TOKYO -- When the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato weighed anchor in Tokuyama Bay off Yamaguchi Prefecture on the afternoon of April 6, 1945, bound for the waters around Okinawa, its commanders did not expect to return. The largest and most fearsome vessel of its kind on Earth, the Yamato and its crew were to fight and perish in a final titanic struggle against approaching Allied forces.
But it was not just the dire military situation that prompted the order to send the Yamato on its one-way trip. There were other reasons, including that the battleship had become somewhat of an anachronism and difficult to use, and that top military officers had taken it upon themselves to judge what the Emperor wanted them to do.
The battleship set sail in a flotilla of 10 vessels, including the Yahagi, Hamakaze, Asashimo, and Isokaze. At 6 p.m. that day, the Yamato's executive officer Jiro Nomura gathered the crew on the foredeck. There was a ceremony, the sailors bowing first in the direction of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, and then individually toward their hometowns. One surviving veteran told me, "I wasn't afraid of dying, but I became sad when it occurred to me, 'I won't be able to see the cherry blossoms ever again.'"
The Yamato flotilla had virtually no air cover. The Imperial Japanese Navy's powerful mobile task forces like the strike group that had attacked Pearl Harbor had all crumbled by this point in the Pacific War. Just 10 or so aircraft had been detailed to protect the small fleet; days on end of "tokko" air attacks -- better known in English as "kamikaze" attacks -- had left the Japanese military denuded of fighter planes.
Hidemi Fujiwara, on watch on the Yamato's bridge, spotted a group of U.S. warplanes bearing down on the flotilla at about 12:40 p.m. on April 7. That was just the first wave. In total, there turned out to be 113 of them; 52 fighters, 21 bombers, and 40 torpedo bombers.
Before his death, Fujiwara and some others recalled that there were many low clouds that day, and "the U.S. planes got close by hiding among them." They would appear suddenly, release their bombs or torpedoes, and disappear again. The Yamato pumped out a steady stream of antiaircraft fire, but "we brought down so few of the enemy. It was very frustrating," said Fujiwara. Then, a U.S. bomber dropped its load virtually right in front of him, the bomb ripping into the ship near the rear mast.
The Yamato flotilla was targeted by wave after wave of U.S. Navy planes. The battleship's decks were overcome by fire. Then, at 2:23 p.m., the great ship was rocked by an enormous explosion, and sank. It had only made it halfway to its destination, Okinawa still some 500 kilometers away. The Yamato may have been "the most powerful warship in the world" if it had been confronted by another battleship, but it took just under two hours to succumb to sustained air attack.
The Yahagi, Isokaze, and other ships in the flotilla were also sent to the sea floor. All told, about 4,000 personnel lost their lives on the doomed mission. The U.S. lost three torpedo bombers, three fighters, and four bombers, sustaining 12 dead.
Of course, the blame for the loss of all those ships and men does not lie with the rank-and-file sailors. That responsibility belongs to the senior officers who devised the dead-end mission. Some of those officers, who survived the war, spent the years after the surrender telling people repeatedly that it had been "the sailors' will" to go. But among the survivors, not a single man has said he was asked if he wanted to join a "tokko" mission. The cruise into that final conflagration had nothing to do with their wishes or desires; it was an order, cold and unbreakable.
On April 8, the day after the Yamato had sunk before even getting close to its mission, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters proclaimed the "tokko" naval groups' "military successes." It was a complete fabrication. Indeed, the Yamato's doomed mission was criticized harshly from both within and without the fleet. In fact, some testified later that the entire seaborne "tokko" strategy around Okinawa had been thrown together in a rush, essentially on the spur of the moment. That bright idea, hastily executed, led to the useless deaths of thousands of outstanding sailors.
Questioned by Emperor Hirohito, then Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai said that the flotilla "did not have enough fuel, training or preparation" to undertake its mission. "There was also insufficient coordination with air units. The plan was slipshod, lacked flexibility, and was inappropriate," Yonai's evaluation continued.
But it appears that Emperor Hirohito had high expectations for the Yamato. That the ship should be lost on such a reckless mission must have been a bitter pill to swallow. After World War II, the Emperor said, "Our much-valued Yamato was deployed at this time but without communications with aircraft, and that is why it failed." He added, "With strategy out of step, it was an idiotic battle."
But how would the 4,000 soldiers who died feel if they heard Emperor Hirohito's words? Would they not say that it was the politicians and senior officers -- those men who started an unwinnable war against the United States and Britain and, even after it became painfully clear Japan would be defeated, let the fighting drag on -- who were "idiotic"?
It is commonly believed that the Yamato only had fuel for a one-way trip to Okinawa, but it appears that all the ships in the flotilla were in fact originally carrying enough to get back to mainland Japan. When the Combined Fleet first floated the plan, the reaction of the Navy General Staff -- which oversaw the Navy as a whole -- was lukewarm. The Combined Fleet then issued an order for the flotilla to carry only enough fuel to reach Japan's southernmost prefecture.
However, the staff officer in charge of allotting fuel thought that "even if there is indeed little chance of the ships returning, only giving them enough fuel for one way is not in keeping with the samurai spirit." He then apparently laid on enough fuel to get the flotilla home.
The Yamato was provided with 4,000 metric tons of heavy oil scraped together from sources off the Combined Fleet's books -- enough to get the battleship back to Japan. Its escort destroyers did not have enough heavy oil for the round trip, and made up the difference by substituting soybean and other oil. There is testimony surviving that the ships' smokestacks "smelled like boiling beans."
There is a tendency to tell the stories of the "tokko" units as moving, heroic tales; to say that those who died "gave their lives to protect their loved ones and their country." But that is only one side of the reality.
There are many young people who died without ever wanting to join a "tokko" unit. There is another, significant side to the story; men who were sacrificed on irrational missions planned by senior officers, in a reckless war launched by politicians. The Yamato flotilla's "tokko" mission was, by the Navy's own admission, a failure. It is, I think we can say, a symbol of Japan's mad war.
The Yamato's story will likely keep being told, far into the future. But the telling must not stop at the heroism and pathos. There is so much more to it than that.
(Japanese original by Toshio Kurihara, Cultural News Department)