Japan withdrew from the London Naval Treaty in 1936. The chief Japanese negotiator, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, feared that concessions on the part of his negotiating team would lead directly to assassination upon return to Japan. Japanese nationalists believed that the Washington Naval Treaty system was holding Japan back and preventing it from becoming a first rate power. Freed from the constraints of international treaties, Japan could build a world-beating fleet that would push the Western powers out of Asia and help usher in a new era of Japanese dominance. The partisans of this position didn’t call their organization “Project for a New Japanese Century”, but they might as well have.
Yamato was the first of a new generation of battleships. The IJN believed that the United States would never build battleships too large to move through the Panama Canal, and calculated that the maximum displacement of such ships would amount to about 60000 tons. Ships of that size could not, it was thought, carry guns larger than 16”. The IJN problem was then to design and build battleships that could destroy the largest ships the Americans were likely to build. These ships were to have a speed of at least 30 knots, carry 18” or larger guns, and have extensive range with good fuel economy. Yamato met one of the three conditions. Commissioned in December 1941, Yamato carried 9 18.1” guns in three triple turrets, displaced 66000 tons, and could make 27 knots. Her armor weighed more than an entire World War I dreadnought, and could absorb enormous damage. A 31 knot version was rejected as too large, and the IJN unwisely decided to sacrifice speed for armor. Yamato was also initially designed with diesel engines for economical cruising, but problems with the diesels led to the use of a standard power plant that burned so much oil it would have made Dick Cheney blush. Yamato was an immensely powerful ship, but the Japanese sacrificed operational mobility for surface tactical effectiveness. Four more ships of the class were ordered, but only Musashi was completed as intended. Shinano, the third sister, was completed as an aircraft carrier support vessel. And just to show you that I’m not a hard-hearted man, and that it’s not all displacement and gun caliber: She was beautiful; she was graceful; she was referred to by her crew as “more beautiful than any woman”.
Upon completion Yamato became the flagship of the Combined Fleet, a designation she held until replaced by Musashi in 1943. Admiral Yamamoto sat on Yamato’s bridge as the USN destroyed four of his carriers at Midway in June 1942. Because of her speed and enormous fuel requirements, the IJN did not use Yamato in the Guadalcanal campaign. This must be regarded as a serious error, as Yamato’s presence might well have changed the character of several of the engagements of Savo Island. This was not a time at which the IJN should have emphasized fuel economy. Yamato withdrew from the Central Pacific with the rest of the fleet as American carrier groups launched ever more devastating attacks on Japanese bases.
Yamato was present at both the battles of Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf. At the latter she, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo, and Haruna served as the core of Admiral Kurita’s strike force. Although American battleships were successfully decoyed away, the Japanese attack on US transports and escort carrierswas foiled by the extraordinary courage of a few American destroyer captains. Musashi sank under the weight of nearly 30 bombs and 20 torpedoes, demonstrating that unsinkable super-battleships could, indeed, be sunk. After the battle Yamato withdrew to Japan, where she rode out several air attacks.
By April 1945 the Imperial Japanese Navy was largely spent. In A Glorious Way to Die, Russell Spurr recounts the circumstances that led to Yamato’s final mission. In response to the invasion of Okinawa, the Army guaranteed that it would devastate the American fleet with kamikaze attacks on unprecedented scale. Upon being informed of this, the Emperor asked “And what of the Navy?” This set in motion a plan under which most of the remainder of the IJN, including Yamato, a light cruiser, and eight destroyers would sail for Okinawa, fight their way through the defending warships and transports, and beach themselves on the island. The crews would then abandon ship and reinforce the Okinawa garrison. Although the IJN was noted for its bravery and loyalty, this plan did not meet universal acclaim. Several admirals and captains thought this a waste not only of their remaining ships but also of the lives of their crewmen. They pointed out that Yamato, super-battleship that she was, could not hope to destroy the entire USN. Moreover, the approach to Okinawa would require ten hours of sailing in daylight without air cover. The US carriers would certainly find and destroy the task force before it reached its target. Such concerns were brushed aside. Most of Spurr’s information comes from direct interviews with Japanese and American survivors of the sortie, although he also relies on some archival material. Spurr wisely lets the narratives speak for themselves, refraining from imposing an interpretation when accounts conflict, although he uses his own expertise to suggest the most likely course of events.
The task force set sail on April 5, and was detected almost immediately by US submarines and reconnaissance aircraft. Admiral Raymond Spruance initially ordered his battleship squadron to prepare to meet Yamato. This squadron included New Mexico, Idaho, Tennessee, Colorado, Maryland, and West Virginia. The American carrier commander, however, had other ideas, and wanted to destroy the Japanese with air strikes. The decision was eventually made to launch the air strikes and rely on the battleships as a back up. This was certainly the correct call. Although the six elderly battleships would almost certainly have been too much for Yamato to contend with, it’s quite possible that she would have take one or two, along with several thousand American sailors, with her.
The airstrikes began five hours into Yamato’s daylight trek. They immediately inflicted heavy damage, and soon sank several of Yamato’s escorts. Yamato continued at speed, but suffered heavy damage from bombs and torpedoes. She began to list, and her steering failed. The final wave of American torpedo aircraft delivered the coup de grace, and Yamato rolled over and sank with nearly 3000 of her crew. To their eternal dishonor, the American pilots then strafed the Japanese survivors, destroying lifeboats and liferafts and interfering in the rescue operations of the remaining escorts. These attacks on shipwrecked sailors also violated all applicable laws of war. Spurr confirmed the attacks on sailors with both Japanese and American witnesses.
Yamato’s destruction capped an absurd story with a tragic ending. The effort that went into her construction would better have been spent on aircraft carriers and other ships. Her final journey was a sickening waste; while some of the Japanese admirals realized that the 3000 men who died on Yamato might better have been employed building a new Japan, others did not. When Japan surrendered, the IJN attempted to destroy all photographic and technical data on Yamato and her sister, leaving Western analysts guessing as to her exact characteristics well into the Cold War. Yamato has been the centerpiece of several feature films, but is perhaps best known in the United States as the platform onto which the wave motion gun was fitted in Star Blazers. The American redub renamed the ship Argo, but in the Japanese version Yamato sailed once again on what was assumed to be a suicidal mission to save Earth from radioactive destruction. Apparently, the theme song to Space Battleship Yamato (Japanese version) remains popular in the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.
Trivia: What was the first American battleship to be hit by a kamikaze?