by Madison Basso, NMAS Contract Curator
On April 7, 1945, civilians off the coast of Japan saw a plume of black smoke rising miles into the air. What they had witnessed was the explosion of their country’s mighty battleship the Yamato more than one hundred miles away in the Pacific. The U.S Navy’s Fifth Fleet was responsible for this remarkable defeat. The Yamato was part of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) fleet completed in 1940. Yamato was the largest battleship ever built. She displaced nearly 72,000 tons, had an overall length of 863 ft. and a top speed of 27 knots. In comparison, the newly constructed United States Navy Iowa-class battleships were about 887 ft. long, had a top speed of 33 knots but only displaced 45,000 tons. The Yamato was heavily armed with nine 18.1 inch guns and well protected by a thick plating of armor. U.S. ships needed to pass through the 110 ft. locks on the Panama Canal, while the Yamato did not. The size differential allowed for the ship to be constructed with such a thick armor shield that it accounted for nearly a third of the total displacement. She was believed to be unsinkable. Unfortunately for the Japanese, naval warfare had begun to shift from surface battles to air battles fought by aircraft carriers. The battleships Japan spent so much time and money on are now becoming obsolete.
The Yamato rarely saw any action during WWII because the IJN was so fearful of suffering damage to the ship and fuel to power the massive ship was extremely expensive. The IJN moored the vessel in various harbors, thus earning her the nickname “Hotel Yamato”. As the American military island-hopped closer to the Japanese mainland, the IJN changed their strategy and decided to sacrifice the ship in an effort to protect the mainland. Yamato became a part of “Operation Ten-Go” which would coincide with a massive kamikaze attack on the U.S. Navy. At the same time, the Japanese Army launched a counterattack on U.S. forces on the island of Okinawa. After inflicting as much damage as possible on the U.S. Navy, the Yamato would beach herself on the shore of Okinawa and serve as an artillery platform until destroyed.
On April 7th, U.S. military surveillance spotted the Yamato finally making her way out to fight- but where was she heading? Fifth Fleet commander ADM Raymond Spruance directed Task Force 54 to ready for surface battle and intercept the Yamato. To the east, VADM Marc Mitscher, the commander of Carrier Task Force 58, had the hunch that Yamato was heading toward Okinawa. His instinct proved correct. He readied his pilots to prepare for battle, take off and find the Yamato’s exact position. Shortly after 1200, TF 58 located the Yamato. ADM Spruance who was without a doubt slightly jealous of TF 58’s chance to engage the battleship bluntly told VADM Mitscher, “You take them”. Over the course of the afternoon, three waves of airstrikes absolutely crippled the mighty Yamato. Helldiver, Avenger and Hellcat aircraft rained down machine gun fire and dropped torpedoes without mercy in what they deemed pay back for Pearl Harbor. American aviators were surprised when they encountered no enemy planes as the Japanese left Yamato with no air cover for protection.
While it is unknown exactly how many torpedo hits the Yamato endured, it is estimated that it took fewer than twenty to sink the heavily fortified and so-called “unsinkable” battleship. At 2:23pm local time the Yamato exploded. Of the Yamato’s 3,000 men on board, only 269 survived. In comparison, the U.S. lost ten planes and fourteen airmen. The loss of the Yamato was a sign that the age of the battleship and the war was over for Japan. On June 22, 1945 the Americans captured Okinawa, putting them only 340 miles away from the Japanese mainland.