World War II is filled with stories of desperation in the face of overwhelming opposition. At the start of the conflict, the Axis powers were crushing virtually all resistance in their path and seemed poised to guarantee victory for themselves. In the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was wildly successful in the six months after it struck Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. By all accounts, the Allies were in dire straits and looking for any opportunity to turn the tide on the Japanese juggernaut. However, the IJN had banked on a short war to be decided by a decisive naval battle and were ill-suited for the war of attrition that came their way in the form of America’s industrial power. As the war moved on through 1942 to 1945, the Allied forces slowly, but surely, turned back the Axis gains. By April of 1945, the Allied push across the Pacific had summarily turned the tide of the war against Imperial Japan. With her surface fleet and naval air forces virtually decimated through attrition from previous campaigns and battles, the IJN attempted one final, desperate push against the Allies at Okinawa with the very symbol of the navy and Japan itself, the Yamato battleship. Unfortunately, they were up against the massive Allied naval forces approaching Okinawa. This post examines the final sortie of the battleship Yamato, ponders the legacy the ship left behind, and finally evaluates the utility of the operation. What can be seen is that the battle which saw the sinking of the Yamato serves as a final note to the end of the IJN, both literally and symbolically. While once serving as the pride and glory of the Japanese Navy, the Yamato met her end in the traditionally stoic Japanese fashion of facing certain death in what turned out to be a completely futile gesture.
Japanese Intelligence, Operation Ten, and the Allied Invasion of Okinawa (Operation Iceberg)
Note: Japanese names have been rendered in the Western style of given name first followed by the family name.
The Japanese were faced with the nearly impossible problem of what actions could be taken to slow or halt the American advance into the western Pacific and eventually onward to the Japanese home islands. John Prados (1995) writes that, in what was probably its best performance, Japanese intelligence concluded that the Allies would invade Okinawa around late-March based on their analysis of Allied merchant traffic, submarine activity, and aerial reconnaissance of the Ryukyu Island chain. As a result, the Japanese high command put the Ten (Heaven) contingency plan into motion. With the Imperial Army assigned to the land operations, there were plans to launch a series of large kamikaze air attacks called kikusui (floating chrysanthemums) in an attempt to damage the Allied invasion fleet. Additionally, the Naval General Staff (NGS) contemplated launching a surface sortie with what remaining viable warships it had. The reality for the IJN was that the remaining surface forces it had were pitiful. Apart from the Yamato and the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, which largely comprised of what remained of the Second Fleet, a few older battleships and cruisers were still afloat, but none were ready for sea due to fuel shortages (p. 708 – 709).
Captain Tameichi Hara (1967/2011), one of the IJN’s luckiest destroyer skippers, recalls that American carrier air strikes on Okinawa commenced on 23 March. These were followed the next day by a massive shore bombardment. Yet, it wasn’t until 26 March that Imperial General Headquarters ordered air attacks to be organized to oppose the Americans (p. 259). On 29 March, prior to the American landings on Okinawa, the Imperial Japanese Army and the NGS briefed Emperor Hirohito on their plans for the Kikusui operations which involved the use of kamikaze aircraft against the American forces. Reportedly, the Emperor inquired as to what the navy would do about the approaching Americans. The NGS took the Emperor’s comment as a criticism, and upon considering that the Second Fleet needed to be used before fuel supplies dwindled or the fleet was sunk in harbor, Admiral Soemu Toyoda and his staff ultimately decided to go ahead with their own operation, called Ten-Go Sakusen (AKA Tenichi-go sakusen, Operation Heaven Number 1) which included the Yamato. Considering the inclusion of the Yamato and the Second Fleet to the Ten Operation, Rear Admiral Toshitane Takata remarked that “that was the very last possible sortie we could have made from a viewpoint of fuel, personnel, and so on, that was our last gasp” (Prados, 1995, p. 710 -711). Mark Stille (2015) notes that while it may seem ludicrous for the Yamato to be included in the operation given the forces array against them, the mentality of the Japanese was that the Yamato herself was a symbol of Japan (“Yamato” is an ancient poetic name for Japan itself). Thus, it was unthinkable that such a symbolic vessel would not be a part of the defense of the homeland (p. 66).
For the naval sortie, the Second Fleet was commanded by Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito (aboard the Yamato) and was composed of:
- Yamato* – Rear Admiral Kosaku Aruga*
- Destroyer Squadron 2 – Rear Admiral Keizo Komura aboard Yahagi (w/Tameichi Hara in command). The squadron was composed of:
- Destroyer Division 17 – Captain Kiichi Shitani*
- Isokaze* – Commander Saneo Maeda
- Hamakaze* – Commander Isami Mukoi
- Yukikaze – Commander Masamichi Terauchi
- Destroyer Division 21 – Captain Hisao Kotaki*
- Asashimo* – Commander Yoshiro Sugihara
- Kasumi* – Commander Hiroo Yamana
- Hatsushimo – Commander Masazo Sato
- Destroyer Division 41 – Captain Masayoshi Yoshida
- Fuyutsuki – Commander Hidechika Sakuma
- Suzutsuki – Commander Shigetaka Amano
*indicates vessel was sunk or person was killed-in-action (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 260). The Second Fleet, in this case, is also sometimes referred to as the “Special Surface Attack Force,” among other names. For the sake of brevity, it’ll simply be referred to as the “Yamato task force” in this article.
Notes: While Hatsushimo survived the sortie, she struck a mine on 30 July in the Sea of Japan to become the 129th and last destroyer sunk in WWII. Only Yamato and 2 destroyers had air search radar. Yahagi’s was only suitable for surface search (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 269). Of the air search radars, only the Type 21 air/surface search and the Type 13 air search radars could detect singular or groups of aircraft. Even at that, they were not accurate enough for fire control (Stille, 2014, p. 106 – 107).
The Allied invasion of Okinawa (code named: Operation Iceberg) was a massive undertaking involving the U.S. Fifth Fleet under Admiral R.A. Spruance (USN). Broadly speaking, it was composed of:
- TF58 – Fast Carrier Force (Vice Admiral M.A. Mitscher, USN):
- TF58.8 – Logistics Support Group
- TG50.9 – Service Squadron
- TF58.8 – Logistics Support Group
- TF57 – British Pacific Fleet (Vice Admiral H.B. Rawlings, RN):
- TF112 – British Fleet Team (oilers, stores, & replenishment)
- TF51 – Joint Expeditionary Force (Vice Admiral R.K. Turner, USN) in charge of all of the invasion forces:
- TG51.1 – Western Islands Attack Group (Rear Admiral I.N. Kiland, USN)
- TG51.2 – Demonstration Group/Force Reserve (Rear Admiral J. Wright, USN)
- TF52 – Amphibious Support Force (Rear Admiral W.H.P. Blandy, USN)
- TF53 – Northern Attack Force (Rear Admiral L.F. Reifsnider, USN)
- TF54 – Gunfire and Covering Force (Rear Admiral M.L. Deyo, USN)
- TF55 – Southern Attack Force (Rear Admiral J.L. Hall, USN)
- TG56 – U.S. Tenth Army (Lieutenant General S.B. Buckner, USA), a joint force made up of the III Amphibious Corps (USMC) and the XXIV Army Corps (USA). 182,821 men were involved in the initial assault.
(Faulkner, 2012, p. 262 – 263).
For the Japanese, ground forces on Okinawa numbered some 68,000 under Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, IJA, and the Thirty-second Army. His forces comprised of:
- 24th Division
- 62nd Division
- 44th Independent Mixed Brigade
(Griess, 1985, p. 47)
The American invasion of Okinawa began on April 1 with the Tenth Army hitting the beaches. What followed was a brutal and bloody ground campaign lasting over three months which involved rooting out the Japanese who were hiding in the caves of Okinawa. However, the campaign is better covered in other dedicated sources.
The Last Sortie of the Yamato
5 – 6 April
The final sortie of the Yamato and the Second Fleet has been characterized by William Garzke and Robert Dulin (1985) as “a desperate plan drawn up by desperate men who were out of contact with reality” (p. 60). George Feifer (2001) writes that the plan called for the Yamato to approach Okinawa from the northwest and attack the U.S. fleet supporting the invasion. In the more than likely event that she was unable to destroy the American fleet, she would beach herself, expend all her ammunition, and then disembark her remaining crew to fight alongside the troops already on the island (p. 14). Aside from the fact that the Yamato task force would only have air cover for a brief period of time, the plan was widely opposed by Admiral Ito and numerous other officers in the task force as wasteful and suicidal. Officers such as Admiral Keizo Komura and Captain Tameichi Hara, in a meeting aboard the Yahagi, argued that the force would have been better off splitting up to attack the enemy’s supply lines (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 262). Prados (1995) opines that Komura’s suggestion would have at least made the American task of finding all of the Japanese ships more difficult. That being said, the Americans were already aware of the Japanese plans and could arrange their air searches accordingly (p. 712). In a briefing with the flag officers of the Yamato task force, Combined Fleet Chief of Staff, Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka, mentioned that Imperial General HQ was disappointed with the Yamato’s performance during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, especially given that Yamato’s sister-ship, the Musashi, was sunk, whereas Yamato broke off and ultimately returned home. Kusaka is reported to have then said to Captain Aruga that, “the whole nation would hate the Navy if the war should end with the Yamato still intact. Despite his objections, Ito reportedly said, “I think we are being given an appropriate chance to die. A samurai lives so that he is always prepared to die,” and with that, the other officers concurred and the plan went ahead (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 263 264). While the fatalistic attitude of the officers may be difficult for Westerners to comprehend, reflecting on the events after the war, Kusaka noted to Hara that:
Ito was prepared for certain death when he took command of the shrunken Second Fleet. Having been a deputy chief of staff for so long, he evidently felt acute responsibility for our continuous defeats. Few people retained common sense in those days. A kamikaze spirit permeated the entire Navy.(Hara, 1967/2011, p. 264)
Thus, with the operation decided, the Yamato and her escorts were prepared for sea. Janusz Skulski and Stefan Draminski (2017) note that the Second Fleet received orders from Admiral Toyoda about a sortie to Okinawa on 3 April. Orders specific to the operation were handed down on 5 April. Thus, at 1500 on 5 April, the cadets and sick crew members were put ashore (p. 34).
The Americans weren’t entirely unaware of the sortie. U.S. signals intelligence Ultra intercepts on March 26, 1945 and additional intercepts by the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Area (JIPOA) on April 5, noted the execution order for Operation Ten Number 1 and that Admiral Seiichi Ito’s Second Fleet would sail from Tokuyama oil depot, pass through the Bungo Strait, and arrive at Okinawa on the 8th. A message from Admiral Spruance the next day addressed to the carrier and battleship commanders read, “You take them on!” (Prados, 1995, p. 711). Later, intercepts further revealed that the Yamato task force would only have naval fighter cover between 0600 – 1000 on 7 April (Prados, 1995, p. 712). Effectively, the Japanese had already lost the element of surprise.
Yamato and her task force bunkered fuel at Tokuyama depot on 6 April. Russell Spurr (1981) writes that the men at Tokuyama had to climb down into the oil tanks to pump out the very last residual amounts of fuel (p. 164). There is a common belief that Yamato was only given enough fuel for a one-way trip, but the officials at Tokuyama provided the Yamato with some 4,000 tons of fuel, which was enough for a round trip (Stille, 2015, p. 67). Garzke and Dulin (1985) note that the ships in Yamato’s task force were fueled to 60% capacity rather than the 40% authorized in their operational orders (p. 60). This percentage works out since her listed fuel oil capacity was 6,201 tons (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 124). Be that as it may, it is debatable as to whether or not Yamato could have actually made it back to Kyushu, and in any case, her survival was considered unlikely. On 6 April at 1600, the Yamato task force weighed anchor from Tokuyama and headed through the Bungo Strait at a speed of 12 knots with the Yahagi in the lead, followed by the destroyers Isokaze, Hamakaze, and Yukikaze. Following them was the Yamato between the destroyers Fuyutsuki and Suzutsuki, and the remaining destroyers Asashimo, Kasumi, and Hatsushimo bringing up the rear in column astern. Soon after passing the narrow part of the Bungo Strait, two B-29s dropped several bombs on the formation, but scored no hits (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 269). As the force steamed through the Bungo Strait, Ensign Mitsuru Yoshida, the junior radar officer aboard the Yamato, overheard that the objective of the Second Fleet was to bait the U.S. aircraft away from Okinawa to create an opening for the kamikaze planes to attack the U.S. fleet. He also (incorrectly) noted that the Yamato was only given enough fuel for a one-way trip and that the mission was more akin to suicide than bravery (as cited in Evans, 1986, p. 480 – 481). Spurr (1981) has also noted that the Kikusui air raids on the 6th would damage the American carriers enough to allow the Yamato to reach Okinawa and that the Yamato sortie and the kamikaze raids would further be coordinated with ground offensives mounted by the 32nd Army (p. 108). As events would show, however, the coordination between the Japanese naval, air, and ground forces left something to be desired.
Around this time, the ships in the Yamato task force had one-third of their crews at battle stations due to the presence of U.S. submarines in the strait. Upon clearing the strait, the formation turned south, resumed zig-zagging, and at around 2000 hours the task force was sighted by the submarines USS Threadfin (SS-410) and USS Hackleback (SS-295) who radioed their position and confirmed the previous signals intelligence. However, the submarines were unable get into position for a torpedo attack (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 60). Stille (2015) notes that the Threadfin spotted the Yamato task force at 1845, while the Hackleback made radar contact at 1900, and one of the escorting Japanese destroyers reported a submarine at 2240 (p. 66 – 67). Hara (1967/2011) writes that the Japanese task force’s radios picked up the position reports transmitted by the U.S. submarines (p. 271). At this point, there was likely no doubt that the Japanese had lost the element of surprise.
Sometime after midnight, Admiral Spruance directed Admiral Mitscher to leave the Yamato task force to Admiral Deyo’s battleships. That being said, both Mitscher and Deyo formulated plans for an engagement, anyway. However, Spruance’s orders were later countermanded (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 60). Spruance did not want to send the carriers north prematurely in case the Japanese were merely transferring ships to Sasebo and also did not want to deprive the forces on Okinawa of air support until he had a clearer picture. However, once he realized the Japanese force would reach Okinawa by midnight on the 7th he had Admiral Deyo take his 6 battleships of TF54 northwest of Okinawa in case the air attacks could not stop the force. By 1530 on 7 April, Deyo was headed northwest of Okinawa with his old battleships and accompanying cruisers and destroyers, however, by then, the Yamato had already been sunk (Hamer, 1998, p. 317 – 319). Around dawn, Hellcats began taking off from the carriers to search the area to the north for the Yamato task force (Spurr, 1981, p. 217).
At 0700 on 7 April, the Yamato task force had reached the southeastern end of Kyushu and turned west toward Sasebo, the ships formed a ring around Yamato with a 2,000m radius. With Yahagi in the lead, (clockwise) the ships were Asashimo, Kasumi, Fuyutsuki, Hatsushimo, Yukikaze, Suzutsuki, Hamakaze, and Isokaze. The circular formation increased speed to 24 knots and resumed zig-zagging. While good for protecting against submarines, the formation was difficult to maneuver and not very ineffective against aerial attack from fast-moving planes (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 271 – 272).
At 0823, a search plane from the USS Essex spotted the Japanese force, and 2 Martin Mariner flying boats later shadowed the force for five hours (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 60). At 0900, Asashimo suffered engine trouble and fell out of formation (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 273). Ensign Yoshida, perhaps incorrectly, notes that the Hatsushimo suffered engine trouble and fell behind. However, Yoshida also states that the task force briefly turned back to allow her to make repairs and rejoin the formation before proceeding on together (as cited in Evans, 1986, p. 482 – 483). In addition to the shadowing flying boats, TF58 launched some 40 Hellcats in groups of four to fan out and search the area for the Yamato (Stille, 2015, p. 67). At 1017, the Yamato fired 18.1″ anti-aircraft shells at the shadowing flying boats, but missed due to them being out of range (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 60). The Yamato task force had now turned south after their unsuccessful feint to the west and were on course for northwest Okinawa. At about the same time, three U.S. Navy carrier task groups of TF58 were in the process of launching a massive strike against the Yamato. TG58.1 launched 113 planes (52 fighters, 21 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers). TG58.3 followed with 167 planes (80 fighters, 29 dive bombers, 58 torpedo bombers). TG58.4 launched 106 planes (48 fighters, 25 dive bombers, 33 torpedo bombers) at 1045, however many of them became lost and were late in locating the target. In total, 386 aircraft from 15 carriers were sent after the Yamato and her escorts, of which 227 actually attacked (Stille, 2015, p. 68).
Around 1130, upon receiving word from spotters on Amami Oshima that an enemy force of some 250 planes were headed in their direction, the Japanese escort ring was increased to a 5,000m radius. This was the standard operating procedure for defense against an air attack (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 274). At approximately 1230, Yamato detected incoming enemy planes on her radar. The task force made preparations for air attack, and the escorts began circling, as was their standard operating procedure to evade bombs and torpedoes (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61). Hara (1967/2011) notes that these planes were detected around 1220 at a distance of 30,000 meters, bearing 35 degrees to port (p. 274).
The First Wave (1237 – 1247)
Note: An accurate timeline of the attack is virtually impossible to reconstruct given the obvious confusion apparent in the few surviving Japanese accounts. The fact that different sources note different times as to when specific events occurred means that the given times should be taken as a general measurement only.
Based on the lessons learned from the sinking of the Musashi, the dive bombers dropped bombs and the fighters strafed the decks which drew away the attention of the AA gunners and allowed the torpedo bombers to make their attack runs. The torpedo bombers, for their part, focused on attacking only one side of the ship to speed up her sinking (Stille, 2015, p. 69). Reportedly, the low cloud base of 3,000 feet and the large size of the strike force made coordination of the attacks for the Americans problematic. However, the poor weather was advantageous for them in the respect that diving out of the low clouds meant that the AA fire control directors on the Yamato couldn’t obtain a firing solution on them. Subsequently, the AA batteries had to revert to the less coordinated local control (Stille, 2015, p. 68). According to David Hamer (1998), the low cloud layer also frustrated the dive bombers since they were trained to dive from an altitude of 10,000 feet, and the effective coordination of the strike was hampered by the Japanese periodically jamming the U.S. radio communications (p. 319). However, this claim about jamming may be apocryphal since it’s unknown exactly how the Japanese were jamming the American radios. A CinCPac – CinCPOA (1945) bulletin on Japanese radio communications and intelligence does note that the Japanese had some capability to disrupt communications, but the information is fairly vague and it appears that the NGS would carry out the jamming of strategic and tactical communications. Otherwise, specified unit commanders would handle matters related to enemy communications in their area of operations (p. 23 – 24). Spurr (1981) writes that one pilot reported hearing a high-pitched whine over his radio and believed it to be Japanese attempts at jamming. However, Spurr also notes that this was likely just a malfunctioning radio (p. 234). No source list the Yamato as carrying any electronic jamming equipment.
The American aircraft attacked largely in the sequence of which they launched, starting with planes from TG58.1. As the first wave arrived, they circled the task force and the Yamato fired at them with her 18.1″ AA shells, but to no effect. At 1232, aboard the Yahagi, Captain Hara ordered his gun crews to open fire on the circling planes. Once the planes began dropping bombs and strafing with their machine guns, the Yahagi increased speed to full ahead and began rapidly taking evasive action (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 276 – 277). The first group to attack the Yamato were four Helldivers from the USS Bennington of TG58.1 (Stille, 2015, p. 68).
Around 1241, two 1,000 pound bombs hit the Yamato on the starboard side around the aft 6″ turret. One of them destroyed two 25mm machine gun mounts and blew a 6 – 7 meter hole in the weather deck. The other blasted a hole in the superstructure, destroyed the radar room, as well as the aftermost 5″ gun on the starboard side (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61). The next group in were fourteen Helldivers from the USS Hornet (Stille, 2015, p. 68). At about 1246, two more bombs hit in the same area. One destroyed the after secondary fire control tower and penetrated several decks before exploding in some storerooms. The other bomb hit the roof of the after 6″ turret which sent splinters into the magazine and caused a fire. The turret was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed with only one survivor. As fires broke out, damage control efforts were ineffective since these bombs wiped out the after damage control teams (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61).
Around the same time that these four bombs hit, one torpedo also hit the port side around frame 8 near the bow. Sometime around 1243 (as noted by Skulski & Draminski, 2017, p. 35) or 1259 (as noted by Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61), two more torpedoes hit. One hit just abaft the bridge around boiler room #8 at frame 123, and the second hit around the mainmast outboard of engine room #4 at frame 150. Both spaces reported minor flooding. A probable fourth torpedo struck just abaft the #3 main turret around frame 190, but no flooding was reported in the magazines. It’s also speculated that this torpedo may have caused slow flooding of the auxiliary steering room (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61). Stille (2015) notes that these Avenger torpedo bombers were from the USS Hornet, but strangely makes no mention of the torpedo that hit the bow in the first attack wave (69). Following these attacks, the Yamato was listing 5 – 6 degrees to port which was corrected to 1 degree by counterflooding the outer starboard voids. The #8 boiler room was out of action and her speed was slightly reduced, although flooding was contained in the #4 engine room (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 61).
Meanwhile, aboard the Yahagi, radio reports were coming in that the Asashimo, which had previously fallen behind, was also under attack. Shortly before 1246, the Yahagi took a torpedo to the port side amidships in her engine room which brought her to an abrupt halt. As she absorbed more bombs, and with the ship beginning to take on a starboard list, Admiral Komura and Captain Hara noted Hamakaze sinking in the distance. Soon after, another bomb hit the #1 turret and Hara ordered the magazines flooded to put out a fire. After several more bomb hits, Hara ordered the torpedoes jettisoned just before another bomb destroyed the torpedo tubes (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 276 – 280). Hara is unclear as to exactly when the torpedoes were jettisoned, but Spurr (1981) writes that they were gotten rid of sometime during the second wave (p. 281). It’s been noted that bombers from the USS San Jacinto finished off the Asashimo while a torpedo bomber from the USS Bennington sank the Hamakaze (Stille, 2015, p. 69). Bob Hackett and Sander Kingsepp (2016) note that the Asashimo was sunk sometime around 1232 and the Hamakaze was torpedoed around 1247. At the same time that Hamakaze was torpedoed, Fuyutsuki was hit by two dud rockets (para. 231 – 239). Yoshida notes that the Hamakaze was sunk sometime prior to 1245 (as cited in Evans, 1985, p. 485).
The Second Wave (1259 – 1340)
The second attack commenced around 1259 and consisted of aircraft from the USS Essex, USS Bunker Hill, USS Bataan, and USS Cabot of TG58.3. Aircraft also launched from the USS Hancock, but they became lost. Dive bombers from the Essex made an attack run, but no hits were confirmed despite their insistence (Stille, 2015, p. 70). While the dive bombers distracted the AA gunners, torpedo bombers approached from several different directions. While the Yamato was in a starboard turn she was hit three, possibly four, torpedoes on the port side and one on the starboard side. All of the torpedoes on the port side hit roughly amidships. One hit boiler room #8 that was already damaged from the previous wave and accelerated the flooding there. Another hit boiler room #12 further aft of that and caused some flooding. The third torpedo struck around the bulkhead separating engine room #4 and the hydraulic pump room. Since the hull was already weakened in this area from previous hits, the flooding in the engine room only increased in severity. The probable fourth torpedo hit engine room #4 further aft. This hit may explain the rapid flooding that occurred there. The one torpedo that struck the starboard side hit around frame 125, amidships, where boiler room #7 was located. This hit actually aided the Yamato somewhat by flooding that compartment and complementing the counterflooding on the starboard side. Subsequently, the port list was reduced to 10 degrees from a list of 15 – 18 degrees (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 62 – 63). Stille (2015) notes that torpedo bombers from TG58.3 claimed a total of 29 hits (p. 70). This is not surprising since the speed and confusion of battle often leads to inflated claims by participants.
By the end of the second wave, around 1340, the ship was listing to port and flooding. This reduced her speed to 18 knots. The Yamato‘s Executive Officer, Captain Jiro Nomura, advised the captain that all possible voids in the starboard side had been flooded to reduced the port list. Any further reduction would involve counterflooding the outboard boiler rooms and engine rooms on the starboard side. Such an action would further reduce the ship’s reserve buoyancy and speed, and subsequently, her ability to maneuver (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 63). On the Yamato‘s weather decks, the constant strafing and bombing had massacred roughly half of the AA gun crews who were in exposed mounts and firing at whatever targets presented themselves (Stille, 2015, p. 70).
The Third Wave (1342 – 1423)
The third wave saw aircraft from the USS Intrepid, USS Yorktown, and USS Langley of TG58.4 making their attack runs (Stille, 2015, p. 70). There were four confirmed bomb hits during the third wave. Three bombs hit amidships on the port side destroying several 25mm mounts and blowing large holes in the deck. The fourth bomb hit the forecastle on the port side which destroyed the windlass, severed the port anchor chain, and sent the port anchor to the bottom. Additionally, a number of near misses buckled in shell plating and damaged the torpedo defense system. This damage further increased the flooding. (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 63 – 64).
The four torpedoes that hit during this wave sealed the Yamato‘s fate. Three of them hit on the port side around frames 133, 153, and 211. The first two flooded the #10 boiler room and increased the flooding into the #2 engine room which was inboard on the port side. The third torpedo hit around the steering gear room and caused massive flooding which killed the entire crew in this space and jammed the rudder. With both the main steering gear and auxiliary steering gear rooms flooded, Yamato was now unable to maneuver. With her port list rapidly increasing, Captain Nomura ordered the remaining #3 and #11 boiler rooms, as well as the hydraulic pump room on the starboard side, to be flooded. This only momentarily halted the port list which began increasing again shortly thereafter. The starboard engine room was also flooded, but the starboard voids were difficult to fill due to the heavy port list. Near the end of the third wave, a torpedo struck the starboard side near frame 150. Due to Yamato‘s port list and the depth setting of the torpedo of around 5 – 5.5 meters, it struck the bottom of the hull around the #3 engine room. It’s likely that many of the crew in this compartment drowned when it flooded (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 64 – 65).
At around 1406, with the Yahagi sinking, Captain Hara gave the order to abandon ship. Admiral Komura and Captain Hara kicked off their shoes and jumped overboard (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 282). It’s estimated that the Yahagi had absorbed some 12 bombs and seven torpedoes before she finally sank (Skulski & Draminski, 2017, p. 36).
By now, Yamato was making a mere 10 knots and only the #1 engine room on the starboard side was still operational. With only a single propeller shaft turning and both rudders out of commission, the battleship was stuck in a wide starboard turn. Once the port list grew to 22 degrees, the order was given to abandon ship. Captain Nomura noted red warning lights on a panel which indicated dangerously high temperatures in the aft magazines. However, flooding them was impossible due to the pumping stations being immobilized by the flooding throughout the ship. Around 1420, Yamato lost all power and then capsized three minutes later. As she rolled over to 120 degrees, the magazines exploded sending a massive column of smoke into the sky. Of the 3,332 men, only 269 were rescued by the surviving escorts (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 65).
The commander of the Second Fleet, Vice Admiral Ito, was last seen retiring to his cabin following reports that Yamato‘s list could no longer be corrected. Yamato‘s commanding officer, Captain Aruga, had chosen to go down with the ship and lashed himself to the binnacle on the air direction platform, but the executive officer, Captain Nomura, was rescued by the Yukikaze. Ensign Yoshida survived by climbing out of a porthole on the bridge as the ship rolled over onto her beam ends. He then jumped into the water as she capsized and was later rescued by the Fuyutsuki (as cited in Evans, 1986, p. 492 – 498). Around 1520, the remaining ships transmitted a message to headquarters informing them of the sinking of the Yamato and suggested that they continue with the operation. By 1750, a reply came back cancelling the sortie and ordering their withdrawal to Sasebo after scuttling crippled vessels and rescuing survivors (Spurr, 1981, p. 300 – 306).
The surviving ships were the destroyers Fuyutsuki, Suzutsuki, Yukikaze, and Hatsushimo. Hatsushimo was probably the only undamaged ship of the task force. The CO, Captain Sato, claimed that Fuyutsuki was hit by 2 rockets which did not explode, as previously mentioned. The others were strafed and Suzutsuki had her bow blown off by a bomb forcing her to steam stern first back to Sasebo. Isokaze took no direct hits but suffered near misses that flooded her engine room. She was scuttled by Yukikaze. The Kasumi was also disabled and had to be scuttled by the Fuyutsuki. Admiral Komura and Captain Hara were rescued by the Hatsushimo that stayed behind to recover more survivors while the rest of the destroyers limped back to Sasebo. (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 287 – 288). Captain Joseph Enright (1987), commanding officer of the USS Archerfish, who torpedoed the converted Yamato-class battleship, Shinano, also noted that the destroyers Isokaze, Hamakaze, and Yukikaze were escorting the Shinano on her first and final voyage on 29 November 1944. Yet, this time, the three detroyers weren’t so lucky. Of those three, only Yukikaze survived the war and was turned over to the Chinese Nationalists as part of reparations. She served in the Chinese Navy as the Tan Yang until scrapped in 1971 (p. 216).
The Yamato‘s crew complement and the number of survivors differs according to the source used. The reason for this may be because some sources include Vice Admiral Ito’s staff in the crew, whereas it’s omitted in others. Hara (1967/2011) notes that there were 269 survivors and 2,498 lost aboard the Yamato for a total crew of 2,767. The Yahagi lost 446 crew, and 721 were lost aboard the escorting destroyers (p. 284 – 289). This creates a total of 1,167 lost aboard all the escorts. Prados (1995) tallies 3,063 lost aboard the Yamato and 269 survivors. In addition, 1,187 were lost aboard the escorting vessels (p. 714). All sources agree that the U.S. lost 10 aircraft and 12 aircrew. David Hamer (1998) notes that these were 4 dive bombers, 3 torpedo bombers, and 3 fighters (p. 320).
|Author(s):||Garzke & Dulin||Skulski & Draminski||Stille||Spurr||Hara||Prados|
|Yamato||296 survivors (out of 3,332)||277 survivors (out of 3,332)||276 survivors (out of 3,331)||269 survivors (out of 3,332)||269 survivors (out of 2,767)||269 survivors (out of 3,332)|
|Escorts||–||1,187 lost||1,187 lost||1,187 lost||1,167 lost||1,187 lost|
On an interesting note, Prados (1995) notes that a nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) by the name of Ensign Kunio Nakatani was aboard the Yamato as a radio operator interpreting U.S. transmissions. However, he was last seen dead at his post (p. 711). Hara (1967/2011) also recounts that one of the Yahagi‘s survivors was a Hawaiian-born Japanese by the name of Ensign Shigeo Yamada who worked as a communications officer. Ensign Yamada told Hara, “I was afraid of being taken prisoner, because of my background, and hastily tore all insignia of rank from my uniform and threw them away.” Yamada would later settle in Chicago and was working for Japan Air Lines as late as 1958 (p. 286). Strangely, Spurr (1981) writes that Yamada hailed from Idaho, not Hawaii, and that Nakatani was from Sacramento, California. Another nisei radio operator was aboard the Yahagi by the name of Ensign Kuramoto who hailed from Santa Monica, California. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, these men had been sent by their families to study at Japanese universities. Finding themselves trapped in Japan and caught up in the war, they faced either prison, with the possibility of execution as spies, or collaboration. They chose the latter. Despite their Japanese heritage, they were routinely singled out for harassment from their more “pure-bred” Japanese comrades (p. 110). Yamada recalled that Kuramoto died at his post in the radio room (Spurr, 1981, p. 280).
Comparative Timetable of Torpedo Hits
|Approx. Frame # & Location||Garzke & Dulin||Skulski & Draminski||Stille|
|8 (probable) – bow||1245||–||–|
|123 – Boiler Room #8||1259||1243||~1237|
|150 – Engine Room #4||” “||” “||” “|
|192 (probable) – Aviation Fuel Tank?||” “||” “||” “|
|123 – Boiler Room #8||1342||1302||1259|
|131 – Boiler Room #12||” “||” “||” “|
|142 – Engine Room #4/Hydraulic Machinery Room||” “||” “||” “|
|148 (probable) – ” “||” “||” “||” “|
|125 (starboard) – Boiler Room #7||” “||” “||1309|
|133 – Boiler Room #10||1359 – 1402||1345||1342|
|153 – Engine Room #2||” “||” “||” “|
|211 – Auxiliary Steering Gear Room||” “||” “||” “|
|150 (starboard) – Engine Room #3||” “||” “||” “|
Comparative Table of Total Bomb & Torpedo Hits
|Hits||Garzke & Dulin||Skulski & Draminski||Stille||Spurr||Hamer||Faulkner|
|Confirmed||8 bombs, 11 torpedoes||19 bombs, 35 torpedoes||7 bombs, 9 torpedoes||?||?|
|Probable||2 torpedoes||unknown||3 torpedoes||?||?|
|Total||8 bombs, 13 torpedoes||19 bombs, 35 torpedoes||7 bombs, 12 torpedoes||8 – 18 bombs, 11 – 16 torpedoes||2+ bombs, 10 torpedoes||3 bombs, 10 torpedoes|
Upon returning to Sasebo at noon on the 8 April, Admiral Komura received a message from the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet which commended the force of “its gallant self-sacrifice which enabled the Special Attack planes to achieve a great war result.” When he was shown the message, Hara pondered what great result was achieved. The kamikaze air attacks the previous day involved 114 planes (60 fighters, 40 bombers, 14 kamikazes) which succeeded in damaging the carrier USS Hancock, the battleship USS Maryland, and the destroyer USS Bennett at the cost of about 100 planes (Hara, 1967/2011, p. 289). Ivan Morris (1975) writes that the Kikusui One operation involved 372 IJN planes composed of 80 kamikazes, 8 mother planes with Oka suicide craft, 145 other attack aircraft, 116 escorts, and 23 scouts/patrol aircraft. In addition, the IJA contributed 133 aircraft, mostly for kamikaze missions (p. 450). Spurr (1981) records different numbers for the Kikusui One operation at 230 kamikaze aircraft accompanied by 175 escorts and bombers. By the end of the Okinawa campaign, more than 4900 U.S. sailors were KIA or MIA, with nearly that number wounded. TF58 had lost some 763 aircraft, and in total, 31 ships had been sunk, with 368 damaged (p. 150). The Japanese survivors of Operation Ten Go were kept separate from other units in Sasebo for two weeks so the sinking of the Yamato wouldn’t leak out and cause a loss of face for the navy. In the meantime, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai broke the unfortunate news to Emperor Hirohito who quietly accepted the fact that the navy was no more. Back in the U.S. fleet, attention promptly refocused on the Okinawan ground campaign; the sinking of the Japanese battleship failed to create any substantial headlines (Spurr, 1981, p. 312 – 314).
While the IJN had started the war as the third largest navy in the world, with the sinking of the Yamato, it was now completely ineffective as a surface force and desperate to piece together the remainder of its forces for the anticipated Allied invasion of the Japanese main islands. Given this situation, the navy reorganized. Admiral Soemu Toyoda and his deputy, Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, were picked to lead the combined naval forces. In their Far East summary, U.S. naval intelligence officers opined that this move was an attempt to put more aggressive naval leadership into the Japanese high command to make it more agreeable to extremist Japanese Army officers who wanted to continue the war. Despite this bureaucratic reshuffling, of all the armed forces of Imperial Japan, the navy was now the weakest (Frank, 2001, p. 204). When Toyoda assumed command in late April, the IJN’s operational forces consisted of two battleships, two aircraft carriers (without air groups), three cruisers, and thirty-four destroyers. However, by June a message indicated that fuel would be allocated to no vessels larger than destroyers. This, of course, didn’t stop the navy from ordering up hundreds of Kaiten midget submarines, torpedoes, and suicide boats (Frank, 2001, p. 206).
The Wreck of the Yamato
There is a debate as to which of the Yamato‘s magazines exploded and subsequently broke the Yamato in two. Garze and Dulin (1985) write that the after magazines exploded (p. 65). More recently, however, Skulski and Draminski (2017) note that an explosion in the forward magazines tore the ship in two and were followed by the detonation of the after magazines once the ship sank beneath the water (p. 36). It would not be until late-1999 when an accurate survey of the wreckage revealed what likely happened after she capsized.
Currently, the Yamato wreck lies approximately 1,132 feet (345 meters) below the surface of the East China Sea at 30-22N, 128-04E (Skulski & Draminski, 2017, p. 36). The wreck was discovered on 1 August 1985 by a Japanese expedition using the Research Submersible 2 (on loan from the UK). An initial survey concluded that the massive explosions tore the ship into two large pieces consisting of a bow section (~70 meters long) and a stern section (~170 meters long), along with numerous smaller parts. A second expedition was conducted on 14 December 1999 which was coordinated between Asahi television and a French team with their research vessel Ocean Voyager (which had surveyed the Titanic wreck a year prior). This second expedition concluded that the ship was racked by two huge explosions after she rolled 120 degrees over to port. The first explosion probably occurred in the vicinity of the #1 and #2 magazines of the 18.1″ guns, the forward 6″ gun turret, and probably some AA ammunition. The second explosion likely occurred around the magazine of the after 6″ gun turret. This explosion blew a 32 meter hole in the starboard side of the stern section which lies overturned on the ocean floor (Skulski & Draminski, 2017, p. 334). A third expedition to the wreck was conducted in May of 2016 and was organized by the city of Kure, Japan. Unlike the previous two expeditions which took analog photos, this expedition took digital video footage of the wreck site (Izumida, 2016, para. 1). Assuming the surveys and diorama are accurate, the fact that the ship is broken in two in the vicinity of the forward magazines does lend credence to the conclusion that an explosion there would’ve been powerful enough to break the vessel in half. The 32 meter hole in the stern section is noticeably only on the starboard side of the hull. It may be that as the Yamato rolled over to port and her after 6″ turret magazine exploded, the force of the blast was directed towards that side which may have been pointed roughly upward. However, that’s just speculation.
The exact cause of the explosions can only be speculated. Stille (2015) writes that Captain Nomura faults the 18.1″ shells for causing the explosion when the ship rolled over and their fuses struck the deck. However, Stille discredits that assertion and instead opines that a fire could have entered the magazines when the hoists were forced open from the weight of the 18.1″ shells as the ship turned over (p. 71). Skulski and Draminski (2017) opine that the 6″, 5″, and 25mm ammo, (along with possibly the 18.1″ shells), caused an explosion in the forward powder magazines. It was also possible that the explosion in the after magazines was caused by a fire that was burning out of control from the bomb hits in that area (p. 334). Recall that Captain Nomura noted temperature warning lights in the after magazines just before abandoning ship. Whatever the cause, the Yamato met a fiery and explosive end.
The Legacy of the Yamato
While the real Yamato is rusting away on the bottom of the ocean, its legacy lives on and continues to fascinate naval historians and enthusiasts. In 2005, the Kure Maritime Museum (AKA the Yamato Museum) opened in the city of Kure, Japan. Dominating this museum, among other exhibits, is a massive 1/10th-scale model of the Yamato battleship in her late-war configuration.
Other tributes to the battleship include:
- The Space Battleship Yamato (宇宙戦艦ヤマト) anime series [AKA Star Blazers in the U.S.].
- The 2005 film, Otokotachi no Yamato (男たちの大和). Some shots in this film used the 1/10th-scale model in the Yamato Museum.
- Practically any WWII-themed video game that includes IJN vessels.
Remember that the word Yamato (大和) is an ancient poetic name for Japan and the Japanese people. The symbolic meaning is obvious. Even though battleships in IJN were named after ancient Japanese provinces, the very word Yamato itself is probably more commonly associated with Japan itself rather than the ancent province.
Pointless as her final sortie may have been, it’s clear that the Yamato battleship lives on as a symbol of Japan and as a reminder of the destructiveness of World War II. For the Japanese, it not only continues to represent the might of the nation and its once-powerful navy, but it also serves as a tragic instance of sailors bravely facing certain death at the insistence of a militaristic government grasping for any possible way to save face. Much like how other famous battleships capture the imagination, the Yamato has gone down in history as one of the last great battlewagons in an era dominated by aircraft carriers and air power.
Evaluation of Operation Ten-Go
Note: Alternatives to Operation Ten Go will be examined in another post.
The Design of the Yamato-class
Regarding the Yamato herself, Garzke and Dulin (1985) identify a number of design defects in the Yamato-class battleships that may have adversely affected their combat effectiveness. The side protection system was very good, but hampered by the poorly designed joint which joined the upper and lower side belt. This created a weak point and diminished its potential to resist underwater damage. Furthermore, the system used voided compartments with heavy armor plate whereas other navies used the more effective liquid-loaded systems to resist underwater detonations against the hull. The Japanese heavily relied on a system of pumps to induce counterflooding, but this system was devised based on older damage control practices in the U.S. Navy. Subsequently, with a list greater than 15 degrees, outboard voids on the undamaged side could only be flooded to 55% capacity with free-flooding. Pumps with a larger capacity were not provided to offset this drawback. It’s opined that better pumps and a more effective counter-flooding system could have bought more time, but realistically, no system could have withstood the damage that the Yamato or Musashi received when they were sunk. The large machinery spaces, subdivided longitudinally, also created large listing moments when flooded. While such a subdivision would have been appropriate given an effective side-protection system, the installed system proved ineffective against U.S. torpedoes. Regarding further compartmentalization, the large bow compartments had poor resistance to flooding which, when flooded, created an excessive trim. However, it’s also noted that there’s inherently a compromise between having larger compartments for better habitability, and smaller watertight compartments for more effective damage control. In the case of the Yamato-class, the compromise turned out to be a poor one (p. 112 – 113).
The bombs that struck the Yamato ultimately did superficial damage and failed to penetrate to any vital areas. The greatest effect that bombs had was in destroying the vulnerable secondary and AA batteries, thereby reducing the ship’s ability to defend itself against air attack. While the main battery was extremely powerful, the practice of having the secondary batteries composed of different calibers was something of an anachronism. The number of AA guns, as with all navies during the war, was increased, but the poor performance of the guns meant that their effectiveness was severely reduced. As previously noted, the Japanese radar sets were unsuitable for fire control, and even late into the war, they were inferior to Allied radar technology (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 114 – 115).
All of this is not to say that the Yamato-class battleships were bad, in fact, the sheer amount of damage they sustained before sinking is a testament to their design. However, like any warship, there were compromises that needed to be made and no ship is unsinkable or flawless (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 115). Ultimately, the design of these battleships was good for what they turned out to be. However, the Allied technological and industrial advantages meant that they were doomed to be overwhelmed by air power.
The Yamato-class battleships were certainly impressive specimens in terms of naval engineering, and while they were meant to be qualitatively superior to any other battleship on the seas, the changing nature of naval warfare meant that their operational utility was severely limited, even at the time of their commissioning.
One thing that hindered the Yamato-class on operations was their very inefficient propulsion plants that used high amounts of fuel. Combined with a very conservative steam turbine design and Japan’s critical fuel shortages, this meant that the Yamato and Musashi saw limited use during the Pacific War. For example, among other reasons, these ships were not committed to operations in Solomons during the summer of 1942 owing to the fact that the Japanese fleet was consuming >10,000 tons of fuel per day and the fuel reserves at Kure were down to 65,000 tons. Thus, a more fuel-efficient plant could’ve allowed these battleships to see more use in other operations. It’s even been noted that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto argued against building these ships and opined that the resources earmarked for their construction could’ve been better utilized for naval aviation (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 114 – 115). Although, even had the resources for the Yamato-class instead been used for naval aviation, as suggested by Admiral Yamamoto, it’s debatable as to whether or not that would’ve had any tangible effect on the outcome of the war. After all, Japan still had a shortage of skilled aviators, not to mention the issues of fuel and other resource constraints, to contend with.
To illustrate the sheer difference in logistical capabilities, the U.S. fleet during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945 was guzzling some 750,000 tons of oil per month! (~25,000 tons per day on average). This fuel had to be transported aboard commercial tankers across the Pacific from the U.S. West Coast to the advanced base in Ulilthi, and then brought by some 40 fleet oilers moving to and from the area of operations off Okinawa. In addition, 17 escort carriers ferried new aircraft from the West Coast to the forward bases, and four converted escort carriers brought aircraft from Guam and Ulithi into the operating area. Finally, while the underway replenishment of fuel and provisions had become common since the interwar years, by the time of the Okinawa campaign, the replenishment of ammunition at sea had also become well-practiced (it was first seriously attempted during the Iwo Jima campaign). Owing to this massive fleet train, the U.S. fleet could carry out sustained operations for extended periods of time which were heretofore unprecedented (Hamer, 1998, p. 366). Even the British Pacific Fleet was able to sustain itself in combat operations, although not nearly to the extent of the Americans owing to their inexperience at underway replenishment and their more extended supply train (Hamer, 1998, p. 312 – 313). For a good breakdown of the industrial and economic disparities between the U.S. and Japan during the Pacific War, I’d recommend reading Jonathan Parshall’s article titled Why Japan Really Lost the War. An examination of Imperial Japan’s neglect of her merchant fleet, the associated logistical failures, and the lack of anti-submarine forces is for another post.
In what is perhaps an ironic reversal, the Yamato suffered the same fate that the Japanese bestowed upon HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales four years earlier in December of 1941. In both instances, the forces sortied without air cover and paid the ultimate price. By the time that Yamato had gone to the bottom of the East China Sea, air power had truly become the dominant power in naval warfare (Garzke & Dulin, 1985, p. 66). As was evident, the entire Yamato task force’s anti-air defenses, radars, and fire control were woefully inadequate to oppose the naval air power thrown at them, given that they shot down a measly 10 aircraft out of the nearly 400 that attacked. As has been noted, the lack of air cover certainly didn’t help matters, either.
Prados (1995) opines that had the Yamato‘s sortie been better coordinated with the planned kikusui air attacks of Admiral Matome Ugaki’s Fifth Air Fleet, then the U.S. aircraft drawn off to sink the Yamato would’ve left an opening and allowed for the Japanese air operations to have some tactical effect at Okinawa. Yet for whatever reason, the kikusui air operations were launched on 6 & 7 April despite the fact that it would’ve been easy enough to delay them by one day to better coincide with the Yamato reaching Okinawa (p. 714). That being said, the radio intelligence unit of TF58 allowed them to intercept Japanese naval air communications and anticipate incoming air raids on the fleet. Thus, much of the potential damage that could’ve been caused by the kikusui raids on 6 & 7 April was mitigated despite Ugaki launching some 699 sorties (355 of which were kamikazes) which turned into one of the largest Japanese air raids of the war. What’s more, on the day the Yamato task force was to arrive off Okinawa (8 April), U.S. radio intelligence units intercepted no transmissions of air sorties and only two search planes were detected on radar (Prados, 1995, p.717). Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier (2018) opine that the kamikaze air raids on the American fleet were perhaps Japan’s only real option. Aiming to deny the Americans the use of the seas (AKA sea denial), and thus, creating a vast no-man’s land, the kamikazes presented an ongoing threat to the U.S. fleet. That being said, the poor quality of Japanese air crews and the American technological advantages in radars, picket destroyers, Combat Air Patrol, AA screen, and intelligence meant that the Japanese could never truly use their kamikazes as a method to regain command of the sea (p. 239).
All in all, by the time the Allied fleet had shown up at Okinawa, the IJN had virtually no realistic options to oppose them on an operational level. The fuel shortages and crippled supply lines meant that the IJN could no longer conduct operations for any significant period of time. The kamikaze air raids were their best chance, but poor planning and coordination, not to mention inadequate personnel training, somewhat nullified their effectiveness.
The Yamato sortie itself was the final gasp of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Mark Stille (2015) writes that the sortie was “a ceremonial vehicle for the destruction of the IJN’s last remaining symbol rather than a serious plan with a hope of making a contribution toward victory. It was yet another display of the bankrupt strategic planning then so prevalent within the IJN” (p. 67). In more sociological terms, Ivan Morris (1975) opines that the Yamato‘s final sortie serves as an exemple of the “nobility of failure” wherein an event is embedded in a country’s national consciousness, not for being successful, but rather, for courageously facing overwhelming odds despite the certainty of death (p. 450). Such sentiment in Japan most famously goes back to Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th century warrior who, after a failed battle, committed suicide near the banks of Minato River. He is famously quoted as saying, “I should like to be reborn seven times into this world of men, so that I might destroy the enemies of the Court” (p. 133). Over time, his words have been paraphrased into a patriotic slogan as a person wishing to “give seven lives for the nation.” Naturally, such a slogan was extremely popular in Japan during the Pacific War and used by units embarking on a kamikaze mission. In a way, Masashige’s words are similar to Nathan Hale’s famous quote, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Well, the Japanese certainly revere such attitudes, but courageous as Yamato‘s sortie may have been, one still has to question whether the loss of so many lives was justified, or in vain, given that it accomplished virtually nothing in strategic terms.
The IJN’s obsession with the concept of the decisive battle (for which the Yamato-class was built for) is arguably but one element that doomed Japanese naval strategy. While the expansion of the Japanese Empire into the Pacific was, among other things, driven by the economic need for resources, Japanese naval doctrine was couched in concept of a decisive battle as advocated by the writings of American naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan. This doctrine placed battleships at the center of sea battles and the arbiters of naval power. However, as Hughes and Girrier (2018) have noted, Mahan has given navies the tendency to focus too heavily on the decisive battle as the end-all and be-all of naval warfare whilst ignoring the less glamorous, but nonetheless, important aspects of naval operations (p. 240). Additionally, the Japanese experience during the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War seemed to confirm the validity of the pursuit of a decisive fleet engagement. The problem is that decisive naval battles are historically very rare, despite the previous Japanese experience at Tsushima. Hughes and Girrier (2018) have also observed that the Pacific War demonstrated the tactical conundrum that commanders would have to choose between the objectives of destroying the enemy fleet, and thereby obtaining control of the seas, or supporting power projection operations ashore. The Japanese Navy focused on the former, and while the U.S. Navy was also schooled in the primary objective of sea control, it also stubbornly defended the beachheads at great cost. It’s opined that the U.S. technological and materiel advantages nullified the Japanese strategy of sea control and the pursuit of a decisive battle in instances where the more classic Japanese strategy would’ve been more effective (p. 232).
Having survived the war up to that point, we can see that the Yamato‘s time was limited. Sacrificed in a final suicidal death ride, the Yamato‘s sinking exemplified the Japanese acceptance of death in the face of overwhelming odds. While the Japanese certainly had a lot going for them early in the war with their naval victories, the unfortunate reality was that their over-extended empire and logistical failures meant that they could never decisively control the sea and sustain what they had acquired. Tactically, the growth of technology and naval aviation had changed the deciding factors of sea battles. It was no longer about which fleet had the biggest guns because battleships had become a holdover from an earlier era of naval warfare, and the range of engagements had been extended far over the horizon with carrier aircraft. As a result of doctrine and fuel shortages, the Yamato-class battleships hardly saw any operational use, and subsequently, had fairly short and unremarkable careers. Whereas the Americans repurposed their battleships for shore bombardment and to bolster the anti-aircraft screen of their carriers, the Japanese hoarded theirs for a naval engagement that never occurred. Strategically, the economics of the war were always against Japan who paid dearly for its neglect of other vital strategic aspects of naval warfare, such as securing its supply lines and logistics. Thus, by the end of the Pacific War, the IJN was no longer in a position to attempt to whittle down the U.S. naval forces in preparation for its long-sought-after decisive battle. As for Operation Ten Go, there was little the Yamato and the Second Fleet could have done at the Battle of Okinawa, and as the Yamato sank to the bottom of the East China Sea, Imperial Japan and its navy were finished.
CinCPac – CinCPOA. (1945, January 1). Japanese Radio Communications and Radio Intelligence CinCPOA 5-45 “Know Your Enemy!”. Naval History and Heritage Command. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/j/japanese-radio-communications-cincpoa-5-45.html.
A fairly standard WWII-era publication providing American forces with information on known enemy forces and capabilities. (In this case, communications). As with any intelligence at the time, the accuracy is up for debate. However, as a primary source, it gives the historian insight into the thinking of the times.
Dull, P.S. (1978). A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945. Stephens.
Dull translated the surviving IJN operational records, as well as parts of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s 100+ volume history of the war in order to shed new light on the Pacific Theater from their perspective. An excellent narrative of the Pacific War from the other side, but it’s largely focused on the IJN’s surface forces. Little mention is made of submarine or kamikaze operations. Furthermore, the book skims over certain battles that have gotten more in-depth treatment from the American side. A little dated, but still an extremely valuable source for historians.
Enright, J.F. (1987). SHINANO! The Sinking of Japan’s Secret Supership. St. Martin’s Press.
A decent memoir from the commander of the USS Archerfish that sunk the Shinano. The chapters alternate between the author’s perspective aboard his submarine, and the Japanese crew aboard the Shinano. While better researched and cited that most war memoirs, some of the details in the narrative about the individual Japanese officers are a little hard to believe.
Evans, D.C. (Ed.). (1986). The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers (2nd ed.). Naval Institute Press.
An interesting compilation of essays from former Japanese naval officers on various aspects of the Pacific War. Compiled by David Evans, one of the leading experts on the IJN in his time, the essays cover topics such as recollections of naval battles, Japanese submarine operations, kamikazes, and reflections on Japan’s defeat. Be warned, however, that some of these men were clearly still influenced by Japanese ideology and some of their accounts come across as clearly biased in favor of Japan. As in, “if Japan had only done ____ then we would’ve won the war.”
Evans, D.C., & Peattie, M.R. (1997). Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887 – 1947. Naval Institute Press.
The essential book for understanding the technological and doctrinal development of the Imperial Japanese Navy from it’s beginnings to the start of the Pacific War in 1941. One of my favorite military history books and one that is extremely detailed and well-cited. A thick door-stopper, but a must-read for anyone studying the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Faulkner, M. (2012). War At Sea: A Naval Atlas 1939 – 1945. Naval Institute Press.
A colorful and easily digestible atlas of naval operations in all theaters of WWII. Each map contains a few paragraphs of text outlining the gist of a particular naval operation and its outcome. A very good book for understanding the geography of the oceans and the role that Allied and Axis navies played on them in the conflict.
Feifer, G. (2001). The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb. Lyons Press.
Also known as “Tennozan,” this is one of the better military history books on the ground campaign of the Battle of Okinawa. A well-researched and detailed history of the gruesome, muddy, and bloody fighting that incorporates personal accounts from Americans, Japanese, and Okinawans. Good if you’re looking for a variety of perspectives on the ground campaign, but it covers little of the naval elements.
Frank, R.B. (2001). Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. Penguin.
A military and political history of the ending of the Pacific War by one of my favorite Pacific War historians. As with all of Frank’s books, it is extensively researched, cited, and logically analyzed. It mostly examines the proposed American and Japanese plans for the invasion of the main islands of Japan, but it also analyzes various arguments for and against the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Garzke, W.H., & Dulin, R.O. (1985). Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II. Naval Institute Press.
One volume of a trilogy of books and one of my go to sources for technical literature on battleships in WWII by two authors who really understand naval engineering and architecture. Despite being published in the 1980s, these books remain authoritative works on the subject and formed the basis for my research on this article.
Griess, T.E. (Ed.). (1985). Atlas for the Second World War: Asia and the Pacific. Avery Publishing Group Inc.
A straightforward atlas of military campaigns in Asia-Pacific theaters of WWII. Doesn’t contain any large portions of text, but notes major units and dates. A good atlas if you’re reading a military history book on this part of the war and need to understand the geography of a campaign.
Hackett, B., & Kingsepp, S. (2016). IJN Battleship YAMATO: Tabular Record of Movement. Combined Fleet. http://www.combinedfleet.com/yamato.htm.
Jonathan Parshall’s combinedfleet.com is one of the best websites for information on IJN vessels and doctrine. While not super-detailed in terms of evaluating each vessel, it contains a lot of great tidbits of information, interesting articles, and is a good starting point for research.
Hamer, D.J. (1998). Bombers versus Battleships: The Struggle between Ships and Aircraft for the Control of the Surface of the Sea. Naval Institute Press.
Focuses on numerous naval actions concerning the use of air power against battleships throughout all naval theaters of WWII. Hamer provides some fairly decent analyses of the operations, but the reader is left wondering about where he derived some of the details in the narrative. The book could benefit by having a more detailed bibliography and end notes which would allow the reader to corroborate the information more accurately.
Hara, T. (2011). Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway — the Great Naval Battles as Seen through Japanese Eyes (F. Saito & R. Pineau, Trans.). Naval Institute Press. (Original work published 1967).
Tameichi Hara’s memoir is one of the small number of decent personal accounts to come out of the Japanese side of the Pacific War. Even more amazing was the fact that Hara was the only destroyer skipper in the Imperial Japanese Navy at the start of the war to survive the entire conflict. However, as with any personal account, additional research is warranted to corroborate his claims.
Hughes, W.P., & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Ed.). Naval Institute Press.
A modern examination of the development of naval warfare from the age of sail to the present day. Hughes examines trends, variables, and constants of naval combat in a highly detailed and well-analyzed work on naval theory. Great for understanding naval warfare on an operational and tactical level.
Izumida, Y. (2016, May 8). Kure to embark on underwater survey of mighty Yamato warship. The Asahi Shimbun. https://web.archive.org/web/20160823003616/http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201605080032.html.
Morris, I. (1975). The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. Noonday Press.
A series of studies on the cultural veneration of tragic failures and figures througout Japanese history. Moves chronologically from ancient times to the kamikaze of WWII. More for Japanologists and people studying the Japanese fascination with tragic heroes.
Prados, J. (1995). Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press.
A very detailed and lengthy tome on the unseen side of the Pacific War. John Prados examines the vital and secretive role that signals intelligence, cryptanalysis, and operations intelligence played in allowing the Allies to gain the upper hand against the Japanese. Be warned that parts of a the narrative are a bit of slog to get through. Since the latter parts of the book focus mostly on operations intelligence, after a while it can seem like you’re just reading about the numbers of planes the enemy had.
Skulski, J., & Draminski, S. (2017). Battleships Yamato and Musashi. Conway, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Plc.
The second edition of an exhaustively detailed book of line drawings and 3D renderings of the Yamato and Musashi. While better suited for model makers, the text within the book is well-researched, detailed, and represents some of the latest research into these vessels. There are a handful of typographical errors which are easily checked by cross-referencing other sources.
Spurr, R. (1981). A Glorious Way to Die: The Kamikaze Mission of the Battleship Yamato. Newmarket Press.
Written more for the popular history market, Spurr recounts the events of the Yamato sortie, the kamikaze air raids, and the operations of the U.S. fleet off Okinawa in early April of 1945. Not the best source out there on the topic, but it does contain some useful tidbits of information. Lacking in detailed citations and too journalistic in tone to be a serious scholarly history.
Stille, M.E. (2014). The Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War. Osprey.
Essentially a compilation of the previous Osprey publications on Japanese naval vessels written by Mark Stille. A categorical examination of each class of combatant ship in the IJN. Covers each class of ship, along with their basic design features, weapons, and operational highlights. Lots of photos and colored drawings. While not the most technically detailed work and a bit derivative, it’s a nice quick reference and another good starting point for research on the vessels.
Stille, M.E. (2015). US Navy Carrier Aircraft VS IJN Yamato Class Battleships: Pacific Theater 1944 – 45. Osprey.
Mark Stille has written extensively on the history and ships of the IJN. As part of Osprey’s “Duel” series, this paperback book is a quick and easy-to-read examination of the performance of the Yamato and Musashi against naval aircraft. While somewhat derivative and aimed more at the popular history market, this is a decently researched volume that’s good for quick reference.