East China Sea April 7, 1945

On this date the Japanese super-battle­ship Yamato steamed toward Oki­nawa and to a martyr’s death dispensed by pilots from Rear Adm. Mark A. “Pete” Mitscher’s U.S. Fast Carrier Task Force 58 (TF58). Early in World War II, Mitscher com­manded the Hornet, which from her deck famously launched Col. Jimmy Doo­little’s Raiders toward Japan’s capital, Tokyo, in April 1942. Eight weeks later Mitscher’s Hornet engaged the enemy in the Battle of Midway (June 1942), the first impor­tant U.S. victory after the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on Pearl Harbor the pre­vious Decem­ber. Now com­manding the fast carriers of TF58, Mitscher stopped dead in its tracks a Japa­nese naval sortie centered on the Yamato, hell-bent on frus­trating U.S. amphib­ious landings on Oki­nawa (since April 1). The 463-square-mile island, owing to its proximity to the southern­most Japa­nese island of Kyushu, was viewed in Tokyo as a pre­cur­sor to a ground attack on the Japanese homeland itself.

Yamato was the pride of the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy (IJN) when it joined the fleet in mid-Feb­ru­ary 1942. For a time Yamato served as the flag­ship of the IJN. From her bridge Adm. Iso­roku Yama­moto, Com­man­der-in-Chief of the Com­bined Fleet during World War II until his death in April 1943, directed the Japa­nese fleet during the Battle of Midway. The 3-day engage­ment, wherein Yama­moto’s battle­ship group was too far from the scene of action, was the first of many dis­asters that inflicted irreplaceable losses on Japanese naval assets.

Retired from flag­ship duties by twin super-battle­ship Musashi in Janu­ary 1943, Yamato occasion­ally plied the Pacific Ocean between Japan’s Kure naval base on the main island of Honshū and Micro­nesia’s Truk (Chuuk), Japan’s strong­hold and forward anchor­age in the South Pacific. At Truk Yamato settled into battle­ship slumber by serving as a head­quarters ship and officers’ billet, deri­sively called “Hotel Yamato.” From time to time the battle­ship performed a few piddling mis­sions; e.g., ferrying troops and supplies to Japan’s island garrisons.

On April 6, 1945, Yamato, Vice-Admiral Seiichi Itō com­mand­ing, took on the mis­sion of a life­time as part of Oper­a­tion Ten-Go (“Oper­a­tion Heaven One”). Leaving on that date from Toku­yama Harbor (modern Shūnan) on the southern tip of Honshū in the com­pany of 8 destroyers, 1 light cruiser, but no air cover, Itō had orders to beach Yamato at Hagushi Bay not far north of Naha, capital city of Oki­nawa, where the mighty battle­ship would foil ongoing Amer­i­can amphib­ious landings of men and supplies. Yamato’s crew­members were to either man the ship’s 166 anti­aircraft guns, including her 3 triple 18.1-in (42mm) guns, and fight to their deaths or link up with Oki­nawa’s 100,000-man gar­ri­son. While Yamato was still over 150 nauti­cal miles from her desti­na­tion, U.S. flying boats con­tin­uously alerted Mitscher’s Task Force 58 to the enemy’s course, speed, and posi­tion. The sur­face battle Adm. Itō had hoped for instead became a one-sided aerial tussle as close to 300 U.S. carrier F6F Hell­cat and F4U Cor­sair fighters and TBM Avenger tor­pedo bombers rained steel death on the kamikaze armada beneath them.

Due to extensive bomb and torpedo damage, Yamato began listing to port. That’s when torpedo bombers noticed this weak­ness and released more loads into the ship’s port side. In all between 11 and 13 torpe­does found their mark. In an action that drowned 300 sailors, two sec­tions in the ship were pur­posely flooded to pre­vent the vessel from cap­sizing. The ship listed at least 30 degrees when Itō issued the call to aban­don ship. With the fleet’s radio gear inoper­a­ble, Itō used signal flags to com­mence rescue oper­a­tions. Yamato rolled over to port at 2:20 p.m. and 3 minutes later exploded. Between 3,700 and 4,250 men aboard Yamato and her escort ships perished. Of Yamato’s 3,000-man crew just 269 survived. Amer­i­can losses were 10 airplanes and a dozen lives. Yamato’s heroic sui­cide ride was the last major Japa­nese naval oper­a­tion in World War II. The U.S. declared Oki­nawa secure on June 21, 1945, after an intense and costly battle.

Yamato: Largest One-Way Kamikaze of World War II

Operation Ten-Go: Yamato during sea trials 1941Operation Ten-Go: Yamato and Musashi, Truk Lagoon, 1943

Above: Yamato during sea trials, 1941 (left frame), and Yamato and Musashi (foreground) in Truk Lagoon, early 1943 (right frame). Yamato, archaic name for Japan, and sister ship Musashi were built in secret. Displaying 71,659-tons fully loaded and with a beam of 127.7 ft and a length of 863 ft, the super-battle­ships were designed to carry nine 18.1-inch (460mm) main guns, withstand 18-inch shell­fire from an enemy, and have enough under­water armor to prevent damage from a tor­pedo carrying a 660-lb war­head, while having a top speed of 27 knots (31 mph) and the ability to cruise 8,000 miles at an average speed of 18 knots (20.7 mph). Laid down in Novem­ber 1937, com­mis­sioned in mid-Decem­ber 1941, Yamato com­pleted sea trials in late May 1942 but avoided engage­ment during the Battle of Midway at the start of June. A year and a half later, on Decem­ber 25, 1943, while ferrying troops and equip­ment to Truk, Yamato was torpe­doed by a U.S. sub­marine, USS Skate, and suffered moder­ate damage that required repairs in Truk and then Kure. Musashi was tor­pedoed the next month and later that year, on Octo­ber 24, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf Musashi was sunk by an esti­mated 19 torpedo and 17 bomb hits from Amer­i­can carrier-based air­craft. During the same battle, after Yamato fired her main guns (the only battle in which she fired her big boys in anger at sur­face targets), the super-battle­ship and her escorts were chased off by a light escort carrier group of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 77, “Taffy 3,” which the Japanese mis­took for a power­ful U.S. carrier fleet. Yamato suffered multi­ple bomb hits, took on 3,000 tons of water, but by taking eva­sion action managed to retreat with her escorts. Tail between her legs, Yamato was back in Kure by November 23, 1944.

Operation Ten-Go: Yamato under attack, April 7, 1945Operation Ten-Go: Yamato exploding, April 7, 1945

Left: Yamato desperately maneuvers hard to port to avoid incoming U.S. Navy carrier planes north­west of Oki­nawa in the East China Sea, April 7, 1945. (Oper­a­tion Ten-Go is some­times known as the Battle of the East China Sea—the East China Sea being the loca­tion of the lethal sea and air encounter.) Prior to the attack the mighty ship maneu­vered eva­sively at a brisk 15 to 20 knots. The photo was taken by a plane from the air­craft carrier USS York­town. A fire can be seen amid­ships from pre­vious attacks, but at this point Yamato had not developed a list.

Right: A massive column of smoke rises (appro­pri­ately) to the heavens shortly after Yamato capsized, exploded due to burst air pres­sure as well as to deto­nating aft maga­zines, and sank thanks to the ini­tia­tives of her Amer­i­can tormen­tors. An uniden­ti­fied enemy destroyer is visi­ble to the left of the smoky column. Maybe the destroyer in the photo was the same one said to be severely damaged in the after­noon melee. Maybe it was among the three hos­tile destroyers that settled on the sea­floor. Or maybe it was among the four that escaped to serve Emperor Hiro­hito another day. Photo­graphed from a plane from the USS Yorktown.

Yamato: Life and Death of a Legendary Battleship

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