When Japan’s supership finally took aim at its intended enemy during history’s greatest naval battle, the result was not at all what the Japanese had envisioned.
Thursday morning, October 25, 1944, found the battleship Yamato steaming down the east coast of the Philippine island of Samar. The largest surface warship of its age was leading the Imperial Navy’s Center Force in a grand counterattack the Japanese hoped would change the course of the war.
The massive ship bespoke majesty, power, and national ambition, suggesting Titanic recast as a weapons platform. The Yamato was named for a province so ancient as to embody all things Japanese. Yet the Empire’s own sailors had sport with the battleship, nicknaming it Hotel Yamato for spending only one day away from anchor at Truk from August 1942 to May 1943. The Imperial Navy’s guiding doctrine of “decisive battle”—pulling a foe, specifically the United States, into a climactic fight in which Japan would prevail once and for all—infused the Yamato, commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor to deliver the coup de grace. The Yamato had seen scant action, but some Japanese believed that as long as the supership could fight, Japan could not fall.
No other Imperial Navy vessel had a crew as large as the Yamato’s 2,800 men. The big ship was 30,000 tons heavier, 120 feet longer, and broader abeam than Japan’s next-largest battleship, the Nagato, a comparison clear as the two headed south together as elements of Center Force. Harkening to the days of sail, the great ship’s lookouts had to climb more than 100 feet to keep watch from a pagoda-style conning tower and bridge wings, but the Yamato also had primitive radar. The 863-foot ship boasted nine 18.1-inch guns in three triple turrets, each the weight of a destroyer. The Yamato could make 27 knots—not as fast as America’s fast battleships, but still formidable.
And Center Force was aiming for glory: aboard the Yamato, the athletic and battle-seasoned Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita was commanding the power thrust of a pincer attack meant to throw back the Allied invasion taking place on the beaches of Leyte and, with luck, crush an American naval squadron or two at Leyte Gulf. In pursuing this opportunity for decisive battle, the Japanese had put their entire navy at risk. But in the next four hours they would let the chance slide away. That failure took place aboard the Yamato during the Battle off Samar, where amateurish mistakes and miscalculations triggered calamities no amount of steel or powder could overcome.
THE SUN ROSE AT 6:27 THAT MORNING. The wind, blowing east-northeast at 10 to 15 knots, had picked up, raising whitecaps on a sea otherwise rolling gently beneath mist and rain squalls. Visibility was just over 13 miles— a blink for an attacking torpedo plane or dive-bomber. Center Force was headed for Leyte, where the Allies had begun invading the Philippines on October 20, spurring a counterattack by not just the pride of the Imperial Navy but virtually all its battle vessels. Also steaming in to attack Leyte from the south was a second Japanese armada of 14 more ships, including two battleships and four cruisers, while a decoy fleet of six carriers and 11 screening vessels lured American naval support away to the north.
Center Force had departed Borneo on October 22, with the Yamato and sister supership Musashi in formation behind Admiral Kurita, leading aboard the heavy cruiser Atago. Kurita’s fleet included three standard battleships, nine more heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 15 destroyers. But within 24 hours, three heavy cruisers—including Kurita’s ship—were at the bottom, sunk by American torpedoes. Once Kurita was pulled from the water, he moved his flag to the Yamato and continued his advance, harried by enemy pilots. On October 23, in the Sibuyan Sea, American planes inflicted minor damage on the Yamato, took another heavy cruiser out of the fight, and, to the horror of the Japanese, sank Musashi. Admiral Kurita was sleeping badly, when he slept at all.
Kurita expected to encounter American aircraft as his fleet sped at 18 knots around Samar, the island just northeast of Leyte. Before dawn, he ordered his force, which he had arrayed to search for enemy surface ships, to regroup for antiaircraft defense, with destroyer squadrons spread to fend off aerial attackers before they could reach his capital ships. As the maneuver occurred, the Yamato’s radar detected American planes to the southeast.
Those first blips were followed, 20 minutes after sunrise, by a lookout’s report of seven masts on the southwest horizon and then two enemy planes. Kurita ordered preparations for maximum speed and sent a staff operations officer—a man who had not yet experienced a surface naval battle—to check the accuracy of the lookout’s report. While the officer was clambering up and down the conning tower, Yamato’s light antiaircraft guns briefly barked and chattered. The enemy planes disappeared into clouds. The officer returned, confirming what the lookout had said and identifying the enemy vessels as two fleet aircraft carriers. After viewing radar plots, a Yamato gunnery officer spoke of four or six flattops. Admiral Kurita sent his gunnery staffer to the ship’s gunnery control compartment, where this assessment was confirmed.
The report galvanized the brass. This seemed to identify an American fast carrier group. Seeing a heaven-sent opportunity, Kurita ordered the fleet to speed up. When the enemy turned away, he altered course and gave the order to commence firing. The Yamato’s six forward 18.1-inch guns thundered.
The surge into battle tangled the Yamato’s bridge in conflict. In the Imperial Navy, unit commanders often bypassed skippers to handle their flagships and issue direct orders, such as when to fire. Japanese naval engineering even reflected this: in other navies, a unit commander had his own deck, but Japanese heavy warships like the Yamato had a single bridge with the captain’s chair on the port side and a seat for an admiral in the starboard corner. By moving aboard the Yamato after Atago went down, Kurita effectively unseated Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, commander of the force’s Battleship Division 1, and added another command staff. Yet rather than relinquish command of Yamato, Ugaki proposed that he—not the senior and far more seasoned Kurita—direct the supership’s guns. Known for being aggressive and impatient, Ugaki had never captained a warship in a surface battle, though he had been chief of staff to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. (Ugaki was flying in a second plane on the trip that ended for Yamamoto when American pilots downed his aircraft, killing him.) Ugaki was the least experienced sailor on the Yamato’s crowded bridge, but he perceived Kurita as an accidental interloper on “his” vessel. The exhausted Kurita, feeling all of his 55 years, deferred to the peevish division commander.
The Yamato opened fire at a range of 16 miles—too far for gunners to track shots, even using pink marking dye. Their first salvo straddled but failed to strike the USS White Plains, part of Task Unit 77.4.3, or “Taffy 3,” commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. The Yamato gunnery officer’s estimate of four to six carriers had been on the mark: Taffy 3 did have six flattops—but, like the White Plains, they were small, thin-skinned escort or “jeep” carriers, not full-size fleet models.
Sprague also had three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. When the Yamato opened fire, he ordered all ships to create smoke screens and turn away from the enemy. Not until smoke began to billow did Yamato lookouts notice Taffy 3’s escorts. An observer aboard reported seeing four or five “cruisers” plus escorts. Lookouts soon added an enemy “battleship” to the list. Japanese spotters had not correctly pegged a single enemy vessel.
THE YAMATO FIRED FOUR SALVOES, which even amid the mist and smokescreens an observer in a floatplane might have been able to track—but the big ship did not launch a plane until much later. Firing likely ceased at four volleys because the big guns were being switched from eyesight aim to radar. But while the crew was doing so, American aircraft attacked the Yamato.
In defiance of protocol, Kurita ordered his entire force to pursue Sprague’s warships, a pell-mell advance that historians invariably lambast for throwing the Japanese formation into chaos. But Kurita’s order made some sense. In a standard fleet attack, vessels would maneuver into a battle line, each class of ship positioned just so relative to the others. At Samar, that would have taken too long. By unleashing subordinates to proceed at will, Kurita was allowing his cruisers, which were more than twice as fast as the American jeep carriers, to race ahead rather than plod in column behind the slower battleships. Critics also flay Kurita for not sending his destroyers to launch torpedoes. But earlier that fall the admiral had learned from fleet exercises at Singapore that destroyer torpedo attacks were useless against fast battleships and full-size carriers—the very sort of force the ill-informed Kurita thought he was facing.
Sprague’s fleeing ships used the spotty weather to their advantage, ducking into sudden rain squalls that cloaked their whereabouts much like smokescreens. After 10 minutes of fruitless pursuit, Kurita ordered his ships due east, then, at intervals, into four successive course alterations southward.
As the Japanese admiral was flailing and his targets were steaming away from him for everything they were worth, the American carriers’ companion vessels went on the attack. The destroyer USS Johnston suddenly broke out of the squalls, intending to loose torpedoes. Ugaki ordered the Yamato’s secondary batteries into action. Its main forward battery then joined in. The 6.1-inchers connected, as did the battleship Kongo’s 14-inch guns. Johnston appeared to be done for. Right after the Yamato prematurely recorded its sinking—extending Yamato lookouts’ losing streak by calling the destroyer a cruiser—American planes attacked again, and again did the battleship no damage.
Just before 8 a.m., an hour into the battle, the Americans turned the tables on the big ship when more “cruisers” burst from the smoke to attack. The Yamato’s 6.1-inch battery engaged one enemy vessel at a range of a little over five miles. That target disappeared after one salvo, but another attacker— identified, perhaps correctly, as a destroyer—appeared 7.5 miles to the southeast, and another, even closer, seemed to launch torpedoes. The Yamato’s 6.1-inch secondary battery aimed at the nearer attacker, probably the destroyer USS Hoel. The Yamato’s dual-purpose antiaircraft guns even opened up briefly, falling silent when lookouts spotted incoming torpedoes.
The giant ship turned hard left. This was a much-practiced evasion tactic called threading: when torpedoes approach broadside, a vessel pivots to present the smallest possible target. A successful thread sees attackers’ torpedoes pass harmlessly at either side of their objective. The Yamato’s maneuver worked. The American projectiles raced alongside. But instead of turning into the spread, which shortens the time of risk as target and torpedoes pass one another, the Yamato had turned away. Now its nearly 900-foot bulk was running with the tin fish, locked into a course the ship had to hold until the torpedoes disappeared. Holding steady due north, the Yamato spent 10 minutes—Ugaki later said it felt like a month—steaming away from the battle, with each yard reducing Kurita’s ability to control his fleet. The error carried the Japanese flagship nearly 10 miles from the fray. Following the detour, Kurita launched a reconnaissance plane, whose signal vanished after 18 minutes.
In his diary, Ugaki blamed the wrong-way threading on the exhausted fleet commander. But Kurita, an expert ship handler, would have known threading away would sap his ability to command. At least one subsequent account has Kurita blaming the Yamato’s skipper, Rear Admiral Nobuei Morishita, for the misstep. But the battle-tested Morishita was as well versed as Kurita in threading; there is good reason to suspect the rudder order instead came from the novice ship driver Ugaki. He and Morishita died during the war, however, so the truth remains at large.
CLEAR OF THE TORPEDOES, the Yamato returned to the battle, and at 8:22 its monster guns spoke again, firing southeast at an enemy lookouts identified as a battleship. A carrier burned in the distance. Crews on Yamato’s 6.1-inch guns claimed to have destroyed a cruiser as the Yamato was nearing the USS Gambier Bay, a jeep carrier disabled by a round from the heavy cruiser Chikuma. More carrier sightings followed—to the southeast a unit of three, another afire to the west-southwest. The stricken Gambier Bay sank, leaving flotsam and survivors in the big ship’s path. Kurita launched another floatplane, which American pilots chased as the Yamato sped through the wreckage, straining at 20 knots toward an enemy force that lookouts claimed to have spotted. When two Avengers released torpedoes at the Yamato, once more the battleship turned north, again threading away from the fight.
Ever since that first blundering turn-away, Kurita had felt out of touch. Then he got word from the other two Japanese fleets: the Japanese force intended to join the battle from the south had been obliterated the night before, and spotty reports from the harried decoy fleet suggested that American battleships loomed. Now the admiral issued his most fateful order, telling the fleet to join him heading north. Regrouping with the Yamato forced the other Japanese heavy ships to quit the chase; one cruiser unit was about to flank and trap Sprague’s slower ships when it relented. Spotting another American carrier, Kurita briefly reversed course to the southwest, toward the flattop and Leyte Gulf. But after less than half an hour, during which the Yamato took two hits from American 5-inch guns, he ordered his fleet into cruising formation steaming north—ostensibly to pursue an American carrier unit off San Bernardino Strait.
The Yamato had emerged from the Battle off Samar with only light damage. In the big fight of October 25, the ship’s 18.1-inch gun crews had expended 100 rounds plus 24 antiaircraft shells, and the 6.1-inch guns another 174 projectiles, against an American fleet of six jeep carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. Eleven Japanese sailors were killed, six seriously wounded, and 31 suffered slight wounds—not as many casualties as Yamato would incur the next day, fleeing Philippine waters as American aircraft swarmed like angry hornets, with 40 to 50 planes attacking at a time. Kurita never regained contact with the American fleet, and he finally ordered a withdrawal. Four more of Japan’s precious heavy cruisers and one light cruiser perished before Center Force reached safety at Brunei Bay on October 28.
THE YAMATO HAD DEBUTED in a decisive battle, but not the one its creators had imagined. Leyte Gulf cost the Imperial Navy 26 warships, and ultimately a paltry fleet had held the supership at bay—a grim augury for Japan and its ultimate dreadnought. Less than six months later, having been reduced to a suicide voyage in the defense of Okinawa, the Yamato was at the bottom of the sea, sunk by American bombs and torpedoes.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.