As dawn broke on April 7th 1945 the great Super-Battleship Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy and nine escorts steamed toward Okinawa on a suicide mission. It was literally the end of empire and the end of a navy. What had begun on December 7th 1941 was now winding down as the Imperial Navy launched its last offensive operation against the United States Navy.
The Imperial Navy was already at the end of its tether. Following the disasters at the Battle of the Philippine Sea which decimated the carrier air arm of the Imperial Navy; the subsequent losses in the defense of Formosa which used up the majority of any remaining carrier aircraft and crews; and the Battle of Leyte Gulf which decimated the surface forces of the navy what remained was a pitiful remnant of a once dominant fleet.
The great battleship Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the largest warships ever built until the advent of the USS Enterprise CVN-65. Displacing over 72,000 tons 863 feet long and 127 feet in beam these ships mounted the largest artillery battery ever placed on a warship. Their nine 18.1” guns mounted in three triple turrets each weighing over 2500 tons weighed as much or more than the largest destroyers of the time. They could fire their massive shells 26 miles and had the capability of firing a special anti-aircraft shell known as the Sanshiki or beehive round.
Musashi was sunk during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea at Leyte Gulf on October 24th 1944 after being hit by 19 ariel torpedoes and 17 bombs. Yamato engaged the American Escort Carriers and destroyers of Taffy-3 at the Battle off Samar the following day but was prevented by the audacity of the inferior American destroyers and timidity of the Japanese commander Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita from achieving any notable success.
The remains of the Imperial Navy were hampered by a lack of fuel, air power and training time. When the United States attacked Iwo Jima in February 1945, barely 700 miles from the home islands of Japan not a single Japanese surface ship sortied to challenge the American Navy.
However when the American attacked Okinawa on April 1st the Navy launched Operation Ten-Go. In spite of overwhelming American superiority in both naval air and surface forces the tiny task force was to fight its way to Okinawa, beach their ships and once the ships were destroyed the crews were to join Japanese Army forces on the island.
The doomed sortie was in part due to the insistence of the Imperial Army which derided the Imperial Navy for its failures at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf and pressure from Emperor Hirohito who asked “But what about the Navy? What are they doing to assist in defending Okinawa? Have we no more ships?” In response the Naval High command devised what amounted to a suicide mission for Yamato and her escorts. The plan was opposed by many in the Navy and leaders of the task force who saw it as a futile mission. Only the insistence of Admiral Kusaka who told the reticent commanders that the Emperor expected the Navy to make its best effort to defend Okinawa persuaded the Captains of the doomed force to accept the mission.
At about 1600 on April 6th the ships of the task force weighed anchor and departed their anchorage at Tokuyama hoping to take advantage of approaching darkness to mask their departure. They were detected and shadowed by American submarines which provided real time information on the course and speed of the Japanese ships to the American leadership.
The next morning the task force was spotted by patrol planes and its position relayed to the American fleet commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, the victor of Midway. Spruance ordered the six fast battleships battleships, accompanied by two battlecruisers, seven cruisers and 21 destroyers engaged in shore bombardment to intercept the Japanese force. However, Admiral Marc Mitscher of Task Force 58, the fast carriers launched a massive air strike of over 400 aircraft against the Japanese.
At 1232 the first wave of American aircraft began their attacks on the doomed Japanese force. As the succeeding waves of American aircraft attacked Yamato was hit by 15 bombs and at least 8 torpedoes, almost all of which struck her port side created an imminent risk of capsizing. The damage control teams counter flooded the starboard engine and boiler rooms which kept the ship from turning turtle, but which also further reduced her speed.
By 1405 the great ship was dead in the water and just minutes before her commander had ordered the crew to abandon ship. At 1420 she capsized and began to sink and at 1423 she blew apart in a massive explosion that was reportedly heard and seen 120 miles away and created a mushroom cloud that reached 20,000 feet.
Captain Tameichi Hara of the light cruiser Yahagi which had already sank described the demise of the great ship in his book Japanese Destroyer Captain:
“We looked and saw Yamato, still moving. What a beautiful sight. Suddenly smoke belched from her waterline. We both groaned as white smoke billowed out until it covered the great battleship, giving her the appearance of a snow-capped Mount Fuji. Next came black smoke mingled with the white, forming to a huge cloud which climbed to 2000 meters. As it drifted away we looked to the surface of the sea again and there was nothing. Yamato had vanished. Tremendous detonations at 1423 of that seventh day of April signaled the end of this “unsinkable” symbol of the Imperial Navy.”
Only 280 men of the estimated 3000 crew members were rescued by the surviving escorts. Of her escorts, the Yahagi and four destroyers were also sunk. The Americans lost a total of ten aircraft and 12 men. Never again would the surface forces of the Imperial Navy threaten U.S. forces or take any meaningful part in the war.
The sacrifice of Yamato and her escorts was a futile was of lives and though many in Japan revere their sacrifice as noble it served no purpose. The loss of Yamato, named after the ancient Yamato province in a sense was symbolic of the demise of the Japanese Empire.
I cannot help but think of gallantry of the doomed crews of these ships, sacrificed for the “honor” of leaders that did not really value their sacrifice.
It is a commentary that is timeless.