The Phantoms of the Pacific: Kido Butai

August 12, 2017

It patiently waited, its target only 230 miles away. Waves rocked the ships as their commanders prepared for the inevitable launch that would change the world. The Pacific skies were blue, the first rays of the morning sun shining on the men scrambling across the decks of the massive force.

Days prior, the fleet had undertaken a long journey across the ocean, one that could have been met with disaster and opposition were it not for diversionary tactics implemented back in Japan ensuring that no one who wasn’t specifically looking for the large mobile force would find it.

Like ghosts cruising along the Pacific, Japan's 1st Air Fleet, known as Kido Butai, or Mobile Force, arrived at its destination without calling attention to itself, a feat that seems almost impossible considering the United States was keeping a close watch on Japan’s actions due to growing tensions between the two nations. The Kido Butai, using a tactic that made it appear as if the fleet had never left Japan, arrived in time for the scheduled launch of the massive attack on American territory.

The Kido Butai

While most of the attention of the Pearl Harbor attack focuses on the aircraft that flew over the island of Oahu in two waves, if not for the Kido Butai, the surprise assault would not have been possible.

Comprising six aircraft carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku—supported by three cruisers, two battleships, nine destroyers, 23 submarines, five midget submarines, and eight tankers, the Mobile Force was the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

After Pearl Harbor

kido butai
Zuikaku sinking during the Battle of Leyte Gulf

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the ships of the Kido Butai took on different roles, taking part in the Indian Ocean Raid, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Battle of Midway, considered the beginning of the downfall of the Japanese Navy.

If not for Allied cryptographers who had deciphered Japanese codes, the Battle of Midway might not have ended in defeat for the Imperial Japanese Navy and the loss of three of its vital aircraft carriers. With the loss of these carriers, the Japanese Navy was never able to fully recover, partially due to a lack of resources needed to rebuild the fleet.

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