A Requiem for 'Kamikaze' Battleship Yamato on Midway Anniversary

  • Japanese battleship Yamato maneuvers while under heavy air attack by U.S. Navy Task Force 58 planes in the Inland Sea off Kure on March 19, 1945. She was not seriously damaged in these attacks. Photographed from a USS Hornet (CV-12) plane. Navy photo
    Japanese battleship Yamato maneuvers while under heavy air attack by U.S. Navy Task Force 58 planes in the Inland Sea off Kure on March 19, 1945. She was not seriously damaged in these attacks. Photographed from a USS Hornet (CV-12) plane. Navy photo
  • Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, September 20, 1941. The aircraft carrier Hōshō is at the extreme right. The supply ship Mamiya is in the center distance. Navy photo
    Japanese battleship Yamato under construction at the Kure Naval Base, Japan, September 20, 1941. The aircraft carrier Hōshō is at the extreme right. The supply ship Mamiya is in the center distance. Navy photo

Adm. Raymond Spruance's signal to Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher has gone down in Navy lore: "You take them."

The super-battleship Yamato, the mightiest ever built, with 18.1-inch guns and nine escorts -- the cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers -- had been spotted by the submarines Threadfin and Hackleback and U.S. scout aircraft.

Spruance had commanded U.S. forces at the battle of Midway, the turning point of the war, which began 76 years ago on June 4. Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, will lay a wreath at the annual Midway commemoration Tuesday at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Ahead of this anniversary, in March, historian Jan Morris released a new book bringing the saga of the Yamato to life. The great ship would meet its end in the battle, not at the conclusion of its suicide mission, but at the hands of the U.S. Navy.

The Japanese warships were moving too fast and zigzagging too hard for the subs to engage, but their speed, positions and course were now known to the Americans.

They were on a suicide mission to Okinawa, where Spruance's Fifth Fleet was fending off wave after wave of kamikaze attacks to keep the lifelines to U.S. troops battling ashore open.

The coming battle against the Yamato and its escorts, designated the "Surface Special Attack Force," would be the last major encounter at sea in the war in the Pacific and would pit the forces who had been there from the beginning against each other.

As a captain, Mitscher commanded the aircraft carrier Hornet at Midway. He was also in command of the Hornet on April 18, 1942, when the carrier launched Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle's B-25 bombers for the raid on Tokyo.

The Yamato served as the flagship at Midway for Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Combined Fleet and main architect of the Pearl Harbor attacks. The Yamato was commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor.

Mitscher's ships and aircraft from Task Force 38, the Fast Carrier Task Force, were also at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, considered the largest naval battle of World War II.

The Japanese plan to defeat the U.S. invasion of the Philippines at Leyte appeared to be working. A decoy force had drawn off Adm. William "Bull" Halsey's 3rd Fleet in what Halsey detractors would later call "Bull's Run."

Japanese Vice Adm. Takeo Kurita aboard the Yamato led a powerful force against the beachhead that was now defended mainly by the Americans' "Taffy 3" unit, a covering force of six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts.

The plan was to have the Yamato's big guns destroy the troop ships and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's beachhead, but Taffy 3 put up such a fight that Kurita assumed he was engaging a screening force for a much larger U.S. attack. In one of the great "what ifs" of the war, Kurita turned his ships around.

Operation Ten-Go, Last Gasp of the Imperial Fleet

In her elegy to the Yamato, and the end of the era of the battleship, Morris, the British chronicler of the decline and fall of empires, called the battleship "an ironically beautiful instrument of death."

The Japanese, beaten from island to island across the Pacific, still held to "the conviction that battles can be won by single, deadly blows, samurai style," Morris wrote in her brief book "Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony."

The Yamato, at port in Tokuyama on the southernmost part of the main island of Honshu, was called upon to live up to that conviction.

To look at her only reinforced the belief that Yamato was invincible and unsinkable, Morris writes. She had nine, 18.1-inch main guns, the largest ever mounted on a warship. Each gun could hurl 2,000-pound projectiles 26 miles. Her secondary batteries included twelve 6.1-inch guns and twelve 5-inch guns.

The 72,000-ton Yamato was 862 feet, 10 inches, in length, had a beam of 121 feet and a top speed of 27 knots.

"Down the centuries, men [if more seldom women] have paradoxically drawn inspiration of many kinds from the experiences of conflict, and I have found many of them expressed in the story of Yamato," Morris wrote.

"I mean the pride and the splendor of it all, the undeniable beauty, the excitement of battle, the elegiac calm of defeat, the magnificence of human strength and courage, and through it all the bitter power of irony, tempering the squalor, the carnage and the degradation," she wrote.

On April 5, 1945, the Yamato's estimated crew of more than 3,000 assembled dockside to hear their mission. It would be called "Operation Ten-Go," or more fully Ten-Ichi-Go, meaning "Operation Heaven Number One."

Most of the sailors knew what that meant. "Yamato herself is to commit suicide, as the noblest of kamikaze weapons," Morris wrote. "At best, she is to beach herself on an Okinawan coral and in her death-throes use all her guns, all her ammunition, all her heroes, in support of the Japanese army. At worst, she is simply to blast away at her enemies until she herself is sunk."

On the afternoon of April 6, the Yamato and her escorts left Tokuyama and headed into the Bungo Straits and the open sea on the mission to Okinawa, 600 miles away.

On the morning of April 7, two U.S. PBM Mariner flying boats shadowed the Japanese force. Yamato fired on them to no effect.

Spruance had a contingency plan to send six battleships, seven cruisers and 21 destroyers to intercept the Japanese force, but he left the attack to the dive-bombers and torpedo bombers of Mitscher's task force.

Mitscher sent aloft more than 280 aircraft. F6F Hellcat fighters were the first to arrive to clear away any air cover over the Yamato, but the Japanese had none. The dive bombers and torpedo aircraft went into action.

Yamato was hit by at least 11 torpedoes and six bombs. She began to roll to port and then capsized. One of her two port magazines exploded, sending up a mushroom cloud that was seen nearly 100 miles away on Kyushu.

For Morris, the sinking of the Yamato "symbolized not just the end of the battleship era but the end of 'banzai' and all that, perhaps even the end of the imperial idea itself, the world over. It was one of history's disillusionments."

The little illustrated book will probably be one of the last to be written on World War II by one of its participants. The 91-year-old Morris, as a teenager, served in the Queen's Royal Lancers in the closing stages of the war.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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