© 1998 Anthony P. Tully


STAR-CROSSED SORTIE: The Last Voyage Of UNRYU and DesDiv 52

By Anthony Tully

(At the edge of Destiny: Aesthetic scene of UNRYU and either HINOKI or MOMI of Desdiv 52 prior to their departure from Kure on 17 December 1944. As depicted by Takeshi Yuki, "Color Paintings of Japanese Warships")

The poignant tale of the UNRYU's maiden voyage - her first and last at sea - is certainly not a "mystery" in the annals of the Imperial Japanese Navy. That she was torpedoed and sunk by USS REDFISH on 19 December, 1944 is a matter of record. However, it is definitely an untold story, and worthy of the telling. It is a saga that contains more than its share of surprising revelations and adds a heretofore unsuspected chapter to another famous ship's history. Records regarding the UNRYU sortie are scarce, and even the Maru Special series and Ships of the World have little to say. The answers are found in the untranslated Japanese microfilm records, including UNRYU's own Detailed Action Report and entries from the DesRon 2 War Diaries. By translating and piecing these together the full story can now be told, and is presented here as a Nihon Kaigun exclusive.

Though her maiden voyage commenced in December 1944 [1], in fact the UNRYU had been in commission some six months. UNRYU ("Heavenward Bound Dragon Riding the Clouds"), name-ship of her class, had been laid down as an improved HIRYU-class carrier series laid down after the devastating losses of the battle of Midway. UNRYU had been commissioned on 6 August 1944, and Captain Kaname Konishi - a veteran from command of the ABUKUMA and two destroyer divisions - became her first and only skipper. Technically, at the time of the Battle of Leyte Gulf the UNRYU was assigned with sister-carrier AMAGI to Vice Admiral Ozawa's Mobile Fleet. Yet shortage of aircraft and trained men prevented her from joining the IJN's last big battle, even in a sacrificial role such as was reserved for the veteran ZUIKAKU. That great flattop, and three light carriers all went down in the Battle of Cape Engano, following which the tattered remnants of the Mobile Fleet returned to Japan.

There the UNRYU and AMAGI were waiting in the Inland Sea off Gunchan, and following Ozawa's return to Kure the day prior, on 30 October 1944 UNRYU arrived at Kure, and had the honor of briefly receiving Ozawa's flag. But the UNRYU's exalted status as flagship of the Mobile Fleet was a short one---on 7 November Ozawa transferred his flag to the RYUHO and only eight days later, the Mobile Fleet itself was abolished as part of the 15 November reorganization by Combined Fleet.

Following the dissolution of the Mobile Fleet, the UNRYU and AMAGI, soon joined by a third of their class - the KATSURAGI - remained more or less idle. The shortage of fuel, trained pilots and aircraft remained acute as the kamikaze campaign in the Philippines went into high gear. Thus, all three carrier's movements were limited to short trips between Kure, Hashirajima, and Gunchan, never venturing out of the inner Inland Sea, let alone out to sea.[1] It was an ignominious existence to be sure, but as the first completed, Captain Kaname's UNRYU at least finally embarked some A6Ms and B6Ns in late November and a small aviation contingent for patrols.

It seems that some thought was given to using the UNRYU and possibly AMAGI as plane-ferrys and limited convoy screening. If so, these considerations were duly aborted when the escort carrier SHINYO and the great new super-carrier SHINANO both fell victims to submarine ambushes that November. The submarine peril was clearly too dangerous to risk even short coastal trips to train aircrews or screen convoys. The UNRYU and her sisters seemed fated to spend the rest of the war milling uselessly around the Inland Sea. Then came morning 13 December 1944, and word that one of Douglas MacArthur's invasion fleets had been sighted in the Sulu Sea. The long-expected invasion of Luzon was apparently imminent. This conclusion threw Tokyo into a frenzy and with it, the winds of fortune took a fateful and fatal turn for the new UNRYU.

To repel the expected invasion, Combined Fleet ordered a special and emergency cargo of the new experimental rocket-kamikazes called Ohkas to be shipped to Manila by aircraft carriers without delay. The UNRYU and RYUHO were assigned the task that very 13th, and as fast as a special cargo of thirty Ohkas could be crated and packed, they were loaded aboard the UNRYU and secured in the lower hangar deck. The men worked at a feverish pace and doubtless Captain Kaname and his crew felt some excitement at the prospect of some action after all. It so happened that this was the second time Combined Fleet had tried to ship the fearsome Okhas by carrier -- the first had been on the ill-fated SHINANO -- but it is an open question whether this event was on anyone's mind that December day.

Sailing day was scheduled on the 16th, and escorting the UNRYU on this mission would be another pair of new ships, the Matsu-class destroyers HINOKI and MOMI of Desdiv 52, the former flying the flag of the division leader. These were fast and tough little vessels, well equipped for A/S warfare and mounting a considerable AA defense. They were joined by a third, a destroyer whose name had become legendary throughout the Imperial Navy. Morale surely rose when at noon 15 December, the veteran SHIGURE arrived at Kure from Sasebo to join the small task force. Survivor of several desperate battles, the SHIGURE had gained a reputation for indestructibility, surviving actions where all her comrades were lost, the most recent being the holocaust of Leyte Gulf. Surely such a ship would bring a badly needed dose of good karma to the sortie.

It wasn't to turn out that way, however. In retrospect the historian notes that there was a fatal "Catch-22" to the SHIGURE's luck. On those prior miraculous escapes, she had a tendency to be the only survivor of a squadron she went to sea with! In August 1943 she had survived the Battle of Vella Gulf,when all three of her comrades of Desdiv 4 were blown out of the water by American destroyer torpedoes. Again at the Battle of Surigao Strait in the Leyte Operation of October 1944, the SHIGURE alone survived the terrible night engagement that wiped out the entirety of the rest of VAdm. Nishimura's battleship force. Given what followed UNRYU's sortie, Kaname's ships would have done well to have borne in mind the old Japanese proverb:"A thing repeated will occur a third time!"

But such poetic thoughts were probably far from the mind that day. Moreover, SHIGURE's arrival also marked a slight respite in the break-neck pace of departure preparations. Earlier that morning it had been learned that the enemy invasion was landing at Mindoro, and not headed for Luzon. As a result, all breathed a little easier. With the picture now clearer, time could be taken to board additional supplies and personnel needed at Manila. Departure was postponed for one day, and the RYUHO for her part would wait another week for more Ohkas to be completed.

At 0830 17 December the sleek UNRYU - camouflaged on hull and flight deck in the new zigzag patterns - departed Kure. She was loaded with planes, torpedo warheads, suicide boats, some soldiers and passengers, and most importantly, the thirty Ohka flying rocket bombs. All of which would be needed in the coming defense of Luzon. Comdesdiv 52 Lt.Cdr. Sugama [2] in HINOKI would be in charge of anti-submarine defense, but full responsibility for the little squadron and its course would rest with UNRYU's Captain Kaname Konishi. Ironically, as Comdesdiv 7, Kaname had often been in charge of screening flattops---now the roles were reversed; he commanded a flattop. In any case, his orders were for the carrier to proceed to Manila, off-load her cargo, and standby for orders regarding the Mindoro counter-attacks and decisions. Among these she was to await instruction on when and how to provide air cover for VAdm. Shima's 2-YB surface force in the event he was sent out from Camranh Bay.

From Kure, Kaname elected to avoid the submarine danger by avoiding the Bungo Straits. Instead, he took UNRYU westward through the Shimonoseki Straits and thence turned south toward the battle zone. On the following day, the 18th, the UNRYU and her escorts plowed south toward the China Sea in increasingly bad weather. Twice enemy radar waves were detected, and at nightfall course was altered a bit, for it was assumed the Americans had located the force. As it happened, the U.S. Navy that day had more pressing business to concern it. The heavy seas rolling the UNRYU were that very day inflicting a greater loss - including three destroyers - on Halsey's TF 38, which was duly preoccupied with the full force of the typhoon. At 0900 the following day, 19 December, Captain Kaname ordered Alert Rig No. 3 and sonar alert No. 2 and speed 18 knots. Shortly thereafter, the task force had a scare in dodging a sighted mine.

At noon UNRYU was east of the Sai-shut Islands, the sky darkening. The seas were very heavy yet, but slowly lessening now. Taking advantage, some patrols were launched. Two hours later, UNRYU's course was changed to due south, only to shortly thereafter have to turn violently clear of another mine. Visibility was decreasing, with high swells. Lookouts were unlikely to sight anything in time, and Captain Kaname urged sound detectors to be extra vigilant. His service in destroyer divisions had taught him that sound might bring the only possible warning in time to avoid danger.

At 1500 the escorts were in No. 1 formation. The SHIGURE held the point position off the port bow, while MOMI plowed the seas off the port quarter. Holding position off the starboard bow, Desdiv 52 flagship HINOKI guarded the west. Captain Kaname, his Executive and Navigation Officers were all on the carrier's bridge, peering vainly into the leaden skies and seas ahead. At 1600 hours, course was again shifted to due south. Right into the lap of a waiting submarine.

She was the USS REDFISH (SS-395) under Commander L.D. McGregor, her appetite whetted from her recent encounter with JUNYO and HARUNA which she had attacked on the night of 8 December. REDFISH had hit JUNYO in the bow with a torpedo, but McGregor was hardly satisfied with that, and now was seeking big prey again. At 1624 she was prowling off the China coast, having been alerted by Pearl from ULTRA that an important enemy task force was coming south. At this time, a Japanese patrol plane sighted her and dropped a depth charge. Sensing that it was a scout for the expected task force, he went hunting. On the horizon he sighted what looked like a mast of a patrol boat. Then a second appeared. Suddenly at 1627 he was delighted to see a large flattop heave into view. Clutching the periscope, he ordered: "Battle Stations Torpedo! This is a big baby!"

The submarine began to close rapidly at maximum submerged speed, when suddenly to McGregor's delight, at 1629 the Japanese zigged straight toward REDFISH. Three escorts were visible, one ahead and one on either flank. The big Japanese carrier was approaching on a 30 degree starboard angle on the bow, leaving REDFISH with a near-perfect setup; the submarine skipper did not even have to modify his approach course and slipped smoothly into attack position. Eight minutes later, holding his breath, McGregor unleashed a spread of six torpedoes at a range of 1,470 yards.

Just minutes before, the submarine had been detected by the UNRYU's alert sound watch. The long-feared yet expected news was barked up to Captain Kaname immediately. "Sound contact! 30 degrees starboard!" The dreaded shout was followed by a worse one: "Torpedo wakes, 30 degrees starboard!" from the lookouts, and "Torpedo noise, starboard bow, approaching!" from the sound-men as well. Several of the guns opened up on the wakes spontaneously. The time was half-a minute past 1635.

Kaname hurled the UNRYU into a maximum starboard turn at full speed in an attempt to comb the wakes. The new carrier proved quite agile, swinging to starboard with gratifying quickness. The Captain and lookouts watched with bated breath as the wakes bubbled toward them. Fortunately, three passed ahead; but the fourth! The bow had turned 10 degrees when the fourth and last torpedo caught the UNRYU square under the forward part of the island.

The bridge staff felt the explosion as the warhead detonated literally directly under them with a thunderous crash. Immediately, UNRYU began to tremble, and though she continued her starboard loop, she immediately began to lose way. The torpedo had hit square in the Control Center under the bridge, at a spot just forward of No. 1 boiler room, flooding the Control room, No. 1 boiler room, and the forward generator room. It also damaged the bulkhead separating No. 1 from No. 2 boiler room on the port side, allowing it to flood as well, and ignited a fire in the No. 2 crew's space forward. Fire also broke out among the flammable hangar deck cargo.

The worst of the damage was the shattering of the main steam pipe. Both Nos. 1 and 2 boiler rooms were flooded, while the resulting loss of steam caused pressure to drop to zero, extinguishing all but boiler No. 8. As a result, UNRYU slowed sickeningly, and then came to an abrupt and horrifying halt. Electric power died, and the giant hull was plunged into a tomblike darkness. She was listing 3 degrees to starboard, but seemed in no danger of sinking.

McGregor - eyes glued to REDFISH's periscope - agreed. He had watched breathless as the carrier's gunpits had sighted and opened fire on his periscope just seconds before one of his torpedoes hit aft. The carrier stopped dead in the water, listed to starboard, and fire broke out aft. Apart from the list, the Japanese carrier seemed not to be sinking and was remaining on an even trim. McGregor realized that a second salvo would be necessary to finish her off, but just then one of the onrushing destroyers was passing right astern of REDFISH in perfect line with McGregor's rear tubes.

Unable to resist this tempting setup, at 1642 McGregor loosed his four stern tubes at destroyer HINOKI. But ComDesdiv 52 was alert to the danger. The Japanese flagship neatly evaded the torpedoes leaving McGregor in the unenviable position of having no torpedoes in the tubes, with a still solid carrier in range! He cursed his hasty attack on HINOKI, for it might have cost him his chance to finish the prime target.

Determined to make right, McGregor fearlessly remained at periscope depth while the destroyers tore around and he waited for sweating torpedomen to get the after tubes reloaded. The destroyers had not realized he had remained near the surface, but time was running out. Finally, when one Mark 23 steam torpedo was in place in the after tubes he decided he could wait no longer. At 1650 he closed to 1,100 yards and fired with his point of aim just abaft the island. Nerves on edge and sweating McGregor felt the 45 seconds as an eternity....

On UNRYU, similar sweat-filled tense moments were ticking by, as her crew sought to save the new carrier from further disaster. Good progress had been made, with firewalls drawn closed to successfully extinguish the fire in the crew's quarters, and power restored by switching to the still operative after generator room. A fire broke out in No. 8 Boiler room and it had to be shut down, but this was compensated for by the igniting of boilers Nos. 5, 6, and 7. Soon steam pressure was rising back to normal and the emergency diesel had been successfully started. The list had been held in check by the pushing overboard of trucks and other equipment on the flight deck. Triumphantly, UNRYU got back underway. It was a triumph tragically short-lived.

Just as the hull started to move forward again, at 1645 (time differs from sub's) the lookouts shouted dire news - torpedo wake, bearing 130 degrees starboard, headed directly for the carrier! Gunners fired whatever weapons were operable again with desperate abandon, but it was no use. The torpedo barreled into the UNRYU's starboard side forward of the bridge, abreast the forward elevator. Abreast also, of the ammo, AV gas, and materials store rooms. The sharp report of the torpedo was followed at once by a more terrible barrage of ever-increasing detonations and blasts that quite literally blew the whole bow area apart. The deadly Ohka bombs, stored on the lower hangar deck, were now going off, their rending blasts showing just what they could do to a carrier: unfortunately, one of their own.

On the carrier's bridge, Captain Kaname and his officers ducked as a huge volcano seemed to erupt forward of the bridge windows, and the whole bow was engulfed in a monstrous cataclysm. At once, the deck under their feet dipped sharply forward, while at the same time throwing them sideways as UNRYU commenced an immediate sharp starboard list. All looked in numbed shock---such an abrupt loss of trim meant only one thing: the ship was already doomed.

The explosions had opened the whole side to the sea, flooding all boiler rooms. Drowning at their posts the hard-working men who must have believed they had just saved their ship. In minutes UNRYU already was listing more than 30 degrees to starboard and planes sliding overboard. There was little time to lose. Her skipper gave the order to Abandon Ship. For his part, the captain made no attempt to escape. Looking out, Captain Kaname could still find a few moments for pride in his untested crew in these last minutes of his life. They gathered without panic on the canting flight deck, and shouted "Banzai! Long Live the Emperor!" three times, before trying to save themselves; while some gunners stayed at their posts, pumping shells to the very last minute at the hated periscope.

Some of those guns were still firing, when at 1657 UNRYU - now tilted almost 90 degrees on her starboard side - plunged to the bottom head first. The men struggling in the water saw the upended stern and port quarter AA guns as the last vestiges to slip from sight under the waters of the East China Sea. With her went Captain Konishi Kaname, his Executive and Navigation officers, and 1,238 officers, men and an anonymous number of passengers. While HINOKI sowed the sea in an aggressive counter-attack in search of revenge, MOMI and SHIGURE sought to rescue the pitiful remnant from the leaden and stormy waters. It was indeed a pitiful harvest. A mere 146 souls; only one officer, 87 petty officers and men, and 57 `passengers', were all that were rescued from the disaster, making UNRYU's neglected fate one of the great wartime disasters at sea. UNRYU had existed for "only six months, and her tragic fate was lamented by everyone." The disaster of the SHINANO had been repeated, and once more a flattop had carried her load of Ohkas not to Luzon, but to the ocean floor. Only twelve minutes had passed since the explosion.

As her charge was sinking, the HINOKI was doing her best to avenge her. She reported that she had done just that - and in fact came within an ace of doing so. McGregor had watched in awe as the blast of his second torpedo merged with the titanic explosion that killed the UNRYU. Fearlessly, he paused to take periscope pictures of the upended fantail as it slid from sight under the choppy waves. This brashness nearly cost his life.

HINOKI spied the REDFISH's scope and charged with a bone in her teeth. McGregor pulled the plug and went deep as fast as he could. The depth charges followed him down, exploding as the submarine passed 150 feet. Seven of the undersea weapons detonated in a perilously close salvo off the starboard bow, their concussion so great it flung the REDFISH to the left like a toy. The shock waves raised havoc with the submarine. Sonar was knocked out, helm jammed hard left, and the diving planes on rise. Worse, cracks opened leaks in the forward torpedo room, and a sailor was severely injured when a steel door was slammed open against his head, nearly severing an ear. A loaded torpedo in tube No. 8 was activated, the whine of it's spinning prop adding to the din and mayhem. Even so, that was the worst of it. Hitting bottom at 1712 hours just beyond 200 feet, McGregor rigged for silence and waited out the depth-charging for two hours.

Above, Desdiv 52 then turned to head for China, while SHIGURE remained. SHIGURE's Lt. Cdr. Manabu Hajiwara had joined the ship only on 1 December, and apparently was bound and determined to trap the submarine responsible for ruining his first assignment. But as night came and wore on into the next day, the SHIGURE found nothing more. The REDFISH had made her difficult get-away at last, popping up just after sunset and running away on the surface at top speed. To add insult to injury, at 0945 the next morning, the SHIGURE's steering motor valves failed. Once more, the sorely tired veteran had lost helm as she did at Leyte two months ago; albeit, under not nearly as perilous conditions. Lt. Cmdr. Manabu had had enough, and could not follow HINOKI and MOMI to China and then Manila as planned, but set course for Sasebo, arriving there at 0700 on the 22nd.

Captain Manabu did not know it, but once again a curious fate had saved SHIGURE from certain destruction. HINOKI and MOMI continued south, and in so doing sealed their fates. Stopping at Camranh Bay on the 26th, they then sailed to Cape St. Jacques (St. James). On the last day of the year HINOKI and MOMI escorted the IKUTAGAWA MARU out to Manila, arriving there at 1930 4 January 1945. That brought doom, for the very next day MacArthur's Luzon invasion forces bound for Lingayen Gulf arrived off Manila. Desdiv 52 was ordered to make a break for Formosa. However, they were quickly discovered in the afternoon of the 5th by surface forces and escort carrier planes of the Luzon armada.

A running surface and air chase ensued, and though fierce kamikaze attacks tried to help the destroyers, after three hours the odds caught up with them. Comdesdiv 52's HINOKI took a bomb hit at 1717 which killed 21 and wounded 45 officers and men and made the destroyer unnavigable. Then the MOMI was blasted apart by a aerial torpedo at 1910 and lost with all hands - some 210 souls - in sight of HINOKI. The latter was saved from destruction by the arrival of sunset, and working feverishly, HINOKI's crew got the destroyer back under way at 2300 and at 12 knots she staggered back to the safety of Manila at dawn 6 January. Alas, it was only a brief reprieve. At 1530 7 January, the HINOKI sallied forth and made a vain dash for St. James. She intercepted by American destroyers, and after a hard-fought gunfire duel lasting less than an hour, sank at 2257 with the loss of ComDesdiv 52 and all hands in what proved the last surface battle of the U.S Navy with the Japanese Navy. [3]

When HINOKI's bow pointed skyward and sank that night, she completed the morbid cycle of SHIGURE's charm/curse: A "thing repeated" had indeed "occurred a third time", and once more the SHIGURE alone remained afloat of the squadron she had left Kure with on 17 December. The others had been totally destroyed with nearly all hands, and thus the heretofore unknown irony of UNRYU and Desdiv 52's tragic voyage becomes an important part of the SHIGURE's own immortal tale. For with the thrice repetition of singular escape, the last of SHIGURE's own lives had finally been expended. Her very next voyage was with RYUHO's convoy HI-87 from Moji on the last day of the year, and while on that duty, on 24 January 1945 the illustrious SHIGURE was claimed by the sea at last. But that is another untold story for a future time.

Copyright 5/10/98
By Anthony P. Tully

[1] Clay Blair, in Silent Victory speculates that a carrier attacked by USS PINTADO on 3 November 1944 near Formosa may have been the UNRYU. However, it was not. UNRYU's first voyage was also her last, and came a month later. The target was JUNYO, south-bound to Brunei with cruiser KISO and Desdiv 30, which lost the AKIKAZE to this attack.

[2] Comdesdiv 52's name and identity is unclear, and this derives from a faded fragment of microfilm whose translation is uncertain. Any information would be deeply appreciated.

[3] Records of Desdiv 52 are scant indeed, and the only survivors may have been the wounded HINOKI off-loaded at Manila on 6 January 1945. What is written here derives from signals sent to SouthWest Area Fleet HQ from HINOKI in DesRon 31 War Diary.

[4] That SHIGURE was with UNRYU and in fact was the only survivor of this force, has not previously been recognized. It fills the gap in the record between her miraculous escape from Letye Gulf and her subsequent sinking on convoy duty in January 1945. The author plans to write a short article describing the last voyage and sinking of the famous SHIGURE from translated sources in the future.

Back to Kido Butai

E-Mail: tullyfleet -aol.com