Japan’s Greatest Warship
Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, September 20, 1941.
Right before Japan attacked Pearly Harbor in 1941, it built the biggest, most powerful warship: the Yamato.
This ship had more than 150 guns. Its nine 18-inch barrel guns could hurl shells weighing 3,200 pounds more than twenty miles—which would be like throwing an entire car all the way into another city. The Yamato also had the heaviest armor ever installed on a battleship, pushing the ship’s weight to 143,318,000 pounds.
With all these amazing features, the Japanese believed this ship was unsinkable. Not only could no gun penetrate the ship’s protective armor, it also moved fast. Even with all that weight, the Yamato could reach 27 knots, or about 31 miles-per-hour.
But oddly, the Yamato did not fight many naval battles. After it was commissioned (put to sea) in 1941, it mostly served as a transport vessel for Japanese troops. It did fight some naval skirmishes, but its main battle was The Battle of Samar where it fired its huge guns at the USS carriers Gambier Bay, Hoel, and Johnston, helping to sink all three ships.
On March 29, 1945, as the Americans pushed through the Pacific Islands, a conference was held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Emperor Hirohito gathered his military advisors to discuss the American invasion of Okinawa. The Japanese were planning a counteroffensive using 100,000 army troops, 2,000 naval planes, and 1,500 army planes.
Seeing all those ground troops and airplanes, the Emperor asked, “And where is the navy?”
None of the military leaders had told Emperor Hirohito that the American forces had reduced the Japanese navy to only a handful of ships. And his question prompted the military to send out the mighty Yamato.
While the American-led forces invaded Okinawa on April Fool’s Day, the Japanese devised a counterattack code named Operation Ten-Go. It involved the Yamato and nine other ships (one cruiser and eight destroyers) that would sail to Okinawa to attack the Allied forces. Japan planned to run the Yamato aground and use it as a stationary artillery platform.
Stocked with ammunition, the Yamato sailed for Okinawa. Each ship was supposed to take only enough fuel to reach the island, but local base commanders had added as much as 60 percent more fuel to the Yamato.
Since the Americans had broken the Japanese code, they intercepted radio transmissions and learned all about Operation Ten-Go. Allied ships also saw the Yamato heading for Okinawa. So the American military sent battleships, cruisers, and twenty-one destroyers to try to strike the Japanese before the Yamato could get within firing distance of Allied transport ships and landing craft around Okinawa.
In the early morning hours of April 7th, the Yamato began shelling Allied seaplanes. American F6F Hellcat fighters came in for support and were soon joined by 280 bomber and torpedo bomber planes. The American destroyers circled the Yamato. Suddenly another Japanese ship turned and sailed full steam away from the battle, hoping to draw away the attackers. But the plan didn’t work; the Americans were focused on the Yamato.
At 12:41 pm, two American bombs hit the Yamato. They wiped out two anti-aircraft guns and blew a hole in the ship’s deck. A third bomb took out the radar room. Five minutes later, two more bombs struck the Yamato, and one torpedo hit the port (left) side. Still more torpedoes hit, taking out the engine room and one of the boiler rooms. The ship began to flood and list, or lean, toward the port side. The ship’s crew began intentionally flooding the ship’s starboard (right) side, hoping to straighten her out. But by then, American strafing had already taken out most of the gun crews.
When the second attack began, American dive-bombers and torpedo bombers came at the ship from every direction, some flying so low they were at sea level. The Yamato’s crew loaded the main guns with Beehive shells, fused to explode one second after firing. But three more torpedoes struck the battleship’s port side, then another hit the starboard side. Water rushed into the ship. Now the Yamato was listing about 20-degrees to port, and the counterflooding wasn’t working.
The Americans went in for a third attack. Four bombs hit the ship, wiping out most of the crew manning the 25 mm anti-aircraft guns. Then four more torpedoes hit. More water rushed in. Fires burned inside ship. Basic functions such as lights stopped working.
The Yamato was doomed.
The order went out to abandon ship, but much of the crew was trapped and couldn’t escape.
A final wave of torpedo bombers struck the Yamato’s starboard side, while still more torpedoes hammered her hull—the ship’s main body.
Finally, the ship lost all power. The last of her guns plunged into the sea.
Three minutes later, the Yamato capsized, rolling over with so much force that the suction pulled down the crewmen trying to swim away.
There was one final blast from the ship’s magazines. It shot a fireball so high into the sky that it was visible from a hundred miles away.
The Yamato had left Japan with 3,000 men. Only 269 survived.
But the American airplanes did more than sink the world’s most powerful battleship. They ended an era. Battleships had ruled the seas up until now. But with the Yamato sitting at the bottom of the ocean, it was clear to everyone that planes could not only dominate the air, but the water, too.
The Yamato sinking with escort ships nearby.
Kazuchiro Fukumoto was one of the sailors who survived the Yamato’s sinking. As fire and explosions took the ship down, Fukumoto jumped into the ocean.
“I have no recollection of the instant I jumped in. But there was a huge explosion—I still remember the sound to this day,” Fukumoto said. “Men swimming had their internal organs affected by the impact of the explosion in the water. Men who had hesitated and hadn't jumped in were blown off by the force of the blast. . . .
“We'd jumped off the back of the ship. The ship was still moving forward a little, very slowly, and the propeller was still going bit by bit. I was drawn into the whirlpool from the propeller and pushed backwards. I struggled, but I was powerless—one propeller blade was five meters [sixteen feet] long, so just one turn created a huge whirlpool. I started getting short of breath. I couldn't take it anymore, and I swallowed a mouthful of water, seawater. For an instant it felt better, but there was no air coming in, so I started to get short of breath again. That happened two or three times, and then I began to lose consciousness. At that point, I wasn't thinking about being rescued or what I was supposed to be doing. I was losing consciousness, and I think I was just a step away from death. . . .
“I was clinging to the support beam for about two hours. A man in the distance—I think he was an officer—called for us to come together. I made my way to where everyone had gathered. Men had climbed onto an emergency raft about the size of eight tatami mats [roughly seven by twenty feet]. I let go of the beam and got on the raft. More and more people started coming on, so the raft would go up and down even with the smallest wave. When it got particularly bad, the whole thing would sometimes submerge. We started having to turn people away. . . .”
You can read the rest of Fukumoto’s dramatic rescue here.
FIND OUT MORE
This YouTube video goes underwater to show the sunken Yamato, documenting its enormous power and size.
To see the Yamato in 3-D, go to this website.