On the internet there is a photograph of the USS Iowa firing a broadside that shows just how impressive that must have been. In my mental picture of naval warfare, it is the battleship that sums it up.
We are told that there have been only three major fleet actions between battleship forces, culminating with the epic Battle of Jutland during World War I. At Jutland, 44 battleships and 143 other combat ships clashed, making it the largest confrontation of surface warships in modern history.
Then, within a generation, these monsters of the sea became essentially obsolete with the advent of aircraft carriers and the further development of submarines during World War II. The irony of Pearl Harbor is that the tragic damage to our battleships forced our Navy to switch our primary reliance to naval air power, which was where the war would be won.
The Naval Treaty of 1922 had stopped the arms race that followed the First World War by limiting the size and number of battleships that nations could build. However, Japan’s designs on a Pacific empire caused her to withdraw from the League of Nations in 1934 and to renounce all treaty obligations. They knew that the United States’ industrial capacity vastly out-stripped their own, so they planned to make their warships individually superior to ours in an effort to make up for their inferiority in numbers.
Consequently, Japan’s Yamato was the largest battleship ever constructed, barely eclipsing her sister ship, Musashi. She was 839 feet long (almost three football fields) at the waterline. The huge Yamato-class battlewagons could throw a broadside of nine 18-inch shells a distance of over 26 miles. (By contrast, our Iowa-class ships fired 16-inch shells a distance of 24 miles.)
Yamato and Musashi were built in extreme secrecy. Construction was begun in 1937 and Yamato was launched in August 1940, but the U. S. did not learn of their existence until 1942.
The Battle of Midway in June 1942 was one of the decisive clashes in world history. The Japanese navy lost four fleet carriers, and never did fully recover from it. Without adequate air cover, their surface warships, no matter how powerful, were very vulnerable.
As evidence of that fact, in October 1944, Yamato participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the war. In that confrontation, outnumbered eight to one in fleet carrier strength, the Japanese lost four total carriers and three battleships (including Musashi).
Okinawa was the final major battle prior to the anticipated invasion of Japan. The Japanese response to the U.S. landing was Operation Ten-Go. The plan was for Yamato, a cruiser, and eight destroyers to sail to Okinawa and attack the Allied forces there, essentially without air cover. Yamato would then be deliberately beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement, and fight until she was destroyed.
However, the Allies intercepted Japanese transmissions concerning their plans. On April 7, 1945, we launched over 300 aircraft, which attacked at 12:30 p.m. At 2:02 the order was given on Yamato to abandon ship. At 2:23 there was a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud over three miles high, which was seen 100 miles away. Yamato sank rapidly, losing around 3000 of her crew, including Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito.
Yamato and Musashi represented the epitome of Japanese naval engineering and have held an honored place in Japanese culture. Yamato’s symbolic importance was such that some Japanese citizens had held the belief that their country could never fall as long as the ship was able to fight. The name “Yamato” became a metaphor for the end of the Japanese empire.