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Who decided to send Japan's battleship Yamato on ill-fated WWII suicide mission?

The battleship Yamato is seen exploding, and sinking, in this file photo from April 7, 1945. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Seventy-six years ago, on April 7, 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy vessel Yamato, the world's largest battleship, was sunk by U.S. military aircraft. It had been deployed on a Surface Special Attack Force suicide mission to drive back U.S. forces that had landed on Okinawa. Of its 3,332-person crew, just 276 survived.

    Why did Japan's reckless "special attack" strategy, referring to suicide missions, go ahead amid strong internal opposition in the Imperial Japanese Navy? Facts uncovered by research and other findings in recent years have begun to unravel the mystery.

    The Yamato was completed on Dec. 16, 1941. It measured 263 meters long, had a maximum width of 38.9 meters and a standard displacement of 65,000 metric tons, making it the world's largest battleship at the time. It had nine main guns capable of firing shells weighing about 1.5 tons each. Its maximum firing range was 42 kilometers. The size and range of its cannons outclassed other countries' battleships of the day.

    But while it was referred to as the strongest vessel in the world, the rapid development in military aircraft capabilities saw its tactical value fall. The Yamato reached the final stages of the war with almost no military achievements to its name. It also consumed vast amounts of fuel, gradually making it a burden on Japan's military operations. Special attacks from aircraft had already begun, leading to an atmosphere in the Imperial Navy of skepticism as to what maritime forces were doing.

    Amid these circumstances, 10 craft including the Yamato were ordered by the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy to set out on a suicide mission to Okinawa.

    The late Yoshito Shimizu, who was the Yamato's deputy head gunner, told a journalist when he was alive that "it was like the characters for 'special attack' stood out on the page." Shimizu recalled, "Vice commander (Jiro) Nomura showed me a copy of the orders," recounting how Nomura explained to the men that they would be conducting a suicide mission.

    Another former soldier said, "I clearly heard the words 'special attack.' Vice Commander Nomura said, 'Please give me your lives.'" The solder was just 22 at the time, and remembers thinking, "Is this it?" and asking himself, "Why was I ever born?" Another former soldier said, "It was like receiving a death sentence."

    It's thought that statements by the Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) influenced the decision to launch the special attack. On March 26, 1945, Koshiro Oikawa, Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff, met personally with the Emperor. Records pertaining to Emperor Showa released by the Imperial Household Agency in September 2014 read, "Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff will meet with the Emperor at the Gobunko (the Emperor's shelter on the Imperial Palace grounds during World War II). Furthermore, at 11:02 a.m., Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet will order the initiation of Operation Ten-ichi-go."

    Operation Ten-ichi-go's main component was suicide plane attacks on the path toward Okinawa. It appears that Oikawa explained the details of the plan. But the records do not contain accounts of the conversation had between Oikawa and Emperor Showa.

    The battleship Yamato is seen sailing in waters off Kochi Prefecture, in this file photo taken Oct. 20, 1941.

    Nevertheless, an account of the exchange is present in the diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, published in English as "Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-1945." Ugaki served in positions including as Combined Fleet Chief of Staff, and boarded the Yamato during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.

    On April 7, 1945, the day the Yamato was sunk, he wrote in his diary: "The main cause leading to this point is that when reporting to the Emperor, the President of the Naval General Staff has answered questions about the ability for all-out attack by the naval fleet with answers that it would use all of the Imperial Navy's military power."

    When Oikawa explained the Okinawa strategy to the Emperor, the Emperor is said to have asked questions to the effect of "Just the aviation corps?" While the Emperor did not specifically ask what the naval forces were doing, Oikawa surmised the Emperor's thoughts, and it is this decision which appears to have led to the Yamato being involved in the suicide mission.

    In the assault, the Yamato went on the attack as a "naked battleship" with barely any protection from aircraft. After just two hours of fighting, it and five other ships had been sunk. More than 4,000 people died in the fighting, on par with the fatalities from the air force's special attacks.

    It appears the Showa Emperor had high hopes for the Yamato. It appears that the Emperor regretted it sinking in a reckless tactical move based on his personal records, which document him saying, "The fact that the much-valued Yamato was deployed on that occasion, without contact with aircraft, made it a failure," and, "It was an inconsistent strategy, and a ridiculous battle."

    It could be said that tactics that led to the loss of the Yamato are emblematic of the ruling figures' irresponsibility in starting a war knowing they could not win and continuing to fight even when defeat was inevitable.

    (Japanese original by Toshio Kurihara, Cultural News Department)

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