The Five Minutes

Robert Lundgren, working off data found by Bob Ballard's exploration of the wreck of the IJN battlecruiser Kirishima, has reinterpreted the official reports to rewrite what happened during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  The accepted story is that the Kirishima which entered the scene in company with destroyers, fired on and disabled the shorted-out USS South Dakota.  In the meantime, the USS Washington fired a series of accurate salvos which inflicted 9 16 inch and 40 5 inch hits on the battlecruiser, causing it to lose control and eventually scuttle itself.

The real story, according to Lundgren is that Kirishima took 20 x 16" and 17 x 5" in the five minute battle. At the 8,400 range of the engagement, Washington's 16" battery was firing with only a 7 degree elevation and the shell dispersions were so narrow at these ranges that the splashes literally merged.

Ikeda’s sketch of her damage is probably the most important new piece of evidence as to Kirishima ’s damage. The 20 major caliber and 17 secondary caliber hits is far more consistent with what may be expected by the number of major caliber shells and secondary shells fired at their respected ranges. In addition all the hits that struck the ship below the waterline would have been observed by Washington as a miss due to the shell throwing up a splash. Some hits so close together may have been observed as single hits so the 8-9 hits viewed optically becomes a realistic estimate but falls short of actual damage.

The damage caused by the 20 x 16" hits explains why the Kirishima's list changed alternately from port to starboard and back, Lundgren says. The huge shells had destroyed the watertight integrity of the middle decks so completely that the seawater simply sloshed from side of the doomed battlecruiser to the other until she capsized on the unengaged side. Her center of gravity simply went to pieces as the Japanese officers applied standard damage control procedures to a situation in which all the standard assumptions didn't hold.

The decks normally above the waterline have huge compartments which allow the crew to move through the ship. By 1942 advances in shell technology allow projectiles to have deep penetration capability before they detonate. Her exterior armor too thin to stop penetration only ensures proper fuze action. ... When the XO Commander Koro One ordered port voids flooded to correct the starboard list it only settled the ship lower in the water bringing her entire middle deck below the waterline and allowed the beginning of progressive flooding of the middle deck. When more progressive flooding occurred she will flip over to a port list and the XO ordered more starboard voids flooded which again simply settles the ship lower and allows more water onto her upper decks and she flops back to starboard. Eventually, flooding the port voids will not correct the starboard list but only increase the rate of flooding from starboard and the starboard list steadily grew.

If true, it's a fascinating account of how complex systems can betray their managers. A ship built for World War 1 combat encounters a vessel with more modern radar fire control at unbelievably close range. The Washington causes damage whose profile is nothing like what the Kirishima is designed to absorb. All its protection faces the wrong way in a systems sense. But the Japanese officers have no way of knowing this and apply the book, which dooms them. Of course, after taking 20 x 16" hits maybe they were doomed anyway.

In my opinion her officers followed a script when it came to damage control automatically giving orders to counter flood each time she took a list. It is documented she suffered considerable flooding but also her main machinery was completely intact. This damage analysis is a bit more than speculation because this is the only area of the ship which can produce the type of flooding, free surface effect, and for her to develop a negative GM. This level of damage must occur to match the officer testimony of how she sank.

The great battlecruiser turned turtle and its huge turrets fell out. She plunged by the stern nearly vertically and hit the bottom so fast that her compartments didn't even have time to even completely flood. Sometime later huge underwater explosions are observed by the US destroyer Preston. Lundren believes that the remaining air compressed itself at over 1,600 psi into the area containing her secondary magazine. Perhaps it was enough to set the shells off. Deep underwater, already a tomb,  Kirishima blew herself apart in an act of posthumous immolation punctuating the five minutes of 16 inch shellfire that had sent her to a watery grave.

Today, the modified Aegis class destroyer JDS Kirishima (DDG 174) carries the battlecruiser's name. She is the sister ship of JDS Kongo. "Kirishima is under going modification at Nagasaki to add the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMD) capability to its weapons suite." We rely on our systems for safety, but the unstated assumption is that they will face the threats they were designed to handle.


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