Yamato (大和), lead ship of a class of two 65,000-ton battleships, was built at Kure, Japan. She and her sister, Musashi (武蔵) were by far the largest battleships ever built, even exceeding in size and gun caliber (though not in weight of broadside) the U.S. Navy's abortive Montana class. Their nine 460mm (18.1-inch) main battery guns, which fired 1460 kg (3200 pound) armor piercing shells, were the largest battleship guns ever to go to sea, and the two ships' scale of armor protection was also unsurpassed.
Commissioned in December 1941, just over a week after the start of the Pacific war, Yamato served as flagship of Combined Fleet commander Isoroku Yamamoto during the critical battles of 1942. During the following year, she spent most of her time at Truk, as part of a mobile naval force defending Japan's Central Pacific bases. Torpedoed by USS Skate (SS-305) in December 1943, Yamato was under repair until April 1944, during which time her anti-aircraft battery was considerably increased.
On 20 October 1944, U.S. Forces landed on the island of Leyte, the first of the Japanese-held Philippine Islands to be invaded. In response, the Japanese Navy activated the complex "Sho-Go" Operation, in which several different surface and air forces would converge on the Philippines to try and drive off the Americans. As part of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force, Yamato moved up to Brunei Bay, Borneo, to refuel and then steamed toward the operational area in company with four other battleships, ten heavy cruisers and numerous other warships. On 23 October, while west of the Philippines, the Center Force was attacked by the U.S. submarines Darter (SS-227) and Dace (SS-247). Three heavy cruisers were torpedoed and two sunk, including Kurita's flagship, Atago. The Admiral then moved to Yamato, which served as his flagship for the rest of the operation.
The next day, 24 October, as the Center Force steamed through the Philippines' central Sibuyan Sea, it was repeatedly attacked by planes from U.S. aircraft carriers. Battleship Musashi was sunk and a heavy cruiser forced to retire. Yamato and several other ships were hit but remained battleworthy. The Americans thought the entire Center Force had retreated, but it transited the San Bernardino Strait under cover of darkness and entered the Pacific.
In the morning of 25 October, while off Samar, Kurita's Center Force encountered a U.S. Navy escort aircraft carrier task group. In a long running battle, in which Yamato fired her big guns at enemy ships for the only time in her career, one U.S. carrier and three destroyers were sunk. Fiercely opposed by the escort carriers' planes and the destroyers' guns and torpedoes, Vice Admiral Kurita lost three heavy cruisers, and his nerve. Though the way was almost clear to move onward to Leyte Gulf, where a climactic battleship gunnery duel would have certainly resulted, he ordered his force to withdraw and return to Brunei Bay. That ended Yamato's participation in the last great naval battle of World War II, and marked the end of the Japanese Fleet as a major threat to Allied offensive operations in the Western Pacific.
Soon after Okinawa was invaded on 1 April 1945, the Japanese implemented a desperate effort to destroy the fleet supporting the landings. Designated "Ten-Go", this operation largely consisted of massed "Kamikaze" suicide plane attacks. Yamato was also to play a role, steaming down from the home islands to blast invasion shipping off Okinawa's western coast. This mission was also understood to be suicidal, and only enough fuel was provided for a one-way cruise.
Yamato and her consorts, including the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers, left port in mid-afternoon on 6 April 1945, the day that the "Ten-Go" suicide planes began their all-too-horrible onslaught. While exiting the Inland Sea, the ships were twice sighted by U.S. submarines, and were again seen by a carrier search plane in the morning of the 7th. U.S. Navy carriers launched nearly 400 aircraft to hit the oncoming Japanese ships. Six U.S. battleships prepared to intercept the Japanese, in case they somehow got past the overwhelming aerial force. The Yamato group was provided with no air support, so the U.S. planes were opposed only by generally ineffective anti-aircraft gun fire.
The carrier planes began their attacks in the early afternoon, scoring immediate bomb and torpedo hits on Yamato and sinking Yahagi and a destroyer. Three other destroyers were sunk over the next hour, as the Japanese continued to steam southwards. In all, Yamato was struck by some ten torpedoes, mainly on the port side, and several bombs. At about 1420 on the afternoon of 7 April, less than two hours after she was first hit, the great battleship capsized to port, exploded and sank, leaving behind a towering "mushroom" cloud. Fewer than 300 men of Yamato's crew were rescued. Nearly 2500 of her men were lost, plus over a thousand more from Yahagi and the escorting destroyers. U.S. losses totalled ten aircraft and twelve aircrewmen.
After the war, the great battleship became an object of intense fascination in Japan, as well as in foreign countries. Yamato's remains were located and examined in 1985 and again examined, more precisely, in 1999. She lies at 30-22 N, 128-04 E, in two main parts in some 1400 feet of water. Her bow portion, severed from the rest of the ship in the vicinity of the second main battery turret, is upright. The midships and stern section is upside down nearby, with a large hole in the lower starboard side close to the after magazines.
In 2005 the movie Otoko-tachi no Yamato was released in Japan. The story of the Yamato is told in flashback form through the eyes of the fictional Makiko Uchida, the daughter of one of the petty officers aboard the Yamato, and a survivor, Katsumi Kamio (also fictional), a 75 year old fisherman who went to sea aboard the Yamato at age 15, who has still not emotionally recovered from the experience 60 years later. A large set was built for the movie, reminiscent of the gigantic set built for the movie Titanic. The movie was a box office success in Japan.
- A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
- Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, by Craig L. Symonds, the Naval Institute, 1995
- The World’s Great Battleships, by Robert Jackson, Thunder Bay Press, 2000
- Battleship Yamato, in Japanese
- Sinking the Supership, uploaded to YouTube from PBS, in six parts
- Trailer for the 2005 movie
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