*A quick disclaimer is that normally I don’t like to ponder alternative/counterfactual history too much because it tends to get too outlandish. That being said, I’m willing to make an exception for the sake of conducting a simple exercise in historical thinking. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are few absolutes in history and that it can be interpreted in any number of different ways. In the case of counterfactual history, any alternative interpretations hinge on the premise that the known evidence suggests that the events under examination have already occurred in a certain way. Therefore, our alternatives and their evaluations can only be considered tentative at best, and our language will reflect that. Thus, it’s best that we consider historical counterfactuals as a range of probabilities rather than as hard conclusions.
In previous posts, we looked at the sinking of the Yamato battleship during Operation Ten-Go, and at options for an inferior naval fleet operating as a fleet-in-being, to achieve certain objectives against a larger naval force. With those things in mind, let’s apply the theoretical ideas of a fleet-in-being and examine the question:
Could the Yamato have been put to better use during Operation Ten-Go in early April of 1945?
In order to address this hypothetical, let’s examine the situation first from a theoretical standpoint as highlighted in the previous fleet-in-being post, taking into account the ideas of naval thinkers like Wayne Hughes, Robert Girrier, and Geoffrey Till. After that, we’ll take the time to postulate a few different scenarios. What we’ll ultimately find, however, is that given Japan’s situation in April of 1945 and the vast power of the U.S. forces arrayed against what remained of Japan’s naval forces, the most likely outcomes to various hypothetical scenarios are skewed heavily in favor of an American victory and a Japanese defeat with the Yamato battleship being sunk, regardless.
Theoretical Analysis & Evaluation
A brief reexamination of the theoretical choices for an inferior fleet is warranted here. Hughes and Girrier (2018) posited that an inferior fleet has roughly six different options as outlined below (p. 237 – 239). These options range from a decisive fleet battle to the achievement of objectives through events on land. Let’s examine some courses of action and apply some simple evaluations as they pertain to the Yamato Task Force.
|Course of Action||Applied Evaluation|
|Decisive fleet action||A decisive engagement will most likely fail.|
|Whittle down the enemy to more fair odds for a decisive battle.||Mostly likely untenable. The IJN’s pre-war plans for this type of battle had to be well-rehearsed and well-drilled into sailors. The Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 ended the IJN as a fighting force. A lack of fuel and remaining naval assets meant there was little to no chance of this happening. For aviation, the loss of trained aviators throughout the war also meant that much of the institutional knowledge was being lost, as well.|
|Surprise the enemy at a vulnerable time when the ratio of forces is more favorable.||Aspects of Operation Ten-Go seem to resemble this option, but it would be highly unlikely given that the ratio of forces was too far in favor of the Americans at this point in the war. The Americans may have been vulnerable at certain times (e.g. during the amphibious landings on Okinawa and providing air support for ground operations), but their sheer numbers and technological advantages would likely compensate for any serious deficiency in situational awareness. The Japanese were nearly successful earlier at the Battle off Samar by tricking Halsey to pursue Ozawa’s empty carriers. However, by the invasion of Okinawa in April of 1945, this was unlikely. Carrier-based aircraft pummeled the Yamato task force and Deyo’s battleships were standing by.|
|Establish local superiority||Highly unlikely given the lack of assets available to the IJN and the poor coordination with the IJA. Even the Inland Sea and its ports were raided multiple times by U.S. aircraft.|
|Sea-Denial (create a vast no man’s land)||This was the attempted strategy with the kamikaze attacks (of which Ten-Go was essentially one), but this ultimately failed for a variety of reasons (lack of training, assets, coordination, etc.).|
|Achieve maritime objectives through events ashore||Not applicable since Japan isn’t a continental power.|
On a similar note, the options for an inferior fleet have been characterized as entirely defensive in nature, but exist on a spectrum that allows for varying degrees of action or inaction. Geoffrey Till (2013) noted a range of options from active defense to passive defense (p. 173). Given the Japanese objectives, Operation Ten-Go seems to lie on the spectrum that’s closer to the form of active defense since the planners envisioned the Yamato somehow reaching Okinawa and engaging the U.S. fleet, followed by beaching the ship and having the crew fight on land. Although historically, it turned out to be a suicidal death ride. As done above, let’s suppose several courses of action based on this spectrum of active to passive defense and speculate how the Yamato Task Force could’ve fared.
|Course of Action||Applied Evaluation|
|Obtain command of the sea, but avoid forcing the issue through battle. Alternatively, they can engage in a raiding campaign to wear down the enemy’s superior strength.||Obtaining command of the sea wasn’t probable at this point given the large disparity in forces. Despite the kamikaze raids, the Americans were unlikely to have been worn down.|
|Create a positive strategic outcome without trying to defeat the other side’s forces (e.g. attacking an enemy’s trade or coastline).||This course of action has more merit but is still far-fetched. While the enemy’s coastline couldn’t have been attacked, their trade routes or fleet train could’ve been attacked as suggested by several of the Japanese officers who opposed Operation Ten-Go. The question is: Would the Yamato have been able to locate the supply ships and gotten close enough to attack before being spotted and sunk by the Americans? Probably not. Ultimately, their fuel situation was precarious and they wouldn’t have had much operational range.|
|Create a negative outcome by prohibiting a stronger enemy to exercise their superiority (perhaps through harassment and evasion).||This wasn’t likely given that there was almost no conceivable way to prohibit the Americans from exercising their superiority. Harassment and/or evasion was unlikely given the American’s scouting capabilities and control of the surrounding seas.|
|Merely ensure the continued survival of the weaker fleet.||This may be theoretically possible if it simply means sheltering in a port. The Yamato and her escorts could’ve been camouflaged and hidden, but her time would’ve still been limited since the American aircraft would eventually continue to raid naval ports as happened several more times to the Kure Naval Arsenal.|
Having applied some simple evaluations to the theoretical options proposed by these naval theorists, it’s most likely that the Yamato Task Force didn’t have any chance of succeeding and was stuck with poor options, at best. Of course, theory is but one way to look at counterfactual history. While there are arguably an infinite number of different scenarios we could come up with, let’s look at a few other hypothetical situations that the Yamato could’ve found herself in and attempt to apply some evaluations.
Other Hypothetical Scenarios
Scenario 0: The Yamato and her task force drastically alter the outcome of the Pacific War.
The easiest scenario to evaluate. Simply put: No. It’s unlikely that the Yamato could’ve turned the tide of war in Japan’s favor or have been used to influence more favorable terms of defeat for Japan. By this time in the conflict, Japan was pretty much doomed to lose the war and no amount of use or disuse of the Yamato could’ve changed that outcome.
Scenario 1: Second Fleet sails directly southwest toward TF58
Operation Ten-Go historically ended in utter defeat for the IJN. While officers, such as Captain Tameichi Hara, argued that the Yamato and her escorts would’ve been put to better use raiding the American supply lines, some historians have speculated some alternative courses of action which could’ve been more efficacious or otherwise have created different tactical results. John Prados (1995) speculates that given their speed and the fact that they made some 350 miles, if the Yamato task force had sailed directly south-southwest, instead of attempting a feint to the west as they did, then they would have reached a position close to where Mitscher’s TF58 was at the time. This would likely have forced Mitscher to withdraw, and while the Yamato still wouldn’t have reached Okinawa, she would’ve presented a more genuine threat to the Americans (p. 712). Prados’s assessment seems reasonable; however, it’s worth recalling that U.S. submarines reported the Yamato’s position when the task force exited the Bungo Strait. Hence, Mitscher knew of a possible threat approaching from the north. While Mitscher didn’t want to send his carriers north and Deyo’s battleships were ordered to prepare for action to the northwest of Okinawa, what’s to say that other search assets wouldn’t have located the Yamato prior to it reaching either Okinawa or TF58 had it continued to proceed directly south? If the U.S. search area as shown on the Yamato task force track chart (see post on Operation Ten-Go) is accurate, then the American planes were searching for the Yamato over a large sector, but it seems reasonable that they would’ve had some idea of where the Yamato task force was. (Famous last words since locating enemy forces at sea are difficult and you can never have too many scouting or reconnaissance assets.) Assuming the Yamato was detected heading straight for TF58, Mitscher probably wouldn’t have just sat there while a powerful surface force bore down on his carriers, despite his need to support the ground offensive on the island. At that point, it would’ve been certain that these ships weren’t heading to Sasebo. The Battle off Samar during Leyte Gulf shows that carriers will make a run for it and try to escape approaching surface forces. If anything, the Yamato task force approaching TF58 would’ve simply forced Mitscher to relocate his carriers and somewhat slow down his ability to support the ground forces on Okinawa while the Yamato was dealt with. However, Mark Stille (2015) notes that neither the Yamato‘s sortie nor the aerial kamikaze raids severely hindered American carrier operations despite the Yamato intending to create an opening for the former (p. 76 – 77). Thus, we can conclude that the most probable outcome for this situation would have the Yamato being sunk, as well.
Scenario 2: Second Fleet Encounters Deyo’s Battleships
The classic gun duel scenario where the Yamato and her task force engage Admiral Deyo’s battle line of treaty-era battleships. William Garzke and Robert Dulin (1985) speculate that even if the Yamato Task Force did run into Deyo’s force (six old treaty battleships, seven cruisers, and 21 destroyers), the outcome would still have ended with the Yamato and her force being sunk, although they may have been able to do some damage to Deyo’s force given the Yamato‘s more powerful guns, heavier armor, and greater speed (p. 60). For the Japanese, the tradeoff for a few U.S. ships damaged, or perhaps sunk, would be worthless compared to the senseless sacrifice of the Yamato and her escorts. Then again, if the sole point would be for the Yamato to go down in a blaze of honor and glory, then their mission would’ve been accomplished either way.
Scenario 3: Second Fleet Shelters in Port
The time-honored way of ensuring the survival of a fleet-in-being. While this was covered when we examined Till’s spectrum of defensive options for an inferior fleet, let’s look at some more historical examples of why this option was no longer viable. The use of carrier air power was vital to naval operations in the Pacific. The British air raid on Taranto in November of 1940 and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 served as precursors to what would eventually occur in the Pacific as the U.S. Navy gradually pushed back the Japanese to their home islands. By late in the war, ports in the Japanese home islands themselves were no longer safe from attack. Of the Japanese battleships that weren’t sunk at sea, Haruna received minor damage during raids on Kure on 19 March and 24 July 1945 before being sunk by a combined Army and Navy air raid on 28 July 1945 (Stille, 2013, p. 114). Both Ise and Hyuga were also sunk in these raids (Stille, 2013, p. 125). Nagato would eventually be stripped of her armament, relegated to reserve status, and heavily camouflaged. Despite this, she was damaged in an air raid on Yokosuka on 18 July 1945. Still, she was the only Japanese battleship to “survive” the war, eventually being sunk in the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests (Stille, 2013, p. 131). These examples demonstrate that even if the Yamato and the Second Fleet had stayed in port, their time would’ve been limited, as previously noted. It’s unlikely that the later air raids would’ve ignored a large target like the Yamato, and it meant that ports were no longer the traditionally accepted safe havens for ships.
Scenario 4: Don’t Build the Yamato Battleships, to Begin With
In this author’s opinion, the Yamato and her sister ships were certainly impressive pieces of naval architecture and engineering, but their operational careers were anything but. It’s all well and good to build a really magnificent battleship, but if it doesn’t contribute much to the war effort, then you can’t help but wonder if all the resources which were poured into it were really worthwhile. In this scenario, I contend that it would’ve been more resource efficient to have simply not built the Yamato-class.
Historians have noted that even 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. 115). Despite Yamamoto’s pleas, the construction of the battleships went ahead, but only two vessels (Yamato and Musashi) were actually built as battleships and the third (Shinano) was converted into an aircraft carrier. That being said, Paul Dull (1978) opines that Admiral Yamamoto is historically overrated. His operational plans frequently divided up his forces and led to disaster. Dull (among others, such as Jonathan Parshall) further suggests that Yamamoto, for all his championing of naval air power, may have still been “battleship-conscious” since he never committed the whole of the Combined Fleet as a concentrated force even when the Japanese had the numerical advantage against the Americans in the Solomons early in the war (p. 354). The reasons for Yamamoto’s successes and failures are many, but they’re not the subject of this post. In any case, he was killed in 1943 and he has no bearing on the operation under discussion.
As the Pacific War dragged on, U.S. submarines proved instrumental in crippling Japan’s largely unescorted merchant fleet, and it’s a cruel irony that some of the funds originally intended for the construction of Shimushu-class escorts prior to the war, were instead redirected to defray the costs of building the Yamato and Musashi (Evans & Peattie, 1997, p. 439). That being said, had the resources used to build these battleships instead been used to build more escorts or aircraft, as suggested by Admiral Yamamoto, it’s unlikely that that would’ve had a tangible effect so late in the war. The shortage of skilled aviators and the dwindling resources further hindered operations. While an increase in escorts (or merchant vessels) would’ve seen U.S. submarines and aircraft facing more opposition as they raided the Japanese supply lines, the American industrial machine and training programs could probably have compensated for additional U.S. losses of materiel and personnel.
Additionally, given that the details of the Yamato-class were kept so secret, as a deterrent, their value was dubious, as well. As many have mentioned, the Yamato herself served as a symbol of Imperial Japan. Arguably, she functioned better as a symbol than as a battleship. Therefore, if the Yamato was instead merely constructed as a dummy vessel out of cheap materials, then it could’ve been more useful in fulfilling a symbolic purpose. Imagine, for a moment, if the Yamato was not a real battleship, but rather a hollow plywood shell that was constructed and painted so as to look like a real naval vessel, but in fact, was just covering a giant barge. This “dummy Yamato” could’ve simply sat at anchor in a harbor for everyone to look at from afar, and the Imperial Navy could then parade it around and use it for propaganda purposes whilst redirecting the valuable construction materials to more needed areas. Only after the war would people realize that it was all just a fake.
The 1/10th scale model of the Yamato at the Kure Maritime Museum arguably serves a similar purpose of being a symbolic reminder of the battleship herself. Having seen this model in person, I can attest that its sheer size and detail are impressive. Now, imagine if this model were 10x as big (i.e. a 1:1 scale model).
Perhaps the biggest factors that limited the ability of the Yamato and her task force to achieve any reasonable outcome as a potential fleet-in-being were:
- Lack of fuel which limited strategic and operational mobility.
- Lack of naval assets created unfavorable force ratios for the Japanese against the American fleet.
- Lack of air cover and aerial reconnaissance assets which limited protection from air attack and knowledge of U.S. movements and positions.
- Subpar radars, fire control, and anti-air armament in comparison with U.S. technology hindered the Yamato‘s ability to effectively defend herself against air attack and perhaps buy her more time.
- Lack of local superiority meant the Japanese forces were further limited in how and where they could exert their remaining combat power.
In contrast, the American and British Pacific fleets possessed technological, logistical, intelligence, and combat power advantages that allowed them to extend their naval power over a wide area and onto the Japanese main islands.
To answer our initial question of putting the Yamato to better use during Operation Ten-Go, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario where the Yamato and her task force could’ve had a major effect, either tactically, operationally, or strategically, at this point in the Pacific War. While she may have lasted a little longer had she simply sheltered in port, her days were rapidly dwindling. If anything, it probably would’ve been better to follow the advice of the naysayers from the start and simply have not built the Yamato-class battleships, to begin with. Although whether or not the resources used to build these massive ships would’ve been put to better use and had an appreciable effect on Japan’s war effort is still up for debate.
Evans, D.C., & Peattie, M.R. (1997). Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887 – 1947. Naval Institute Press.
Garzke, W.H., & Dulin, R.O. (1985). Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II. Naval Institute Press.
Hughes, W.P., & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Ed.). Naval Institute Press.
Prados, J. (1995). Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press.
Stille, M.E. (2014). The Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War. Osprey.
Stille, M.E. (2015). US Navy Carrier Aircraft VS IJN Yamato Class Battleships: Pacific Theater 1944 – 45. Osprey.
Till, G. (2013). Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (3rd ed.). Routledge.