It was the best World War II battleship the Japanese navy ever produced. The Yamato could steam at 27 knots and had more than 150 guns. But by the time of the American invasion of Okinawa in 1945, its fate was sealed. The Japanese navy had only a handful of ships to fight a huge American navy. The Yamato was sent on a suicide mission.
It was ordered to the East China Sea for Operation Ten-Go. This was to be synchronized with kamikaze bombers on American shipping and an army counter-attack from the garrison on Okinawa. 100,000 Japanese troops were ready to fight to the death on Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa would become the Pacific War’s deadliest sea and land battle. These were dark days for the Japanese. They had already lost the battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima.
Orders to Commit Suicide
The Yamato had unbelievable orders. It was going on the attack totally outnumbered. Then it was supposed to beach itself, run aground, and use the ship as a makeshift fort. The sailors were to either man the guns or jump out and fight like infantry. This was inconceivable. Yamato’s task force commander, Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito, was beside himself and initially refused to obey. But the orders came from Emperor Hirohito and there was no looking back.
The Yamato Was Dominant
Displacing 71,659 tons, the Yamato was the largest ship in the world. It had the most firepower ever mounted on a ship—nine 18.1-inch guns that could send 3,200-pound armor-piercing shells 22.5 miles. Its armor was the heaviest ever placed on a battleship, making it impenetrable to American guns – so the Japanese thought. The Yamato was the toast of the Japanese navy, to lose it on a harebrained suicide mission would be a tragedy.
Americans Are Excited to Engage the Yamato
At first, Admiral Raymond Spruance was surprised. American submarines had spotted the ten-ship flotilla led by the flagship Yamato. Spruance couldn’t believe the Yamato was being thrown in the fight. This was looking like the last decisive sea battle of the war. If Spruance’s task force could take out the Yamato, he would go down in history. But Spruance wasn’t the only American admiral licking his chops. Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s task force had the same idea. Yet another admiral, Mort Deyo, and his task force also had orders to go after the Yamato. Deyo had an impressive force – 6 battleships, 7 cruisers, and 21 destroyers.
It’s an Aerial Battle; Not a Surface Battle
Japan’s Admiral Ito knew he was in trouble when spotters identified American reconnaissance airplanes flying above. The Captain of the Yamato ordered the battleship and the other vessels to go 25 knots. The radar picked up an enormous group of American airplanes. It was going to be an aerial battle and not a surface battle after all. 11 American aircraft carriers sent hundreds of planes. The Yamato had 24 antiaircraft guns and 120 machine guns, and they all opened up at once.
The battleship’s armor did its job, and the Japanese were fighting bravely. The gun crews weren’t so lucky, and many died due to enemy machine gunfire. The Americans used a deadly dive-bombing tactic. They flew directly over the Yamato and then dove straight down. The Yamato had trouble firing directly overhead.
Then the American torpedo planes came out of the clouds. The Americans’ biggest problem was too many aircraft in the area of operations. There were nearly some mid-air collisions. Fortunately, the Japanese anti-aircraft guns were not radar-guided, and their fire was misdirected.
The Yamato Is Doomed
Due to bomb damage, the Yamato listed to port and exposed itself. That’s when at least six torpedo bombers noticed the weakness and dropped their torpedoes after setting them to go 20-feet deep for the most damage possible. They hit in a large explosion, and it was curtains for the Yamato. It lost its power to steer.
One section of the ship was purposely flooded to improve the list and that action killed 300 Japanese sailors. The ship rolled at least 30-degrees and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The Yamato finally exploded.
Over 4,000 men who had sailed aboard the Yamato and its escorts were dead. Yamato had a 3,000-man crew and only 269 survived. This was the end of the vaunted Japanese fleet.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.