A NOVA episode detailing the story of Battleship Yamato
Ensign Nakatani, of the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, was the only American aboard the Japanese battleship Yamato when it sank in 1945. As a Nisei, the term for second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the outbreak of war with the United States in 1941 caught him off-guard as he was studying in Japan. Bilingual and familiar with America, he found himself immediately pressed into service for the Emperor, serving as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese. Like most Nisei, he was treated with great disdain and suspicion by the ultra-nationalistic Japanese. Nakatani, his communications with his stateside family severed, and was unable to contact his parents or younger brothers. He was alone.
Only as he departed from the Japanese city and shipyards of Kure on the Yamato‘s last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive his first and only family contact during the entire War. A single letter, from his mother, written years earlier had meandered through the channels of the International Red Cross, finally finding its way to him in Japan via Switzerland. The letter read, in part, “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”
But peace was not to come in time for Nakatani. According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s memoirs in Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. Such tragic stories are solemnly told in the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly known as the “Yamato Museum,” located in Kure, Japan.
Yamato (大和) was the lead ship of the Yamato class of Imperial Japanese Navy World War II battleships. During the 1930s, as the Japanese became ultra-nationalist with views to expand their Empire, new designs for heavy fighting ships were begun. The Japanese recognized that they would simply be unable to match the output of U.S. war machine once war broke out, so these massive vessels were designed to engage multiple enemy battleships at the same time, and engage them first with very long-range guns. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed, displacing 72,800 tons and armed with a main battery of nine 18.1 inch main guns, the largest caliber naval artillery ever fitted to a warship, which gave the ships an unmatched range 26 miles. Formidable by any standard, by 1945 her secondary battery comprised six 6.1 inch and twenty-four 5 inch guns. For more close-in defense against aircraft, Yamato carried an astounding 162 anti-aircraft guns of 25mm! Despite this protection, neither ship survived the war.
Laid down in 1937 and formally commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she served as the flagship during the Battle of Midway, a disastrous defeat for Japan in the middle of 1942. After the initiative of the war in the Pacific shifted to the Americans, the battleship remained in the vicinity of the Japanese-held Island and anchorage of Truk for much of 1943-1944, and played little part in any battle of significance. Yamato fired her main guns at American surface ships only once in late 1944 with little effect.
1945 saw the Japanese suffering a crippling loss of fuel oil, raw materials, and general supplies, and in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance on the Japanese “home” islands, Yamato was dispatched on a one-way mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed. Allied forces invaded Okinawa on 1 April 1945, and facing American boots on Japan soil proper, the imperial war machine responded in desperation with a mission codenamed “Operation Ten-Go” that would see the suicidal commitment of much of the remaining strength of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Yamato and nine escorts (one cruiser and eight destroyers) would sail to Okinawa and, in concert with kamikaze and Okinawa-based army units, attack the Allied forces assembled on and around Okinawa. Yamato would then be beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement and continue to fight until destroyed. In preparation for the mission, Yamato was fully stocked with ammunition, but not enough fuel for a return voyage. Designated the “Surface Special Attack Force,” the ships sortied on the afternoon of April 6th, 1945, the same day the USS Emmons was sunk by kamikazes off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula (see my blog Wreck of the USS Emmons for more).
The Yamato’s task force, however, was spotted by an American sub as it sailed south of Kyushu, and on April 7th, 1945, she was sunk by American carrier-based aircraft with the loss of vast majority of her crew.
The Allies had been decoding Japanese radio traffic for some time, and were well aware of Japan’s intent. Further, numerous American submarines spotted the Special Attack Force as it sailed south, but were unable to attack due to the ships’ high speed evasive maneuvering. They were, however, able to radio position, course and speed to the American fleet waiting to the south. With these reports, the Allied forces around Okinawa began to brace for the Special Attack Force’s assault by placing six battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers on alert to intercept Yamato if aircraft-carrier based planes were unable to stop the group from reaching vulnerable Allied transports and landing craft.
Yamato’s crew was at general quarters and ready for action as dawn broke over cloudy skies on April 7th, 1945, only a day out of port. The first Allied scout aircraft made contact with Battleship Yamato at 8:23am, catching glimpses of their bright wakes playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. The group of ships was then shadowed by the America aircraft for the next few hours as the Allied Fleet Carriers readied their aircraft for strikes. At around 10:00am that morning, Yamato held radar contact with the first wave of Allied attack planes, American F6F Hellcat fighters which were sent to sweep the skies over the battleship clear of Japanese aircraft. The Yamato and her escorts, however, were sent without air cover.
At about 12:30pm, a large raiding force of 280 bomber and torpedo aircraft arrived to stop the Yamato’s advance. As the Yamato increased speed to 24 knots and her destroyers closed to provide anti-aircraft fire, the Allied attack started at 12:37pm. The Yamato initially remained unscathed, throwing up an almost impenetrable wall of large and small-caliber defensive fires. But at 12:41pm, time quickly ran out for the proud ship. Two bombs obliterated two of her triple 25 mm anti-aircraft mounts and blew a hole in her deck, where fires started and raged. A third bomb exploded in quick succession, destroying her radar room and more of her secondary battery. Within minutes, two more bombs struck the battleship’s port side, causing significant damage to the ship’s main battery guns.
As the dive bombers attacked from almost directly overhead, the torpedo bombers started their attack runs at near sea level height. Splitting the ship’s defensive fire, already greatly reduced by exploding bombs, four torpedoes ran home and struck Yamato, damaging this ship’s boilers, engines and steering gear. The attacking swarm spent, the aerial assault ended as quickly as it started at around 12:47pm. In ten short minutes, explosion after explosion left the battleship listing 5–6° to port and on fire, her top speed significantly reduced, and with most of her unprotected 25mm anti-aircraft crews killed or wounded.
The ship was now easy to find, a thick plume of black smoke beckoning other approaching waves of aircraft. Suffering reduced maneuverability and sharply curtailed anti-aircraft capability, the second wave of Allied planes found a much easier target. Starting at just before 1:00pm, the Americans again swarmed the battleship, attacking simultaneously from above and on level from all directions. Three or four torpedoes found their marks, their massive explosions furthered reducing steam to the ship’s engines and dramatically increasing flooding. Yamato was now listing perilously 15–18° to port, but the ship’s crew was able to counterflood and reduce the list to 10°. Although the ship had so far absorbed a massive amount of punishment, she was still in no real danger of sinking.
Still a third attack wave was launched and struck beginning at about 1:40pm that afternoon. At least four bombs hit the ship’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among Yamato’s remaining 25 mm anti-aircraft gun crews. More serious though were four more torpedo impacts, resulting in flooding that was almost uncontrollable. With the auxiliary steering room now completely flooded, the ship lost all maneuverability and became stuck in a starboard turn. Yet the ship and her crew fought on.
The fires and flooding began to take their tool, and by about 2pm that afternoon, the ship could only make 10 knots through the water with a steadily increasing list. Fires forward near the ship’s main battery raged out of control, and alarms were sounding about temperatures in the ship’s magazine. At 2:02pm, the order was given to abandon ship since the crew was unable to flood the vital and dangerous ammunition storage areas to keep them from exploding.
The final assault began at 2:05pm. Torpedo bombers once again scored more hits. The battleship continued her inexorable roll to port, losing all power 2:20pm. Three minutes later, Yamato capsized, and as she rolled, one of the two bow magazines detonated in a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud almost four miles high that was seen for hundreds of miles. Yamato sank rapidly, quickly killing over 3,000 of her crew. Only 269 sailors survived the onslaught, while the Allies lost only ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.
In 2005, the “Yamato Museum” was opened near the site of the former Kure shipyards where the battleships were built. The centerpiece of the museum, occupying a large section of the first floor, is an almost 90 foot long model of Yamato at an amazing 1:10 scale. For naval historians and those interested in learning about how such engineering genius and manufacturing acumen could result in such tragic circumstances, this museum is a must-see. Although a small fee is charged, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Kure Museum, located right across the street, is totally free. The two museums complement each other in dramatic fashion, and make for a wonderful day of discovering Japanese Traces of War.
When you do visit, please take a moment or two to contemplate and honor Nakatani’s fate. Born in a different time, place, and circumstance, we all could have suffered the same, as many do today.
WWII Photos used licensed under Public Domain via Commons