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Project 1: “YUKIKAZE’S WAR”

I am writing a biography of a boat. Specifically, I am researching the history of a WWII Japanese destroyer named Yukikaze.Yukikaze’s war in the Pacific was a war to secure badly needed resources. She waged war to secure and then guard the transport of natural resources, mainly oil from the East Indies. But Yukikaze’s war was also a transnational one—she served in the Imperial Japanese Navy for four years, and then, after being transferred as war reparations, defended Taiwan as part of the Republic of China’s Navy for an additional eighteen. Yukikaze was finally retired in 1970.

On 24 March 1939, Yukikaze splashed into the water at the Sasebo Naval Yard, one of nineteen of her class. She had been developed within the crucible of the Washington Naval Treaty (1922), which severely restricted displacement tonnage, and the “Fourth Fleet Incident” (1935), when a typhoon clobbered much of the Imperial Japanese Navy about 200 nautical miles off northeastern Honshu. Notably, the storm tore away the bow of two of the new Special Type destroyers, forcing IJN architects to rethink their lightweight boats. The IJN tasked engineers Fukuda Keiji and Hiraga Yuzuru with developing stronger, more stable lightweight vessels. Yukikaze was one result of these efforts, the engineering handy work of Makino Shigeru, a celebrated prodigy of Hiraga, Fukuda, and Fujimoto Kikuo, all legends in IJN engineering circles.

Yukikaze traveled some 96,000 nautical miles during the Pacific War. The destroyer witnessed some of the most dramatic naval engagements of the war: Java Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Mariana Islands, and Leyte Gulf. Yukikaze escorted the super-carrier Shinano when the U.S. submarine Archerfish sank her in November 1944. Similarly, Yukikaze accompanied the battleship Yamato on her final suicide mission in April 1945. Miraculously, Yukikaze survived these engagement and others, telling a story of the war that few machines (or people) can, whether a Soviet T-34 tank racing across Eastern Europe, a blitzkrieg Panzer outside Dunkirk, a U.S. carrier at Midway, or a British Spitfire defending the skies over London. Of the IJN’s eighty-two top-of-the-line destroyers that started the war, only Yukikaze survived. Her captains—Toba Kenjirô, Kanma Ryôkichi, Terauchi Masamichi, and Koyô Keiji—all survived the war as well.

In July 1947, two years after Japan’s defeat, Japan surrendered Yukikaze to the Republic of China (ROC) as war reparations. In May 1948, the ROC Navy commissioned her as Tan Yang, and the stalwart seabird served an additional eighteen years for the ROC Navy, including during the tension filled period after the evacuation of Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang to Taiwan. Tan Yang was involved in the Liao Luowan naval battle during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, for example. Finally, in 1970, the ROC Navy decommissioned Tan Yang, ceremoniously returning her wheel to Japan. As her ROC Navy service illustrates, Yukikaze’s war was a transnational one, defending the geopolitical ambitions and energy requirements of more than one Pacific nation.

Yukikaze’s presence at celebrated naval battles for both the IJN and ROC Navy belies the more routine nature of the bulk of her Pacific action, however. In July 1941, as tensions flared between the U.S. and Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed an oil embargo on Japan, and one month later the Dutch followed suit. With the stroke of two Western pens, Japan lost 93% of its oil imports. These embargos framed the early stages of Yukikaze’s war. Within two months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yukikaze was heavily invested in escorting troops to the Dutch East Indies, and capturing and protecting Royal Dutch Shell oil fields. Yukikaze escorted troops to Menado, Kendari, and Ambon, and then participated in the Battle of the Java Sea in order to defeat the Dutch Navy and secure critical port facilities at Surabaya. With control of Dutch oil fields, the Japanese piped crude to refineries in Wonokromo, Kapoean, and Tjepoe. 

From such refineries, fuel made its way to the Japanese homeland and, more often, into the bellies of always-thirsty warships, which had started the transition from coal to diesel in the early twentieth century. 

As David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie explain, the IJN consumed a staggering 60% of Japan’s total oil during the war years (most domestic industries still relied on coal), some 4.8 million tons in the first year of the war alone. From the bridge of Yukikaze, Japan’s war in the Pacific looked very much like what Michael T. Klare has called a “resource war.” Ideologies drove WWII, but oil fueled it. Yukikaze’s experiences with both the IJN and the ROC Navy shed light on not only past Pacific conflicts, but also future ones as Asia-Pacific navies compete for supremacy in the South China Sea. 


Currently, Brett is working on a broader environmental history of World War II.