Even before the Washington Naval Treaty limited new construction, the Imperial Japanese Navy determined that it would never be able to match the USN in numbers. The Japanese solution was to achieve ship to ship superiority. The IJN was the first navy to use the 14″ gun (on Kongo), although the Americans soon matched this with New York and the British exceeded it with the 15″ guns of Queen Elizabeth. The IJN, which continued to have close ties with the Royal Navy, was particularly impressed by the British fast battleships, and decided that their next class of ships would be both fast and heavily armed.
The result was Nagato. Commissioned in 1920, Nagato was the first battleship in the world to carry 16″ guns, of which she had eight in four twin turrets. At 34000 tons she was one of the largest battleships in the world, and her 26 knot top speed exceeded even that of the Queen Elizabeths. Nagato was not as well armored as contemporary American battleships, but her speed should have made her a more useful and effective unit than the US ships. It can be fairly argued that Nagato and her sister Mutsu represented the zenith of battleship design prior to World War II. Especially when she had a swept back funnel, Nagato also looked dangerous and powerful
Nagato was modernized twice in the interwar period, the second refit giving her much heavier deck armor. She served as the flagship of the Combined Fleet for most of the interwar period, including the Pearl Harbor attack. Strangely for a ship of her speed and power, Nagato had a relatively quiet war record. She was part of the Main Body at Midway, but because Japanese naval practice of the time did not include deploying aircraft carriers with battleship protection, she saw no action. This was determined to be a grievous flaw in Japanese doctrine; Nagato, Yamato, and their sisters were fast enough to escort the Japanese carriers, and might have provided some anti-aircraft protection against American attacks. Nagato also did not participate in the Solomons campaign, although, again, her speed was sufficient to “run the Slot” and attack Henderson Field. This, again, was a major error; instead of using their (temporary) advantage in surface warships in the Solomons, the Japanese conserved their most powerful units.
In June 1943, Nagato lost her sister, Mutsu, to a magazine explosion. The Combined Fleet evacuated Truk for ports in Southeast Asia at the end of 1943, and prepared to fight the US invasion of the Philippines. Nagato participated in the Battle of Philippine Sea as a carrier escort, vainly attempting to prevent the destruction of her charge Hiyo. In October 1944 Nagato was attached to Admiral Kurita’s strike force, designed to attack the American escort carriers and transports of Leyte. Although the Japanese plan successfully drew off the escorting American battleships, the attack was disrupted by a group of destroyers and destroyer escorts. Four battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy managed to sink a couple of destroyers and a single escort carrier before fleeing under air attack. Nagato took several bomb hits during and after the action.
Nagato eventually limped back to Japan with the remnants of Kurita’s force, which lost the battlecruiser Kongo along the way. Nagato was drydocked, but the IJN lacked both the materials needed for repair and the fuel necessary to making Nagato operational again. Nagato was reclassified as a coastal defense ship, and did not participate in the final actions of the war. A few additional air attacks damaged, but failed to destroy, the aging battleship. Indeed, the Japanese were able to conduct enough repairs and assemble enough fuel to make a final sortie in case of an American landing attempt. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki rendered this moot, however. When Japan surrendered, Nagato was the sole surviving IJN battleship.
There was no need to incorporate a 25 year old, badly damaged Japanese battleship into the USN. Nevertheless, the United States found a use for Nagato. The Bikini atom bomb tests were about to begin, and the Navy wanted to know what happened when atomic bombs were dropped on ships. Along with Prinz Eugen, the last survivor of the German Navy, and dozens of old American ships, Nagato would serve as a guinea pig for the atomic age. An American crew took control of Nagato and began the necessary repairs, under the advice of its former Japanese officers. On March 18 Nagato set out for Eniwetok under her own power. The journey almost proved too much; Nagato began taking on water, and a blown boiler stopped her dead. Repairs were executed, however, and Nagato took her place for the bomb tests. The first bomb, dropped on July 1, exploded about 1500 yards from Nagato and did only insignificant damage to her superstructure. Notably, Nagato held up better than the American battleships nearby, and was studied for several days by American engineers. On July 24th, a second bomb was detonated underwater. Nagato rode out the blast without incident, but was rendered far too radioactive for further boarding. She began, very slowly, to settle, and sank on July 29.
Nagato is one of my favorite battleships. Aesthetically, I find the pagoda mast very elegant when combined with the four turret arrangement. Technically, Nagato was an impressive ship, comparing well with her foreign contemporaries and useful until the end of World War II. Ideally Nagato would have been preserved, but the political context in both Japan and the United States at the end of World War II made this impossible, of course.
(Images courtesy of Maritimequest)
Trivia: What battleship was saved by an earthquake?