The Battleship Kongô

The Japanese battleship Kongô, a ship with a magical name and an important history, was budgeted in 1910 and ordered from the British shipbuilder Vickers in January 1911. This was a significant act in an era of important shipbuilding. Britain itself was in a great arms race with Germany.

The Dreadnought of 1905, with its speed, size, and firepower, had made all earlier battleships obsolete. The Dreadnought had been inspired by the lessons of the great battle of Tsushima, the first real naval battle with modern warships, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. That war itself had been fought in part because of the alliance that had been struck between Britain and Japan in 1902. The alliance had secured Britain's possessions in the Pacific, so that it could concentrate on Germany. The benefit for Japan had been to neutralize France and Germany, isolating Russia. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the "Triple Intervention" of France, Germany, and Russia had robbed Japan of some of the spoils of victory against China. Japan intended to deprive Russia what what seemed to it ill gotten gains. (No one, except China itself, the United States, and British Liberals, really cared at the time that such powers should be grabbing parts of China.)

At the Battle of Tsushima, after the Russian Baltic Fleet had sailed all the way around the world, the Russian Admiral Rozhestvensky opened fire at 7,000 meters (4.4 miles). Admiral Tôgô returned fire at 6,400 meters (4.0 miles). Previously, naval battles had been fought at close quarters, and many warships in the late 19th century had been built with rams. But in the same era guns with longer barrels and slower burning powder had been developed, which meant longer ranges. The Japanese, with faster ships, were able to determine the range at Tsushima, and Tôgô kept it about about 5,500 meters (3.4 miles). The fleets did not come to close quarters until the Japanese wanted to deliver torpedo attacks or until the Russian ships were sinking or surrendering. Of the eleven Russian battleships, some obsolete, in the battle, seven were sunk and the other four were surrendered. The Japanese only lost three torpedo boats. The Russians lost 4,830 men, the Japanese only 110. This was an international sensation, both that a non-white country should defeat a European Great Power, but also that gunfire had proven so decisive. Naval tacticians never thought about ramming for fleet actions again.

The Dreadnought was Admiral John ("Jackie") Fisher's answer to Tsushima. The ship's large size carried a main battery of large caliber (12 inch) guns. This made finding the range of the target easier than it had been with the pre-Dreadnoughts, whose main batteries of mixed caliber resulted in confusion about which guns had fired the shells that might be seen falling near the target. To greater size and firepower, Fisher also added increased speed, up to 21 knots from the standard 18 knots of the pre-Dreadnoughts. This made it possible to move in and out of range at will. Since the tradition of the Royal Navy had always been to seek battle -- poor Admiral Byng had been shot for not doing so ("Pour encourager les autres," according to Voltaire) -- superior speed would always keep that option open.

Fisher's love of speed, however, led to something more: the "battle cruiser." The Invincible class were larger, faster, nearly as powerful (a main battery of 8 rather than 10 guns), but more lightly protected than the Dreadnought. Such a ship would prove useful in that it could run down and destroy any ship smaller than a battleship. This is what precisely was done to the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in 1914. However, the visible power of the battle cruisers, as opposed to their invisible vulnerability, let to irresistable temptations to commit them against battleships. Speed, however, could not compensate for lack of armor when the large shells were aleady on their way. This meant tragedy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when several battle cruisers blew up catastrophically and sank.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that the "battle cruiser" was misconceived -- neither fish nor fowl: too much of a battleship to be relegated to cruiser tasks, but too little of a battleship to be hazarded in the line-of-battle. On the other hand, the battle cruiser, however flawed, was the unknowing ancestor of revolutions in naval warfare in World War II.

Although Britain had restarted its naval race with German by the innovation of the Dreadnought, the kind of thing that the Royal Navy had always tried to avoid, in 1909 it was on the verge of falling behind. Through the 1908 program, Britain had ordered 8 battleships and 4 battle cruisers. Germany, starting in 1906, had ordered 7 battleships, together with 2 battle cruisers. This set off a panic in Britain, resulting in the famous "We want eight" program of 1909. As Churchill put it, the hawkish Tories wanted 6 ships and the dovish Liberals 4, so they compromised by budgeting 8! Subsequently, 7 ships in 1910 and 5 each in 1911, 1912, & 1913, although a crushing expense, safely left the Germans astern. As it happened, the Germans, like the French many times before, were unwilling to hazard their fleet on a desperate battle, despite the fact that a victory would deliver England to their mercy and a loss, however grievous, would not greatly affect their strategic position. Thus, the majority of the German fleet, whose very construction had driven Britain into the arms of France and Russia, her previous traditional enemies, was in the end ignominously scuttled at Scapa Flow.

The Kongô was ordered by Japan as a battle cruiser. The Japanese had already been building their own battleships, but they wanted to study the latest British construction techniques before building sister ships to the Kongô in Japan -- the Hiei, Haruna, and Kirishima. The Kongô was to have 14 inch guns, larger and more conveniently arranged than in previous British battle cruisers, where a midships turret had been unable to fire directly fore or aft. The Kongô, indeed, was such an improved design that the Royal Navy followed suit by ordering the Tiger, similar to it in most respects, in the 1911 program. But the Tiger was the last battle cruiser until Fisher himself returned from retirement in 1914. Instead, the speed element of the battle cruisers was incorporated into proper battleships with the Queen Elizabeth class of the 1912 program. As the Kongô itself would in effect become, the Queen Elizabeth was a "fast battleship." With 15 inch guns, the Queen Elizabeths also carried the heaviest practical armament of World War I. Their worth both in enduring and in inflicting punishment was proven at Jutland.

The Kongô and her sister ships, like all armored cruisers, battlecruisers, and heavy cruisers, were named after mountains, yama, . Battleships proper were named for the old Japanese provinces, shû, , and light cruisers for rivers, kawa or gawa, -- though these terms are not part of the ship names (except on a map of Japan). Mt. Kongô, or Kongô-zan, , was a mountain not far south of the old capital of Japan at Nara. The word "kongô" was the Japanese pronuncation of the Chinese translation, , of vajra in Sanskrit. The vajra was originally the thunderbolt of the god Indra. Later in esoteric, Tantric, or "vajrayâna" Buddhism, the vajra symbolized supernatual powers that could be obtained through esoteric rituals. In the sexual symbolism of Tantrism, the "vajra" was also associated with the male organ. On the other hand, "kongô" could also mean a jewel or a diamond, or hard as a diamond -- in Chinese it is literally "metal [or gold] hard." So, appropriately, "Kongô" as the name of a ship could imply the great power of a thunderbolt or the hardness of a diamond.

The universally understood "lesson of Jutland" was that if a ship was going to fight like a battleship, it would have to be protected like a battleship. And if was also going to be fast also, then it was simply going to have to be very big. Britain incorporated these ideas in a program of four super battle cruisers for 1915. But of the four ships laid down, only the Hood was completed. When the United States began a program of war building in 1916, it ordered a total of six such battle cruisers, along with 12 more conventional (i.e. slower) battleships. Only three of those battleships were ever completed, the Colorado, Maryland, and West Virginia, with 16 inch guns. Japan itself conceived a large program, for which it had far smaller resources: 4 battleships and 4 battle cruisers were actually laid down.

What cut short all these ambitious programs was the end of the War and the sense that there was no useful purpose served by such an arms race. Britain, also, was all but bankrupt. Only the United States was in a position to complete its program in any kind of reasonable time, and neither Britain nor Japan really wanted that to happen. So the result was the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Britain would finish the Hood and build two new battleships, the Nelson and Rodney (since so many others were now obsolescent). The United States would finish the three battleships, and Japan would finish two battleships, the Nagato and Mutsu. The ratio of captial ships would be 5:5:3 for Britain, the United States, and Japan.

This was a very bad deal for Britain. In the simplest terms, Britain had three oceans to defend, the United States two, and Japan only one. Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, although with a small number of ships themselves, were still essentially British defense obligations. The Washington ratio already put Britain at a disastrous disadvantage for the kind of war that World War II would be -- with both German and Italian fleets to contain, and with the whole Mediterranean hotly contested, the Royal Navy would have next to nothing available to devote to a war with Japan also, which meant that Australia and New Zealand were left in the lurch. The sense of betrayal was intense, especially after all the blood spilled by the ANZAC forces in the Middle East. Britain's formal "two power standard" of 1889, which was that the Royal Navy should be at least as large as any other two navies, was thus ended by the Washington Treaty. That would have produced an 8:5:3 ratio, which should have been more than reasonable. But now, all British battleships older than the Queen Elizabeth ended up getting scrapped. This meant all the contemporaries of the Kongô and her sister ships. The United States retained some older ships, but even the Texas and New York (of 1910 like the Kongô) would never see fleet action again.

Nevertheless, it might not have made much difference in the long run. The older ships really were obsolete, and veterans of Jutland like the Iron Duke probably would only have been sent against Japan to be sunk. What was worse, perhaps, about the Washington Treaty was that it ended the British alliance with Japan. This was disappointing and even humilating to the Japanese, where the Imperial Family and the Navy liked to feel a special affinity with Britain -- however much the army and the form of government had actually looked to Prussian models. In the struggle for the soul of Japan, the Prussian side received a boost. Adding insult to injury was the rejection by the Allied conference at Versailles of a Japanese proposal for a statement of racial equality -- however racist the Japanese would behave with their own neighbors, they were tremendously sensitive about disparagement from the white world. (Ironically, Nazi Germany would selectively overlook its own racism to embrace a Japanese alliance.) So, after insulting and slighting Japan, Britain then foolishly agreed to build no naval fortifications east of Singapore! This may have been seen as an act of good faith (or economy), but it would encourage aggression once Japanese isolation turned into real nastiness.

Deep in the Washington Naval Treaty was the hidden seed of the future. The United States and Japan would not need to completely scrap all the hulls they had been building. Instead, they could each use two of them to build aircraft carriers. This was a way to strike a balance with Britain. As it happened, when Fisher returned to the Admiralty in 1914, he immediately sought to indulge himself by ordering no less than five battle cruisers. Two turned out to be reasonable candidates to be used as battleships, the Repulse and the Renown (although the Repulse was ignominously sunk, with the Prince of Wales, by Japanese aircraft on 10 December 1941), but the other three were virtual parodies of Fisher's ideas, so over-gunned and under-protected as to be really useless. The real extreme was the Furious, which was given a main battery of two experimental 18 inch guns, whose rate of fire was so slow, and whose damage to the ship when fired was so great, that the ship was like the result of some awful experiment in inbreeding -- the "Hapsburg lip" of the Royal Navy.

Eventually something useful was found for the Furious and her sisters, the Glorious and the Courageous. They were reconstructed as aircraft carriers. The British did all the experimentation in that regard, but then when the war was over, the Americans and Japanese were ready to join the club. Hence the Treaty provision for aircraft carriers; and the candidate hulls, naturally, were from the incomplete battle cruisers, which would be the fastest ships. The American and Japanese battle cruisers, however, would be much larger ships than the Furious, etc. They were of the same generation as the great Hood, not of Fisher's strange 1914 experiments.

Thus, the idea of the battle cruiser serendipitously provided the platform for something very different. The two American hulls selected, the Lexington and the Saratoga even inaugurated the tradition of naming United States aircraft carriers after battles [note]. The nomenclature would be expanded, at different times, by the precedent of some of the other planned battle cruiser names -- the Ranger and Constellation -- though today many American carriers are named after presidents and other persons, given the precedent by which one of the Midway class carriers was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt after his death.

The hulls selected by Japan were those for the battle cruisers Amagi and Akagi. Like the Kongô and her sisters, these were named after mountains: "Akagi," , as noted in the movie Die Hard (1988), means "Red Castle." "Amagi" means "Heavenly Castle." They were intended to carry ten 16 inch guns at 30 knots.

The Akagi was completed in 1927 as the planned aircraft carrier, with slightly better speed, at 31 knots. Until its catastrophic loss at the Battle of Midway, the Akagi was the flagship of the carrier Strike Force. The ship also had a very unusual feature. Like many early carriers, it was originally finished with no superstructure above the flight deck. This was inconvenient, and a superstructure was added when the ship was reconstructed in 1936-38. The British had worked out this kind of thing and always put their superstructures on the starboard side of the ship, on the understanding the gyroscopic forces on spinning propellers would tend to pull aircraft to the left. This became traditional, even until today, when there are few propellers; but the Japanese figured that the forces were not so great. They experimented with some port side superstructures, figuring that it could be put to advantage to facilitate signalling when ships where in formation under radio silence. The Akagi had one of the port side superstructures.

An odd thing happened to the Amagi on its way to being an aircraft carrier. The great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 so damaged the ship on its stocks that it was discarded in favor of the hull of the battleship Kaga. The Kaga, named as a battleship for a Japanese province, was completed in 1928; but as a shorter, broader ship, reflecting its origin, it could only make 28.5 knots. This certainly seemed fast enough at the time, but the Lexington and Saratoga, completed about the same time on hulls that were 40 feet longer than even the Akagi, set a standard of 34 knots which later fleet carriers would have to match. Like the two American carriers, the Akagi and Kaga might justly be called the first aircraft carriers that were truly capital ships, and they formed the core of the first carrier forces such as would come into their own in World War II.

Here the Kongô and her sisters reënter the story. No other Japanese battleships were fast enough to keep up with the carriers. The Kongôs were built to make 27.5 knots; and when reconstructed in 1933-34, they were brought up to 30 knots. This made them the fastest battleships afloat, except for the Hood (31 knots) and the later American Iowa class (33 knots), which essentially had the form of colossal cruisers. The reconstruction modernized them in several respects, also producing what the Allies would later call the "pagoda" superstructure.

Battleships had always required masts for spotting, range finding, and fire control, but the need for height increased as possible ranges of targets increased and eyeballing was replaced by heavy optical equipment. It had also been a problem how to do this with a sturdy enough structure to withstand the weight of the equipment and not vibrate when under way at sea. The United States navy had tried strange looking "cage" masts. Heavy tripods were also tried, which is what the Kongô had when completed, and what the Arizona had been given when it was sunk at Peral Harbor. The Royal Navy was the first to go simply for a solid superstructure, a "Queen Anne's castle." The Japanese tripods evolved into the equivalent, and the United States followed suit with the battleships built in the 1930's. So the "pagoda" was structurally nothing unique.

The Kongôs were fast enough to run with the carriers. This became a standard assignment for at least two ships at a time. Thus, the Hiei and Kirishima were with the Pearl Harbor Strike Force, and the Haruna and Kirishima were with the carriers at Midway. This created the pattern of the standard Task Force of the Pacific War, carriers plus screening ships and fast battleships. The slow battleships, like all the old American ships at 21 knots, were now hopelessly obsolete for fleet actions. The carriers set the pace.

Another thing, as it happened, that their speed enabled the Kongôs to do was run in under the cover of darkness, which for a long time meant the end of air operations, for night surface actions. And the supreme place for that came to be the waters off Guadalcanal. In this they were joined by ships that, after a fashion, were, like the aircraft carriers, their descendants: The heavy cruisers that began to be built in the 1920's.

Another provision of the Washington Naval Treaty was that cruisers could not be more than 10,000 tons or be armed with guns larger than 8 inches. This was somewhat larger and more powerful than existing cruisers and so left room for growth. But, having lost the battleships and battle cruisers they had planned on, the Japanese immediately began designing ships right up to the limits. This produced the classic "Treaty Cruisers." By 1927 Japan was planning such cruisers with no fewer than 10 guns. Britain followed suit, reluctantly (building larger and smaller versions), and eventually similar American cruisers began to be planned in 1929. These cruisers all began to look like miniature battleships and, indeed, it was they that had the speed and range to form lines of battle in most of the significant surface engagements of the Pacific War.

American Treaty cruisers were designated "CA's," which signified "armored cruiser," an old type that was really the conceptual predecessor of the battle cruiser. American armored cruisers had even been named after States, like battleships; but the American CA's were named after cities, like other cruisers. The Japanese Treaty cruisers, on the other hand, were now named after mountains, like battle cruisers and the old Japanese armored cruisers too. This, in effect, is what they would be.

By World War II, the Treaty cruisers of the Twenties would be called "heavy cruisers" all because the London Naval Treaty of 1930 had generated another type. That Treaty had limited guns on cruisers to 6 inches, without, however, limiting the tonnage. This, without regard to the tonnage, was then called a "light cruiser." The Japanese therefore immediately planned a class of ships, just as large as the "heavy" cruisers, but with fifteen 6 inch guns, in triple turrets, instead of ten 8 inch guns, in double turrets. Britain scaled down their "light" cruisers, but the United States emulated the Japanese with the large Brooklyn class, which also had fifteen 6 inch guns. When Japan repudiated the naval treaties, the 6 inch guns were replaced with 8 inch, turning the "light" cruisers into "heavy." The United States and Britain retained the type, scaling back the size of the battery.

Thus, in surface combat in the Solomons, the Kongô and her sisters mainly supplemented their Treaty Cruiser descendants. The most frequent task of such ships was the famous "Tokyo Express," the often nightly bombardment of the American airbase, Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal. The damage done by the cruisers, however, was often minimal; and the Japanese knew this. Thus the task was twice handed off to the Kongôs. The first time was in October 1942, in preparation for a serious ground assault against Henderson Field. Only two nights after the Battle of Cape Esperance, in which an American surface force inflicted serious damage on Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the Kongô and Haruna ran down to "Ironbottom Sound" off Guadalcanal. That was the night of October 13/14. In the most effective Japanese bombardment ever by either air or sea, the 14 inch shells from the battleships all but put Henderson Field out of operation [note]. Weakened American air defense then could not stop most of the Japanese troops from being landed for the offensive.

The October assault on Henderson Field failed. But the Japanese did not give up yet. A November attack was planned. This time with the Hiei and Kirishima doing the heavy bombardment. The Japanese force came into Ironbottom Sound on the night of 12/13 November 1942 and, very uncharacteristically for the Japanese, who often visually sighted American ships before American radar identified them, blundered into a thrown together American force. Whatever the cost, Admiral Halsey was not going to let Japanese battleships bombard Henderson Field again. A chaotic melee resulted, where the paths of the ships have never been properly reconstructed. The battleships were firing shells that evidently passed entirely through some thin skinned destroyers without detonating. This was the first night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. After the night was over, losses seemed about equal. A couple of Japanese destroyers had been sunk, against two American heavy cruisers damaged and the anti-aircraft light cruiser Atlanta, which should not have been there, sunk. The Atlanta's sister ship Juneau was then torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine while withdrawing from the battle, to the infamous loss of most of its crew, especially the five Sullivan brothers, for whom two ships (as The Sullivans) have subsequently been named in the United States Navy.

The next day, however, the Hiei was in trouble. Slowed by damage, it was overtaken by American aircraft and met its doom. Although the next night (13/14) Henderson was bombarded by the cruisers Suzuya and Maya, aircraft sank seven Japanese transports on 14 november. That night, 14/15 November, the Kirishima returned, to be met, however, by the American battleships Washington and South Dakota. The South Dakota was first targeted by the Kirishima, and between damage inflicted and problems attendant on being a new ship, it lost all power. The Kirishima briefly looked triumphant, but she had not noticed the battleship Washington behind the South Dakota. Admiral Willis Augustus Lee in the Washington opened deadly fire with his 16 inch guns, and the Kirishima was soon a wreck. The contest for Guadalcanal was effectively over. The next day four more Japanese transports were sunk, and too few troops would ever be landed to make a November offensive against Henderson Field possible. Although Admiral Yamamoto had told the Japanese Army that he would park the superbattleship Yamato off Guadalcanal if necessary, neither Japanese battleships nor cruisers would ever return to Ironbottom Sound. The last Japanese forces, starving and harried, were finally taken off by destroyers on the night of 7/8 February 1943.

The Japanese falsely believed that new ships could be finished in time to reverse the fortunes of war. Thus, capital ships were held back until the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944, when Allied landings on Saipan and Guam were to be contested. The result was disaster -- often called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" for the ease with which green Japanese pilots in now obsolescent planes were shot down. The old veteran of Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea, and the Solomons, the aircraft carrier Shokaku, was sunk, and the new carrier Taiho, with an armored flight deck, was lost, in part because fumes from poorly refined aviation fuel exploded after a torpedo hit. That the War was lost was then obvious to all -- even to Prime Minister Tojo, who resigned. The only thing that kept was the War going was that surrender was still inconceivable.

There wasn't much that battleships like the Kongô and Haruna could then do. The Kongô was finally sunk on 21 November 1944 by the submarine Sealion, SS-315, in the waters off Taiwan. The Haruna was caught near the naval base at Kure by America aircraft on 28 July 1945. Sunk in shallow water, she was raised and broken up in 1946. The other Kongôs all lie on the floor of the ocean. Perhaps some day, after underwater explorers move on from the Titanic and Bismark, their graves will be discovered and examined. But, the last of their kind, the Kongôs are not quite the last of their generation. The class of 1910, when the Kongô and Hiei were planned, survives today in the battleship Texas, as strange to modern eyes as a dinosaur, on public view at the San Jacinto Battlefield, outside Houston, Texas. The Kongô, indeed, as we now know about dinosaurs, was a terrifying predator, neither slow, nor ugly, nor stupid -- although we may say that the cause in which she died was stupid enough.


The Pearl Harbor Strike Force

U.S. Battle Cruisers & Aircraft Carrier Names

Japanese Battleships

Russian Battleships


The Treaty Cruisers

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

A Guadalcanal Chronology, 7 August 1942 - 6 March 1943

Waterline Models

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2006 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


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Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

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The Battleship Kongô, Note

My wife's father, Marty Ehrlich (d. 1996), was on the island at the time as a naval mine expert. One 14 inch shell detonated so close to him that the shock ruptured his diaphram. He had to be evacuated off the island. He recovered completely, but then volunteered to do his mine work on submarines! He spent the latter part of the War on submarine missions out of Fremantle in Western Australia. There were probably not many people in World War II who endured the horrors both of Guadalcanal on land and of submarines at sea. But he survived, and went on to get a Ph.D. in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, in the company of some of the great physicists of the 20th Century. An extraordinary life.

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The Battleship Kongô, Note

U.S. Battle Cruisers & Aircraft Carrier Names

The names for the four United States battle cruisers of the 1916 program all ended up as names of aircraft carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga because they were finished as carriers, the Ranger and
U.S. Battle Cruisers
with Aircraft Carriers of the Same Name
original ship subsequent ship(s)
Lexington CC-1, CV-2CV-16
Constellation CC-2, cancelledCVA-64
Saratoga CC-3, CV-3CVA-60
Ranger CC-4, cancelledCV-4 & CVA-61
Constitution CC-5, cancelled
United States CC-6, cancelledCVA-58, cancelled
Constellation because the names were bestowed on later ships. The small Ranger of World War II (CV-4) was not considered suitable for fleet action, but the later Ranger (CVA-61) and the Constellation (CVA-64) were among the first original post-World War II carriers, the massive (60,000+ ton) Forrestal class.

The fate of the names of the other two battle cruisers is interesting in itself. No subsequent ship has been named the Constitution because the old wooden frigate Constitution, "Old Ironsides," berthed in Boston harbor, has been maintained since 1931 in Commission as an active ship of the United States Navy. There cannot be two commissioned ships with the same name at the same time. Waved onto the Constitution with other tourists in 2009, I noticed a young officer standing by the gangway. I asked him if he was the Officer of the Deck -- someone who should be there in a Commissioned ship. He was. Barring any accident, the name will thus not be available for the foreseeable future.

Post-War U.S. Aircraft Carriers
Midway CVB-41
Franklin D. Roosevelt CVB-42
Coral Sea CVB-43
CVB-44, cancelled
Valley Forge CV-45
Iwo Jima CV-46, cancelled
Philippine Sea CV-47
Saipan CV-48
Wright CV-49
CV-50-55, cancelled
CVB-56-57, cancelled
United States CVA-58, cancelled
Forrestal CVA-59
Saratoga CVA-60
Ranger CVA-61
Independence CVA-62
Kitty Hawk CVA-63
Constellation CVA-64
Enterprise CVAN-65
America CVA-66
John F. Kennedy CVA-67
Nimitz CVN-68
Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN-69
Carl Vinson CVN-70
Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71
Abraham Lincoln CVN-72
George Washington CVN-73
John C. Stennis CVN-74
Harry S. Truman CVN-75
Ronald Reagan CVN-76
George H.W. Bush CVN-77
Gerald R. Ford CVN-78
John F. Kennedy CVN-79
The United States is a different case. A large carrier of that name was actually laid down in 1949 but then cancelled. This was to be a very large ship (66,000+ tons) so that it could carry aircraft large enough to deliver atomic bombs, which at the time were still relatively large and heavy. The
AJ "Savage" (later designated the A-2), a twin propeller bomber, could operate off of the Midway class carriers, but an even larger plane was required and envisioned at the time. However, the United States was almost immediately cancelled, as the Air Force was given the job of handling nuclear warfare. The Navy, of course, would later become an important part of the nuclear strike force with guided missile submarines. No United States was ever laid down again, perhaps because of ambivalence over the propriety of naming a single ship after the entire country. Nevertheless, something of the sort did happen when CVA-66 was laid down as the America in 1961.

As it happened, the next ship, CVA-67, was named after the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy. This was comparable to the naming of CVB-42 for a previous President who had died in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but, oddly, it initiated a departure from all the other traditions of naming United States aircraft carriers. Subsequent carriers have all been named for Presidents, for Fleet Admiral Nimitz (CVN-68), and for two United States Congressmen -- the Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and the John C. Stennis (CVN-74). The Carl Vinson was launched and chistened in 1980, while Vinson (1883-1981) was still alive.

In previous tradition, nothing larger than a destroyer would have been named for a Congressman, and no modern ship had been named after a living person. This extraordinary and perhaps unseemly exception was due to the political role, influence, and longevity that Vinson had on military, and especially naval, budget and policy matters in Congress (1914-1965). One might be tempted to see it as a partisan monument from a Democrat President from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, to a Democrat Congressman from Georgia; but the name was actually assaigned by Richard Nixon, probably as part of his "Southern strategy." It will be hard in the future to explain why a capital warship should have been named after a politician who never served in the military, led American forces in battle, or represented more than a Congressional district in either war or peace.

The closest that previous naming had gotten to this was the Forrestal (CVA-59), named after James Forrestal, who had been Under-Secretary of the Navy, 1940-1944, Secretary of the Navy, 1944-1947, and the first Secretary of Defense, 1947-1949. Forrestal's wartime role for the Navy and then his tragic suicide would have motivated this, but the departure it represented does seem to have established a dangerous precedent. Now we have also had capital ships named for Senators John C. Stennis (1901-1995) and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983 -- the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, SSBN-730), both just because of their political influence, like Vinson, on behalf of the military.

While Britain has named many capital ships after great admirals (Anson, Rodney, Hood, Nelson, etc.), no such tributes exist in the United States Navy to Farragut, Dewey, or Halsey -- the Nimitz and the Spruance (DD-963) are the exceptions -- while instead we have monuments to civilian officials and politicians -- leaving about them a sense of political payoff. What did Carl Vinson, or even James Forrestal, ever say, let alone in the heat of battle, to compare in inspiration to, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" The newest aircraft carriers are named after Presidents again, the first one for, at the time of launch, a still living, though ill, ex-President, Ronald Reagan. The newest carrier is named after a living ex-President again, George H.W. Bush, who was at least a wartime leader, though not otherwise what many would think of as a particularly successful or inspirational President. Even as Presidents have replaced Liberty on the coinage, now they displace genuine war heroes on warships -- although at least they do represent the Nation better than Congressmen distinguished only for getting money to the military.

Return to Kongô Text



United States Battleships and Other Ships Named After States

The Treaty Cruisers

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

A Guadalcanal Chronology, 7 August 1942 - 6 March 1943

Naval Aircraft Designations of Japan and the United States

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

Waterline Models

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy,
Nippon Teikoku Kaigun-no Senkan,

The fate of the empire rests upon this one battle (Kôkoku no kôbai kono issen ni ari).

Let every man do his utmost (kakuin issô funrei doryoku seyo).

Admiral Heihachirô Tôgô, Battle of Tsushima, May 27, 1905

Armored Ships  
Confederate Sphinx/Stonewall,
bought by Shogun, turned over
to Emperor, 1869, as Kôtetsu,
renamed 1871, stricken 1888
purchased by Prince Kumamoto,
turned over to Emperor, 1870,
stricked 1898
ordered 1875, Battle of Yalu
River, stricken 1908-1911
captured Chinese gunboat
P'ing-yüan, sunk by mine
off Port Arthur, 1904
surrendered Chinese
Chen-yüan, Battle of Tsushima,
stricken 1911
1894 program, Russo-Japanese
War, stricken 1922
1894 program, Russo-Japanese
War, sunk by mine, 1904
ordered 1895, Russo-Japanese
War, stricken 1923
ordered 1895, Russo-Japanese
War, sunk by mine, 1904
ordered 1896-7, Russo-Japanese
War, disarmed 1923
ordered 1896-7, Admiral Tôgô's
flagship, Russo-Japanese War,
memorial at Yokosuka 1926
Russian Orel,
surrendered at Tsushima,
stricken 1922
Russian Admiral Seniavin,
surrendered at Tsushima,
stricken 1928
Russian General Admiral
Graf Apraksin
, surrendered
at Tsushima, stricken 1922
Russian Imperator Nikolai I,
surrendered at Tsushima,
stricken 1915
Russian Retvisan,
raised from Port Arthur,
stricken 1923
Russian Peresviet,
raised from Port Arthur;
returned to Russia, 1916,
sunk by mine off Port Said, 1917
Russian Pobieda,
raised from Port Arthur,
disarmed 1922
Russian Poltava,
raised from Port Arthur;
returned to Russia, 1916,
as Tchesma in White Sea
1903 program, stricken 1923
1903 program, stricken 1923
1903 program, first battleship
built in Japan, stricken 1923
1903 program, stricken 1923
1907 program, sunk by
explosion, 1918
1907 program, stricken 1923
1910 program, last Japanese
battleship built by Britain,
sunk by submarine Sealion,
21 November 1944
1910 program, sunk Battle of
Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942
1910 program, sunk Battle of
Guadalcanal, 15 November 1942
1910 program, sunk at Kure,
28 July 1945
1911 program, sunk Battle of
Surigao Strait (Battle for Leyte Gulf),
25 October 1944
1911 program, sunk Battle of
Surigao Strait (Battle for Leyte Gulf),
25 October 1944
1914 program, sunk near Kure,
28 July 1945
1914 program, sunk at Kure,
24 July 1945
1916 program, surrendered 1945,
sunk at atom bomb test,
Bikini Atoll, 29 July 1946
1916 program, sunk Hiroshima
Bay by explosion, 8 June 1943
1937 program, sunk Battle of
Okinawa, 7 April 1945
1937 program, sunk Battle of
Subiyan Sea (Battle for Leyte Gulf),
24 October 1944
1937 program, completing
as aircraft carrier, sunk by
submarine Archerfish,
29 November 1944
After the
Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese Imperial government acquired some ships that had previously been purchased by the Shoguns and by others. Ships were ordered directly starting in 1875. The few ships thus acquired, more cruisers than battleships, had to make do in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Battle of the Yalu River (17 September 1894), the first naval battle since the Battle of Lissa between Italy and Austria in the Seven Weeks' War of 1866. Although the results were satisfactory enough, Japan realized that modern battleships would be needed for a European enemy, like Russia.

The six pre-Droughtnoughts that were then built in Britain gave Japan the fleet necessary to meet Russia in 1904. Victory was no foregone conclusion, since these six Japanese battleships (with an ex-Chinese one thrown in), did not outnumber the Russian squadron in Port Arthur. The Russians lost one ship to mines, but the Japanese lost two. When the Russians finally came out in force, however, it was only in an attempt to flee to Vladivostok. In the following Battle of the Yellow Sea, 10 August 1904, although there were no decisive losses, the Russians were hurt enough to return to Port Arthur, except for the Tsessarevitch, which headed for a neutral Chinese port and was interned for the duration of the War. The remaining battleships were finally defeated by the Japanese Army, which bombarded them from land and then took Port Arthur, which surrendered on 2 January 1905.

With the Russian Baltic Fleet of eleven battleships on its way, the Japanese would still have no superiority, only the obvious advantage of fresh and reconditioned ships against a force weary and rundown from eight months at sea. There were other advantages too, however, and the Battle of Tsushima, 27-28 May 1905, turned out to be one of the more decisive naval battles in history, with most of the Russian fleet, including all the battleships, either sunk or captured. The Japanese can hardly be blamed for regarding themselves as protected by the gods; and the spectacle, before many international observers, of a non-European race, not long before living in mediaeval and nearly Tibetan isolation, with an arguably inferior force, annihilating the fleet of a European Great Power which had once humbled Napoleon Bonaparte, electrified the world -- noticed as much in Egypt and India as in London and Paris. Theodore Roosevelt paid the ultimate complement of the Era:  the Japanese were the "Anglo-Saxons of the Orient."

The British now could congratulate themselves on the wisdom of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902; but as Britain was drawn into alliance with France and Russia against Germany, Japan soon found herself on the same side as her former enemy and one of the Allies in World War I, with a destroyer group operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Only China was left to bully, as Japanese policy and behavior became increasingly ugly and brutal. Nevertheless, this was soon held in relative check, as the "better angels" of the Japanese nature were encouraged by the Allied victory in World War I, which evidently meant that democracy and liberal society were good, and successful, things.

Unfortunately, democracy and liberal society seemed increasingly in trouble as the years went on. To many, the Depression meant that only some kind of totalitarianism, Communist or Fascist, would be able to apply the needed medicine. Japan, with basically a Prussian constitution, but a semi-divine Emperor who believed in the British ideal of ruling by the advice of his ministers, became increasingly dominated by the Army, itself formed on Prussian principles. The Navy, with its British role model and its more cosmopolitan experience, although co-equal to the Army, nevertheless did not have troops on the ground. Admirals in the Japanese government tended to get assassinated, and finally the Army decided, since it wouldn't obey civilian ministers anyway, that General Tojo would be the best Prime Minister.

With war already underway in China since 1937, Japan, which had smarted under a racist snub from its erstwhile Allies at Versailles, ironically fell in with overtly racist Germany and its fellow Fascist Italy. The United States, and especially Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a special romantic soft spot in his heart for China (and well informed about Japanese atrocities in China, which had even been protested by German diplomats), began making essentially war-like moves against Japan, like a scrap metal and then oil boycott. In retrospect, it is clear that the oil boycott meant war, since Japan would have to seize foreign oil fields (in Indonesia) or be rendered helpless in the face of any American demands.

Only the fast Japanese battleships, the reconstructed battle cruisers Kongô, Haruna, Hiei, and Kirishima, played any significant combat role in World War II. Most were sunk in futile throws late in the War, like the Battle for Leyte Gulf (23-26 October 1944), or in harbor, where American planes found them in 1945. An annihilation much like Tsushima was now visited on the Japanese themselves. The gods forsook their protection of Japan. The battleship Nagato even joined its late foe, U.S. carrier Saratoga, as a subject of atomic testing.

With changing tactics, thanks to the use of aircraft carriers, as developed by the Japanese Navy itself (in the Pearl Harbor strike), battleships were necessarily only in a secondary role, one for which, however, they were rarely used, since they were thought too valuable to risk, being held in reserve for the decisive surface battle that never did, and couldn't possibly, ever happen. Thus, the most power battleships ever build, the Yamato and Musashi, never fired a shot at any American surface ship larger than an escort carrier (CVE), while the battleship Kirishima, alone off Guadalcanal, had been destroyed by the detached American battleships South Dakota and Washington (15 November 1942). The only other time when American and Japanese battleships fired at each other was when old American ones sunk the old Japanese Fuso and Yamashiro in Surigao Strait (25 October 1944), during the Battle for Leyte Gulf.

With democracy and liberal society again in ascendency, a disarmed Japan threw itself into commerce with all the determination that it had earlier thrown itself into war. An international empire of automobiles, television sets, cameras, and multiple elecronic devices eventually carried the Japanese to conquests beyond only the wildest aspirations of their earlier imperalists. Yet, where in Britain a Sovereign Queen, a State religion (the Church of England), and various national symbols seem to pose no threat to freedom or democracy, Japan continues to live under the shadow of the crimes practiced in the name of the Emperor, the State religion (State Shintô), and various symbols. Thus, the sovereignty of the Emperor, his involvement with Shintô, and even an official flag and national anthem (Kimigaiyo), set off intense debate, recrimination, threats, violence, and soul searching. Officially, Japan is no longer an Empire (teikoku) but not yet a Republic (kyôwakoku) -- just "Japan" (Nihon). Neither the Japanese, nor their neighbors, are quite sure which "angels" still lurk in the nature of Japan.

Admiral Togo's flagship at Tsushima, the battleship Mikasa, became a war memorial at Yokosuka in 1926. After World War II, the Occupation Authorities required that it be disarmed and disabled as though it were a serious member of the Japanese military. It was subsequently restored to its pre-War appearance, with no less than the support and encouragement of American Admiral Chester Nimitz himself. Although only a minor tourist attraction, except for the Japanese, the Mikasa now has the extraordinary status of being the last of its kind, the last Pre-Dreadnought preserved above water anywhere in the world. Nimitz thus magnanimously understood that the Mikasa was a unqiue monument and artifact of military history and warranted the respect and attention of anyone with a concern for military science. Below, we see the Mikasa on 18 November 2009, in a picture taken by the author, in the characteristic dark gray of Japanese warships. A modern statue of Togo is visible in the foreground. The ship can be reached by a zig-zag walk through the streets of Yokosuka from the Yokosuka-Chuo train station on the Keihin Kyûkô Line.


The Pearl Harbor Strike Force


The Treaty Cruisers

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

A Guadalcanal Chronology, 7 August 1942 - 6 March 1943

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

Waterline Models

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2006, 2009, 2010 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved