Death of the Yamato

(What REALLY Happened) as told by the Avenger crew

Yamato 1941

On April 7, 1945, three US southern boys were above the clouds north of Okinawa, 125 miles from the southernmost tip of the main Japanese islands searching for "the largest, heaviest and most powerful battleship ever constructed."  They had one torpedo aboard their TBF bomber and they hoped to sink the armored craft that carried the largest naval artillery ever fitted on a warship, (according to Wikipedia* content). The shock waves from those guns firing were so severe that men could not be on deck unprotected.  The Yamato was a symbol of the naval power of the Empire of Japan. Its cannons could fire shells that weighed more than a ton. Some of these shells were beehive rounds filled with missiles that exploded like giant shotgun shells.  Frederick E. Wicklund, 83, who lived in Grosse Pointe until his death on Jan. 15, 2008, was raised in Des Ark, Arkansas. where he learned to hunt and fish and developed a lifelong love of bird dogs. After World War II he married his wife, Mary Jane, and they had four children. They were wed for 58 years. He worked for 25 years as an FBI agent, mostly in Detroit. He took part in the arrest of a Students for a Democratic Society fugitive in Detroit in 1970.

But during World War II, he was a 20-year-old crewman stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown, as U.S. forces in the Pacific advanced toward the main Japanese islands. In April the Japanese sent a fleet consisting of the super battleship Yamato, 10 destroyers and two cruisers on a suicide mission toward Okinawa. The giant ship had been classified as "unsinkable" because of its armor plating.  The Yamato, with a crew of 2,778, was to beach itself and serve as a shore battery against the allied invasion. Wicklund was the tail gunner, radar man and radio man aboard one of 11 torpedo planes sent out to intercept the Japanese fleet. 

Grumman TBF Avenger - the plane that sank the ship

Here is an edited version of Wicklund's story, the real story of the sinking of the Yamato, as he told it in 2004:

". . . When we finally spotted the Japanese fleet, it was raining lightly and very cloudy. We saw that the cruiser we were scheduled to hit was almost sinking. Another carrier group had hit the task force before we had gotten there. Noting this, Lt. (Tom) Stetson realized we wouldn't need 11 torpedoes to finish off our cruiser. He then requested permission from the air group commander to have six of his torpedo planes hit the Yamato.  Our plane was one of the six chosen.

"Sometime previously at a briefing, I had heard that the Yamato had 22 feet of armor plating. Remembering this, I immediately crawled up through the passageway by the bomb compartment and reset my torpedo for 23 feet. I have since read accounts where Lt. Stetson said he gave the order for all six of the torpedoes to be reset to battleship depth. I did not hear him give that order. Furthermore I do not believe any other crewman knew how to reset a torpedo in the air.  "We were not taught that maneuver in training. I learned it on my own by questioning a torpedo ordinance man who showed me how to preset the torpedo. I have no doubt the other planes' torpedoes hit the Yamato. I also have no doubt that they hit the Yamato's armor plate at the 10-foot depth level and caused very little damage.

"The attack strategy was to go up to 15,000 feet. On signal, all planes were to make a coordinated attack on the Japanese task force. However, on the way up through the clouds our plane almost collided with one of our other planes. Lt. (Grady) Jean had to pull away violently to avoid a midair collision. "Consequently, we lost sight of the rest of the planes.  "When we got up on top of the clouds we realized we were alone with no other planes in sight. We knew we could not participate in the coordinated attack for fear of crashing into one of our own planes in the clouds.

"At that point, Lt. Jean called back to me and said, 'Wick, we've still got this torpedo and we've got three options. We can drop it into the ocean, take it back to the carrier or go in alone to hit the battleship.' He then asked me what I wanted to do. I said, 'you're the skipper; do what you want to do.' He then said, 'if we go in alone you know it will mean our (backsides)' I repeated, 'you're the skipper; do what you want to do.'  "He then asked (Charlie) Gill what he wanted to do. Gill said, 'Like Wick said, you're the skipper; do what you want to do.' Lt. Jean then said, 'Ok Wick, take me in by radar.' I asked him, 'Do you want me to give you a release point?' He replied, 'Negative. I'll try to release when we get hit.'

"We listened as our squadron began the coordinated attack. When we thought that they were far enough along that we wouldn't run into any of them in the clouds, Lt. Jean began our torpedo run. Lt. Jean had to do some fancy flying to get us in. We changed altitude and direction constantly. When we got below the clouds, there was so much anti-aircraft smoke that it seemed you could walk on it.  "The Yamato had 18-inch guns. They were using those guns to fire into the water ahead of us; trying to create a wall of water that our plane would run into. Fortunately, each time the Yamato fired, we would be to the side or above the water wall. I was calling out distances as we kept barreling in toward the battleship. At 800 yards, I felt Lt. Jean release the torpedo toward the Yamato. We kept heading toward the battleship. I was certain that Lt. Jean planned to crash into it because we all knew there was practically no chance of getting away.  "About 300 to 500 yards out, I felt him make a steep dive to port. I looked down and saw that he was diving straight at a destroyer. I thought Lt. Jean had been hit and couldn't reach the Yamato, so he was going to dive into the destroyer. I felt sick because I didn't want to die crashing into the destroyer rather than the battleship.

"Suddenly, Lt. Jean pulled up, gained a little altitude and immediately dived to starboard. I looked down and saw that he was diving on another destroyer. I then saw that there were four or five destroyers behind the battleship. I realized he was trying to get away by diving on each of the destroyers. This maneuver forced all the other ships to quit firing momentarily or risk blowing their own destroyer out of the water.  "For the first time I got scared. After we'd made the decision to go in alone, I was resigned to dying; now there was a chance we could make it out alive!  "Lt. Jean kept diving on one destroyer then the other until we got out about five miles past the last destroyer. He leveled out, picked up his mike and said, 'Who the hell would have ever thought we'd get through that . . .'

"I had been watching the last destroyer firing at us and each burst was getting closer and closer. I grabbed my mike and yelled, 'we're not out of it yet! Kick this s.o.b.' About that time, a shell burst a short ways away from his cockpit and he immediately started taking evasive action. He kept it up until we got about 10 miles out from the last destroyer.  "We then started rendezvousing with the rest of our planes. I was watching the Yamato out of my starboard window. She was smoking and listing to starboard. I then realized my torpedo had hit the Yamato under its armor plate and had done significant damage. As I watched, the Yamato suddenly flipped over on its side. She laid there a few seconds and then blew up like a huge firecracker. We were approximately 3,000 feet altitude at that time. I estimated that the debris from the explosion equaled our altitude. I think our torpedo probably hit an area where the ship's fuel was stored. This would have caused the fire and the fire exploded her ammunition.

Charlie Gill took a photograph of the Yamato just as she blew up. When we got back to the carrier, they estimated we had about one chance in 5,000 of making it through the run that we had just made.  "A couple of days later, Lt. Jean met me on the flight deck of the Yorktown. He said, 'They're talking about medals for the sinking of the Yamato. They are talking about giving me a Congressional Medal of Honor and you a Navy Cross. However, the other guys want some credit too. The other option would be to give all the pilots Navy Crosses and all the crewmen Distinguished Flying Crosses.'

"At that point, I told him 'Don't talk to me about medals, I'm not out here for medals.' Lt. Jean said something to the effect of 'neither am I.' That ended the conversation. Later, all pilots got Navy Crosses and all crewmen got Distinguished Flying Crosses.  "In retrospect, I now wish I had encouraged Lt. Jean to opt for the Congressional Medal of Honor. If he had, then maybe a more accurate story of the sinking of the Yamato would have made it into the history books. None of the accounts I've read of the sinking of the Yamato portray the real story as I have just told."  The U.S. lost 10 aircraft and 12 airmen in the attack on the Japanese task force. Of the 2,778 aboard the Yamato, only 280 survived.

Yamato Blows Up - Image from the Avenger by Charles Gill

not an actual photograph, but it shows how she now lies. (contributed by email)

Being fitted out after launch

The Yamato class were designed in the post Washington Naval Treaty period. The treaty had been extended by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which limited the signatories to no battleship production before 1937 - the Japanese withdrew from the Treaty at the Second London conference of 1936. Design work on the class began in 1934 and after modifications the design for a 68,000 ton vessel was accepted in March 1937. The Yamato was built at a specially prepared dock at Kure Naval Dockyards beginning on 4 November 1937 . She was launched on 8 August 1940 and commissioned on 16 December 1941 . Originally it was intended that five ships of this class would be built, but the third ship of the class, Shinano , was converted to an aircraft carrier during construction after the defeat at the Battle of Midway , the un-named "Hull Number 111" was scrapped in 1943 when roughly 30% complete, and "Hull Number 797", proposed in the 1942 5th Supplementary Program, was never ordered. Plans for a Super Yamato class, with 50.8 cm (20 inch) guns, provisionally designated as "Hull Number 798" and "Hull Number 799", were abandoned in 1942.

The class was designed to be superior to any ship that the United States was likely to produce - At the time Japanese didn't think Americans could come up with a two-ocean navy, thinking that all ships should pass the Panama-channel. The 46 cm (18.1 inch) main guns were selected over 40.6cm (16 inch) because the width of the Panama Canal would make it impracticable for the U.S. Navy to construct a battleship with the same calibre guns without severe design restrictions or an inadequate defensive arrangement. To further confuse the intelligence agencies of other countries, her main guns were officially named as 16inch Special , and civilians were never notified of the true nature of the guns. Their budgets were also scattered among various projects so that the huge total costs would not be immediately noticeable.

During the second world war, almost all of the participating countries had plans for their own super class battleships. These are ships that for whatever reason - usually more pressing wartime programs - were designed but never built, although most were laid down. The intended superclass ships were the Montana class (U.S.), Lion class (UK), 'H' class (Germany), and Sovyetskiy Soyuz class (USSR). However, none of these ships with the possible exception of the Montana class, would have been been a match with Yamato and Musashi even if they were built. While others were planning their superclass ships, the Japanese already had built theirs. However, even further plans for the Super Yamato Class were still done. Warships number 798 and 799 were to be the first Super Yamato class battleships. These were designed in 1941 with construction to begin the following year, with completion estimated for 1946. These ships were also referred to as design A-150. The orders were never placed.

The arrival of air power signalled the death of the capital ship as a weapon of war. It could not stand up to the bombardments from the air as already recognised in the early part of the war with the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Renown, by Japanese aircraft, off Malaya. The aircraft was also instrumental in bringing about the sinking of the Bismarck, namely the Swordfish attack from HMS Ark Royal.

Yamato - Brief history from

1942 - 1943

On 29 May Yamato sailed from Hashirajima Bay accompanied by Nagato and Mutsu at the start of the Midway operation, but because of the disposition of the Japanese fleet, the battleships played no part in the subsequent debacle and were unable to prevent the annihilation of the Japanese carrier force by the Americans. On 5 June Admiral Yamamoto ordered the Japanese ships to abandon the operation and retire, the battleships reaching home waters again on 14 June. A month or two later, when US forces invaded Guadalcanal (located at Solomon Islands) on 8 August, heavy Japanese reinforcements were ordered to the defence of the island. Yamato was sailed to the base at Truk, located nearby, on 11 August. She arrived on the 28th but in fact took no part in the subsequent bitter fighting in the confined waters off Guadalcanal, partly because of their confined and poorly charted nature, but also because there was no bombardment ammunition available for her 18in guns, and there was a general shortage of oil. She remained at Truk, being temporarily relieved as Fleet Flagship by her sister ship on 11 February 1943, until 8 May when she sailed for Kure, having been at sea only one day during the intervening period. Japanese felt they could not risk losing an irreplacable treasure and just kept her at port. Yamato arrived at Kure on 14 May 1943 and moved into the Inland Sea on 21 July. Her stay in home waters was not prolonged and after being assigned to the Battleship Force on 15 August, sailed the next day from Heigun Jima to return to Truk.

October 1943

After her arrival on 23 August she was incorporated into the Combined Fleet, Main Body, and re-assumed the role of Flagship, acting in command of operations at sea in which she herself played no part. But in October it was believed that a US assault on Wake Island (near Marshall Islands) was impending and the fleet sailed for Eniwetok (an atoll on Marshall Islands which was later used for nuclear tests) on 17 October; it returned to Truk on the 26th without having made contact with the enemy.

December 1943

On 12 December 1943 Yamato left Truk for Yokosuka (close to Yokohama & Tokyo), covering Transport Operation BO-1, arriving at Yokosuka on the 17th. Her stay here was brief and after embarking stores for Truk she sailed again on 20 December, with orders to transport troop reinforcements to Kavieng and the Admiralty Islands. After sailing from Yokosuka for Truk, she was hit by a torpedo from the US submarine Skate on 25 December, which struck her on the starboard side aft, badly displacing the armour belt and exposing a significant defect in the protective scheme design. More than 3.000 tons of water flooded into the hull, but she managed to reach Truk safely.

January 1944

After unloading her cargo she effected makeshift repairs and then sailed for Kure on 10 January 1944, arriving on the 16th. During this passage, she was once more in contact with a US submarine and detached the destroyer Fujinami to attack it. After her arrival in Kure, the battleship was put into No. 4 dry dock for inspection.

While in dockyard hands the ship had been assigned to the 2nd Battle Squadron. In mid April, following completion of work, she loaded stores and equipment for transport to the war zone and sailed once more on 21 April. Steaming via Manila, where the stores were disembarked, she reached Lingga Roads (located at eastern Sumatra on 1 May. Here she was assigned to the Mobile Force and spent the first half of May in working-up before departing on the 11th for Tawi Tawi, the westernmost island of the Sulu Archipelago on western Philippines, where the fleet was presently based. She anchored there on the 14th to join the Mobile Force Vanguard for the A-Go Operation.

June 1944

This is when the worlds two biggest battleships ever almost had a look which one is stronger. At 4 PM both ships accompanied by many others depart Tawi Tawi at South Pacific. Shortly after departure, a periscope (perhaps the USS Harder's) is sighted and a submarine alert is given. All ships quickly execute "hard left-rudder", but the Musashi turns too late. She closes on the Yamato just ahead. On the Yamato's bridge, near panic reigns! Captain Morishita takes over the helm himself and carries out an evasive turn, but the situation remains critical. Then a lookout reports that the "ship behind us has stopped." All aboard both super-battleships are relieved that a collision between them has been avoided on the eve of battle.

On 10 June Yamato sailed with a force ordered to support the recently invaded island of Biak (the northern coast of Papua , an Indonesian province), but this operation was cancelled consequent upon the activities of US forces in the Marianas, and on 16 June Yamato joined the 1st Mobile Fleet to participate the operation A-Go, or the Battle of the Philippine Sea between June 19th and 23rd. From the Japanese point of view the battle had an embarrassing start and embarrassing finish. In the morning, Yamato spots an airplane approaching at 13.000 feet. This is the fighter unit of Japanese Air Group 601's second strike, but Admiral Kurita has not received information about a friendly over flight so all ships except Musashi (which is able to spot the friendly planes) open fire. Four Zekes are damaged and one ditches. Yamato may have damaged some of the planes, even though the fire was opened from various ships. This incident was to set the course of luck for the days to come.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was essentially a carrier aircraft battle. It was a decisive victory for the Allies, who lost only 123 planes while Japanese lost 600 planes, 3 crucial carriers (Hiyo, Shokaku and Taiho), 2 oilers, and had 6 ships seriously damaged. Japanese retreated and by 24th June Yamato - having once again taken no part in the fight - was back in the Inland Sea where she remained until 8 July 1944. when, accompanied by her sister Musashi, she sailed for Singapore, arriving in Lingga Roads on the 16th, in preparation for the anticipated US attack on the Philippines. It was this battle of the Philippine Sea that eventually cost Yamato and Musashi their existence. Even though Yamato remained unharmed, Japan lost three crucial aircraft carriers, Hiyo, Shokaku and Taiho which went all down in this battle which meant no aircraft support for the Yamato's desperate mission to come.

October 1944

On 20 October 1944, U.S. Forces landed on the Island of Leyte, the first of the Japanese-held Philippine Islands to be invaded. In response, the Japanese Navy activated the complex "Sho-Go" Operation, in which several different surface and air forces would converge on the Philippines to try and drive off the Americans. As part of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Centre Force, Yamato moved up to Brunei Bay, Borneo, to refuel and then on the 22nd steamed toward the operational area in company with four other battleships, ten heavy cruisers and numerous other warships. On 23 October, while west of the Philippines, the Centre Force was attacked by the U.S. submarines Darter (SS-227) and Dace (SS-247) in The Battle of the Palawan Passage. Three heavy cruisers were torpedoed and two sunk, including Kurita's flagship, Atago. The Admiral then moved to Yamato which served as his flagship for the rest of the operation.

The next day, 24th October, as the Centre Force steamed through the Philippines' central Sibuyan Sea, it was repeatedly attacked by planes from U.S. aircraft carriers. Battleship Musashi was sunk after being hit by a total of 19 torpedo and 17 bombs (up to 500kg each) in seven separate air raids. Like all the other Yamato class ships, Musashi goes down without having caused any real damage to Allied forces. Yamato and several other ships were hit but remained battleworthy. The Americans thought the entire Centre Force had retreated, but it transited the San Bernardino Strait under cover of darkness and entered the Pacific.

25th October: This was to be the closest Yamato was ever going to get into a real sea battle. In the morning of 25 October, while off Samar, Kurita's Centre Force encountered by surprise a U.S. Navy escort aircraft carrier task group. Both of the Yamato's forward turrets open fire at a distance of 30 kilometres. (See later Report by VADM Matome Ugaki) Of her six forward rifles only two are initially loaded with armour piercing shells, the remainder with Type 3s. Yamato's F1M2 "Pete" spotter plane confirms that the first salvo is a hit. The carrier USS Gambier Bay began to show smoke. Three six-gun salvos are fired on the same target, then the fire is shifted to the next carrier. It is concealed immediately by a smoke screen made by the American destroyers. At 06:51 a charging cruiser emerges from behind the smoke. Yamato engages her from a distance of more than 10 miles and scores a hit with the first salvo. The target is seen burning before it is lost sight of.

In a long running battle, in which Yamato fired her big guns at enemy ships for the only time in her career, one U.S. carrier USS Gambier Bay and three destroyers were sunk. Americans were outnumbered and Vice Admiral Clifton Srague ordered its carriers to flee, but put on an aggressive strategy and started to attack with small destroyers to give time for the carriers to run away and prepare their airplanes. At 06:54 destroyer Heerman fires three torpedoes at Haruna, but miss. Now the torpedoes are heading towards Yamato which now found herself between two torpedoes on parallel courses and for ten minutes she headed away from the action, unable to turn back for fear of being hit. By the time the torpedoes had ran out of fuel, Yamato was too far from taking part anymore.

Yamato at the Battle of Samar. "At 0644, just before the order to form circular formation was issued, four masts, apparently destroyers, were suddenly spotted bearing 060 to port, 37 kilometres from Yamato ...This was followed by the sighting of three carriers, three cruisers, and two destroyers. It was a surprise encounter since no situation reports had been received since the previous night, and although we had long considered various measures for such an event, the ships, I thought, were extremely slow in reacting because of their lack of enemy information. Measures taken by the fleet headquarters, too, occasionally seemed lacking in promptness. At any rate at 0658 Battleship Division 1 opened fire with its forward guns at a range of 31 kilometres..." (Report by VADM Matome Ugaki, IJN, Commander Battleship Division One, HIJMS Yamato.).  Another battleship is in the left distance, steaming in the opposite direction.

"At about 0700 it was said that there were six carriers. From 0706 we advanced generally on an easterly course and employed our secondary guns at the enemy who appeared from behind the smoke. It was generally about this time that one carrier ( White Plains) was sunk, one carrier ( St Lo) was heavily damaged, one cruiser (Heol) was sunk, etc. We were now rapidly approaching the enemy - the range by radar was 2200 meters and visibility was gradually improving from the east. We hoped to destroy the enemy at one blow if he came out from behind the smoke. In the meantime we were attacked by enemy aircraft. Several salvos from medium calibre enemy guns fell near Yamato, and two shells hit the starboard after gallery and outer boat shed..." Report by VADM Matome Ugaki, IJN Commander Battleship Division One, HIJMS Yamato).

 It now seemed like certain death to Admiral Clifton Strague's remaining ships. Most of his ships were either sank, hit or damaged and it It seemed impossible for his force - the Taffy 3 - to escape total destruction. Japanese force began firing on the other two Taffy groups as they were able to close the range with their superior speed. American small carriers returned fire with the only guns they had, their single stern-mounted five-inch (127mm) anti-aircraft guns. The weapons, loaded solely with anti-aircraft shells, they had little chance of inflicting any damage at all. But at 09:20 Kurita suddenly turned and retreated north. He had also lost three carriers (Chokai, Suzuya and Chikuma) and lost his nerve at the important moment. He was distracted by bad weather and poor intelligence, and was mistaken in thinking that he was against the whole of the American 3rd fleet meaning that the longer he stayed the more air-attacks would occur. Admiral Clifton Strague watches in astonishment how he has escaped his certain doom.

Next day Yamato is under heavy air attacks from the planes of USS Wasp and USS Cowpens. Two bombs hit, the first penetrates the forecastle forward and to the right of the main breakwater, demolishing nearby crew's spaces. The second bomb causes slight damage to the side of main gun turret No. 1. Yamato and the Nagato open fire with their main armament using Type 3 "sanshikidan" shells. Their gun crews claim several bombers shot down. The Yamato group is heavily damaged.

Bomb explodes by Turret No 1, but did little damage

Yamato group retires to Brunei for refuelling starts to retire to Kure for repairs with battleships Kongo, Nagato and escorts. They are attacked by submarine USS Sealion on the 21st November, Kongo and a destroyer Urakaze are sunk. Yamato arrives at Kure on 24th of November, after which she moved into the Inland Sea on 3rd January 1945. There on 19th March, she was hit again by a bomb during attacks by US Task Force 58, while in Hiroshima Bay. That month it was resolved to deploy the battleship for what was essentially a suicide mission to support the defence of Okinawa.

April 1945

Following the invasion of Okinawa on April 1 , 1945, the Japanese tactics became more and more desperate. Short of everything but human lives, the Air Force started their infamous kamikaze missions flying their airplanes directly into American ships. From Yamato's point of view, this was happening only one day sail away.

Yamato and her escorts were sent to attack the US fleet supporting the US troops landing on the west of the island. She was to beach herself between Higashi and Yomitan and fight as a shore battery until she was destroyed. The operation was reportedly conceived by the Japanese Imperial Navy leadership in response to a question from Japanese Emperor Hirohito. While briefing the emperor on preparations by the army to defend Okinawa against the allied invasion, the emperor reportedly asked his advisors, "And where is the Navy? Aren't they participating in the defence of Okinawa?" This question consequently sealed the fate of over 3,000 members of the Japanese Navy.

This mission was doomed from the very beginning. Yamato with a handful of escorts was sent without any air cover against hundreds of ships reaching Okinawa. Everyone knew they would not return. She was supposed to be given only enough fuel for a one-way trip to Okinawa. However, the crews at the fuel depot at Tokuyama defied orders and supplied the task force with much more. Yamato was supposed to fight against the Allies to the very last man. Common sense told even the navy officers that this was a certain death, but then again, if the US were to capture Okinawa, then Japan would certainly lose the war. They refused to see that the war was already lost far ago. Since so many pilots were losing their lives for the country, how was it acceptable that the largest ship was doing nothing. Nave decided to sacrifice Yamato in the name of honour.

On 6 April Yamato , the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers left port at Tokuyama. They were sighted on 7 April as they exited the Inland Sea southwards. The U.S. Navy launched around 400 aircraft from eleven carriers of Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher 's Task Force 58 ( Hornet, Bennington, Belleau Wood, San Jacinto, Essex, Bunker Hill, Hancock, Bataan, Intrepid, Yorktown and Langley), and assembled a force of six battleships (Massachusetts, Indiana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Missouri), supported by cruisers (including Alaska and Guam ) and destroyers to intercept the Japanese fleet if the air-strikes did not succeed. The rest of this final episode in the life of the Yamato is written in the opening paragraphs above by the fliers who took part in, and destroyed the ship, in the Yamato attack.


Grumman TBF Avenger

* Wikipedia is a site of immense knowledge and interest but be aware that all articles are contributions from members of the public and some may be clouded by belief and opinions. Therefore, whilst valuable, do not necessarily take what is written as gospel! By experience, it can sometimes be far from the truth. - History of the Grumman Avenger - little film exists of this plane, there is a good clip here. The footage also includes an Avenger pilot being rescued by submarine when shot down. His name is George Bush.