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A Most Worthy Foe
by jason taylor
05/07/09
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Chivalry is out of fashion these days. Feeling respect or kindness toward ones enemies is often confused with sympathy toward their cause. Nontheless there was a time when gentlemen in battle would kill but they wouldn't hate. And in the spirit of this I am posting a tribute to Vice Admiral Raizo Tanaka* of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Tanaka fought in a war of a kind never seen since the Anglo-Dutch wars of the sixteen hundreds. Never since then had two first class naval powers met. Between that, fighting by the Royal Navy against French, Germans, Spaniards, Americans and so on was effectively a sort of naval counterinsurgency. But the Pacific War was when two of the three greatest navies met in an even match. And Tanaka's war was in the most even part of it, in Guadalcanal when the two sides were slowly learning to respect(though hardly love) each other and when American industry had not started to crank out it's overwhelming flood of ships and planes.
The IJN officers probably had more in common with their British and American counterparts then Japanese and Allied army officers did. Like them they were brought up in a world where naval officers were expected to be policemen, diplomats, occasionally colonial administrators as well as warriors. The IJN attracted recruits with it's associations with adventure, travel, technology the majesty and sleekness of ships and planes-the curious aesthetic attraction of machines of war. Not to mention the chance to escape the army. These were things that attracted recruits into all navies. Like the American and British Navies they had a tradition of prowess. Not for them the behavior of the German Navy which mutinied when ordered to battle in 1918 for a lost cause. The IJN never admitted defeat until nearly every ship was sunk and even then not until ordered to do so.
But in another way they were peculiar to themselves. The IJN was an institution to warm a Spartan's heart. Training was taken with nearly religious seriousness. The Imperial Naval Academy did not produce nice people-in fact it produced officers over fond of using their swagger sticks. But no one can ever say it did not produce men. The sailors were alike. The were out at sea on manuvers in all weathers with little regard for safety and absolutely no regard for nonsense about arrangeing a fair contest. No IJN officer would dare complain that a wargame was rigged against him for the perfectly logical reason that the American Navy could not be expected to play fair either. This system did not produce good admirals interestingly enough. But it produced tough and skillful, junior officers, chiefs and sailors
Tanaka participated in the first operations. He distinguished himself at the long-forgotten Battle of the Java Sea. In the Midway operation he escorted transports for the troops of the would-be invasion. It was at Guadalcanal that he would make his name.
Guadalcanal is a rather unpleasant island on the Eastern end of the Soloman's chain, full of tropical diseases and rot. But pleasantness is not necessarily a concern of staffies. Bases are. And an airbase on this island would allow the Japanese to cut off shipping routes to Australia. If the Americans possessed it, they would in turn have the opposite advantage, becoming a pocket in the Japanese perimeter that would have an effect similar to that of a stump on one's lawn. The Japanese rather lazily garrisoned the island and started building their airfield. In response the Americans landed the First Marine division, a mixture of callow youths and old hands from Latin American and Chinese interventions, that would itself win fame.
This set the stage as both sides raced to supply their respective garrisons. And it was here that Tanaka came into his own. Transports were to slow and clumsy. It was necessary to pack reinforcements and supplies aboard fast destroyers to sweep in and land them and then escape before daylight, and American air power could arrive. At times he ambushed American squadrons. The Japanese radar was primative. So instead they used the strange but uncannily effective combination of picked lookouts, excellant optical instruments and the best torpedos in the world, known in US naval lore as the "long lance". With these he would come out of the darkness and reap ruin.
It could not last. In a contest to the death between equally efficient forces, almost always attrition will out. Americans, if they started farther down the learning curve, were able and aggresive. And Japan's zeal in training often resulted in simply not producing enough officers however skilled. As Japan was running out of ships, planes and men, America gained. And the skill of Americans increased until they were about equal. Americans would always be respectful of Japanese surface talent. But they could match it, and with numbers and technology exceed it. And when the new line of carriers came out in 1944 surface fighting became rare again.
Tanaka himself had an end to his career that was perhaps fortunate though he would not have thought so at the time. After Guadalcanal was given up and the Japanese forces evacuated, it became necessary for their to be someone to blame. Tanaka, who perhaps was more free with his tongue then a naval officer is expected to be, especially in the IJN, was beached. This ended his illustrious career but he survived the war and lived until 1969.
Curiously Tanaka has been more admired among US naval buffs then among Japanese. He showed a spirit of initiative and tactical savvy that strikes a chord among people raised on tales of John Paul Jones going in harms way. In any case he certainly deserves his reputation. One does not have to condone Japan's aggression and war-crimes to say he was a great officer, a great sailor and a great warrior. Raizo Tanaka deserves respect for he was a very worthy enemy.

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