An “elegy” is a song or verse of mourning. The word was not part of my vocabulary until I heard about Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book about the crisis of working-class Americans by J.D. Vance. Now that I understand elegy, I find it the perfect word to describe the World War II history Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony by Jan Morris, a Welsh writer whose many previous books included colorful histories of cities such as Venice and Hong Kong.
In Battleship Yamato, Morris uses prose, art, poetry and history to weave the most unusual battle account I have ever read. Morris calls her short book an “illustrated reverie, a literary meditation.” This blog by no means captures the fascination, tragedy and irony with either the book or the Yamato saga. But I immediately recognized warhistorybuffs would be interested in the book and the story told through such a lyrical lens.
Morris isn’t the first historian to recognize Yamato’s final mission for what it was: an elaborate suicide ritual for a samurai warrior. Westerners have always been fascinated with samurai, commonly referred to as “bushi” in Japan. They were an aristocratic warrior class, I would say roughly similar to medieval knights. Much of the aura surrounding these Japanese warriors was stripped away after World War II when the world learned of the horrible atrocities inflicted on Allied prisoners of war in the name of samurai codes of conduct.
There is no doubting the power of the samurai loyalty to their prince even unto death. In the name of their emperor, thousands of Japanese soldiers refused to surrender and fought until killed or killed themselves. During the final convulsions of the Japanese Empire, while Yamato was sailing toward certain destruction, hundreds of Japanese pilots were trying to hurl their airplanes or rocket ships into American ships engaged in the climatic battle of Okinawa.
Battleships past their prime
Author Morris displays three battleship models on her desk – the British Prince of Wales, the German Bismark, and the Japanese Yamato. All three were launched in 1940 but all three were gone by the end of the war. The Prince of Wales and Yamato were sunk by air power, and the Bismark was grievously wounded by aircraft. Only the Bismark managed a brief flash of naval glory when it sank the British battle cruiser Hood and damaged the Prince of Wales three days before it was sunk itself. Prince of Wales and Yamato lived out even more ignominious careers. Neither battleship recorded major victories for their countries and spent their lifespans mostly dodging aerial bombs, until they didn’t dodge well enough.
The big bad one
Hitler was infamous for wanting big, bigger and biggest of weapons and installations. He was very pleased with Bismark’s impressive specifications. Apparently unknown to Hitler and the rest of the world, the Japanese were launching the biggest battleship in history, bigger than Bismark by orders of magnitude. Yamato and her sister ship, Musashi, each weighed 73,000 tons and were 863 feet long, three-quarters of the length of the Empire State Building. Their main armament was 18-inch guns, the largest ever mounted on a ship. The canons could propel a car-sized shell 26 miles.
Yamato was so large, oversized drydocks, special transport ships and other facilities had to be constructed at the naval base of Kure, on the Inland Sea only 10 miles southeast of Hiroshima. Yamato was undeniably beautiful, sleek, or “rakish” as Morris describes it. For some reason, the Japanese took great pains after the surrender to destroy records and almost all photographs of Yamato. What a shame. The best remaining print is one of the mega-ship virtually hydroplaning through the salt spray during its sea trials in 1941, probably at its top speed of 27 or 28 knots. Of course the view through an American submarine periscope (Yamato absorbed a few torpedo hits during its career) or from on high in a Navy plane was much more sinister.
Yamato suffered from a very big problem: it was obsolete before it launched. Not obsolete technology necessarily (Japanese designers used revolutionary shipbuilding techniques to make the most heavily armored and armed vessel in the world also very fast), but obsolescence in its reason for existence and mission. Old-school Japanese admirals designed Yamato and Musashi to help win the expected climatic shoot-out with American battleships. That battle never came. Instead the Pacific war became a carrier war. Yamato was left without a job except to serve as the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but even that title was transferred to Musashi in 1943.
So what do you do with a mega-battleship that carries an ancient name for Japan itself but has no mission to speak of? You move it around and try to protect it from sinking. And that’s what the Japanese did. In a series of desultory assignments, Yamato was moved back and forth between its “home” of Kure to various island bases, mainly the naval center of Truk island. The battleship finally saw some action late in 1944 but nothing that changed the outcome of a sea battle. The Japanese knew exactly what was Yamato’s biggest nemesis. Each time the ship returned to Kure for repairs, more and more anti-aircraft batteries were added, even filling the giant forward deck, or forecastle with guns. Sister ship Musashi was sunk in late 1944 by American aircraft. And a third Yamato-class battleship was converted to a giant aircraft carrier called Shinano, but it was sunk by a submarine on its maiden voyage.
Death before dishonor
Morris’s book carefully tracks Yamato’s last days, even her last minutes. It is April 1945. Okinawa, only 900 miles from Tokyo, has been invaded. The Imperial Japanese Navy must do something to help the desperate defenders. Yamato and nine escorts set sail on April 6 and leave the relatively safe confines of the Inland Sea to head on a roundabout course toward Okinawa. On board the behemoth is a small thatched Shinto shrine where sailors can pause and worship as they pass by. The crew gets a treat, a last meal if you will, of beans and dumplings, as it cruises toward its fate. If the mega-ship makes it to Okinawa it is supposed to ground itself on shore and become a mega-fortress. But Morris describes the inevitability of the ship’s final doomed cruise.
The Japanese love lyrical names for their warships and military operations, which fits perfectly with the sublime narrative of the Morris book. The final mission is code-named Operation Ten-ichi-go (Operation Heaven Number One). Other ships in the 10-vessel fleet carry names in Japanese meaning “Wind on the Beach” (Isokaze), “Snowy Wind” (Yukikaze), “Winter Moon” (Fuyuzuki), and “First Frost” (Hatsushimo). But the small fleet with the misleadingly peaceful names is spotted immediately by American submarines and aircraft.
An article in Warfare History Network about the Yamato sinking relates an irony-filled story about the encounter with the American submarines. I love whimsy so I will repeat here. The subs communicate with each other and their headquarters in plain English. On board the light cruiser Yahagi leading the nine escort ships is Radio Officer Ensign Shigeo Yamada. Yamada is a Nisei, born in Idaho to Japanese immigrants. He was stuck in Japan when war broke out and was given a choice – serve in the Japanese military or go to prison as a spy. As a fluent English speaker, he listens to the chatter of the American submarines and reports to his superiors they have identified Yamato, which the Americans call “King Battleship.” Yamada survives the sinking of the Yahagi and after the war rises to a senior position with Japan Air Lines.
American admirals Spruance and Mitscher are discussing (some say arguing) what to do about the oncoming enemy. Admiral Spruance gives in and signals Mitscher, “You take them,” Morris writes. Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher is a naval savant. Like German General Heinz Guderian, who invented blitzkrieg, Mitscher perfected the concept of the “fast carrier task force.” Armed with new, fast aircraft carriers carrying hundreds of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes, his Task Force 58 can attack and destroy any target in the Pacific.
The small Japanese fleet is totally without air cover on the morning of April 7, 1945, even though hundreds of kamikaze fighters are nearby swarming American ships around Okinawa.
Morris compares Yamato’s last battle to Pablo Picasso’s famous painting of war-stricken “Guernica.” Both the sea battle and the painting depict utter chaos in Morris’s view. Mitscher’s airplanes descend on the mega-ship shortly after noon. Three giant waves of torpedo planes and dive bombers send Yamato and five of the nine escort ships to the bottom. Twelve American airmen die along with more than 4,000 Japanese sailors, including all but 277 of Yamato’s crew of 3,332.
Yamato is hit by at least 11 torpedoes and six to eight bombs. She slowly fills with water while trying to avoid these weapons but finally capsizes and explodes with a huge cloud 4 miles high that can be seen 100 miles away.
It seems like all famous shipwrecks are eventually discovered, explored and photographed. None have been excavated and displayed to the extent of Titanic, which the underwater ghouls thoroughly looted and put on display for gawkers like me who stared at people’s boots and eyeglasses at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. When Yamato was discovered in 1985, mercifully she was allowed to rest in peace. There was some question about whether the thoroughly ruined wreck was actually the super battleship, but divers eventually discovered the distinctive chrysanthemum, symbol of the emperor, on the tip of the bow.