Yes Imperial Japan Had Two Super Battleships—and This Is How They Died

By せたがやアバント - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
March 5, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HistoryWorld War IIYamatoMusashiBattleshipsBattleshipNavy

Yes Imperial Japan Had Two Super Battleships—and This Is How They Died

They couldn't protect themselves from being bombed repeatedly.

The SSAF crews had been at general quarters from dawn on Y-1 Day. At 7:00 am there had been a ceremonial breakfast after which all doors, hatches, and ventilators were closed tightly as the ships readied for battle. At about 8:45, the SSAF was sighted as seven Grumman F6F Hellcat scout planes flew over them. The Hellcats circled the force but kept their distance and made no effort to attack. At 10:14, the Japanese detected two Martin Mariner PBM seaplanes, and the Yamato fired a salvo at them from her 18.1-inch guns but missed. The Japanese also spotted the submarine Hackleback trailing them. Three minutes later, the Yamato received a report from a scout plane that Task Force 58 had been located east of Okinawa, 250 nautical miles (288 statute miles) from the SSAF.

Within Task Force 58, at around 10:00 am on Y-1 Day, the first full strike of Mitscher’s aircraft—280 fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes—readied to attack the SSAF. Tension was high among the American pilots; they knew they had only one primary target: the Yamato.

Aboard the Yamato, a messenger boy, his face all smiles and showing no awareness of the anguish of the older men, happily informed everyone that the crew would be served bean soup and dumplings for dinner.

At 10:38, the carrier Yorktown (CV-10) launched 43 planes, taking off more than half an hour later than the other groups. At about 12:34, the Yamato’s lookouts detected American planes off the battleship’s port bow at 40,000 yards (23 miles).  The Yamato commenced firing, and at 12:41 the SSAF increased its speed to nearly 28 knots (32 mph), matching the Yamato’s maximum speed.  The nine 18.1-inch guns fired Sanshikidan “beehive” shells––projectiles that functioned like shotgun shells, scattering thousands of pellets or bits of shrapnel into the air when they exploded. Although these shells were especially designed to be fired from ships against attacking aircraft, the American planes flew straight through the shrapnel the shells generated.

The Yamato’s main guns were joined in firing by six 6.1-inch guns, 24 5-inch antiaircraft guns, 150 25mm (0.98 inch) antiaircraft guns, and four 13mm (0.51-inch) machine guns, but this firing failed to produce any significant American losses; the gunners quickly learned that their curtain of anti-aircraft fire was far less effective than they had assumed it would be.

The Japanese anti-aircraft gunners, suffering casualties and communications damage, could not maintain coordinated fire against the zigzagging American planes. Fear was a powerful factor. Harvey Ewing, a rear seat gunner in an attacking Avenger, reported: “I could see bursts of anti-aircraft fire all around the plane as I made the run. To say that I was scared would be an understatement. We dropped the fish [torpedoes] and pulled up on one wing over the Yamato and seemed to hang there for minutes as the ship was firing every gun, including its 18-inch rifles, at the planes following us in.”

At about 12:40, the Yamato was hit by two bombs, both landing near the aft secondary gun turret, and three minutes later her port bow was struck by a torpedo. The bombs inflicted casualties; they knocked out the aft secondary battery fire control unit and caused other serious damage. The exploding torpedo killed sailors and also allowed about 2,350 tons of water to pour into the Yamato. The damage-control unit contained the damage by counterflooding with about 604 tons of water. (Counterflooding is flooding an “opposing” section of a listing ship in an effort to balance the ship and keep it level.)

At about 12:47, the destroyer Hamakaze was sunk. A bomb hit her aft deck, sending up a column of flames, and then a torpedo blast broke her in two. Of her crew of 240 men, 100 were killed and another 45 injured. At about the same time, the Suzutsuki received a 500-pound bomb hit to starboard, on top of her No. 2 gun mount, and caught fire. Although hit again, she managed to struggle back to Japan. Of her 263-man crew, 57 were killed and 34 were wounded.

SSAF Collapses

At about 12:50, the first wave of American warplanes had completed its attack and withdrew; at approximately 1:02 pm, the second wave arrived. The second wave attack was a coordinated strike, with dive-bombers flying high overhead to begin their attacks while torpedo bombers came in from all directions, flying at just above the wave tops. This second attack lasted about a half hour, during which the Yamato was hit with at least two more bombs and no fewer than four torpedoes. The ship also took in about 3,000 tons of water and listed some seven degrees to port. Damage control corrected this dangerous list by counterflooding the starboard engine and boiler rooms. The list was temporarily corrected, but many men within the ship drowned during the flooding.

At this time, many SSAF sailors were in the water and feared there would be no efforts made to rescue them by their fellow sailors because they were all part of a suicide force. However, Admiral Seiichi Ito, realizing his suicide attack force would never reach Okinawa, aborted the mission and ordered the rescue of survivors; Admiral Toyoda accepted Ito’s decision.

Men responded differently as what they knew to be certain death approached. An officer, his face wreathed in smiles, cheerfully praised the Americans for their skill and bravery. Kunimoto, who was a damage-control officer, realized his ship was doomed as water rushed in around them. Still, he and his shipmates began giving cheers of “Long reign the emperor.”

Not all the sailors could accept the idea that their mighty Yamato could sink or that they could die. Heiji Tsuboi, who had been a petty officer 2nd class and manned the battleship’s No. 5 anti-aircraft battery, recalled: “We were told [by] our Senior Chief that we were not able to return alive from the mission.… I was busy operating my anti-aircraft gun all through the battle until the ship’s last minutes. I remember well that I felt a somewhat heavy shock had been transmitted from the bottom of the ship. I thought it must be a torpedo attack but did not think the ship would be sunk.”

The Yamato’s sheer size made her a tempting target, and she continued to be pummeled unmercifully from above by an unceasing rain of bombs and bullets and from below by torpedoes.

Scenes of sadness and courage played out aboard the task force’s doomed ships. As the end approached, 20-year-old Ensign Yoshida Mitsuru, stationed on the Yamato’s bridge, watched in disbelief and horror as American dive-bombers sent three more torpedoes into the ship’s port side and then raked the anti-aircraft gun crews with lethal machine-gun fire. He wrote later: “That these pilots repeated their attacks with accuracy and coolness was a sheer display of the unfathomable undreamed-of strength of our foes.”

Mitsuru survived the sinking of the ship and wrote his account in Requiem for Battleship Yamato. One the most poignant incidents he relates involved an assistant communications officer, a Nisei ensign named Kunio Nakatani, who was drafted out of the classroom while attending Keio University; both of his two younger brothers were in the U.S. Army and serving in Europe. Mitsuru described Nakatani as a good-natured young man who went diligently about his work. Although Nakatani alone on the Yamato could pick up and translate American transmissions, the younger officers looked at him with contempt and constantly reviled him.

Nakatani showed Yoshida a letter he had just received from his mother in America, sent through Switzerland and received just before the Yamato sailed on her final voyage: “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Recalling the capsizing battleship’s last moments, Yoshida attributed to the ocean an almost malevolent presence when he wrote: “Dark waves splattered and reached for us as the stricken ship heeled to an incredible list of 80 degrees.”

As the SSAF disintegrated, sailors aboard the light cruiser Yahagi continued to die when an abrupt break in the low clouds allowed the American pilots to mount a massive attack against the cruiser.

Takekuni Ikeda recalled what happened: “At 1330, [the Yahagi] was hit at the stern… [and] the ship started to make a continuous turn to starboard … [then] she stopped completely and began to drift in a swell…. Weapons fire from … American aircraft hit the motionless Yahagi again and again. I felt my whole body shaking heavily. Because of the damage to my eardrums, it was as if I were watching a silent movie. Columns of water jumped up around the ship, one after another, taller than the mast. Steam spouted from the cruiser’s funnel. The bloody odor of our dead and wounded sailors mixed with the smell of gunpowder.”

The Yahagi was doomed. Rear Admiral Keizo Komura, who commanded the destroyer squadron, realized that his flagship was sinking and decided to transfer his flag to a destroyer. He sent a signal to the Isokaze to approach, but little could be done because of the nonstop American attacks; the Isokaze was badly damaged by American bombs during her attempt to reach the Yahagi and was later scuttled by gunfire. Of her crew of 239, she suffered 20 dead and 54 injured. The destroyer Kasumi was also scuttled due to severe damage from American bombs. Of her crew of 200, she suffered 17 dead and 47 wounded.