© July 2001 A.P. Tully
E-Mail: tullyfleet - gmail.com


The Fate of Battleship KONGO: A Research Odyssey

By Anthony Tully

posted July 16, 2001

In my time since starting to post these mysteries and studies, one of the most-asked about and requested (understandably) has been the mystery surrounding the explosion and sinking of battleship KONGO. This is appropriate, because as it turns out, next to the similar vague detail of UNRYU's loss, the KONGO was my number-one Japanese Navy mystery, and indeed, these two ships were the catalyst for me to embark on a serious fresh research of the sources. Like many of us, I had grown accustomed through the years of studying over and over again the available books and articles, and always holding out hope for a new good study and (instantly buying them) on the IJN as they came out. These were few and far between in the late 70's and 80's, and the pickings remained slim. Regarding KONGO, after an initial bit of data, almost nothing ever was added (in English at least) and I fully shared the wish to know more.

In addition I have received several inquiries regarding my unpublished book manuscript "Total Eclipse" about the 1944/45 period of the IJN and samples of the work. Since it contains the KONGO's loss as derived from Japanese sources in detail it seems appropriate to `kill two birds with one stone' and present an excerpt from the pertinent Leyte campaign chapter. Therefore, both as an introduction to beginning new scholars, and as a nolstagic 'look back" for enthusiasts, I offer this article that shows how a `research knot' can come to exist, and also most of the final solution to `untie' same. In many respects the KONGO story represents the story of the initial generation of IJN works ---- a flagrant gap in the record was presented, and even more suprising, was the almost utter lack of notice that there was a mystery involved.

It is this fact, seldom explicitly understood, that accounts for the recent tide of apparent `revisionism' in IJN studies. Revisionism currently has a bad reputation in the political sphere, and carries connotations of redoing everything with lack of trust in the received versions. But this is to misunderstand the case. In most instances, what is really happening is a first-time exploration and critical analysis of the received record, not a desire to `prove wrong' or `be a revisionist'. For example, the UNRYU and KONGO both shared obvious traits in the initial `usual suspect' sources. The full composition of their accompanying ships were never listed, nor their casualties and survivors. All critical details to the basic story of such capital ships, not to mention the details of impact and terminal damage. It is easy to forget that prior to the publication of such works as Lacroix & Well's superlative `History of A-class cruisers' in Warship International, Richard Frank 's "Guadalcanal", and John Lundstrom's "First Team" series, such basic details from the Japanese side for even better documented ships remained scarce. (Note: there are many other excellent recent books, and no valuation or judgement is implied in this list, these are just works that mentored my own style and spurred renewed interest after the `classic' period.). Yet, for Atlantic enthusiasts, such details of Kriegsmarine warships have long been available --- an entire recent analysis focuses on the question of KM BISMARCK's rudder damage alone. Providing some of the same for the comparatively neglected Pacific naval events has ever been the object.

I now invite readers on a look back, and beg their indulgence for a moment of nolstagia. One which will hopefully also help beginning researchers understand and decipher some of the twists and turns in getting started. (I have received two such requests just this week). Veteran enthusiasts will doubtless have moments of familiar recognition. In so doing, I hope also to remind of the sometimes meager beginnings of large projects and thus encourage others embarking on their own. The mystery of the KONGO's loss essentially begins with the classic accounts of major works on the U.S. Submarine campaign like `Undersea Victory' by H.J. Holmes, Theodore Roscoe's `U.S. Submarine Operations in WW II', and the later and somewhat classic `Silent Victory' of Clay Blair. All describe in fair detail how USS SEALION II made a spectacular ambush and successful attack on a Japanese fleet formation, firing two salvoes for three torpedo hits from the first and one hit from the second. The destroyer URAKAZE had been blown up and the KONGO damaged in these attacks. The target BB seemed only slightly damaged, and SEALION chased the formation, only to have the target BB slow down two hours later, then suddenly explode. This was KONGO.

The natural question was what had caused the explosion? Was it a fire? And who were the other ships with her that night? Researchers are doubtless well aware of the often frustrating omission of detail surrounding submarine sinkings in conventional histories. This is because they tend to come "between battles" and `slip through the cracks' of large campaign works that might otherwise have given answers. Only notorious sinkings like SHINANO appeared with some detail when not related to battles. Others, however, like TAIYO, AGANO, and KONGO, etc, fell victim to this general obscurity. It is hardly exaggeration to say that often the only detailed accounts were in books about the submarine warfare itself. However, apart from a few mentions, they usually were thin on descriptions from the Japanese side.

It should be noted that S.E. Morison's volume "Leyte" credited SEALION II' s first salvo with URAKAZE, and the second salvo with KONGO. It specifically stated "SEALION's one hit had done for her". The statement that only one torpedo had struck only fanned speculation about the cause of the explosion, and serves to mislead even today. The legend was born that like ill-fated carrier TAIHO, the KONGO had been undone by a single torpedo hit triggering disaster. Subsequent writers generally followed suit. However, nearly all the submariner works were unanimous that the three hits were on the BB. This clarification proves crucial.

For KONGO's fate, sources that gave any Japanese details were frustratingly few and terse. The best were the `Warship Profile' series, which were published in England in the early 1970's and reached the States a few years later. These were important since they utilized some Japanese sources and editors. It turned out there were three available, one indeed on KONGO (No.12) herself, and the other two on the YUKIKAZE (No.22) and YAMATO-class (No.33). Despite this seeming stroke of fortune, the KONGO profile had little data to add, saying only that KONGO had departed Brunei with HARUNA on 16 November, and after describing the torpedoing, that at 0530 there was a loud explosion aboard her and thereupon KONGO settled into the sea and sank. That was all. Consulting the other two, the YUKIKAZE added the important detail that YUKIKAZE was one of the escorts of KONGO that night. It confirmed that HARUNA was with her and the departure time, but it gave no other information. Finally, the YAMATO profile described her departure from Brunei as escorted by destroyers, and by omission, seemed to exclude her from the force. [The Profiles explicitly said elements of the fleet returned home in separate groups---there was little clue of the truth save the dates were the same].

Thus, by the late 1980's [See: Note 1 on chapter excerpt] the following facts were all that were known: The KONGO and HARUNA departed Brunei on 16 November 1944 with a screen of escorts that included YUKIKAZE and URAKAZE. The two destroyers strongly suggested the screen was DesDiv 17 from Leyte, but this remained uncertain. Since SEALION II reported three BBs and one cruiser, the best guess was the AOBA and TONE which were unaccounted for in November. Even the established facts were not certain. A dissenting voice had always been Paul H. Silverstone's "Directory of the World's Capital Ships" which stated that HARUNA had "stranded at Lingga" on 22 November 1944. This was only one day after KONGO's sinking and too far away. It was clearly impossible she was with KONGO if the Lingga note was true. This remained an insoluable puzzle, but later turned out to be a clue to the truth. In any case, on 21 November 1944 the USS SEALION II attacked the task force, and sank URAKAZE at once and damaged the KONGO with three hits. Seemingly lightly struck, the KONGO continued on, only to halt and blow up two hours later. This disaster was unexplained, and usually somewhat improbable and forced comparisons to the accident and disaster that befell the TAIHO were suggested. These were specifically encouraged by the legend of a `single hit' for it seemed that the books by Lockwood, Roscoe, and H.J. Holmes were never quoted in dissent. Even so, these speculations rang a bit false for a battleship, though a fire in the magazines seemed possible.

It was in 1992 that a breakthrough of sorts came. The catalyst was a fascinating new book "Thunder Below" about the exploits of USS BARB written by her former C.O. Radm. Eugene Fluckey. Among other unusually detailed accounts from the Japanese side, Fluckey wrote an exciting and suprising account of the CVE UNYO's sinking. Exciting, because it came from Japanese sources, and surprising because it revealed that instead of "blew up and sank" immediately as reported in the standard works, the UNYO had in fact staged a seven and half hour battle to stay afloat! This revelation rekindled hope of exploring old Japanese mysteries with an open mind, and to not take too much for granted. The natural first subject was the KONGO.

In a discussion with long-time friend James Moore, we went over the details of the `case' again, for possible insights. He has a marked detective's gift, and in an inspired moment suddenly concluded "I'v got it. It's HMS BARHAM at night!". Surprised, I listened as he explained his reasoning: it was simply that dark or not, unseen perhaps, the physical fact was the torpedoes had hit and thus were doing something . Whatever it was, it had to be something that would cause KONGO to slow over time, then explode. A fire did not well fit the first, though it explained the latter. Slowing to fight it seemed plausible. But she also stopped and to a degree that seemed to throw a wrench in the `fire and explosion' theory. Armed with the clarification that the three hits were on the BB, he was convinced that steady flooding was the culprit. To sum up in a nutshell: after further discussion we formulated the hypothesis that KONGO's fate had little in common with TAIHO. Instead, it was best understood in analogy by merging SHINANO's prolonged underway fight with progressive flooding, only to flounder to a halt, and then end with a BARHAM style capsize and explosion.

The feeling of solution and insight is hard to describe. My friend's theory was the first I had ever heard that made any sense of all the known facts, and much better fit the details of IJN cases than the welter of theories currently fixating on the explosion rather than the reduction of speed and flooding. This was all very well, and certainly served as acceptable truth privately as it stood. However, to prove it would require something more. It was necessary to acquire the SEALION II's actual patrol report and comb it for exact details and clues. It was also vital to try to get something about the onboard circumstances or signals at least. Since Japanese sources bearing on the question had not turned up, there seemed nothing to help here. However, re-reading Roscoe, there emerged a tantalizing possibility. The account therein clearly stated that the details of what SEALION had hit that night were obtained from a Japanese survivor who had been aboard one of the ships that night. Following this slender lead, the clear goal would be to get the patrol report and attempt to track down some of the source material that lay behind the Roscoe book.

In addition to some other research goals, it was resolved to visit Washington D.C. in 1992 to pursue the matter further. At the Operational Archives at the Washington Navy Yard the search proved fruitful. I met a knowing and singularly helpful archivist named Michael Walker. With his help I not only printed the SEALION II report but also located the draft materials and source notes for Roscoe's work. In one of the boxes, I found the section dealing with the SEALION II's attack. Jackpot: though almost word for word from the published book, there came at the end of the account this critical notation: "Japanese records disclose that among the ships present that night were the battleships YAMATO and NAGATO, neither of whom sustained damage."

The quote went on to say that instead, a destroyer, the URAKAZE, was hit and sunk the same night. No details given. It was an electrifying moment: though barely a sentence long, this was precisely the clue sought, and one with suprising import. The YAMATO - the most famous ship in the Japanese Navy bar none - was with KONGO that night and this had never been mentioned in English sources! Looking back now nine years later, this is almost redundantly obvious, but then was profound revelation. I still recall my astonished surprise and joy at discovering the fact that --- again like SHIGURE with UNRYU --- one of the most famous ships in the Japanese fleet was with the KONGO that night and no work had so much as hinted at the fact until the clue at the Washington Navy Yard. Or that Admiral Kurita was a witness. Armed with the knowledge that YAMATO was with KONGO, I resolved to now track down some of the Japanese source books on her and have them translated. Though at the time Maru Specials were hard to obtain, there is a collection of Japanese works in the Library of Congress.

Returning home, we studied the SEALION II's report, combing for clues. James found significant the mention of the radar pip "shrinking" which began at 0520 just before KONGO blew up. That this detail occurred before the explosion tends not to appear in paraphrased accounts, but is clear in the report. Yet it seemed important. He felt this was solid - however slender - proof for our theory: the radar pip shrinking would be consistent with an increasing list and roll over that would cause the `return surface area' for radar to reduce. Since the BB could hardly "shrink" this note meant something else. It was either sinking or rolling; a fire would not cause such. It seemed enough, and with the YAMATO clue, I now had some Japanese directions to follow too. In the ensuing research that followed, I almost immediately found in the just-published in english diary of Admiral Ugaki needed details from the Japanese side.

These named the ships with the KONGO that night, and provided some important clues as to what happened, and the number of survivors. The account broke off, however, at the point that KONGO separated from the main group (and thus Ugaki). At the time she had a 15 degree port list and was making close to 16 knots and no one suspected disaster to come. Once again though, there were suprises: all the accounts placing HARUNA with her that night were simply mistaken, as the Silverstone quote had fore-shadowed. The Ugaki diary solved the riddle; HARUNA had been re-attached to VAdm. Shima's force 2-YB. [See Note: 2 on chapter page]

As can be seen, we realized the details in Ugaki do not by themselves solve the case. No capsize was confirmed, and the explosion wasn't even mentioned. However, if KONGO had a 15 degree list when she separated it strongly suggested the hypothesis was true, and for the moment of sinking there was the strong clue of the radar pip change to further affirm a capsize. Further, the context of signal implied fire would have been mentioned if present. It was enough to submit an article on the subject but nothing ever came of it after acceptance. That acutally was the best outcome, for that work is now totally superseded as will be seen. From the Operational Archives, I had also found the JD-9 microfilm, which contained UNRYU's sinking in Japanese, and between the KONGO and this, it was enough.

Thus spurred, in the years that followed I sought to to discover the fuller story, of KONGO and other Japanese ships involved at Leyte. Especially of what took place after KONGO detached from 1-YB and Ugaki's diary left-off. Though I subsequently gained means to translate Japanese sources (which would solve UNRYU outright) for KONGO this was complicated by the fact there appears to be no surviving Detailed Action Report of her loss. However, the records of DesDiv 17 remained available on microfilm, and once translated, it became possible to seek modern Japanese sources that would provide more details. This has largely been successful, at least to the degree that I can answer most questions, and present the following for nautical experts to analyze.

As one can see from the above flashback, the fragmented and sometimes contradictory nature of sources on the IJN often defy easy unraveling. Questions answered often as not simply raise new ones. Throughout it all, one gains a new and profound respect for the writers who have come before, for in most cases it is possible to see just what they were limited to or otherwise guided them in their reporting. If anything is really `new' it is that in the last decade or so there has arisen a true critical and investigative interest in details of the Pacific War that had previously mostly been reserved for the War in Europe and the Atlantic. If my postings and reflections have in any way served to advance this, then they have served a primary purpose. In the near future I will be posting some researcher tips in the same vein to guide new researchers embarking on study. I have now taxed the reader's patience enough, and conclude this research noltagia waltz as it were, here.

Below's link is a direct outtake from my book of the KONGO's fate with inserted notes in brackets, and it will be followed by a short afterward commentary written for this article.

Sincere regards,
A.P. "Tony" Tully

The Loss of Battleship KONGO: As told in Chapter XIII "Trouble in Home Waters" of "Total Eclipse: The Last Battles of the IJN - Leyte to Kure 1944 to 1945".

@ Anthony P. Tully 1998

Click Here for KONGO chapter

(Direct link is www.combinedfleet.com/eclipkong.html)

Any correspondence from readers with interest in the subject and details described wishing to engage in commentary and discussion would be welcome.

E-Mail: tullyfleet - gmail.com

Back to IJN Mysteries Page

16 July 2001