© 1997 Allyn D. Nevitt

Submarines vs. Urakaze

By any criteria or estimation, HIJMS URAKAZE was one of the crack destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. A modern, well-armed unit of the KAGERO Class manned by an able crew, URAKAZE was a worthy member of Desdiv 17 -- from beginning to end the Empire's top destroyer division -- and more often than not it's flagship. With Desdiv 17 she steamed always in the forefronts of the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to Midway, up the Solomons chain, and across the broad Pacific to and beyond Leyte Gulf. And in none of these many desperate battles lost and won was URAKAZE ever seriously damaged.

But one of a destroyer's most important roles is that of antisubmarine platform, and in this area URAKAZE's record would fall from superior to fatally flawed. In fact, during the last year of her career, URAKAZE would set a most unenviable record, probably unmatched by any other escort in any man's navy, for combat tonnage torpedoed out from under a destroyer's escort, including in the end URAKAZE herself.

The first two years of URAKAZE's war were relatively submarine-free, or at least none got the better of her. But in the early months the Imperial Navy ruled the waves and even the U.S. submarine force was reeling, while later URAKAZE was usually to be found in waters too hot even for subs, especially in and around the Solomons.

As the war moved north from those island passages and inner seas into bluer waters, URAKAZE dutifully moved ever more into the role of shipping escort, if only with that same reluctance and disdain for antisubmarine warfare shared by the entire Combined Fleet. In the months of April through October 1943 she successfully covered at least ten convoys (most of them valuable troop movements to New Guinea) and another half- dozen major fleet movements with few if any losses. And then the worm began to turn.

Commander Yoshida Shooichi had been in command less than three months, and Captain Miyazaki Toshio (Comdesdiv 17) had just come aboard in October, when URAKAZE weathered the U.S. carrier attacks on Rabaul of 5 and 11 November 1943 with only minor strafing damage. URAKAZE and Desron 10 flagship AGANO quit Rabaul for Truk early on the 12th, but had not gone far when they were attacked by submarine USS SCAMP (SS-277). The cruiser was struck squarely amidships by a torpedo and left immobilized with 90 dead. Aided by a glassy sea, URAKAZE was able to frustrate the sub's further efforts to finish the job, and later removed an injured Rear Admiral Osugi Morikazu from crippled AGANO. Other Japanese warships were soon on the scene and, with NAGARA towing and URAKAZE behind, were able to get AGANO back to Truk and alongside repair ship AKASHI on the 16th.

This incident heralded a new and tormenting chapter in URAKAZE's career, as American submarines would harry her mercilessly for the remainder of her days. And the next such instance was not long in coming.

A task force comprising light carrier ZUIHO, escort carriers UNYO and CHUYO, heavy cruiser MAYA, and destroyers AKEBONO, SAZANAMI, USHIO and URAKAZE departed Truk for Yokosuka on 30 November 1943. American code-breakers got wind of this important sailing -- so heavy in flat-tops -- and directed USS SAILFISH (SS-192) onto the Japanese course. The sub found the task force on the evening of 3 December as they steered into the teeth of a typhoon, and promptly put a torpedo into CHUYO. Heavy seas and communications foul-ups slowed URAKAZE's response to the stricken carrier's signals, and CHUYO had been brought to a halt by a second SAILFISH torpedo by the time URAKAZE and MAYA arrived alongside several hours later. Even then their screening efforts were futile, and persistent SAILFISH finally finished CHUYO off in a third attack launched a full ten hours after the first. Japan's submarine commander would later cite SAILFISH's skill and tenacity as examples to be followed by his own submariners.

CHUYO sank in only six minutes after the third hit, and loss of life on board was extremely heavy. URAKAZE was able to pull 130 men out of the water and SAZANAMI a further 30, but some 1,250 others went down with the ship. Among them were 20 American prisoners from USS SCULPIN (SS-191), sunk off Truk the previous month by Desdiv 4's YAMAGUMO. Twenty of SCULPIN's survivors reached Japan safely on UNYO, but only one survived the sinking of CHUYO.

Over the next five months URAKAZE continued her escort duties with another nine convoys and three fleet movements. These followed the contraction of the Empire's periphery back through the Central Pacific and the withdrawal of Combined Fleet from Truk to Lingga and Tawitawi. In December 1943 Captain Miyazaki was succeeded as Comdesdiv 17 by Captain Tanii Tamotsu, who retained the division pennant in URAKAZE. And in May 1944 Lieutenant Commander Yokota Yasuteru took over as the destroyer's skipper from Commander Yoshida. This was just a month before URAKAZE sortied with Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaboro's First Mobile Fleet to meet the powerful American fast carrier task forces in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

The Empire's carrier air arm was all but destroyed on 19 June 1944, losing most of its aircraft and aircrews to their U.S. opposite numbers in the "Marianas Turkey Shoot." Two of Japan's biggest aircraft carriers were also lost that black day, but to U.S. submarines rather than aircraft -- and one of them was URAKAZE's charge.

As befitted its veteran status, Desdiv 17 accompanied Admiral Ozawa's own flag group (Force A) of three fleet carriers, and its destroyers were engaged in planeguard duties connected with the launch of air strikes on the Americans when USS CAVALLA (SS- 244) attacked. It has been recorded that URAKAZE seemed completely oblivious to this threat until a salvo of six torpedoes actually went boiling past her stern, and three of them slammed into carrier SHOKAKU. URAKAZE's counterattack caused only slight damage to CAVALLA, but for mighty SHOKAKU the end had finally come. The Pearl Harbor veteran burned and exploded for three hours, gradually settling by the bow before finally capsizing in mid-afternoon. URAKAZE assisted in the rescue of her survivors, but only 800 of SHOKAKU's crew of close to 2,000 could be saved. These were transferred to MAYA during a brief stopover at Okinawa on 22 June as the diminished and defeated fleet retreated back to Japan.

Following repairs and revictualling the heavy gun-ships of Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo's Second Fleet deployed southward from Japan to Lingga, and Desdiv 17 went with them. Its destroyers were thus again in the front ranks of the Japanese Navy's last best hope when Admiral Kurita sortied from there in late October 1944 to contest the Allied amphibious assault on Leyte in the Philippines.

Desdiv 17 accompanied the rear echelon of the Kurita force on 23 October 1944, so for once URAKAZE was not a party to the U.S. submarine attacks that opened the Battle of Leyte Gulf that morning by sinking ATAGO and MAYA and severely damaging TAKAO. But Captain Tanii's destroyers subsequently shared fully in the shame of the defeat off Samar on the 25th, when the vaunted Long-Lancers of Desdiv 17 were heroically and soundly outfought by their outnumbered and outgunned American counterparts. By their end URAKAZE had fought through the Leyte Gulf actions with only minor damage to near-misses and strafing in the ceaseless American air attacks.

After retreating from Philippine waters to Brunei on Borneo's north coast and licking its many wounds there for two weeks, Admiral Kurita was ordered to return with his fleet's remnants to Japan. Desdiv 17 left Brunei for the hazardous return voyage on 16 November with YAHAGI and battleships YAMATO, NAGATO and KONGO. Small destroyers UME and KIRI of Desdiv 43 also escorted the fleet as far as Formosa, which was passed on the 20th. And then early the following morning URAKAZE's misfortunes with enemy submarines reached their final and fatal nadir.

The submarine this time was USS SEALION (SS-315), which tracked the Japanese for several hours before going in on the surface under cover of darkness to launch salvos of six and three torpedoes. Possibly three of the former struck KONGO, which initiallly continued on seemingly little affected. But KONGO was torn apart several hours later in a massive explosion, and thus became the only Japanese battleship to be sunk by a sub during the war. HAMAKAZE and ISOKAZE were able to save but 13 officers and 224 men.

SEALION's second salvo was also aimed at a battleship, but missed and found ill- starred URAKAZE on the far side of the fleet instead. One of the torpedoes apparently touched off a magazine, for the resulting explosion was fearsome and the sinking swift. URAKAZE's crew had grown to 308 during the war from its original 239, and every last man of them, of course including Captain Tanii and Lieutenant Commander Yokota, were lost with their ship.

Just over a week later Desdiv 17 was tasked with the escort of brand-new SHINANO from Yokosuka to the Inland Sea. When, on the morning of 29 November 1944, torpedoes from USS ARCHERFISH (SS-311) began exploding along the giant carrier's length to fatally damage her, the warrior spirit of URAKAZE doubtless shuddered.....

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