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.