Key point: The IJN Yamato was impressive, but too slow and vulnerable to air attacks to make much of a difference.
In the late afternoon of April 6, 1945, five days after American GIs and leathernecks scrambled onto an Okinawa beach a scant 500 miles from Japan, two U.S. submarines, Hackleback and Threadin, lurking around the Bungo Suido exit from the Inland Sea, observed the passage of 10 Japanese warships, including a very large one.
Last Remaining Pride of the Imperial Navy
In the dim light through the periscope, a sub skipper guessed the biggest enemy vessel was an aircraft carrier. In fact, it was the last remaining pride of the Imperial Navy, the mighty battleship Yamato, under full steam. Escorted by a light cruiser and eight destroyers in the East China Sea, the Yamato could only be bound for the American anchorage off Okinawa. The Japanese task force was under Vice Adm. Seiichi Ito with Rear Adm. Kosaku Ariga in command of the Yamato.
Under orders to report but not attack, the submarines advised the Pacific Fifth Fleet headquarters of their sightings. Alerted by a radio message, Rear Adm. Morton Deyo, commander of the American gunfire and bombardment forces off Okinawa, prepared to execute a battle plan that would dispatch six battleships, seven cruisers, and 21 destroyers to intercept the Yamato and its cohorts. Deyo’s superior, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, advised, “Hope you will bring back a nice fish for breakfast.” But even as Deyo scribbled his reply, “Many thanks, will try to,” the radio crackled news that Task Force 58, Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher’s fast carrier group, had picked up the scent and was already launching an airborne attack. Deyo then added the comment, “If the pelicans haven’t caught them all.”
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A Formidable Vessel From an Earlier Era
Displacing 68,000 tons with nine huge 18.1-inch guns that measured 70 feet in length, the oversize Yamato dwarfed any vessel in the U.S. Navy. Built in secrecy to evade treaties restricting the size of the Japanese fleet, the Yamato, along with its sister heavyweight, the Musashi, boasted armor plate more than 25 inches thick. Launched before the raid on Pearl Harbor, the pair threatened American domination of the sea. But as World War II progressed, the aircraft carrier had swiftly eroded the traditional primacy of surface firepower.
The rather elderly battleships mustered by Admiral Deyo matched up poorly against the Yamato. While the Japanese behemoth could toss its ordnance 45,000 yards, the best efforts of the Americans would fall almost two miles shorter. But in theory, the half-dozen U.S. dreadnaughts, bolstered by a full complement of cruisers and destroyers, might outmaneuver the much smaller enemy fleet and overcome the advantages possessed by the Yamato.
During the first months of the war, Yamato and Musashi had followed the lead Japanese strike force that aimed at Midway Island in June 1942. But after the U.S. Navy destroyed four enemy aircraft carriers, the Imperial Fleet retreated, leaving the pair of monsters to vainly wander the Pacific for two years, searching for a chance to wield their enormous cannon while dodging American bombers and carrier planes.
Yamato Nicked Up During Largest Naval Battle In World History
Opportunity beckoned during the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in the fall of 1944. As General Douglas MacArthur sloshed onto a Leyte Island beach to pronounce, “I have returned,” armadas from the United States and Japan sailed toward a shoot-out in Leyte Gulf in what would be the largest naval battle in world history. One of several Japanese task forces, a flotilla that included Yamato, Musashi, and three other battleships plus a cohort of powerful escorts, but bereft of any real fighter screen, plunged into Philippine waters. American torpedo bombers, virtually unmolested, pummeled the intruders. In a day-long assault, nearly 40 torpedoes and bombs smashed into Musashi before the huge ship finally capsized and sank. The Yamato fared better, suffering minor damage. However, the remaining giant fled the scene with its companions.
Since then, the Yamato, as a floating bastion prepared to defend Japan itself against invasion, had stuck close to its home base at Tokuyama. But now, with the enemy ashore on Okinawa, on the doorstep of the Home Islands, the High Command ordered Yamato on what even the most optimistic considered a suicide mission. Strategists hoped the battleship’s vast firepower would distract the Americans enough to allow a massive kamikaze strike to penetrate U.S. defenses and destroy the fleet off Okinawa.
Naval Kamikaze Mission Proposed For Yamato
One preposterous scenario proposed that if the Yamato could stagger through the enemy gauntlet and the ship could first empty its arsenal of 3,200-pound shells at the American troops, it might then beach itself. The nearly 3,000 crewmen would surge ashore to act as ground soldiers. Some reports claim the Yamato had only enough fuel for a one-way voyage, but author George Feifer’s research indicates the vessel held enough for a return, unlikely as the possibility might have been.
With the discovery that it had left its sanctuary, the race to sink the Yamato was on. Seemingly, the contest pitted the seagoing U.S. warships against the dive-bombers and torpedo planes from its flattops. But the American men-of-war would never have a shot at the target. A prowler from the carrier Essex caught sight of the Japanese warships. Then, early on April 7, a pair of Marine twin-engine flying boats, hovering just out of range of the enemy antiaircraft guns, tracked the prey for five hours.
When the distance from Task Force 58 narrowed to 250 miles, Vice Adm. Mitscher launched his planes; some 280 dive and torpedo bombers comprised the initial waves. Ensign Harry Jones, a native of Pittsburgh in an Avenger from Torpedo Squadron 17 aboard the carrier Hornet, recalled, “Scuttlebutt on the ship had it that the battleship admirals who outranked the air admirals wanted to shoot it out with the Japanese. But the Yamato’s guns were bigger than anything we had and the air admirals won out. We would intercept them.
In Hot Pursuit Of a Big Fish
“We took off from the Hornet, seven torpedo bombers plus fighters and dive bombers. The torpedo planes, which had search radar, did the navigation and it was a poor day for flying, rainy, misty, a lot of scud, not much ceiling. The flight leader from another carrier developed engine trouble and turned the lead over to our air group, bossed by Comdr. E.G. Konrad, a Naval Academy graduate.
“The lead pilot said they ought to be in range, but we couldn’t see anything on radar. Konrad said stay on course. One plane radioed he saw a blip off to starboard about 50 miles out and we turned right. Then we saw them. Holy Mackerel! The Yamato looked like the Empire State Building plowing through the water. It was really big. We orbited around out of their gun range. They opened up with main batteries, 18-inch guns. What was surprising to us was that there were no Japanese aircraft around even though we were very near their home islands.”
Unprotected Yamato Relies On Its Big Guns
In a fatal decision for the Yamato and its companions, the Imperial Navy had decided to reserve almost all available aircraft for kamikaze missions. Less than a half-dozen Japanese fighters appeared on the scene, and they were quickly overwhelmed. In its own defense, the Yamatopossessed awesome weapons. Extra guns had been added to an already prodigious array of antiaircraft firepower, six 6-inch secondary batteries, 24 5-inch antiaircraft guns, and 150 machine guns, along with all that the escorts could throw up. A special new shell equipped with a time fuse exploded into 6,000 deadly pieces. To ward off low-flying torpedo planes, the battleship’s big guns blasted giant waterspouts. But none of these defenses could deal with strikes by so many aircraft manned by skilled airmen.
At 12:32, the Yamato had opened up on the approaching aircraft. According to Avenger pilot Harry Jones, “The air boss gave us the order of attack. He said, ‘Shasta,’ meaning those from the Hornetgo in first. Then he read off the order in which the planes from other carriers would attack. We didn’t have too much ceiling. I was at 12,000 feet at most and usually liked to start at 18,000 feet for a torpedo run, a steep approach and then right over the water, drop the torpedo and then get the hell out of there. Meanwhile, the bombers are supposed to be going down, so we all hit the ship simultaneously.”
American Planes Draw Blood
Confusion continues about who actually scored the initial hits. Some accounts report that bomb-laden Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from the Hornet actually struck first, targeting the destroyers and the light cruiser Yahagi that formed a diamond shape surrounding the battleship. The fighter-bombers claimed two hits, and Lt. Cmdr. M.U. Beebe, the squadron honcho whose plane bore no bomb, zoomed in for a strafing run at the Yahagi. Hellcats from other ships also blasted the escorts. Their mission was to suppress and draw off fire, enabling the other attackers to zero in on the main target, Yamato.