The Oite Kamikaze-class destroyer was unique in that it was sunk entering Truk Lagoon rather than exiting it.
In early 1944, the island base of Truk was a Japanese Pearl Harbor; a powerful naval and air base that needed to be neutralized before the Allies could fight their way any further towards Tokyo. But Truk was also the most heavily defended naval base outside the Japanese Home Islands and an Allied invasion would be costly.
Long-range bombing against Truk intact would be a massacre so a plan was conceived to neutralize it through a series of massive naval raids led by the growing US carrier fleet. Operation Hailstone was one of the most famous operations ever undertaken by American carriers in the Pacific.
As explained by Mark Lardas in his book Truk 1944–45, during Operation Hailstone, the US Navy concentrated its efforts on Truk’s air garrison and the ships in Truk Lagoon. The air garrison was largely knocked out of the battle in the first hours of the assault by a dawn fighter sweep, immediately followed up with bombers dropping fragmentation bombs on the airfield. The Navy then spent the rest of the day sinking ships.
While the main body of Imperial Japan’s Combined Fleet hastily departed Truk less than a week before the US strike, there were still plenty of ships in the harbor, both merchant vessels and warships. During the day of Feb. 17,1944 eight warships and over 30 merchant ships or naval auxiliaries were sunk by the US Navy. While a few were sunk by surface warships circling the atoll to catch escapers, most fell victim to US Navy aircraft.
Among them was the Oite. One of nine Kamikaze-class destroyers built for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the early 1920s, it was elderly, the Japanese equivalent of the US Navy’s flush-deck destroyers. It was armed with 4.7in guns, instead of the 127mm guns of the latest classes of World War II Japanese destroyers. Early in the war, it and its sisters were modified to improve their antisubmarine capabilities. One main gun and the aft torpedo tubes were removed, leaving it with a main battery of three 4.7in guns and only four torpedo tubes by 1944. Extra depth charge throwers and 25mm antiaircraft guns replaced the original armament. The Oite along with several class sisters had been relegated to the Fourth Fleet at the start of World War II. It participated in the invasion of Wake Island in 1941 and Central Pacific convoy escort duty in 1942 and 1943.
The Oite was unique in that it was sunk entering Truk Lagoon rather than exiting it. The previous day, the light cruiser Agano had been sunk by a US submarine guarding the route between Truk and the Palau Islands. The Oite had picked up 523 survivors and was returning to Truk to unload them, when it steamed into the US airstrike.
The Oite attempted to escape the aircraft by heading through North Pass and racing to the navy anchorage off Dublon. Carrier aircraft caught the Oite shortly after it cleared North Pass. An Avenger from USS Bunker Hill planted a torpedo amidships, a remarkable feat considering the Oite was moving in excess of 20 knots and maneuvering wildly. The hit shattered the old destroyer. It broke in two, and sank almost instantly. The 523 Agano survivors, packed below decks, never had a chance. They died to a man, as did all but 20 of the Oite’s crew of 172.
The plate in this post by Adam Tooby shows the moment when the Oite was struck by the torpedo, shortly after clearing North Pass and entering Truk Lagoon. The ship can be seen avoiding a torpedo running parallel to it on the far side as another torpedo hits it broadside. Two Hellcat fighters are seen ahead of the Oite, after completing a strafing run on the destroyer.
The Oite’s wreck was found in 1986. It is broken in two sections, with the stern upright and the bow section capsized, the bridge buried in the sea bottom. Two hundred feet below the surface, it is a popular diving target.
Truk 1944–45 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Adam Tooby via Osprey