Oct 22

Midget Submarines at Guadalcanal

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 12:01 AM


Japanese midget submarine and transport Yamazuki Maru beached on Guadalcanal.

The story of the Japanese midget submarines at Pearl Harbor is well known. But that only covers five of the little submersibles. What about the others? There were 50 of the original Type A midgets. They participated in other daring raids, some more successful than others. However, the use of Type A midgets at Guadalcanal have received scant attention. The entire Solomons campaign was marked by several major battles which is, possibly, one reason that the midget submarines participation has been so poorly covered.

The midgets were used at Pearl Harbor, Sydney, and Diego Suarez. All the crew members for those missions failed to return home. A unit of midgets was included in the plans for Midway, but did not take an active part. The boats remained on their mother ship and returned to Japan after the battle. Later, they were sent to Kiska in the Aleutians. There, too, they took no active part. The rusty skeletons of some are still there.

What followed was the dramatic struggle for Guadalcanal that started with the Marines landing on the island in August 1942. The Marines held a perimeter on the island, and the Japanese made continuous attempts to destroy them there. As early as September the Japanese decided to employ midget submarines as part of those efforts. An observation post atop Mount Buin, in Japanese hands, gave a good view of Lunga roads through which all the Marine supplies were being funneled. Strong allied  anti-submarine warfare patrols made employment of large fleet submarines unattractive. But the small Type A Hyoteki might be able to penetrate and destroy some of the supply ships. Seaplane carrier/submarine mother ship Chiyoda carried 11 of the small subs from Kure to Truk, arriving at the Japanese Combined Fleet base at the end of the month. She then took them to Shortland Island, South of Bougainville. Meanwhile, a staging base for returning crewmen was established at Manovovu, on the northwest coast of Guadalcanal. Fleet submarines I-176 and I-26 were sent to recharge the batteries of the midgets since they could not do it themselves. But communications between the various actors was not good and the midgets never came to the rendezvous.

A Pearl Harbor veteran submarine, I-20, loaded the first Hyoteki destined to make an attack, HA-11, on 5 November. The same day Chiyoda returned to Truk. Two days later I-20 launched HA-11 before dawn to penetrate into Lunga Roads. The attack was a success. Two torpedoes were fired at ships near the shore. One hit the USS Majaba (AG-43). The USS Landsdowne (DD-486 ) was pressed into service as a high-speed transport. She was busy unloading the 80 tons of mortar ammunition she brought in to alleviate a critical shortage ashore. She raised her anchor and embarked on a sonar search for the attacker. At 0736 she made contact and dropped 11 depth charges. Eleven more followed between 0741 and 0748. HA-11 was shaken, but not destroyed. The midget began to make her way home. Near Savo Island her gyrocompass failed and she was forced to surface. Around noon she changed course for the interim base at Manovovu. Two aircraft appeared around 1245 and HA-11 dived to 100 feet to avoid them. After an hour she experienced a total gyro failure and her skipper decided to run her aground on the coast. The little submarine hit the shore at 1430. Her crew, Lieutenant j.g. Shinji Kunihiro and Petty Officer First Class Goro Inoue disposed of classified documents and material and took off on foot for Kanimba where they found Japanese forces. They were the first midget submarine crew to return alive from a successful mission.

Japanese midget submarine beached in the southwest Pacific. (NHHC)

The Majaba was run aground by her commander, Lieutenant Flave Josephus George, USNR, to keep her from sinking. She was a 5,000-ton Emergency Fleet Corporation design 1049 ship built during the First World War as the USS Meriden (ID-4109). She was not completed until after the end of hostilities and saw no service. The Navy acquired her in 1942 to help deliver supplies to Guadalcanal.

The next midget attack was on 11 November. HA-30 was launched from I-16. But things did not proceed according to plan. The rudder of the Hyoteki was damaged and was unable to steer. The mission was aborted and HA-30 was scuttled somewhere off Savo Island. Her two crewmen made their way home safely.

Meanwhile, I-20 took on the next boat, HA-37. When that Hyoteki began moving, the crew discovered her depth regulator was faulty. This mission was also aborted and the crew ran her ashore near Cape Esperance before returning home on foot. The wreck was salvaged in January 1945, by the USCGC Ironwood (WAGL-297).

These failures could not have come at a more inopportune time. American and Japanese forces clashed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal between 12 and 15 November with the final result being a serious Japanese defeat.

On 20 November, I-20 released her next Hyoteki, HA-12. The midget set out for Lunga Roads and was never seen again. Neither Japanese nor American records ever shed any light on her mysterious disappearance.

The stage was set for HA-20 to make the next sortie from on board I-16. She made her approach early on the morning of 20 November. That morning a small American supply convoy had arrived. At 0546 the USS Alchiba (AK-23) dropped anchor and commenced preparations for unloading her cargo. Hatch covers were opened and boats placed in the water to carry material to the beach. The Alchiba was painted in an unusual variant of measure 12 (modified) with the darker blue placed above the lighter grey colors. Several destroyers were still patrolling; Lamson (DD-367), Lardner (DD-487), Hughes (DD-410), and Landsdowne (DD-486).

HA-20 was not detected as she moved into firing position. Her first torpedo struck the USS Alchiba on the port side at 0616. The explosion ultimately resulted in the flooding of all three forward holds. It also started fires that continued to burn for four days. The flames were fed, in part, by the ruptured fuel tank in the double bottom below the hold and by crushed drums of gasoline that were part of the cargo in hold 2. Within 10 minutes the Alchiba‘s captain, Commander James Sheperd Freeman, USN, heaved in the anchor and ran his ship ahead at 6 knots, driving her hard aground. That action undoubtedly saved her from becoming part of the collection of wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound. Executive officer Lieutenant Commander Harold R. Shaw directed firefighting efforts and the simultaneous work to unload the ship’s cargo. Landing craft (Higgins boats) were moored alongside the ship. The wash from their propellers helped keep the gas and oil which was floating on the surface from spreading the fire. The forward magazine was intentionally flooded and CO2 systems in the hold were activated, but the flames continued.

USS Alchiba afire after being torpedoed off Guadalcanal, November 1942. (USMC)

Fleet tug Bobolink (AT-131) came alongside at 1010 to assist. Soon there were five hoses from the Bobolink working with the three on the Alchiba. But it still took days to overcome the fire. Flooding spread to holds 1 and 3, partly through fragmentation holes in the bulkheads from the torpedo, and possibly from exploding small arms ammunition that was part of the cargo forward and “cooked off” due to the heat. There were additional explosions in the holds from cargo and escaping fuel vapors igniting. It took 104 hour before the fire was finally extinguished. Personnel casualties were surprisingly light: three killed in action and six wounded. Commander Freeman was later awarded the Navy Cross for saving his ship. Lieutenant Commander Shaw and the Bobolink skipper Lieutenant James Foleys got the Silver Star and the entire crew was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

Meanwhile the USS Landsdowne went after the attacker. Her depth charges apparently were the cause of the demise of HA-20.

The Hyoteki attacks did not take place in a vacuum. A major Japanese resupply operation, called by the allies “The Tokyo Express,” was set to arrive on 30 November. The Americans intercepted it and the result was the Battle of Tassafaronga. After that there were no more major Japanese resupply efforts.

But the Hyoteki attacks were not finished. I-20 brought HA-8 to penetrate the roadstead on 2 December. The midget launched her 2 torpedoes at what she reported were a cargo ship and a destroyer. Lookouts on the grounded the Alchiba saw 2 torpedo tracks pass by harmlessly. HA-8 headed for the barn, but the midget was swamped off Cape Esperance. Her two-man crew managed to get ashore and escape.

I-24 made the next attempt, carrying HA-38 on 7 December. The midget put another torpedo into the Alchiba. This time the explosion was on the port quarter at hold 4. The hold was now empty, but at the time of the first attack on the Alchiba it had been full of 800 tons of aircraft bombs. Being still aground again saved the ship from sinking. HA-38 was not as fortunate. A little 173-foot long sub chaser, PC-477, spotted her. A pattern of eight depth charges followed. Officially, the PC-477 shared the kill with an SBD-3 from VMSB-142.

PC-477 (NavSource)

The Japanese decision to abandon Guadalcanal was reportedly made on 12 December 1942. The last Hyoteki attack was already underway. I-16 set loose HA-22 on 13 December. The midget reported firing her torpedoes at a destroyer. If she did, no one noticed. The little craft made her way north where she was scuttled. Her crew made it to shore.

The bottom line on the employment of the Type A Hyoteki midget submarines at Guadalcanal has to be one of high expectations, and disappointing results. The USS Majaba was removed from action and the USS Alchiba damaged very seriously, but ultimately returned to action. The Japanese lost all eight of the midgets that were committed to action. That does not seem to make for a positive scorecard.


[1] This entire story owes much to the work presented by Bob Hackett and Sander Kingsepp on Combinedfleet.com “Midget Submarines in the Solomon Islands 1942″ and the underwater archaeology from Archaehistoria.org, especially “SAVO13 Japanese midget submarine Kohyoteki 30, 11 November 1942″ by Ewan Stevenson.

[2] Various sources mention this. But the one I found most convincing was the section on “Japanese Midget Submarine Tactics” from translated captured IJN documents in the formerly secret ASW Bulletin of Jan, 1944 A.C.B. 0233A.

[3] Most of this is found in “U.S.S. ALCHIBA (AKA-6), TORPEDO DAMAGE – Solomon Islands, November 28 and December 7, 1942” and “USS Alchiba War Diary.

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