Death of Yamato, Japan's Greatest Battleship

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Divsion Historian, with Ensign Yoshida Mitsuru (author) and Richard Minear (translator)


On 20 March 1945, at Kure Harbor on Honshu Island, Ensign Yoshida heard orders on Battleship Yamato to prepare to get underway. Yoshida had served only a few months as assistant radar officer. Yamato was one of the two largest battleships ever built, both Japanese. But the other battleship Musashi was already sunk in the Philippines.

Yamato was still formidable, powerful enough to blast any other battleship to death at long range. In contrast to her nearest rivals - U.S. ships - she carried heavier guns. Our four ships each had nine guns of 406 mm; Yamato had also nine guns - but of caliber 460 MM -18 inch guns. Armor 460 mm thick protected the sides of the ship, with thick armor everywhere else. She also had a flood control system with 1,150 compartments - was thought to be unsinkable.

Her heavy guns could fire 18-inch shells weighing 3,200 pounds. They had a range of almost 30 miles. (Of course she was vulnerable to air attacks.) Yamato was the poetic name for ancient Japan.

Ensign Yoshida did not know the specific mission of Yamato on this doomed voyage, but he surely guessed that Yamato would fight against American ships off Okinawa Beachhead where the first landings had happened only three days ago, and since he believed that his ship had only enough oil for a one-way trip. (It was a secret that she had plenty of oil.) But Yoshida did not then know that his task force would lack air protection, or would deploy to fight with its small task force in broad daylight. (But they had expected to battle a retiring US task force for just two and a half hours. Yamato men also hoped to make a night attack.)

It didn't work out that reasonably. A US B-29 already flew over them at Kure. Their radio heard US submarines' signals - not even concealed by code. Yamato's task force was too small. Against a known strength of 60 American ships, they had only light cruiser Yahagi and nine destroyers. Already Destroyer Hibaki hit a drifting mine and had to be towed back to Kure by Destroyer Hatsushima - both out of the fight.

It didn't happen right. Covered by darkness, the little Japanese command should have rushed full speed for Okinawa and struck the offshore amphib craft and bombarded the beachhead. But it made a wide detour and at noon they were just halfway to Okinawa out in the open sea. They had no air cover.

At 1200 hours, halfway point to Okinawa, came a wireless report. The first 250-plane flight from a main body of 1,000 carrier planes was headed for them.

At 1232 hours, crowds of 10-12 American Grumman planes peeled off and swooped. The escort destroyers' guns flashed in unison. Yamato opened up with 24 AckAck guns, and 120 heavy machine guns at the same time.

On the left outer edge of the Japanese formation, Destroyer Hamakaze lifted her stem up in the air. She sank in 20-30 seconds. Several dozen survivors drifted for five hours on the periphery of the desperate air battle. Yamato dodged several torpedoes, then was hit on the port bow. Two bombs made two direct hits on the after deck.

            Ensign Yoshida was stationed in the radar receiving area between two admirals. He had to supervise radar lookouts in 16 different places aboard Yamato, and decide what information he should pass on to the staff officers. After that first plane attack, the damage control officer ordered him to check on the aft radar compartment which had taken a direct hit. He started for the aft ladder, but his Lieutenant warned him not to climb down that ladder because bullets would hit him.

The ladder was shot away. Lowered by a rope into the aft radar compartment, he found the observing instruments unrecognizable. He found four hunks of flesh which represented four men. The other eight in that compartment had been totally blown away without even the odor of death left. That first air attack had destroyed the air search radar; they could see coming from the dark sky only with their eyesight.

US torpedo planes, bombers, and fighters seemed to hit Yamato like an avalanche. Knowing that they would lose some planes, American fighters and bombers dived at steep angles from heights of 3,000 meters. Attacking from gentler angles of descent, torpedo planes zigzagged after dropping torpedoes, evaded flak, and strafed Yamato's deck at close range. Or planes shifted to shallower dives from concealment by dark ocean clouds.

            Anti-aircraft guns were soon silenced. Machine gunners were dazed by overwhelming numbers of planes and repeated attacks. Velocity of 25 mm bullets were hardly 5-6 times more than average speed of US planes. Gunners were not trained to correct their aims to zigzagging US planes. Their tracers were too few to help them keep their sights on targets.

Above 3-4 machine gun turrets were director turrets which aimed and fired the machine guns below them. But bombs cut the director wires so that the individual gunners had to sight down the barrels. American bombs crashed the machine gun turret tops which flew up as high as 20 meters. Bombs aimed for the bridge, missed it but destroyed machine guns protecting the bridge.

The torpedo planes were concentrating on Yamato' s port side to cause her to list and slow down. She had to let in the sea to correct her list.

Many men in damage control were dead or wounded. It became harder to control the flooding to keep the ship on even keel. Although there were 1,150 flood control divisions, water burst through the bulkheads. Damage control crews had to escape up ladders to safety - or maybe to stamp on slow climbers and clamp the hatches and drown them.

To correct the list in time, the officers decided to flood engine and boiler rooms - largest and lowest compartments. Several hundred men of the Black Gang were drowned.

Yoshida could see close to his position on the bridge the ecstatic or contorted faces of American pilots diving at the bridge. He was surprised not to see a single pilot crash-dive Yamato. Often he and other men flattened on the deck to save their lives from bullets. Then a heavy weight fell on him. Two sailors and an officer sitting around him died from shrapnel. The three men had saved his life. Most of the officers still standing on the bridge had towels and bandages wrapped around arms, legs, or heads.

Yamato's escort navy had different fates. Destroyer Hibaki saw no action. She had hit a drifting mine, as already mentioned, and wrecked her boilers. Hatsushima towed her home to Kure and thus was also out of the fight. Asashimo also had engine trouble, was left in dangerous waters and had not one survivor. Kasumi's steering gear was damaged. She steamed a collision course at Yamato, which alertly dodged her.

Light Cruiser Yahagi - leader of the escort navy - took several torpedoes and sank, after trying for help from destroyer Isokaze. Isokaze was last seen dead in the water and belching black smoke. Suzutsuki arrived at Kure at dusk about to sink. Her stern was on fire.

Yet destroyers Fuyutsuki and Yurikaze dashed along on Yamato's flanks and signalled, "Everything in order." Fuyutsuki would save many lives - Yoshida's among those who could be saved.

By now, the clinometer needle revealed that they had a list of 17 degrees. Yamato's speed was now down to 12-13 knots. In trying to bring their list back to true, they flooded other starboard compartments besides the engine and boiler rooms, but the effect was minimal.

Concentrated bombing wiped out No.2 damage control station, nucleus of their defense. All officers were killed but for the executive officer. Chain of command no longer functioned normally. Voice tubes and phone lines were severely damaged.

Only recourse left was the use of messengers. An officer found an unhurt sailor, slapped him on the shoulder, gave him a message to run. Even as he went to slide down the ladder and was out of sight, machine gun bullets would strike him dead.

Anti-aircraft guns and secondary surface guns by now were silent. Only die-hard machine gunners remained for their final desperate battle. They had a growing swarm of wounded at the emergency sick bay, among them medical corpsmen urgently wielding scalpels. A bomb blast mowed down wounded and medics together. Nobody knows how the innumerable other casualties died.

In the sixth, seventh, and eighth waves, each 100 planes strong, they dived from port and stern. Yamato was helpless, down to half her power. Torpedoes hit aft. The stern was blanketed in pillars of flame and water. Both main and auxiliary rudders were hit. The torpedoes jammed the auxiliary rudder hard to port. Even with main rudder at starboard, Yamato could turn only to port.

The list of the ship kept men from shifting the larger shells. The carts would tip over. Hand-carrying would cause men to fall with them and be crippled. The jagged vibration of the ship might explode them.

Orders came to abandon ship. All hands assembled on deck and called out "Banzai!" three times. ("May the Emperor live 10,000 years!") The Vice-Admiral retired to quarters where his pistol was unheard. The chief of staff had to hold back the Adjutant from also killing himself. (Later they would help to support the Vice-Admiral's family.) Other officers lashed themselves together to drown with the ship. Yamato was still afloat at an angle of 90 degrees.

But some of Yamato's men did escape with their lives because the sinking ship displaced water to make a whirlpool 300 meters from every side. Twenty seconds after submergence, the gigantic 18-inch shells knocked their pointed ends on the overhead deck. The impact armed the normally safe fuses and blew up shells large enough to sink a ship.

            The explosions threw many men up too soon, and a rain of shrapnel fell down on them and killed them. But Yoshida's helpless body was down so deep that most of the shrapnel fell before he surfaced. He got only a long burn wound and a glancing cut on the left side of his head.

            Prying heavy black oil from eyes and ears, Yoshida heard another Yamato officer's order to gather other swimmers around him. Some were drowning, but Destroyer Fukuyutsuki ran up to save other men. Her captain had been angry at the thought of suicide. Despite US planes in the sky, he stopped to save Japanese - a gallant officer! His sailors let down a rope ladder to save them, but Yoshida could force only four tired men to grasp the ladder long enough to be lifted to the deck.

Finally, with only three fingers of each hand, Yoshida barely grabbed the rope. Gently and slowly, men lifted him so that he did not fall off. On the deck, he was stripped of his oily uniform and covered with a blanket. Stumbling and falling every few steps, Yoshida found the sick bay and fell on warm flesh. Here a mound of corpses was piled high to the ceiling.

Mist covered the waters, but US subs pursued them. Last tactic was to shine a light on a sub, fire on it to make it dive, then charge through the gap. Jap Yukikaze took two torpedoes, but neither exploded. An American plane hovered close to their destroyer, but mercifully did not strafe. At Kure base that night, they met the spring, those few left alive.

Yoshida at once volunteered for another special attack force. At the war's end, he took a position in the Bank of Japan and rose to be an executive officer. He would die at the age of 56.


Death of Yamato Censorship

            Why was Requiem for Yamato refused right of publication in the days of our American occupation? The censor did find much to compliment Yoshida Mitsuru about his masterpiece. He wrote that Yoshida "reported everything he saw with his own eyes and his own ears. There is very little exaggeration, if any." But the censor's overall view seems that the work was emotionally burdened - a booby trap that might arouse civil dissension. I, too, agree. Japanese veterans and non-veterans and those citizens for a new order in Japan might well have been aroused to demonstrations - even violence in the streets. General MacArthur's careful policies might have been jeopardized and our occupation needlessly prolonged.

Fifty years after the war, I find this book among the greatest world literature that I have ever read. I am honored that I shared two campaigns with fighters like these men.


CREDIT: My friend, Makoto Ikeda, a Japanese Marine of 33rd Naval Guard, gave me this book. I do not have enough space to do justice to Ensign Yoshida for his self-examination, honoring of his die-hard crew, and his honor of battleship Yamato. Publisher is University of Washington Press, 1985. Japanese Publisher is Kodansha Int. Lieutenant, 12-21, Otowa 2-chome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112.