The Japanese defenders of Okinawa were not quite alone. On the 6th April the Japanese decided to make one more attempt to support them. Intended to be a knockout blow they assembled over 300 planes for an assault on the US Fleet of over 1000 ships assembled off Okinawa. Their targets were the aircraft carriers and battleships – but the main casualties were amongst the destroyers forming a protective picket on the edge of the fleet.
At the same time another suicide mission was launched, Operation Ten Go. The battleship Yamato, at 72,800 tonnes with nine 46 cm (18.1 inch) main guns, was (with her sister ship Musashi, sunk in October 1944) the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever constructed. She was now given sufficient fuel to reach Okinawa with orders to cause as much havoc as possible.
It had been the Japanese who had demonstrated the vulnerability of capital ships in the age of naval air power with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in 1941. Now Yamato was despatched without any air cover at all. It was inevitable that she would face assault from the massed planes of the US Fifth Fleet. Despite the fact she had 150 anti-aircraft guns the odds were not in her favour.
Yamato had been spotted by US submarines leaving port on the 6th and planes had begun shadowing her at 1000 on the 7th. At 1200 squadrons of Hellcat and Corsair fighters arrived overhead to deal with any Japanese plans escorting her – there were none. Shortly afterwards the first wave of over 280 Helldiver dive bombers, and Avenger torpedo bombers began their attack.
On board was junior officer Yoshida Mitsuru:
1220 hours: our air search radar picks up three blips, each apparently a large formation.
In his usual guttural voice Petty Officer Hasegawa, chief of the antiaircraft radar room, gives a running commentary on their range and bearing. “Contacts. Three large formations. Approaching.”
On the instant we send out emergency signals to every ship in the task force.
Each ship increases its speed to twenty-five knots. As one, they turn. “100 degrees exact.” (Without changing its shape, the formation turns simultaneously onto a course of 100 degrees.)
Once the P.A. passes on word of the approaching planes, the ship, quiet already, becomes quieter still. As the radar tracks the blips, the data is transmitted to us moment by moment over the voice tube: … range 30,000 meters, bearing 160 degrees … second raid, range 25,000 meters, bearing 85 degrees…
How many times, in target practice, have we conducted such tracking? I am possessed by the illusion that we have already experienced searches under the same conditions, with the same battle positions, even with the same mood.
What is going on before my very eyes, indisputably, is actual combat — but how can I possibly convince myself of that fact?
The blips are not an imagined enemy but an enemy poised for the kill. The location: not our training waters, but hostile waters.
Nevertheless, as I pass the reports along mechanically, I am nonchalant, proceed too much by routine. A battle against aircraft – it is at hand! All the lookouts focus on the bearings of the approaching raids. At this moment a light rain shrouds the ocean like a mist; visibility is now at its worst.
The moment we spot the American planes will probably be the moment they attack. 1232 hours: the gruff voice of the second watch – “Two Grummans, port 25 degrees, elevation 8 degrees, range 4,000 meters. Moving right.”
Quickly I spot them with naked eye. The ceiling is between 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
We have spotted them, but conditions are the worst possible: they are already too close; aiming is very difficult. “First raid: five planes … more than ten planes … more than thirty …
A large squadron appears out of a gap in the clouds. Every ten or twelve planes peel off in formation and make a sweeping turn to starboard.
Dead ahead, another large flight. Already entering attack formation.
“More than one hundred enemy planes attacking!” Is it the navigation officer who calls this out?
Inevitable that both torpedoes and bombs will focus on Yamato. The captain orders: “Commence firing.”
Twenty-four antiaircraft guns and 120 machine guns open fire at the same moment. The main guns of the escort destroyers, too, flash in unison. The battle begins.
Here and now we fire the first shots of this desperate, death-inviting battle. My baptism by fire. I feel like puffing out my chest, and my legs want to dance; restraining myself, I measure the weight pressing down on my knees.
As my whole body tingles with excitement, I observe my own exhilaration; as I grit my teeth, I break into a grin. A sailor near me is felled by shrapnel. In the midst of the overwhelming noise, I distinguish the sound of his skull striking the bulkhead; amid the smell of gunpowder all around, I smell blood.
A shrill voice: “The enemy is using both torpedoes and bombs!”
On the left outer edge of the formation, Hdmakaze all of a sudden seems to expose her crimson belly, then lifts her stern up into the air.
In almost no time thereafter bombs landed one after another on the disabled ship. She was enveloped in columns of water, pillars of fire.
The tracks of the torpedoes are a beautiful white against the water, as if someone were drawing a needle through the water; they come pressing in, aimed at Yamato from a dozen different directions and intersecting silently. Estimating by sight their distance and angle on the plotting board, we shift course to run parallel to the torpedoes and barely succeed in dodging them.
We deal first with the closest, most urgent one; when we get to a point far enough away from it that we can be sure we have dodged it, we turn to the next. Dealing with them calls for vigilance, calculation, and decision.
The captain is out in the open in the antiaircraft command post overlooking the whole ship. Two ensigns attend him and plot on the maneuver board the torpedoes coming from all directions, indicating them to him with pointers. The navigation officer sits in the captain’s seat on the bridge; acting as one, the two men operate the ship. Coming over the voice tube, the captain’s orders deafen me. His is a terrible and angry voice, biting off the ends of words. Bombs, bullets focus on the bridge.
Opening her engines with their 150,000 horsepower to full throttle, straining at her top battle speed of twenty-seven knots, and turning her rudders hard to either side, Yamato continues her desperate evasive maneuvers. This ship boasts of being as stable on open sea as on tetra firma; even so she experiences extreme listing and vibration. The creaking of her hull and the grating of her fittings make a din.
By 1402 it was over. Dead in the water and sinking after having been hit by a series of bombs and torpedoes, Admiral Ito ordered the crew to abandon ship. Some men got off but at 1423 she was ripped apart by a massive explosion when fire reached her magazines, the water pumps designed to prevent this having already been put out of action.
Around 3,700–4,250 men from Yamato and her escort ships were dead. The US Navy had lost 12 planes and ten men. The six US Navy battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers that were lined up to deal with the Yamato, in case the planes somehow failed, were not needed.