Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Earth Turns Toward Heaven

A Kaiten Type 1 being trial-launched from the light cruiser Kitakami.

One early November morning, personnel at Otsushima, a submarine base on a barren island near the southern tip of Honshu, mustered for a special ceremony. Officers, sailors and trainees lined up at attention under a cold, cloudy sky on either side of a long walkway sloping from the headquarters building of Special Base Unit One down to the docks. Three IJN submarines—I-36, I-37, and I-47—were lined up, their crews turned out and standing at attention along the subs’ rails. Mounted atop the deck of each sub, forward of the conning tower, were four objects which, considering their size, shape, construction, and deep black hue, might have been each big sub’s set of quadruplets.
On cue, a coterie of twelve men, each wearing a sleek new, one-piece uniform topped by a gleaming white ceremonial headband (called a hachimaki), emerged from the headquarters building. They strode briskly through the cordon of cheers, under the fluttering banners and past the toots and thumps of a small brass band. Leading the twelve was Sub-Lieutenant Sekio Nishina.

A year before, then Ensign Nishina and another IJN junior officer, Lieutenant Hiroshi Kuroki, had sown the seeds of this day’s send-off. Both were stationed at Otsushima and consumed with devising ways to make better use of the IJN’s best, but woefully underused, weapon—the Type 93 torpedo, what Americans called the Long Lance. In losing at Midway and being chased from the Solomons, the IJN had found ever fewer opportunities to use the Type 93 against American Navy ships.
The solution Kuroki and Nishina struck upon was both elegant and audacious: increase the Type 93’s explosive payload, expand its hull to accommodate a human pilot, and configure it to be launched underwater from the deck of a fleet submarine. The two young officers then weathered months of bureaucratic intransigence to successfully champion a weapon whose final form was remarkably similar to their initial vision.

The first kaiten (roughly translated as “turn toward Heaven”) was in fact a Type 93 torpedo split and widened to make room for its pilot, additional fuel and oxygen tanks, and an explosive payload triple the size of a conventional Type 93 warhead. Throughout the development process, kaiten planners and designers had gone through the motions of including ways for kaiten pilots to flee the craft just before striking a target. Indeed, an escape hatch was built into the bottom of the craft. Still, nearly all its trainees considered the kaiten to be a subsurface Tokkotai weapon—a “sure to die” coffin.
Just two months before, kaiten prototype testing had cost Hiroshi Kuroki’s life. Trapped underwater for hours in a kaiten, Kuroki had dutifully made observations and taken notes up to the moment of his asphyxiation. This day, as Nishina made his way to the waiting submarines, he carried a ceremonial box containing Kuroki’s ashes. When the twelve men (each, including Nishina, now a fully trained kaiten pilot) reached the docks, there was a hushed pause as the pilots bowed before a Shinto shrine. Then, in groups of four, the kaiten pilots went aboard the subs to which they’d been assigned.
Each climbed atop one of the kaitens and, brandishing ceremonial swords they’d received as gifts, waived triumphantly to the cheering well-wishers. Crewmen soon cast off lines, and the subs got underway for a top secret destination and one-way missions for the twelve kaitens.

Kaiten crew members salute aboard I-47 Submarine

Ulithi, seen through the periscope of Japanese submarine I-47 on the morning of 19 November, was indeed a target paradise. The I-47 hovered just below the surface near islands on the west side of the atoll. Lieutenant Commander Zenji Orita, I-47’s skipper, sighted three cruisers and, beyond to the southwest, the outsized profiles of battleships and aircraft carriers. Other ships were moored at the center of the harbor, and distant wisps of stack smoke confirmed the presence of still more.

There was no need to doubt the accuracy of aerial reconnaissance reports relayed to the kaiten mother submarines. Ulithi lagoon was crammed: four fleet aircraft carriers, three battleships, and numerous cruisers, destroyers, transports, oilers, and other auxiliary vessels—perhaps two hundred ships in all.
Beginning with Sekio Nishina, I-47’s CO Orita gave each of the kaiten pilots a chance to look through the scope. Nishina stared for two long minutes before abruptly relinquishing the scope to the next man. Later that day he wrote in his diary of the “golden opportunity to use kaiten.”

One of the ships Orita, Nishina, and the three other kaiten pilots may have seen through I-47’s periscope on the morning of the 19th was auxiliary oiler Mississinewa (Miss), part of Service Squadron (ServRon) 10. After completing an early underway replenishment (unrep) in the Philippine Sea, Miss had returned to Ulithi on 15 November. The crew spent all the next day filling Miss’s tanks to near capacity: 404,000 gallons of aviation gas, 9,000 barrels of diesel oil, and 90,000 barrels of fuel oil. Miss then moved to anchorage in berth No. 131 near sister oilers Lackawanna (AO-40) and Cache (AO-67).

For Miss’s three-hundred-man crew the days were mostly filled with routine drudgery and overwhelming heat. At night, though, there might be a break (at least for those not on watch)—a chance to watch a movie under Ulithi’s open, secure skies. The movie for the night of 19 November was Black Parachute, a spy thriller about secret agents battling Nazis.

After the movie, some sailors headed belowdecks to bunks in the sauna-like berthing compartments. Others, like Winston Whitten, 22, chose to spend the night topside. Whitten, a tool and dye maker before the war and now a 1st Class motor machinist’s mate, had taken in the screening of Black Parachute before standing midwatch in Miss’s engine room. Relieved from watch at 0400, Whitten and a buddy, instead of bunking below, strapped hammocks to stanchions on Miss’s after cargo deck. They joined dozens of other Miss crewmen already asleep here and on the forward cargo deck. It was cooler—at least compared to the engineering spaces and berthing compartments. Through breaks in the ever-threatening monsoon clouds, they also got a tropical sky full of stars.

Earlier that same evening, over a farewell dinner, the kaiten pilots toasted their mission with fine sake in ceremonial lacquer bowls, a gift reported to be from the Emperor himself. After dinner the four men purified themselves with spring water and all, except Sekio Nishina, shaved and trimmed their hair. They then retired to their bunks and their thoughts.

At 0300, Nishina and another of the kaiten pilots crawled through watertight access tunnels connecting I-47’s interior with the bottom hatches of their kaitens. These hatch exits—ostensibly installed as escape routes for the kaiten pilots—now doubled as entrances. Unfortunately, it had only been possible to equip each mother submarine with two of these conduits. Accordingly, just after midnight, I-47 had surfaced briefly to permit the two other kaiten pilots to enter their craft to await the launch. Then I-47 submerged for its final approach into Ulithi.

The launches began at 0415. Nishina’s craft was released first; the others followed at five-minute intervals. All four kaitens were underway by 0430, each tracking independently to a specific target area within the lagoon, each scheduled to strike at 0500.

The kaiten pilots could adjust their crafts’ depth, attack course, and speed by manipulating controls for diving planes, a rudder and a valve mechanism that helped steady the craft by letting in seawater as fuel was consumed. The ideal speed was 20 to 30 knots, the ideal depth was fifteen feet—a piloting challenge under the best of conditions and a consummate feat for men about to die. For all intents and purposes, each traveled blind. Instructed not to rise to periscope depth until just before impact, the pilots depended on initial target bearing and range, adjusting en route to the readings of their gyro-compasses and stopwatches.

By 0545 the day had already begun for many of the crewmen on ships moored at Ulithi. The sky was filling with light and predawn C.A.P.; the calm harbor waters below were scribbled by the wakes of whaleboats, harbor shuttles, and patrol craft. Aboard Miss, Fernando (Cookie) Cuevas, 33, had been awake since well before reveille. Cookie Cuevas and two other cooks were busy in Miss’s crew galley, located in the deckhouse aft, readying breakfast.

Herb Daitch, the ship’s No. 2 winch operator was also awake and sitting on the edge of his bunk when, at 0547, Miss’s aviation forward gas storage tanks exploded. The blast concussion tossed Daitch and other sailors in the compartment to the deck like bowling pins. Cookie Cuevas was checking a galley oven when he was knocked down too. Cuevas didn’t know what it was, but it felt big and bad. He grabbed a life jacket and headed to the crew quarters one deck below.

Sleep turned to a cauldron—a waking, living, and dying nightmare—for men who’d been sleeping on Miss’s forward cargo deck. Most were set on fire, 15 were killed instantly. On the after cargo deck, sailors like Whitten, who’d suffered no worse than a hard fall from his hammock, raced forward on the starboard side only to be chased back by the intense heat.

In officer’s country above decks on the port side, the blast woke Charley Scott with a start. He instinctively jumped from his upper bunk only to land on the shoulders of his roommate Jim Lewis. Once they’d untangled themselves, Scott and Lewis looked through their porthole, but couldn’t see what happened. Both men jumped into trousers and shoes, and ran out to investigate. Though he had seen nothing yet, Scott was all but certain Miss was doomed.

On his way from the galley, Cookie Cuevas woke sailors in the berthing compartments. When he reached the stern, the ship’s midsection was rocked by another explosion. The noise of this explosion rose above the screams of injured men. Then came the panic-mad whoops and bells of calls to battle stations from ships all across the lagoon.

Already, a flaming oil skim was hugging Miss’s hull forward, flowing aft like a turgid river. While there were some patches of black slick near the stern and more forming, there were also huge swaths of translucent lagoon water—a sight once so ordinary now turned vital for those trying to escape. Some sailors jumping into the water picked their spots carefully, while others dove blindly. Winston Whitten, one of the first over the port side, was scooped up by Miss’s own whaleboat, which soon headed for oiler Lackawanna, loaded to the gunwales with survivors.

For a few minutes Charley Scott thought he was trapped on Miss’s superstructure, but he managed to find a ladder leading down to the main deck. He also jumped off the port side, well clear of the oil, and swam a strong stroke to get as far away as possible. A whaleboat from Cache stopped and offered to pick him up, but Scott declined, motioning the coxswain to keep heading toward Miss.

Herb Daitch was purposely not wearing a life jacket as he readied himself to jump—and he urged others around him to take theirs off too. Daitch knew if he ended up surrounded by oil, he’d have to get underwater fast. Cookie Cuevas, meanwhile, faced a momentary dilemma. Frank Lutz, Miss’s Chief Commissary Steward, standing calmly on the fantail kept telling Cuevas: “You’ve got plenty of time.” Lutz was Cuevas’s boss, and he didn’t want to seem disrespectful, but finally he couldn’t wait any longer. “I’m gone!” Cuevas yelled back to Lutz as he dropped over the side.

At 0830, Miss rolled and sank into the sandy bottom of Ulithi’s spotless lagoon. Many of her 63 fatalities went with her, entombed in a hulk that continued to leak oil for decades. Others, including Frank Lutz, failed to make it out of the water alive. Survivors Daitch and Whitten ended the morning on Lackawanna and Cookie Cuevas on Enoree (AO-69). Charley Scott finally made it to Cache, which also sheltered Jim Lewis and Miss CO Philip Beck. Scott doubled as Miss’s communications officer, so he spent the rest of the day on Cache’s bridge, communicating by TBS with other ships to track down the locations of survivors.

Lexington was then at Ulithi undergoing round-the-clock repair. Blue Ghost diarist Bob Davis sensed the pace of repair would soon send them back at sea. Meanwhile, in the way of sailors who learned to compartmentalize war’s tragedies, Davis had only a brief entry about the “two-man subs” across the lagoon. “Luckily we spotted them before they did too much damage. They did blow up one of our tankers, tho.”

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