As the war in the Pacific neared its end in 1945, the Japanese were desperately trying to turn the tides in their favor. Their solution was a new class of battleship with the ability to withstand the strongest attacks. However, they soon learned the ships weren’t as unsinkable as they believed them to be.
Plans for the ultimate battleship
The Japanese government began making plans for the world’s most powerful battleship in October 1934. They were planning for an eventual showdown against the U.S. and knew they needed a quality ship. They didn’t have the capabilities to match the size of the American fleet, but they could out-match them.
Japan’s small naval force was the result of the 1922 Washington and 1930 London naval treaties. These placed restrictions on the size and armament strength of the country’s fleet. On December 29, 1934, the Japanese government gave two years’ notice that it would no longer agree to the terms laid out in the treaties.
Work immediately began on the development of a new class of battleship, led by the Japanese Naval Command Staff and the Navy Technical Department. In March 1937, the final plans were approved, and the ships were ordered into production under the Third Fleet Replacement Program.
The Yamato and Musashi
Three ships were built. Their construction was done in camouflaged facilities to keep their development a secret. This ensured the Americans didn’t know about them until they were in direct combat.
On December 16, 1941, the first of the ships, the Yamato, was commissioned, followed by the Musashi on August 5, 1942. A third, the Shinano, was planned, but its design was later altered after the Imperial Japanese Navy’s poor showing at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The Shinano was turned into an aircraft carrier and sank after an attack by the USS Archerfish submarine.
The Yamato-class was designed to battle numerous ships at once. At 862.63 feet and displacing 72,800 tons when carrying a full load, both were quite large. Their engines were powered by four steam turbines connected to four three-blade propellers, allowing them to reach a top speed of 27 knots.
The Japanese believed the battleships to be unsinkable. The Yamato‘s sides were made from 16-inch-thick steel and its decks with armor 8 inches thick. It held a slew of weapons, including nine 18.1-inch guns; a second battery of six 155mm guns, 162 22mm antiaircraft guns and 24 127mm guns; and two catapults with a crane of seven Mitsubishi F1M2 reconnaissance airplanes.
Fear of sending the Yamato into battle
Despite the government putting so much behind the development of the Yamato-class, the ships rarely saw battle. The reasons were twofold. First, they required a large amount of fuel to run, which Japan didn’t have. Second, it was believed the sinking of one or both of the ships would damage the country’s morale.
The Yamato and the Musashi were put into combat toward the end of the war, as the Japanese fleet dwindled. The Yamato was active in the Philippine Sea and as the command ship of Admiral Takeo Kurita, during which time she took down a fleet of American ships off the coast of Samar.
In October 1944, the Japanese began an operation codenamed Sho-Go (“Victory”). The plan was to sink the American fleet as it sailed in the Philippine Sea, to prevent an invasion of the Central Japanese Home Islands. The mission included nearly every ship in the IJN’s fleet and was an utter disaster.
Things came to a head with the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, when the Musashi sank after suffering 17 bomb and 19 torpedo strikes. The Yamato received relatively little damage.
Special Sea Attack Force
The American forces began their advance on Okinawa. The Imperial Japanese Army had resorted to its kamikaze forces, and the country’s Emperor was looking for the IJN to do the same. This prompted Admiral Soemu Toyoda to declare, “The fate of our Empire depends upon this one action. I order the Special Sea Attack Force carry out on Okinawa the most tragic and heroic act of the war.”
This “heroic act” would be an all-out defense via the Bungo Channel on April 8, 1945 — also known as Y-Day. Codenamed Ten Ichi-Go (“Heaven One”), sailors were ordered to sail directly into the American ships en route to Okinawa and cause as much damage as possible. Once on land, they were to fight the American forces on the beach.
There was one twist: no one on the Japanese side was expected to survive. It would be a kamikaze mission via the seas.
Many within the IJN command felt it was a waste of human life and fuel. They were eventually convinced by Admiral Ryünosuke Kusaka, who told them the mission would force the Americans to split their attention between the sea and Okinawa.
Sights set on the Japanese
On April 6, 1945, the Yamato, the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers — the Yukikaze, Asashimo, Suzutsuki, Fuyutsuki, Kasumi, Hamakaze, Isokaze, and Hatsushimo — set off for what would be the IJN’s last major effort in the Pacific. The Yahagi led, with the Yamato heading up the rear.
The Americans were on alert for activity. At 9:00 p.m., the USS Threadfin submarine radioed the fleet’s location to the ComSubPac (Commander, Submarine Forces, Pacific) in Guam.
At dawn on April 7, the fleet moved into a defensive formation. At 7:00 a.m., the Asashimo experienced engine issues and fell behind. As the morning progressed, the Yamato began detecting American aircraft in the skies. These included Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, among others.
The action began at 12:10 p.m., signaling the start of an over two-hour battle that would devastate the Japanese Navy.
Bombardment by the U.S. Navy
The Asashimo was attacked by American planes at 12:1o p.m., sinking its 326-man crew. The planes then set their sights on the remaining nine ships in the formation, and the crew of the Yamato commenced fire at 12:34 p.m. Less than 10 minutes later, it was hit by two bombs, knocking the aft secondary battery fire control.
At 12:43 p.m., the Yamato‘s port bow was struck by a torpedo. Three minutes later, the Yahagi received a direct hit to her engine room, losing all power. This was immediately followed by the sinking of the Hamakaze after a bomb hit its deck.
The Suzutsuki wasn’t immune to the attack. She was hit by a 500-pound bomb at the starboard, causing the No. 2 gun mount to catch fire. She managed to make it back to Japan, but lost 57 crew members. Thirty-four others were wounded.
This attack was followed by a more coordinated effort that lasted approximately 30 minutes. The Yamato was hit with two more bombs, as well as torpedos and bullets, causing more flooding damage. It was at this point that Admiral Seiichi Itō realized the mission had failed and ordered the rescue of survivors on the remaining ships. Many had suffered severe damage, including the Yahagi, the Kasumi, and the Isokaze.
The death of the Yamato
The Yamato‘s death came with the third and final wave of American attacks. Led by Lieutenant Commander Herbert Houck, assault leader of the USS Yorkton, 43 planes from Air Group 9 arrived at 1:45 p.m. and decimated the Yamato with torpedo and bomb hits.
No longer steerable and filling with water, the Yamato capsized. The death blow for its crew was a subsequent explosion. At 2:05 p.m., the Yahagi was hit by seven torpedoes and 12 bombs, sinking it and resulting in the death of the majority of its crew.
By the end of the battle, the Americans had suffered relatively minor losses, with 10 downed planes and 14 dead airmen. The Japanese, on the other hand, had been hit hard. Only four ships survived — the Fuyutsuki, Suzutsuki, Hatsushimo, and Yukikaze — and thousands of sailors lost their lives.
This failure was mirrored by the land attack on Okinawa. While Japan’s kamikaze planes were able to launch an air attack on the U.S. naval fleet, they were unable to sink any ships.
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The sea attack was a demonstration of the Americans’ ability in the air and showed how vulnerable ships were without air support. It also afforded a glimpse into the lengths the Japanese would go to in order to slow the Allied advance on the Home Islands.