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Posted on Jul 20, 2004 in Books and Movies

Gallant Lady: A Biography of USS Archerfish – Book Review

By Don Keith

It eventually took a sudden death and a fortuitous poker game to get Captain Joseph F. Enright back onto the bridge of a submarine where he belonged. To get him back on the way to bagging Shinano.

Thousands of miles to the west of "Gooneyville," a mammoth form was finally taking shape in Drydock #6 at the Yokosuka Navy Yard, just down the bay from Tokyo. The Shinano had been under construction for four years. In the beginning, she was intended to be a super battleship, a sister to Yamato and Musashi, some of the biggest warships ever constructed. However, the Japanese had learned a bitter lesson at the Battle of Midway. They realized that any hope of victory depended on the use of fighter aircraft launched from seagoing carriers. The decision was made to complete this behemoth as a "super aircraft carrier" instead of as a super battleship.
The ship was so massive it had to be assembled in the drydock instead of the usual slipway. Her statistics boggled the mind. She had a displacement of 72,000 tons, had a hull that was almost 840 feet long, and carried a flight deck that was 48 feet above her waterline and the size of two football fields.Powered by steam turbines, she was designed to run at a top speed of 27 knots and have a range of 10,000 miles without refueling. Her hanger deck and flight deck were built of steel almost four inches thick, backed with three feet of concrete sandwiched between steel plates, all to repel dive-bombers like the Japanese had seen wreak such havoc on their fleet at Midway.


Traditionally, the Empire’s battleships were named for the provinces of Japan. Shinano was originally named for an ancient prefecture on the main island of Honshu, an area that included Tokyo and the bay. The prefecture bore the name of the country’s longest river, which flowed through the area. The decision was made to keep the battleship name, though, even when she was completed as an aircraft carrier. That was more for superstitious reasons than practical ones. It was considered bad luck to change a ship’s name once it had been written down.
Shinano was built under an unbelievably thick veil of secrecy, even for those treacherous times. U.S. Naval Intelligence was aware that at least two of the massive battleships were under construction, and they were also aware when they were eventually launched. They had no idea whatsoever that there was a third vessel being built, that it was being converted to a carrier, or that it would be the largest warship in the world. Neither did the Japanese people, until well after the war was over.

The yard workers who were assigned to her construction were required to live in Yokosuka so the Kempeitai Secret Police could better watch them. A thick, galvanized steel fence on three sides surrounded the drydock. There was also a tall, steep cliff that effectively blocked the view of the other side. No curious eyes could see the ship at rest as she was being completed. No one was allowed to have a camera anywhere in the shipyard.Shinano was the only major warship built in that century that was not photographed during its construction. The ship could not even be mentioned, much less named, in any radio transmission. Security was so complete that there was no image or description of Shinano or anything similar in the U. S. Navy’s Recognition Manual, the book carried by all submarines to aid in identifying targets.

Security was not perfect. The United States did unwittingly snap one photo of the ship. An American B-29 bomber named "Tokyo Rose" was flying a reconnaissance mission more than 30,000 feet over Tokyo in early November, 1944. It took a picture of the bay at the same time Shinano was out of her "barn" for builders’ trials. It was a bright day, the sky free of clouds. The monstrous carrier left a huge V-shaped wake behind her as she steamed at 24 knots to practice recovering aircraft onto her deck. She showed up clearly on the photo the airplane took that day. The irony is that the picture never made it to the U.S. Submarine Command, and due to a shortage of photo interpreters, no one knew what a prize they had until well after the war was over. The secret of Shinano’s existence was still safe.

One person onboard the Shinano on that November day noticed the lone B-29 high overhead, though. And he correctly assumed a photo had been taken. However, he had no way of knowing that the picture the reconnaissance plane had snapped would never directly cause him or his new ship any harm.

Captain Toshio Abe was shocked and alarmed when he spied the plane high in the sky. Now, after all their precautions and secrecy, the Americans knew of the existence of his new super carrier. They would almost certainly be waiting for her when she was finally launched. They would arrange to target her with a wolf pack of submarines from their bases in the Marianas. There was no doubt about it.

Every decision the new vessel’s captain made in the next few fateful weeks was tinged with the belief that the enemy now knew of his top secret carrier and that they were poised en masse to destroy her as soon as she left Tokyo Bay.

Abe was an experienced officer. He was a graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy, commander of Destroyer Division 10, and an experienced torpedo officer. He was slated to receive his stars, making him a rear admiral, as soon as they took Shinano into the Inland Sea on her maiden voyage, on the way to the Philippines.

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