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.

Going Down With the Ship

The aerial assault continued without interruption. The third American strike force of 43 planes of Air Group 9––the final and most damaging attack––led by the Yorktown’s assault leader, Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Houck, arrived at about 1:45. Although accounts vary, it appears that three or more bombs decimated what was left of the Yamato’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among what remained of her 25mm anti-aircraft gun crews. Three torpedoes, close together, slammed into the port side and caused the Yamato to resume what proved to be an inexorable roll to port as thousands of gallons of water rushed into her. This continuing roll to port exposed the battleship’s now-vulnerable starboard hull to attack as American planes continued their unrelenting strikes.

Counterflooding reduced the list to 10 degrees, but further list reduction required flooding the starboard engine and fire rooms. Many crewmen were trapped belowdecks and drowned by the ever-increasing torrent of water that was pouring in through the ripped hull and by the desperate counterflooding measures undertaken to save the ship. At 2:02, three bombs exploded amidships––about the same time as the much-too-late order to abandon ship was finally given as the Yamato was hit by additional torpedoes. The ship’s roll to port and sinking created a suction that pulled swimming crewmen back toward the ship and into her propellers. Each three-bladed propeller was nearly 20 feet in diameter.

The Yorktown’s planes showed the Japanese ships and sailors no mercy; for many of the pilots, it was payback for Pearl Harbor. At 2:05, the Yahagi, hit by 12 bombs and seven torpedoes, sank exactly one minute after the last bomb smashed into her. Out of a crew of 736 men, 446 men were killed and 133 injured.

In desperation, Ariga aboard the Yamato again ordered the starboard engineering spaces counterflooded; the counterflooding did no good. Worse, hundreds of men manning the battleship’s lower decks were thus sentenced to drown without being given the slightest chance of survival; Tsuboi stayed at his station until the order to abandon ship was given. He, like Kunimoto and Yoshida, would manage to swim clear.

Vice Admiral Ito did not survive. When he saw that he would not fulfill his mission, and that most of the men in his squadron were either dead or wounded, he shook hands and said farewell to the few of his remaining staff officers and started for his flag cabin to await the end. His adjutant, Lt. Cmdr. Ishida, followed behind him. It was Ishida’s job to wait on the admiral; now he wished to join the admiral in death, but the chief of staff forcibly stopped him. “You don’t have to go. Don’t be a fool.” Ishida hesitated, averted his face, and then gave in. He did not follow his admiral.

Ishida survived but Ariga did not. Having completed the final dispositions—the code books, the portrait of the emperor, and so on—Ariga, still in the anti-aircraft command post on the very top of the bridge and wearing his helmet and flak jacket, tied himself to the binnacle, the nonmagnetic housing for the ship’s compass. He did this so that his body would not be washed away when the Yamato sank; he wanted to go down with his ship.

He then issued a command for all hands to come on deck, shouted the Japanese cheer and battle cry banzai! three times, and then turned to the four surviving lookouts standing by his side. They were devoted to their captain and did not want to leave him, but Ariga would have none of this. He clapped each on the shoulder, encouraged them to be cheerful, and pushed them into the water. The fourth sailor pressed his last four biscuits into the captain’s hand, as if to show his deepest feelings. The captain took them with a grin. He was last seen eating the second biscuit when he and the Yamato disappeared in a huge explosion. (Captain Ariga was posthumously promoted two ranks to vice admiral in May 1945.)

Kunio Nakatani did not survive the Yamato’s sinking. Yoshida Mitsuru said of his American-born friend and shipmate: “Radio officer Ensign Nakatani must have died, too, at his post intercepting enemy communications. Because he was a Nisei, his conduct always attracted attention; I can guess that his death was as splendid as the deaths of his fellows.”

Death Blow to the Yamato

Also at 2:05, the Yamato’s list, which had increased to 15 degrees to port, was such that torpedoes set to a depth of 20 feet and fired into the Yamato’s starboard side smashed below the battleship’s armor and exploded directly into her vulnerable hull. (The Yamato’s 16.5-inch-thick armor plate formed a ledge along the outer hull; it tapered down to 3.9 inches at 20 feet below the waterline.)

Houck reported what happened: “I saw the runs and figured they got at least five hits. With the 20-degree listing, the torpedoes exploded right in the belly of the ship.”

From Houck’s statement, it appears that the Yamato was hit by at least eight torpedoes during this third raid. It was the death blow for the great ship. She capsized slowly, rolling over her port side. This was followed by a huge explosion at 2:23 which hurled most of the Yamato’s sailors into the sea or killed them outright. Houck took photographs with a wing camera and later recalled what he saw: “It made a mighty big bang. Smoke went up. The fireball was about 1,000 feet high.”

Houck was right—the explosion was a “mighty big bang,” and the resulting mushroom cloud, more than four miles high, was seen by sentries at Kagoshima, more than 124 miles away. Though nobody can be certain exactly what caused the explosion, it is speculated that one of the Yamato’s two bow magazines exploded, shattering the doomed battleship’s foresection in a tremendous blast. The Yamato sank quickly. Of her crew of about 3,332 men, 2,740 men died and 117 were wounded.

Not only was the great battleship gone, but the Yahagi and four of her eight escort destroyers had also plunged beneath the waves. All of the four surviving destroyers—the Fuyutsuki, Hatsushimo, Suzutsuki, and Yukikaze—suffered casualties, with a total of 72 men killed and 34 wounded. About 981 officers and men in the escort ships died while 342 more were wounded in the ill-fated suicide attack, an attack that never had the slightest chance of fulfilling its kamikaze mission, even by samurai standards.

The Americans lost 10 planes and 14 air crewmen; three others were injured. The world’s largest and most powerful battleship was destroyed in less than two hours by an unknown number of bombs and torpedoes.

Legacy of the Yamato

The story of the SSAF and the Yamato does not end on April 7, 1945. Over the years, successful efforts were made to locate the wreckage of the ship, and success was initially reported in 1985. The photographic records made during this successful first search were confirmed by one of the Yamato’s designers, Shigeru Makino, as showing identifiable remnants of the Yamato. The researchers reported that the wreck lies 180 miles southwest of Kagoshima, off the southern island of Kyushu, in more than 1,100 feet of water. The battleship is broken into two main pieces: a bow-to-midships section roughly 560 feet long and a 264-foot stern section.

In a society that seeks to atone for its warlike past, the Yamato remains a powerful influence in Japanese culture. Books and films about the ship and the SSAF have been produced, and museums and memorials to the behemoth, her crew, and the other doomed sailors of the ill-fated SSAF have been built. A television science-fiction series was created in which the wreck of the Yamato is used to create a starship bearing the same name. Some of the characters on the Starship Yamato bear the same names as their counterparts on the real Yamato.

Although an impressive Yamato Museum opened in 2005 in Kure with a huge scale model of the ship, there is a dark footnote to the SSAF story. The IJN held the SSAF survivors virtual prisoners when they returned to Japan. In an interview, Yamato survivor Kazuhiro Fukumoto said, “We were held in Kure for a month. So parents who knew about the Yamato sinking didn’t see their sons for a month and a half. They gave up, thinking that their sons had died.”

The destruction of the SSAF haunted the psyche of many of the survivors and their immediate families. On April 3, 2006, more than 280 remaining immediate family members and surviving veterans of the SSAF set sail on a commemorative memorial voyage and followed the same route as the SSAF, sailing to the exact locations where relatives and comrades perished on Y-1 Day, April 7, 1945. There had been similar memorial trips in 1987, 1994, and 1995, but in 2006, because the youngest survivor on the memorial trip was more than 80 years old, the families and survivors decided that 2006 would be the final year for the memorial voyage to honor those who died serving with the Special (Suicide) Attack Surface Force.