersed Japanese formation like a javelin before blunting on the hard rock that was the battleship Hiei."  (Wikimedia Commons)
In this Navy Art Collection painting we see the destroyer Laffey (DD 459) just after she has crossed under the Japanese battleship Hiei’s bow, engaging the battleship with 5-inch and 20-mm guns—and even small arms—at near-point-blank range in the early hours of November 13, 1942 off Guadalcanal. Although numerous torpedoes were fired at Hiei from several American warships during the unrestrained melee, gunfire from the destroyers Laffey, Cushing (DD 376) Stearett (DD 407) and O'Bannon (DD 450) as well as the cruiser San Francisco (CA 38) have been largely credited with hastening its demise. (Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
Eventually the Hiei’s port quarter was punctured by shells from the USS San Francisco (CA 38), eventually flooding its aft steering compartment. This in turn left the Hiei crippled and the ship could only turn to starboard. The next day the Hiei was repeatedly attacked by Navy as well as Army bombers. Since the ship was now only capable of making five knots and could only turn to starboard, it became an easy target for the attacking aircraft. After receiving multiple torpedo and bomb hits, the crew was eventually ordered to abandon ship.
The battleship Hiei can be seen northwest of Savo Island in this photograph probably taken on November 13, 1942, by a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps' 11th Bombardment Group as it unsuccessfully attempts to dodge 500-pound bombs being lobbed by B-17s flying overhead. (Wikimedia Commons)
“Despite an order from the Combined Fleet directing the Kirishima to take the Hiei in tow,” wrote Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, commander of the famed “Tokyo Express,” destroyer squadron tasked with resupplying Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, “this effort was not made, and instead the flaming battleship was intentionally sunk.”

Although most of its crew was rescued, the Hiei finally disappeared beneath the waves on November 14, 1942, taking 188 men from the crew to the bottom, where their resting place would remain undiscovered for more than three quarters of a century.

The Hiei was the first Japanese battleship sunk by US forces during the fighting in the Pacific. The discovery of the Hiei by the RV Petrel is significant, because modern technologies in both sonar and deep submergence vehicles make it possible to see first-hand the effects of time on a vessel lost at sea. Also, this discovery perhaps provides some closure for those who had family members serving on the Hiei as well as illustrates the ferocity of combat in the Pacific during World War II.

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