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The Ugly Pagoda Mast Warships

Updated on July 5, 2020
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Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

When you are in need, it’s okay to resort to anything. And that’s exactly what the Imperial Japanese Navy did during the 1930s. Back then, they need to further strengthen the capabilities of their existing navy. But there was a problem. The Washington Naval Treaty was still on effect back then, and the result was the “Battleship Holiday” for the Japanese. Although Japan was allied to US, UK, France and Italy, there was a brewing naval arms race between the postwar allies. Between 1916 to the 1919, the US already armed itself with 50 modern battleships. The Imperial Japan on the other hand was gunning for an “eight-eight fleet program,” (Hachihachi Kantai) which stipulated that the navy should have eight modern battleships, and eight armored cruisers. But thanks to the Washington Naval Treaty, battlefield constructions were limited for the affected nations, Japan included among them.

With the restrictions on the battlefield constructions, Japan then resorted to other means to gain an advantage over other navies. This includes upgrades on existing warships. The Imperial Japanese Navy simply reconstructed and modified their assets to improve their performance in sea combat. The result was a towering superstructure which was not exactly appealing to the eye.

The Pagoda Mast

Close-up of the Fuso's Pagoda Mast.
Close-up of the Fuso's Pagoda Mast.

The Imperial Japanese Navy wanted their ships to be well equipped, and they did so through the addition of a superstructure to house extra equipment, and as lookouts.

Firstly, it started with a tripod mast, which is a superstructure set on three columns. With an existing tripod mast as the base, they then added platforms, additional lookouts, and shelters. In this case, these additional structures were stacked on the top of the other. As a preparation for night battles, powerful searchlights were added to the now towering mast.

And the resulting shape was said to resemble a pagoda temple, which earned its name. It was mentioned earlier that aesthetically, the protruding mast was not a pretty thing to look at. And yes, it’s the ugliest thing ever built on a ship.

How People Reacted

The battleship Hyuga showing its Pagoda Mast.
The battleship Hyuga showing its Pagoda Mast.

Western sailors and naval architects mocked these awkward looking protrusions, and it earned the sarcastic nickname “Christmas Tree.” Though the name Pagoda Mast sounds great to the ear, the actual shape never resembled the artistic temples of the east. For one thing those masts were shapeless hunks of metals being stacked on each other. And if that’s the case, it seemed that it was stacked carelessly, like a pile of school notebooks being left on a messy desk.

Then there was the fact that Pagoda Masts never had a straight profile. Among the mess of superstructures, the middle part seemed to bulge out. It gave the outside appearance of structural instability and unstable weight. Or simply let us put it this way; it got an awkward shape. And now that we speak of instability, the ugly and hulking mass of steel sticking out of a sleek fighting ship simply don’t look right. Later we will discuss on whether the Pagoda Mass had any effects on the ship’s performance, but any ships carrying this visually horrendous superstructures makes for an ugly scenery.

With its messy metallic exterior and badly shaped profile, the overall appearance of a ship with a Pagoda Mast was a floating shanty town.

Enter the Battleship Fuso

The Battleship Fuso.
The Battleship Fuso.

The presence of the Pagoda Mast did messes up the ship’s aesthetics. Yet it was applied to many of the Imperial Japanese Navy warships during the Battleship Holiday. The Kongo-class battlecruisers were rebuilt to be equipped with the protruding masts. The same can be said to the battleship classes Ise, Fuso, and Nagato. And the lead ship of the Fuso class, the Fuso became remarkable for its oversized Pagoda Mast, making it a particularly ugly warship among its peers.

First commissioned in 1915, she never had any engagements in World War I, and her initial assignment was to patrol the coast of China. The Fuso did assist the survivors of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Back then she looked like any typical battleship, until a series of modernizations gave her improved armor, propulsions, and that protruding abomination known as the Pagoda Mast.

And when it comes to the Pagoda Mast, she got an extra-large one. Her oversized superstructure towered at 130 feet above the waterline.

Though she never saw actions during the First World War, she fought during the Battle of Leyte where she was severely damaged by US warplanes. Eventually, a torpedo possibly from the destroyer USS Melvin finished her off and eyewitnesses even claimed that she broke in half, though some accounts claimed that she sank intact.

In 2017, her wreckage was discovered, and being in one piece confirmed that she never broke during the end of her life. And as for her hulking Pagoda Mast, it snapped off as she sank, and it lies somewhere away from the hull.

Questions on the Weight

The searchlight of the USS Missouri.
The searchlight of the USS Missouri.

And now, there was a question whether this ugly superstructure ever had effects on the ship’s performance. Take note that it was described as “top heavy” by western sailors. But despite of their awkward appearances, these superstructures were actually very light for their sizes. And battleships sporting these masts don’t seemed to have any stability issues, as was demonstrated when Fuso fought. What’s more, these superstructures were unarmored unlike the rest of the ships.

The practical purpose of the Pagoda Masts was to provide more platforms for equipment in their warships. The towering superstructures could house optics and searchlights, crucial during night operations. But searchlights began to lose their importance after an introduction of a new weapon by the Allies.

In the early 1940s, radars technology was developed, and now they could see the enemy better than before. And with these new means of detection, the Allied could now aim and shoot enemy warships, even in poor visibility like in nighttime operations.

And with that, the Pagoda Mast with their mounted searchlights lost their purpose. The giant mast could even give the ship’s position to the enemy, by increasing its radar signature.

Similar Technology

Yet it was interesting to note that western navies also employed large superstructures for their ships. Before the Second World War, the Royal Navy had a Queen Anne’s Mansions style conning tower on their warships. While the US Navy adopted their Tripod Mast.

Yet they never reached the scale of the oversized Pagoda Mast, which dominated most of the ships.

References:

1. Baker, A. D., III (1989). "Battlefleets and Diplomacy: Naval Disarmament Between the Two World Wars". Warship International.

2. Friedman Norman (2008). "Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era." Seaport Publishing.

3. Jentschura, Hansgeorg; Jung, Dieter; Mickel, Peter (1977). "Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945." Annapolis, Maryland,United States Naval Institute

4. Skulski, Janusz (1998). "The Battleship Fuso. Anatomy of the Ship." London: Conway Maritime Press.



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    • Danny Fernandes profile image

      Danny 

      5 weeks ago from India

      Yes though it looked awkward, it served the Japanese navy purpose of stacking equipment.

      Chinese had more superior shipbuilding technology even in earlier times.

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