“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” —Quote attributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in an interview with Japanese Cabinet member Shigeharu Matsumoto, 1940.*
It would prove to be prophetic.
Having been educated in the United States, and lived and worked there as part of the Japanese Naval Attache, Yamamoto knew the American culture. He also knew that, unless the US, Britain, and the Netherlands (the major naval and colonial powers in the Pacific in 1940) were knocked out so hard and fast they sued for peace (and left Japan alone with all her new territories), Japan would ultimately be doomed.
And sure enough, for six months the Japanese appeared invincible. In the USA, we talk about Pearl Harbor, but the truth is, PH was the first of a series of attacks, on Wake, Midway, Manila, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia. Three weeks after Pearl, the Japanese Empire stretched south to the Malaysian Islands, east to Wake Islands, deep into China (where the Japanese had maintained control of Manchuria since 1931) and into Singapore, Burma, and more. (click on globe to see animation of Japanese Empire Expansion for the six month window Yamamoto mentioned)
But Japan’s Achilles heel was supplies. They had no oil or any way of getting any in the homeland. They did not have enough mines for the raw metal needed for modern warships. These they could get from their new territories, shipped aboard hundreds upon hundreds of freighters. But while they practically invented WWII aerial combat, they did not foresee the submarine’s future role slicing through these ocean highways, and destroying Japan’s newly-needed lifeblood.
By October 1944, Japan was fighting a more and more defensive war, desperately trying to make continuing the fight so costly to the Allies that they would settle for peace on somewhat favorable conditions for Japan. The unconditional surrender the Allies were determined to gain was unthinkable and so Japan used every resource to delay, to push back, to bloody every battlefield, to gain leverage for a treaty, not a surrender.
The Philippines were the largest of the last conquered territories protecting Japan and her remaining resource highway from Singapore to home. If the Americans re-took the Philippines, the highway would be under direct attack. The Americans landed on Leyte Island with 1,500 ships: carriers, battleships, destroyers, carriers, tankers, troop ships, supply ships, all determined to take back the Philippines.
The Musashi and her sister Yamato, bigger than any ship in America’s arsenal in the Pacific and with larger and heavier guns, could pound Leyte apart, so Japan created a three-pronged attack: Sailing from Borneo, Musashi and her battle group would split in two: Musahi and Yamato both forming a “Center Force” that would eventually attack Leyte from the north, after sailing through the Sibuyan Sea. This force would be commanded by Adm Takeo Kurita from his flagship, Cruiser Atago. Another force, mostly made of smaller, outdated battleships, would attack from the South (the Southern Force).
But these forces were doomed, unless the bulk of the aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers, now supporting the landing, were off hunting even larger quarry than the biggest battleships ever afloat.
Hence the “Northern Force”, made up of the remaining four aircraft carriers, plus enough escorts to make it convincing.
After the Battle of the Philippine Sea four months earlier, the Japanese had lost the vast bulk of their planes and pilots. Both were scarce back home, even the gas needed to fuel the training planes so the new pilots could learn to take off, maneuver and land in the most basic of ways was hard to come by. The remaining hundred or so planes available at sea were prominently displayed on the four decks of the incoming carriers, to make their bluff look like the actual threat to the Leyte Invasion was sailing south from Japan herself, not from Borneo.
And to make sure the Americans would pay attention, front and center of the Northern Force sailed the most delectable bit of floating battle bait the Japanese had left: Zuikaku, the final remaining aircraft carrier that participated in Pearl Harbor. Every American, from Admiral “Bull” Halsey on down, really wanted ZUIKAKU. If the warships could be pulled away to fight this incoming threat, only troop, supply, and other support ships, with their auxilliary defense would remain: easy pickings for the Japanese
The trap was set, and sprung. ZUIKAKU and her Northern bluff force set sail from Japan on October 20, chattering on the radios, trying desperately to catch attention. MUSASHI and her sisters set sail from Borneo On October 22 under radio silence. If all went well, the American war fleet would intercept the Northern Force’s communications, and head out to intercept, leaving Musashi, Yamato, and her sisters to sneak in behind and strike the landing force, driving the now-undefended Americans off the Philippines.
DAMN THE SUBS! FULL SPEED…oh-!
The plan was nearly scuttled by submarines before it got started. Darter and Dace were patrolling Palawan Passage during the October 22-24 window. A huge patch of reefs, atolls, and other shallow water (known as Dangerous Ground) sits in the eastern part of the South China Sea, forcing every ship to either sail near modern-Vietnam, or through this deep channel. It was a great hunting ground, and today was no exception. Just after midnight on October 23, submarines DARTER and DACE saw this sight:
Thirty one heavily armored surface ships in mostly two columns traveling together against two submarines. Submariners have a term for this: gift-wrapped.
Making a long story short, over the next few hours, the sisters shadowed the force, then ran ahead and waited for the task force to come to them**. At 5:24 am, Darter sank the Atago, forcing Adm. Kurita to swim for it, and establish a new flagship aboard Yamato. Ten minutes later, Darter hit Cruiser Takeo, setting her on fire, leaving her heavily wounded. Twenty minutes after that, Dace hit the cruiser Maya with four torpedoes. She must have hit the magazine, for Maya exploded and sank in minutes. Akashimo rescued 769 surviving Maya-crewmen.
Takao was unable to continue, and two destroyers, Naganami and Asashimo, were detached to escort her back to Singapore. Akashimo transferred her Maya crewmen to the Musashi, supplimenting her own crew for the coming battles. Naganami, Asashimo and Takao turned back south, while the remaining convoy raced north.
So as dawn broke, of the thirty-one warships, twenty-six remained. Darter and Dace, assigned to patrol Palawan, decided to take off after the wounded Takao, where shortly thereafter, the Darter would run aground, to become a seamark to this day. (An interesting story all of its own)
But the damage had been done. Not in the sinkings, not in the damaged ships or even subs. Just as patrol boats are dangerous not for their weapons, but for their radios, so are submarines. Darter and Dace sent warnings of the coming battle convoy, and now the Americans were on alert.
Intrepid, Enterprise, Franklin, Cabot, Essex, and Lexington, already scouting with planes, put more into the air, sending them deeper west into Philippine territory hunting this war convoy. Task Force 34 (four battleships, five cruisers and fourteen destroyers) were sent south through the Surigao Strait in case Yamato’s convoy came that way.
October 23 ended, October 24 dawned, and the scouting planes found their target sailing through the Surabaya Sea.
Six Flights of Death for a Tough Ship
Since this post is concentrating on the fate of the Musashi and how it plays into what the Allen Team found last month, this is an abbreviated record of M’s last day, culled from combinedfleet.com; the book Battleship Musashi, and Naval Anti-Aircraft Guns and Gunnery. As the story of Musashi’s final hours come from men on two sides of the war, under enormous stress at the time, details will vary. Nonetheless, what you will see is that before she went down, Musashi took more damage than any other ship up to that time and kept going. I’d argue, perhaps, that she took more damage before sinking than any other warship of WWII. The first scout plane to find Musashi and her force was from carrier Intrepid, so her planes got first crack at the two biggest battleships afloat.
10:30 AM: Intrepid’s planes hit many of the ships in the convoy, and Musashi was no exception. Four bombs narrowly miss, two striking the water on either side of Musashi. A fifth smacks Musashi’s no. 1 gun turret, bouncing off the armor plate and into the sea, leaving a perfect circle of popped paint as its only mark. One torpedo strikes M starboard amidships, forcing her into a 5.5 degree starboard side list. Counter-flooding reduces the list to just 1 degree. All in all, she barely felt it
12:03 PM: Nearly 100 Intrepid fighters hit. Several bombs explode within M, forcing her crew to abandon some of the port-side engine rooms, and losing the inboard port prop (this prop was seen on the Allen film footage starting around 56:30 mark). Another strike floods MUSAHI portside, forcing her to list to the OTHER side now. After counterflooding and balancing, she is only 1 degree to port list, but her bow is six feet lower.
Just to keep up with her convoy, Musashi’s remaining three props are throttled up, but she can only make 22 knots…she’ll be left behind.
A stray bomb fragment flies into the middle gun of #1 turret, and detonates the shell just loaded inside, disabling the whole turret.
She’s down, but she’s not out, and can still fight. Admrial Kurita, in charge of the central Force, slows everyone down to 22 knots to keep Musashi within the convoy.
1:30 PM: The wave from the Essex and Lexington arrive. After straifing, Helldivers score two hits starboard abreast the #3 turret.The TBM Avengers score four starboard hits,
- Starboard forward of #1 Turret
- Starboard Bow area, flooding storerooms.
- Portside forward of #1 Gun Turret, destroying fuel tanks, flooding log and sounding rooms (knocking out SONAR and destroying records, and filling the tempory hospital area with carbon monoxide.
- Portside, Amidships
And still more hell in store for Musashi and her crew: Three flights of Helldivers hit, scoring:
- 4 portside bomb hits near #1 turret
- Torpedo Hit, Starboard Bow area, flooding storerooms
- Portside, forward of #1
- Portside, Amidships
1:50 PM. All that damage, just 20 minutes. Several pump rooms are damaged, but by filling nearly every intact trim and void area, the Musashi now can only make 20 knots, and her bow is 13 feet closer to the water than it had been three hours earlier.
2:12 PM: And again! 8 Hellcats, 12 Helldivers from Essex arrive, but concentrate on Yamato and Nagato, ahead of Musashi. The pilots are amazed that Musashi is still afloat. Any other ship would have sunk long ago, but not only is Musashi still afloat, she’s still under power, and apparently valuable enough several ships of the convoy have surrounded her to provide air cover. During the fight, Musashi still fires with her anti-aircraft guns, and frantically repairs her systems.
2:55 PM: Now the Enterprise and Franklin send in their fighters. Enterprise pilots radio thatMusashi (or rather, a Yamato-class battleship) was lagging behind the convoy and trailing oil. By now, she appears to only make 8 knots speed.
Nine Helldivers score 4 hits:
- 3 in the port bow, causing internal damage
- 1 destroys the Chief Stewards office.
Eight Avengers soar in and score three torpedo hits:
- One hit on starboard bow
- One hit portside bow
- One hit starboard abreast of M’s funnel
Within Musashi, the crew shores up damage in Damage Control Central, but the lose the No. 3 hydraulic room to flooding. Above, the American pilots later reported “Several bombs and torpedo hits were scored and after the attack, [Musashi] was reported burning, dead in the water, and down by the bow.” (Rep of Ops in the Philippines Area, including attacks on Jap Fleet, USS ENTERPRISE, October 1944) Probably the pilots expected she’d be gone when they returned.
But they were wrong.
Musashi was still making 16 knots on her three remaining props. With counterflooding to correct her starboard list to 1-2 degrees, she slows to 13 knots. She’s not yet down for any count.
But the day was still young, and the next flight of planes from the Intrepid, Franklin and Cabot flew in as the Enterprise planes left…there would be no break and no time to repair or recoup.
3:25 PM:. Of the 75 planes from three carriers that drop over Central Force, 37 take on Musashi directly. And they were brutally accurate:
- 500 lb bomb strikes the right wing of the air defense station and destroys the first bridge. “One of the bomb hit the anti-aircraft control room over the No. 1 bridge. The bridge let out a huge roar as it collapsed like a demolished building…took the lives of the chief navigator and anti-airaft commander as well as five other senior officers. Captain Iguchi sustained serious injuries to his right shoulder”( –Battleship Musashi: the Making and Sinking of by Akira Yoshimura). Adm Inoguchi would have to move to the second bridge to command MUSASHI.
- Three bombs detonate in a row portside and abreast of turrest #1 and #2, ,destroying two single and one triple Anti-aircraft guns and mount, plus the main comm roon telegraph room #1, and telephone room, PLUS penetrating boilers #4 and #8.
- Two bombs explode forecastle deck starboard abreast starboard area, taking out two single and one triple 25 MM AA guns.
- Another bomb hits in the middle anti-aircraft shelter, damaging the flag deck.
- Bom hit explodes in the portside crew space, and destroys the nearby ship’s hospital.
- Bomb strike on Turret #1
- Bomb Strike starboard in the Officer’s Wardroom,
Then the Avengers with their Torpedoes strike:
- Portside, flooding #8 Boiler Room
- Portside, abreast of #1 turret
- Three torpedoes striking Portside Amidships, also flooding No 8 boiler and No 12 as well as Engine Room 4, killing the outboard Portside prop. a 30 foot long hole is open along Musashi’s portside.
- Last two torpedoes strike the portside near the #6 magazine, flooding both the magazine and the nearby gyro room.
Yet the crew cannot believe she’s still going. They counterflood and fire-control for all they are worth.
In an attempt to save the Central Force, Adm Kurita orders the rest of the force to head west, as though in a retreat, leaving Musashi to her fate. The planes report this maneuver to HQ, and the flights are called off. Three hours later, they would discover the Northern Bluff Force…too late for Musashi.
Still, it took three hours for Musashi to give in. All counterflooding efforts were taken, including moving the dead and injured starboard side to try and add weight there, and releasing the portside anchor and chain. But she kept taking in water, it was hopeless.
As the crew prepared to abandon Musashi, those who had fought the whole battle below decks came out into the air, and were shocked at the sight that met them: “Oil and sweat stained sailors emerged from various hatches. They hesitated for a moment when they saw the carnage above, and then, with pale faces, they emerged onto the blood-spattered deck. The crewmen in the ship’s stern had mistaken the explosions of the torpedoes and bombs as fire from the ship’s own guns—they had no idea how bad the damage was. Over 200 injured men were carried from the rear hatches.” (-Battleship Musashi)
Thankfully, Admiral Kurita returned within two hours, and detailed three destroyers to remain with Musashi. If she could beach herself, she could still be repaired and saved. If not, at least someone was there to take on the survivors.
Her Port list remained between 5 and 10 degrees for three hours, then suddenly, rolled to 30 degrees in 15 minutes. At 7:30 pm, the crew started sliding into the sea, some injuring themselves on the barnacles that clung to Musashi’s hull. Second in command, Capt. Kato, assumed command on orders of Adm Inoguchi, who chose to go down with the Musashi.
“The ship tilted suddenly, stirring up a large wave as the vast hull swung to port. The bow pointed down into the water, with the stern towering prominently above the rest of the ship. The crewmen still clinging to the wreck under the darkening skies of sunset were moving further and further toward the stern as the bow plunged into the sea…after the bow had sunk below the ocean’s surface, the ship’s bridges were submerged, and only the stern remained above water.”
Musashi vanished, leaving 1,376 survivors, from both her own and Maya’s crews, behind on the surface. She would take 1,023 men with her to the depths. Moments after she disappeared, her survivors felt one (some accounts say two) explosion(s) from underwater.
There were still three battles to go in the fight for Leyte Gulf, but Musashi’s time was now up. The total number of torpedo and bomb hits she took is debated, but nonetheless, is impressive. By some accounts, it took 19 torpedoes, 17 bombs and 6 near misses to take her down…other accounts vary, but not by much less. In addition, her crew took down 18 American planes while fighting.
That’s where Muashi’s story according to the eyewitnesses ends, and the examination of her wreck begins…more to come….
Wikipedia Entries on IJN MUSASHI, IJN YAMATO, Adm. Yamamoto, Leyte Gulf, USS DARTER, USS DACE,
Battleship Musashi: the Making and Sinking of the World’s Biggest Battleship by Akira Yoshimura
Battleship Yamato by Jamusz Skulski
Naval Anti-Aircraft Guns and Gunnery by Norman Friedman
Combinedfleet.com; particuarly the entries on MUSASHI, YAMATO, TAKAO, ATAGO, MAYA, the Battle of Palawan Passage and The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Sibuyan Sea
Presentation on Kenneth Gwinn of the USS FLIER; personal work created for Henry County Library Presentation, New Castle, IN; 2014
Documentary “Battle 360: Battle of Leyte Gulf” 2008
Documentary: “History of Battleships: Bismark to Yamato” 2002
Documentary “Yamato: Sinking the Supership” NOVA 2005
*Yamamoto and MUSASHI were actually connected. Yamamoto had actually disliked YAMATO and Musashi’s construction, saying that investing so much capital into a ship which could not be replaced in case of loss, was a folly. That being said, Musashi was Adm. Yamamoto’s official flagship. She’s the one that dropped him off for a tour of the troops in 1943, and the one who picked up his ashes for transport back to Japan after Adm. Yamamoto’s plane was shot down.
**A Maneuver called “End Around”