July 12, 1918: Another Naval “Oops” Moment, Battleship Kawachi Blows Up

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A Brief History

On July 12, 1918, the Japanese battleship, Kawachi, suffered a giant explosion in a main powder magazine and sank.  The unlucky ship was only 6 years old and her combat career had consisted of bombarding German fortifications at Tsingtao in 1914.  Maritime disasters are part of the history of men going to sea, and the military part of maritime adventure is loaded with incidents where the commanders just had to say, “Oops!”  In this case, the Japanese Navy had their turn at naval embarrassment and disaster.  Please see these below listed links for more great History and Headlines articles about naval “oops moments!”:

  1. August 10, 1628: Most Powerful Warship Sinks on Maiden Voyage
  2. January 31, 1918: Battle of May Island, Yet Another Naval “Oops” Moment!
  3. December 12, 1939: Yet Another Naval Blunder (HMS Barnham Sinks HMS Duchess In Spectacular Display of Explosions)
  4. January 28, 1980: And Yet Another Naval Oops Moment, Coast Guard Style
  5. 10 “Oops!” Moments in Naval History
  6. January 8, 2005: Even High Tech Cannot Stop Another Naval Oops Moment!

Digging Deeper

On the fateful last day of her career, Kawachi was anchored in Tokuyama Bay, waiting for seas to calm in order to conduct torpedo practice.  The possibility of intentional arson was considered, but no suspect or motive could be found.  Cordite in her magazine may have spontaneously exploded due to deterioration, but that conclusion is not without question.  Either way, the Imperial Japanese Navy changed their handling procedures for cordite propellant.

Right elevation and plan of the Kawachi-class battleships from Brassey’s Naval Annual 1915

Kawachi was the first of a 2 ship class of battleships, entering service in 1912.  She brandished 12 X 12 inch guns in 6 twin (2 gun) turrets, and a secondary battery of 10 X 6 inch guns, 8 X 4.7 inch guns, and 12 X 3 inch guns, as well as 5 X torpedo tubes.  The 22,000 ton ship was 526 feet long and 84 feet wide with an armor belt of 12 inches amidships tapering to 5 inches at the bow and stern.  Her main turrets were heavily armored with 11 inches of steel, and her bridge protected by 10 inches of armor.  Her main deck was only 1.2 inches thick.  Despite her heavy armament and armor, the Kawachi was reasonably fast, with a top speed of 21 knots thanks to her 25,000 shp steam turbines.

When Kawachi suffered the fatal explosion, she began to list only 2 minutes later, and a mere 2 minutes after that capsized and then sank.  About 600 men died with the ship, and another 400+ were rescued.  Any attempt to refloat the ship was dismissed due to cost and delays to other projects had it been attempted.

Kawachi in 1911

Going to sea has always been a dangerous proposition, and living aboard a giant powder keg makes it even more so.  Mistakes and accidents have taken their toll on ships of every navy, and presumably will continue to do so.  Our hats are off to those that dare brave the perils of the sea.

Question for Students (and others): What naval disaster do you think is the most egregious, ridiculous, or infamous?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

“Untergang der Titanic” by Willy Stöwer, 1912

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Evans, David C. and Mark R. Peattie.  Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941.  Naval Institute Press, 2012.

The featured image in this article, the Japanese battleship Kawachi in an early postcard, is in the public domain in Japan because its copyright has expired according to Article 23 of the 1899 Copyright Act of Japan (English translation) and Article 2 of Supplemental Provisions of Copyright Act of 1970. This is when the photograph meets one of the following conditions:

  1. It was published before January 1, 1957.
  2. It was photographed before January 1, 1947.

It is also in the public domain in the United States because its copyright in Japan expired by 1970 and was not restored by the Uruguay Round Agreements Act.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.