The Japanese destroyers truly made their mark during the war in the Pacific. Fast, heavily armed and manned by well-trained crews, they took part in some of the most memorable surface and air-sea battles of the Pacific War, but also in hundreds of lesser known actions. Those workhorses of the Imperial Navy were employed in a wide variety of roles – from direct action against enemy fleet to escort duties and even pure transport tasks. Commander Hara Tameichi rightly observes that it was the destroyers that bore the brunt of the fighting at sea, and very few among them were as good as the Kagero class warships.
Origins of the Kagero class
The Washington Treaty of 1922 seriously curtailed Japanese fleet expansion plans. In the eyes of the Japanese commanders the restrictions placed on the development of battleships and heavy cruisers, as well as the parities in numbers of capital ships in service with major naval powers were unfair and put their country at a disadvantage compared to Britain or the United States. They therefore began to look for alternative ways to offset the U.S. lead in the construction of battleships, which the Japanese admiralty considered to be the key factor in naval warfare. Being unable to match the numbers of American capital warships (due in no small part to a huge gap between the two countries’ industrial potentials) the Japanese looked for other ways to keep up with the U.S. and to secure eventual victory in the “decisive battle”, since they firmly believed that the war with the United States will be won or lost in one massive confrontation of the two fleets with the battleships playing the leading role. Any and all ideas that could potentially erode the U.S. advantage were therefore welcomed by the Japanese admiralty. One of them was the development of a force of light warships, including the destroyers.
Believing that heavily armed, long-range destroyers would make a formidable weapon against the U.S. Navy, the Japanese admiralty quickly gave a green light to the construction of this class of warships and pressed on with the development of offensive weapons and intensive crew training (including workups in night-time tactics and torpedo attacks). One of the results of that effort was the development of the superb and deadly “Long Lance” torpedo.
The turning point in the development of Japanese light warships was the introduction of the Fubuki class destroyers. In the late 1920s no other ship of that type could match the Fubuki’s offensive punch. They were the quintessential offensive weapons and solid platforms for heavy torpedo armament, manned by crews well-versed in night attack tactics. But they did have weak spots. The topside weight of their powerful armament made them rather unstable and they did not fare too well in adverse weather conditions. During exercises in 1935 several Fubuki class destroyers sustained serious structural damage after an encounter with a heavy storm. The quest for an ideal destroyer was therefore not over. The designs that followed Fubuki (Hatsuharu, Shiratsuyu and Asashio class) were not problem-free either: there were issues with their stability and propulsion systems. However, the next generation of destroyers would prove to be a fully mature design: the Kagero class warships incorporated all of their predecessors’ advantages and none of the shortcomings.
As early as 1935 the Imperial Japanese Navy made plans for the construction of at least six Destroyers Type A, which were subsequently revised to include 15 units. By the time the 3rd Naval Armaments Supplement Program was approved by the Diet in 1937 the number of Type A vessels to be built grew to eighteen. When the lead ship of the Kagero class was laid down in September 1937 the Japanese believed they had at last found a perfect combination of firepower, speed and range to gain a critical edge in the fight against the U.S. Navy. There is little doubt that the Kagero class destroyers did live up to the expectations of the Japanese naval commanders.
Characteristics of the Kagero class
The Kagero class destroyers were big, fast and heavily armed (key technical specifications are summarized in Table 1). The destroyer’s hull design incorporated the lessons learned from the construction of Kagero’s predecessors, which eliminated many of the shortcomings of the Fubuki class warships. The hull featured a double bottom design (with some of the space used as fuel tanks) and was divided into 19 watertight compartments, which improved the ship’s survivability. Kagero had all the characteristic features of contemporary Japanese destroyer designs: slender lines, 127 mm main guns mounted in a single forward and two aft turrets, relatively small superstructure, two smoke stacks and a raised forecastle running along one third of the ship’s length. The destroyer’s designers were ever mindful of the Fubuki’s Achilles’ heel and went to great lengths to ensure the Kageros were stable and robust. Welding was widely used in the construction of the ship, which significantly reduced her overall weight. Smaller, lighter superstructure (made of duralumin) provided for improved stability as did the relatively low-placed center of gravity.
The propulsion system consisting of a pair of steam turbines developing 52 000 shp and three Kampon boilers could accelerate the ship to 35 knots. The system was surprisingly fuel efficient, which translated into a projected operating range of 5 000 nm at 18 knots. During sea trials the actual range was demonstrated to be over 6 000 nm – a clear advantage for a warship operating in the vast expanse of the Pacific.
Kagero’s offensive armament can only be characterized as heavy. The main battery consisted of six 127 mm guns mounted in three lightly armored and fully enclosed turrets. The main guns had an effective range of some 19 km and were widely used on most Japanese destroyers of the time. They were considered solid weapons, although their effectiveness against airborne targets left much to be desired due to rather unimpressive angle of elevation (55°) and the rate of fire not exceeding 5 to 10 rounds per minute. The turrets’ rate of rotation was also insufficient to target fast flying U.S. Navy aircraft.
The Kageros’ real forte was their torpedoes. The ships mounted two quad Type 92 Model 4 launchers, complete with light enclosures to allow for ease of operation in bad weather conditions. Each launcher featured a simple Type 14 torpedo director, although they were only used as back-up for the main Type 91 directors and Type 92 fire control stations. En empty launcher weighed in at 18 tons and measured 8.85 m x 4.6 m x 1.3 m (length, width, height). Both launchers were mounted on the ship’s centerline. The forward launcher stood on a raised platform between the smoke stacks, while the aft one was installed directly on the deck between the aft stack and the aft deckhouse. The tubes could launch deadly effective Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes. Those marvels of Japanese weapon technology were reliable, fast, had a long range and packed a huge punch. Their unique feature was the use of highly compressed oxygen as fuel oxidizer, which not only greatly improved the torpedoes’ performance, but also reduced the tell-tail bubble trail typical for conventionally powered weapons. The Type 93 torpedo was superior to its U.S. counterpart – the Mark 15 (see Table 2). The U.S. Navy had a taste of its deadly efficiency on many occasions, including the Salomon Islands campaign. The launchers mounted on the Kagero class destroyers could be reloaded within 20–30 minutes1 and each ship carried 16 Type 93 torpedoes.
The defensive armament consisted of four 25 mm AA guns and 13 mm machine guns2. During wartime refits the ships received additional 25 mm guns (twenty in total), but the AA capability continued to be the Kageros’ weak spot. In actual combat the greatest threat to the destroyer proved to be enemy aircraft and neither 127 mm main guns, nor the 25 mm AA cannons could provide adequate protection against them. The 25 mm cannons did not have the range or the rate of fire to be truly effective anti-aircraft weapons. In addition, the 25 mm rounds were simply not powerful enough when used against aircraft. What the Imperial Navy needed was a weapon similar to 40 mm Bofors mounted on the U.S. Navy vessels. In the absence of those the best they could do was to increase the number of AA guns mounted on their warships, but that did little to truly resolve the issue of insufficient protection against airborne threats. The Kagero class destroyers were also rather limited in their ASW capabilities. The ships carried only two depth charge throwers with a supply of only 16 charges. Although that number was increased to 36 in 1943, it was still far from enough.
The electronics suite was another weak area of the Kageros. Although one of the Kagero class destroyers, the Hamakaze, did receive the Type 22 radar in 1942, the unit was far inferior to its U.S. counterparts. In fact, during the entire war the Imperial Navy stayed well behind the Americans in the development of radar technology and never managed to close that gap. One of the stop-gap measures adopted by the Japanese was the installation of E-27 radar warning receivers on their warships, although this barely scratched the surface of the real issue. During wartime refits Type 21 and Type 22 radar sets were installed on Japanese warships, but those too were not nearly as good as the similar units carried by the U.S. Navy vessels. The Japanese did have excellent binoculars that could also be used at night, but even the best of those could not compete with a potent radar set.
In summary, the Kagero class destroyers were quintessential fast warships with a huge offensive armament potential. However, by placing too much emphasis on the ships’ surface warfare capabilities, the designers failed to address the issues of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection. Deficiencies in Japanese radar technology did not help the matters either. The Japanese did try to overcome those problems, but in terms of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare their warships were outperformed by the USN vessels throughout the war. Despite those issues the Kagero class was a good design. Whatever their limitations, they were not caused by design flaws or inherent shortcomings of the vessels themselves, but rather by faulty and unrealistic naval doctrine adopted by the high command of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Development of effective medium caliber HA guns or ASW systems was well within the capabilities of Japanese naval engineers of the time. However, the Japanese naval commanders, possessed by the overwhelming offensive spirit, did not believe the defensive systems deserved more than a passing glance. This attitude caught up with them during the war in the Pacific and Kagero class destroyers were among its victims.
Kagero’s operational history
The destroyer was laid down in September 1937 and launched a year later. She was commissioned in 1939 with Lt Cdr Yokoi Minoru as her first skipper. Kagero class vessels served with Destroyer Divisions, which were part of Destroyer Squadrons. Those in turn were attached to different Fleets. Kagero was assigned to the Desdiv 18, Destroyer Squadron 2.
Although the Kagero class warships were custom-tailored for offensive surface actions, the lead ship’s wartime career consisted mainly of escort or transport operations. Before she was sunk Kagero did participate in several major surface battles, but her role was almost always limited to escorting aircraft carriers or carrying troops and supplies for the Imperial Army. It was during one of such operations that Kagero became part of one of the most famous actions involving IJN destroyers.
Initially Kagero was assigned escort duties in support of the Japanese Kido Butai, the Mobile Force, or the Combined Fleet’s carrier strike force. It quickly became apparent that the pre-war concepts of huge battleship engagements needed urgent revision. The commander of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, was a fervent supporter of carrier aviation and considered battleships to be relics of the past. Isoroku’s plan was an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor using a strike force consisting of aircraft carriers. Kagero was among the escort vessels supporting the force of six aircraft carriers that launched their deadly attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Japanese had good reasons to celebrate: most of the Pacific Fleet battleships were either sunk or severely damaged in the attack. The USN aircraft carriers escaped the slaughter, but at least for now the core of the U.S. fleet was neutralized allowing the Empire to invade the Philippines, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.
After the return from Hawaii Lt Cdr Yokoi stepped down as the ship’s commanding officer due to poor health (he died in April 1943) and was replaced by Lt Cdr Arimoto Terumichi. In January the destroyer escorted IJN aircraft carriers on their way to Truk. She then supported aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku during attacks on Lae and Salamua (New Guinea), as well as a strike on the Australian naval base at Rabaul (New Britain) The Japanese attacks were almost unopposed, which led one of Japan’s leading naval aviators, Lt Cdr Fuchida Mitsuo to comment on the use of aircraft carriers in the engagement as “a waste of time”.
In late January and early 1942 Kagero was assigned escort duties for aircraft carrier Shikaku during her transit from Truk back to Japan. Upon arrival the destroyer took part in a series of exercises and combat patrols in Japan’s home waters. In March she joined destroyers Arare and Akigumo as escort for aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku during their transit to Celebes. The ships then joined the carrier strike force steaming out to the Indian Ocean in order to engage the British Eastern Fleet and strike targets on Ceylon in support of the Imperial Army operations in Burma. The Japanese attack, led by the mighty Kido Butai, resulted in the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and two heavy cruisers. British shipping and air assets in the area also suffered heavy losses, while the Japanese force remained largely intact.
Following the operations in the Indian Ocean, Kagero returned to Japan where she underwent a refit and repairs. She then took part in the ill-fated battle of Midway, although her role was limited to escorting the Japanese Midway Invasion Force. Following her return to Japan Kagero was once more deployed on a series of escort missions, including protection for freighter Kikukawa Maru during her passage to the recently captured Kiska Island in the Aleutians. On June 20 Kagero was assigned to Desdiv 15 joining destroyers Hayashio, Kuroshio and Oyashio.
After the U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942 the Salomon Islands became the central stage of the Pacific theater. The capture of the island’s airfield by the U.S. Marines sparked a six-month campaign of relentless fighting for that tiny scrap of land. During that period there were also several naval surface engagements between the American and Japanese fleets, with neither side being able to secure a decisive victory. However, from the very beginning the U.S. air advantage had been growing steadily. It is rather ironic that Kagero, custom-built for night-time engagements and torpedo attacks, was used in the fighting in a transport role. The Japanese use of fast destroyers in re-supply missions for the island’s garrison was quickly nick-named by the Americans “Tokyo Express”. In all fairness, the fast destroyer re-supply missions were mostly very successful, but this was not the intended role of those warships.
Kagero’s first “Tokyo Express” mission took place on August 16–18, following which she took part in the shelling of American installations on the island. In the last days of the month Kagero took part in operation Ka, the Japanese effort to reinforce the Guadalcanal garrison and to destroy any intervening U.S. Navy carriers. The Japanese move led to a massive sea-air battle of the Eastern Solomons. This time Kagero was not escorting Shokaku and Zuikaku (which were involved in a direct engagement with the U.S. Navy carriers), but instead joined the task force commanded by Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo. The force consisted of a light cruiser, eight destroyers and transport ships. On the night of August 23/24 Kagero, Isokaze, Kawakaze, Mutsuki and Yayoi opened fire on Henderson Field3. On August 25 the Japanese force was attacked by U.S. aircraft, which sank one of the transports and the destroyer Mutsuki. Tanaka’s flagship, the light cruiser Jintsu was also hit by a U.S. bomb, which wounded the Admiral himself. Tanaka transferred to Kagero and the battered convoy set course for the Japanese base at Shortland. The Japanese carrier force did not fare much better: the Imperial Navy did manage to inflict serious damage to USS Enterprise, but lost the light carrier Ryujo in the process.
In late August Kagero assisted the destroyer Shirakumo on her way to base following serious damage she had suffered in a U.S. air strike. During September Kagero performed more “Tokyo Express” missions and only occasionally fired her guns at U.S. installations on Guadalcanal. On September 21 the destroyer sustained minor damage in an air raid and docked at Truk for essential repairs, thus missing an opportunity to take part in the battle of Cape Esperance on the night of October 11/12. The Japanese sank a U.S. Navy destroyer in the battle for a cost of one of their own destroyers and a heavy cruiser. Once again the clash did not produce a clear winner with both sides disengaging with bloodied noses. The Japanese made one more offensive effort in late October, but it too quickly ground to a halt. The Japanese land offensive against Henderson Field was a complete fiasco, but the Americans did lose USS Hornet off Santa Cruz Islands, while USS Enterprise was once again seriously damaged. The battle came at a hefty cost to the Imperial Navy, which lost many of its aircraft and aircrew. In addition, two of the IJN carriers sustained battle damage. For the Japanese forces this may have been a tactical victory, but certainly a strategic defeat. During the fighting Kagero along with destroyers Harusame, Murasame, Oyashio, Samidare and Yudachi was tasked with providing protection for the support force commanded by Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo, which included battleships Kongo and Haruna.
The Guadalcanal campaign finally came to an end in mid November with a series of surface battles between American and Japanese battleships. During the decisive engagement on the night of November 14/15 the Americans sank the fast battleship Kirishima and forced the Japanese to retreat. From that moment on the U.S. forces would fight the battle on their own terms. In those final stages of the campaign Kagero was part of the support force and performed escort operations for troop convoys, which, once again, was a rather wasteful way of employing a destroyer. The November fighting was all about night-time surface battles, an ideal environment for a Kagero class vessel. Despite being relegated to escort duties Kagero launched a torpedo attack against the battleship USS Washington (at least according to some of the available sources), but failed to hit the American warship.
The American superiority in the region did not mean the end of the “Tokyo Express” missions, although they did become significantly more risky. The Americans not only ruled the waters around Guadalcanal, but also maintained air superiority. In the second half of November Kagero escorted several Japanese warships, including the damaged destroyer Umikaze before running another “Tokyo Express” mission at the end of the month. Six of the eight destroyers taking part in the re-supply run (including Kagero) were loaded with waterproof containers designed to stay afloat once off-loaded from the ships. In order to make room for the supplies, the torpedo reloads were removed from the destroyers’ decks, limiting their war-fighting capabilities. To make matters worse, the U.S. forces in the area received intelligence about the upcoming operation and launched a task force consisting of five cruisers (four of which were in the heavy class) and four destroyers to interdict the Japanese supply convoy. The U.S. force packed enough punch to stop Rear Admiral Tanaka’s ships in their tracks. On November 29 the Japanese ships steamed out of Buin hoping to reach Cape Tassafaronga on the following day. Late in the night the American radars picked up the convoy led by Tanaka’s flag ship, destroyer Naganami. Having approached the coastal waters Tanaka ordered the ships to slow down to 12 knots, when he received an urgent message from Takanami: “Possible enemy ships, bearing 100”. A moment later another message confirmed contact with seven enemy destroyers. At 23.30 the U.S. Navy warships launched the first salvo of torpedoes, followed by a barrage of fire from their guns. Soon a mix of 203, 152 and 127 mm shells literarily rained down on the Japanese force. However, the Americans made a mistake of focusing their fire on only one of the eight enemy destroyers. Although Takanami was all but blown to pieces by the U.S. fire, she did manage to launch her torpedoes before going down. The remaining IJN destroyers quickly responded with a massive torpedo counterattack, something that Tanaka’s people could do very well indeed. The Japanese warships let loose as many as 20 torpedoes, although in this phase of the engagement Kagero, laden with the supply containers, did not get a chance to use her “Long Lance” weapons. The Japanese response was indeed devastating: the heavy cruiser USS Minneapolis received two hits that put her out of action; USS New Orleans was hit only once, but the torpedo caused a massive explosion in the ammunition magazines, which tore off the ships bow, complete with the forward gun turret, while USS Pensacola sustained serious damage after taking a single “Long Lance” hit. The least lucky of the U.S. force was heavy cruiser USS Northampton which found herself at the receiving end of as many as eight “Long Lances” launched by the destroyer Oyashio. Two of the torpedoes found their mark dealing a deadly blow to the ship and her crew. The victorious Tanaka now proceeded to regroup. Destroyers Kagero and Kuroshio launched their torpedoes at the burning U.S. ships hoping to finish them off, but this time they missed. If they had not, the U.S. losses would have been much greater. Tanaka’s force scored a brilliant victory, although it did exactly nothing to alter the results of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Kagero spent December running re-supply missions for Guadalcanal and for the newly established Munda airfield (New Georgia). On December 16 the ship sustained minor damage in an air attack by SBD Dauntless dive bombers. The re-supply missions for Guadalcanal garrison continued until mid January, although they did little to help the Imperial troops, decimated by diseases and starving to death. On the last day of December a decision was made to evacuate the 11 000 exhausted Japanese troops from the island. The extraction operation, conducted in early February by the IJN destroyers, was a brilliant success, but, clearly, this is not how wars are won. Kagero took part in the operation as one of the protection vessels.
Americans waited five months after the end of the Guadalcanal campaign to launch another offensive. Which is not to say that all was quiet around the Solomons: there were still frequent skirmishes involving air and sea assets from both sides and the IJN destroyers took the brunt of the fighting. Cmdr Hara Tameichi complained that the Imperial Navy command used the destroyers as an expandable asset that can be put to work 24 hours a day. The destroyers did score occasional victories, but there was little their crews could do to have a serious impact on the outcome of the war in the Pacific. Their efforts were in stark contrast to a largely passive stance of the majority of Japanese battleships.
The destroyers deployed to the Solomons and New Guinea continued to be used as transport ships. In an attempt to reinforce their presence in the Solomons the Japanese established Munda airfield on New Georgia. That did not escape the attention of the U.S. intelligence and it was not long before the airfield came under attacks by U.S. aircraft and surface ships. The Japanese tried their best to maintain their own presence in the air and went to great lengths to re-supply the Imperial Army troops on New Georgia and the surrounding islands. However, in the face of growing enemy presence the re-supply missions were too risky to be performed by freighters. Lessons learned from Guadalcanal and the disastrous results of the battle of the Bismarck Sea4 clearly demonstrated that transports, even with a strong escort, stood little chance against air attacks. The re-supply missions were therefore handed once more to destroyers and submarines. Once more modern and capable warships were relegated to risky troop carrying duties and re-supply missions. Most of such operations were successful, although there were some losses as well. It was on one of such missions (re-supply of the Japanese garrison on Kolombangara, an island near New Guinea) that Kagero’s luck would run out.
In February and March the destroyer underwent a refit and repairs at Kure. In late March she took to the sea with three other destroyers as escort for carriers Junyo and Hiyo on their way to Truk. In late April the ship arrived at Shortland, from where she would carry out re-supply missions in support of the Japanese troops on Kolombangara. The first operation took place on May 3 and went without a glitch. However, the one that follow would be the destroyer’s final mission.
In addition to air and surface attacks, the U.S. forces made life difficult for the Imperial Navy using mines laid by ships and aircraft. On the night of May 6/7 three old ex-destroyers converted into fast mine-layers (USS Breese, USS Gamble and USS Preble), escorted by the destroyer USS Radford, laid some 250 Mark 6 mines across Blackett Strait, separating Kolombangara from New Guinea. Due to poor weather and diversionary actions by American cruisers, the Japanese were unaware of the new threat.
On the following night the ships of Desdiv 15, including destroyers Kagero, Kuroshio and Oyashio, entered the waters of Blackett Strait carrying 18 tons of cargo and 300 troops. The ships made it to shore safely, unloaded the supplies and picked up 300 ground troops heading back to Rabaul. Shortly before dawn the destroyers were underway again following the same route. The tragic end of Desdiv 15 began when Oyashio, the division’s flagship, hit one of the American mines which put her propulsion system out of action. Initially the Japanese believed Oyashio was attacked by a submarine and they moved in to form a protective umbrella around the damaged ship – a costly mistake as it would soon turn out. At 04.50 Kagero (a veteran of 14 re-supply missions) hit what was most likely three U.S. mines and sat dead in the water. An hour later Kuroshio, still trying to protect her sister ships, hit another mine, which damaged her steering gear. Before long the destroyer drifted into more mines, which sealed her fate sending her to the bottom with 83 crew members. Kagero and Oyashio continued to drift until May 8. The Japanese did send the distress signal and hoped that destroyers Hagikaze and Umikaze would reach them in time to save them. However, the Australian coast watcher Lt A. R. Evans spotted the battered destroyers first and called in an air strike. A 454 kg bomb dropped by an SBD Dauntless scored a direct hit on Oyashio, but the destroyer remained afloat. Kagero too was still kicking, despite several bombs exploding right off her hull. The second wave of dive bombers appeared in the afternoon and scored two hits on the wounded destroyer5. Both ships came to grief in the evening of May 8. Still drifting, Oyashio hit the coral reef, capsized and sank at 08o 08’ S, 155o 55’ E. Kagero finally sank at around 22.00 taking with her 18 of her crew (36 crew members suffered wounds). The survivors, including the ship’s skipper, were picked up by Japanese Army barges, whose crews labored until May 12 before further search was called off.
It is commonly believed that 18 Kagero class destroyers were built. According to the research by a Japanese naval historian Tamura Toshio there were in fact 19 vessels in that class. Toshio claims that the destroyer Akigumo (traditionally classified as member of the Yugumo class) was in fact a Kagero class warship. Of the 19 ships built only one – Yukikaze – survived the war with all of her sister ships being lost in combat. At least six Kagero class destroyers went down in the waters off the Solomon Islands. As far as direct causes of their losses are concerned, six were sunk by enemy aircraft, five were lost in surface actions, four fell victim to submarines and one went down after hitting mines. Two other destroyers (including Kagero) were finished off by USN aircraft after suffering damage from enemy mines.
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1 Some sources claim that the reload time was in fact even shorter.
2 Not all sources confirm the use of this type of weapons on the IJN destroyers. It is likely though that the lessons learned in combat operations led to the installation of 13 mm machine guns in the AA role.
3 The name of the landing strip on Guadalcanal was chosen to commemorate one of the U.S. aviators killed during the Battle of Midway.
4 In early March the Japanese effort to re-supply the ground forces on New Guinea ended in a wholesale massacre of the convoy by Allied aircraft. The Japanese lost eight transports and four destroyers in addition to a large part of the personnel of 51st Division embarked on the troop carrying ships.
5 Some sources mention only one attack by U.S. dive bombers.
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