Ending 'five centuries of naval warfare'

The Baltimore Sun

As American forces began landing on Okinawa in the spring of 1945, the Japanese battleship Yamato steamed away from its port at Kure, Japan, on what naval historians have called a one-way suicide mission to relieve the embattled island.

For the previous four years, the Yamato, one of the two largest battleships ever built, roamed the Pacific, intimidating all who crossed its path with its size and superior firepower.

Built in 1941, the Yamato - like its sister ship, the Musashi, sunk in October 1944 at Leyte Gulf - was 863 feet long, stretching across the sea for a sixth of a mile.

The Yamato's statistics were impressive. It was armed with nine 18.1-inch guns and 146 anti-aircraft guns.

The armor on its hull was 16 1/2 inches thick, and the vessel weighed 72,800 tons. Its four screws propelled it at a speed of 27 knots.

On the 600-mile voyage to Okinawa, the Yamato was the centerpiece of Vice Adm. Seiichi Ito's Special Surface Attack Force. It was accompanied by a light cruiser and eight destroyers - all that remained of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

From its mainmast flew a Kamikaze banner with the words: "In Justice-Fairness-Law-Power - Heaven."

Designated Operation Ten-Go, the strategy called for the Yamato, which had only enough fuel for the one-way voyage, to attack the American fleet, then run itself up on the beach. The vessel's crew members would then join Japanese land forces defending the island.

The Yamato's movements were being closely shadowed Adm. Marc A. "Oklahoma Pete" Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, a fast carrier battle group that consisted of the flagship USS Lexington, five other fleet aircraft carriers and six light aircraft carriers.

Commodore Arleigh Burke, Mitscher's chief of staff aboard the Lexington, helped draw up the operational plans that would engage the Yamato.

"We wanted to take her on topsides, to get her people off her decks so that they'd have to operate under armor all the time. More restrictive. So we wanted a lot of strafing," Burke told The Evening Sun in a 1985 interview.

"Torpedoes are always a tough issue," he said. "They do terrific damage. So we wanted lots of torpedoes."

Burke didn't minimize the inherent dangers of a torpedo attack against such a formable foe as the Yamato.

"A torpedo attack from the air is a very dangerous maneuver to make. You're heading along in a steady course, low level, slow speed, you have to be slow to drop your torpedoes. So you're a sitting duck," he said.

On April 6, 1945, the Yamato was spotted coming out of Japan's Inland Sea and observed as it made its way into the East China Sea.

At dawn on April 7, American warplanes began the hunt for the Yamato. Low clouds and rain hindered their efforts.

"Mitscher launched every available aircraft - TBF's [Avengers] carrying torpedoes, Helldivers with armor-piercing bombs, and Hellcat and Corsair fighters carrying 500-pound bombs - a total of 386 planes," wrote Nathan Miller in War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II.

"It was risky. But less risky I thought than waiting, to send out scout planes, hours to get the dope back, then launching," Burke said.

At 12:32 p.m. on April 7, Burke's strategic gamble paid off when the task force's planes made contact with the battleship and the attack began in earnest.

"We put torpedo after torpedo into that ship. She was a well-built ship," he said.

Hal Jackson, a member of Fighting Squadron 17, the famed "Jolly Rogers," was assigned to the carrier USS Intrepid.

In a 1998 article in Air Classics, Jackson, who led his division in hunting for the enemy battleship, described the mission as his "most memorable one."

When the cloud cover dissipated, Jackson found himself and his fellow Corsair pilots looking at the largest battleship in the imperial fleet.

"I led my division down to the deck level in a screaming dive at 400 mph, and each of us released our 1,000-lb. bombs as we cleared the ship's conning tower by no more than 1,000 feet," he said in the article.

"Luck was with me," Jackson told the Denton (Texas)Record Chronicle in 1945. "I was one of the last of about 380 planes to go over and about 10 minutes after I dropped my bomb, I saw the Yamato explode in a million pieces. It was the first battleship I had ever seen go down and it was a sight I'll never forget."

The Yamato resisted its attackers for nearly three hours.

The final death blow was witnessed by Herbert Houck, a naval ace, who was joined by five other Hellcat fighters.

The ship exploded in a tremendous roar and capsized. The smoke from the explosion was visible for 100 miles.

The Yamato sank 1,200 feet to the bottom of the East China Sea, taking 2,747 souls with it, and leaving only 269 survivors.

Houck recorded its sinking with a wing camera as the ship made its death plunge. Forty years later, explorers located the broken hull of the Yamato resting in its watery grave.

It was the last time a battleship was sunk in combat on the open sea.

"When she went down, five centuries of naval warfare ended," wrote the noted naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

Jackson, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, eight Air Medals and, for aiding in the sinking of the Yamato, a Silver Star, died earlier this year in Denton, Texas, where he had practiced law for 50 years. He was 87.

Houck, who finished the war with three Navy Crosses, remained in the Navy and served as commander of the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La in the early 1960s, died in Cape Coral, Fla., in 2002. He was 86.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°