© 1998 Allyn D. Nevitt

Fleeting Glory: The Fubukis of DesDiv 12

On the outbreak of war in the Pacific in December 1941, the most homogeneously-equipped of all Japan's destroyer flotillas was Rear Admiral Hashimoto Sentaro's 3rd Destroyer Squadron. In addition to flagship SENDAI, it comprised four divisions totalling fourteen Fubuki-class destroyers. As they spearheaded and supported the Empire's early offensives throughout Southeast Asia, these trend-setters of the 1920s would prove time and again that they were fully up to the demands of modern naval warfare in all of its elements. And none more so than the short-lived 12th Destroyer Division.

Commander Ogawa Nobuki's Desdiv 12 comprised three Fubuki-class "Group I" ships: MURAKUMO (Lieutenant Commander Higashi Hideo), SHINONOME (Lieutenant Commander Sasegawa Hiroshi) and SHIRAKUMO (Commander Hitomi Toyoji), the latter wearing Ogawa's pennant. There had previously been a fourth, USUGUMO, but she was removed from the division in October 1940 following severe mine damage off the China coast. (Still under repair at Maizuru, USUGUMO was in fact the only warship of Combined Fleet not ready for operations in December 1941.)

Desdiv 12 moved out of Hashirajima with the rest of Desron 3 on 20 November 1941, bound for Samah on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea, from where the Malaya invasion forces would be staged. The slow-moving troop transports of 1st Malaya Attack Force had to get an early start to be in position when hostilities began, so left their Samah anchorages on 4 December, with Desdiv 12 among their escort.

After covering the 8 December landings at Singora, Thepha and Patani in southern Thailand, Desdiv 12 joined the amphibious operations further south at Khota Bharu, which were successfully completed by the evening of the 9th. That night 3rd Destroyer Squadron retired towards Camranh Bay, there to prepare for the next stage of operations. The scattered air attacks and resistance from shore that Desdiv 12 had encountered thus far (they had missed the heaviest of the air raids off Khota Bharu on the first day of the war) hardly amounted to a fair baptism of fire.

But much more was soon to come. Desdiv 12 and some smaller vessels were now detailed to provide direct escort to the convoy carrying forces for the occupation of airfields in northern Borneo. This unit left Camranh on the 13th, and three days later Japanese troops were pouring ashore at Miri, Seria and Lutong, to little opposition. Offshore, where Desdiv 12 kept vigil, affairs seemed equally well in hand. But not for long.

As she steamed independently off Lutong in the early hours of 17 December, SHINONOME was suddenly rent by a thunderous explosion. When the smoke cleared the destroyer had disappeared beneath the surface, and taken Lieutenant Commander Sasegawa and every last man of his crew with her. Dutch flying-boat X-32 of GVT-7 had struck at the unwary destroyer from out of cloud-cover, managing two direct bomb hits and a near miss out of five dropped. These appeared to detonate SHINONOME's aft magazine, severing the stern and sinking the ship in just a few minutes. Strangely, this air attack seems to have gone unseen by any Japanese on other vessels in the area, the closest being about a mile away: Commander Ogawa could only report that SHINONOME had either hit a mine or suffered an induced explosion. Only recent in- depth research by Dutch naval historian Jan Visser has revealed the above details. Desdiv 12 had suffered the first Fubuki-class destroyer loss of the war.

SHIRAKUMO and MURAKUMO now steered southwest to cover landings around Kuching, Sarawak. There, on 24 December, destroyer SAGIRI of Desdiv 20 was torpedoed by a submarine and also sunk. While SHIRAKUMO closed to rescue survivors, MURAKUMO was attacked by the same sub. After dodging two torpedoes, Higashi counter-attacked with depth charges and claimed a definite sinking. But the sub involved, the Dutch K-XVI, in fact survived MURAKUMO's attentions, only to fall victim to the Japanese submarine I-66 shortly thereafter.

Desdiv 12 was able to return to Camranh Bay on 29 December 1941. From then through the end of January 1942 the two destroyers served as escorts to Southern Expeditionary Fleet flagship CHOKAI, patrolling the waters off French Indochina in support of overall operations. Then, with the fall of Singapore in February, Japanese attention turned to the Dutch East Indies.

Ogawa's two destroyers first covered the forces invading Bangka Island and Palembang, Sumatra. In the course of these landings the Japanese invasion fleet came across Allied shipping fleeing Singapore by the score, and widespread destruction of same ensued. On 14 February SHIRAKUMO contributed to this mayhem by running down and sinking a vessel identified only as a British cable-laying ship. So many such auxiliary and patrol craft were lost by the Royal Navy in the Bangka Strait in these hectic and desperate days that the identity of SHIRAKUMO's victim may never be determined.

SHIRAKUMO and MURAKUMO were next attached to 5th Destroyer Squadron in the reorganization of forces prior to the attack on Java. The two destroyers joined the Western Java Attack Force near the Anambas, revictualling there on 19-20 February before joining the huge troop convoy's escort. All arrived off the western tip of Java on 28 February and promptly commenced yet another round of landing operations.

Shortly thereafter, surviving Allied warships of the Java Sea battle began showing up, attempting escape to the south through Sunda Strait. Desdiv 12 was guarding that strait on the night of the 28th when sister FUBUKI sounded the alarm: cruisers USS HOUSTON (CA-30) and RMAS PERTH had broken into the Bantam Bay landing area! SHIRAKUMO and MURAKUMO raced north to assist and became fully involved in the resulting hour-long melee. At midnight each unleashed a spread of nine Long-Lances against the cruisers, and it seems likely their torpedoes delivered the coup-de-grace. Both HOUSTON and PERTH went down shortly after midnight on 1 March 1942 with heavy loss of life.

Desdiv 12 was returning to its patrol-station when yet a third enemy ship was detected. Dutch destroyer EVERTSEN, trailing behind HOUSTON and PERTH, had eluded the distracted Japanese cover forces and was well into Sunda Strait and on her way to safety when speeding SHIRAKUMO and MURAKUMO finally caught up to her. Ogawa first ordered searchlights, then gunfire. In the ensuing action EVERTSEN was hit repeatedly, set afire, and finally beached on the small island of Sebuku Besar, a total wreck with thirty-two dead.

The night's fighting had cost Desdiv 12 only superficial splinter damage to SHIRAKUMO, and no casualties.

These well-fought actions proved the last in the formation's brief but eventful combat career. Desdiv 12 arrived triumphantly in Singapore on 6 March and was officially deactivated four days later -- thus becoming the Imperial Navy's shortest-lived destroyer division of the Pacific War. Behind it Desdiv 12 left the hulks of a half-dozen warships, including one of its own, rusting on the ocean floor.

The high command had decided to break up the truncated unit and use its ships to reinforce other Fubuki-equipped formations. MURAKUMO was reassigned to Desdiv 11 and SHIRAKUMO to Desdiv 20. Ogawa, promoted to captain, moved over to newer ARASHIO to assume command of Desdiv 8. All had much action yet ahead of them, but none would ever perform better than they had with Desdiv 12. Such glory, as always, is fleeting.

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