Sunk at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea
Asashio played a role in many of the early crucial battles of the Pacific War, including the invasion of Java, the attack on Midway, and the struggle for Guadalcanal, until she met her end in the Bismarck Sea in March, 1943. In early 1942, she used her night-fighting skills and “Long Lance” torpedoes to good effect, but a year later, American material and technological advantages did her in.
Like other classes of Japanese destroyers, Asashio was “all business.” Her typical flared bow cut the sea, sheltering a long low deck. By Western standards, she was over-powered, top-heavy, and flimsy. But that was Japanese destroyer philosophy; the naval architects packed her hull with six 5-inch guns, eight torpedo tubes (plus handy re-loads), and a three-boiler, 38,000 HP power plant capable of driving the ship at 34 knots. Quite a package for a 1500-ton, 361-foot long destroyer. With a crew relentlessly trained in night-fighting, she was expected to inflict real damage on the US Navy’s capital ships.
When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies in February, they faced a hodge-podge of Allied forces from the so-called ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) command. After several early successes, on February 18 the Japanese landed on Bali, the last island before Java. Their transports unloaded quickly, protected by Admiral Kubo’s force, consisting of light cruiser Nagara, and seven destroyers, including Asashio. The mixed ABDA naval force, under Admiral Doorman, came out to meet them, and the Bali Invasion Force scattered that evening, destroyers Asashio and Oshio shepherding the transport Sasago Maru. The ABDA cruisers and destroyers caught them just about 2300; both sides exchanged some ineffective gunfire, and the Japanese headed off to the east. Dutch destroyer Piet Hein came on bravely, but fatally, making smoke and further confusing the already uncertain conditions of the nighttime battle. She fired both guns and torpedoes at Asahio without effect. Asashio retaliated with a spread of Long Lance torpedoes, whose 825 lb. warheads hit Piet Hein, blew a huge hole in her, and sank her immediately.
Asashio and Oshio continued dueling in the dark, first with two American destroyers, and then (to the extent that the actual events can be re-created from the contemporary accounts) for some time, fired on each other! Not long after midnight, the second wave of the ABDA task force steamed into Badung Strait, uncertain of what they were looking for and of each other’s signals. While the Allies got off the first spread of torpedoes, none hit home, and effective counter-fire from the 5-inch guns of the two IJN destroyers dissuaded the two American destroyers from pressing their attack. As the two fleets essentially steamed by each other in the darkness, Dutch light cruiser Tromp, bringing up the Allied rear, and Asashio poked and probed futilely for more than two hours. Finally, Asashio’s gunners found the range, pouring eleven shells into Tromp’s superstructure, knocking her out of the battle and to Australia for repairs.
Two years later, in March of 1943, the Japanese had been thrown back on the defensive. Anxious to stem the Allied advance in New Guinea, they organized a relief convoy of 6,900 soldiers in eight transports, escorted by eight destroyers and numerous airplanes. The U.S. Fifth Army Air Force had developed new ‘skip-bombing’ tactics for their B-25s, and on March 3, as the sixteen Japanese ships approached, the American bombers tore into them, strafing the crowded decks with .50 caliber machine gun fire and, literally, skipping 500-lb. bombs (released at very low altitude) into the sides of the ships. The first day, they sank two transports. Admiral Kimura had little choice but to push on, to try to reach New Guinea. And on the next day, March 4, the skip-bombers struck again, this time sinking all the remaining transports and four of the escorting destroyers, including Asashio. It was monumental disaster for the Japanese; never again would they attempt to send transports into areas covered by Allied air power.