Shizuo Kunimoto, a lieutenant junior grade on the Yamato, reported: “The special order sending the Yamato to Okinawa was written with large letters on white paper and posted on the port side of the first deck. After the Yamato set sail, all hands not on duty (about 2,000 men) were assembled on the forecastle to hear their specific orders read by the ship’s Executive Officer.”
The Yamato sailors bravely continued to honor their traditions after hearing their collective death warrant. Kunimoto commanded his men to bow toward the Imperial Palace and then toward their homes. He then led them in singing patriotic military songs for about 10 minutes, but patriotism and courage didn’t change what most of the Yamato’s sailors realized would happen to them.
On April 6, 1945 (Y-2 Day for the SSAF), waves of Japanese planes dove in suicidal attacks into Allied Pacific Fleet ships as part of Operation Kikusui (“Floating Chrysanthemums”), so named after the chrysanthemum crest of Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai hero. Kusunoki, in what became remembered as an ultimate act of samurai fidelity, accepted a fatal and foolish command from his emperor and obediently and knowingly led his army and himself to death while fighting to carry out this absurd command. Absolute devotion to their emperor, who was considered a deity before and during World War II, was one of the foundations of kamikaze.
First Japanese pilots and now the sailors of the SSAF, allegedly all volunteers, were ordered to end their lives in the same heroic manner as Kusunoki Masashige. The IJN named their mission Ten Ichi-Go (“Heaven Number One”), and the orders to the SSAF were grimly simple: The SSAF was to sail directly into the American ships and transports supporting the Okinawa landing and inflict as much punishment on them as possible.
After this, the Yamato would be beached and use its 18.1-inch main batteries and other weapons as support for Okinawa’s land defense forces. “Surplus” Yamato crew members (that is, all nongunners) would then leave the beached Yamato and die on land while fighting together with soldiers of Okinawa’s defense garrison. The sailors on the escort ships would also die fighting. Absolutely no one was to return alive.
Nevertheless, while the Japanese Naval General Staff instructed that each ship be given only enough fuel for a one-way trip to Okinawa, harbor officials risked execution by disobeying this order and refueling the entire SSAF to capacity, giving them more than enough oil to return home if they somehow survived.
The Men of the Suicide Mission
There were three admirals in the SSAF, two of whom were aboard the Yamato. While Admiral Kosaku Ariga captained the Yamato, Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito commanded the entire SSAF. The Yahagi and the eight escort destroyers that constituted the Second Destroyer Squadron were commanded by Rear Admiral KeizoōKomura, whose headquarters were on the Yahagi. Seiichi Itoōhad furiously opposed the mission, but ultimate control rested with Admiral Soemu Toyoda, who was stationed near Tokyo.
Seiichi Ito’s main reason for objecting was the complete lack of air protection, something not the case for the kamikaze pilots as they flew into their April 6 death dives. Ito’s other reasons for opposing the mission were his concern about the terrible numerical inferiority of his force—eight destroyers compared to America’s 60 destroyers. He also objected to the time of sailing. He wanted the time arranged to allow the SSAF to arrive and attack at night. Ito reportedly gnashed his teeth in rage when his argument that the time of departure should be left to the mission commander was rejected.
Instead of being elated at the prospect of being chosen to die gloriously for the emperor, the Yamato’s crew was miserable and despondent on the night of April 5, 1945 (Y-3 Day), the night before the SSAF departed on its final mission. At 5:30 pm, three orders were broadcast over the ship’s public address system:
“All cadets prepare to leave the ship.”
“Distribute sake to all divisions.”
“Open the ship’s store.”
Sixty-seven naval cadets of Etajima Naval Academy Class No. 74, who had arrived three days earlier, were ordered to go ashore. But first, the cadets were summoned to the First Wardroom, a room normally reserved for the Yamato’s ensigns and junior grade lieutenants. Sake was drunk in ceremonial farewell. The cadets begged to remain but were gently yet firmly ordered to leave by the Yamato’s executive officer, Jiro Nomura. “We couldn’t bear to take them along on an expedition into certain death,” Nomura said. That night many sailors sang unhappy folk songs and drank heavily.
The next morning, April 6, a dozen or so seriously ill sailors were transferred and some 20 sailors were reassigned at the last moment. Their eyes filled with both regret and relief when they heard the news. In addition, there was the matter of the older sailors, those over age 40, who had proven to be ineffective in what little combat the Yamato had already seen; their deaths for no reason would be a brutal blow to their families. After consultation, Admiral Ariga permitted some of these men to leave the ship.
A Black Omen: Sinking of the Asashimo
The SSAF set sail that day, the ships leaving Tokuyama at 4:00 pm. The Yahagi led the SSAF, followed by the eight destroyers, with the Yamato bringing up the rear. On the same day, 355 kamikaze planes attacked the Allied Pacific Fleet in the largest kamikaze attack of the war, while the SSAF, as planned, sailed without any air protection whatsoever.
The nine escort vessels were manned by first-rate crews, combat veterans of many battles. However, their little fleet had absolutely no chance to successfully protect the Yamato on her final voyage.
The Americans were alerted by the submarine Threadfin (SS-410), which was on patrol near Fukashima, a tiny island at the mouth of the Bungo Strait. At 9:00 pm on Y-2, the Threadfin radioed the SSAF’s location to ComSubPac (Commander, Submarine Forces, Pacific) at Guam. Later, the submarine Hackleback (SS-295) sighted the Yamato and reported the SSAF’s location. The American submarines openly communicated with each other via radio in unencrypted English, with the radio operators frequently mentioning the Yamato by name. According to U.S. Navy records that Japanese researchers obtained after the war, the two submarines were ordered to track and report the movements of the Japanese ships but not to attack unless given permission.
What the Americans could not know was that Radio Officer Ensign Shigeo Yamada on the Yahagi was a Nisei, the son of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Born and educated in America, Yamada translated and reported to his senior officers what he overheard the Americans saying. Yamada, who was born in Idaho and claimed to have been “raised on potatoes,” reported that the American radio operators often referred to the Yamato as “King Battleship.” He, like fellow Nisei Kunio Nakatani, had been sent to university in Japan by their families and were trapped when the war started. These and other Nisei students could face either the draft, or imprisonment for collaboration, or even possible execution for espionage. Enlisting in the IJN often seemed the best choice for these young American citizens.
(Shigeo Yamada would survive the sinking of the cruiser Yahagi. After the war, his American citizenship was revoked, but he was later allowed to return to the United States, where he worked for Japan Air Lines (JAL) and eventually returned to Japan as a JAL vice president.)
Shortly before 7:00 am on April 7 (Y-1 Day), the Asashimo hoisted the signal “engine casualty” and began to fall behind the SSAF armada. Some sailors on the Yahagi called this a black omen for the entire unit as the Asashimo fell farther and farther behind the rest of the SSAF. Takekuni Ikeda, who was serving as an ensign aboard the Yahagi, recalled in his 2007 memoir The Imperial Navy’s Final Sortie, “But … [the Asashimo] continued to fall behind and gradually disappeared in the mist. I clearly remember that the bridge of the Yahagi was in total silence. The day of destiny began under such circumstance.”
As the morning progressed, the Yamato’s radar detected more and more American planes hovering above them. At 10 minutes past noon, the Asashimo radioed that she was engaging enemy planes; then her radio abruptly went silent. The Asashimo had been sunk; her entire crew, 326 men, died when she went down.
First Strike on the Yamato
While the Americans’ initial attacks inflicted a heavy toll, their main attacks were yet to come. On the other SSAF ships, experienced Japanese lookouts recognized the increasing number of U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters, Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive-bombers, and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers circling above them.
Initially, Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond Spruance ordered six of his battleships that were engaged in shore bombardment at the Okinawa beaches to prepare to attack the Yamato. However, Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commander of the powerful Carrier Task Force 58, pushed Spruance to change his orders and replace the six battleships with air strikes from Task Force 58 planes. Mitscher had been determined to attack the Yamato and had ignored Spruance’s order to avoid the battleship. At about 10:00 am on Y-1 day, Mitscher had ordered up flights of 280 and 106 planes, respectively, and requested permission from Spruance to attack the Yamato and her escorts only after his planes were airborne. Spruance’s reply was curt: “You take them.”