When the Emperor Hirohito, the supreme leader in Japan, was informed of the Army’s plans for the defence of Okinawa in March 1945, he asked “Where is the Navy?” Admiral Toyoda, Commander of the Combined Fleet, ordered the development of Operation Ten-Go as the navy’s contribution to Okinawa’s defence.
The plan became the last Japanese naval operation of the Pacific War, known as the Battle of the East China Sea.
Ten-ichi-go called for the remaining large warships, including the battleship Yamato, to fight their way to Okinawa, then beach themselves to fight as shore batteries until they were destroyed.
The ships left Kure for Tokuyama on 29 March. While obeying orders to prepare the mission, fleet commander Vice-Admiral Seiichi Ito, refused to order his ships to carry it out, having told Admiral Toyoda the plan was futile.
On 5 April, Vice Admiral Kusaka flew to Tokuyama to convince Ito and the others to accept the plan. When Kusaka finally explained things, Ito’s captains unanimously rejected it as a waste of lives and resources. Kusaka told them the emperor expected the navy to make their best effort; the commanders accepted the plan.
Crews were told the mission and given the chance to stay behind. None did.
The Yamato sets sail for Okinawa
At 16:00 on 6 April, the battleship Yamato, light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers departed Tokuyama.
US submarines Threadfin and Hackleback sighted them steaming through Bungo Suido Strait between Shikoku and Honshu and shadowed them.
That night, the flight crews of Task Force 58 – the main attack force of the US navy fleet in the Pacific War – were informed Yamato was coming. Crews aboard the carriers sweated in the hangar decks to load the Avengers with aerial torpedoes for the first time since training.
At dawn on 7 April, the Japanese passed Osumi Peninsula and headed into the open ocean, turning first southwest as if headed for Sasebo to throw off the submarines they knew were shadowing them.
An hour later, the ships turned south, headed toward Okinawa at 20 knots. Captain Tameichi Hara told the crew of Yahagi,
“Our mission appears suicidal and it is, but suicide is not the objective. The objective is victory.
Once this ship is crippled or sunk, do not hesitate to save yourselves for the next fight. We can commit suicide at any time. But we are going on this mission not to commit suicide but to win, and turn the tide of war.”
Task Force 58 prepares to engage
At 06:00, American search planes found the fleet. At 10:00, Admiral Ito ordered a turn to the west as if they were withdrawing. By 11:30 it was clear they could not evade the shadowing aircraft and they turned toward Okinawa.
Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Spruance received the first definite sighting reports shortly after 09:00. He ordered the fleet’s eight battleships to prepare for a surface engagement with Yamato.
Task Force 58 commander Admiral Mitscher ordered Task Group 58.1: Hornet, Bennington, Belleau Wood, and San Jacinto, and Task Group 58.3: Essex, Bunker Hill, Hancock and Bataan, to launch strike aircraft at 10:00.
400 Hellcat and Corsair fighters, Helldiver dive bombers, and Avenger torpedo bombers took off.
Once his planes were off, Mitscher told chief of staff Arleigh Burke to inform Spruance he intended to attack Yamato. “Will you take them or shall I?” Spruance replied: “You take them.”
Helldivers and Avengers attack
At 12:00, the first planes spotted Yamato and found there was no air cover. The Helldivers and Avengers circled and set up attacks. The Japanese spotted the Americans at 12:20.
They opened formation and increased speed as they passed through a heavy rain squall that gave momentary protection.
At 12:34, Yamato opened fire with her AA batteries. The fleet took evasive action while the attacking Avengers concentrated on Yamato and dropped their torpedoes on the port side, to increase the likelihood of Yamato capsizing.
10 minutes later, Yahagi took a torpedo hit directly in her engine room that stopped her. She was hit by six more torpedoes and 12 bombs. The destroyer Isokaze attempted to aid Yahagi but was immediately attacked and sank 30 minutes later.
During the first attacks, most of the bombs and torpedoes missed Yamato, but she was hit by two armour-piercing bombs and one torpedo. She maintained her speed but one bomb started a fire aft of the bridge.
VT-84’s Avengers arrived at 12:40. Spotting the battleship five miles away, they began circling.
Yamato hit by a barrage of torpedos
VT-84’s first torpedo hit Yamato at 1245, followed by two more and two bombs dropped from Helldivers that caused extensive damage and knocked out power to the anti-aircraft gun directors, forcing the gun crews to individually aim and fire their weapons.
By 13:35, her speed was reduced to 18 knots.
Between 13:37 and 13:44, five more torpedoes struck, putting Yamato in imminent danger of capsizing. At 13:33, the damage control team deliberately flooded both starboard (right) engine and boiler rooms in a desperate attempt to prevent capsizing by balancing the ship, drowning several hundred of their own crew.
Yamato slowed to 10 knots. At that moment, 110 aircraft of the last wave arrived and 20 Avengers from Bennington made a run. Yamato started a turn to port (left) but three torpedoes hit the port side amidships, jamming her auxiliary rudder hard to port.
By 13:45, Captain Hara counted 13 bombs and seven torpedoes had hit Yahagi, which listed 30 degrees to port with waves washing over her main deck. Two of the eight escorting destroyers were already sunk while three others were afire, dead in the water.
At 14:05, Rear Admiral Komura turned to Hara and announced, “Let’s go.” They removed their shoes and jumped overboard. As they did, Yahagi went down, creating a whirlpool that took Hara down with her for several minutes before he managed to return to the surface.
Yamato was swarmed by enemy aircraft. She had taken 11 torpedoes and moved slowly. At 14:02, Admiral Ito was informed she could no longer steer and was sinking. He ordered the crew to abandon ship. At 14:05, Yamato started to capsize.
Ito shook hands with Captain Aruga and the other senior officers on the bridge who refused to leave, and went into his cabin. Aruga ordered Ensign Mitsuru Yoshida to leave when the young officer attempted to join them.
At 14:20, Yamato capsized. At 14:23 the fire reached the magazine and she suddenly blew up with an explosion so large it was heard and seen 120 miles away in Kagoshima, with a mushroom-cloud that rose to 20,000 feet.
Ensign Yoshida, who had been pulled under, was blasted to the surface by the explosion and later reported the explosion knocked down several planes watching the sinking.
Asashimo was bombed and sunk attempting to return to port, while Kasumi was scuttled. Despite her bow being blown off, Suzutzuki made it to Sasebo by steaming in reverse.
Fuyutsuki, Yukikaze, and Hatsushimo rescued 269 Yamato survivors from a total crew of 2,750, as well as 555 Yahagi survivors of a crew of 1,000 and 800 from Isokaze, Hamakaze, and Kasumi, all of whom were taken to Sasebo.
American losses were ten aircraft shot down and 12 aircrew.
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is a writer, screenwriter, pilot, and aviation history enthusiast who writes about World War Two. Tidal Wave: From Leyte Gulf to Tokyo Bay was published on 31 May 2018, by Osprey Publishing, and is available from all good book stores.