Yamashiro and her sister Fuso were the first super-dreadnoughts built by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Yamashiro entered service in March 1917, but played no important role in World War I. Yamashiro displaced about 35000 tons, carried 12 14″ guns in six twin turrets, and could make close to 24 knots. A modernization in the 1930s gave Yamashiro a “pagoda mast” and added a knot to her speed. Although fast and powerful, Yamashiro probably was not as well protected as her American contemporaries. In my mind this was a good trade off, as faster ships simply proved more useful than slow ships in World War II.
In spite of her high speed relative to other battleships of her era, Yamashiro was not used to much effect in World War II. She and her sister pursued the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise after the Doolittle Raid, but suceeded in catching only a Russian merchant ship. In the Midway operation, Yamashiro supported the decoy Aleutian landings. Yamashiro’s moment would not come until 1944, when an American fleet approached the Japanese-held Philippines.
In October 1944, the United States Navy prepared a fleet of enormous size to protect and support the invasion of Leyte Island in the Phillipines. The US fleet included six fast battleships, 6 slow battleships, a dozen fleet carriers, and hundreds of other vessels. The IJN by 1944 was simply incapable of defeating this force in open battle, so the Japanese high command developed a plan designed to decoy the main US fleet away from Leyte, allowing Japanese battleships to destroy the invasion vessels. A force consisting of two battleships and four aircraft carriers would be used as bait for Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, which included the six fast battleships. In the absence of protection from Halsey, a force of five battleships under Admiral Kurita would attack the Leyte armada from the north, while a force of two battleships and four cruisers would attack from the south. Yamashiro was flagship of Admiral Nishurima, commander of the southern force.
The plan was not necessarily a good one. No allowance was made for the squadron of six slow US battleships, which remained close to the invasion beach. Utter air supremacy on the part of the USN meant that the Japanese ships would suffer devastating air attacks on their way to Leyte. Finally, while outright victory would delay the invasion of the Philippines for a time, it would probably result in the destruction of most of the strength of the IJN. The IJN was desperate, however, and decided to gamble. The operation began poorly. Massive air attacks on the US fleet by land based Japanese air sank only a single American carrier. Attacks by US carriers destroyed one of Kurita’s most powerful battleships, Musashi, and three of the carriers in the decoy force before they could lure Halsey away. Shockingly, however, the basic ruse worked, and Halsey moved his six new battleships away from Leyte, allowing Kurita access to the invasion fleet.
Things did not go so well for Yamashiro. Nishurima’s force was expected to reach Leyte through the Surigao Strait, a fairly narrow body of water between Leyte and Dingnat. American forces, alerted to Nishurima’s presence by air recon, were well prepared. Squadrons of destroyers and PT boats lined either side of the Strait, which was capped by Admiral Oldendorf’s battle squadron. Around 3am, American PT boats began to attack the advancing Japanese column. Yamashiro’s sister, Fuso, took a hit amidships and fell out of the battleline, slowing and eventually reversing course. Destroyer attacks began around 3:30am, and Yamashiro received between two and four torpedo hits. The first hit slowed Yamashiro to five knots, although she was soon increased her speed to eighteen.
At the end of Surigao Strait lay the battleships and cruisers of the American Seventh Fleet. Five of the six battleships (Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, California, and Tennessee) had survived Pearl Harbor. West Virginia, California, and Tennesee had been radically reconstructed since 1942, making their fire and fire control systems state of the art. On the best of days, Yamashiro might have been expected to tangle with Pennsylvania or Mississippi with some chance of success. The other four American ships were out of her league. This was not, however, the best of days. The battleships were accompanied by eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. Moreover, the American squadron had accomplished the apogee of 20th century battleship tactics, the “crossing of the T” The American ships were capable of firing full broadsides against Yamashiro, while the Japanese ship could only reply with its forward turrets.
At 3:53am, the American ships opened fire. With advanced targeting radars, Tennessee, California, and West Virginia were able to find Yamashiro with several salvos each. Maryland also successfully engaged Yamashiro, and Mississippi was able to fire one salvo. Yamashiro, with no targeting radar and under heavy assault, responded with generally uncoordinated fire. Admiral Nishurima ordered the Fuso to support Yamashiro, but Fuso had unfortunately exploded twenty minutes earlier. Fuso broke in half but did not sink, leaving her crew of 1400 to contemplate the uselessness of a broken-in-half battleship. Just after 4am Admiral Oldendorf ordered a cease fire, because American shells were hitting American ships close to Yamashiro. Miraculously, Yamashiro was still capable of maneuvering, and managed to turn away from the American ships at nineteen knots. As she was moving away, however, she was caught by two additional torpedos, and quickly capsized.
Three survivors from Yamashiro were picked up by US destroyers. The US record indicates that the remaining survivors did not want to be picked up. The crew of the Fuso, according to the USN, also refused rescue. I am suspicious of this account. The Pacific War was a nasty conflict, and it was not uncommon for either side to treat surrendering enemy forces brutally. The Imperial Japanese Navy did not condone surrender, and a “cult of suicide” existed even before the Kamikaze, but it is by no means clear to me whether the refusal to rescue was on the part of the Japanese or the Americans.
The destruction of Yamashiro was the last clash of battleships in the twentieth century.
Trivia Question: The two largest battleship clashes of the twentieth century came at Tsushima and Jutland. First, name the last surviving battleship of each clash. Second, specify the connection between the two battleships.