By early 1945, the Japanese Empire was shrinking daily and the war had reached its home shores. Less than three and half years after Pearl Harbor, American industrial might was on full display. And it was never more apparent than during the Battle of Okinawa.
The once-proud Japanese Imperial Navy that Americans feared would threaten the West Coast, was largely driven across the Pacific and now operated mainly from its home waters. The Americans’ bloody island-hopping campaign, which had begun in the southern Solomon Islands in 1942, had grown as the Americans swept across the Gilberts, the Solomons, and, after the battles in Leyte Gulf and the Philippine Sea, were on the cusp of Japan herself.
When the U.S. invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the Japanese had no naval answer to the invasion force. Japanese naval leaders briefed Emperor Hirohito on their plans, which consisted of massive air attacks, including kamikaze strikes. The shocked emperor then asked, “But what about the Navy? What are they doing to assist in defending Okinawa? Have we no more ships?”
So, the admirals concocted what they termed, “Operation Ten-Go” (Operation Heaven One). They would launch the world’s largest battleship, the Yamato with its enormous 18-inch guns, one light cruiser, and eight destroyers against the enormous American fleet. The American invasion fleet had, besides a heavy battleship contingent consisting of six battleships (Massachusetts, Indiana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Missouri), seven cruisers (including the large cruisers Alaska and Guam) and 21 destroyers. But the Americans also had a battle group of eight aircraft carriers (Hornet, Bennington, Belleau Wood, San Jacinto; TG 58.3 Essex, Bunker Hill, Hancock, and Bataan) that were covering the landings.
The Japanese admiral in charge of Operation Ten-Go, Vice-Admiral Seiichi Itō, disagreed with the plan which essentially was to sail into teeth of the American fleet without the benefit of any air cover and then beach on Okinawa and operate as a static defense in support of the island. He considered it a waste of good men and ships. But the mission was approved and the Japanese ships set sail for Okinawa.
The result was arguably the largest suicide mission in history.
As soon as the Japanese fleet left port on April 6 at 1600 hours, and proceeded through the Bungo Strait, (many WWII film buffs will recall the strait from “Run Silent, Run Deep”), they were immediately picked up by two American submarines (Hackleback and Threadfin). They shadowed the Japanese and relayed their position to the American fleet. The element of surprise was gone for the Japanese.
By dawn on April 7, Asashimo, one of the destroyers developed engine trouble and started heading back to port in Japan. At this point, the Japanese task force’s location had been picked up by American PBM flying boats, which kept the American fleet apprised of the Japanese’s position and direction.
The U.S. 5th Fleet commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, ordered Task Force 54, which consisted mostly of the battleships under Rear Admiral Morton Deyo, to move in and engage the Japanese task force. But even as Deyo was deploying his force, Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, the commander of Task Force 58 (TF 58), acting completely on his own without orders from Spruance, launched a massive airstrike using all eight of his carriers to attempt to strike a deathblow.
Mitscher correctly assumed that the Japanese were operating without air cover and would be sitting ducks for his huge airwing. At 1000 hours he launched a total of 386 aircraft consisting of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. Spruance was informed of it only after the aircraft had taken off. He gave the go-ahead for the strike but ordered the battlewagons to proceed in the event the Japanese fleet got through the airstrike.
By noon, the Corsair and Hellcat fighters arrived over the Yamato group, looking for fighters protecting the Japanese, and finding none waited for the dive bombers and torpedo planes to arrive. The massive air group circled just out of range of the anti-aircraft guns of the Japanese.
Japanese lookouts spotted the American air armada at 1232 hours and soon opened fire with Yamato’s 18-inch guns firing San Shiki anti-aircraft shells that were wildly inaccurate. The fighters attacked first, strafing the anti-aircraft guns on the decks with machine guns and rockets. The Hell Divers then plummeted straight down dropping armor-piercing bombs, clearing the way for the Avenger torpedo bombers that came in low and slow to try to put torpedoes on the target.
The light cruiser Yahagi was the first hit, less than fifteen minutes after the firing began. A torpedo stopped her dead in the water and killed the entire engine compartment crew. The destroyer Isokaze attempted to come to her aid but was heavily damaged and driven off. She sunk shortly after. The Yahagi was too tempting a target for the hundreds of attacking aircraft. They pounced on her like sharks in the water. She was blasted by 12 bombs and six more torpedos. Yahagi capsized and sank shortly after 1400.
The first wave of the attack resulted in two bomb and one torpedo hits on the Yamato which had increased her speed to flank in an attempt to make her a harder target to hit. Two other destroyers were heavily damaged, one, the Hamakaze later sank.
The second and third waves of the American attacks pummeled Yamato. She was blasted by 15 bomb hits and eight torpedoes. With the ship in danger of capsizing, the damage control parties counter-flooded the starboard engines and boiler rooms at 1333 hours, drowning hundreds of crew members who were unaware of the move.
This slowed Yamato down to 10 knots and made her a sitting duck. With nearly all of her anti-aircraft guns out of action, the Avenger torpedo planes wreaked havoc. Another 110 planes appeared ready for the kill. Lieutenant J.G. John Carter, was in a perfect position to watch what unfolded. He saw four Avengers go in low, dropping their torpedoes in a spread on Yamato’s beam. “As luck would have it,” he said, “the big ship was turning to port, thereby exposing the full broadside expanse of her enormous hull to the converging torpedoes.”
Yamato was hit with three more torpedoes. With the steering locked to port and the ship doomed, Admiral Ito at 1402 hours ordered the crew to abandon ship. At 1423 as she began to capsize, the raging fires onboard ignited her magazines and the resultant explosion unleashed a huge mushroom cloud that rose to 20,000 feet and took out a few American planes that were overhead. The explosion was heard over 120 miles away. Ito and Captain Aruga went down with the ship.
Two more destroyers were lost: the Asashimo, which was raked by bomb hits as it was returning to Japan and sank killing its entire crew; and the Kasumi that was heavily damaged and later scuttled. The remaining destroyers tried to pick up as many survivors as possible and limped back to Japan.
The engagement was an unmitigated disaster for the Japanese. They lost their best battleship, a cruiser, and four destroyers along with nearly 4,200 sailors. They withheld the news from the public. Breaking the news to the Emperor, a Japanese admiral was asked, “what about the fleet?” The admiral had to admit, the Japanese fleet had ceased to exist as a fighting formation.
The Americans lost a total of only 10 aircraft — four Helldivers, three Avengers, and three Hellcats — and 12 men. Some who were shot down were later picked up by seaplanes or submarines.
The age of the battleship was over forever. The age of the carrier was now confirmed.