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Sunday, Dec. 25, 2005


The stuff of legend

Special to The Japan Times

She was named after the capital of Japan's first court. She was said by her crew to be more beautiful than a woman. She was the largest battleship in the world. She was the Yamato.

Her keel was laid in 1937 at the Kure Naval Shipyard in Hiroshima Prefecture, and she was completed on Dec. 16, 1941, 10 days after Pearl Harbor. She was the culmination of faith in big ships bristling with great guns. She stretched 263 meters stem to stern, measured 38.9 meters at the beam, and displaced 65,500 tons -- nearly twice that of the battleships HMS King George V and USS Washington, completed in 1940 and 1941, respectively. She so dwarfed the Nagato and Mutsu, battleships of the previous Japanese class, that a U.S. patrol plane that later spotted her and Mutsu steaming in formation radioed "one battleship and one cruiser sighted."

The Yamato had been constructed as a platform for the world's largest naval guns, with a bore 46 cm (18.1 inches) in diameter and barrels weighing 160 tons each. The ship mounted these in two triple-gun turrets forward and one aft. A turret alone was 2,774 tons, and with three guns it outweighed a destroyer of the day.

The gun, with a maximum range of 41,000 meters, packed tremendous destructive power. Its 1,460-kg shell could pierce a 23-cm-thick steel plate at 35 km. A round fired at 45-degree elevation reached an altitude twice the height of Mount Fuji. Fired at 40-second intervals, the nine guns could unleash 2,000 tons of ordinance in 10 minutes.

The blueprint for the Yamato was drawn up in 1934. The Imperial Navy had not built a battleship since the Mutsu, in 1921, because the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited capital-ship tonnage. Construction of the Yamato was motivated by the imminent expiration of the treaty, at the end of 1936, and a desire to catch up with the United States.

Construction was begun in secret. Four Yamato-class battleships were planned. But besides the eponymous vessel, only one other was built -- the Musashi, which was completed at Nagasaki in May 1942 and sunk on Oct. 24, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines. Only after the war did the Americans learn the size of the class's main guns.

The Yamato -- with a top speed of 27 knots and a cruising range of 7,200 nautical miles -- answered the desire for a ship with the world's greatest firepower. America's capital ships had 41-cm guns with a maximum range of 38,000 meters. Japanese naval architects estimated that a ship armed with eight 46-cm guns must have a beam exceeding 33.53 meters, the width of the Panama Canal's locks. Hence strategists reckoned that America would not build warships of a dimension that would bottle them up in one ocean, and nor would the country have the resources to build ships for two oceans. The Yamato class was the trump in an anticipated shipbuilding race with America.

Not all senior officers agreed with these shipbuilding priorities. Isoroku Yamamoto, later the mastermind of Pearl Harbor, pressed for construction of carriers in the belief aircraft would render battlewagon slugfests obsolete. No ship, he argued, was impregnable to aerial bombardment. He was disregarded. "[The Yamato] is of no use," he later said. "Like the figurine that is a centerpiece in an alcove, it can perhaps serve to raise morale."

The Yamato sailed into her maiden battle on June 5, 1942, as Yamamoto's flagship at the Battle of Midway. But the carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were ablaze as the Yamato sped toward Midway from a position 800 nautical miles northwest. Once Yamamoto received the report that the carrier Hiryu, too, was crippled, he called off the operation. The world's greatest battleship wheeled around without its big guns firing a single round.

The Yamato's 46-cm guns were first fired in anger at the Battle of Samar, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, on Oct. 25, 1944. She reportedly sank one U.S. carrier and three destroyers. But Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita lost three heavy cruisers, and courage, withdrawing his fleet rather than risk a climatic battle.

The Yamato sailed from Tokuyama in Yamaguchi Prefecture on a suicide mission on April 6, 1945. She had orders to run aground and serve as a shore battery to attack the U.S. fleet which was supporting a landing on Okinawa's west side.

However, she was detected by American submarines on the 7th. She and her escorts came under attack by about 200 planes at 1000 and by approximately 130 planes at 1300. She took 20 hits. A torpedo that struck her port side delivered the coup de grace. She capsized and her aft magazines detonated, sinking 200 km from Okinawa at 1423. Only 269 of some 3,333 men believed to be aboard survived.

The Yamato's fate was a final vindication of Yamamoto's advocacy of air power. After Yamamoto was killed in 1943 when his plane was shot down by U.S. fighters, navy men were saying, "The three great follies of the world were the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids -- and the battleship Yamato."

But by then it was too late; the dice had been cast in 1934.

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