Sunday, August 23, 2015

Kongo and Taiwan

The battlecruiser Kongo in her WWI configuration, as she would have appeared in 1923. Some of my South African readers might recognize the port.

I've been a battleship nut since I was a kid, and as an adult, a Pacific War buff. Yamato may have been the mightiest of Japan's battleships, but to my mind there's no question that the greatest of them was the battleship Kongo (金剛). Kongo participated in perhaps the most effective Japanese battleship action of the war, the night bombardment of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on Oct 13, 1942. Kongo also sank the legendary Samuel B. Roberts in the desperate Battle off Samar in Oct of 1944 and put the hurt on US carriers in that battle. And Kongo also had a long association with Taiwan.

Kongo was originally built in the UK as a battlecruiser, ordered by the Japanese navy. In 1923 Hirohito, then Crown Prince and Regent since the Emperor was incapacitated, decided to tour Taiwan. In April of 1923 he embarked aboard Kongo from Yokusaka and arrived in Keelung on April 16, 1923. The Takao Club, a fantastic website, has a detailed essay on his journey in Taiwan, with numerous photos. After a week, Hirohito boarded Kongo again, from Takao (Kaohsiung) to make an inspection tour of the naval base at Makung in Penghu. Hirohito left Keelung on the 26th and returned aboard Kongo on the 26th.

In 1929 and again in 1935 Kongo received an extensive upgrade (image), and was reclassified as a fast battleship. In 1927 Kongo stopped at Makung. In 1933 she visited Taiwan and Penghu, and again in 1938 on her way to and from operations in China, stopped at Keelung and Makung.

Makung (Mako in Japanese),was upgraded to Guard District status in November of 1941. When the war began, three minesweeper divisions, three patrol vessels, three D1A aircraft, and the cargo ship Kure Maru No. 5 were based there. The port was decommissioned in 1943 and the military district moved to Takao (Kaohsiung), though it was used as a port and attacked by US planes in 1944 and '45.

On Dec 2, 1941, Kongo was at Makung in Penghu when her fleet commander received the fateful order "Niitakayama nobore (Climb Mt. Niitaka) 1208" which notified the fleet that hostilities against the US would begin on Dec 8. Mt Niitaka is of course Yushan, then the highest peak in the Japanese Empire. Kongo then moved off to the South China Sea to support the offensive against the British Empire.

In January of 1942 Kongo stopped by Makung again on her way from Camranh Bay in Vietnam to Palau to support the Japanese offensive against the United States. In 1942 she participated in the terrible fighting in the Solomons, but though she sortied several times in 1943, she did no fighting.

After the catastrophic defeat at Leyte Gulf in October of 1944, Kongo returned to Brunei. In November of 1944 she was at port in Brunei after a pointless sortie around Pratas Island (now Dongsha and controlled by the ROC). After being attacked in port by US aircraft, Kongo, undamaged, left Brunei for Kure on November 16 in the company of several other ships, including the battleship Nagato.

On the night of November 20th the division of ships entered the Formosa Strait, and for some reason, ceased zig-zagging, a regular practice of ships in formation in waters where submarines may be encountered. In the wee hours of November 21 the convoy was sighted by the US submarine Sealion. At 2:56 am Sealion fired a spread of six torpedoes, two of which apparently hit Kongo. Her boiler rooms flooded, but she was still able to make 16 knots. The flooding, however, gradually became uncontrollable. At 4:50 the group was split into two formations, with Kongo sent to Keelung along with two destroyers. The ship continued to fill with water. Within 20 minutes she had a 45 degree list and at 5:18 she lost all power. The order was given to abandon ship. Sadly, at 5:24 the ammunition in the forward 14 inch gun magazine detonated, destroying the ship and killing nearly everyone on board. Over 1200 lives were lost, and only 237 men were rescued.

Today Kongo rests in 115 meters of water just 100 kms northeast of Keelung, the port to which she once ferried a Crown Prince.

ADDED: The Sealion's attack on Kongo was actually recorded, one of a tiny handful of audio recordings of attacks by submarines during WWII.
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Jesse said...

Very interesting - a moving account of the ship
s life and tragic end. I like how you've written it from the perspective of the ship and her crew.

StefanMuc said...

Slightly bigger version of the Kongo after reconstruction picture:

StefanMuc said...

There is a little factoid I just learned while visiting Japan - they have a traditional desert there: Baumkuchen. Which surprised me, as that's a German word ("Baumkuchen" = "tree cake") and a traditional German cake. Apparently it was brought to Japan by a German baker who was captured in Tsingtao, he stayed and opened a shop in Yokohama after the end of WW I.

And ... the Kongo supported the Japanese troops in the siege of Tsingtao.

Cary said...

"Sadly," unqualified, seems an odd choice of words for the demise of an instrument of the insane Japanese imperial war machine, no matter how cool it was. Too bad for the grunts that went down with her, but that's the story of war, everywhere, throughout history.

I'm sure no tears were shed by the crew of the Sealion, or the families and comrades of American and allied troops sent to their graves by the Kongo. It was a good day when she went down.

Aaron said...

Awesome post!

Supposedly, during the battle off Leyte, the Japanese may have done far less damage than they should have because the Japanese used armor piercing shells that went straight through the thin-skinned cheap destroyer escorts without exploding. The DE's were called "tin cans" by US sailors.

Michael Turton said...

"Sadly," unqualified, seems an odd choice of words for the demise of an instrument of the insane Japanese imperial war machine, no matter how cool it was

Useless death, always sad. All of those men, like those aboard the US ships, were victims of Japanese militarism.

Anonymous said...

FYI, this docu is pretty cool:
Battle 360 Episode 9 - Battle of Leyte Gulf

Mike Fagan said...

Strictly speaking, their deaths weren't "useless"; they were actually very useful in that those men could no longer attack Allied forces.

But I agree it is sad in a more general "war is shit" kind of way.

Glen said...

Hard to see if that's Durban or Cape Town, but I'm guessing it's Cape Town.