© 1996 Allyn D. Nevitt

Introduction: The Niizuki

It seems only fitting to begin a naval history of World War II's Pacific Theater on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, and so we shall. But not at Pearl Harbor. Rather at Nagasaki, where on that date (already 8 December 1941 in Japan) the keel was laid for a new destroyer.

The NIIZUKI ("New Moon"), built by Mitsubishi Zosensho, was the fifth ship of the AKIZUKI-class, a big new type of destroyer which might have been designated an antiaircraft cruiser in some other navies. Doubtless spurred on by Japan's incredible early run of successes, her shipbuilders worked well and quickly, and the destroyer was launched just seven months later, on 29 June 1942: a record for her class. By then the tide of war had already turned irrevocably against the Empire -- at Midway, three weeks earlier -- but those who toiled at the Nagasaki shipyard could not know of such things.

Commander Kaneda Kiyoshi, who had led destroyer HAYASHIO through the first year of war, arrived on 20 February 1943 to oversee NIIZUKI's fitting-out. He then stayed on as her first -- and only -- skipper. NIIZUKI commissioned on the last day of March.

When on 1 April 1943, Eleventh Destroyer Squadron was activated as a training organization for new destroyers, NIIZUKI was the first such ship assigned it. She entered the Inland Sea on 12 April and commenced exercises which lasted into mid-May. During this period NIIZUKI frequently trained with heavy cruiser MOGAMI, just then returning to service after repairs to extensive damage suffered in the debacle off Midway.

When American forces landed on Attu in the Aleutians MOGAMI and NIIZUKI were ordered up from Kure to Yokosuka in readiness for a naval counterattack. But when no such operation developed they returned to the Inland Sea.

NIIZUKI was probably the first of her class to be turned over to the Imperial fleet complete with radar outfit, and the naval high command was doubtless eager to test the warship's capabilities as a flotilla leader of night-fighting destroyers. On 31 May NIIZUKI was assigned to Eighth Fleet, then holding the Southeast Area line in the Solomons, and on 8 June she steamed out of Kure to join that command at Rabaul.

NIIZUKI went first to Yokosuka, where she joined a task force preparing to leave for Truk. They departed Japan on 16 June and reached Truk on the 21st. There heavy cruiser SUZUYA and destroyers NIIZUKI and ARIAKE loaded men and weapons of the 5th AA Defense Unit and steamed south on the 23rd. They sailed in company with heavy cruiser KUMANO and destroyer SUZUKAZE, transporting a similar contingent from the 28th AA Defense Unit. Upon reaching Rabaul on 25 June, the guns and gunners were promptly unloaded, and all ships save NIIZUKI left again the same day to return to Truk.

The warships with which NIIZUKI rendezvoused in the Solomons were elderly ones. Most modern were Desdiv 11's AMAGIRI and HATSUYUKI, themselves over a dozen years old. There were also five MUTSUKIs of Desdivs 22 and 30, the even older YUNAGI, and light cruiser YUBARI, completed in 1923. Anchored amongst these, sleek NIIZUKI could hardly have presented a more striking contrast. Rear Admiral Akiyama Teruo, Comdesron 3 and currently the Empire's ranking destroyerman south of Truk, promptly broke his flag in the new destroyer.

The opening of the Americans' central Solomons offensive on 30 June 1943 found NIIZUKI at Rabaul with three other destroyers and YUBARI. These sped south to the Shortlands advance base and there joined Akiyama's five other destroyers. The combined squadron sortied the following afternoon to attack the enemy's Rendova beachhead.

A three-ship Bombardment Force, covered by NIIZUKI and the other destroyers, entered Blanche Channel just after midnight on 3 July and commenced a spirited, if largely ineffective, fire on American positions ashore. When three PT-boats came out to intervene NIIZUKI and three of her companions encircled and took them under fire. The Japanese thought they sank two of the PTs, but in fact the Americans escaped under cover of a smoke screen. Akiyama's squadron then also retired without damage.

As usual, the next move on the Imperial agenda was to run in troop reinforcements to the threatened area. Two four-ship "Rat Expresses" were thus organized to carry soldiers to Vila, on Kolombangara, on the nights of 4 and 5 July. For the first of these Captain Kanaoka Kunizo, Comdesdiv 22, was given NIIZUKI and YUNAGI in addition to his own NAGATSUKI and SATSUKI, while Admiral Akiyama remained behind to plan future moves. This force departed Buin on the afternoon of the 4th and steered so as to reach Vila through Kula Gulf that night.

Unknown to the Japanese, a U.S. cruiser-destroyer group was also heading for Kula Gulf at the same time. Three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Rear Admiral Walden L. Ainsworth were covering seven destroyer-transports en route to land troops at Rice Anchorage on New Georgia. As 4 July became the 5th, the opposing forces entered the gulf on converging courses.

"A dark, overcast night with a moderate southeast breeze pushing occasional rain-squalls over the Gulf gave radar more than its usual advantage over enemy binoculars," S. E. Morison later wrote of the setting that night. But seemingly overlooked was the fact that the Japanese, too, finally had radar: NIIZUKI's. And though of poorer quality than that carried by the American ships, it proved adequate on this night to alert them to an enemy presence a full sixteen minutes ahead of the Americans. Identifying his opponents as four cruisers and four destroyers, Kanaoka prudently reversed course and retired from the scene -- but not before unleashing his Long-Lances.

Five minutes before the Americans even discovered their presence, NIIZUKI launched four, YUNAGI four, and NAGATSUKI six torpedoes, only SATSUKI holding her fire. Thus when destroyer RALPH TALBOT's radar finally located the retiring Japanese and U.S. ships began swinging north in pursuit, they were already in dangerous waters.

USS STRONG (DD-467) had no chance to evade the Long-Lance that came at her suddenly from out of the night. It struck the new destroyer at port amidships with such force that it blew out both sides of her hull and all but broke her back. Pursuit of the enemy was forgotten as STRONG's comrades closed her to remove the crew. Despite interference from Japanese shore batteries, all but 46 of STRONG's men were eventually saved after their broken ship sagged beneath the waves. Skeptics unable to bring themselves to credit the sinking to Kanaoka's destroyers might be forgiven: the STRONG had been torpedoed at the incredible range of eleven miles!

NIIZUKI and her consorts were back off Buin early on the morning of 5 July, victorious but with their passengers still on board. Thus the transport operation would have to be repeated that night, and on a larger scale.

More destroyers and soldiers had by now reached the Shortlands, allowing for the scheduling of a more substantial reinforcement than had originally been planned. Admiral Akiyama went back aboard NIIZUKI as she refuelled and prepared to lead a Cover Force also comprising modern destroyers SUZUKAZE and TANIKAZE. These would escort two transport groups that between them comprised seven destroyers carrying 2,400 soldiers and 180 tons of munitions.

When this big Express steamed out of the Shortlands at dusk on 5 July, Allied coastwatchers immediately passed on news of its departure. Admiral Ainsworth's Task Group 36.1 -- NIIZUKI's opponents from the previous night -- was retiring through Indispensible Strait, en route to refuel from a tanker, when ordered to put about and block Akiyama's passage. Ainsworth headed back north at high speed.

The Japanese reached Kula Gulf first and Akiyama promptly detached the 1st Transport Group to Vila. After continuing south into the gulf for another hour he reversed course and ordered 2nd Transport Group away. NIIZUKI's radar had earlier hinted at the possibility of enemy warships in the gulf, but it was only upon his course reversal that Akiyama became convinced of their immediate presence. The Cover Force boosted speed to 30 knots, recalled 2nd Transport Group to assist, and prepared for battle.

U.S. light cruisers HONOLULU, HELENA and ST. LOUIS, supported by destroyers NICHOLAS, O'BANNON, RADFORD and JENKINS, were by then already training their 45 rapid-firing six-inch guns onto the biggest target they could discern: NIIZUKI. There was some delay in opening fire, but the American gun-layers must have used the extra time to great advantage, for their opening salvos quickly found and smothered their target.

Drawing this hurricane of fire onto herself was NIIZUKI's final service to country and comrades. Ablaze from stem to stern and with her steering gear smashed, the big destroyer staggered out of line even before she could loose off any return fire, and shortly began to sink.

Just how long NIIZUKI remained afloat is unknown, but one of her tormentors most likely preceded her to the bottom. For SUZUKAZE and TANIKAZE had swept past their shattered flagship, launching Long-Lances as they went, and three of these struck the HELENA (CL-50), which until then had seemed to lead a charmed life. The veteran cruiser was blasted into three pieces and went down quickly, taking 168 of her crew with her.

The battle continued between various scattered units for some time, but little further damage was done. A total of 1,600 men and 90 tons of provisions were landed at Vila, but NAGATSUKI went hard aground in the process and was wrecked the following day by enemy aircraft. Near the end of the night's fighting AMAGIRI stopped to pick up NIIZUKI survivors, but U.S. destroyers NICHOLAS and RADFORD, similarly engaged with the HELENA crew, drove her off. Admiral Akiyama, Commander Kaneda, and most of NIIZUKI's 300-man crew perished with their ship, only a few later being taken prisoner by the Americans.

All things considered, the Battle of Kula Gulf must be judged a Japanese victory, but a Pyrrhic one, for Japan could ill afford even to trade her destroyers for enemy cruisers, especially destroyers of NIIZUKI's rank which took admirals down with them.

NIIZUKI's brief career well typified that of the Japanese destroyer service as a whole: superb ships and crews, hard-working, gallantly fought and frequently victorious, but ultimately doomed to a violent end in a hopeless struggle. This was the Long-Lancers' war.

Niizuki's Tabular Movement Record

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