Japan’s Fubuki-class destroyers could take on virtually anything afloat.
The Japanese named all their destroyers after elemental and weather conditions, but they had particular reason to wax poetic with the “special class” they developed in 1928. Fubuki, the first vessel off the production line, means “Snowstorm,” and those that followed included Akebono (“Dawn”), Asagiri (“Morning Mist”), Isonami (“Surf”), Sagiri (“Mist”) and Murakumo (“Gathering Clouds”). Despite their ethereal monikers, the Fubukis proved to be deadly men-of-war whose revolutionary design format set the pattern for half a dozen Japanese destroyer classes that plied the Pacific during World War II. They also influenced other countries in establishing the destroyer as a versatile jack-of-all-trades capable of holding its own against torpedo boats, submarines, aircraft and surface warships several times its size.
The innovations started with the hull, on which the well deck of previous Japanese destroyers was replaced with a forecastle extending just aft of the bridge, improving seaworthiness. Six 5-inch guns were housed in the first fully enclosed twin turrets to appear on ships of that type, as well as nine torpedo tubes that could be reloaded in as little as 15 minutes from a brace of spare torpedoes housed adjacent to each triple tube unit.
In 1933 the Fubukis’ compressed-air Type 90 torpedoes were replaced by new oxygen-driven, 23-inch diameter Type 93s, with 1,100-pound warheads, a range of 43,500 yards and a speed of 36 knots. These “Long Lances,” as the Americans would later call them, gave the Fubukis an “equalizer” against any warship afloat. The second generation of production Fubukis, starting with Ayanami (“Woven Wave Patterns”), also introduced dual-purpose 5-inch guns, with an elevation raised from 40 to 70 degrees to engage aircraft as well as surface targets.
Although initially capable of 38 knots, the early Fubukis proved to be dangerously top-heavy. In 1936 the hull was strengthened and ballast increased, raising the weight from 1,680 to 2,090 tons and reducing the ship’s speed to a still-respectable 34 knots. The next eight classes of Japanese destroyers would be variations on the basic pattern established by the Fubuki class. In response to the growing threat of Allied aircraft and submarines, in 1943-44 the “X” turret was removed and light anti-aircraft armament increased, raising the number of 25mm guns to 22, and 13mm guns to 10 by June 1944, while the depth charge complement grew to 36, with four depth charge throwers.
A total of 20 Fubukis were built, of which one, Miyuki (“Deep Snow”), was sunk after being accidentally rammed in the Korea Strait by destroyer Ikazuchi (“Thunder”) on June 29, 1934. The rest served throughout World War II with varying degrees of distinction. Amagiri (“Sky Mist”), which helped sink British destroyer Thanet off Endau, Malaya, on January 27, 1942, gained special notoriety in the Blackett Strait south of Kolombangara on the night of August 1-2, 1943, when it rammed PT-109, skippered by Lieutenant—and future President—John F. Kennedy. After having survived many engagements in the Solomon Islands, Amagiri fell victim to a mine in Makassar Strait on April 23, 1944.
All but one of the 18 other wartime Fubukis were sunk in combat—three (including Fubuki) in surface actions, six by Allied submarines and eight in air attacks. The first loss occurred 10 days after Pearl Harbor, when Shinonome (“Morning Twilight”) was bombed and sunk with all hands, ironically, by a German-built, Dutch-flown Dornier Do-24K-1 flying boat off Miri, Borneo.
In spite of their potent armament, Japanese destroyers were never as effective as their Allied counterparts in combating the warships that became their principal nemeses and the bane of Japan’s crucial merchant marine: submarines. The Fubukis are known to have eliminated two subs early in the war. On December 19, 1941, Uranami (“Bay Wave”) caught Dutch submarine O-20 in the South China Sea, and rescued 32 of its 39-man crew after it was scuttled. On December 24, however, Sagiri was sunk off Kuching by the Dutch sub K.XVI.
On March 3, Ushio (“Tide”) and Sazanami (“Ripples”) depth charged the U.S. Navy submarine Perch to the surface west of Batwean Island in the Java Sea, and after it scuttled, rescued all 59 of its crew. When USS Bergall torpedoed the heavy cruiser Myoko on December 5, 1944, Ushio spotted the sub, damaged it and drove it off with gunfire, making it possible for the crippled Myoko to limp to Singapore, where it would remain for the rest of the war.
Of the five Fubukis that fell victim to American submarines, two were sunk by USS Tautog—Isonami southwest of Wangiwangi on April 9, 1943, and Shirakumo (“White Clouds”) off Hokkaido on March 16, 1944. Sazanami was fatally torpedoed off Yap by Albacore on January 12, 1944, Usugumo (“Thin Misty Clouds”) was sunk by Skate in the Sea of Okhotsk on July 5, 1944, and Shikinami (“Chasing Waves”) by Growler on September 12, 1944.
The sole survivor of the class, Ushio, also held the distinction of being the only Japanese warship involved in the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor operation to still be afloat at war’s end. It was scrapped on August 4, 1948.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.