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The Sinking of the Shinano

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On 28 November, 1944, Commander Joseph F Enright, captain of the submarine USS Archerfish, gave the order to fire his boat's torpedoes at a Japanese aircraft carrier. He sunk the largest warship ever to be sunk by a submarine. The problem was that nobody believed him, because the ship didn't exist.

USS Archerfish

With war on the horizon, the United States needed a new design of submarine. It envisioned the 'fleet submarine', a craft with the surface speed and endurance to sail with a battlefleet, then to scout out and whittle down the enemy before the big guns of the cruisers and battleships engaged. They build the Gato class of submarines, much larger than British and German designs since they were going to need to hold fuel and supplies for a three month trip across the Pacific and back. 77 Gatos were built, and they enjoyed much success, but not in the role they were built for. With the destruction of the US battleships at Pearl Harbor, the Gatos were used as commerce raiders, a task they were equally suited to.

However, technology moved fast, and only a couple of years later, the new and improved design was in production, the Balao Class. These boats were crewed by 10 officers and 70 enlisted sailors. They were diesel-electric powered, with four diesel engines driving generators when on the surface and using battery power under the waves. They were able to reach 20 knots above the waves and nearly nine underwater, where it could dive until over 400 feet (120 metres) below the surface and stay submerged for 48 hours. It had six forward and four aft torpedo tubes and a compliment of 24 21-inch torpedoes. To deal with smaller craft on the surface, it had a single 5 inch (127mm) deck gun. The Balaos Class displaced 1,500 tons on the surface and 2,400 when submerged. 128 were made and one of these was SS-311, USS Archerfish.

What was it like on board Archer-Fish? Close. And quiet. Very quiet. Most of the time you could hear a pin drop.
Usually we were at duty stations four hours on and eight hours off. People think it would be cold in a sub, but it's just the opposite. Most of the time we only wore cutoff dungarees and T-shirts.
The air you trap when you go down... that's what you're stuck with, After 10 hours, a match wouldn't burn. Then we had another three hours, maybe four before it got really bad.

- Submariner and radio operator on Archerfish Don Deiss.

Her first patrol was in December 1943 and although she attacked a few ships, she didn't register any sinkings. Her next three patrols were equally fruitless, with the exception of saving a downed pilot.

Archerfish was Enright's second chance at command. After commanding USS Dace, he had requested he be relieved by somebody better able to command. He had six months as an administrator on Midway before he was granted a second chance, something that rarely happens.

The Yamoto Class

As the Imperial Japanese Navy planned for the future, they saw there were problems. The vision of a Japanese Pacific empire would surely ruffle the feathers of the United States and the United Kingdom. The Royal Navy was the largest in the world, but had to protect the United Kingdom and all its colonies across the world, but the US Navy didn't have this obligation. Moreover, the industrial might of the US would mean that it could easily produce more ships than Japan. The Japanese solution was to build a battleship that could take on multiple enemy battleships.

The size of battleships, their armament and even their construction was limited by international treaties. Japan withdrew from these and began work on the largest battleships of all time, the Yamoto class.

The Japanese had two crucial advantages, the first was that all the major American shipyards were on the East Coast, so their warships were designed to fit through the Panama canal, which limited their size.

The second was that Japan was an insular society where foreigners stood out, it was easy to keep a secret. In fact, the basic details of the Yamoto class ships were not known to the Allies until after the war. They thought they were facing battleships the size of Germany's Bismarck, 45,000 tons, but armed with 16 inch (400mm) guns. They totally underestimated the behemoth they would be facing.

While the British had tried to use 18 inch guns on a few warships, they were always in single gun turrets. Yamoto had nine 18.1-inch (46cm) guns in three triple gun turrets that could fire shells of over a ton in weight 26 miles (40km). Each turret alone weighed more than a destroyer. It had formidable secondary armament as well; by the end of its life it had six 155mm (6.1 inch) and 24 127mm (5.0 inch) guns. Its anti-aircraft armament consisted of 162 25mm (0.98 inch) and four 13.2mm (0.52 inch) guns.

It was massively armoured, yet the engines could still move the 73,000 ton beast through the water at 27 knots (50km/h or 31mph) as fast as most modern battleships. Still the Allies knew very little about the enemy they would face.

Yamoto was launched in summer 1940 and commissioned into service in December 1941, with her sister ship Musashi following her into service the next summer. Secrecy was so important, that when Musashi was launched from her yard in Nagasaki, the city conducted a mass air-raid drill so people wouldn't be able to see her. This was fortunate, as the effect of her hitting the water was to cause a metre high tsunami that flooded parts of the city and overturned fishing boats!

Musashi was the ship that Admiral Yamamoto departed from to direct a military operation in April 1943. American code-breakers found the orders and US P-38 Lightening fighters shot his plane down. Musashi was never involved in any surface battles. Her and her task-force made a sortie into the North Pacific in May of that year but found nothing, and again found nothing at Wake Island in October. She was torpedoed by USS Tunny in March 1944 which blew a 6 metre hole in her sides. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, she sustained attack after attack from the US navy's aircraft (17 bombs and 19 torpedoes) and she eventually sank taking a thousand of her 2,399 crew with her.

Yamoto was used to direct the fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Much of her time, like that of Musashi, was spent in ports or moving between them. As the war progressed and Japan couldn't gain access to the oil-fields it needed, fuel for the big ships was in short supply. Yamoto also took part in Leyte Gulf, and was able to fire her guns in anger. She led the Japanese Central Fleet containing another 3 battleships, 8 cruisers and 30 destroyers in an attempt to stop the Americans landing on the Philippines. A successful decoy by the Japanese meant that the large force of American carriers and Battleships guarding the area had left its post, and a small task force of destroyers and slow escort carriers found itself unexpectedly between the Japanese and the landing ships. The carriers were equipped to support landings, so had few weapons on board that their planes could use to attack ships, and the destroyers were hopelessly outgunned. Using the advantage of radar and good seamanship, the destroyers and aircraft fought so bravely that the Japanese backed off, convinced they were facing the main American force. The greatest battleship of all time was chased away by these little boats.

While Yamoto was able to fight, the Japanese believed they had a chance in the war, but to stop the landings on Okinawa, Yamoto was given only enough fuel for a one-way trip, with orders to beach herself and make an unsinkable gun battery. She was attacked three times by waves of bombers. In the first she sustained hits from 5 bombs and four torpedoes, the next saw her take another five torpedo his and the final attack saw her hit four times by bombs and another four by torpedoes. On top of this, a large number of near misses damaged her hull. She rolled over on her side and then exploded, killing over three thousand crew.

The great ship had died, but there was another... a third sister.


Shinano was laid down in the Yokosuka Navel Arsenal, south of Tokyo, near the mouth of Tokyo Bay, in May 1940 and construction on her carried on into the war, but soon there was a problem. The Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and more importantly on the Royal Navy in Singapore had shown how vulnerable a battleship was to air attack. Was another battleship really needed, especially when the Japanese carriers were so effective? As the hull was being worked on, decisions were being made about what to do next. The dry dock was needed to build more carriers, so could they just launch Shinano and then get on with building more ships? With the massive carrier losses at Midway, the need for a new carrier was vital, so the decision was made to do away with the idea of Shinano being a battleship, and make her a carrier instead. To the Imperial Japanese Navy, she was seen as the 'Savior of the Empire'.

At 69,000 tons she was three times the size of any other carrier, and was not intended to sail with the fleet. Instead, she would be in reserve, holding spare planes, equipment, fuel and armament. Taking lessons from both Midway and from British designs, Shinano had an armoured flight deck to protect it from dive bombers.

She was launched in October 1944, and was ready for sea trails the next month. To give an idea on how secretive this ship was, anybody who mentioned it was liable to face a death sentence. Only two photos were ever taken of her. One was by a B-29 bomber on reconnaissance duty, and the other by a crew member of a fishing boat in Tokyo Bay when it was on trials.

Sure that the bomber had seen it, and likely more would follow, the decision was made to move the ship. She was at a stage where she could transport planes, so was loaded up with 50 kamikaze planes, some suicide boats and set sail for Kure Naval Base to be fitted out.

Captain Toshio Abe wanted to delay the trip. The ship was not in a fit state to put to sea. Its watertight doors were not all fitted, and many of the holes for cables and pipes were not sealed. A lot of equipment wasn't yet working and most of the crew didn't know how to use equipment like the pumps. Also, her three escorting destroyers were only just back from Leyte Gulf and needed both time for the crew to recover and for the ships to be repaired. His request was denied, as was his request to make the trip in daylight so he could run drills with his crews. He wasn't allowed because they lacked air cover for the ship.


On 28 November, 1944, at 18:00, Shinano set sail with the Destroyers Isokaze, Yukikaze and Hamakaze. They were all members of the 2,500 ton Kagero-class, of which 19 were built. It may ruin the suspense a bit, but all three of them survived this action. Isokaze and Hamakaze were sunk escorting Yamoto on her final mission while Yukikaze was the only ship of her class to survive the war. While those on board Yukikaze, and the public in general, saw her as a miracle ship, this wasn't the view of the rest of the fleet, where she was considered a jinx, as many of the ships she escorted had sunk with massive loss of life.

In addition to Shinano's crew of 2,175 there were 300 shipyard workers and another 40 civilian contractors trying to finish the ship. To make things easier for them, they had left all the watertight doors that were fitted open as well as many of the hatches between decks.

Archerfish had been in the Tokyo Bay area on search and recovery duties, waiting to pick up any crew of a bomber unlucky enough to be shot down on their way to bomb the capital. As she received word that there were no raids today, Enright decided to hunt around for a target instead.

A contact was spotted by the lookouts, and the ship surfaced to check it out. Unsure what this massive shape was, Enright decided that it was Inamba-jima island.

'Captain, your island is moving.'

Enright set off after the large ship, before realising that it was, in fact, a large carrier escorted by three destroyers. He couldn't find anything matching the outline of the ship in his recognition guide, so made a drawing which he showed to his officers.

'The Japanese don't have anything like that.'
'The hell they don't,' Enright replied. 'I'm looking at it.'

Aware that the three destroyers would make mincemeat out of his boat, Enright ordered the submarine to dive, and pursued the carrier underwater.

Long before Archerfish had made contact with Shinano, Abe knew of Archerfish's presence through the carrier's radar. The carrier and its destroyers were easily able to outrun Archerfish, however Abe believed that the submarine was part of wolfpack, a group of submarines on the hunt, and that Archerfish was only the decoy, there to chase Shinano towards more waiting submarines, hidden further out to sea. As such, instead of increasing speed to escape, he started to zigzag. Under the cover of night, Archerfish surfaced again, and was spotted by Isokaze who briefly went to investigate, but Abe ordered her back again in case there were other subs lurking in the night. Enright calculated that if the Japanese carried on their manoeuvres, Archerfish could intercept them in three to four hours if he chose the correct heading.

Abe now powered Shinano up to 20 knots to sail away from Archerfish. At 23:22, an overheating propeller shaft reduced Shinano's speed to 18 knots, the same as Archerfish. At 02:56, Shinano changed heading again, this time sailing southwest towards Archerfish which had dived below the surface again.

At about 62 feet the captain levelled off and we waited. Yeah, you could hear a pin drop.

Enright was aware that with three destroyers, he would only likely get one chance to attack, and didn't want anything going wrong, so he had the torpedoes set to run at only 3 metres (10 feet) below the surface, instead of the normal 10 metres (33 feet), he didn't want them passing under the carrier. He also hoped that by hitting relativity high up on the hull under the waterline, he'd increase the chance of the ship capsizing.

Archerfish was heading east, and now the carrier turned south, exposing its whole side to the submarine. The Japanese were so unaware of the location of Archerfish that an escorting destroyer passed over her without incidence. At 03:15 Archerfish fired a spread of six torpedoes and then made her escape, diving to 400ft (120 metres) in the hope of escaping the destroyer's depth charge attack.

'FIRE ONE' came the call from the conning tower. Then the whole sub bucked... eight seconds went by and 'FIRE TWO' came the call.

The crew waited and heard six explosions. Two of these were from torpedoes that missed and were set to explode at a certain depth anyway.

Four of the torpedoes hit along the starboard side, flooding engine rooms, storage rooms, ammunition storage and fuel tanks and killing many Japanese sailors. Abe was not overly concerned, knowing that American torpedoes were inferior to Japanese designs, so his ship wasn't likely to have been badly damaged. He maintained full speed even as the mighty carrier started to list to one side. It was only at 05:00 that he was willing to let the civilians off, as they were getting in the way. Some of the port tanks were flooded in an attempt to stop the listing, but by 06:00 Shinano was leaning at 20% and the post tanks were now out the water and virtually useless. The engines shut down at 07:00, and Abe tried to flood the port engine rooms to try and counter to listing.

He ordered the destroyers Hamakaze and Isokaze to take the massive ship in tow, but the pair together were less than a tenth of Shinano's weight, and that was without Shinano being rather full of sea water. Their first attempt to tow her resulted in snapped cables, and the second attempt was abandoned over fear of the snapping cables injuring more crew.

Abandon ship was ordered at 10:18, and the crew left the sinking ship, however their ordeal was not yet over. As the ship leaned over, the water filling the vast hanger and exhaust systems sucked many of the escaping sailors back in to their deaths. Abe and his two navigators stayed with the ship and at 10:57 the ship sank, taking with it over 1,400 sailors.

The 1,080 survivors were left on Mitsuko-jima island to stop the news of the attack spreading.

After the war, an investigation into the sinking blamed a number of design and engineering flaws. The major one was that the join between the waterline armour belt and the ship's anti-torpedo bulge was badly designed. All the hits were along this joint. Shinano had set sail before her compartments had been tested for leaks, water had come flooding through those watertight doors that had been closed, and through the holes left for pipes and wiring. It could also be argued that human error was a contributing factor to the sinking, both Abe's reluctance to slow down to repair damage, the damage control operations itself, and that a lot of the civilian workers were just in the way of the repair efforts.

No Credit

Enright arrived back at port and told the fleet command that he'd sunk a Japanese aircraft carrier. Except nobody believed him. The Americans had broken most of the Japanese naval codes, and were under the impression they knew almost everything that the Japanese were doing. They certainly knew which ships the Japanese had and they were certain that all seven aircraft carriers were where they thought they were, nowhere near where Archerfish had been.

They said there wasn't any carrier in Tokyo Bay, so how could we have sunk one. They asked the captain if he would settle for sinking a cruiser. His answer was 'Hell no.'

Such was the level of secrecy that surrounded Shinano, the Allies had no idea of its very existence let alone that it had just been sunk.

Enright then produced a drawing of the carrier that he had made, and so the Submarine Fleet's acting commander credited Enright with the sinking of a smaller 28,000 ton carrier.

Archerfish undertook two more patrols, one saw her sinking a Japanese submarine, the other saw her outside Tokyo Bay when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She was in position when the Japanese surrendered aboard USS Missouri.

Three days later, a message came to the sub through from submarine fleet command, stating that the Japanese had admitted to the aircraft carrier Shinano having been sunk and listing her as being 69,000 tons. Numerous copies of this message were printed and passed around the crew. US experts later upped the estimate of her tonnage to 71,000 tons. Enright was given the credit for her sinking, and awarded the Navy Cross.

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