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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

Abe had seen his share of war. He was captain of the destroyer Kazagumo at the ferocious Battle of Midway in June of 1942. American dive-bombers had mortally wounded four proud Japanese aircraft carriers including the Hiryu, the flagship vessel of Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. Even though it was clear the carrier could not survive her wounds, Abe eased his destroyer alongside to offer help in fighting the inferno and to give water to the men who were still trying vainly to save the ship. Finally, early in the morning, Admiral Yamaguchi gave the order to the ship’s captain, Tomeo Kaku, to abandon ship.

With 800 hands assembled on the deck of the doomed carrier, and with Toshio Abe watching from the bridge of his nearby destroyer, Yamaguchi made an emotional speech in which he accepted blame for the loss of the carrier and vowed to ride the ship down to his death. Captain Kaku expressed his own desire to go down with his ship in disgrace as well. The two men then ordered Abe and the other nearby destroyer skippers to torpedo the damaged ship once the crew was off, assuring the Americans would not capture her hulk.


Just as the sun rose that morning, its rays mockingly resembling the Japanese flag, Captain Abe gave the command to fire their torpedoes, sending the carrier, her admiral, and her captain to a deep, watery grave.

The war took a sharp downturn for Japan after Midway. Now, more than ever, they needed the super-carrier completed and headed for the Philippines where the Americans were already advancing on the Japanese garrison at Leyte. There was no one else to send.Two other carriers, including the Shokaku, the target Joe Enright had missed on his first patrol, had recently been lost to American subs off the Marianas. In addition, the super-battleship Musashi, originally one of Shinano’s sisters, had been sunk at the battle for Leyte Gulf. The colossal carrier was their last and best hope.

Japanese Naval headquarters rushed Shinano to completion. Once she was seaworthy and her sea trials completed in the confines of Tokyo Bay, Toshio Abe was ordered to take the carrier to a rendezvous with what was left of the rest of the fleet near Kure, in the Inland Sea. That was a protected body of water almost completely surrounded by the main Japanese islands. He was to leave his covered berth on November 28. In order to get to the rendezvous, though, he would have to take the ship out of the bay for the first time and steer her through open ocean, an area where he was certain that the American subs were lurking sneakily, waiting to attack.

Still, he was confident of his chances of successfully making the run. He was convinced that his new ship’s 27-knot speed was enough to easily outrun any submarine the Americans had. Also, the ship was heavily fortified, especially against dive-bombers. But she was also protected against torpedoes. She was equipped with large metal bulges below the waterline, called "blisters."These were designed to cause any torpedoes to explode well before they could reach the ship’s main hull. That limited them to only minor damage. However, because of all the weight from the other armament she carried, Shinano only had half the amount of "blisters" as the Yamato and Musashi, and they were installed farther below the waterline, at the depth where the American submarine captains seemed to prefer shooting their torpedoes when the targets were larger.

A week before he was to sortie, intelligence officers seemed to confirm Abe’s suspicions. A wolf pack of American submarines had left the Marianas, bound for the waters off Honshu, the island on which Tokyo Bay was located. There had also been at least seven submarines operating in the waters near Honshu in the last few weeks, sinking picket boats and generally wreaking havoc. Abe had a chart on the wall on the bridge of Shinano with Xs marking the spots where the American submarines had struck. There was no doubt they were all forming up out there, that they were waiting for him to steam out into the open sea.

Of course, Abe could not have known that those seven subs he was hearing about, called "Burt’s Brooms," had no inkling of his existence. They had been sweeping the area of Japanese picket boats so they would not be able to warn the defense forces of a planned attack on the mainland by the U.S. Third Fleet. But now, the Americans had determined that the subs were attracting far too much attention and would hinder more than help the planned approach. That attack was later postponed and, by the time Shinano left Tokyo Bay, the submarines had already been dispersed and sent to other areas. Abe never learned, either, that the submarines coming his way from the Marianas would never make it to the waters off Honshu. They were forced back by stronger than expected resistance, bad weather, and bad luck.

But then the captain was faced with a greater and more immediate threat to Shinano than the American submarine wolf packs. A threat that would ensure the carrier must leave the harbor as soon as possible. The same intelligence briefing that told of the submarines also warned Abe that there would almost certainly be heavy bombing in the next few days by the American B-29 Superfortresses. It was no longer safe to leave the massive carrier in the shipyard. Still, even with that knowledge, Captain Abe wanted to wait a few more days before leaving. Flooding tests on the ship’s various compartments had not been completed. His request was denied without comment after American bombers struck hard at the Nakajima aircraft factory near Tokyo on November 24 and then again on the 27th.

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