Japan Learned The Hard Way That The Best Aircraft Carriers Are Built From Scratch
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Here's what to keep in mind: Post-war analysis by the U.S. Navy found that Yamato-class ships, including Shinano, suffered from design flaws. The joints between the main armor belt and the bulkheads underneath were prone to leakage, and the archer fish's torpedoes struck that joint. Some Scots also tended to break.
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If weight alone could determine victory, the Shinano aircraft carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy might still be afloat.
At 69,000 tons when it was launched in 1944, the Shinano would have remained the world's largest aircraft until the 1960s. But that shouldn't be. Instead, the Shinano received another award: the title of the largest warship ever sunk by a submarine.
And the submarine that did it - the 1,500-ton USS Archerfish - was a forty-sixth the size of its victim.
The story begins in May 1940 when the Shinano was laid down as the third of Japan's legendary Yamato-class battleships. These giants were the largest battleships in history built as part of Japan's desperate attempt to counter the U.S. Navy with some - hopefully - superior quality warships. If everything went according to plan, the Shinano would join her sisters Yamato and Musashi as the three queens of WWII battleships.
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By 1942, Japan was beginning to realize that it needed more aircraft carriers than battleships. Naval warfare was now governed by these floating airfields, and Japan had lost its four best at the Battle of Midway. It was ordered to transform Shinano into an aircraft carrier like the world had never seen before.
At 69,000 tons, it was twice the tonnage of the Essex-class carriers that won the Pacific War for America, and it remained the largest until the advent of nuclear-powered carriers in the early 1960s. The main deck, which was already armored up to 7.5 inches thick, became the hangar deck on which aircraft were serviced. Above was the flight deck for taking off and restoring aircraft, which was itself protected by 3.75 inch armor.
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Instead of the devastating 18-inch cannon of their two sisters, the Shinano's main armament should be forty-seven planes, which is rather stingy compared to the 75-100 planes of major US and Japanese airlines. But his weapons were still impressive: sixteen 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, 145 25-mm anti-aircraft machine guns, and twelve multi-missile launchers with 4.7-inch anti-aircraft missiles.
The Shinano designers learned - or thought they had learned - the lessons from sloppy damage control that had unnecessarily doomed several Japanese transportation companies. Flammable paints and wood were avoided. Care was taken to protect the ventilation ducts in such a way that no explosive gases could seep through the ship like other Japanese transport companies.
But the impregnability of the Shinano was only skin deep. "Even though he was left on the outside, Captain Mikami was very concerned about the ship's watertight compartments," wrote Joseph Enright, the Archerfish's captain. "The air pressure tests, which would have confirmed his hope that the compartments were watertight, were canceled in a hurry to bring Shinano into the inland sea."
Sailors can be superstitious, and there was a bad omen when the ship was launched on October 8, 1944, from Yokusuka Naval Base. A dry dock gate buckled and caused a flood of water to hit the ship three times against the dry dock wall. After repairs, the ship went to sea on November 28, the carrier escorted three destroyers to sea and headed for the Kure naval base. It carried some suicide boats and flying kamikaze bombs, but no plane, to fly submarine patrols through Japanese home waters, which were home to many U.S. submarines.
Unfortunately, the Shinano encountered the archerfish that night and crossed on the surface and looking. The submarine was on its fifth war patrol, but still had to sink an enemy ship. Captain Enright decided that he had to sail and go to a point before his target so that the destroyers could not recognize him and fire his torpedoes. This was not an easy prospect in World War II when surface ships could steam faster than submarines.
The Archerfish corresponded to the Japanese task force. It also turned on its radar to track them, which was recognized by receivers on the Shinano. The Japanese captain was worried about a mass attack by an American wolf pack, but he wasn't too worried. Hadn't the Shinano's sister ship, Musashi, suffered ten torpedo hits and sixteen bombs before it went down in the Battle of the Philippine Sea? Despite the numerous U.S. submarines infesting Japanese home waters, the transport company's watertight doors were opened to give the crew access to the machines.
The Japanese force jiggled and jagged to drop all underwater pursuers. And then came the luck that often affects every battle. The Japanese ships once again raced directly on the path of the archer fish. The submarine took its chance. It launched six torpedoes on November 29 at 3:15 a.m. Four hits.
Still, the Shinano crew wasn't overly concerned. The ship was designed to absorb such damage and continued to attempt to sail at maximum speed. But water flooded through the holes in the side of the ship, flowing into unsecured rooms and through watertight doors. Pumps and generators failed. The carrier soon acquired a list on starboard that only got worse.
The Shinano's escorting destroyers tried to tow it, but to no avail. At 10:18 a.m., seven hours after the attack, the order was given to leave the ship. At 10:57 a.m. the ship sank along with 1,435 of its crew, including the captain.
Post-war analysis by the U.S. Navy found that Yamato-class ships, including Shinano, suffered from design flaws. The joints between the main armor belt and the bulkheads underneath were prone to leakage, and the archer fish's torpedoes struck that joint. Some Scots also tended to break. On the other hand, the Shinano was hardly the only victim of submarines. The United States lost the carrier wasp to a Japanese torpedo attack, and several British carriers fell victim to German submarines.
Maybe there was bad luck too. Bad luck running into the archerfish, bad luck, zigzagging directly on the path of a volley of torpedoes, bad luck that the torpedoes hit a vulnerable point.
In the end, the Shinano would make history - and then sink into the cold, deep waters of the Pacific.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for national interest. It can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article was first published a few years ago.
For further reading: Shinano: The Fall of Japan's Secret Supership by Joseph Enright and James Ryan.
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