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IJN Yamato

IJN Yamato

By early 1945, Japan’s strategic situation was grim. Japanese conquests in the Pacific had been steadily rolled back since the Allied landings on Guadalcanal in August 1942. The Philippines, Solomons, Gilberts and Carolines had all been lost and the enemy was now literally at the gates. Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyu island chain was the last bastion before the Home Islands itself. The island was just 160 miles from the mainland city of Kagoshima, coincidentally the birthplace of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

 From: Kyle Mizokami

In early 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy made a difficult decision: it would sacrifice the largest, most powerful battleships ever built to protect Okinawa, the gateway to Japan’s Home Islands. The decision sealed the fate of the battleship Yamato and its crew, but ironically did nothing to actually protect the island from Allied invasion.

Yamato under construction

The battleship Yamato was among the largest and most powerful battleships of all time. Yamato has reached nearly mythical status, a perfect example of Japan’s fascination with doomed, futile heroics. Built in 1937 at the Kure Naval Arsenal near Hiroshima, it was constructed in secrecy to avoid alarming the United States. Japan had recently withdrawn from the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited battleship tonnages, and was free to build them as large as it wanted.

Unfortunately for Yamato and its crew, it was obsolete by the time it was launched in 1941. The ability of fast aircraft carriers to engage enemy ships at the range of their embarked dive and torpedo bombers meant a carrier could attack a battleship at ranges of two hundred miles or more, long before it entered the range of a battleship’s guns. Battleships were “out-sticked,” to use a modern term.

At 0800 hours on April 7, scout planes from Admiral Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Force, or Task Force 58, located IJN Yamato, still only halfway to Okinawa. Mitscher launched a massive strike force of 280 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes, and the fight was on.

IJN Yamato

For two hours, the Surface Special Attack Force was subjected to a merciless aerial bombardment. The air wings of 11 fleet carriers joined in the attack—so many planes were in the air above Yamato that the fear of midair collision was real. The naval aviators were in such a hurry to score the first hit on the allegedly unsinkable ship plans for a coordinated attack collapsed into a free-for-all. Yamato took two hits during this attack, two bombs and one torpedo, and air attacks claimed two escorting destroyers.

A second aerial armada consisting of one hundred aircraft pressed the attack. As the Yamato started to go down, U.S. naval aviators changed tactics. Noticing the ship was listing badly, one squadron changed its torpedo running depth from ten feet—where it would collide with the main armor belt—to twenty feet, where it would detonate against the exposed lower hull. Aboard Yamato, the listing eventually grew to more than twenty degrees, and the captain made the difficult decision to flood the starboard outer engine room, drowning three hundred men at their stations, in an attempt to trim out the ship.

Yamato in battle, artist unknown

Yamato had taken ten torpedoes and seven bomb hits, and was hurting badly. Despite counterflooding, the ship continued to list, and once it reached thirty five degrees the order was given to abandon ship. The captain and many of the bridge crew tied themselves to their stations and went down with their ship, while the rest attempted to escape.

At 14:23, it happened. Yamato’s forward internal magazines detonated in a spectacular fireball. It was like a tactical nuclear weapon going off. Later, a navigation officer on one of Japan’s surviving destroyers calculated that the “pillar of fire reached a height of 2,000 meters, that the mushroom-shaped cloud rose to a height of 6,000 meters.” The flash from the explosion that was Yamato’s death knell was seen as far away as Kagoshima on the Japanese mainland. The explosion also reportedly destroyed several American airplanes observing the sinking.

Yamato at the end, artist unknown

When it was all over, the Surface Special Attack Force had been almost completely destroyed. Yamato, the cruiser Yahagi and three destroyers were sunk. Several other escorts had been seriously damaged. Gone with the great battleship were 2,498 of its 2,700-person crew.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Farewell Salutes – 

Frank Beasley – Athens, OH; US Navy, corpsman

Ainslie Boyd – Marlborough, NZ; RNZ Navy # 7544, WWII & Vietnam, K Force

Francis Drake Jr. – Springfield, MA; USMC, WWII, PTO, KIA (Tarawa)

David Douglas Duncan (102) – Kansas City, MO; US Army, WWII, PTO, combat photographer / Civilian, Korea & Vietnam Wars, Life Mag. photographer

Donald Freeman – Mobile, AL; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 187th/11th Airborne Division

Howie Judd – Rensselaer, NY; CIA (Ret.)

Harvel Moore –  Chatham, LA; USMC, WWII, PTO, KIA (Tarawa)

James Robinson – Leavenworth, KS; US Navy, WWII, PTO, USS Mustin

Dee (Berglin) Robinson – Fairmount, ND; VA hospital nurse, WWII

Robert Southall – Cleveland, OH; US Army, WWII

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